Thursday, November 29, 2012

(Travel update): A rudimentary stream-of-consciousness on seeking answers to one's circumstantial issues

Life is not to be wasted; money can be taken away but freedom cannot. 

Just two months into my nervous foray into travelling, I’m already addicted. The crazy ideas need not much ruminating; they’re quickly morphing into hopes and dreams. Fears? A slight, but not so immaterial one – shall I willingly mortgage my future for a life of wanderlust? That’s been weighing down ever since Day 1. And then there are existential issues. Travel is a selfish endeavor, only nourishing one’s soul at great cost to one’s expenses. The vast majority of the impoverished world cannot even afford to leave their home nation, let alone think self-actualized thoughts. How about the risk of loss of limb and life? What will society think after I’ve flunked its expectations? Will I be forever labeled a cop-out, one who couldn’t and wouldn’t buy into the system?

The scales are tipping though. For every morsel of doubt, there’s an even stronger rebuff for taking the risk into the vast and scary world. And so even if misfortune and misdeed should befall me, I’m resolved to live a life not thrown away to conventional wisdoms and expectations. I will then ask, when will the veil of expectation ever end? I may get a failing grade for my twenties scorecard, but I’ll counter that success is relative and in the eye of the beholder. I won’t beseige any who may not share the same views I do, for if power, fame, and wealth are their prerogatives, that’s their free will. I’ve also got enough insecurities as it is to fear for the future. Not fear, but faith.

I am a born optimist. I’ve got faith in what's right, and in the decisions that I've taken. I’ve also done my research and planning and self cross examining, and the verdict remains unturned. I have faith that life will reward patience and character, faith that if I shall stay true to my values and principles, things will turn out just fine, or all right… or at least not the end of the world. And travel? Why, travel is for finding out precisely what my character is, where the gray line is, where the limits of moral endurance will go. Finally, I’ve got faith that I will eventually give back more to society than all of what I took from it.

To be frank, quitting my job was a logical conclusion. Quite simply, my propensity of bullshit at the organizational level was low. I couldn't lie to myself and pander to the politics of the day, not at this age. Perhaps in my cynical middle-age, I may with reluctance enter the world of managing human expectations. I'd rather stay socially young and naive than mature and jaded.

And of course travel is much more, too. Here come the raining clich├ęs - to see and connect with people, to share hugs and laughs and smiles and love, to drink and eat together.  It’s as well the best chance to explore new culture - in literature, in philosophy, in languages, in music, in art, in dance, and in cuisine.

Reading has also naturally come as I pass the time between cities. It’s allowed me to formulate novel yet ridiculous ideas. It’s also allowed me to contemplate and start writing.

So to me success is happiness, that elusive standard to which all men and women can only strive to nearly achieve. It’s about doing little bits of good, just like teachers do, to make small but meaningful impacts in others' lives. Glory can be a vice, for there's no need to seek recognition but in oneself. I’ve got faith that modesty will always be recognized by those that matter most to you. As Thoreau once said, "public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion".

And so in the end, I’m just thankful that I live in a free world. And above all, I’m thankful that I’ve got my personal freedom above all else.

"In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high... It is never too late to give up our prejudices". - Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Room Service"

This is actually a review on my recent dining experience at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan. I was truly inspired to write after eating what was one of the most authentic (read: spicy) Thai dishes in New York. I hope you like it.


Delectable! On a nice, hot Memorial Day's summer evening stroll down Ninth Avenue searching for a classy joint to part our modest monies, we stumbled upon this storied franchise that from the Victorian exterior betrayed a uniqueness from the tens of other Thai restaurants that dot the Hell's Kitchen restaurant scene. Immediately seated for the three of us despite teeming with other guests, our glasses filled, waiter at service, and menus in tow, I perused the options that would satisfy my grumbling belly even though I knew half the dishes by heart. On a side rant, Thai food in America has regrettably commoditized to suit American palates, similar to Chinese-American cuisine and devolving into ethnic fast-food mediocrity. Just the other day I was lamenting the lack of authentic (by definition, spicy) South East Asian eats in Manhattan, when a self-professed foodie and fellow friend claimed that Room Service might sway my mind.

So clearly not interested in the ubiqitous Pad Thai, Pad See Eu, Red/Green/Yellow/Rainbow curries, my weary eyes fell on a page exclaiming "Eat like a Bangkokian". That piqued my interest and raised one eyebrow. And there it was, only the second to top option.

"Pad Noh Mai Entree - original authentic thai-style sauteed shrimp, minced chicken, fresh basil, thai chili and bamboo shoots with herbs, chili paste and garlic sauce" - so here's another Thai chop-shop claiming "original authentic Thai-style" when I didn't need any aggressive and redundant sales pitches. But, wait for it, here's the kicker: "very spicy. this place won't be adjusted to suit American tastes". Sold, on the first try. Blown, by the sheer and refreshing honesty.

My memories from last night are a little hazy, but suffice it to say that there was no shortage of superlatives sputtering out of my mouth in between gulps of water and a concocting explosion of flavors delighting the taste buds with every slow chew. The rice was a perfect complement to the curry base, soaking up the spices and delivering a soft, warm and succulent texture - the plate befitting a beautiful muse to find blissful inspiration from.

"Room Service" was served, and the verdict? A very happy camper indeed. Two years of hunting for no-holds barred, in your face, on your lips, and up your nose spicy South East Asian cuisine, and Room Service has finally delivered a knockout punch. Fortunately and unfortunately, it didn't come down to tears and gasping for air and the nearest available sugar packet. Down, but not out, I guess, I'll live to find another spice-filled adventure. :)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Introspecting to Tranquility, Part I

Our current self is an amalgamation of past ideas, rituals, foods, and landscapes, of past relationships and experiences. And while the future may be abstract and uncertain, the past is concrete and specific in defining us. To grow up in one of the most corrupted and dictatorial regimes more than instilled a few tinges of embarassment everytime I was asked where my origins, as if my parents and the people around me were guilty of failing to rise and seek a fairer future. I blamed the Buddhist culture for fostering a passive and pacifist environment, and I readily embraced the aggressive, meritocratic American attitude.

College (a rich, private one that I was very lucky and grateful to attend) afforded me a few glimpses into the pitfalls of rampant consumerism, but it only represented a semi-supervised controlled environment for immature teenagers like myself to suspend reality for four more years. Only upon settling in New York, the epitome of the polar opposite of my childhood upbringing in Burma did it dawn of my folly ways. To feel sharp ennui and dissatisfaction in both ideologies after experiencing the two extremes, I yearned and gravitated towards the center. I was searching for myself, and I wanted to find my character and virtue. Unsurprisingly, the past one and a half years have yielded only a few truths in my ongoing metamorphosis of thought and worldview.

"Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it." This quote - so oft derided, but yet it is the past that unconsciously imbues the incremental strength and wisdom in all of us. And I have been no exception - the initial 22 years of my existence toiling to brush away the inevitable past. But as I holed up to shield from the wintery sub-zero winds, I was lonely. I was subsisting on peanut butter, falafel and pizza, instead of fried rice with boiled peas and coconut curry noodles. I missed the genuine smiles and warmth, and sick of the conniving politics of capitalism. I was exhausted from the indentured servitude, to sacrifice five days for two precious days, and to have it on repeat ad infinium. Was sprinting on the hedonic treadmill for our next suffocating high truly worth it? Then aren't we just journeying on our own personal Cretan labyrinth of wage and debt slavery, only to face the minotaur, of death in the end?

And now as I approach my quarter century, unshackled from the scrutinizing glare of teenage socialization and free to choose my own niche of interests and ideas, I learned a couple unshakable tenets to my core personality. I am slowly embracing that past.

I love simplicity and efficiency. The two go hand in hand. With a mind prone to logical overanalysis, I'm constantly trying to break life down to its routine constituent parts. In turn, I've adopted a simple diet, and a simple perspective on my health and well-being. Friendship and love are no different. After all, the best things in life don't and shouldn't cost a thing. I aim to minimize the drama and stress, and will avoid and eliminate high-maintenance people and activities.

Simplicity doesn't mean unsophistication.

"... your body goes through puberty in its teens, and the mind goes through puberty in your twenties" - Zach Braff, on Garden State

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Empathy of Travel

When I, or most people think of the word "travel", I also think "vacation". Whether it's to escape from the routine, to introspect one's soul, to engage in shameless debauchery, or to see new lands, travelling renourishes and replenishes the soul. It's to be taken as a happy experience.

Through CouchSurfing, I've had the privilege of meeting a few intense travelers with a neverending wanderlust, one having traversed all seven continents, another motorbiking through Africa a la the Motorcycle Diaries, and another wanting to be Ms. Anthony Bourdain - travelling, eating, taking photos, and of course getting paid.

Many times, travel's also to prove a point. I, for one, can easily fall under that burden. Our personalities and human natures are such that we want to imitate and recreate the experiences that others have felt. So when I hear extraordinary tales and wowing anecdotes, it takes me farther and farther to the extreme of being a serial traveller, to see every possible land and culture, to sample the most outrageous foods, and to one-up their accomplishments.

But that would only be a childish conclusion. Travelling, like any other activity in life, is just an experience, but usually a pleasurable one at that. But it's also a privilege. Many all across the world don't have the werewithal or the circumstance to even travel too far away from their homes. And I think that's something that I will see in the eyes of when I do end up one day in a Mongolian ger, in the mountains in Peru, or even back home in Burma.

And whether it be travelling, or writing, or living in New York, or going through the emotional rollercoaster of love and relationships, I've always come back to the conclusion that in the end, all of us have been given the privilege to experience the gift of life. It may be difficult to envision how the vast impoverished majority all over the world, struggling to calm the growls of their bellies, helpless to their children and loved ones who they cannot help, but instead enlisting for their labor, can possibly pretend that there is any joy to be had in life.

We all accept life as an ecosystem of injustices and conflict. We all have degrees of personal suffering inside us. We may become too caught up and complacent with our contrived complexities of our own lives that we lose our inherent positivity and hope deep within us. We've become accustomed to self-preservation instead of selflessness. And then when we travel, it'll jolt us, splash cold water in our faces, and pop our plastic, man-made bubbles. It'll suspend our cynicism and instead will invoke our deepest empathies. It'll reenergize us to help the poor and weak, to take less and to give more. It'll reaffirm our faith in humanity and in life. It'll remind us of the reason we love the future, and why we dream. Why we hold on to our innocence of youth and the endless possibilities and opportunities that came with it. Why we love. Why we give and share. Because happiness is both a selfish and selfless endeavor - one cannot exist without the other.

So travel. Travel well. Travel well to become a better person.

"You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us"
- Imagine, John Lennon

Saturday, February 25, 2012

To Create More Than To Consume

We live in a consumerist society. Even to fulfill our most basic needs like eating, we are taking from Mother Nature. All the activities that we partake in are in one way or another some form of consumption. If I read a book, I am consuming what an author created. If I listen to music, I am consuming what a musician created. If I breathe, I am consuming the oxygen that Mother Nature gave us. If I think, I am consuming what life created in me - to contemplate and to reason.

What is experience? I believe that you must consume before you can create. You must take a raw material and then transform it into a finished product. In order to make music, I must know, understand, and appreciate music that's already been created. In order to make art, I must see first what is beautiful. In order to write well, I must read a lot (it's also what my teachers always used to tell me). By reading a lot, I get an appreciation for the different styles of writing, consuming the experiences and thoughts of what the author had to offer.

A big part of my own personal pursuit of eudaimonia (Greek: happiness, well-being) is to figure out my primary occupation and interests. And quite frankly, they've changed in my life. I used to want to become a scientist. And then I wanted to become a computer technolgist. Then it was business. And now, today, I want to write. And it's because my worldviews have changed since I was a kid, and my inspirations and hopes have changed too. But if we must all contribute something in order to make a living (and live well), it came to me this week that I must pursue something that makes me happy, as cliche as it sounds. But that's because it's the only truthful answer. I've always been a relatively decent writer, and I also love reading. Writing, to me, is a creative endeavor that shows insight into a person's soul. Good writing exposes the writer for who he really is. And it's also very cathartic.

If there is a noble pursuit in life, it is to pursue a creative occupation. To create and connect words together to form ideas, and to bring imagination and thought and what's intangible inside my head and transform it into articulate prose. If nothing else, my writing is a small creation of my own personal thoughts that only I will consume. And I hope that in a year's time I will become a better writer. This is but a small step towards giving back more to society, the environment, and the world than what I've already taken from it.

And I hope that if others are willing to listen to what I have to say, I can offer them the simple thoughts of a simple person pursuing happiness and well-being in life, just like everyone else.

Further reading: How I Write, by Paulo Coelho -