Following find some impressionistic images related to a couple of my own recent multicultural flashbacks reminding me that East and West are just opposite sides of a coin, that we’re all in this together, and that the Wheel of Life always keeps on turning...
Any Westerner living and working in Asia is faced with major psychological and social adjustments and occasional moments of cognitive dissonance. Some are better equipped to deal with these experiences than others, some thrive in multicultural settings, others struggle mightily, and some are unable to make the necessary cultural segues and head back home at the earliest opportunity.
At a certain phase in the human life cycle (think middle age), some Westerners who have spent years in Asia reach a point where they have made the necessary accommodations to consider wherever they happen to be home. But that doesn't mean they can avoid occasionally looking back wistfully at what they left behind - the German businessman in Hong Kong who misses the bierhaus of his youth, the British journo hanging out in Bangkok at a Soi Cowboy red light joint recalling fading images of mods and rockers fighting it out in Brighton, or the Yankee management consultant gazing out the picture window of a 31st floor boardroom at the smoggy Makati skyline while waiting for a big presentation, but doing a little deep breathing and flashing back briefly to an orange sunshine afternoon spent skinny dipping in a mountain lake three decades earlier - are all illustrative of the syndrome.
Previous Pearls have dealt with multicultural issues, some covering practical issues (Filipino Business Norms and Etiquette), some offering quasi-academic interpretations (Icebergs and Rorschach Blots, Strange Brew: The Yankee-Filipino Rojak), and some with a downright existential flavor (Modern Manila and Expat Angst).
Having previously mined those veins, not wanting to be repetitious, and being cognizant of the need to maintain a certain randomness to these Pearls - not to mention wanting to keep my readers guessing about what that crazy Americano in Manila might come up with next - following find some impressionistic images related to a couple of my own recent multicultural flashbacks.
Perchance why not start with a wistful remembrance of past generations and a simpler world in the Occident, followed by some events that happened 30 years ago in the Orient, followed by some random ruminations about east meeting west and everything coming full circle?
In the late 1800s, several of those hillbilly families built cabins in the I-Call Holler, so-called because of the magnificent echoes that could be heard if you stood at the entrance and yelled. The settlers continued to live the simple life of their forebears, wrestling a living out of the land, which was far too hilly for large-scale agriculture; the only really arable plots were carved out of the flat spots on top of the hills and the little valleys in between one hill and another - the hollers.
Each family was for all intents and purposes a self-sufficient unit; about the only storebought things needed were sugar, flour, coffee, and tea. They took their corn down the road to the mill in a rickety wagon pulled by an old mule; it was ground up into cornmeal that went right back home into the pantry. They grew hay to feed their draft horses and milk cows. The milk was churned into butter and made into cottage cheese, with the leftover butterfat transformed into the buttermilk the kids loved so much.
And my oh my what a lot of things they could do with a pig! A butchered hog yielded slabs of bacon, ham, sausage, and pickled meat, not to mention lard cooked up from the skin in a big cast iron pot. The smokehouse was always chock full of hanging meat of one kind or another. The chickens running around the yard provided a year-round source of eggs; of course you'd kill one every once in a while for a fancy Sunday dinner. The womenfolk dried peaches and apples and made their own jams and jellies from wild huckleberries, blackberries, and raspberries. Out in the garden they grew potatoes, turnips, cabbage, parsnips, and carrots to feed the family.
Grandpa was one of those one-mule farmers, with six kids born in a ramshackle cabin nestled way up in I-Call Holler. Known as "Ginseng" throughout his life, Grandpa had a third grade education and tremendous grit. He survived the Great Depression largely by diggin' 'seng (with a hand-made implement known as a 'seng hoe), supplemented by certain activities frowned upon by the revenuers (it was Prohibition and the Scotch-Irish brought with them their distilling skills).
As a child, I was privileged to go mushroom and ginseng hunting with Grandpa Ginseng a few times - even at 70 his woodsmanship and hillbilly knowhow were a wonder. Some of my treasured childhood memories involve tromping through the woods with Grandpa, hunting for that elusive medicinal root. He had a way of knowing when he was nearing a patch of ginseng, part of his being tuned in to the earth and the woods.
Morel mushrooms were hard enough to find, but I usually managed to pick a few of those mouth-watering mycological morsels (the standard hillbilly recipe calls for dredging the morels in flour, frying 'em in lard, then putting 'em in between two slices of Wonder Bread - Wolfgang Puck would be appalled). But 'seng is almost impossible for the uninitiated to find. All it is on top of the ground is just a little sprout that looks more or less like all the other little plants. But Grandpa used his 'seng radar to precisely zero in on a plant, then got down on his hands and knees and gently checked it to make sure it was mature enough to harvest before digging out the root and stowing it carefully in his bag.
The next morning he'd lay the diggings out on the ground to dry, then package the mess up and mail it off to a medical supply house in Cincinnati where the roots were repackaged and shipped away to China to be eagerly consumed as a cure-all by millions of eager customers. The American health food craze did not yet exist and the market was on the other side of the earth.
By the 1950s most of the one-mule farmers had given up on that harsh rural lifestyle, moving on to factory jobs in nearby industrial towns, doing their part in the fight against Hitler and fleeing the depression. The folks who didn't leave the farms during the War did so as soon as they could, finally abandoning the difficult task of making a living on an acre on a flat hilltop here and an acre down in a holler over there. It just wasn't worth it, especially when you could move 30 miles away and land a union job in a factory that paid you a regular check every week, enough to buy shoes for your kids when they needed them.
In the late sixties, the government carved a manmade lake out of the hills to provide water to Hoosier towns, in the process creating a recreational attraction known for water skiing, fishing, and beautiful scenery. The old home place in I-Call Holler now lies in a bog in an inlet; it can only be reached in a boat, wearing hip waders and employing a great deal of persistence. The old cabins are rotted away, as irretrievable as the simple lifestyle and values of the hillbilly families who lived in them for generations.
I first encountered Asia during the early 1970s when I found myself in Eastern Thailand directing bomb runs into Cambodia and Vietnam. I had enlisted in the US Air Force to avoid getting drafted to be a grunt, agreeing with Muhammed Ali that none of them Viet Cong had ever done me no harm. Ironically, I soon found myself doing the same killing job by remote control, more efficiently and in larger quantity than I ever would've toting an M-16, eerie precursor to the smart bombs and high tech armamentarium of the Afghanistan post-9/11 age.
I didn't much like the high-stress situation, to say the least. Only a year before I had been marching in anti-war protests with hair a-flying and had significant conscientious objections to the task at hand. One of my coping mechanisms was voluminous reading, reading dominated by Eastern religion and western interpreters thereof (Alan Watts, the Bhaghavad-Gita, the Lotus Sutra, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Andrew Weil's Natural Mind, ad infinitum). Only problem was those books told me in no uncertain terms that what I was doing was absurd and downright wrong.
Another important coping mechanism - one that taught me a great deal about Asian ways of thinking and that planted the seeds of my lifelong infatuation with all things Oriental - was an odd friendship with Old Sam, a diminutive Thai fellow with a goatee who dropped by my hootch regularly to keep me supplied with ... well, never mind.
More importantly, Sam also became my ad hoc, all-purpose, handy-dandy guru. Not quite sure how it happened, although it was obviously meant to be. Our invariant routine: As soon as Sam entered the hootch I lit a candle and some incense and got out my extra meditation pillow. We took up sitting positions across from one another, the candle burning in between providing a useful focus of meditative attention.
Sam taught me about the Wheel of Life showing the three basic forms of samsára, about the way ignorance, greed, and hatred spin furiously around each other, biting one another's tail, three poisons which nonetheless propel the wheel ever onward towards rebirth, and about the First Noble Truth that all is suffering one way or another. I learned how to focus on the natural and spontaneous flow of in-and-out breathing, not trying to control it, but just being mindful of it, although the lesson was not without sweat and blood.
Sam had the uncanny ability to drop by just when it was time to meditate. I worked long hours, with unpredictable shifts rotating on a dizzying basis, sometimes working all night, sometimes all day. But even though I never told Sam what shift I was on or when I slept, he always timed his visits perfectly to arrive just at the moment I was thinking about meditating. At first I thought he had somebody watching me, but after a while I concluded that Sam's visits were part of some broader cosmic scheme and stopped worrying about it.
Sometimes, instead of meditating, we talked of more mundane matters. Sam often brought me handmade curry puffs, spicy-hot pastries; they were reserved for an informal meal after our meditation session was over. As we sat there eating the pastries we made small talk, sharing experiences from opposite sides of the world and contradictory cultural traditions. Sam told me some things about his family and the village where he had been born. I tried to tell him about my life as a hippie before being in the military.
"What's a hippie?" he asked.
It took me a while to explain that one.
Later, on my way back to the world (i.e., the states), I had a few days R&R in Bangkok. The first thing I did - believe it or not, even before hitting the red light joints on Patpong Road - was to find my way to the Wat Phra Keo, the home of the Emerald Buddha Sam had told me about. I spent a lost afternoon meditating and staring at Buddha sitting on his Lotus Throne, a mysterious half-smile on his face, wondering about human mortality, the strange contradictions we all face, and the ironies of life.
Sequelae/tying up loose end: For the reader's interest, I somehow made it through the rest of my 4-year military sentence, and went on to bigger and better (?) things. I used the GI Bill to get myself way over-educated, much of that education having to do with economic and political development, Southeast Asian history and politics, and other such esoterica. Probably had something to do with guilt and karma.
I also managed to have a number of blazing affairs with Asian women of diverse nationalities, but that's another story and one my wife would rather I not spread all over the web.
When I came to the Philippines as a USAID consultant in '82, I promptly met and married a Filipina from an old hacendero family from Negros; I believe the story of our whirlwind affair and courtship has been recounted elsewhere (see Blackjack Filipino Style). During 15 years in Los Angeles, I was extensively involved in things Filipino, including working with small-scale Fil-Am businesses and informally working with certain representatives of the Philippine government to woo US investors interested in helping rebuild the country during the first year or so of FVR's administration.
I am now an immigrant here and have spent the last four years getting established in the trenches of the Makati business world and building my consulting business brick-by-brick. I am finally focusing on my core competencies, which center on e-business strategies, CRM, and the Philippines' rapidly growing call center industry. And I continue to invest significant time and energy nurturing relationships and building strategic partnerships, the things an astute Western businessman has to do to succeed in Asia. There are some signs I may even be succeeding.
It is ironic, perhaps, that I ended up so involved with the Philippines despite the fact that my earlier Asian infatuations were filtered through a Buddhist lens. As I have argued elsewhere, the Philippines' unique blend of indigenous, Chinese, Spanish, and American influences makes it much different than its neighbors in the region. But that's what makes it interesting, if sometimes frustrating. The complex juxtaposition of East and West creates a nuanced tension that can be simultaneously challenging, depressing, exhilarating, and rewarding.
Although, like the ex-pats mentioned above in my intro, I occasionally wonder what happened to the last three decades, I don't for a second regret the path I have chosen. I for one really can't go home again, the culture shock would be too extreme. Anyway, I figure the hillbilly resilience I inherited from Grandpa Ginseng and the Zen wisdom instilled in my unconscious mind by Old Sam give me the Orient-Occident tools I need to cope with whatever obstacles might come my way.