Oct 21 2008

We Are Not All One

At first I didn’t think much about other people.

I was doing very well for myself. It was not until my early twenties that I really failed at something I wanted. I had no friends who weren’t much like myself — white, well educated, happy childhoods, culturally Western.

A woman named Crazy Kim disabused me. She runs a bar in the seaside town of Nha Trang, but that’s now. One night she told me about her student days in communist Vietnam, the way she used to get out of mine clearing duties by pretending to be sick. On the day before she was to graduate, she set out to sea in a small wooden boat. She was lucky; she got picked up by a passing freighter bound for Holland. Twenty years later, she had to apply for a Vietnamese passport to return home, so thoroughly had her birth country forgotten her. Now she uses the revenue from the bar to fight pedophile tourists who come for the young girls.

She was the first person I’d ever met with real problems — not problems like getting a job or wishing someone would call you back, but problems like surviving on a boat at sea and starting a new life in a new country. She’d overcome all of this, and talked about it like it was normal. It was normal to her, the only life she’d ever known, and after all that she’d decided that what she really wanted to do with her days was help other people out. I felt like she was living more life than me. My heart went out to her. After a few more shots, my heart went out to everyone in her little bar, tourists, locals, all of them. I leaned into my neighbor and told him that I loved everyone I’d ever met.

The epiphany outlasted the hangover. Why shouldn’t everyone in the world be happy? Why shouldn’t I extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone I meet? Hell, we all want the same things, right? I began to see that peaceful people before me had scratched “LOVE” into wooden surfaces everywhere. The guest-house guest-books were filled with “all we have in this world is each other” and “live life today!” and “We are One!”

It’s the basic realization of compassion.

What astounds me is that I’ve heard it over and over again from people of all cultures. A stoic Ethiopian on a bus told me about his principle that all humanity is united. A passionate journalist from Dakar has expounded to me that we cannot afford to see ourselves as different. Over tea on the streets of St. Louis, a young mullah explained to me patiently that all are equal in the eyes of Allah. And of course I’ve been on the other stool so many times now, with a drunken Thai or Nigerian or Russian all but drooling on me in their eagerness to explain that they’ve realized something amazing: we are all merely human!

And you can look into their eyes, the eyes the person across the table from you, across that gulf of experience and education and culture and attitude that you just can’t bridge, and you know you’re supposed to feel a deep human connection somehow.

Then the bastard shatters it by asking you for money to beat his wife. Or something.

Because I don’t really know what to say to that Lebanese guy who talks about his African servants as “idiots.” I was astounded at how often the Hong Kong Chinese wouldn’t take my order if I couldn’t speak Cantonese, and more than one Moroccan man once told me to “go back to your hell!” For every beautiful soul I met along my way, there was an asshole who wanted nothing more from me than whatever he could get.

The stereotypes are what killed me most. I wanted to keep an open mind; I was enlightened and I knew that the terrible things I’d heard were the rantings of bigots; they couldn’t possibly have any truth to them. So it was with some dismay that I began to see that Germans really are uptight, that Indian merchants would lie to my face if it made them a buck, that Africans would heap scorn on Africans just one shade darker then them. (Also, the Chinese really are atrocious drivers.) These aren’t universal principles, of course. Like all stereotypes they are no substitute for looking at the person in front of you. Yet I found myself with opinions–

And you discover you’re wrong about what’s important. My mother always told me that everyone in the world wants the same things: family, food, shelter. No. It’s not true. The things that drive us differ. Depending where you live, the most important thing in your world might be allegiance to your father, or Allah, or ridding the province of Pakistanis, or making enough money to buy an air conditioner. We are not all one.

The first step is always to ask, why can’t we all just get along? This the is the moment where you take to heart the idea that everyone is deserving, at least in principle, of your love, compassion, and good will. You suddenly see that this is what peace and cooperation are, that civilization itself is built upon extending humanity and generosity to others. I am with the sages and the hippies in shouting from the rooftops that this is a Good Thing. But it’s not enough, because not everyone wants what you want. In fact, a great many people aren’t even remotely similar to you, and in ways that will probably upset you.

There has to be a form of compassion that embraces the world as it is, not as we wish it was.

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Oct 20 2008

In The Suburbs

Jai told me that everyone in Siliguri was crazy about the new mall that opened there. He hastened to assure me that he personally wasn’t all that impressed, being from more developed Punjab state, but he took me there anyway. It was big and white and air conditioned and full of the usual global chain stores (Adidas, Sony, Starbucks.) Compared to the dirt markets of traditional India, it struck me as surprisingly bland and expensive– but also clean and comfortable. So badly did the locals want to see it on opening day that the security guards had to physically keep the crowds out, letting in only those who actually had money to buy.

America was once this way. Witness the 1957 promotional film In The Suburbs, courtesy of the Internet Archive:

Yes, this is real. Was real, an icon and instigator of the shining consumer culture that Kerouac critiqued even in its nascent state. Today, the notion of the white plastic suburban wasteland is so mainstream in the West that we can easily forget its intrinsic appeal; modern marketing is all about being unique and different, but it was once enough just to be new and middle class.

But the other billions still want this! They want to drive their new cars (thank you Tata) to the new mall. In the developing world, Middle Class is the holy grail. It’s a deep, almost universal aspiration that seems shallow to us only because we already have it. While I drink imported wine with my friends and ponder global economics, neuroscience, and avant-garde electronic music, most of the world just wants to be rich enough to shop somewhere air-conditioned — and in quantity.

The shopping centers see these young adults as people whose homes are always in need of expansion. People who buy in large quantities, and truck it away in their cars… It’s a happy-go-spending world!

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Oct 14 2008

World Peace, Really

The beauty pageant answer; the cliche along with rocket science and brain surgery. World Peace. Give Peace a chance. Marches and diplomats; the glib and holy grail. The fine ambitious scent of ambassador’s parties and the scandals of diplomacy. Presidents smile whitely as Arafat and Rabin shake hands.

It’s not like that on the ground. Jody sleeps under a mosquito net and has never been on television, as far as I know. It’s a maddeningly hot, humid night in the ever-sweltering lowlands of Gambella. Tomorrow morning Jody will get up and walk along mud streets to the little three-room PACT office. Gambella has a history of tribal conflict, and…

How to describe a place I don’t understand myself? She drew a little chart for me once, all of the ethnic groups and sub-groups here, all of the shifting and diffuse allegiances. Sometimes you can tell a Nuer from an Anuak by the facial scars — three thin lines across the brow for Nuers, traditionally — but often not. But it’s a small town, right? Everyone knows everyone else, or at least their families. Everyone’s on some side of some line. Or lines. To be neutral is to be without identity.

Jody’s job is “peace building.” She works for an international NGO called PACT. Check the old news on Gambella, what you can find of it — it would have been utterly buried before Google, I’m sure. In January 2004 there was a massacre, said to be Anuaks killing Nuers. The Anuaks in question were maybe retaliating against previous killings by government peacemaking troops. That in turn was retaliation against the killing of eight highlander (government) personnel in a land rover a few months prior. Maybe. I don’t know exactly what happened. Nobody knows exactly what happened. There aren’t any newspapers in Gambella, and not many people could read them if there were. So it’s all heresay, and it all depends who you ask. Two hundred people were killed. Maybe raped.

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Oct 05 2008

Jai of Siliguri

Jai is mad about his Pulsar. It’s a 180, a big bike to start with, but he’s put a decal on it that says 200, a perfect forgery of the factory sticker. He says people stop him in the street ask him about it, even take pictures. Standing in the dirt at the side of the road, waiting for the mechanic to install a new and louder muffler, he gestures at the busy main street.

“What’s the fastest you’ve ever driven on this road?”

The street is full of cars, trucks, cows, bikes, bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, everything. I tell him, well, the traffic moves at about 40 kilometers an hour.

“I’ve gone 87,” he grins. Then a grimace. “It’s not a good idea.” But you can see how he really feels about it.
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Sep 10 2008

Too Safe, Too Funny

In the post Is Safer Always Better? I argued that modern Western Civilization, especially American civilization, has become obsessed with safety to the point of absurdity. I think I now have definitive proof. Johnson & Johnson has produced, for the benefit of single mothers and tort lawyers everywhere, a booklet on how to walk safely:

Apparently this was distributed to all J&J employees, perhaps in the hope that no one would sue for slipping on the immaculately maintained non-slip flooring. Let’s peruse, shall we? Continue Reading »

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Aug 17 2008

My Invisible Visa

Little known fact about the developing world #23: your friends can’t visit you. Citizens of the developed world generally know that immigration is restricted, that a random African (for example) can’t just move to a rich country and call it home. What most people don’t know is that, for the most part, the world’s billions cannot even come and visit.

The United States of America has of course become secretive and paranoid after 9/11, so I’ve used my home country of Canada as an illustrative example. A government web page lists those countries whose citizens require visas in order to enter Canada. This is not to live or work in Canada, but merely to visit. I’ve summarized the results on a map. People from the blue places need a visa for entry.

Countries for which a visa is required to visit Canada

As you can see, most of the people in the world can’t simply show up at the airport for a visit.

Naturally, there is a procedure for obtaining a Canadian tourist visa. One goes to the nearest Canadian Embassy, typically in your capital city, for a visa application and interview. This is not a mere formality. As this Canadian government web page notes,

All applicants wishing to visit Canada must satisfy an officer that they will leave Canada by the end of the period authorized for the stay, that they will not contravene the conditions of admission (for example, that they will not study or work without prior authorization), and that they do not belong in a category of persons inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In reaching a decision, an officer considers several factors, which may include:

  • the applicant’s travel and identity documents;
  • the reason for travel to Canada and the applicant’s contacts there;
  • the applicant’s financial means for the trip;
  • the applicant’s ties to his or her country of residence, including immigration status, employment and family ties;
  • whether the applicant would be likely to leave Canada at the end of the authorized stay.

This means you wait in line with a hundred other brown undesirables. This means you borrow money from your friends, family, or loan-shark moneylenders for that single-day bank statement that shows you much richer than you actually are. This means you make up reasons, swap stories and superstitions, and hope. Not all that many visas are issued per year, and maybe, just maybe, you can get away from your poor country, where everyone is starving / where the war is on / where you can’t possibly make a living. In Canada, you can become one of those people who works a good job and remits money each month to support your family back home. Sure, you won’t have a work permit, sure, you’re supposed to go back home in two weeks, but that can be sorted out later. The first step is just getting there, isn’t it? So please, Ganesh. I implore you, Allah– let me say the right thing to the stony-faced guardian of the borders when my turn comes. Let me be one of that fraction of a percent whose visas are granted.

The walls and telephone poles near every first-world embassy are papered with ads for shady immigration services.

But me, white first-worlder, I don’t have this problem. As a Canadian citizen, I can go to any of the blue countries whenever the whim takes me. I need visas too, of course, but that’s a sure thing, a birthright. I can walk into just about any embassy in the world, fill out a form, pay a fee, and arrange a trip to where ever I want to go. My developing world friends cannot; Baba and Shai and Mohammed can never come to visit me. Most of the world’s people are effectively trapped in their country of birth.

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Aug 08 2008

Medicine is the Killer App For Technology

I’ve met quite a few people who feel that civilization was a mistake. Technology in particular, they say, is bad in some way. If they’re an anarcho-primitivist theorist, they’ll tell you it’s alienating: it creates hierarchies, produces psychological illusions of scarcity, and turns us into little more than specialized insects. If they’re less geeky and more hippie, they’ll just expound on how happy they were living in that rural Indian village, how spiritual that life was, how much more natural a world without technology would be.

In the bright Nepali sunshine, sipping chai in a tourist cafe overlooking the lake, I found I could not agree, no matter how cute the dreadlocked girl sitting across from me. I see a lot of idealism and projection in her arguments. I also see an iPod in her bag. But neither could I come up with a concrete reason to insist that technology is fundamentally good, that the human race should invest as heavily in technology as it has. I admit that I really enjoy both the intellectual playground of technology and the fruits it brings, but that’s no way to form a moral imperative.

Until Ethiopia. I was working on a trachoma epidemiology study. This is an ancient, simple disease, and so fragile that the merest hint of civilization will destroy it — we’re not quite sure why yet. It could be antibiotics used for other things wipes it out, it could be that just washing your hands daily in clean water prevents its spread. But if left untreated long enough, this feeble disease will make you blind.

I had the cliché moment. I hiked out across the roadless wilderness to that idealized little village, that tiny traditional portion of the way we used to live. The simple folk gathered round us, gazing strangely at our white skin and synthetic fabrics. In turn we stared at their traditional cotton garments and coarse shiny jewelry, artifacts of a society that makes everything with its own hands. We stood a moment in that field, contemplating one another across vast distances of education and context. Then I looked into the scarred corneas of a blind young man and felt suddenly: this sucks. This man cannot see, for no reason at all. Extremely simple medicine could have prevented that.

It’s one of those moments when you realize that you’re not okay with the world as it is.

Medicine is good because health is good. I see no other way to draw this conclusion. And medicine is technological. Antibiotics are in no sense natural, x-rays and heart transplants less so. Medicine is the moral justification for continued technological development and dissemenation. It’s the killer app for technology, because it’s not just medical technology that must be known: modern medicine requires an entire technological infrastructure to design and manufacture its many, many inputs. Computers. Polymers. Superconducting magnets. Refrigerators to make the ice to keep cold our collected samples, and enzymes to do the PCR to detect the trachoma DNA, mathematics to do the statistical analysis to determine if our mass antibiotic distribution is actually denting the epidemic. It takes a world to raise a hospital.

That’s the moral reason for continued technological development. That blind man. Go tell his mother that we’d all be happier as hunter-gatherers.

Of course, that’s not why we actually will continue to develop our technology.

In the late afternoon sunlight I lounged against a tree, waiting for the last few villagers to show up so we could test them. They had fed us some (traditional, natural, idealized) beer, and I was sleepy and idle. I extracted my MP3 key from my kit and put the headphones in, leaned back to something relaxed. A kid came up to me, looking expectantly. He must have been about twelve.

“MP3 player?” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“How many gigabytes?” he asked. Then: “I want one.”

I find it hard to disagree with him.

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Jul 11 2008

Is Safer Always Better?

A dozen warning signs on a construction site in KL

On January 2, 2008, an American soldier stationed in Iraq was electrocuted in his shower due to an improperly grounded water pump.

I’ve been shocked by showers in Bolivia, India, Thailand, and Ethiopia. Fortunately not seriously, but it did make bathing more exciting. You learn not to touch the taps. Actually, I once read of an entire apartment building in Mumbai which was improperly grounded. The tenants had taken to coating their faucets with silicone caulk to prevent electrocution.

Why does this happen, how could this happen? Do such places have poor codes or poor enforcement or is it just the mere sloppiness of heathens? Any way you slice it, the developing world is a more dangerous place. This isn’t always by choice: clean water and emergency services are mostly unavailable to the very poor. But those are risks that make sense, risks as old as humans that require infrastructure and advanced civilization to mitigate. What I wonder about are the billions who ride motorbikes without helmets.

And yet. And yet. There are freedoms lost in safety. All of the trains in my Toronto childhood had stickers on the window saying “keep head and arms inside.” A pity, because I loved to feel the wind in my face. Likewise, subway platforms in developed countries around the world tell us to stay back from the edge. Do we really need to be told not to fall off the edge?

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Jul 10 2008

Calories, Money, and Lifespan

“Big” is a value in America, and this includes food. I’ve long suspected that portions were generally larger in the United States than the rest of the world, and a quick check shows this to be actually true. This map from theglobaleducationproject.org shows that Americans (and Western Europeans) really do consume substantially more calories than everyone else in the world.

Worldwide Caloric Intake

No big surprise here — the the citizens of richer countries do eat more food. The interesting thing is to ask what the actual numbers mean, in terms of health. Simply put, people living in the developed world eat way too much. Oddly, this might mean that the current poor will one day be healthier than the formerly rich.

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Jun 06 2008

The Sexual Revolution was not Global

In my travels through the developing world, one thing that consistently struck me was the way that men stereotype women sexually. Countries such as Morocco, Ethiopia, Oman and India are still very socially conservative by Western standards. Typically, there is a double standard, where men are allowed or expected to be sexual and women are not.

I had a long conversation with a young man on the train from Chennai to Calcutta. He’s a college student, studying for his BCom like so many others, so that he can start a business. We, two young men with 40 hours to kill, got to talking about women. He told me with a lopsided grin that he’d had a number of girlfriends. But he wouldn’t marry any of them. They weren’t the marrying type. His wife would be a virgin.

To this man, and many others I spoke to, women basically fell into two categories: sexual and reputable. It’s the old dichotomy: Madonna/whore, wife/slut, good girl, bad girl. Of course, the bad girls are more sexually desirable. And I’ve just discovered some careful research that confirms my perception of their perceptions.

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