I suppose there's nothing like sitting back on the beach to put a person in a philosophical mood. Sitting in Nha Trang as I delved into the sixth and final Harry Potter novel (from the ones that Kristine had ripped through months before me), I found my mind drifting away from J.K. Rowling's usual (and sometimes repetitive) background explanations that open each of her novels, and more toward the digestion of South East Asia as a whole as I looked towards China more and more.
What an incredible region South East Asia is - unique to the world. And as I opened the E-mail from the company that is selling us our Trans Mongolian train trip from Beijing to St Petersburg, I began to crystallize some of the key thoughts that I have as we approach our departure from the region. And here they are.
There are three things I am more certain of now than I was in the past, having now visited the region.
1. The colonial west is generally responsible for the state of the region in terms of human suffering and overall (lack of) development as a result of past behaviour by countries including France, England, The Netherlands, and Spain.
2. There is something dreadfully wrong with the way we are raising children in the west when I can find a child that has virtually nothing who seems happier than any kid in North America.
3. Religions and their associated rituals, while they are often used as a reason for armed conflict, provide no meaningful justification that really means anything to the lives of everyday citizens of a country.
And one thing I am less certain of:
4. The way we have structured our society in the western world in all possibility might not lead to the highest degree of human happiness.
On the first point, there's no doubt a whole set of history books that I am sure are out there that could do much better justice to what I have to say, but it is certain that having travelled the bulk of the region, one gets the sense that the people here were conquered, exploited, chewed up, and then spit back out when all the sugar was spent from the gum. Most of the countries in the region were once colonial outposts as the powers of the time attempted to secure raw materials and gain strategic global positioning against one and other. The sad reality however is that as these empires expanded and the realities of economics came into the fray, these "providing" nations were not able to sustain the effort required to bring the people who live here along at the same developmental pace present in their home countries. The colonists were forced into withdrawal, and with that, they left power vacuums and crumbling infrastructures that simply collapsed once they had retreated. Chaos ensued in many of the countries, in many different ways, and many died as a result. Unfortunately, because the colonizers also brought (arguably) more advanced technology and different rule of law, the entire region developed a sort of inferiority complex which has hampered it ever since. There is no good reason why these people should not enjoy the same level of comforts that we do in the west (For example, longer life spans would be a simple place to start), and I can only conclude that it is the systemic interference into normal self determination that created the mess the place is in. Are we not then responsible?
You might say that, well, Australia, the States, and Canada were all colonial but they ARE the west. Well, these places simply had enough population transfer associated with them from the "old world" to have completely adopted the same culture - here in South East Asia, more completely developed (or at least more populous) cultures were overtaken. This is in contrast to the aboriginal cultures that were almost ignored from a developmental point of view in Australia and North America.
On the second point, there is certain sadness in the fact that, of the many children's eyes that we have gazed into along the road, these children are miles happier than those I have met at home. I'm hardly qualified to talk about this, but I think I can make some rudimentary observations that might hold some water. I mean, countless times I have seen groups of filthy children, with nothing on their feet, and rags for clothing, smiling and laughing because they are with their friends and playing with , well, rocks. Just rocks, no play station. The expectations we have built into our children as compared to those who live here seem to be at least as far apart as Mars is to the Earth.
Perhaps the only sad part is that the children are sometimes forced by their parents to sell things to tourists, which is really not their fault (nor is it the parent's fault if you believe the reasoning of my first point), yet they are smiling and happy nonetheless. If there's anything I learned from this, it will be the importance of showing any children I might ever have what the lives of these children is like, and what is really needed to be happy in life. That and keeping them away from television and more into books.
On the third point, it is perhaps that I have grown a little weary of the prevalence of Buddha in the region, and that it is very difficult to understand how such a ritualistic following developed over a dude who simply said "Hey, I figured out how to be really happy, and now I can die and not be reborn again." Sure, it's a complex subject, but I still fail to see how all this ritualistic behaviour can lead to increased happiness for what is the human condition. In fact, in many cases I see the reverse - almost slavery to the fulfillment of the required rituals in some cases. Yet it is and has been so firmly entrenched in the cultures here that many battles have been fought over it.
In historical times, the Thais, Burmese, Khmer, Mongolians, Nepalese, etc. all battled one and other in the region over religious control, among many other reasons. What I fail to see is how this can possibly be a "good reason" to slaughter thousands. It seems to me that freedom of self determination is a much better cause, and perhaps this is what they really meant, indirectly. The wars were not really about religion, but it was used as a proxy for self determination. This is the only way I can make any sense of it. We see it again today in the Middle East, and can anyone really make any sense of it? Since we can never prove anything associated with religion, surely the main purpose in life, and the structures we choose in society, has to revolve around the ability to self determine and pursue happiness.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult to reconcile, is the question of whether or not the choice we have made for the structure of our western society actually leads to better lives for human beings as compared to those structures which are present in this region. Here, families still live together across many generations, and people are happy with more simple things. For us in the west, the pursuit of happiness has been largely defined by television, marketing, and the almightily economy. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that the condition here in South East Asia are correct, and they are the ones we ought to adopt in the west, rather, I am saying that we have taken things too far and we have created the type of inequity in the world that will not be sustainable in the long run. In addition, this dichotomous structure requires that many people suffer at the expense of very few, and surely everyone can see that this is not correct. The sociologists and philosophers out there might be able to assist with this discussion, but I simply think our consumptive nature is having a really negative effect on others. What really pisses me off is that I can't escape the fact that I am bred with what I am bred with, and no matter what I might try to do to help, I can never completely understand what life is actually like for those left behind.
All this is heavy stuff, and I think fitting contemplation for a visit to South East Asia. That and the incredible sights. And in the end, maybe the purpose in life is just that - the search for the purpose in life. Or at least heading to the beach.