I did not post yesterday. It is Monday now, and I am bone-tired exhausted after not enough sleep last night. But this is how I felt yesterday.
I did not post yesterday. It is Monday now, and I am bone-tired exhausted after not enough sleep last night. But this is how I felt yesterday.
I’m not sure how to write this without upsetting people, so I will endeavour to keep this short.
I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to hearing the word “they” tossed around. In this context, I mean “they” as in “others” —- as in not “us” (whoever “we” are). I mean, I’ve always been sensitive to this. But I’m becoming even more sensitive. I’m not sure why. Perhaps this is a natural course of having lived 12 years in places that aren’t one’s culture of origin. Here are some examples I’ve heard recently:
None of these sentences is inherently bad, on its own. But each has a subtext that implies that “I” — or “we” — know better than “they” do. It’s particularly irksome when the antecedent in that sentence has not been identified, or when there isn’t one. I’m very troubled by this trend of using “they,” particularly as
I know sometimes it’s innocent. Sometimes it’s just us trying to make sense of our surroundings. But other times it’s because — often without realizing it — we are imposing our own sense of things — onto another culture, assuming and expecting that that other culture will “get it” and eventually figure out that “our” way of doing things is best.
I understand. I know that it’s natural to compare things to what one is used to. And that’s okay — really, it is. As long as it’s done in a respectful manner, I have no problem with it. But for a start, can we get rid of the word “they” in our sentence and replace it with the person/place/thing you’re really talking about? Can we get rid of the word “they” to expose what it is you’re really saying?
My next step is to find a way to subtly ask people that very thing: “Who is ‘they’? Who are you referring to when you say that?”
And if the answer is “Singaporeans” or some other group that lends itself neatly to a stereotyped “other,” you can bet I’m going to push back even more.
Today’s truth: There is no “they.” Just different shades of “we.”
I saw SRT’s production of Othello tonight, as part of Shakespeare in the park. It was good; better that I had expected, considering that last year I had been rather disappointed by the production of my favorite play, Twelfth Night.
The last live production of Othello that I saw was directed by the controversial Peter Sellars, and starred Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago. It had a simple but very technologically advanced set design, a stellar cast, and a rapt audience. My only complaint about that production was I felt Sellars hadn’t cut enough lines. It was long; in fact he had hardly cut anything.
Tonight’s production was more modern in terms of the script (read: lots of cut lines) but had a more traditional Iago. Guthrie’s Iago is the stock “bad guy” villain, conniving and motivated by selfish external accolades and pride. His asides to the audience are statements, not musings. He has little internal conflict about betraying Othello. He is, to the audience, overtly evil.
Sellars’ Iago was different. Hoffman as Iago was subtle. He mulled things over. His plan seemed to come together over multiple conversations and drinks, rather than hatched in one instant and executed the next. Sellars’ Iago was, even to the audience, subversively evil. There were times when we were not sure if he realized how evil he was being, as opposed to Guthrie’s Iago who may have well just loudly shouted, “I AM EVIL!” at tht top of his lungs — it was that obvious. Whereas Sellars’ Iago was just a man… A man who thought and talked a lot and a good portion of that time he said things that you might construe as evil. But he never really came out and said it. Nor did his body language, or his tone. It wasn’t until you were well into Act 3 when you realized, “Oh wow, this man might be deliberately evil.” Up until that point, Iago was almost accidentally evil — even things like planting Desdemona’s handkerchief were mere ideas for an experiment to him rather than pre-meditated tasks set out to destroy a man. He felt like a human that had just, over time, gone wrong.
Sometimes I wonder this about the people — and organizations — that I deal with who do seem evil on some level. I had to deal with one such situation today, which was fresh in my mind as I thought about the two different Iagos. Do they — these people and organizations — plan to be evil? Do they sit and sort out events and plots? Or are they haphazardly and accidentally evil? Did they become evil because of jealousy and pride? Did it happen over time, this erosion of values? Or is it so above-ground that they are clear and upfront about their intent to exploit others?
And the most important question: which is worse? The outright and obvious evil? Or the hidden and accidental evil?
Or does it matter?
(3000 AllStaff emails about a topic not relevant to me)x + 8 standardized test supervision duties = (20 hours spent dealing with a software program that doesn’t work, only to lose all data) + (10 hours learning new software) – (6 straight days of report-writing)x
Find the value of x.
Hanoi is a special place.
If you’ve been there, you know this. If you’ve lived there, you more than know it — you probably find there are parts of your life, week, day where you feel like your mind is still there.
I could write a dissertation and a half on why Hanoi is special. Maybe one day I will. I could also write a few separate chapters on why I left. Note: there is little overlap between the two sets of reasons. There would be no Venn Diagram.
Because Hanoi is so special — so unique, so unusual, so distinct — it has a habit of connecting people who have lived there at one time or another. I tend to think this is because there are many shared reasons behind why or how people end up in Hanoi to begin with.
Few foreigners are in Hanoi to make millions. Few foreigners are in Hanoi because their multinational company sent them there on an executive management post. Few foreigners are in Hanoi to capitalize on real estate. Few foreigners are in Hanoi to facilitate a new oil/gas drill site.
That’s not to say there aren’t any foreigners in Hanoi doing the above things — there are. There just aren’t very many.
What this means is that there is a certain unifying “je ne sais quoi” element that brings the (very diverse) ex-pat community together in Hanoi. And this unifying element connects people even well after they’ve left. It connects them to each other and to Hanoi itself. I used to think it was just parallel nostalgia. But I now think it’s more.
I met up tonight with a friend who is visiting from Manila. She and I both lived in Hanoi, and at the same time, too. However, we weren’t really friends while we lived in Hanoi. I mean, we knew each other and we were often at social events and spoke kindly to each other, and we were friendly, but I wouldn’t say we were friends. However, a series of events after I left Hanoi and while she was leaving Hanoi — facilitated by our mutual friends — led to us to become fairly natural post-Hanoi friends.
And so now it feels normal to hang out in Singapore when she is visiting — and curiously, not talk about Hanoi very much at all. I mean, it is there, lingering in the background like an old family painting you’ve gotten used to having on the wall. But it’s not actively part of the conversation. Tonight we talked about fitness, politics, our jobs, psychology, current events, and family. Our conversation was very much reminiscent of that same-mindedness I wrote about earlier. I will actually go so far as to assert that Hanoi brings that same-mindedness together. It is the connection. Those shared reasons for being in Hanoi often translate to an ideology — however above/below the surface it might be for each individual — which binds the expat community there… even long after they’ve left.
“I can honestly see how you lived here for three years and how others never leave here.”
This quote was said to me tonight by a friend from high school who is visiting Hanoi right now. He has been there 5 weeks. When we first chatted, he had arrived in Hanoi the night before and was astonished that I had lived there for so long. He called me “the true adventurer,” which I found amusing, because I am now so accustomed to living in “other” places that it’s not as much adventure as it just is My Regular Life.
But now, after 5 weeks… he gets it. He is lucky. It took me 5 months. 🙂
I’m one of those “everything happens for a reason” people. It helps me make sense of the world, even if it isn’t true. I’m okay with that, especially after having read this fab book about the psychology of belief.
And yes, it’s true — I do think that most of the time you don’t know the reason something’s happening while it’s happening. Often it takes years — or maybe even a lifetime — to make sense of an event, feeling, or circumstance.
Well, I think The Boot (and its predecessor, The-Painful-Wrist-That-Turned-Out-To-Be-Broken-Arm) have happened to me for a reason — one I knew from the moment the fracture was discovered but have had a hard time articulating because it’s been difficult to admit to myself. That reason is to kick me in the pants and get me serious about exercise and health.
And here is the funny thing — well, a few funny things. I miss exercise. I never in my life thought I’d say that, but damn …it is true true true. I said similar things when I sprained my ankle (yes, the same foot) in 2010, but that was more about me just getting from Point A to B while living in NYC. It wasn’t about movement beyond the necessary.
This is different.
Now, not only do I miss walking — which is really what I missed with the 2010 injury — but I also miss other things. I miss running — yes, it’s true. Not because I enjoy the actual act of running (I don’t… yet), but because I miss being outside and watching the sunset and the turtles in the reservoir and the squirrels and the lizards on the path. I miss running — and walking — through my neighbourhood to see “the regulars” sitting in the park or on the HDB void deck. I miss lifting weights in the gym — not because I like the cooped-up feeling of the gym, but because knowing I can lift weights makes me feel stronger and more capable. I miss going to yoga classes — trying new poses and challenging myself to strengthen muscles I had forgotten about, and balancing my body in ways I hadn’t thought possible.
I miss moving.
So here it is. I resolve that once I have 100% movement back in this injured limb, I will fully commit myself to a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise. It’s clear that I cannot do without it. And, well… my bones certainly can’t.
I don’t have dates on these yet. I’m not sure I need to… yet. I just needed to write down what I intend to do. It makes it more real. I want to get out of The Boot so badly! It’s driving me nuts. I want to move again. Two recent fractures have frightened me a bit — and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps that’s the reason they happened.
I’ve never been good at commitment, but it looks like fear (of falling, of breaking something, of dying, of pain) is a good motivator.
This image says so much. I can’t imagine what he is going through, and has been through. I can’t imagine what his friends and colleagues have been through.
… which leads me to this other thing.
I can’t imagine.
I mean, I can.
But… I can’t know.
This is important.
I’ve been seeing some rather judgmental and presumptuous things being said about Qatar Academy (QA) and Qatar Foundation. I’ve been seeing these on the Facebook group, as comments on status updates the lovely group organizers are posting. And I’ve also seen them as nah-hah-asty comments on the International Schools Review blog, which I won’t even grant with a link because I think it’s where humanity goes to lose its soul.
I said in my last post that I suspected QA did all it could. I suspect this because I know educators there — great, caring, and compassionate educators — who would really struggle knowing that QA did not do all it could. Some of those educators hold stand-up positions and it would be beyond their conscience to do anything less. Yes, I could be wrong. It could be, in fact, that QA was horrible to Dorje and treated him like crap, offered him nothing and kicked him out the door with nary a word. And I’ll be very ready to come back here and say, “ehhh, I was wrong.” But here’s the thing:
Okay, that’s two things, but you get my point. WE DON’T KNOW what went on behind the scenes. WE MIGHT NEVER KNOW. And we have to be okay with that.
Because it’s not our story.
It’s Dorje’s story.
(And the story of the other people involved directly with his story. But it’s definitely not our story.)
It’s someone else’s story.
We don’t get to decide what to do with that story. HE does! Or they do. I know — I get overzealous about sharing information and stories too; we all do. I nearly told the world about my nephew’s birth before his parents did — I could hardly contain myself, I was so excited. (Thanks to my mum for the reminder!) But when it comes to life-changing events — whether it’s Dorje’s imprisonment or my nephew’s birth — it’s important to let the people involved tell the story.
Because well… we’re not in it. We were on the side, cheering, praying, writing, talking, hoping. We are part of the epilogue, the acknowledgments on the last page before the author profile. But we don’t know what happened, really.
And that is okay.
Not knowing is okay. Not knowing does not grant us unequivocal permission to assume we know what QA or QF did for this man. Not knowing does not permit us to make up stories.
Further: All this bad-mouthing of QA and QF does nothing to help Dorje, and that’s ummmm… kindasortaREALLY what this whole thing was about in the first place.
The condemnation of Qatar’s government and justice system, however, is another topic up for debate. I strongly suspect those two bits had far more to do with Dorje’s dismissal and imprisonment than his employer. But I’m not really ready to open that can o’ worms.
And again… it’s not my story.
I have written about gratitude before. And, well, I’m writing about it again.
Today, I’m grateful for…
She gives you a big big big hug and squeezes you tight and tells you she is so glad you are here. She introduces you to everyone you don’t already know, then sits with you to ask you a very specific question about your job.
This is not a general moment. She is not a general woman. This is not a general moment.
She gives you another big big big hug and kisses you broadly on the cheek and makes sure you are comfortable before she flits off to the opposite corner of the room. There, another friend is holding out a tray for her — an entire tray of tequila shots. She takes one, as do each of her friends in that corner. Clucking ensues as each friend ensures she has a shot.
Shrieks of laughter.
Suddenly the music is louder, much louder. She is still laughing, yet you can hear it over the techno track. That techo track that has been mixed with the Beastie Boys which you’re sure no one else in the room is noticing.
She is still laughing, which makes you laugh. You see her stumble and lean on the wall for support.
And now it is that moment when you know you have to go. The dry ice smoke has been released. She is laughing uncontrollably and her friends are already ordering the next round of tequila.
If you don’t leave now, you will be stuck in the tequila-induced mayhem of dance-floor wedge shoes and bad hip-hop remixes.
You help her hold on to the wall while you say goodbye. She is not as far gone as you thought. She follows up on your response to that very specific question earlier about your job; this is not a woman to be taken lightly. You smile, maybe even laugh, and respond to her with an invitation to get together the next opportunity that arises. She agrees but vocalizes that you haven’t answered her question.
Damn, she is smart.
You make a date. She grabs the wall again and as you sing along to the Beastie Boys (the track that no one else knows the words to in this town), you know you will have to send her an email tomorrow because she will not remember this.
But she is The Sweetest Thing. And you are relishing in this moment.
I’ve been posting a lot about the case of Dorje Gurung on Facebook.
The news came to me by way of a friend who, like me, used to work at Qatar Academy. Neither of us work there now, and haven’t for quite some time. Neither of us know Dorje at all. Both of us were astonished by what had reportedly happened. Many people are.
I imagine if I had never lived or worked in Qatar, I would be even more astonished. However, I can honestly say that although I was astonished and deeply troubled upon reading the news items — and the accompanying commentary on Facebook — I wasn’t terribly surprised. You see, in the three years that I lived there, I knew of others that had met similar fates. These are not just urban legends from the desert: they are real stories of real people.
Qatar’s government is not an oppressive one, for the most part. It is an emirate, which essentially means it is a monarchy; there is a legislative assembly which is meant to be partially elected, but there haven’t truly been any elections in a long time. I am not a politician nor an expert in world affairs, but I would call Qatar a benevolent constitutional (but not entirely democratic) monarchy. It’s not an entirely “free” country by western, democratic standards, but it’s not on lockdown either. Despite what you might see in the media, foreigners are relatively free to live their lives in Qatar the same as they might elsewhere, so long as their lifestyle doesn’t offend Islam. This duality exists in many other aspects of culture in Qatar, and many expats find that the longer they live there, the more they become subconsciously comfortable with it. Others find this sub/culture divide too wide, and leave soon after arriving, believing — however (in)accurately — that they have more freedom in other countries.
I would argue that there is no truly “free” nation. No, not even the United States. I find that those who feel the most “free” tend to be those who come from a place of privilege. They often don’t realize they have that privilege, but recognize that when they’re in Country X they can “do whatever they like.” They often are often not reflective enough to realize that yes, they can “do whatever they like” but that often others (female/aboriginal/trans-gender/divorced/elderly/poor/fill-in-your-marginalized-group-here) cannot. When you start to look at the world this way, you start to realize that there is no truly “free” place on earth. Well, not yet, anyway.
I identify with Dorje, this man I’ve never met, because I know it could have been me. It could have been any of us — except those with privilege in Qatar. And the “those with privilege in Qatar” category is quite narrow. Foreigners — especially those with brown skin who aren’t Arab — do not have privilege in Qatar. White foreigners have marginally more privilege, though it depends on context.
Here is what I suspect has happened. Please note — this is purely my speculation, and is based on nothing more than hunches and my own experience, having witnessed (on one occasion) and heard of similar stories. What follows is entirely my imagined narrative. None of what follows is fact.
From what I’ve heard from people who know Dorje personally, he sounds like a very balanced and laid-back man, dedicated to his role as an educator and committed to helping his students become better people. Indeed, this is the picture I get from his blog and various sites also.
Looking at the timeline, I suspect that this conversation he had with the students who were harassing him became more personal — for both him and the students — when they harassed him in the cafeteria. I suspect the students took his comment — whereby he was trying to elicit some empathy from them — so personally that they bypassed the school administration and went straight to their Very Influential Parents. I suspect that these students completely misunderstood Mr. Gurung’s remark, and used his comment as bait, which they duly took. I suspect they were looking for an opportunity to demonstrate who has privilege in Qatar, and as an opportunity to remind Mr. Gurung that he does not have privilege. I suspect Dorje did not realize that the incident would be taken farther because his intent was honest and pure and because he did not insult Islam. (I suspect Dorje has great respect for Islam.) I suspect those students had already gotten the legal ball rolling before Dorje had a chance to tell his side of the story to school management. I suspect that by the time school management got wind of it, they knew it was beyond their control because it had already gone to the Very Influential Parents. I suspect school management asked him for his side of the story so that it looked like they had carried out due process, because they knew their hands were tied. I suspect they told all of this to Dorje honestly and earnestly, and told him that there were some things in Qatar that were just so powerful that They Could Not Touch, especially considering that HH Sheikha Moza was the school’s founder. I suspect the school management told him that they wanted to help him, but that they couldn’t, because this was one of the Things They Could Not Touch. I suspect they offered to fire him so that he could leave the country immediately because they knew that if he stayed and charges were pressed, things would be much, much more difficult. I suspect the only mistake Dorje made was to not get out of the country soon enough.
As I mentioned, I know of a few people who have been in situations similar to this. I will not mention names. I witnessed one of those situations. That person was a colleague. The other situations I heard about from those who witnessed them. In all cases, the people who tried to be right — even when they WERE right — lost. The people who left — whether they were actually right or not — won.
Please note: I am not implying that all foreigners who are arrested in Qatar are wrongly accused. Far from it, because I also know of situations where foreigners did horribly wrong things — drugs, alcohol, violence, abuse — and were justifiably prosecuted (those who “lost”), or left the country (those who “won”). Those who have done those horribly wrong things — foreign or not — and have not been prosecuted tend to be those with privilege.
This is a truth in many, many nations. Take a moment to reflect on that.
The difference between the other situations I know of or witnessed in Qatar and this one is that now, Qatar is on the world stage. Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup — a bid which I publicly supported, because I want Qatar to do well. I believe Qatar can do well. I want Qatar to move forward.
But events like this don’t help.
(HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, are you listening? I know you are a good person and leader. I’ve met you, your sons and daughters, and many more of your family members. I know you know what is right and good and just; your family is testament to this.)
My friends and colleagues who currently work at Qatar Academy have been unusually silent since this incident occurred. I suspect they have been issued a gag order of some kind. I say this because many of them are not the kind to keep silent. They are compassionate, caring educators, many with specific interests in social justice. They are all IB teachers (PYP, MYP, and DP), which means they uphold the values embedded within the IB Mission Statement. They probably want to speak out, but cannot for fear of losing their jobs. They probably also wish their school could do more for Dorje, and I suspect they are also appalled at how it has been handled, but they simply cannot speak about it.
Bleeding heart that I am, I can empathize with this. I can also relate, as I was in a similar situation last year (which I’m still not quite free to talk about).
This is part of the reason why I’ve been speaking so much about Dorje Gurung‘s situation. I don’t know him, but I can relate on many levels. I want to help him. The tremendous outpouring of support from all four corners of the earth speaks volumes about what kind of person he is: a group of his friends, family, and other supporters have quite quickly mobilized and consolidated all the information and action. We should all be so lucky to have this support, were we in the same situation.
Please support their efforts: