About christao408

An expat American who moved to Bangkok in 2005 with his partner (now husband). Life is a grand adventure and each experience is worth having if for no other reason than to remind us that we are alive.

A half century, the halfway mark?

Today is my 50th birthday, a milestone that is both monumental and mundane. Mundane because it is a day quite like any other. Monumental because as I have approached it, my thinking has been quite different and my perspective quite changed. This weekend, I FaceTimed with my maternal grandparents, both of whom turned 100 earlier this year. Because of this, I use the mental shorthand to assume that my turning 50 means that I have reached the halfway mark of my life.

Let me start by saying, reaching 50 is in no way inducing a mid-life crisis. With each year that passes, I grow ever more comfortable in my skin. What has changed, though, is that I am increasingly aware of the finite nature of life.

Of course, I have always known that life is finite, intellectually. But the analogy that comes to mind, is driving a very long, very straight road that slowly climbs a hill. All you can see is the road rising in front of you, You know that there is road on the other side of the crest, but cannot truly imagine it because it is hidden. So you assume that the road will continue much the same as it has, unchanged,

Until just a year or so ago, I was thinking that way about my life. I assumed I would keep working much as I had, until 70 or 75 years old, and didn’t really think concretely about what life might be like as I aged. This, even though my parents are of course getting older and making decisions that come with that stage in life, and my grandparents are clearly nearing the end of their road. (Although, my grandfather says they have to hang on until at least 103, so they can celebrate their 80th wedding anniversary!)

But in the past months, completely unrelated to the pandemic, I have come to realize that I am not in the middle of a second of three acts in my life. I saw my first 30 years as the opening act, the next 40 as a middle act, and the final 30 or so as the closing act. This meant that I had another 20 years or so of continuing to climb the career ladder, advance to new heights, and reach my full potential. In other words, I thought that the road would continue on the other side of the crest of the hill, much as it has before.

Now, as I crest that hill, I am starting to see the landscape differently. Perhaps there are four acts, each about 25 years long. I have reached the mid-point of the play and instead of spending the next act trying to scale the heights, I should explore other ways to reach my full potential.

Some things will not change: I love to learn and grow. I am curious about new things and eager to test my limits and challenge myself. Those opportunities can be more intrinsic rather than extrinsic. I also love to help other people learn and grow. I think I already have that at the core of my work, as I am in HR, leadership and people development. As the third of four acts begins, I want to look for other ways to help others grow, maybe outside of so much emphasis on the work context.

Whatever path the road after the hill’s crest takes, I am appreciative of all the blessings and advantages I have: my family, headed by my centenarian grandparents, are loving, grounded in values, and surprisingly functional. I have a good network of friends, both the ones from my younger years and the ones I have developed in my years here in Bangkok. And I have a loving, patient husband who challenges me much as I challenge him, the both of us being the better for it.

Fifty may not be the halfway point. It could well be near the end – nobody can know. But I will live life as if there is much more of the road to travel, while being more conscious to appreciate and take full advantage of each kilometer that passes and not take it for granted.

My absentee ballot arrived: time to do my duty

On Friday, my overseas voter absentee ballot arrived from the Election Board of Johnson County, Kansas, where I am registered. I have the option of responding by email, fax, or mail. I have the right to vote as a citizen, even if I live overseas. And I have a duty to exercise that right. Here is my rationale why I will vote for Joe Biden for President. You are welcome to agree or disagree and, hopefully, you will exercise your right to vote your conscience if you are a United States citizen. I just want to share my rationale in case it helps anyone else sort out their own mind.

A candidate should be evaluated on two things: their position or accomplishments on issues and their character. The domestic issues that most matter to me are the economy, healthcare, and how we are progressing towards our founding promise of all people being equal. The foreign policy issues that matter most to me are security, diplomacy/international relations and climate change.

Let’s look at President Trump and Vice President Biden on these issues, considering their position and accomplishments:

The economy – the extent to which a President deserves credit for the economy is debatable, but let’s assume that they do for the sake of this argument. Until the pandemic arrived, President Trump’s economy was going gangbusters, building off an economy that began growing under President Obama after his administration inherited the Great Recession and turned things around. Vice President Biden had a major role in managing that recovery. Jobs creation under President Trump continued at roughly the same pace as it did under President Obama. However, there are now almost five million fewer Americans with jobs than when President Trump took office. The only part of the economy seemingly doing well now, is the stock market, which seems completely out of whack and benefits mainly the wealthy. “But it is because of COVID!” you might say. Well, if you want to take credit for the good times, you have to take responsibility for the bad times. And right now, the economic times are pretty bad.

President Trump led the renegotiation on NAFTA and has challenged China on trade issues, which were the right things to do, but have brought about seemingly little benefit. Especially on the China trade war, it has resulted in significant tariffs for imports which American consumers will pay and the recent attacks on specific technology companies seems poised to divide the world into two technological spheres, which will ultimately be bad for American companies and workers. President Trump continues to make promises about bringing back jobs in industries such as steel-making that are hollow and out of touch promises. President Trump’s tax cuts enlarged already historic economic inequality. While acknowledging that the Obama/Biden administration’s approach to China – hoping that by engaging them, the Chinese government would become more open and more democratic – was not successful, Vice President Biden’s economic positions seem better-placed to create economic growth for everyone, not just the wealthy.

My conclusion on the economy? President Trump rode a upwards wave, cut taxes for the wealthy, and has expanded the deficit. His approach is not sustainable. Vice President Biden will ultimately create more jobs and an economy which benefits everyone, not just the stockholders.

Healthcare – Here, the decision seems especially clear. Under the Obama administration, Vice President Biden helped enact the Affordable Care Act (“ACA” or “Obamacare” as Republicans dubbed it). This brought healthcare coverage to millions of Americans and is now very popular. President Trump has continued to attack the ACA and has continually promised to present his alternative, and missed his promised deadlines, multiple times throughout his term in office. I fundamentally believe that healthcare is a right. Vice President Biden’s approach is quite conservative, not a radical “Medicare for all” that his Republican critics claim, but he will move us closer to the goal of healthcare for all than President Trump will.

Related to the healthcare discussion is the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. While any administration would be challenged by a pandemic, President Trump is on record as having continually misled and downplayed the seriousness of the virus. His administration did not show leadership on this issue, domestically or internationally. And pulling us out of the World Health Organization does nothing to increase Americans’ health and safety. The Obama administration effectively dealt with Ebola, and despite Senator Mitch McConnell’s claims, left behind a literal playbook on how the Trump administration could deal with pandemics.

On healthcare related issues, I trust Vice President Biden much more than I trust President Trump.

Progress towards our founding promise – Our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and we have been working on getting closer to that truth ever since, including expanding it to include women and to address the stain of slavery, America’s original sin. I see a system in America that structurally perpetuates inequity and the system needs to be changed so that all Americans have equal opportunity. President Trump does deserve some credit here: his administration championed, and he signed, the 2018 First Step Act, which led to reforms in the criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color. There are additional bipartisan bills that he has signed such as the one that gives paid parental leave to federal workers and another that requires airports to provide proper space for mothers to breastfeed. And President Trump appointed five openly gay ambassadors.

And this is interesting to me, because since he first announced his candidacy, President Trump has been using divisive, sexist, and overtly racist language and statements. Under his watch, the State Department ordered embassies and consulates abroad to no longer fly the rainbow flag symbolizing LGBTQI rights during pride month. And the track record of his conservative judicial appointments seem to indicate a return to the 1950s rather than a reflection of the melting pot that America is today. The Obama/Biden administration has a stronger overall record of creating more equity, especially in representing women and people of color in their administration and in the judiciary. And the Biden/Harris ticket itself is simply more representative of the demography of America than the Trump/Pence ticket.

Security – In a world that is ever more interconnected, security remains a concern. One of the unfortunate legacies of the September 11th attacks has been an increased fear of Americans towards the world. Looking at the promises President Trump made around building a wall along the border with Mexico and deporting illegal aliens, he hasn’t accomplished much other than caging children and tearing apart families who are refugees or seeking asylum in the United States. And the Obama administration actually deported more illegal immigrants than the Trump administration has. Vice President Biden supports comprehensive immigration reform and are generally more friendly to immigration overall, which aligns with the approach I think we should take. Immigration should be managed but it isn’t a bad thing, and America should be a safe shelter for those seeking asylum and refuge.

Has the world become safer under President Trump? His engagement of North Korea has not produced any results and President Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong-Un has likely encouraged him rather than brought him closer to the negotiating table. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has undermined United States credibility, as has his abandonment of our Kurdish allies. Recent progress in relations between Israel and some Arab states is positive, so some credit is due there. On China, President Trump vacillates between antagonizing and praising Xi Jinping, sending mixed signals while the country has fully undone the “one country, two systems” agreement in Hong Kong and inches closer to domination of the South China Sea.

And then there is the question of Russia and President Trump’s odd fealty to Vladimir Putin. This is the biggest reason I don’t trust President Trump on security.

Diplomacy and international relations – Related to security, this is where I see a particular strength of Vice President Biden. Under the Obama administration and further under his career in the Senate, Biden fundamentally is oriented towards facing challenges in concert with our allies. President Trump has withdrawn from international commitments and left the world uncertain whether it can rely upon the United States. Vice President Biden has indicated the need to strengthen those relationships.

President Trump’s rallying cries are “America First” and “Make America Great Again”. His words and actions these past four years, indicate that he sees the world as a zero-sum game. “America First” means “America Only” and “Make America Great Again” means “At the expense of everyone else”. I fundamentally reject both notions. An American President is sworn to defend and protect the United States. I think this can best be accomplished by looking for ways in which to create more safety, security, and prosperity by working with other countries rather than trying to go it alone. As an American living overseas, I can easily see the damage done to our ability to influence world affairs, especially those that affect us, by President Trump. Vice President Biden can gain us a place back at the grown-ups’ table.

Climate change – The scientific consensus is that climate change is real and that it is happening because of human activity. President Trump continues to deny the science, support the fossil fuel industry and now wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. This is too important an issue to ignore, one that will affect our children – heck, one that is already affecting us! Vice President Biden’s track record in this isn’t perfect – he supported fracking and “clean coal” – but his plans to invest in renewable technologies and help shift us to a cleaner, more climate-friendly economy are a necessary step to address this issue.

Character – Finally, let’s consider President Trump and Vice President Biden on their character, tone and demeanor. The Presidency of the United States is a powerful bully pulpit. The occupant’s words and actions reflect on his or her fellow Americans. And the conduct of the President should serve as an example for us and for our children. They do not need to be perfect, but they should be someone to whom we can look up.

I had hopes that once he stepped into the Oval Office, President Trump would become a president for all Americans. To grow into the office, to appeal to the greater good, to inspire us to work for the values we share. Instead, from the very start, he has continued to demonstrate a pettiness and a divisiveness that is distasteful. And the lying. Politicians are known for bending the truth a bit but President Trump says anything he wants, with no regards for accuracy.

Vice President Biden is spoken well of by all who know him and all who have worked with him. He has three qualities that are critical in a leader: he is a fundamentally decent human being, he has the capacity to empathize with others, and he is humble enough to admit his mistakes and learn from them.

Every election is the “most consequential election of our time” because every election shapes the future. We won’t know for many decades, what the real impacts of these decisions are. But my sense is that politics in America are getting more extreme, more hostile, than is good for us. And the damage being done to our international standing, will lead to the decline of America being the greatest power – and a force for good.

I think Vice President Biden is a better choice to address where the United States is now, and where it needs to go in the next four years.

America first, is it?

This week saw the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States. A friend re-posted a meme that caught my attention: “The best way to honor 9-11 is to be who we were on 9-12.” The implication being that on September 12, 2001, people rallied together as Americans. Lamar Alexander said it well, “[September 11] unified us as a country and showed our charitable instincts and reminded us of what we stood for and stand for.”

The September 11th memorial in New York City, NY

Responding to the friend’s post, I commented that I am not so sure that, were another event like September 11 to happen again, Americans would come together in the same way. I say that because we are in the midst of just such an event: a pandemic that has already killed more than 60 times as many Americans as the September 11 terrorist attacks and has had several individual days with death counts nearly as high as that fateful one in 2001. And I do not see a country united or rallying together.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for the increased partisan divide and the seeming inability to move from defining ourselves by what divides us, rather than embracing what we have in common. Twenty-four hour cable TV in which “news” is more “infotainment” than anything else. Social media which disconnects us, feeds our biases and makes it all too easy to demonize people in a way we would never do face-to-face. And there are many people in positions of power who benefit from creating chaos and stirring the pot, rather than calming the tensions and bringing people together.

The responsibility lies in many places: people in government, the media, and religious and civic organizations all need to demonstrate leadership and lower the temperature of our discourse. The accountability, though, lies with each of us to stop fanning the flames and to stop taking the bait. Instead, let’s work constructively to truly put America first by asking what we can do to help our neighbors, our community, and our country.

One of the biggest examples of this, when viewed from my perspective sitting outside the country, is the fight over mask-wearing and social distancing. People carry on as if they were being locked up and the key was being thrown away, when being asked to wear a lightweight mask and to remain a few extra feet apart. These are by any objective measure, small sacrifices to make to protect the health of the nation and enable the United States’ economy to reopen and recover as quickly as possible.

There is another quote that comes out of September 11 that captures this. It comes from Sandy Dahl, the wife of the captain of United Flight 93, Jason Dahl, which crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers attempted to overpower the hijackers. She said, “If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.”

These days, it seems that hatred and venom are our go-to responses. Perhaps we could truly honor the heroes and victims of the September 11 attacks by practicing patience, empathy, love, and compassion a bit more. And being willing to make small individual sacrifices for the greater good.

Getaway in Pattaya

While Thailand has done very well in terms of keeping COVID-19 infections under control, the price of that has been a near-total shutdown of the Kingdom’s borders since earlier since year. Whereas I used to travel on a regular basis, this situation has left me itching for a change of scenery, so a few weekends ago, we took a long weekend trip to Pattaya.

Pattaya is a beach town in Chonburi province, about a two to three-hour drive southeast of Bangkok. Located on the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, Pattaya Pattaya became a sizable city during the United States’ war in Vietnam, when it became a popular destination for soldiers to take rest and relaxation breaks.

The city’s reputation has not always been so reputable: polluted water, underage sex available for purchase on the beach, and all sorts of sin on the famous “walking street” after the sun sets. That reputation was, of course, never the full story of Pattaya and the city has cleaned up much of its image in recent years. This was only the second time I have visited the city for any length of time and it was a chance to see a bit more of it.

We chose to stay at the Renaissance Resort & Spa, located about a 20-minute drive south of the city on a much quieter stretch of beach. The resort is fairly new and features a ten-story tower with ocean views and two three-story buildings that overlook the pools. One of those buildings has ground-floor rooms where you can plunge directly from your deck into the water.

The hotel is in fine shape and the staff is attentive and friendly, reminding me how much Thai culture is well-suited for the hospitality industry. It was also a reminder of how appreciative these employees were to have guests back in their hotel, as as much as seven percent of Thailand’s economy depends on tourism. Only recently has domestic tourism started to pick up and the borders are still closed to foreign tourists.

Sights to see

There are many things to see and do in and around Pattaya but many of them are quite touristy: the Pattaya Dolphinarium, the Cartoon Network Amazone water park, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, etc. We spent most of our time at the hotel, relaxing.

One thing we did enjoy was a visit to the Sanctuary of Truth. This privately-owned site is both a museum to wood-working skills and an artistic expression of the philosophy of love and goodness. Started as a passion project by a wealthy Thai businessman and his wife, it continues into perpetuity as the nature of this all-wood project is that it will forever need to be rebuilt.

From the outside, the structure looks like a Thai Buddhist temple. As you go on the guided tour, you begin to realize that it is a fanciful mish-mash of styles and symbolism from all the world’s religions and philosophies. An army of craftspeople, nearly all Burmese as few Thais still practice these wood-carving skills, chisel, carve and cut away at three types of wood, rebuilding the structure and refining the intricate details. It really is quite exquisite if a bit overwhelming!

What to eat

Sitting on the Gulf of Thailand and with a sizable local fishing fleet, seafood is a great option and Pattaya has opened many tasty and Instagram-friendly places to eat, see and be seen.

On the drive down, we stopped Chonburi town, to the north of Pattaya, and had lunch at Charin Nongmon. This family-run, open-air seafood restaurant has been around more than 40 years and continues to produce excellent food at reasonable prices.

They are best known for two crab-based treats: buu jaa and hoy jor. The buu jaa (shown to the left) is a crab cake – crab and pork combined with seasonings, placed in a crab shell and deep fried. The hoy jor, which the restaurant lays claim to originating, is a crab meat dumpling wrapped in delicate tofu skin and deep fried. All the dishes are excellent and these two are outstanding.

We had a sunset dinner at the Glass House. There are two locations and we chose the one on the south side of the city, close to our hotel. This highly-Instagrammable location offers an extensive menu of Thai food, heavy on the seafood, and some “international” items, too. The food is good and while not memorable, the location on the beach very much is.

Book ahead to get a table on the beach. If you arrive early, you will be quite exposed to the sun, but in the last half-hour before sunset, the weather is pleasant and you are just a few meters from the gentle waves lapping on the sand. As the strings of lights are illuminated and the sky turns all shades of pink and baby blue, you really will be charmed and feel very relaxed.

A few other places worth considering:

Rimpa Lapin is a more foreigner-friendly restaurant, terraced along a cliff with a commanding view of the sunset. Book ahead for a nice table. They also have a decent wine list.

For a more local flavor, visit Preecha Seafood or Jai Sang Ma not too far away in Sattahip.

Is it worth a visit?

A lot of tour groups visiting Thailand, include a stop in Pattaya. I presume it is because the city is close to Bangkok, offers a pretty beach and many tourist-accessible amenities. While I am not the biggest beach person, I feel like there are better options if you are visiting Thailand. If you are a Bangkok local and looking for a quick and easy gettaway, Pattaya is a convenient choice, especially if all you want to do it hole up in your hotel, relax and unwind.

Talking about race, part 3

The transatlantic slave trade: what do you know about it? As I explore the impacts of racism in the United States and understand how I can work to reduce systemic racism, I’ve come across more information about the transatlantic slave trade.

The first bits of this information came from the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. This led me to read and explore more on the subject.

It is safe to say that one element of white privilege is not having to learn about, or live with the direct legacy of, the full scale of the transatlantic slave trade. Yes, I knew a bit about it from school but, honestly, that knowledge was superficial – perhaps because the teaching of the subject was superficial and also perhaps because there wasn’t an imperative for me as a white person to really learn about it.

Better late than never. Let me share a bit of what I have learned and what it means to me. I am curious what you have learned about this subject in school – or even afterwards. And if some of this information is new to you, I am curious what your response to it is.

Slave trade goes back at least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Much of it was centered in the Arab world, which was then the crossroads of much of civilization. Crucially, though, the transatlantic slave trade created a racial hierarchy – something that was not a feature of the Arab slave trade and the implications of which are still very much with us.

In the early 1440s, Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince, sponsored Nuno Tristão‘s exploration of the African coast as Portugal worked its way down to, and eventually around, the Cape of Good Hope.

Prince Henry also sponsored Antão Gonçalves‘ first hunting expedition to Africa. Both Tristão and Gonçalves brought back African captives – the first enslaved Africans in Europe. Within a few decades, there were more than 900 enslaved Africans in Portugal. The Portuguese (and, eventually, other European states) had an opportunity to circumvent the Arab slave trade.

Prince Henry’s biographer, Gomes de Zurara, wrote in his 1453 book “The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea”, of a savage people (the ones in Africa) who were distinct and different from people in Europe – inferior and worthy of enslavement.

To create this hierarchy, Zurara described them as, “like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings.” In 1481, French poet Jacques de Brézé introduced the term “race” – first referring to different breeds of dogs. In 1606 French diplomat Jean Nicot added the word “race” to the dictionary in reference to distinctions between different groups of people. Race was a purely social construct, but one that served to give name to a characteristic by which humans could ranked. No surprise, but the “white” people who came up with the ranking system put themselves at the top.

Now, it is my understanding that many if not most creatures in the animal kingdom create dominance hierarchies. Lobsters, which have been around 350 million years, are a well-studied example of this. Lions have a leader of the pride. Gorillas have a dominant leader.

Those hierarchies are usually about how individuals rank or the relationship between different families, tribes or other small groups. What catches my attention about humans – particularly what these western Europeans did – is that this construction of a racial hierarchy was so broad, so arbitrary, so nonfactual – and yet it has had so enduring an impact on our species, one still felt more than 500 years later.

At some level I can understand a feud between people of different religious beliefs – a fight over doctrine. Or even people in one state versus another – a fight over territory. But to take an entire continent’s worth of people and construct a rationale to explain how they are less human than yourself and, therefore, it is okay to enslave them? That seems incredulous.

By the second half of the 1400s, African enslavement was already commonplace by the Portuguese. This was out of a desire for profit and power.

In 1510, Spanish lawyer Alonso de Zuazo justified the enslavement of Africans in Spanish colonies in the new world, writing, “General license should be given to bring negroes, [a people] strong for work, the opposite of the natives, so weak who can work only in undemanding tasks.” (By “natives”, de Zuazo meant the indigenous people in Spanish colonies in the Americas.)

In 1526, the first ship departed across the Atlantic bound for Brazil with a cargo of enslaved Africans. Eventually, the Portuguese were joined in this trade by the British, Spanish, French, Dutch and Danes. Their involvement in the trade was roughly in that order, based on the volume of enslaved people traded.

For most of the 1500s, most slave trade was to South American colonies. But this was eventually as little as three percent of the total slave trade across the Atlantic.

From the 1600s, almost all of the transatlantic slave trade was to the Caribbean and North American colonies. As Kendi puts it, “Slavery was an economic phenomenon given a racist rationale.” The Caribbean and Southern colonies produced commodities that required hard labor in harsh conditions: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum.

In 1619, the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colony of Virginia. Originally classified as indentured servants who would be set free after seven years of labor, the laws were soon changed and their bondage became permanent.

In 1641 in the colony of Massachusetts, the first slave law was enacted. By 1656, chattel slavery was legalized in the colonies. In 1662, the law was further changed, making children born of enslaved people the property of the slave owner. This is notable, because it was again an effort to further the racial hierarchy, to use racial rationale to achieve power – and to maintain it.

In 1688, four German Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, wrote a petition against slavery, the first public document of its kind in the colonies. The petition, ignored at the time, would resurface more than 150 years later.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, 20% of the colonial population were enslaved people – as high as 40% in Virginia. There is an interesting paradox that the colonies were fighting for freedom while preserving the enslavement of other humans. This issue was a matter of great debate: ironically, Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, attempted to include a paragraph in his Declaration of Independence attacking slavery, only for it to be struck out by the Continental Congress.

Some blacks, mostly free, did fight for the colonies’ independence. But the last governor of colonial Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation announcing that any slaves who ran away from their plantations and fought for the British would be freed and given land after the war.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 runaway slaves signed his ledger, now referred to as “The Book of Negroes”. After the war, Dunmore kept his promise and these formerly enslaved people were resettled in Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and Britain.

After the war, some founding fathers worked towards the abolition of slavery. William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, set his slaves free. Alexander Hamilton had a hatred of slavery. Benjamin Franklin, who had slaves, founded an abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania.

By 1804, northern states had abolished slavery, although some converted enslaved persons into indentured servitude. In 1808, the importation of enslaved people was outlawed, although slavery and the domestic trade of slaves was still allowed.

In 1844, the Quaker petition from 1688 resurfaced and became fodder for a growing abolitionist movement.

The Civil War was fought not so much about slavery but about the preservation of the Union. Abraham Lincoln was not a fervent abolitionist – as early as 1849, he advocated a program of only gradual emancipation – and he expressed racist ideas about the supposed inferiority of blacks. These were the prevailing sentiments of the time and, one could argue whether it is fair to evaluate Lincoln through the lens of modern mores. Still, I think the lesson I learned growing up was that the war was about slavery as much as it was about preserving the Union and that isn’t correct.

Still, Lincoln did sign the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This did not free all slaves in the United States, only those slaves in states not under Union control. William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, commented, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery in the United States.

An estimated 12-12.8 million Africans were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean over 400 years. An estimated 10-20 percent perished on the voyage. And the racism constructed as a rationale for this slavery, has so deeply stained western culture (and, to an extent, all of humanity) that its impacts are still felt today.

The stories that we hold, halfway unconsciously, about black people – and even the idea that there is such a distinct thing as “black” and “white” people – is a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.

For me, understanding a bit more about this history helps me see the intentional and systematic nature of racism. And this makes it all the more clear that making a conscious choice to be anti-racist is necessary to dismantle the system and rectify the injustice. Because one can’t just be neutral on matters of justice.

Talking about race, part 2

Continuing the conversation about race which I started here, I finished reading Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism“. There were many points in the book that easily rang true. And there were many other points that challenged me to stop and think – and to think differently. Let me share a few of them here.

I invite you to share your thoughts and engage in a constructive conversation with me.

The first thing from the book that challenged me, was the idea that two key ideologies of western culture are individualism and objectivity. And because of these, we (White people) are hard-pressed to step back, recognize and critique the way we are socialized by society.

Individuality is the belief that each of us is unique. And objectivity is the belief that it is possible to be unbiased.

Because of the ideology of individuality, we believe the efforts and merits of the individual outweigh the effects of being a member of any particular group. Thus, we believe that any success we have is due to our own, individual hard work and merit. We do not attribute any of that success to our status or membership in a group.

“If I am successful, ti is because of me individually – not at all because I was born a middle-class, White American male.”

Likewise, individuality holds that a person’s failures are due to them, personally, and can not be ascribed to their being a part of any group. Even if that group has been historically, demonstrably disadvantaged.

“Your failure is because of you, not because you were born a poor, Black American woman.”

The insidious extension of this logic is to then see larger negative results (the drop-out rate of Black high school students is higher than of White high school students) as a consequence or failure in the effort or character of those individuals.

“Blacks must be lazy or unfit for school, otherwise why would their dropout rate be so high?”

Dr. DiAngelo writes, “Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which you live; individualism will not.”

This was a big eye-opener because while I think I am pretty good about not drawing negative conclusions about groups by seeing their situations as a result of individual character flaws, I can see that I underestimate how un-level the playing field is for members of various groups in society.

So the thought “If you just try hard enough, you can achieve anything” needs to become, “Despite trying hard enough, you may still not be able to overcome the obstacles society places in your way.”

. . .

As I write this, I paused for several minutes to reflect how deeply this idea of individuality is wired in my brain and how much work it will take to unwire it. Just reading the previous paragraph, I have an instinctive, gut-level reaction that says I am letting people escape personal responsibility for their situation in life, by “blaming” society.

And that, right there, is White privilege. I cannot readily see that my own point of view is biased based on the advantages I am given because I am White. I assume that the playing field is the same for everyone else but cannot see how it is angled to my advantage.

. . .

And that segues nicely into the second western ideology of objectivity. Objectivity, besides allowing us to not see the advantages we enjoy in our society, also allows us to construct fictions like “I don’t see race” or “I am color-blind.”

There is no such thing as a single, universal, unbiased human perspective. Each of us is shaped by our experiences in life and those experiences are significantly shaped by the broader groups in which we have membership.

Your view as a woman differs from mine as a man. My view as an expatriate living in Thailand differs from my husband’s as a native-born Thai. And my view as a White person differs from the views and experiences of Black people.

Because these views differ, they they are inherently subjective. Objectivity does not exist. to maintain the pretense of objectivity does two things:

  • First, it provides cover to perpetuate racism (and sexism and xenophobia, etc.) If I deny something exists, how can I confront and change it?
  • Second, it absolves me of my complicity, however unintentional, in perpetuating systemic racism.

To put it simply: we view things differently and we are viewed differently, based on the groups to which we below. The ability to see myself only as an individual, and to claim objectivity about racism, is “a key privilege of dominance” as Dr. DiAngelo puts it.

People of color do not have the privilege of being seen as individuals. When a White person sees them, that White person will first evaluate them based on their group identity – the identity the White person assumes they have.

This is based in large part on familiarity. Those closest to you are the ones you will see as individuals. Those further from you, you will see first as generalizations. This has been well-studied and is known as the cross-race effect or the in-group effect.

My own experience confirms this: growing up in a high school where, despite having a racially diverse student body, most of the students in my classes were White or Asian, and after having lived and worked in East Asia for fifteen years, when I meet a White or Asian person, I quickly see them as an individual and don’t see them so much as a member of such-and-such a group.

But when I meet someone who is Latinx or Black, I find myself starting with generalizations. It is only as (and if) I make the effort to get to know them, that they start to be seen truly as individuals. And where do those generalizations come from? They are mostly based on ignorance, stereotypes, and impressions I have from the media.

Now, I’m sure that many of you would have a knee-jerk reaction that everyone you meet, you immediately start seeing them as individuals. That was my instinctive reaction, too. But if I’m honest with myself, if I reflect deeply, I recognize that when I meet someone from a group I am less familiar with, I am starting from generalizations (read: stereotypes) and then filling in the details.

So what does this all mean for me? First, I have to recognize my own bias, which is to see “others” as generalized perceptions, indistinct from the group to which I think they below. Second, I have to recognize that because of my ignorance and lack of first-hand interactions with “others”, my generalized perceptions are uninformed and, likely, wrong.

So I need to get a lot better informed and get to know more people from groups with which I am less familiar.

I will continue this conversation and invite you to join in.

I need to start talking about race

I’m a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, university graduated, middle class American man. Granted, I am gay, but other than that, I’m pretty representative of the dominant culture in the United States. And somewhere in the process of growing up, I learned the message that I shouldn’t be racist but also that it isn’t really my place to talk about race. After all, that’s something that African-Americans or Latinx or Asian-American people are better placed to talk about. After all, what do I know about racism? It would be racist of me to talk about race, wouldn’t it? I’ve come to realize that, quite the opposite, it is necessary for me to start talking about race.

The realization began with a question. After reading the news of the brutal, senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd, I asked myself, “What is it going to take for things to change?” And somewhere in the silence that followed that question, instead of just shrugging my shoulders and moving my attention to the next story, the first strains of an answer started to enter my mind.

These first strains started to unlock something in my mind. They started to stir my heart. And they started to dissolve the scales on my eyes. Because I realized that nothing will change, so long as people like me have the passing thought, “Oh, that’s a shame” in reaction to stories of racist brutality and then move on to the next story. Nothing will change, until people like me start to give a damn. Nothing will change until people like me really act like, if all lives matter then black and brown lives matter, too, instead of just saying it.

And by “people like me”, let me be clear that I mean white people.

So this is the start of my journey. In talking about race, I am going to make a lot of mistakes, to unintentionally insult people and to demonstrate my ignorance many times over. But that’s okay, because we don’t learn by staying in the comfort zone. I can already see that this journey will require a lot of courage, because it quickly becomes clear: I am part of the problem. We (white people) are part of the problem – a big part! And thankfully, we can also be part of the solution. In fact, we have no choice.

After I asked that question, “What is it going to take for things to change?” and started to realize I needed to look for some answers instead of letting the question be rhetorical, I found my first resource: Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a sociologist who for many years has worked in the fields of multicultural education and whiteness studies. Her 2018 book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” was revelatory and challenging.

You can watch an 80-minute talk she gave in Seattle where she outlines the book or you can watch this five-minute video that hits the key message. There is a lot to unpack in the book and I’ll start sharing my thoughts on that in my next post.

In the meantime, I’ve started with two steps: educate myself and start talking about race. I’m reading and watching and listening to new and different sources of information. And I’m speaking about race, asking questions and listening to the answers in conversations with friends, family members and others around me.

And I look forward to sharing my journey with you.

Bernie or Biden – reflections on choosing a candidate

Living abroad, I have found it helpful to remain slightly detached from the drama of American politics. I still keep myself informed of what’s happening, but for the sake of my sanity, I find it helpful to avoid marinating in the day-to-day detail. This is especially true, given the 24-hour media’s desire to amplify (and maybe even construct) the smallest conflicts, fanning the flames into brimstone and indignant self-righteousness.

That said, the Democratic presidential primary has reached an interesting, and nearly existential, point. And since the state in which I am registered to vote has not yet had its primary, I find myself facing a difficult choice: Do I vote for Joseph Biden, representing the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party? Or do I vote for Bernie Sanders, representing the more progressive – or, dare I say it – socialist wing?

Credit to the New York Times

One concern I share about both candidates (and President Trump) is their age. I think we are at a point where we need a younger president, someone who is more in touch with the factors that are affecting all aspects of our life. When I listen to interviews with both Biden and Sanders, I get a sense that they do not have a deep, first-hand understanding of technology and the digital revolution that is affecting every aspect of our economy and our society. Trump may know Twitter, but when he doesn’t understand why the influenza vaccine won’t help us with COVID-19, he seems equally out of touch.

Another concern I have about the candidates, is that they are white men. White men have run this country for nearly all of our 244 years. It’s time for some fresh perspectives. Yes, this will likely be symbolically addressed in the choice of a vice presidential candidate, but I think it’s time for a woman and/or another person of color to be sitting behind the Resolute Desk.

What about Elizabeth Warren, you ask? At this point, it seems that she has fallen to a point where her departure from the race is imminent. Of the three candidates, she is probably the most appealing but I think that ship has sailed. So let me consider the two most likely candidates.

Looking at how our country has become increasingly polarized, and how President Trump has practiced an incredibly divisive, juvenile form of politics, I find Biden appealing because he represents a more centrist, more civil form of discourse. This may be optimistic thinking on my part, but I would like to believe that there is a path that could lead use back to a more civil way of governing and I think Biden is better positioned to lead us there.

I also feel, from a social justice standpoint, Sanders is addressing some very important topics and has been addressing them, with consistently bold language, for a long time. The increased inequality in our nation is a huge problem. The system is increasingly rigged so the wealthy get wealthier while the rest get left behind. Politicians of both parties have done a poor job addressing issues of health, education and inequality and a fraying of the social fabric cannot be the definition of making America “great again”.

One of my biggest concerns with Sanders, is that he and his followers seem to be the liberal version of Trump. That is, equally extreme, equally uncivil, and leading us further and further from a path on which the majority of Americans can tread. That seems dangerous for our country and for the world as a whole. Sanders’ grand revolution will be meaningless if he cannot get any legislation passed and his track record in this is poor.

I do think Biden will do a better job when it comes to foreign policy. Living abroad, I see how important our place in the world is. And with the significant changes that are happening in the world, especially with Russia and China, we need to have a more stable hand running America’s foreign policy.

But I do have questions about Biden. What is he offering that is a vision of the future? It seems like he is offering a repeat of President Obama’s greatest hits. A lot of good was accomplished during Obama’s eight years in office. But those days are over and it is time for us to move towards the future.

When it comes to November, I will support the Democratic candidate, no question. Trump has been a disaster for America. It is a daily embarrassment being an American abroad, trying to explain to people from all around the world, how so advanced a nation could elect so ignorant and uncurious a buffoon to the White House.

But on the question of who should represent the Democrats and challenge Trump, I need to ask your help. Could you please share your perspective on why one candidate or the other is a better choice?

The ground rules: please keep your points civil and constructive. Name-calling and personal attacks do not move the discussion forward and are not welcome here. Thank you in advance for sharing your insights.

Reflections on my first race

A few years ago, I started running regularly. While I didn’t enjoy running when I was growing up (I think I was always sprinting – nobody ever told me you can pace yourself!), I quite enjoy it as an adult and get that “runner’s high” that I had often heard others speak about. After repeated suggestions by other runners, I finally joined my first official race: the Amazing Thailand Marathon 10k.

The race started at 5:45 am with a burst of fireworks near Democracy Monument in the old town part of Bangkok. I ran with a few friends including a colleague who has recently started running. To be there on time, I had to wake around 4:15 and leave home about 4:45.

Our winter has been warm with extraordinarily bad air quality, to the extent that I understand many registered runners decided not to show and the race was almost cancelled. That said, there was still what looked like several thousand people running the 10k and who knows how many who started earlier for the full and half marathons. There was also a 5k scheduled but that didn’t seem challenging enough.

I did okay, running about eight of the kilometers and walking two. I finished, but think I could have run the whole way if I had done a few things differently.

But what of the experience? Many people encouraged me to run a race because the energy and thrill of the crowd will help carry you along. Others seem to really value the medals they receive, tokens of accomplishment.

Me? I don’t think the race experience was for me. It involved getting up earlier than is necesary. It involved running with a much larger group than necessary (making it difficult to reach my pace). I ended up getting separated from my running partners. What I enjoy about running with friends is the social nature of it. And the medal? As I crossed the finish line and approached the table to collect my medal, I almost didn’t take one. It is just a hunk of metal I am going to have to dispose of eventually.

Following the race, many of my race running family and friends have dispensed advice: I should run somewhere with cooler weather, I should run a smaller race, I should eat more carbs when I first wake up so I have the fuel to finish the race…

Maybe so. But I’m not convinced any of those things would make much of a difference in my enjoyment of the experience.

This morning, though, I woke at 5:30, picked up a friend and headed to a nearby park. We ran 8 km. It wasn’t crowded so we made good time on our run. We were able to chat along the way and enjoy the fresher air of a park than of the city streets. At the end, no medal awaited us. There was no blaring rock music, cheering crows or unnecessary fireworks.

And that was fine. Because for me, it is the run that I value, not the race.

Clearing out the old technology

Today, I brought a car-load of old DVDs and VCDs to a friend’s house. He is a movie buff who welcomes all stray and unwanted DVDs and did me (and another friend) a favor by taking them off our hands.

Loading up the DVDs, I was amazed by how many I have. It would be safe to say close to 600. Some I received for free, for example during my work with various film festivals. But the vast majority were purchased – movies I loved and wanted to preserve, now largely unplayable as I have neither a TV nor a DVD player. And, worse, many of them were never played or were played one time at most.

My collection was diverse, spanning many genres and having a good representation of some of the best Hong Kong, Japanese, Thai and Taiwanese films of the past thirty years. And yet, the reality is that I will not watch them again and they could be bringing someone else much more satisfaction.

I did make note of a few titles that I would love to own digitally – but even then, I’m aware that I probably won’t watch them if I buy them. Because I realize that the reason I bought many of these films is more to capture the feeling that I have, of the time I watched the movie. A good example of this is Chungking Express by Wong Kar Wai or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy.

These are among my favorite films and are classics. But what I like best about them is how I felt when I watched them. The emotions and the mood. Those will remain, so long as I think of the name of the film. Having the movies themselves will not help unless I truly take the time to watch them.

So I set them free, thanking them Marie Kondo style for the joy they brought, in a fashion, and trying to remember a critical lesson: stop buying things because of the emotions they provoke. Enjoy the emotions but don’t spend the money on something I will just end up giving away.