INDIA 25: A Documentary on Social Entrepreneurship

Though away from this platform, I’m actually still around focussing my efforts on a different project. Next month, I’m filming a documentary in India with 3 long time friends. We will go around 9 cities in India and meet 25 social entrepreneurs who are making a difference on issues that matter. The outcome of this project will be twofold: (a) a documentary on 25 creative ideas in India that can help us rethink how we’re building the future, and (b) a series of shorter inspirational travel videos.

I’m very excited to be a part of this project and to go on the ground to meet men and women who are making a difference, whether it is on environmental issues, food distribution, empowering women, fighting social inequity, etc. Here are some of the people we might meet:


We’re gathering funds to make this journey happen. If you have any donation to spare, consider contributing to make a difference on our fundraiser:

And if you want to follow our journey, please see our WordPress blog:


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Beyond Blue and Pink: Polygender Parenting

Original graphic I created to promote the Gender Debate at Bishop's University.

Original graphic I created to promote the Gender Debate at Bishop’s University.

Bishop’s University just held a debate on the proposition:

By allowing children the freedom to explore self identity beyond sex-based stereotypes, Genderless Parenting promotes self esteem and confidence.

The House (in favour of the proposition) argued that Genderless Parenting was not the denial of gender, but a model that granted flexibility in a child’s gender identification by teaching children the multiplicity of genders. The Opposition held that Traditional Parenting was about modelling gender behaviour for children, allowing them to identify within their socio-cultural fabric as man, woman or otherwise. By wording their discourses as counterarguments to each other, the teams dissimulated the fact that they were essentially arguing the same thing, leaving a divided audience on the matter.

In the 21st century, especially at a liberal university like Bishop’s, arguing that children should be taught the norm of man, woman and heterosexuality is sure to be an unpopular stance. This may explain the Opposition’s view of a traditional parenting that will accept a cross-dressing son. An appropriate parenting model should educate children on how gender is perceived and performed in society, while accepting however they eventually place themselves on that spectrum. I challenge anyone attending the debate to attribute the previous sentence to any one team that argued.

My takeaway from this debate is entirely different from whether I side with Genderless Parenting or Traditional Parenting. Instead, what appears as the most important issue for me is the language we use to define gender for the next generation. While the terms of Genderless and Traditional were surely catchy, they each failed to capture the essence of the debate. The word “genderless” suggests that we should entirely remove gender from the social equation: a strange egalitarian theory that seems idealistic applied to a myth of childhood innocence, but loses all practicality when, as members of the audience pointed out, these genderless individual—unable to tell if they are a “he,” a “she,” or an “it”—reach a very confusing puberty. In fact, the House was not arguing for a genderless, but a polygender model of parenting that recognizes genders beyond the male/female binary (identities known as genderqueer).

As for “traditional,” it appears the term was defined to mean a model of parenting that teaches culture to their children and is not detached from social values. However, the Opposition failed to acknowledge traditional values as a part of that definition. When the Opposition asserts that traditional model families would accept the identity of children outside of a heteronormative conception of gender, I feel the urge to remind them that Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1968 in Canada. In the US, the process began in 1962 with Illinois and completed in only 2003 with Texas. And that’s just for criminality. LGBT behaviour stopped being considered as a mental illness in the 70s in the US. As for Canada? Alberta is the last province to have removed LGBT behaviour from their list of mental disorders, as of June 2012. That was seven months ago. So when the Opposition defined tradition as acceptant of queer identities I want to point them to these dates. I want to point them to the countless stories of people losing their belonging to homes, families and communities, because their sense of self did not fit with tradition. Those stories are not mine to tell, but are readily told in queer media and groups, for those who care to learn them.

My issue is hardly with what the Opposition argued, because this team was not arguing from a position of tradition at all. The forty years that LGBT acts have been decriminalized in North America are not enough to form a tradition yet. Where I did end up siding with the House, by the end of the debate, was in their position that acceptance within a household is not sufficient; their polygender model of queer identity instruction is one that must enter social norms. The Opposition may feel that it is possible to remove the pejorative connotation of the word “abnormal” and to have people of abnormal genders and sexualities be considered in the same way as someone of abnormal intelligence, but to the 4 to 10% of LGBT youths in North America, the abstraction is irrelevant. Having to identify as a gender or sexuality that is deemed other by society is the hardest part of coming out. That pain and confusion could be avoided by teaching children about a society that includes these non-heteronormative identities. And social values begin in the family, hence the importance of a Polygender Parenting model that does not limit its instruction of sexual identity to the male/female gender binary.

The Opposition was right to argue that the role of parents is to model social values for their children. However, social values are not an external reality we are subject to and must teach our children to arm them against the world at large. Social values are determined by us and by including LGBT identities in the language of how we teach children, we are redefining that myth of the norm and turning an issue that still needs to be debated about today into a non-issue.

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The 50 Book Challenge

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. They are ways people have of reinventing themselves overnight with alternate ideas of their identity. They are impulsive and notorious for mostly failing. When I thought of how I wanted to challenge myself for 2013, I realized I would have to train myself well in advance to reach the goal I would set for myself. Thankfully that was in June, and I have been preparing ever since so that I can confidently set myself to following challenge for the upcoming year:

Before December 31, 2013, I will read 50 books.

For all the writing I love doing, I am a shamefully poor reader. I managed to miss a large chunk of the classics everyone supposedly knows, having grown up in between French and Anglophone culture. I was long overwhelmed by the amount of books I needed to catch up on and gave up on the task altogether. But I’ve presently decided to tackle the problem and will read whatever I can. It will probably take a long time for me to feel like I have read a substantial amount of books. I can’t say I’ve read enough to be able to pick out my favorite books or genres, without feeling like I’m merely resorting to those books I have read. But I’m putting all of those anxieties aside and simply focusing on one book at a time.

Over the past six months, I’ve been training myself to simply acquire the habit of reading every day. When I do it right I can average a book per week without feeling too burdened by the task. It will be a challenge to keep those good habits for a whole year, but I do not feel it is hard to the point that I’ll give up on the challenge after a few weeks.

Ideally my 50 books will be works of fiction. Depending on how busy I am with studying, I may throw a few non-fiction books in the count, but the main goal of this challenge is to read more fiction narratives. This is something I’ve long wanted to do.

It has bothered me to enjoy writing fiction without being able to cite much fiction I enjoy. While writers often start as fanatic readers, I guess it took writing to get me curious about reading again, after a ten-year disconnect from the habit, triggered by high school literature courses. My schooling made reading become a chore instead of a pleasure. I stopped reading altogether because of school and that says a lot about how we teach. But I’m letting that be history and I’m reclaiming this space.

I don’t know if I’ll exactly review the books I read, but I will report back on my progress in some measure. I made sure to wait until 2013 to start the first book, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. I expect some commentary to emerge out of it in the near future.

So here’s to good habits and a happy new year full of books!

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The Apocalypse We Wanted

It was with great tragedy that the world woke up on December 21st to find that everything was the way it had been left the night before. Cynics nudged each other, watching a dull rain fall and proclaiming the end of the world. In appearance, the general opinion was unanimous: thank goodness the bad joke is finally put to rest. But between the catty comments and faked relief, there was an underlying disappointment. What could we now depend on to end the world? Who would come to save us?

Despite the fact that the end of the world was always presented in horrific undertones, the fixation that we, as a culture, have entertained regarding the apocalypse suggests that it was something we desired. Notice how it was never really clear what the end of the world meant. Some said zombies, some said meteors, some said aliens. There were talks of tectonic plates and solar flares and magnetism. The scenario always involved a wee bit more science than the average person really cared to keep up with. In the end, it didn’t really matter how the world would go, only that it would be changed in some irreversible way.

By now, most people know that the Mayan Long Count calendar, the origin for the apocalyptic date of 21.12.2012, never actually predicted the end of the world. The references to the end of anything at all were vague at best, and subject to assumptions and liberal interpretations that were uncalled for. Mayan descendants and Mayanist scholars alike denied that the calendar pointed to an apocalypse. The West read what it wanted to read in a culture that was ancient and distant enough to imagine as incarnating our cultural anxieties in their mystical secrets. Therefore, I have always found our fascination with the apocalypse much more telling and worth of study, than the actual possibility of the world ending.

Where does this cultural death wish come from? Firstly, we are a culture that seeks spectacle. All of the narratives we produce concentrate, augment and accelerate the real. Normal life is so dull when you look at the stories of what it could be. With an apocalypse, you are getting a spectacular life worth your while. Stories about the apocalypse are never really about the world ending. They are about surviving. We like apocalyptic stories because they face us with dangers to overcome. All of those boring in-between moments of life fade, when there is the constant immediate need to survive. This brings me to the second reason we want an apocalypse: the end of the world removes all of that superficiality of daily life. Apocalyptic narratives inspire a return to an authentic real. Survivors face nature, violence, sickness—their problems are not virtual and abstract, but at the base of Maslow’s pyramid.

However, I think the most important reason so many people are attached to that idea of the world ending is because they feel powerless in it. It’s easier to imagine creating a new world than to try fitting into the current one. The big problem in our culture is that we are all taught to be highly individualistic, in a society that is not ready to be entirely populated by individuals. From kindergarten all the way through college, we are told to expect a world that exists for us to thrive in. Too many young adults are reaching the proverbial “real world” to find out things aren’t so. This old world is not the one we’ve been promised. And so it is with disappointment that we watched as the world did not end today. It’s not that we wanted the zombies, or the death and disaster and destruction, or the seismic activity. It’s that we wanted anything but this.

Turns out, we have work ahead of us. It’s time to take responsibility and realize change does not come from any power other than ours. The world does not exist in the binary of “us against them.” That is a myth invented by the submissive group in a hierarchy, when its members realize their status but refuse to do the necessary to change their relation to that power. My generation grew up believing in magic. I am not here to say it does not exist. But if stories with magic taught us anything, it’s that magic is not about wands, flashes of light, or Jedi mind tricks. Magic is not about spectacle. Magic is about self-transformation. If we want to end our world, it’s up to us to set that in motion. Instead of marking your calendar with the next prophesied date of apocalypse, please consider this your permission slip to act as you would have if the world as you know it had ended today. Waiting for the end of the world may otherwise turn out to be a fatal form of procrastination. In my personal rendition of Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world,” I invite you to not wait for an external force to validate the choices you already want to make. Start living in the world you expected to find, on the other side of the spectacle.

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Waiting for a train going south to take me away from a life I’ve known for months, I go for one last run in Bangkok and bid the city farewell. The sun is setting on the Chao Phraya, the bloodline river of the metropolis carrying boats full of tourists, trade goods and trash. The streets are filled with staple food stands, selling mystery meat, fried somethings and sticky others. The motorbike-taxi drivers linger in packs, wearing their colored number vests over their bare chests, waiting for the next fare, but mostly chatting amongst themselves. As I run by, they noncommittally ask me where I’m going. “I take you—very cheap,” they say.

It’s evening; Bangkok is waking up. I’m reminded of how much of Thai life happens on the street. When we travel, we tend to go places. We go to the hotel. We go to the bus station. We go to the restaurant. The street is a transition space for us to get to places. We seek the A/C and a chair to comfort our white backs, sweating from the tropical heat. We visit old rocks without discerning between temples and cities. We do not bother to ask who put these sites there and why. Instead we worry about how we can get the best shot of ourselves to Facebook to our friends with a sentiment of: no big deal, I’m in Asia. Then we lock ourselves in our hotel rooms and say: “We’ve seen Thailand.”

But the Thai street is not a transition space. The lack of sidewalks is not meant to be hostile to pedestrians. They want to say: “pedestrians don’t need to step aside; the street belongs to them!” In the mix of people crossing the street nonchalantly, stray dogs claiming their space, cars zooming past and taxi drivers signaling for you to hop on, no wonder so many foreigners find Bangkok an overwhelming city. The barriers we put up in our countries are irrelevant here. As I run down the pavement, I see the groups of Thai men huddling in the cooling air, the ladies pushing their carts of food, a child poking the sewers with a stick and I wonder: “How much did I ever really know Thailand?” I walk.

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The Weight of 6 Months

As it periodically happens in my life, I’m living out of a bag again. And given that I’m carrying with me the worth of 6 months of living in Thailand, I’m the turtle with the fat shell on the streets these days. Several people have apparently had to dodge my bag as I make my way through crowded Thai streets. Oops. Backpacking around Southeast Asia in these conditions may not have been my most brilliant idea. In fact it’s not so much backpacking as me just hauling my bag from transports to hotels. My sense of travelling light is really trying not to cringe. Sweating profusely under the weight of it, I wonder how much possessions I really need to be dragging all the way home.

Being the huge nerd that I am, a significant amount of my luggage consists of books. In fact, they are an integral part of my packing technique. I take one book, surround it by two shirts and put the whole in a ziplock bag (to protect them from rain). I end up with a number of plastic bricks to stack in my rucksack. As I’m packing again for the millionth time, I start considering the association of books and clothes. The dress shirts? They’re packed with Anne Michael’s The Winter Vault, a complex and elegant story written like a reverie through the human condition. Michaels is a poet and her novel is like lyric prose. The characters and plot only support deep philosophic thoughts full of metaphors, symbolism and allegory. Only my dress shirts can provide good company to this ensemble. As for the dirty underwear? It better go with the Rawi Hage book, Cockroach, which centers around the life of a romantically insane lowlife immigrant in Montreal and his corrupt morals. To each article of clothing its appropriate narrative counterpart. I’ve been travelling with this pack for two weeks, but it’s only now that I realize how my combinations of books and clothes can be read symbolically.

I suppose I could discard some books and clothes and make this bag a little lighter. I’m sure I could participate to the travelling libraries I see everywhere I go, leaving my read books behind. Unfortunately, I suffer from the same attachment many fellow English students face with books. Part of it is that a number of the books I brought to Thailand came out of events I attended last year where I met the authors and had the books signed. Those are definitely not worth leaving behind. But even the unsigned average books that I could probably buy again if I wanted to reread them are hard to let go. I form a relationship with a book as I read it, get a sense of familiarity out of it and anchor the narrative into the physical object. Maybe that’s why I’ve been resistant to get an e-reader, despite all the pronounced advantages it would have more my fairly nomad life. It seems I must continue to carry around my bulky bag until I get home and can finally rest my books on the shelves from which they decorate my life.

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In Medias Res

When I’m travelling, I always find it harder to connect to the bigger ideas that make for good writing content. What if I am not living anything worth commenting on? What if—worse—my experiences are all they should be, but I can’t find things to say about them? There’s a scene from Lost in Translation that mildly haunts me. Scarlett Johansson’s character visits a Shinto shrine in Kyoto and later recounts the visit to a friend, troubled that she felt no connection to the place. I worry of going to foreign places and not overcoming their foreignness, of finding them different without empathizing with them. With travelling comes a high expectation for inspiration. I expect to find things to say, and others expect to hear the stories. I’m unfortunately terrible at willing a story to appear on command and my best stories always seem to come when I don’t expect them. Could I be failing to identify all the good stories around me?

I actually think movies may be responsible for creating that sensation of void I’m afraid of encountering. Films tend to depict foreign countries the same way as other subjects they touch upon: they make them larger than life. Neither blockbusters nor documentaries will truly show you a country as it is.  They will capture an essence, a narrative, the amazing factor of otherness. Reality is much more average. Reality is composed of the magic you see on television drowned out in a sea of everyday as usually boring as back home. Finding interesting stories is often a question of weeding out all of the in-between moments and concentrating the good stuff into magic again.

I don’t actually think I’m in lack of inspiration. Rather, I believe I am caught in the middle of the story. I’ve traveled, but I haven’t reached any destination long enough to feel a closure. Without an end, what is a story? Being constantly on the move, I tend to absorb the experience more than I can deliver a reflective output on it.

There was this vlog I used to follow a few years back called The Gradual Report. For all its quirkiness and insanity (which eventually went too far and made me lose interest in it) the initial philosophy behind it was original. In a time of constant immediacy, this vlogger aimed to report the news on a “gradual” schedule—i.e. with some time to contemplate on it after the fact. Since it was comedy, I don’t know how deep this idea really ran, but it resonates in how I process what I write.

For now, I’ve accumulated little fragments of my recent travel experiences. They’re first impressions and memories, starting to find something to say about themselves. They’re seeds of future entries, but they feel incomplete. They feel like they are reporting the facts of where I went and what I did, without expanding on that experience. Well, I’m one to comment on things, not simply state them, so I’ll let these seeds grow a little longer as more adventures call.

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We Are Love You

A lot of teachers come and go at Minmahaw and I knew that sooner or later my time would come for the parting rituals. At our weekly assembly, a student was called up to “say goodbye to Teacher Alex.” Htoo Aung Kyaw is a student from my English class who quickly made an impression on me when I first arrived at the school in June. He had been described to me by my head teacher as “a lost puppy.” He was originally only supposed to attend the summer school program, but family circumstances made him unable to go back to Burma. With the choice to either put him on the street or keep him in school, the Minmahaw staff obviously took the humane course of action and let him stay for the full year.

Htoo Aung Kyaw’s English was virtually inexistant when I met him. I remember being introduced to him and being unable to get a word out of him. He knew some individual words, but was unable to put them into a sentence. He subscribed to the common Burmese English learner practice of spelling out words instead of saying them. But mostly, he just stayed quiet. He suffered from extremely low self-esteem and did not believe he was capable of understanding anything that was said to him, much less provide a correct answer. For the first couple of months, I hardly ever heard his voice.

One of the challenges I faced in my teaching was the difference in levels among the students in my class. Htoo Aung Kyaw was on the lower end of the scale and often dragging behind the others. It was tough to find something that was basic enough to engage him, without it being completely redundant for all the others in the class. I can only imagine what it was like for him, sitting through seven hours of class a day, understanding only a fraction of what was said. He was often caught up in his head, removed from everyone else.

Htoo Aung Kyaw has come a long way. When I returned from a month of absence, it struck me how much he had changed since that first introduction in June, when he didn’t understand that I was asking for his name. Sometime in August, he started asking questions. He was less afraid. He stopped believing that he was necessarily the worst in the class. And I could finally speak to him. Of course, he did not start sharing all of his ideas and beliefs in perfect sentences overnight. But the simple fact that he was talking, that he was able to answer a question on command without preparing, was a victory.

That he was the student to get up and deliver a goodbye speech to me was an incredible reward to get as I left. I had secretly hoped that when the time came, he would be the one to do it. “I don’t want to say goodbye,” he said slowly,  “but we have to say goodbye. We are love you.” Behind the simplicity of his broken English was a powerful and significant moment. Nothing felt more like an achievement as a teacher than to have this student, out of all those I taught, be able to convey what he meant and be the one to say goodbye to me. Of course, I then had to get up and give my own goodbye speech, which I was completely unprepared for, seeing as I’m actually leaving this coming Friday. But a holiday taking up this whole week means that I’ve already had my last day of teaching and so the time for goodbyes has already started.

I think I can leave Mae Sot feeling I really have taught my students something. Since this was my first teaching job, that was a legitimate concern of mine coming here. My students deserve better than me. That’s not so much a criticism of myself. I came here in good faith and I’m happy to have been there for them and teach them what I could. But because this place depends on a volunteer spirit, I am what they can get, not what they should get and certainly not what they deserve. Of course, it’s nothing more than wishful thinking to say they should get an education at the same standard as students in the West. That’s not a reality though, so I’m happy to be the next best thing. But it also means I’m happy to let them move on to a new teacher. This week, I met the teacher who will replace me and I can rest assured that my students will be in good hands. Over the past six months, I have built a belief of what my students can and cannot do in English. Their new teacher has no such preconceptions. She is willing to try new things with them and to challenge them with lessons I had long ruled out as being too advanced for them. Well, it turns out they may be ready to go to that next step now and they have someone to take them there. I get to leave knowing that this change occurred sometime while I was teaching them.

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Good Actors Make Good Teachers

I grew up with teachers being somewhat strange creatures I would only encounter in school. It was a real shock to run into one anywhere outside the classroom and this led to some awkward shuffling about. Especially, as I grew up in France, using the polite “vous” to address them, teachers were powerful and at times terrifying dispensers of knowledge to be treated with respect or from whom to suffer the consequences. I remember a class trip I had somewhere around age 14, when our teachers took us to Strasbourg for a few days to visit the European Parliament. As we were asked to share our impressions of the trip, upon return, I said that it was a good way to get to know our teachers outside of school. My teacher looked at me, not all too threateningly but lightly warned: “Be careful, Alexis,” as if to remind me not to get too comfortable. Clearly, there was a line and it was not to be crossed.

Going to university in North America, I would say that distinction has already been less clear. Now this may just be the case in my small town university, which encourages student/professor interaction outside the classroom. To be sure, Bishop’s is the kind of place where you are more likely to get to know your profs. I’ve been to profs’ homes, have run into them at parties, have been on trips with them and even been to one’s wedding. There’s definitely a more personal level being reached here. But as students, we still know who our profs are and do not amalgamate them with the rest of the crowd. In fact, getting to know them makes them all the more respectable to us. Different spheres may touch, but remain distinct.

Now, let’s consider my situation for the past six months. I’ve been teaching students who are a few years younger than me at most. One of them is even older. There are 36 students in the whole school and I teach all of them at least several times a week and see them almost every day. The teaching is one side of it and then there’s the time we spend outside the classroom. We’ve played games, had parties, watched movies, spent Saturday afternoons playing and cheering football together, etc. As teachers at this small school, we have ample opportunities to get involved in the lives of our students and we get to know them on a personal level. I find it strange to think that under different circumstances, they could be exchange students at my university and we’d go out drinking together.

With everything so proximal, it’s hard to know where the lines are. It’s not like anyone’s passing around the guidebook. Today, I had my students giving their final Science presentations before I leave. Ten minutes after class, one of the students who was presenting moments ago is now giving me a haircut. I’m sure glad I didn’t have anything negative to say about his work! We’re living on this fine line where teaching is only a part of our interaction, but that distinction from teacher to student is vital to keep for everything to run smoothly. We all have our different coping mechanisms for marking these territories.

My students like to pretend or assume things about me that are not entirely true. When they have described me, in their writing for example, my paper self has always turned out to be older than I actually am. They believe I know a lot more than I actually do. It’s also really hard for them to understand that being a teacher is not something I’ve done or will do in the immediate outside of Mae Sot. They always get a little confused when I tell them that back in Canada, I’m also a student. For my part, something I’ve been solid about is refusing to confirm my students as friends on Facebook. A few have made the request, but it feels too casual to connect with them that way, so far. I expect it will soon be a good way for us to keep in touch, but I need to stop being their teacher first.

Somewhere from being friendly to being friends, you need to know how to stand on the right side when it comes to being a teacher. In a way it’s unfortunate. Like being a parent, being a teacher means taking on a bit of a role for your students. Sure, some of your personality transpires through that. But you also need to withhold some parts to maintain respect and authority. And I think that’s what makes us consider our teachers and parents as odd people with the potential to embarrass us. Some part of the interpersonal relationship has to remain inauthentic for there to be a clear hierarchy among the two. What impression you hope to leave behind is that of a role model, who may not quite equate to who you know yourself as, but who your students can remember as inspiring. Whether I’ve succeeded in that, though, is up to them to decide.

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Stock Characters for Your TV Reality

My roommate and I refer to the house next door to ours as the “Squat House.” It’s a strange one-story light blue house, with a large banner attached to the front depicting the King of Thailand and some thai script. For all uses and purposes, it is clearly residential and its occupants have changed a number of times during our six months here. Originally, it seemed to be a house with a lot of random men living in it. For a while after the rainy season, it was completely empty for weeks at a time. As of late, it houses mostly mothers and children. Despite the thai on the door, I’m pretty sure the people passing through here have been Burmese, because of their clothes, language and general appearance. There was also a time when I saw a few foreigners dropping by. In any case, we’ve never really cracked the case, as far as the Squat House goes. What remains is the impression that the place is a bit sketchy, but overall friendly, with some underlying organization involved in it.

What brings me to talk about them now, is an anecdote from earlier today. The “incident,” as it were, was hardly worth noticing. As the day cools down and we get a nice sunset glow in our street, I’ll often settle down with a book on my outer “porch.” When I say porch, it is worth understanding that I mean this semi-outdoor room at the front of the house, directly behind the front gate. Somewhere between a garage and a porch, it’s a common feature in Thai houses. On the other side of the wall, I can often hear the inhabitants of the Squat House going about making dinner and talking, though it usually blends into a background noise, as I don’t understand anything they’re saying. Not this time, though.

As I’m going about my usual reading routine, a boy next door keeps humming the same tune, over and over again. It ends up grabbing my attention and I try to place the song, which sounds familiar. It takes a whole of about 5 seconds for me to realize he is singing the jingle for the Coca-Cola Happiness Factory ad. I sit there wondering why this kid is chorusing a Coke commercial. How is he even exposed to it? Maybe it’s quaint of me to be surprised that a Burmese child in the middle of nowhere, Thailand, has heard the Happiness Factory song to the point of memorizing it and absently singing it on a lost Sunday evening. I feel like I’m sitting on the edges of western culture and watching fragments of it washing up on the shores, with no traceable explanation of how it got there. And then, I begin to question myself.

How can I assume that he is singing a Coke song at all? Is he a product of consumer culture for humming the Happiness Factory jingle, or am I one for identifying his song as such? For all I know, his music is coming from a completely different source (his imagination, even) but I cannot read him through anything other than my own cultural references. And I start to think of all the times we do this. The public radio system feels either like Disney or the Soviet Union, depending on what they’re airing. The music of the ice-cream scooter that goes down our street is straight out of Mario Kart. The dog next door has eyes that look like Nicholas Cage’s (yes, these are all real examples from here). The night market guy who sells Pad Thai looks like a Pirate; the omega dog at school is like a heroin junkie in withdrawal; roty is a type of desert, thicker than a crepe but not quite like a pancake. The list goes on.

Our minds are associative and we compare experience. But this also comes at the cost of failing to understand the alternate as anything more than other. We conveniently place newness under known labels, mapping it to our existing construct of reality. The two cultures remain hermetic to each other. There is no communication from one side to the other. Even as I acknowledge this, the boy humming the song, will never be more than a character in this story. The wall from my porch will always be there and while I will not know any more of him, he will not so much as imagine that his white neighbour wrote a whole article revolving around him on the Internet. Who he is is not really important, just as who I am is not really important to him.

In lack of empathy with another human being, all I am left with is consumerism, a safe common denominator to reduce any otherness to. So it is with the Squat House, a space we never managed to understand, as it has no place in our understanding of the world. All we can do is throw labels at it, converting the homes and lives of these people into narratives we can digest. We project our stories onto them and they naturally do the same for us. I think this is one of those times when you have to accept there will always be more world outside of you and that not all connections will be made, at the endpoints of two cultures.

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