On hospitality & intercultural friendship

A short trip to Bangkok left some interesting tidbits, memories and reflection.Visiting Bangkok was a last minute decision, especially with the recent bombing incident. For some reasons I still decided to go, and I’m fulfilled with the short trip.

On the second day I got to stay with a friend I haven’t met for 2 years from SEALNet Youth Leadership Summit 2013. I remember him as the super smart Physics student and avid manga fan. I love visiting friends in their families – seeing their house, sharing a meal or going out together – because I could understand my friends in their own environments (plus I seem to have a knack for connecting with parents. A message for all my friends: let me visit you in your house – it will be good for all of us!)

The house was simple. Nothing fancy. The family has a lot of stuff, similar to mine. What first caught my attention was the front wall full of pictures of significant milestones and memories of the family. Many were the children’s achievements, as the two brothers are among the most academically talented people I’ve known. I knew behind such proud moments were lots of struggles and sacrifice from both parents and the boys.

I slept on a sleeping bag, sharing the only air-conditioned room with my friend. His mother woke up early to prepare a huge breakfast, even more than a normal dinner. We talked a lot about their lives, about the history and politics of Thailand and of South East Asia at large. I was impressed by their knowledge and more importantly how much they cared about learning and understanding history and culture. Both parents visited more places in Vietnam than I did, which is a shame. They grew up in turbulent times of Thailand and of the region; the mother was even arrested once for identifying with the Communist party.

His mother shared with me that Vietnam had always been an inspiration for the other countries in ASEAN for our struggles and victories against the French and American. Even though the wars left Vietnam devastated, at least we achieved independence, freedom and stability. Of course the stories are never that simple, and all of us knew that every country has its own problems. Nevertheless, it was nice to hear these thoughts from the perspective of our neighboring Thai friend. Yes, we all have problems, but if we could be a little bit more open to share and listen to each other’s stories, to understand and accept of each other’s past mistakes then there would be fewer harsh judgments and regrettable reactions. Changes at the large level among countries have to start from the individual level between two people.

The solution sounds easy in theory; the question is how well do we do that in practice? I think that is one thing SEALNet has done well – creating an opportunity for genuine friendships from different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and generations. From such friendships come the attitude of openness, understanding and a willingness to learn from one another.

I’ve heard the complaint from adults, especially the grandparents, that the young generations live too comfortably, never learn the value of hard work and forget about the country’s history. I agree partly, but we have to see from the youngster’s perspective. Why and how can I care for something so distant that I don’t experience? How can we expect students to care if most of these so-called “history lessons” were boring propaganda which students had to memorize in class for the sake of getting a good grade?

Since I got to know my Thai, Malaysian or Cambodian friends, I started to care more about their countries, and then when they asked me about Vietnam I felt that I needed to know more about it. We care first about what is closest to our hearts. Maybe it’s the TV drama we all watch or the app youth in each country uses to chat – Viber in Vietnam vs Whatsapp in Malaysia. It may sound silly and trivial, but any kind of personal connection is better than nothing.

Speaking of fostering understanding to overcome inaccurate judgments, let’s talk about a few recurrent  phenomena I’ve observed.

  1. Cynicism: It is easy to get cynical. Worse yet, some cynicism goes so deep that it is simply sad. Could you imagine this thought by a guest visiting someone’s house? “The host family is so nice to me because they want to appear nice in front of guests. Who knows, they may be fighting each other when I’m not there.” Cynics are frustrated idealists. From my experience, they think too much in their head without seeing reality; they cling on to their rosy picture of human nature and inevitably get disappointed or even hurt. Who doesn’t want to appear nice in front of others? Which family doesn’t fight once in a while?Some people, myself included, have been told that we are too trustful, and that we would be taken advantage of. We have to learn to protect ourselves and place our trust on the right people. Good advice with good intention; however as a young, inexperienced and idealistic guy, I’d rather be cheated a few times than lose hope in people. It doesn’t mean I will trust everybody. It’s quite the contrary; I have to be extra careful as I’m going to enter the real world. Yet, the default mindset is still to trust first and then reconsider when things happen instead of not trusting first. I also have to start building and keeping my reputation for my own good, because I’ve made some mistakes over the summer which caused a few people to lose trust in me.
  2. Superiority: it is also easy to feel superior to others, especially those with different backgrounds. “I am a top student. I had a scholarship to study in America. I studied with world-class professors. I speak and write decent English. “They” have none of this, so I can do this work much better than them.” Of course none of us admits that sense of superiority in public because we are decent human beings who don’t judge others on the basis of their backgrounds, yes? But how many of us can swear we don’t have such thought at the back of our minds sometimes? I do, and I’m always humbled whenever I have the chance to work with others not from my usual group of friends. It is the lesson I have to remind myself again and again: People are people. I have to see them for who they are. I can also choose to believe in who they can become.

Throughout the short time stay with my friend, I thought of my mentor’s words about what we try very hard to do at SEALNet: to get people who are different from each other work together so that we can “create conditions for people who are different to find what is common between them.” There are always a lot of stories to share, but for now I hope that people involved in SEALNet in one way or another have realized something important: genuine connection is so good that once we have a taste of it, we raise the bar for our other relationships 😀

Last thought: there is something refreshing and charming around dedicated and unpretentious people. No drama, no fanfare, no trying too hard to get attention or approval. Just nice, warm, caring people. The short visit also helped me put thing in perspective: while I can be worrying about my own future – what kind of work, who will I meet, where I will be – I am reminded again of my priority: no matter what I do, surround myself with people who are bold, caring and willing to learn.

A short stay with a lovely family. Thai food is darn good!

A short stay with a lovely family. Thai food is darn good!

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