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.

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.

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.

Twenty years passed in a flash

Some of you may be familiar with the story of how Tawn and I met. It is a good story, one that should be made into a movie or written into a book. It is also a story that took place a long time ago. Twenty years ago, to be exact. So this weekend, we flew to Hong Kong, where the first meeting took place, to celebrate our twentieth anniversary of meeting.

To celebrate, a friend arranged a harbor cruise aboard the Aqualuna, a Chinese junk with vibrant red sails. It was a bit chilly but pleasant to spend 45 minutes viewing the city lights, sipping sparkling wine and munching snacks. This city holds many memories for us and it has changed and grown over the past two decades, just as we have.

Because the friend who arranged this cruise had connections, we were treated to a bit more than the usual level of hospitality and felt very welcome aboard. By the time we disembarked in Tsim Sha Tsui, navigating the step from the bobbing boat to the solid shore was a bit more challenging.

A short walk up the street, we arrived at our dinner destination, Aqua, located on the 28th floor of One Peking Road. Part of the same group as the cruise, we had a romantic table overlooking the harbor below. The service was attentive and the staff surprised us with a dessert platter to celebrate our anniversary.

On a trip to Hong Kong a few years ago, Tawn and I tried something different in the way of dinner conversation: to act as if we didn’t know each other and to ask the questions we would normally ask when first meeting another person. It was a fun way to re-introduce ourselves to each other and to learn a few things that we hadn’t known.

Similarly, Tawn had prepared a list of a dozen or more questions that served as the spark for our dinner conversation Friday night, ranging from questions about our earliest memories to what our family lives were like as children to who our more influential teacher was. While many of the questions covered ground with which we were already familiar, the context felt new and I think it was a chance to rediscover what shapes each other and makes us who we are.

The rest of the weekend was spent visiting friends, including some former colleagues, and wandering around the city seeing familiar sights. This is a city that has always appealed to us, a place that we would love to have the chance to live in. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but it is certainly a place we enjoy getting away to every so often.

As for the twenty years together, what reflections do I have? Twenty years is a long time and so many things have happened that it seems a challenge to make sense of it. When my grandparents celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary two years ago, I asked for some wisdom about how they made it. My grandmother laughed and said, “You take it one day at a time.”

That was a wholly unsatisfying answer but I recognize the truth in it. At every step of the relationship, there have been moments of challenge and frustration that make you wonder how you can stand each other for another minute. And there are moments of joy and bliss when being together seems fore-destined. And those moments sometimes follow one right after the other.

Over dinner, we talked about the secret to our relationship’s longevity. After discussing a few things, we agreed that the biggest factor was that both of us were willing to learn and grow. Relationships don’t work when you expect the other person to do all the changing. Even when the other person has some significant changing that needs to happen, to only thing you can really influence is yourself, so you need to see what change you are capable of – and willing to make.

Who knows what the future holds? But if my grandparents’ genes are any indicator, we could have another forty years or more years ahead of us. So that’s something like 14, 600 days, one at a time. Happy anniversary, honey.

Attending negotiation skills training

This week, I attended an intense four-day negotiation skills training course. As commercial negotiations are not a part of my job, I have not developed the related skills. I thought I would share some reflections here, as I found it quite insightful.

At my company, we put 56 of our senior leaders through this program this year. Curious to understand more about the program, its content, and how to help the participants apply the learning on the job, I accepted an invitation from the company that runs the program for us, to attend an open session in Manila, held for prospective customers.

Here are some things I learned about negotiation this week, and how I see this applying to me life – even though I don’t do commercial negotiations as part of my job.

The first realization: not all negotiations are the same. This might seem obvious, but people tend to adopt behaviors that are appropriate for only certain types of negotiations. Because of this, they are not as successful in other types of negotiations, because they are using the wrong behaviors.

The different types of negotiations are defined by two factors: the complexity of the deal and the dependence of the relationship between the parties. In a simple deal between two parties who will likely never see each other again (bargaining at Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, for example), you can haggle over the price. In a complex deal between two parties whose fortunes are intertwined (what helps you will also help me and vice-versa), a more diplomatic approach is necessary – one where trust is high.

The implication for me: recognizing that I’m generally better at negotiations that are more on the diplomatic end of things, where trust-building is necessary. Because of this, I need to treat negotiations that are more on the haggler end with a more appropriate set of behaviors: I need to speak less, listen more. I need to state my position or offer unambiguously and then stay quiet. I need to make more extreme opening positions and then have a stepped plan to move into a more acceptable range of prices. And I need to flinch when a counter-offer is made.

The second realization is the idea of creating more value. When people see a negotiation as only a give-take scenario (“who gets the largest slice of the pie”), it limits the possibilities. As you move towards more diplomatic negotiations, you have an opportunity to increase the overall value of the deal.

The analogy the instructor used was of poker chips. Imagine there is a stack of blue chips on the table. They represent the price of what is being negotiated. That is a major variable and we will negotiate over who gets how big a share of those chips. But there are other chips, too.

In your hand, you have green chips. And your counter-party has red chips. Chose chips represent variables that have low marginal value for the person holding them, but which could provide high additional value for the other party. The negotiation can proceed as a series of “if you, then we” statements:

  • If you could increase the payment terms by 30 days, we could increase our total order by 1,000 units.
  • If you could reduce the price by 10%, we could run a special promotion featuring your products on our website home page and give you a featured location next to the cash register.
  • If you could help me fold the laundry, I could walk the dog after dinner.

These conditional trades allow much more value to be added to the deal, so that everyone has a greater satisfaction with the outcome. It takes understanding what variables are important to you and some research and assumptions about what variables will be important for the other party. And it takes a lot of trust-building behaviors.

The implication for me: spend more time thinking about what is important to other parties and consider how I can create more value by adding things to the deal in exchange for other things that are valuable for me. As the instructor put it, “if you give something, you get something”.

The week was a busy one and it was personally fulfilling. I have a lot more to learn about negotiation and the best way is to practice. So if you have any negotiations you are preparing for, I would be happy to talk through them with you and help you plan your strategy.

Visiting Greece

Our trip in May and June focused mostly on almost two weeks in Greece: eight nights in Athens and five in Santorini. Greece was not a country high on my priority list. In fact, we ended up there only because my niece wanted to visit, after studying ancient Greece in her history class. But I’m glad I went. It is a bit rough around the edges but has its charms, and as a value for money, is pretty good.

There’s the history. Especially in Athens, you see the places that your seventh grade ancient history teacher taught you about. That’s pretty amazing.

Classic Greek salad with a slab of Feta cheese on top.

There’s the food. Grecian food is, like most Mediterranean food, fairly rustic. The ingredients are excellent and there are some great values to be had for both food and wine.

There’re the sunsets. We saw some pretty nice sunsets in both Athens and Santorini. I don’t know if I would travel all the way to Greece just for sunsets, but they made the trip all the better.

I’ve added two pages to the Greece section of my travel blog. I hope you will enjoy reading them, will share them with anyone you know who is traveling that way soon. And, please, provide any feedback and share your suggestions.

To read more about the Athens part of the trip, click here.

To read more about the Santorini part of the trip, click here.

How the world has changed in six months

Last November, the day after my birthday, there were two major shifts in the tectonic plates of my life. I recognized quickly that these would have significant ramifications and while they are still playing out, I can see more clearly what the results of the first shift have been. This afternoon’s lunch is evidence enough:

That would be Tawn and me having lunch (at KFC) with my father- and mother-in-law. Such an event would have been unthinkable for the first nearly 19 years of our relationship, but has quickly become a regular event. So much so, that we have progressed from rather formal meals to casual, ad hoc ones.

I am really happy at this turn of events and, as I said to Tawn, it is a good reminder that none of us can predict the future. Things can change, rapidly and drastically. No matter how untenable you find a situation to be, it is possible for it to change.

Of course, I am also happy because I now have the opportunity to better get to know the people who most shaped who my husband is. Spending time with Khun Sudha and Khun Nui, I see behaviors, gestures, and nuances that strike a familiar chord, played in only a slightly different key by Khun Tawn. This allows me to appreciate him more fully, because I have the context of how he became who he is.

The shifting tectonic plates, part one

Two days after my birthday, the tectonic plates of my life started shifting. While I am not a believer in fortune-telling, one has to wonder if the stars and planets were aligned just so, to produce so much upheaval in such a short time! This chapter covers the first of the changes, involving my father-in-law.

For the more than 18 years that Tawn and I have been together, my father-in-law has wanted no interaction with me. Not atypical for a Thai-Chinese father, he wanted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Tawn’s relationship with me. In fact, the only time we spent together was some 15 years ago when Tawn’s parents came to visit him in San Francisco. That was limited to a visit to Mission Dolores and then dinner at a French restaurant.

In the 13 years since I moved to Bangkok, we have had only one very brief interaction until two months ago. Two months ago, while Tawn was taking his parents to the hospital for a check-up, he mentioned that I was going to be there, too, for an appointment. His father waited to see me, but that interaction lasted less than two minutes.

Then, two days after my birthday, Tawn had a severe allergic reaction to some medicine and I had to rush him to the emergency room. (He is fine now.) He called his parents and they joined, resulting in us spending the day together and having to confer on decisions about the best course of treatment.

At the end of the day as the staff was preparing Tawn for release, Tawn’s father suggested that if I had to work the following day, I should drop Tawn off at their house and they would look after him.

The following morning, after taking some conference calls from home, I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house – about a ten-minute drive from ours. Tawn’s father came out and greeted me and suggested that after work, I come back to fetch Tawn and he would open a bottle of wine for us.

That evening, I stopped by after dark, not sure what to expect. What do you discuss with a father-in law with whom you have had no real interaction? Tawn’s father greeted me, invited me in and for the next two hours, served wine, engaged in a conversation about many things (including wanting to understand more about what I do for work) and we had dinner.

The evening ended with a “will see you again soon” that seemed to indicate that a new era has opened. In speaking with Tawn, we suspect that this medical emergency was sort of a catalyst. Perhaps Tawn’s father had already softened some time ago, but had not had an opportunity to break down the walls. The medical emergency provided the opportunity.

That was about five weeks ago and I haven’t seen Tawn’s father since, so we’re easing into this brave new world. But we have a holiday meal planned for the next week and I suspect that it will change the landscape of our world considerably.

For my own reflection, I realize that while I had accepted from the start that Tawn’s father’s openness and acceptance was not something I should expect or hope for, deep inside I think there was a lot of insecurity festering.

We don’t have the legal protections in Thailand that a married couple in the United States or some other countries have. Knowing that, if something happened to Tawn, my rights to his portion of our property could be challenged by his father, created underlying tension. As the relationship with his father has improved, it lets me relax my guard a bit and worry a little less about the future.

 

Back from holiday in Europe

Two weeks ago, I returned from an 18-day trip to Europe, a combination of work and relaxation. While I didn’t plan it to be this complicated, it ended up being a five country, eight city itinerary. In the coming days and weeks, I will write more details about the trip and update the pages on my website with restaurants and recommendations.

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London was a sneaky twenty-three hour layover I managed to build in unexpectedly. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet friends but did get a nice walk in along the River Thames on a blustery Autumn morning and once the sun emerged stopped by the Spitalfields Market for excellent shengjianbao.

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Barcelona was my second stop, a week to deliver training (a bit of a fudge to my previous role as technically I am not longer heading the leadership development organization at DKSH). This was my second trip to Barcelona and I had a bit more opportunity to explore than last time, when I traveled with my parents and husband. Lots of good food on this trip.

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Italy was a return some 17 years after my first visit. We went to Firenze to see my cousin and his family, Matera to see the mysterious and beautiful city of caves, and Ostuni to explore the charm of the Puglia region – the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”. This trip reminded me what the quality of life is so high in Italy: simple food, nice weather, beautiful views and friendly people.

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Vienna was a a first-time visit for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up charmed by the city. It is a bit of a set piece for some European imperial costume drama, at least as far as buildings go. This is a city and country I would like to explore further.

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Zurich was a return visit for work. In fact, I stopped into the city three times on this trip, enjoying the convenient train system to pop into the city during my layovers and then concluding with a two-night stay for work. This time I was able to explore a bit further and enjoyed some good food and friendly company.

This trip provided some neat random connections, running into people I had not expected to see and striking up conversations with strangers who happened to have connections with me in different random ways. It reminds me that this is a very small world and that traveling it helps us appreciate that which is different and that which is universal.

More coming soon.