An ‘Un-Personal’ Life-Update: Turning 30, Crashing and Rising

“Can I have a life update from you?”, says a good friend from Japan.

“Of course” and “soon”, I reply halfheartedly as I know that my thoughts are currently far too confused, far too mottled to provide any kind of coherent explanation of where I currently lie in life. Physically, I am in Sydney, Australia, but the reasons, for which I came here have all dissipated.

I am bad at closure, bad at saying goodbye to partners who have had significant impacts on my life, and bad at cutting the cord completely.

So in a moment of frenzy and confusion whilst in Thailand, I booked a flight back to Sydney. I had nothing to lose, at least not financially. I had a temporary job in Sydney lined up, so any cost of the trip could easily be redeemed with a two week stay.

I was stressed and tensed throughout the whole flight. How was the man who I was flying over to see, to talk to, to patch things up with, going to react to my suddenly arriving back in the country? Would he pick me up at the airport? Would he ask me for a coffee? For a drink? Was he ready to see me? And at what capacity?

I didn’t have the answers to any of these. We had maintained contact all throughout the separation as we once promised each other, that no matter what happens in life, we would never abandon the other.

We lived together for five years. We moved homes, countries, and continents. We bought furniture and made doctor’s appointments in each other’s names. We signed legal documents cementing our relationship and our commitment to each other.

Needless to say, the separation was hard. The lead up to the decision resulted in an insurmountable amount of tears and of uncertainties and indecisions that bore ulcers. The resulting days, weeks, and months of separation were an unrelenting, unpredictable tide of emotions, of feeling complete and utter freedom, of relief, of sadness, of fear, of anxiety, and of emptiness. One day, one moment was different from the other. And one smile and one tear was one step closer to being whole again – whatever that meant.

Stepping out of the airport double doors, my eyes scanned the crowd. I had not once arrived in the same city as him, without him being the first one to greet me. Without him embracing the fatigued of the journey out of me. Every tall, dark-haired man, caught my attention, but none of them were him. None of them had his gruff, unshaved face. None of them had his eyes of warmth and certainty.

I lined up to catch a taxi, feeling lost, sad, and uncertain in a sea of happily reunited families, friends, and couples. Arriving back in the empty house that he and I shared before the separation, I took a deep breath, turned on the hot water, removed my clothing, and sunk deep into the tub.

He didn’t want to see me, he said. He wasn’t ready. It would be too hard. It would be too distracting. It would be a step back in his attempt to recover and move on.

“Two weeks”, I told myself. Two weeks of temporary Sydney life to reconnect with friends and replenish lost funds. Two weeks of tears. Two weeks of feeling unconnected with the people who had been ever present in my life before. Two weeks of culture shock. Then it was back to Thailand, or to Nepal, or to Pakistan, or to the many other destinations that I had set myself up for.

Two weeks has turned into two months, and now nearing three, with the possibility of leaving only after the fourth month; partly because of finances and partly because of the distractions that allowed for the possibilities of a relocation to another country to slip away. But mostly because turning 30, alone and away from him, has been a re-birth and a crash at the same time.

We had a fight on my 29th birthday. We were in Paris, in a small apartment in the 3rd. I was lost and confused about our relationship, our treatment of each other, and the compromises that we had made in order to be together. He was stressed about his PhD, confused about my commitment to him, and pressurised to maintain a certain level of comfort and security in a country that was not ours, that neither of us had full rights to.

“I want to make this a really good birthday for you”, he said, “because I don’t know if there will be others for us to spend together after this”. He was right.

I spent the lead up to my 30th birthday with a number of expat girlfriends who have also become recently single, caught off guard by the surprise that life had in place for them; for us. Caught off guard by the reality that we had all turned 30, or was nearing 30, and was without the promises of society – without a partner, without a home, and without a strong career. I then spent the actual day of my 30th with a male friend who had known me for no longer than a few seconds. It was strange, freeing, and rejuvenating. It was also how I wanted to spend it; with someone who did not know me, with someone who had no expectations of the way my life was suppose to be, with someone who would not judge.

The days and weeks following my 30th involved a lot of drinking, little sleep, no exercise, and a disconnect from the realities of life. It was a gigantic avoidance of reality, of my career path, of the movements of life, and an ignorance of how my behaviour was affecting my body, my mind, and my soul. It was fun. It was wild. It was a mess.

Messages to friends became perturbed glances of a crisis in motion, irrespective of their comical nature.

“I accidentally went out with a 50 year old man, drank too much wine, called the ex, and started a waterfall from my eyes”. “I’m drunk. I’m high. I’m dancing to 90s hip-hop and I miss America”. “The 23 year old hot-bod said that I am not ready for a serious relationship with him”.

And finally, “4am. Walking home. Barefooted. Assumed child’s pose. Had a break down”.

It was an embarrassing month. It was unnatural, uncharacteristic, mean, and hurtful.

It was also a necessary month. I needed to go through the motions. I needed to get in touch with the different characters, personalities, and versions of myself. I needed to let go, to fall, and to crash.

I needed to do all of this so that I can pick myself up again.

Advertisements

In Defense of a Gendered Lens: addressing the term “Stop Violence Against Women”

Men and women are differently situated. Although we have an equal capacity to achieve as much as the other, it is important to realize that the place and experiences of women in societies are different from that of men. Changing the ‘STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN’ campaign, to simply read ‘STOP VIOLENCE’, eliminates the context in which the violence is occurring, removes the gendered perspective, and erases the fact that men and women are differently situated.

This is not to say that men do not experience violence nor does it say that they do not have a role in stopping violence. There are certainly instances of men experiencing violence, and men absolutely have a role; they have a significant role. But their experiences and the role that they will play is different from that of women. The way for us, as a society, to address this issue to boys, the way we talk about this issue to boys, will not be the same as the way we talk about this issue to girls.

What can be a problem however is that there is sometimes no joint conversation happening between men and women, between boys and girls. Which is why I understand one’s willingness to simply say “STOP VIOLENCE”, as opposed to “STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN“. It is not a secret that this lack of conversation and this lack of collaboration has been harmful to the Gender Based Violence (GBV) campaigns. But the way to solve that lack of conversation and that lack of collaboration is not to take away the gendered perspective.

It is a known fact that women and girls are disproportionately affected by violence. Placing a gendered perspective on the issue allows and gives us a framework to investigate why this is the case and why women and girls are more affected by violence than men and boys. What is it that we, as a society, do to affect the choices of men and to affect the choices of women? Without a gendered lens, it is difficult to ask these questions and to highlight the different situations in which men and women find themselves in.

In the case of the Karenni refugees for example, perhaps the disproportionate violence towards women comes from the fact that it is often boys/men who join the military and are ingrained with the mentality that physical violence is necessary to achieve a means (in their case, independence from Burmese military control). It is also boys/men who have a lot more free time in the camp as they are not required to stay home and to cook and to clean. Thus it is boys/men who have greater access to a space that is not regulated by their parents nor by their immediate community, a space that will allow them to partake in non-socially acceptable activities, and a space that will allow them to consume larger amounts of alcohol than they ought to.

At the same time, limiting women’s space and movement, as they have more responsibility in the house, limits their visibility in the community. It limits the audience to their abuse, it limits their social interactions, their social connections, and limits the security that they may be able to derive from having such connections.

A gendered lens or a gendered perspective allows us to view the issue of violence in these terms and allows us to create increasingly effective solutions borne out of a more culturally and situationally relevant understanding of violence.

Feminism: A Journey to Define My Understanding

Nine years ago I donned a hot pink T-shirt with the exclamation that ‘This is what a FEMINIST looks like’. I understood feminism to be about giving women power. Power over what, I wasn’t too sure about. I had been told that women’s voices are often silenced. That women’s actions and freedoms were not defined by themselves, but by men (and to some extent, the older women who endured the same levels of sexism and gender discrimination – and who knew no other norm). Perhaps that’s what I came to understand feminism to be – the power to control my actions and define my freedoms.

But even this was a flimsy understanding of feminism. At 21 years old, I felt accomplished and undiscriminated against on the basis of my sex. I got the jobs that I wanted, I got into the universities that I liked, and I landed the competitive internships that I vied for. I felt unaffected by the discriminatory norms against women. Thus feminism was not a major priority in my life. Gender inequality was not so evident in my naïve 21 year old eyes and in my California lifestyle.

Nine years later, my nearly 30 year old self is constantly frustrated and angered by the treatment that I receive as a woman. Frustrated by the unsolicited comments of “you’re beautiful” when I go about my everyday life without asking to be judged (and definitely not by anyone’s definition of beauty but my own). Frustrated when I am told by men to accept these remarks as compliments as if I am incapable of identifying my own feelings and the discomfort, the irritation, and the underlying malice that can come from such remarks.

Frustrated when I have to re-assess whether or not I want a position because the man that would be supervising me and who I would be working with on a daily basis keeps giving me eyes.

And incredibly frustrated and ANGERED when a man excuses his bad behaviour towards me, his reluctance to work together, to share information, to communicate, and overall desire to see me fail as my fault for my eloquence, confidence, and level of education “intimidated” him.

Thus at 29, I have come to understand more and more what it means to be a feminist. Feminism does not end at giving women equality. Nor does it end at giving women the power to do things or to become something. Feminism is also about acceptance. Accepting women’s power, our power within, our power over, and our power with. And not just to be accepted either, but to be made comfortable in having this power. For it to be okay for us to accumulate knowledge and to display our knowledge, to display our strengths, to display our confidence without being judged and without fear of a backlash.

It is a fight to be accepted as a multi-dimensional human being, with opinions. Opinions that matter. That has weight. That has value.

We have VALUE.

How Unexpected Turmoil Became Ordinary Bumps on the Road: Ban Nai Soi Refugee Camp

It’s my third time in the camp, and true to the saying, third time really is the charm. Either the weather or the road or the conditions have improved or I have grown a thicker skin. I no longer feel as if my heart is breaking with every conversation I initiate or with every question of mine that’s answered. I no longer wince at the wobbly road or the slippery river – even as it was covered in pig’s blood this afternoon. I remained calm. Pensive – clearly lost in thought and tired from camp politics and introspective analysis – but calm and without the heavy feeling that my heart will implode at any moment.

It was that heavy feeling that drove me away the second time. That caused me to leave before the festivities and the excitement of Karenni National Day had even began. That alerted the introvert in me to arrange a motorbike back to Dokita, and closed the door to the world.

It was a bad experience. A truly heavy experience. It was filled with anger that my students had to live through these conditions and have very little in the way of freedoms (Sen 1999) and self determination – all because of the circumstance of their birth and the racist politics that dictates our world. It was also one of anxiety and of fear as I again entered without the guarantee of safety. It was also not just me who was alert, cautious, and afraid. My students were in the same boat, concerned that the men in ‘Thai BNP Security’ shirts would ask me a question for which I have no reply to in Karenni or Thai. They were afraid that I would be found out. That they too would be found out as my accomplice. Their protective cloak – made out of fear and anxiety – smothered and suffocated the strength in me. Every murmur of “Teacher, don’t speak. Thai Authorities”, stabbed at my bravery. And so I ran. I ran out of camp, through the low laying security bar, through the muddied, slippery path, and through the narrow swerving mountain road to arrive back in the safe confines of Dokita.

Now, my third time back, brought in by a man that I barely know but who possess the kind of eyes that demands of trust, my nerves have been calmed. He glided over the mountain road and slippery clay path with confidence on his motorbike. He entered through the gates with his eyes looking straight ahead. And he drove through camp without the hint of uncertainty, turning what was before unexpected turmoil into ordinary bumps.

So this time, I entered more relaxed and less battered, ready to experience what I ran away from before. And although the photos and descriptions below is an escapist ending from verbally conveying the complex realities and politics that runs ‘camp life’ – It is all I can muster after a 48 hour immersion into camp/Thai/Karenni/Burmese politics.

Camp Ban Nai Soi 2

Making betel nut – the popular, carcinogenic combination of an areca nut and tobacco that many in camp chew.

Camp Nai Soi6

Turning Karenni – Karenni clothing and jewelry are meticulously placed on my body in a 2-hour dressing ritual

Camp Nai Soi2

A Karenni grandmother walking through camp with her grandchildren. The carrying sash over her shoulder is made by hand, by the women in camp

Camp Ban Nai Soi 1

My student’s grandmother dressed up in traditional dress. When I asked my student why she doesn’t dress in the same manner as her grandmother, she replied “Fashion changes, tradition changes. We have choice now”.

Camp Nai Soi1

A stunted tree – The camp is situated in the break of the forest. To prevent trees from falling into homes, they are cut short. Some regrow into stunted tree-bush

20150705_122223

‘Temporary settlement’ means only building with bamboo, regardless if you have lived here for 20-30 years.

        

Refugee Camp 1 - Ban Nai Soi3

View of a small section of camp from the hill. Ban Nai Soi Camp 1 has nearly 20 sections, each with its own identities and local administrators

Camp Nai Soi4

A woman sells her pickings from the forest to a local shop in camp

Camp Nai Soi5

The many pieces of clothing and jewelry that make up Karenni dress

Defined by Contrast: A Growing Understanding of Thai and Laos Culture

Although a contradiction to my years in anthropology, it is difficult to escape the saying that a thing can only be defined by another. You cannot for example, have the concept of wealth, of being rich, without understanding the concept of poverty, and of being poor.

This morning, as I sat waiting for my bus to leave, I thought of what little I knew about Thai culture. This afternoon, after having gone through the appropriate border formalities and arriving 4 hours ahead of my night bus’ scheduled departure to Luang Prabang, I found myself sitting in a café with five daisy dukes and sleeveless wearing females, flaunting their skin in comfort (whilst playing a game of cards). A few other older women sat at a nearby café, drinking beer and speaking much louder than their male counterparts. Their voices fill the otherwise quiet bus station stalls with lively, teasing, laughter.

Only after seeing this contrast am I able to understand people’s remarks of Thai culture and Thai people as being more conservative – conservative in their manner, with their voices, and often in their dress. As my face lights up with this realisation, I am beckoned over by one of the ladies. Their cards had been removed and plates of food now covered the table. “Come eat, come share”, she says with a big welcoming smile.

I think I like Laos.

Ushered On: How I Said Hello to Laos, My 50th Country

The sing-song voices of female attendants yelling out the destinations of their respective buses echoes around the bus terminal of Chiang Rai. Their whimsical voices adds to the rhythm of stomping feet, honking tuk tuks, and humming engines, placing me in a trance as I await the departure of my bus.

This is my fifth time coming back and forth to this station to take the odd bus to that odd destination. The women’s faces are familiar to me now. Their determination in filling their buses and the looked of content on their faces at having flagged down customers, has become more evident.

As I look around, I realise that there are a lot of women here. I begin to wonder if other bus stations in Thailand are as dominated by female attendants as this. “Did I neglect to notice this throughout my travels?”, I wondered to myself.

Continue reading

‘Here and Now’ – A Philosophy to Live By

I entered a bar in Mae Hong Son the other night and found myself philosophizing with two French men. They had just come out from a ten day stay at the Tam Wua Forest Monastery, where they learned about the ins and outs of Buddhism and meditation. The most important lesson, they reiterated, was an idea of living in the ‘here’ and in the ‘now’. It is an idea that places importance and value in the present and in the current. It seeks to forget the past, be in harmony with the future, and nullify desires. This, they asserted, was the key to happiness.

Continue reading