Thank you for visiting my products page. I’ve finally publish the first book, Thinking in a New Light. It’s much better than my blog–blog articles are short and granular, but the book builds to a conclusion that’s an unprecedented gala of perspectives.
I included an earlier and unformatted version of the first book’s introduction (the “Preflight Check-in”) and first chapter. The intro will immerse you in a cultural landscape that’s rarely studied deeply. This excursion will begin to expand your range of concepts and enable you to appreciate other ways to integrate the world. These experiences will prepare you for the books’ later flights. You can get the entire book at Amazon.
I fell in love with exploring different cultures when I was seven. My father subscribed to National Geographic and bought the Time-Life series of books on the world’s countries, and I experienced one Wow! after another. Egyptian pyramids, Angkor Wat, ancient Greek temples, the Taj Mahal, Chinese pagodas, Gothic cathedrals, and narrow boats gliding through Bangkok’s canals—what inspired so many different art forms?
My parents often took me to San Francisco’s airport to watch the never-ending stream of people and planes. I found the women in sparkling red saris boarding an Air India flight especially intriguing. The vibrant hues and swirling forms seemed a world away from the jeans and short-sleeved shirts in my neighborhood. Since those days, I’ve always enjoyed airports as hubs where folks from all over the world, with their different mindsets, come together.
So in 2007 I jumped at a chance to leave Silicon Valley’s high-tech workforce and travel around the world. I journeyed in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and since many of their cultures are not as well-known as the West and China are, I found that humanity is much richer than a small number of traditions. Traveling through one under-appreciated society after another made me think: This must be what heaven is like. One perspective after another opened up to me, and I was free to compare them in any combination I chose. All cultures seemed to shine on each other in a field of connections that became increasingly luminous and pervaded with love as the trip progressed. I realized that the world has so much cultural wealth that we can bring earth and dreams of heaven together. At the same time, we can enhance our creativity by accessing an ever-widening range of ideas. This book explains how to do both.
But the world is currently rough for many, largely because people make it that way for each other. Political corruption, corporate greed, ecological destruction, and prejudice run rampant. But if societies see paradise on earth as a basic concept, we’re on our way to living in it. More people will treat each other kindly, respect the ecology, and study and expose all cultures’ beauty. Parents and schools will teach children to see and share the world’s positive aspects, and people will forge public policies to develop them further.
However, academic and scientific conventions say that we cannot discuss paradise because it’s too vague. Knowledge can only be about facts, which people can verify in laboratories, quantify, and store as bits of information in databases. At the same time, many people in today’s hyper-competitive digital economy only have time to focus on making ends meet. A friend recently told me, “Most people today are in survival mode.” So our current economic trends and intellectual conventions imprison us in a self-reinforcing cycle: Because paradise seems too remote to be found in the world and discussed, people hold onto a world-view that keeps it distant.
So this book flouts precepts that say that we are less than we can be. Since it’s about enhancing happiness and creativity by exploring multiple cultures, we will attempt the most inspiring vision that we can. We’ll soar as high as possible here by exploring places that I’ve journeyed through. Seeing several cultures back to back during my trip transcended perspectives bound to conventions, not by one step, but by gleefully skyrocketing beyond them. So I’ll share this experience with you.
To give you my full experience, this book mixes cultural depths of the places I toured with my travel tales. My journey wasn’t a typical sightseeing jaunt because I had studied the histories and traditions of the societies I visited before leaving home. Seeing their pasts reflected in the present made my travels more rewarding than they would have been if I had only focused on current events. It added more depth to my experiences, so we’ll delve into the roots of the cultures I explored and attain perspectives that can reveal their full richness.
I also often carried a guitar and played it with people. I’ve found that music is one of the best ways to immerse myself in other cultures because it allows me to share people’s feelings more deeply. It was the combination of all these types of experiences (emotional and intellectual, traditional and contemporary, artistic and down-to-earth) that made me feel that this trip was like paradise. It was so full and wide-ranging that my journey transcended all categories so that everything around me seemed to glitter.
I discovered a method for finding paradise in the world. It’s very simple—you can summarize it in six letters and put them on a T-shirt. It shows a way in which all people and cultures are connected that hasn’t been taught in schools, and how we can think about this connectedness in an optimal way for our well-being. I’ll detail it later, but not until the end of the second part of this book because this method isn’t an immediate fix. You have to appreciate multiple cultures in order to make it work for you. But we’ll have enough material by the end of Part Two to apply to it. By the time you finish this book, you’ll find that paradise is right here and that you can help expose it further so that it will be a daily experience for you and the people you’re close to. The manual at the end details how to do this.
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond asked why history happened as it did. Why did the West become the world’s most dominant culture between the 18th century and the end of the 20th? This book asks: How can history be more rewarding for everybody? What way of looking at the world can promote the most well-being for the most people and allow all cultures to appreciate each other’s most inspired creations to the greatest extent? We’ll see how all societies can highlight each other’s positive sides, and how their people can combine such a big range of perspectives that creative breakthroughs can become so easy that you can have them whenever you want. As you do, your view of the world will keep growing bigger and more inspiring.
But I don’t gloss over any ugliness that I found on this trip. I wanted a full romance with the world. Other than the worst human behavior, I wanted to see and feel as much as possible, and this meant feeling some pain at times. I saw many scars from the Khmer Rouge’s regime in Cambodia, and it was gut-wrenching to witness hoards of begging children with hopeless eyes. All the countries I traveled in have immense gaps between the rich and poor, and more political corruption than any city dump can hold.
However, I found that the cultural wealth in all these countries was thousands of times worth the heartaches. As I ventured to study humanity’s better side, it seemed as though the world was opening more of its splendors to me. My trip usually felt like a dance with the entire globe that was sheer electricity. This book is my gift back.
ENCHANTMENTS OF SOUTHEAST ASIA
I knew I was entering a different world as soon as my flight reached Southeast Asia. I first jetted from Hong Kong to Bangkok to change planes for Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat and scores of other proud Khmer monuments stand. While approaching Thailand’s capital, I saw a cheerful carpet of light green fields. They were long, narrow, and straight as joss sticks. The land looked settled. But when I reached the city, the view became chaotic. Skyscrapers, single family homes, and golden-roofed temples jostled in a metropolis of more than seven million souls. Old timers reminisce about the Venice of the East, with limpid canals and long, slender boats as elegant as gondolas. But the cityscape I saw looked as though a million buildings of every shape and size were randomly mixed and dumped on tropical rice fields. Goodbye logic.
The entrance into Cambodia was even more dramatic. I changed planes, from the regal 747 to a twin-prop bird. Half way to Siem Reap, the view shifted from straight light green fields to dark jungle with no break except an occasional river snaking through the trees. The foliage was so thick that the rivers seemed to struggle to flow through it.
Siem Reap appeared suddenly. Most buildings I saw were small wooden houses on stilts. I felt as though I was traveling 1,000 years back and into the lives of the ancient Khmers who erected the monuments that I would explore for the next two weeks.
The middle of town was more modern. Siem Reap became safer in the 1990s (after being plagued by the Khmer Rouge’s atrocious reign and its aftermath), and its number of tourists had grown more than 30 percent per year for several years. My plane had not flown over its central area, which was crisscrossed by straight streets with shops and sidewalk restaurants in stately French colonial buildings. Surrounding them were wooden homes, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and trees. Bikes, pedestrians, dogs, and cars shared the roads so that all meshed into a smooth and gentle flow. The town’s atmosphere reminded me of a previous trip in central Java. Both places had a soft color scheme. The faded yellow and blue buildings and the golden skins and light clothing of the locals mingled with an endless variety of green hues. The foliage wasn’t overpowering in town. All colors melded into a flow of life’s energies that was both vibrant and soothing. I had missed this ambience when I left Indonesia and returned to Silicon Valley’s anthill vibe. While riding from Siem Reap’s airport I thought, Yeah! I’m back!
That trip to Indonesia, back in 1991, when I was at an impressionable age, was my first time in Southeast Asia, and it hooked me on the region. I went to Java and Bali in a four-person group on an artistic heritage tour. In our first morning, we walked through Yogyakarta’s outdoor bird market and main bazaar. They were so different from my California suburb that I felt like I had just landed on another planet. Elderly women sat on the ground displaying spices, vegetables, and fruit. A small grey-haired man sold monkeys, and a young man with a four-foot iguana crawling up his chest encouraged us to photograph him. We then sauntered through lines of hanging wicker bird cages. This profusion of life forms seemed unreal.
I began to feel at home by the afternoon. We stopped for a rest under a small public pavilion, and a few young local men soon squeezed into it and sat down with us. They were so relaxed. All spoke with soft voices and never fidgeted, and their faces were as reposed as Buddha statues. The men’s gentleness fused with the abundance of life forms and colors. The English language doesn’t have a word for this combination of civility and exuberance. But this fusion of moods, which Anglo-American culture has trouble categorizing, bestows an endless variety of pleasures on people who live in it.
I missed it when I returned home, but I could at least read about Southeast Asia and discover more of its societies beyond Indonesia. These studies and four later visits taught me that many cultures in the region have organized themselves with these patterns for more than 2,000 years. Most visitors find the area mysterious. Bangkok’s urban sprawl and Cambodia’s jungles seem to hide bottomless intrigue. The smiles and pretty colors often conceal hidden meanings. The historian Craig J. Reynolds noticed that many Westerners have described Southeast Asian cultures with vague words, including mixing, blending, and eclecticism, which don’t reveal much about what it’s actually like to live in them. Even Google’s search box can’t help people grasp the region’s societies because they combine experiences in ways that transcend the words people commonly search.
So we will delve into Southeast Asian cultures in this book and see how rich this little-known part of the world is. We’ll compare our discoveries with Western traditions, and then plug both into the method for finding a bigger and more creative human landscape than conventions have appreciated. The rest of this chapter will give you an overview of traditional Southeast Asian societies so that you can see how rewarding they are to explore. Then I’ll resume the story about my own trip in the following chapter.
Southeast Asia’s natural landscape is both gracious and cruel. Succulent fruits grow in abundance, many fish streak through the rivers, ravishing flowers bloom, and birds sing in an avian orchestra that fuses with the joyful colors. But a flood can suddenly overwhelm a village. So can an enraged volcano. The lush growth harbors disease-carrying insects, and malaria and dengue fever still plague much of the region. I collected my share of mosquito bites but I was lucky. However, a young British man that I met in Cambodia had just left the hospital after battling dengue fever. “I was in a bad state!”
The region is blessed with abundant fish and gorgeous beaches, but the shores have exposed people to invaders and tidal waves. Like the land, the sea is as giving as a mother and as ruthless as an angry spirit.
Not all of Southeast Asia is lush; many areas in uplands away from coasts receive little rain so that farmers struggle to scratch livings from the arid land. The places that do receive the monsoons’ blessings depend on them so that their failure to arrive has sometimes been catastrophic. Nature is often generous and beautiful, but the withholding of its gifts has always been a danger that people have worried about.
Southeast Asia’s geography is different from Europe’s. The Mediterranean is special. As a single body of water which southern Europeans, Levantines, and northern Africans have shared, it helped unify the Greco-Roman world over 2,000 years ago by allowing ideas and art forms to be widely shared. Roman-style buildings still dignify the backs of America’s five, ten, twenty, and fifty dollar bills. Ancient Roman architecture also influenced the dome on the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. and the one that crowns St. Peter’s in Rome—it has shaped buildings of the West’s most prestigious political and religious institutions. Greek sculpture’s realistic human figures, Greek temples’ proportioned forms, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and myths about Greek gods and heroes have given people around the Mediterranean many points of contact. So did urban Roman institutions, including civic forums, libraries, theaters, public baths, and civil law.
A person in 1 CE (the Common Era—formerly known as AD) could have sailed from Rome to towns in the Middle East and felt that he was in the same world. After the Southeast Asian part of my 2007 trip, I explored an ancient Roman city in Jordan called Jerash and admired its theaters and main street, which colonnades and stone temples lined. Their stately and regular shapes stood out from the arid, khaki-colored natural surroundings. They made a resounding statement to the locals about the ubiquity of Roman urban life, and architects throughout Europe and America have imitated their forms ever since.
But Southeast Asia’s coasts lack a common body of water. Its mainland twists into many shapes which border several seas and oceans so that its image on a map resembles its dense foliage. This has allowed much cultural diversity, but people have lacked a common classical heritage to share meanings within. Indians came to trade in the late first millennium BCE and they imported writing and universal religions. But what they gave was varied, including several forms of both Hinduism and Buddhism. So India added even more diversity to the region. Locals then assimilated them according to their own mindsets and combined their own traditions with them.
Some cultural patterns are more common in Southeast Asia than in the West, but they’re too diverse to be fully expressed in a few forms. So its people developed different ways of integrating their world than a shared classical tradition, and I’ve found them just as creative and enduring. Exploring them has been a constant source of pleasure for me.
Because Southeast Asia’s environments can be kind and then deadly, people have often used politeness, rituals, and art to render them safe. Indigenous Semai people in the mountains of peninsular Malaysia stress gentleness by smiling and speaking softly. Many have associated outbursts with the sudden onset of particularly violent thunderstorms in which lightning streaks through the blackened sky and winds batter homes so hard that they sway. The anthropologists P. D. R. Williams-Hunt and H. D. Noone found Semai gentleness so irresistible that they married local women and settled into their communities.
People in another indigenous culture in peninsular Malaysia, the Temiar, believe that they can get sick or suffer an accident by laughing long or loudly at another person, eating an animal that was laughed at while being killed, or imitating the cries of certain animals and insects. Rude acts like these can cause thunderstorms, diarrhea, and tiger attacks, so people try to be gentle with each other.1
The Temiar also try to avoid startling each other, so they announce themselves when they pass behind someone who is sitting. If they don’t, the seated person’s body odor can become startled and make them ill. In addition, they avoid naming foods across categories while eating. For example, saying “game” while eating rice, fruit, or vegetables can offend the soul of the food that’s being eaten, and this can cause diarrhea. Many things in the environment have souls, including odors, foods, plants, animals, birds, mountains, and thunder. Within this copious environment, all things must be kept in harmony and treated with politeness.
The anthropologist Marina Roseman felt that their rituals also emphasize this politeness. People maintain harmony with spirits by conducting trance dances in which a medium communicates with them. During the ceremonies, women often dance with supple motions that the Temiar associate with a woman’s curving body, wavy hair, and relaxed walk, and with rustling palm fronds and gentle breezes.2 This network of associations helps render a potentially scary natural environment livable and beautiful.
I got lost in a village in central Java’s mountains in 1991. As I walked down the main road, all the locals popped out of their houses, waved, and said, “Hello!” with a smile. One man hustled over to his cow and proudly insisted that I photograph him.
A much cuter picture would have been of the two-year-old girl hiding behind a rough-hewn chair—her eyes were bulging over its backboard as I walked by. But alas, she screamed when I aimed my camera at her. Her big sister trotted over and smiled at me as she picked her up.
We all had fun but the feeling also had a serious side. As a Westerner, I was from a region that many Southeast Asians associate with power. Being nice was the safest way to deal with a mysterious Caucasian man.
Rituals for maintaining safety abound in traditional Southeast Asian societies. Supernatural beings must be pleased. The Thai spirit house is a famous example, which I saw all over its country. People install a miniature residence for the land’s spirit in front of homes, offices, restaurants, gas stations, and even car dealerships. They place flowers, food, and drinks in it with pristine politeness to keep it happy. This adds artistry to the neighborhood, which sometimes extends beyond. I saw this enchanted city of spirit houses just outside one of the entrances to the northern town Chiang Saen. Some people think many spirits hang around communities’ entrances and that these places harbor unusual amounts of unseen power. This mélange of shrines to keep the spirits mellow projected so many vibrant shapes and colors among the greenery that I stopped to enjoy them for a few minutes. The locals had rendered potential danger beautiful.
Spirit houses also added charm to many neighborhoods I’ve walked through in Vietnam, though the surroundings would have been appealing enough without them. Swaying palm trees surrounded light blue, yellow, and pink homes of local people. These buildings and their yards alternated with small open fields where cows grazed. The spirit houses were mounted on walls of homes and fences. With straight walls and a single gabled roof, they were plainer than the Thai versions, but they still added to the profusion of forms and colors. By resembling the local homes, they made it seem that many types of souls blended into a luxuriant environment.
Throughout Southeast Asia, spirits in the land, rivers, mountains, and trees must be respected. Souls of people who have passed away need to be kept happy. The gracious rice mother, who gives birth to the crops that nourish people, must be thanked. Thai ceremonies are numerous and beautiful. So are Balinese, Javanese, Cambodian, Malay, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Burmese. This region has turned rituals into some of the world’s finest artistic traditions.
In Bali in 1991, I watched a ceremony to straighten out the world. People conducted a long procession to the sea to leave offerings because they have traditionally believed that this calms a giant turtle under the land who can cause earthquakes when moving. I leaned against a building on a town’s main street and savored the colors as the cortege passed. Slender women in long white gowns balanced bamboo baskets full of flowers, banana leaves, and fruit on their heads. Men paraded in shiny blue and pure white silk shirts, and teams of them carried gleaming bronze gongs on poles. The feast of hues conjoined in a flow that was both lively and relaxed. It was all so pretty that the unseen spirits which can enrich or harm a community must have enjoyed it too.
A person with a strictly modern mindset might scoff at this way of thinking. Don’t animism and rituals for placating spirits represent a primitive mentality? Where are the scientific explanations? Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries have produced far less literature than India and China have. Are Southeast Asian cultures less evolved?
These questions come from modern Western and traditional Indian and Chinese perspectives, but Southeast Asia is best appreciated on its own terms. It has its own logic—its people hold their own assumptions about how the world is integrated, and about what mental associations promote the most well-being. Folks often perform rituals with beauty that defies Western classifications. Flowers, sumptuous arts and crafts, music that is equally energetic and calm, aromatic food, and elegant clothing mix in a stream of grace, liveliness, and tolerance that’s as good an ideal for civilized life as a Western civic forum. India has been called an assault on the senses; much of Southeast Asia is a massage for them.
During my artistic heritage tour of central Java, we ate dinner and had a gamelan lesson in a 150-year-old home that was built around a small courtyard. A gamelan is a traditional Indonesian ensemble of instruments that people have played in temples, royal courts, and village ceremonies. No two orchestras are exactly the same, but the most predominant instruments are bronze xylophones, gongs, and kettledrums. Flutes and stringed instruments that people bow are also common. All tones mesh into an atmosphere that seems both spiritual and sensual. As we dined, the musicians practiced and the notes from the xylophones and gongs chimed through the warm evening air. They blended with the flickering torches so that all impressions seemed to fuse into animated energy that pervaded our surroundings. The chicken satays with thick, tangy peanut sauce and the spicy eggs which had been cooked in chili sauce had flavors that also seemed both animated and suave. The slinky cats slipping around our legs hoping for handouts added to this feeling that all life forms intertwine in a field of energy that is both potent and graceful.
It was then time for the lesson so we proceeded to the instruments. We were told to avoid stepping over them because each has a spirit that requires respect. I walked around one of the xylophones and sat on the reed mat behind it, and the lead musician explained that all of its keys are numbered. He played a sequence of notes that made up a melody and told us to practice it together. I had been used to playing guitar as a solo performer and in rock and jazz bands in which each musician could be heard clearly. For me, listening to each person express his own personality has been one of the most enjoyable things about American popular music. But all the gamelan instruments melded into a larger whole which none of us stood out from. All our notes merged and filled the entire courtyard, and they resonated with the torchlights and the aromas of the food. I was sitting next to the leader; whenever I hit an incorrect note he softly sang the numbers of the proper ones, “Three-two-three-two,” in the same slow and steady rhythm that the orchestra played in. Though the music seemed energized, I found it warm and welcoming because I felt unconditionally accepted by the whole community and its traditions.
Many traditional Southeast Asians have considered their etiquette and rituals hallmarks of civilization. The artistry and frequency of rites remind them that they live in an integrated society and that social obligations are precious. Some of them consider Westerners, Indians, and Chinese loud. Some Thai artists before the 20th century portrayed Westerners with beer-bellies and bulbous noses, and Indians with hairy faces. Both have gaping mouths, as though Thais imagined noises booming from them that would have scared off every fish within a mile.
In 2012 I watched a line of monks and novices begging for food in the morning in the historic Laotian town Luang Prabang. This is a daily ritual all over Buddhist Southeast Asia. The holy men in cascading orange robes slowly walked in a long line down the street. Secular folks kneeled in a row to place small packets of rice in the monks’ bowls as they passed, and the religious procession rippled as gracefully as the Mekong River three blocks away. The line of holy men slowly moved past the line of locals so that both looked like two longboats flowing past each other. The lay people received merit for a better life and afterlife, and the monks were able to eat. These gracious little acts and this pretty ritual help society cohere.
Southeast Asian rituals are often fun. The locals in Luang Prabang quietly chatted and giggled before and after feeding the monks as though it was an opportunity to enjoy each other as much as a way to gain merit. In Thai New Year water fights, people toss etiquette out the window and douse each other. Many people before modernization in the late 20th century believed that the surges of water magically encouraged the monsoon to come, and everybody had laughs in the process.
People can even have a good time when political elites show off their authority. Rulers from Thailand to Indonesia have sponsored dances, theater, and processions for more than 1,000 years to project their power. Some have displayed themselves in elephant parades, with the majestic animals draped in fabrics that radiate red, gold, and silver. Equally regal are boat processions with long, narrow royal barges, whose bows and sterns curve upwards as gracefully as a royal court dancer’s fingers. Artists often carve the bow to resemble the head of a fish, a dragon, or a naga (a serpent from Indian mythology which locals combined with their own snake cults, and with dragon lore from China). Spectators lining streets and rivers wear their best clothes, gossip, crack jokes, and savor delicious recipes.
But rituals in Southeast Asia often have serious sides too. Many people believe that they’re infused with supernatural power. Since ancient times people throughout the region have felt that the king and other eminent people wield it. The historian Tony Day, in Fluid Iron, noted that some artworks portray violence because religious art and rituals are associated with prime energies in nature, which both establish political states and generate life. They can strengthen the order of society, but their power has no bounds and it can destroy as well as create. Be on good terms with it or else!
I witnessed this side of rituals during my 1991 Indonesian trip. Three other Americans, our local guide, and I drove to a central Javanese village in the evening, and we sat in a line of chairs in the central square. Two xylophone players began to repeat two notes half a tone apart to induce a hypnotic state. Eight other men went into trances and began to dance. Suddenly other men plunged a foot-long spike through each one’s cheek and the well-traveled Manhattan attorney on my left gasped. We shook hands with them afterwards and they were entirely gentle—their grips were soft, their eyes were warm, and there was no tension in their faces. The performers briefly brought potentially destructive forces into the community and then controlled them. Traditionally, people have felt that this kind of event can increase the political and metaphysical power of the person who sponsors it, as well as strengthen village harmony and its land’s ability to generate crops.
So rituals in Southeast Asia reflect its rich cultural and natural landscapes. They mix a wide range of experiences and messages, including political authority, social cohesion, spirituality, fun, artistry, and fear of unseen dangers. Rituals’ associations range from refined aesthetics to political contention. They also vary from spiritual and social connectedness to raw power. Many types of messages and sensibilities are interwoven in ceremonies, and this has inspired endless varieties of art. While some Temiar trance dances have emphasized soft swaying motions, the performance I saw in Java became violent for a while, though peace was restored in the end. Yet many other traditional Javanese dances are known for being slow and refined. Southeast Asia never settled on a few simple forms, like ancient Greek temples’ colonnades and the Christian cross, as models of eternal truth. No single form can encompass its abundance. Tolerance of diversity and enjoyment of the moment have helped its cultures hang together, and this engenders much beauty and fun.
I’ve often found combinations of elegance and fun in people’s behavior. In the first Thai restaurant I ever ate in, a Caucasian-American man at the next table asked the waitress if the meat was fresh and she chirped, “Yes. We just killed the dog!” When she went back to the kitchen, he told his friend, “That lady’s a joker!” Yes, but I noticed that she gently caressed the backs of the empty chairs she passed, and her hand flowed in the slow, fluid motions of a court dancer. Shifts between esprit and refinement in Southeast Asia happen in endless varieties.
I walked through a temple in Chiang Mai and spotted a man painting one of the sculpted elephants on its main shrine. He quietly consented when I asked if I could photograph him, but then climbed onto the elephant’s back and hammed it up by waving and flashing a big smile. Elephants are traditionally considered sacred in Thailand, but so is having fun. Apparently he didn’t think he was being disrespectful.
While I was buying silver in a shop outside of Yogyakarta, the two women behind the counter and I conversed in the little Indonesian that I knew. They asked me the standard questions people ask visitors from other countries, like, “Where are you from?” Both smiled and spoke softly. My tour guide had told me the Javanese word for “Thank you” and said that using it would surprise people, so when I bade them good-bye I said, “Matur nuwun.” Both women’s mouths popped open and their eyes widened with joy. One spritely exclaimed, “Matur nuwun!” After I had walked away from the counter area, I could still hear them singing it in jubilant tones.
I had a racier encounter with a shop-woman on the way home from that trip. The plane stopped on an island called Biak, which is a little north of the Indonesian side of the New Guinean landmass. Our guide had told us that shops there sold penis sheathes, which are made out of gourd and painted. Men in many traditional societies in New Guinea have worn them. It seemed like a good conversation piece to take home so I looked for one, but couldn’t find any. I finally asked the young woman from Java who managed the shop. Being a bit bashful about the subject, I spoke quietly and she misheard me. “Peanuts? You want to eat?” I said that I wasn’t hungry in Indonesian, but my vocabulary quickly thinned when I tried to tell her what I did want. I thought of drawing a picture but couldn’t figure out what to do without being obscene. I finally just pointed straight down. She burst into a smile and said, “Ya! Ya!” and blithely led me to a box under a bottom shelf. I chose one and she wrapped it in a newspaper while still smiling. What impressed me was her perfect mixture of joy and elegance. She obviously had fun but retained all the composure that Javanese value.
Most traditional Southeast Asian art isn’t as linear or as focused on static geometric shapes as classical Western styles are; it expresses a different world instead. It often depicts flows of animated energies in the environment. Ideas of energy flows have inspired a lot of creativity in the region because people have associated them with many experiences that have been common there since ancient times. All together make Southeast Asia unique:
- A river’s flow. Mainland Southeast Asians have migrated and formed communities along rivers for thousands of years. Several great rivers begin in the Himalayas, and when their snows melt in the spring, the waterways begin to swell. People in the lowlands have often experienced this as a surge of life, which bestows fish and nourishes crops. Travel along rivers has often been easier than slogs through jungles teeming with tigers and thieves. So, many people have conceived their landscape as a flow on waterways that undulate between mountains and hills rather than as a line between Point A and Point B. Even their boats embody these forms—many are long, narrow, and curvy. I took a two-day boat trip along the Mekong, from Luang Prabang to the Thai border, and I felt as though I was enveloped in nature’s energies. The mountains that rose on both sides formed a continuous line of peaks that seemed to wriggle like a snake. Above them, the clouds billowed in these forms. Everything seemed to flow in waves.
- Nature’s life forms. During that Mekong journey, the trees and plants on both banks didn’t stand out as distinct entities. All their foliage blended into vibrant rivers of green between the waterway and the mountains beyond. While walking through jungles, I often noticed that trees’ branches and roots curved and twisted as they spread out. Water, land, wood, greenery, and sky undulated, and all together often seemed to fuse into a flow of nature’s power.
- Snakes have had special meanings in cultures all over the world because they’re easy to associate with nature’s energies. They slither into and out of the earth, through trees’ foliage, and in rivers. They also shed their skins whole. So their movements seem to transcend all limits, and their shapes and sliding motions make them easy to associate with sex. People have thus identified serpents with primal energies which generate life. The Christian tradition demoted snakes because it insists that only God and Jesus have power over nature. In Genesis, Yahweh condemned the serpent to crawl on its belly and took away its ability to speak for tempting Eve with a fruit. But people in many traditional Southeast Asian cultures have felt that their environment has too many life forms to be completely subjected to one being who lays down the law for everyone (the Malay world, however, later embraced Islam—we’ll explore this fascinating topic later). Nature is pluralistic, and snakes have retained their proud places in the scheme of things. Many Thai and Laotian Buddhist temples have foundation myths about the land’s naga (a mythical serpent) being given a gift before people began to build. From then on, the Buddha sanctified it and the naga protected the temple from evil spirits. Nature’s many souls operate in harmony. Snakes resemble rivers, fish, branches, vines, roots, mountains, and clouds. They all assume wavy forms that are sometimes graceful and sometimes gushing with power.
- The annual rice growing cycle. In the summer and fall, the monsoon unleashes the sky’s power on the land and fertilizes it. I was riding a bike in Hue, Vietnam, during the rainy season in 2012. The grey sky had been threatening all morning, but I wanted to savor the relaxed historic town. Around noon it began to sprinkle. I didn’t mess around when the rain increased—I shot under the first awning in sight. Two young men ran a custom window shop there and they invited me inside to wait out the storm. The water was now coming down in sheets so that three seconds outside would have drenched me like a river rat. Southeast Asians learn that they can’t impose their wills on nature, so they cooperate with each other to make its bursts of energy livable and fun. Between the storms, farmers all over Southeast Asia grow rice in fields with raised edges that hold the water. Wet rice farming requires a lot of coordination between people, and the work is painstaking. Fields need weeding, water must be allocated to each paddy, water levels need to be kept at the right level for the rice as it grows, fields have to be drained before the harvest, crops must be quickly harvested, and threshing has to be done. All able-bodied people share these labors. So sometimes life’s tempos are slow and repetitive, and they’re sudden and dramatic in other times, but people experience them together. Life is traditionally communal. People’s lives flow together within nature’s rhythms.
- Religious ceremonies and processions harmonize communities with spirits and nature’s energies. People often amble slowly in them, and in this way, they resemble the rivers that their ancestors settled by thousands of years ago.
All these experiences together have encouraged ideas that reality is an abundant field of energy flows, which people communally live in. Their societies have been different from ancient Athens, where columned temples and stoas embodied simple linear forms as ideals of eternal order. Natural environments in Southeast Asia are infused with power, which generated all the densely intermeshed life forms. This energy bestows rains, pregnancies, crops, and fish, but it can suddenly become deadly.
Southeast Asians have thus created countless art forms that express energy but soften it with grace. Artists portray nature’s unpredictable powers in ways that render them safe enough to live with. Throughout the region, wood carvings, batiks, dances, processions, temples, mosques, palaces, and statues of gods and the Buddha appear both animated and gentle. All these arts balance both senses of the world.
Thai art emphasizes long, slender, and curvy forms. They grace everything from temples and Buddha statues to furniture and silverware. I find it some of the most enjoyable art in the world (we’ll savor it in Part Two).
Many Thai restaurants’ servers’ eyes widened when I said that I didn’t want rice. People in Southeast Asia consider rice sacred. It’s the ultimate gift from nature. In parts of Indonesia and the mainland, people have avoided harvesting with the sickle because its imposing blade seems harsh. Instead, they hide a small knife in the palm of the hand to avoid scaring the gracious rice goddess. People deal with the flow of life by being polite.
Traditional Malay cuisine also often treats rice as the essence of civilized living. The Malay academic Zainal Kling wrote that the most important part of a meal is boiled rice and that all other foods are side dishes (lauk).3 Rice and lauk should be eaten together, and a person who only eats lauk (whether it’s beef, chicken, or fish) is sometimes called a cat because only a carnivorous animal would consume meat by itself.
It can be easy for a Caucasian man to idealize Southeast Asian cultures, and people there have told me that they’re not always as nice to each other as they are to me. Most of their societies are hierarchical and folks in them often compete for status. Sometimes people behave politely to mask competition beneath the surface. A Laotian man that I met complained that people organizing a Buddhist festival at their local temple spent more time vying for authority over the proceedings than arranging them.
Andrew Walker, in Tai Lands and Thailand, wrote about residents of a northern Thai village gossiping about the local abbot’s fondness for alcohol, cigarettes, and women. When young women gathered at the temple to take part in a religious ceremony, one pointed her rear end at an imaginary camera and invited the abbot to have a good peek while the others giggled. Walker noted that rituals and sacred places can be sources of tension in Thailand because people unify their worlds with them.4 Because they’re the venues in which folks come together, disputes and rivalries can break out in them.
Smiles in Thailand are not always happy. I was eating in a Thai restaurant in California and a short thirty-something man introduced himself as the owner. “I hope you like our food.” I told him that I did but he still seemed nervous. His restaurant was brand new so I tried to put him at ease by adding, “I like all Thai food. The only bad Thai restaurant I’ve ever been in was up in Berkeley.” He smiled the second I said bad, as though the word carried harmful magical effects that he wanted to neutralize. Many smiles in Thailand are used to avoid confrontations.
Contrasts between graceful surfaces and potential conflicts beneath them encourage people in many Southeast Asian societies to emphasize self-discipline and the avoidance of intense expressions of feelings. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz noted that traditional Javanese have stressed a distinction between being refined and rough. The former, alus, means being polished, subtle, and spiritual. The latter, kasar, is voraciousness, crudeness, and loudness, and it’s the antithesis of politeness, which human societies require in order to function.5 I watched two women in a dialog on a TV commercial in central Java. An overweight middle-aged black woman was fretting about the mosquitoes while frantically waving her hands. A smiling and comely young Javanese lady then told her about an insect repellent. In the next scene the first woman was joyful and waving her hands as much as before. I was struck by this sharp contrast between emotional extremes and control—the latter is considered Javanese. The grace is usually delightful to see but it’s not always carefree, and it can be used to justify the social hierarchy and confirm prejudices against people that are labeled as outsiders.
The shifts between esprit and refinement that I’ve enjoyed watching are thus expected to be done with discretion. The anthropologist Nancy Eberhardt studied Shan villagers in northern Thailand, near the Burmese border, and she noted that parents there sometimes call young children hai. This word in this context means wild and uncontrolled, and it’s sometimes used to describe spirits in the forest. People sometimes use it for a baby’s leg kicking and impulsive grasping for things within arm’s reach. Eberhardt said that parents tolerate this kind of behavior in young children, but they expect them to slowly gain control over their appetites.6 Polite expressions and respectful salutations for elders are thus often among the first words and gestures that children learn. I always enjoyed seeing two-year-olds in Thai temples placing the palms of their hands together and bowing in front of the main altar. Eberhardt said that children who refuse to join their hands to thank an adult for a gift often provoke remarks that they must be from the mountains. I was impressed by the graceful, fluid motions of such young kids as they bowed; Thais learn from an early age that this is one of the main aspects of being human.
So in Southeast Asia, expressions of graceful animation have many levels of meaning. These expressions infuse art, rituals, livelihood, and etiquette, and they combine ideas of personhood, morality, supernatural power, danger, political authority, social hierarchy, beauty, fun, and abundant nature. This mixture cannot be reduced to one image or represented abstractly, but it connects many experiences in a logic that’s uniquely Southeast Asian. It must be lived rather than shoehorned into a formula. It’s experienced in the wealth of lively folk arts, pretty food presentations, infinitely varied flavors, winsome smiles, spirited rituals, floral temple offerings, and graceful Buddha statues. Then there are the soft and cheerful voices, clean and well-behaved children, and elders with soft-spoken dignity. There’s also the competition for social status behind the smiles. The glimmering temples and mosques, singing birds, flowing rivers, pounding monsoons, innumerable shades of green, and all-enveloping tropical sun add even more abundant life. All meld into endless varieties of the flow of nature’s energy, and they allow people limitless ways to enjoy it if social higher-ups don’t victimize them.
On the other hand, many people fear stepping outside of what’s polite and familiar. Most areas outside of Southeast Asia’s biggest cities were sparsely populated before the 20th century (the area around Vietnam’s Red River was an exception). Villages are often cozy but they used to be surrounded by hinterlands which tigers and bandits prowled in. Many folktales reflect centuries of needing to be alert at all times. An old Cambodian story warns people to avoid talking to their spouses in bed at night. The careless husband blabbers and a thief crouching under their stilt home overhears where their jewelry is hidden and scurries off with it.
Many traditional Southeast Asian societies have sharply distinguished what is safe from what’s dangerous. People associate the former with the family (especially Mother, who is often seen as a model of virtue), the temple, and the rice farming community. They envision them within a circle of safety and identify the latter with zones beyond its embrace, particularly the howling forest and mountains. Three people who sent me emails after my 2007 trip (two Cambodians and one Thai) told me that they worry about me because I travel too much. One said, “You should rest at home for a while.”
Violence can erupt in many Southeast Asian countries with astonishing speed and ferocity, and Thailand has had a higher homicide rate than America. Thais often don’t have the room to express wrath that Westerners do. We can sometimes do it gradually—first with a frown or a raised voice, then with a warning, and then with a push. Westerners can do many things to settle arguments without maiming each other. But many Thais lack these ways to express anger because they’ve been taught to avoid conflicts, so they can let emotions build up until they boil over. William J. Klausner, in Reflections on Thai Culture, wrote that he often saw a dramatic leap between a smile and a knife thrust, and that many people gossip and backbite because they only have these indirect outlets for repressed aggression.7 Some people who feel cheated in business or romance use guns to settle the score. Political conflicts in many Southeast Asian countries have sometimes turned deadly. So life in them often alternates between graceful flows which people try to maintain and sudden turmoil.
In 2010 Bangkok became a battleground between the army and protesters against the government, and 1,800 casualties resulted. The cheerful white buildings were suddenly enveloped in black smoke. However, I saw no signs of the violence when I returned in 2012. The lines of street food vendors and crowds of shoppers meshed as smoothly as ever and nobody mentioned the recent past. People stayed in their safe worlds as though they wanted to prevent it from flaring up again.
But violent rallies burst out again in late 2013 and they resulted in over 400 casualties. The demonstrators were accusing the prime minister of corruption and they insisted that she resign. The military ultimately staged a coup and detained hundreds of politicians, journalists, and professors. Many journalists have said that Thai politics became increasingly contentiousness within the last ten years. This problem has been fueled by wide gaps between the rich and poor and by stresses of modern life which have made it harder to uphold the old etiquette and to appreciate the traditional art and rituals.8 Some journalists worry that the country is now politically unstable. It has been more peaceful since the coup, but this might be because the junta has cracked down on demonstrations and suppressed criticism.
Political corruption throughout Southeast Asia makes life trying for many of its people. The journalist Joel Brinkley wrote that many Cambodians must pay bribes for basic schooling and medical care, and that their government’s ringleaders party on in Phnom Penh mansions as big as 60,000 square feet.
In 2012 I met a former teacher in Phnom Penh who said that his ex-colleagues were paid so little that some sold students answers to tests. High school toughs told him, “If you don’t give me a good grade I will hurt you.” He was powerless against students whose dads had political clout, so he left the profession and became a taxi driver.
In a monastery in Vietnam, a teacher invited me into his classroom and asked me to join his students at their desks. They were all males in their late teens. The guy on my left started thumbing through my Lonely Planet guidebook on Vietnam, so I picked up his textbook. Each chapter began with a picture of a political figure, and Ho Chi Minh’s face dignified the first one. I figured that the students were being fed political orthodoxy. A short middle-aged man suddenly barged in and gravely said something to the teacher. The latter immediately told me with a meek smile, “You need to go.” I headed for the door and the Party lackey looked at me with a “What the hell are you doing here?” expression. Vietnam’s government seems to keep a tight rein on what’s taught so nobody will challenge it.
Many Southeast Asian countries are plagued by governments that enforce status quos in which a small percentage of elites lord it over the rest. People underneath often must scratch for livings. This region has a long history of colonial and local regimes exploiting its natural bounty and using their wealth on display items like sprawling villas to project their own prestige instead of diversifying their economies so more people can thrive.
So Southeast Asian societies are complex. Some of the most ravishing beauty in the world and social hierarchies that are often exploitive intertwine in them. Exploring the region has given me many of the most savory moments of my life, and it’s immersed me in some of the most memorable human drama I’ve ever seen.
I often felt as though I was seeing two different realities in all the countries I visited during my 2007 trip. One seemed like paradise and the other was crammed into political systems with narrow mentalities and sharp distinctions between haves and have-nots. This second reality prevents people from finding the first, but the amount of enchantment I saw around the world taught me that the more cultural wealth people discover, the more their perspectives can expand beyond one-dimensional views of humanity that are based on status and money and into a world in which all societies and all people expose each other’s full wealth.
Each chapter in this book will thus open horizons into other ways of seeing the world so that the perspective will be as large as possible before you reach the method in Part Two and the manual in the conclusion. In the first two parts of this book, you will see how Southeast Asia’s little-known cultural wealth can help people think in ways that they are not currently used to. You’ll also tour better-known societies in Europe and explore their histories. By journeying in familiar and less-familiar places and times, you will be able to appreciate any view of the world, and then expand beyond it so you can always ever more enjoyable and creative vistas.
I made this book longer than most in order to fully share my experience of exploring so many places and times through several media, and to show how much potential for creativity and well-being we all have. Since our world is increasingly globalized, this is an optimal time for a big picture of how rewarding our human landscape can become. By exploring an unusual mixture of cultures and temporal periods, we can enhance our abilities to enjoy the world for the rest of our lives. We’ll experience a way to see it that’s not bound to one culture. This book shows, not a mere new perspective, but freedom from any perspective, and the ability to always create bigger views which can deepen happiness. Instead of strictly being servants of one dominant system of ideas, we can realize our full human potential and have an endless love affair with the world.