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… SE Asia and Tohoku, Japan: Everything is Relative

December 19, 2011

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(Still trying to catch up with posts from my recent travels!)

This will be my last post from Asia this year.  I say Asia, because I’m in Tokyo, but I just returned from a 2 week trip to Hanoi (Vietnam), Luang Prabang (Laos), and Siem Reap (Cambodia).  I hit a tightly edited sightseeing circuit, and also got off, off, off the beaten path in Laos.  There, I got to meet quite a few locals and see their everyday life.  This gave me yet another new layer of perspective to the world, and the concept, “Everything is relative,” became a recurring theme.

I had many conversations with SE Asians about the disaster in Japan, and my perspective changed slightly as I saw it from their point of view.  Everyone had seen the horrific scenes on the news and gave their sincere well-wishes for the people of Tohoku, but the topic of conversation would eventually turn to the state of living in their own country, pointing out that the Japanese victims still had a place to live, received money and supplies from the government and other organizations, and the children still could go to school for free.  These things are not givens in SE Asia.  The concept of “everything is relative” for these people in developing countries meant that it was hard for them to sympathize too deeply for Japan when their own lives were normally even more destitute and disastrous.

But a simple life of poverty didn’t seem so miserable – in fact, the SE Asians I met seemed happier than most Americans.  I was walking around Luang Prabang when I heard enthusiastic cheering and laughter.  As I approached a group of children, I stopped to watch their game that was the cause of so much excitement.  There was a crumpled piece of paper for a target tossed far from the group.  Then, each child would remove one slipper or shoe, aim for the target, and try to hit or move it farther away (perhaps a version of the French game of pétanque, a vestige of French Indochina?).  When a child hit the target, the whole group would erupt with screams and cheers.  That was it.  Fascinated by the simple game that was so endlessly engrossing for the kids, I stayed to watch them for several rounds before continuing on my walk.  Over an hour later, I passed by them again and they were still at it, still holding their stomachs from laughing so hard.

I’m not sure this scene happens so often in America or Japan anymore.  Simple outdoor fun and games have been replaced with Nintendo, PlayStation, and Angry Birds, and kids seem to bore so quickly and easily of even these.  I attended a meeting at CRASH Japan headquarters where a volunteer reported that disaster victims were requesting the relief organization purchase new Wii game consoles for survivor families (it was vetoed).  Even the games kids around the world play and find entertaining – everything is relative.

Another example: clothes.  I saw so many children in SE Asia with tattered clothes, some boys with no pants, and many without shoes.  When we visited a remote mountain village, I asked my guide, Vath, if clothing donations would be welcomed.  He eagerly nodded his head, saying that anything we wanted to donate would be appreciated.  These people had nothing, so from their perspective, anything would be acceptable, welcomed and appreciated.

In the U.S. or Japan, however, if you handed the average person, me included, a used article of clothing, anything would probably NOT be acceptable.  I know someone who used to manage all the Goodwill shops in Hawaii.  She told me that some clothing donations are not in good enough condition for sale here (even for a few dollars), and they ship these clothes by the container-full to developing countries.  Many Americans would prefer not to wear something used.  In Japan this year, relief organizations were accepting only new clothes for the Japanese victims, and I saw piles of lovingly donated used clothes languishing in warehouses.  Even when choosing new clothes, we in the developed world scrutinize for size, color, and style.  I can’t imagine a Laotian child holding up a donated dress and asking, “Does this make me look fat?”  Everything is relative.

Amongst the Japanese, disaster victims compared themselves with others by their varying degrees of loss.  Many times, I heard a survivor point out that their loss was more/less than another’s, and thus feel more/less grateful or pitiful:  I lost my house, but that man lost his wife…  He lives in temporary housing just like me, but he still has his job while I can barely pay my electric bill…  We are struggling here, but at least we don’t have threat of radiation like in Fukushima…  “Everything is relative” even in Tohoku, but there is still too much loss all around, even at the “lowest” levels.  And, the sad fact that even a Japanese disaster victim’s lifestyle seems abundant to a SE Asian means that there is too much poverty in too much of the world.  My experiences in Japan and my many travels this year – especially to developing countries – will become a major marker in my life.  I will no doubt measure future endeavors and opportunities against what I have seen and experienced this year.

The BEST holidays

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