These Islands: Part II

Part II: July 15th, 2014

Every day, we are fed at the school with a wonderful lunch. In the small community in which we live, every house has a child, and the likelihood is that we are teaching or looking after one of their kids. There are tens of cafes down the road, as well as laundry services and shops, and all of them know who we are. They also know that we are teaching at the school for no pay, and that is what amazes them the most. The people here are incredibly grateful and are absolutely lovely to us. I purchased a six pack of large water bottles from the 7-11 down the road. It was about half a mile walk back to the house, and they were heavy without a bag. An old man was riding his scooter the opposite way to me. He saw me struggling, stopped, turned his scooter around, and drove me half a mile to the house. I thanked him profusely, and he said in broken English, “No worry. You teach my grandkid English. He teach me some too, so thank you.” He smiled, turned his scooter around and drove off again. I was astonished. If that had happened in the UK, I would have thought, “Damn, Jesus must have come back.”

I’m told that in this country, people operate on a binary switch. That is to say, they will be as kind and polite and humble as it’s possible to be to you, but if you insult them, they’ll spin on a dime. I’ve been told a story by a friend of mine here: He was in Bangkok, in a club and he met some Thai guys, and they were having drinks and swapping stories. By the end of the night, they were best mates. Later on, a girl walked in, and my friend began to chat her up. Eventually they started to make out. What he didn’t know is that the girl was of the guys’ sisters. He doesn’t remember the moment, but according to his friends, they hit him in the back of the head with a glass bottle and then chased him from the club, quite literally half way across Bangkok. At one point, he hit a dead end and climbed over a wall, only to fall into the sewage canal that ran through the centre of the city. He swam across it, drunk and bleeding, with glass in his head, and woke up in hospital the next morning having been taken there by a kind old Thai man who found him. He would take a picture the next morning of himself with the man and the hospital director of himself in a wheelchair and bandages on his face, with the caption “Good morning, Thailand.”  It’s quite a story, and there are similar tales from others, though none quite as mortifying.

There are other cultural aspects I’ve discovered about this place. They are incredibly loyal and reverent towards their King, who, like our Queen, has places on all the coins and notes. In the UK, if a note flies out of your hand in wind and falls on the floor, the easiest thing to do is step on it to stop it moving. No such action is allowed with Thai notes. To do so is to lay the lowest part of your body on the King’s face, which is an incredible insult. If you sent a letter from Thailand, be sure never to lick the stamp. You may as well have just slobbered on the King. The respect they have for their King is slightly unnerving in some respects. There is always a large picture of the King in most rooms, and at least once in a building. This gives me chills, but only because it reminds me of the custom in North Korea, where every room has framed portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (their “Dear Leaders”). Obviously the degree of this is not the same as in North Korea, but it is too similar. Other quirks include the exchanges between older and younger people. In Thailand, you are not allowed to touch an older person on the head, as an adult might do to a child. It’s an insult to their age, and I kind of understand it: it would feel as if a child is patronising you. A slightly strange one for me is that men are allowed to look monks in the eye, but women are not. Apparently it’s due to temptation. Has there never been a gay monk?

I discovered all of this in the first week, one which was fairly tranquil and routine. The weekend was anything but. Because it was Buddha day, school was off on Friday. So at about midday, we took a ferry from Koh Samui to a neighbouring island called Koh Phangan (pronounced Koh Pan Yang). Koh Phangan is famous for its nightlife – specifically the Full Moon Party, the monthly (moon cycle) party that happens on the beach near the port. Full Moon has such a reputation here now that the party mostly consists of tourists, which outnumber locals by a factor of twenty. It also comes with its own merchandise, like headbands and T-shirts and body paints (a feature of Full Moon which few other events use). Because of the number of thieves, they also provide bum bags, which you’re supposed to tuck into your shorts so that no one can steal them.

Full Moon usually happens on the Friday night. But Buddha day took priority, so it was on Sunday night. This had the benefit of two days of pre-parties which lead up to the final night. Friday night saw perhaps a thousand people on that beach. Saturday came to around fifteen thousand, and all thirty thousand turned up in one go on the Sunday night, dancing to Thai rap and hip hop, drinking horrendous amounts of alcohol, along with mushroom shakes, weed, cigarettes and laughing gas.

I should make a note here: In Thailand, alcohol is not served in glasses. No, they are too small. Instead, alcohol comes in buckets. I’ll estimate a bucket to be about the same volume as a 1.5 L bottle, and you usually have vodka mixed with something else. If you have a sip and say it’s not strong enough, they’ll take the vodka bottle and pour it into your drink until you’re happy, and it would be the same price. That’s a distinction between Thai and British alcohol venders: In Britain, they try and be conservative. Here, they just want you to be drunk as hell. The net result is absolute carnage. Approaching 2 am, people were in the shallow waters, whilst couples were doing it in the water shamelessly. People who’d had mushroom shakes were sitting on the sand at the waters’ edge, staring aimlessly into the abyss (it didn’t look back; it was also high). As the sunrise approached, which you’re supposed to be awake to see in order for you to say you’ve had a successful Full Moon, there were hundreds of people asleep on the sand, some passed out, and some drunk. Others had fallen asleep on rocks at low tide, and were still asleep on them when the high tide rolled in. No one died, but a few people had to be rescued with boats.

But the one thing that distinguishes Full Moon from every other beach party is what happens at the end. The announcers turned off the music at about six in the morning, just for ten minutes, and said to the beach, “Everyone turn to watch the sunrise.” We did. It was beautiful. But what was more beautiful was the fact that it was being seen by thirty thousand people who were still drunk. There’s no other party like it. The music turned back on shortly afterwards, and it went on until eight in the morning. A friend and me were the only ones from our group of eighteen to make it to this point. The others had either gotten tired, or more commonly, passed out because they didn’t pace themselves with the buckets. As soon as the sun rose and the day was light, we went back up to our hotel and had breakfast at the pool. A week later, I’m still recovering from the sleep deficit.

And then we went back to school. With kids, and teachers, and lunch at 10:30 am, with cleaning up little scratches on the playground and tidying up pens and paper from the floors where they would write (there are no tables, but the floor does very well for one).

It’s a wonderful contrast. It amazes me how real teachers do it, to move from the simplicity and complexity of their job to the nightlife. I’m imagining telling my pupils the things that happened at Full Moon, with all the grown up nights and the grown up problems like money and alcohol. They aren’t plagued by all these issues, and won’t be for a long time. They have their own fair share though – there are two “special needs” children in my class. Both act up, refuse to talk and make eye contact, and will scream if they register any kind of physical contact. It’s clear to the westerners that these kids are both severely autistic and need one on one training. To the other teachers in the school, these are the kids to be ignored, and hopefully the “dark spirits will leave them with age.” We’ve spoken to our supervisor, Millie, about using Gap360 to potentially support a one on one expert to work with these kids, and she knows how necessary it is. She’s going to try, but all she can do for now is educate the teachers in the school that their behaviour is not a result of “dark spirits.” It is sad to watch, and we try and help them wherever we can, but there’s little we can do.

Koh Samui has two major centres. One is Lamai, which is the shopping district. All the best markets are here. The other is Chaweng, which is near the Big Buddha port, one of the two ports which let you on to the island. Chaweng is famous for its backpacker hostels (Some of the best in Thailand), and for it’s nightlife. There is a thriving night market here, but all the major clubs are here, as well as the restaurants and the cabaret shows. At the request of a friend who really wanted to see a cabaret, or “lady-boy”, show before she left for Vietnam, we stepped into one. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I was notably uncomfortable at first, which is why I think it was me who they asked to get up on stage. I did so (Ah, screw it. What’s the worst that could happen? was my thought process), and they got me to do the Cha Cha Slide with them. They were perfectly decent to me, and at the end, I got a free drink for being a good sport. All I have to do now is make sure that the pictures of me dancing don’t end up on Facebook for my family to see. My parents are pretty liberal, but I think that this goes, for them, too far. I would have felt the same way a year or so ago. But in the last year, the best revelation I’ve come to is this: I may feel stupid, but if I’d watched someone else do it, I’d have laughed along and patted them on the back at the end. Human minds, as different as they are, find union in this emotion. That night was one of the funniest and the saddest of my life, for at the end of it, that friend who had dragged us to the cabaret show got in a cab to her hostel, to begin her next journey to Vietnam.

These Islands: Part I

It’s been 22 days since my last blog. I think that may be a record for me, and not a good one. Right now, there’s a Word document compiled on my computer which details most of my experiences in Thailand, ready to copy onto WordPress. I don’t quite know why I’ve left it this long to upload, and I hope you’ll excuse me for that. Perhaps it was because once I blog about Thailand, I turn it into a story. You’ll understand why I don’t like stories in These Islands: Part III. They are in different parts because I wrote them on different days. Part I was written on the 12th of July, Part II on the 15th, and Part III on the 26th, in the departure lounge of Bangkok International Airport. I hope I can convey to you the magnitude of my experiences there.

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Part I: July 12th, 2014

Over the course of the last week, I’ve found myself quite unwilling to sit down quietly with a laptop or a phone and blog. The conversations I can have with others here are far more interesting. Others have found time to write their journals whilst sunbathing at the beach. Sunbathing is one of the most depressingly monotonous activities it is possible to participate in. Given that I’m Indian origin, it’s also utterly pointless for me. I’m pre-tanned. I’ve tried to write several times, but none of what I’ve written is up to scratch. I suppose that’s the difference between a blog and a journal – the journal is only for me. Here, on this blog, I want to make sure what I write is engaging for you. I imagine myself on the other side of this, reading this for the first time, and so many times, I’ve thought, “I’m bored already,” and started over.

I guess I’ve been putting it off because I procrastinate on huge tasks. And this is a huge task. Not a lot happens in a week at home. Here, I pack so much life into my days that it feels as if I’ve been here for many months. My last blog was on the 8th of July, so it’s been twelve days. In that twelve days, I’ve done eight days’ worth of teaching, had a million conversations, met some Brazilians, visited a neighbouring island for the Full Moon Party (take one beach, put 30,000 people on it, add monstrous amounts of alcohol and music, and then wait until sunrise), had a four-cheese pizza, been swimming in quicksand, danced with lady-boys and done laundry twice. It doesn’t all sound exciting, but give it a second.

There are four schools on Koh Samui. Of those, three have enough pupils to be government funded. The fourth, Sante School and it’s nursery section, is funded only by donations and taught at by a handful of parents and volunteer teachers and assistants. It’s not unusual to have forty to fifty kids in one class, especially with the younger years. Before we began on our first day, we were warned that the kids would play up as soon as they saw that there were new teachers. They weren’t so bad. Like us, even they are depressed and tired on a Monday morning, so “playing up” was being a little loud. We taught for a couple of hours in the morning, and then we went onto the playground. You saw some signs in the classroom, but it was on the playground you got the true feel of their free spirits.

In the UK, we are Health and Safety crazy. Parents in the Western world, in my opinion, are far too protective over their kids to the point where they may as well send them to school in bubble wrap. If a kid gets a scrape, they’ll fuss over it, and profusely blame the teachers for not keeping an eye on them. Forgetting, I might add, that kids are going to fall over whether they are being looked after or not. No such rubbish takes place in a Thai playground. When the kids go out onto the playground, they fall over in the dirt, cry for a while, get told, “You’re okay, now shut up”, and then get up and move on. They’re like monkeys on a climbing frame, they go far too high on the swings, and the boys get into play fights all the time. The teachers usually don’t intervene because they aren’t real fights. You can tell them apart easily, and usually, they’ll wrestle each other on the ground for fun, or kick at each other, and it’s all just a big game for them. They’re inadvertently training each other to handle themselves later on in life and end up best friends two minutes later. The most fascinating part of the day for me, is just before they get put down for a nap in the afternoon: mediation.

They come off the playground, and the older classes gather in one room with the head teacher, sit on the floor, cross their legs, place their right hand over the left face up, close their eyes, and be silent. The change you witness is stunning, and all the energy they’ve self-induced on the playground is dissipated in ten minutes of silence. After this, they are all given soap and are taught to wash their hands, before having lunch and sleeping. You can tell from how responsive they are that this is something they are used to, and most importantly, they all understand the purpose. If you tried this with five year olds in the UK, you’re lucky if they do as their told. But they would never understand the point. They would just sit there, smirking at each other and waiting for it to end. If you watch the kids here, you can tell from their breathing rhythm and their posture that they are really lost from this world. We participate every day in mediation. It’s not a religious tradition, although it can be. It’s just part of the constant cycle of self-assessment and inner peace that they like to instill into their children.

 

The Traveller’s Mystique

I’ve travelled, but I wouldn’t call myself a traveller yet. I haven’t had enough experience to know what the word really means. But I’ve met travellers before; they spend their lives roaming the world, making friends and losing them, getting into and out of trouble and packing more life into their life than any other creature on Earth. In the last few days in particular, I’ve met a lot of them, on my trip to Thailand.

I’m staying in an accommodation, and I’ve already mentioned its many problems, and more importantly, how they don’t bother me. The experience is worth the experience, and it teaches you not to expect perfection in everything, nor comfort, nor special treatment. I’m here for three weeks, and I’ve been shown the ropes by the more experienced in this house and with this school (my next blog will be on the school, by the way; I’m waiting for a couple of days before talking about it). They tell me how they make the best friends they’ve ever made in their lives in this place. And then they leave, and they know they might not ever see them again. This is alien to me – the idea that such perfect interactions should be allowed to be temporary. Most often, reunions with people who they’ve met on their travels occur by accident. I wonder how accidental it is. They may not have planned to meet, but it’s no surprise that the minds of two good friends converge on similar places and ideas, more than once.

They adapt to every place, and every time, and every culture. Every misfortune is another opportunity, every difficulty is just a challenge, and when you’re in a place you’re unfamiliar with, in which you’ve spent so little time, those challenges happen a lot. It changes you as a person. I’ve always talked about the importance of seeking perspective. Travelling gives you it. You forget about the little things that irritate you at home because you’ve lived with worse elsewhere.

Last night, I was sat on the decking of an outdoor cafe lit by lanterns, at nine in the evening, sipping an ice hot chocolate and eating pineapple from a plate. I sat with a mate of mine who I’d met less than three days ago, chatting about everything from his crazy experiences in Bangkok, being chased through a canal by dogs and scuba-diving in Australia, to university, politics, ancient history and our days in the school. There was a warm breeze rushing through the tables and it was just cooling down for the night. The night was pitch black, and you couldn’t see the ocean, barring the occasional light from the moon flashing off the waves, but you could hear it crashing against the beach. It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. Others would join us later that night, and we sat and laughed, exploiting the Wi-Fi and cracking jokes and drinking with the owners.

I’m never going to have that conversation again. I might never see any of these people ever again. I’m two days in, and I already know I’m going to miss them when I leave. Travelling, for me, breaks this rule: Time flies when you’re having fun.

It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Every day passes slowly, and you live in every moment. I’ve packed more life into two days than could get in a month back at home. It makes me wonder why I would ever want to go back.

The traveller’s mystique is the air of sadness coupled with ecstasy that surrounds them when they speak of their experiences. Everything is so temporary for them, and they know it is. So they live the best life they can, meet the best people they’ve ever known, see things they’ll never see again and then miss them dearly when they have to leave. Most people thing that they travel because they are bored of home. In reality, travellers love home. So much so, that they make everywhere home.

 

Sunday’s Blog on Monday

This trip to Thailand is picking up a Wi-Fi theme to it. Right now, I’m writing this blog post on a Word document, because as yet, the Wi-Fi in our accommodation is down. Apparently the guys in charge forgot that they had pay for it. So I’ll upload this whenever I get Wi-Fi.

My plane journey was pretty typical: Watch two movies, try to get to sleep, fail to get to sleep, consume airplane food against my will, close my eyes and wait for it all to end. I want to be an Aerospace engineer. I do like planes. I really do. I just don’t like being in them. I definitely don’t like the food. You think this is a full English? No, ‘tis not a full English. ‘Tis a full English that has been passed through the digestive system. ‘Tis a turd.  I distract myself by thinking of the physics and the aerodynamics, which are far more interesting.

I also reflect on facts I’ve picked up about commercial aeroplanes. I’ll give you an example: You know those oxygen masks that drop down from the ceiling like angels to save us all if the cabin depressurises? Yeah, they’ve only got 12 minutes of oxygen in them. It turns out that if the cabin depressurises at 37,000 feet, the pilot has to get down to a safe height of 10,000 feet where everyone can breathe. That takes almost exactly 12 minutes to happen, and so that’s all the oxygen the passengers get. The pilot has his own supply, which is fair enough (he’s flying). In any case, it never ceases to amaze me that we can make things which fly through the air. The next time you fly, remember what you’re in: a 300-foot metal tube of pressurised air moving through the stratosphere at the speeds that compare to the rotation of the Earth, and the only thing keeping you in the air is the difference in pressure between the top and bottom surfaces of the wings either side of you.

Thailand is a beautiful place. It’s the single most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Koh Samui is a 15-mile stretch of rural paradise off the mainland. Oh, and I’ve stopped calling it Koh Samui island, as the word Koh means “island” in Thai. It’s not Island Samui Island. Nothing quite compares to the breathtaking views you get from the beaches. The sands are stunning white, the oceans are vibrant blues and turquoises, and the sunsets and the thunderstorms are both beautiful in their own ways. The water, whether it pours from the sky or washes around the sea, is warm and tranquil. My volunteering hasn’t started yet (it’s Sunday as I write this), and today has just been about orientation over the island. There are so many things I could talk about, including the night life. I didn’t expect to be introduced to this on this trip, but I like it. The clubs are on the beach and the shots are 25 baht (about 50 pence). I’ll tell you about that later, but the most important part of this trip for me so far has been the people I’ve met.

There are people on this course with me who haven’t been home for five months, having travelled the whole Southern Hemisphere with their friends. Woody is an astonishing character who always has a story to tell, no matter what. There are two girls here from the North of England who have been travelling Thailand for ten days before coming here, friends from school and university. The youngest of us has just left secondary school, and is about to start her first year at Dundee University, doing Law. She’s pretty cute. Everyone thinks I’m older than nineteen for some reason. It feels like a good thing. Everyone has a story to tell. Some people are loud but hilarious, others are quiet but always know what’s going on. The more experienced here give us advice on the food and how to deal with the locals (who are lovely). You’ll hear more about them as I learn more about them.

There are only two showers between thirteen of us, both of which flood the bathroom on every use, the toilets are flushed by a hose, and they don’t accept toilet paper (which must be binned instead), the kitchen is tiny, the power goes out every time it rains, we need four fans and no blankets to keep us cool at night, there aren’t enough plug sockets, we have to go to the shop across the road to get Wi-Fi (and only if you buy something), and my roommates snore.

I love it.

45 Minutes of Free Wi-Fi

Right now, I’m sitting in the departure lounge of Terminal Five in Heathrow International Airport. I’ve connected to the Heathrow Wi-Fi, for free, but I’ve only got 45 minutes of this treasure left before I am returned to the eternal nothingness of Wi-Fi-lessness.

This is the first time I’ve willingly travelled on my own (I say willingly: I got lost in Heathrow aged 6, located by security and returned, crying, to my also crying mother), and it’s quite unnerving. I’ve always travelled with my friends, at least one of whom is more intelligent that me, my parents, both of whom are more intelligent than me, or with my school. My school’s pretty damn smart. It’s curious that, technically, I’m not actually in the UK. Until I pass through customs, I’m still in international territory. And the departure lounge of any international airport is technically within that boundary.

It defintely feels like international territory. I’ve never heard such an amalgam of cultures and languages so concentrated in one space. I’m listening to people talk around me in dialects I never even knew existed, and wear clothes which wouldn’t look out of place in Middle Earth. All of this coupled, of course, with the extortionately high prices of the Duty- Free. There are very few places on Earth that are so diverse. In ancient times, the city of Babylon became the crossroad of Eastern and Western civilisations, in Mesopotamia (the so-called “cradle of civilisation”). In the first millennium, this title would pass to Baghdad (owed to the period known as the Golden Age of Islam). Venice would follow in the Middle Ages (the port town which served as the trade route between the Mongols in East Asia and Europe). It is a sign of modernity that now, in the 21st Century, the crossroad of civilisations can be found at Heathrow Airport.

There’s a feel of adventure to this all. I really have no idea what to expect from this trip. I’ve got a connecting flight to Koh Samui, where I’ll be working in a rural fishing village, volunteering my limited abilities in childcare and teaching to a community school. More about that when I actually get there and start (on Monday. Somethings never change…). The next three weeks of my life are going to be documented here, for your amusement.

I’ve made it thus far, probably looking slightly too nervous to airport security, I might add. I’m waiting for my gate to be announced, so I can get on my plane to Bangkok. My only fear now is that I might do a Home Alone 2 and get on the wrong plane. It’s an 11-hour flight, and therefore the longest of my life. I understand why they say arrive on Saturday – we’ll need time to recover from the monumental shitstorm that will become my sleeping routine, and then adjust to the time difference.

Damn. My plane is about to board. Till next time, DFTBA.

A Self Diagnosis

There’s a phenomenon in quantum mechanics known as the Observer Effect. In the interests of drawing a curious analogy, I hope you’ll permit me to explain it:

How would you measure the speed of a car? Well, you find it, wait a certain amount of time, and find it again. If you know how much time has passed, you now measure the difference in position. Divide the latter by the former, and you have a measure of the speed. But what do I mean by finding it? How do you find anything? You see it, with light. This reduces, in it’s most fundamental form, to collecting photons. Suppose you were in a dark tunnel whilst measuring the car. To see it, you need to bounce photons off the car and collect them again.

Instead of the speed of a car, let’s try a tennis ball in a dark court. Shine a light at it, wait for a known time, and shine a light at it again. Photons in and out, time passes, photons in and out again. Note one thing: A photon has energy. When you bounce a photon off the tennis ball, it very, very slightly changes the energy of the tennis ball. And with the change of energy comes a change of speed. However, seeing as a photon is 20 orders of magnitude smaller than a tennis ball, the change in energy is absolutely tiny, even if you fire trillions upon trillions of photons.

Let’s move it down a scale again: Take a flea. Repeat the speed measurement, and you get an accurate result. A virus? Same deal. But note a second thing: The smaller the object gets, the more the energy of a photon is by comparison to the object. Therefore the more the object changes its speed when the photon collides with it, and the less accurate your measurement becomes.

Here’s to going all the way: An electron. How would you measure it’s speed? Same way as the car. Bounce a photon off it, wait, and bounce another one off it. But remember our two notes: We are now measuring the speed of an object whose energy is about the same as a photon. So when you bounce the photon off the electron, you are changing it’s energy by a huge amount, and therefore it’s speed. And because of the uncertainty of quantum systems, you don’t know exactly by how much. So when you wait your known time interval and fire the next photon, you aren’t measuring the speed you wanted. You’re measuring the changed speed.

Therein lies the observer effect: The act of measuring an object’s properties requires you to interact with that object. And at the quantum level, interacting with the object is to change whatever property you’re measuring by a huge degree, thereby making it very, very difficult to gain accurate information. Simply looking at a quantum object makes measuring it’s properties impossible.

The analogy I wish to draw from this is to a sentient mind. There are some mental problems which stem directly from thoughts. That is to say, thinking negatively causes the brain to fault. An obvious example is depression. Depression, unless chemically induced, is caused by environmental circumstances effecting your thoughts, effecting upon your brain, which in turn effects your thoughts. It’s a self-inflicting vicious circle which drains people emotionally.

Sad thoughts causing sad thoughts are running through my head. Right now, I feel in a state of complete boredom and I feel a distinct lack of motivation to do anything. I am finding myself in moments of self-pity, general laziness and with an unwillingness to smile. I recognise the symptoms as that of very mild depression. I wonder what will happen now that I’ve simply acknowledged this. Because to me, it seems that depression should follow the observer effect. That is to say, the act of evaluating my mental state destroys my mental state. Why? Because my current state is caused by factors which I know are in my control, and taking control is sometimes just knowing that you can. I would suggest that maybe that is the deeper meaning behind, “The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.” In the cases of many mental illnesses, it reduces to this: “The only step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.”

I’ve given the symptoms. Now for the root cause: I’m not spending time with people. That, more than anything else, is the driving factor. I hate being alone with my own thoughts for more time than I want to. Humans aren’t meant to be alone. We’re social animals, and it’s part of our nature to seek pleasure from interactions. If you’re remotely depressed, just spend some time with people. It will help, on the most basic, instinctive level, to get you back to normal.

Cause, symptoms, cure: In four days, I’m heading off to Thailand for a childcare volunteering program. I’m going to try and keep myself busy with packing, and then I’m going to spend three weeks making friends. I can’t wait, and I’ve been told I’ll have Wi-Fi in my accommodation. If you’re remotely interested in hearing how this goes, keep up with my blog over the next few weeks. My time there starts July 5th, and ends on July 26th.

Oh, and I was right: Depression does obey the observer effect. My motivation is back.

Embarrassing Childhood Memories

Childhood memories are curious things. Before the age of five, we barely remember anything. My earliest memory is of a large balloon with Jafar’s face on it (from Aladdin) bobbing up in front of me, which I saw when my family took me to Disneyland Paris. Suffice to say, it was fairly terrifying, but hey, we all learn to love Jafar. My memories from that age are dispersed and fairly spotty, but some, particularly the most embarrassing ones, tend to stick out in my mind and linger vividly even now. I thought I might share a couple for your amusement:

The first was from when I was five years old. At this age, I would still drink a cup of milk in the morning before school. My mum would take some milk out of the fridge, put it in a cup and warm it up. Often, she’d do this before I woke up, and there’d be a delay before I actually drank it. What happens to milk if you heat it up and leave it for a few minutes? That layer of cream forms on top. I hated that cream, and I still do. So every morning, my mum would take a little filter and pour the milk through to get rid of it before I drank it. One morning, whilst my sister sat at the table eating her cereal, I found the milk in the microwave, but with no mum to pour it through a filter. My sister informed me that she had to go to work very early because she was on-call (she’s a doctor), and that she’d left the sieve out for me to use. Indeed it was there, so I took the milk from the microwave (proudly doing what I’d never done before), and poured it through the sieve.

There was no damned cup under it.

I’d literally just poured a cup full of milk and cream through the sieve onto the kitchen surface, which now dripped onto the floor. I just stood there, with a sieve full of scream and an empty cup, mouth slightly open. Ooohhhh, there’s supposed to be something underneath it. My sister, meanwhile, was silently dying of laughter behind me, before calling my dad to clear up the mess. I have never been so embarrassed in my life. My mum still tells this story to her friends when they come around, and it drives me crazy.

That was the first embarrassing memory. The second is worse.

This happened when I was six, and it was on a plane, on a seven hour flight to India from our stopover in Dubai. I was tired, time-disoriented and my usual six year old routine was thrown completely. About four hours into the flight, I needed to go to the toilet. Not a short toilet, but a long toilet, if you know what I mean. I didn’t want to wake my parents, who can somehow fall asleep anywhere, and I was on the aisle seat, so I just got up and walked there myself. I sat myself down on the toilet, did my six-year-old business and then reached for the toilet paper.

There wasn’t any. Holy mother of shi-

Panic. Instant panic. I must clean my butt. I cannot clean my butt. This is the worst place to be in the whole world. If this plane crashes now, this is how they’re gonna find me. 

It is a horrific situation to be in as a six year old, on a plane, with the sound of the engines around you. Even worse, as I sat there, the seat belt sign turned on. When you’re six, this sign is your aeroplane god. I considered using the tap. My worst moment was when I considered walking out of there with a bottom full of shit and finding another toilet. Knock, knock, knock. I started crying.

In the end, I ended up unlocking the door and peeking my head out of the door at the person who knocked. I was fortunate enough that it was a lovely old woman, and I tearfully explained my situation to her. Bless her, she was very sweet and she gave me a pack of tissues from her purse. I thanked her, locked the door, finished my cleansing as quickly as possible before bursting out of the door and running down the airplane to my seat. I put my seat belt on straight away and started bawling to my mum. She was shocked awake and asked me what happened. I told her. And, incidentally, the surrounding two rows of seats.

Hope you enjoyed reading those two little anecdotes. Remember, I suffered so that you didn’t have to. And so that you can have a laugh.

Parents

This is going to be a fairly personal post. It’s a topic I’ve generally avoided not just on this blog, but with most people I’ve ever encountered, including my closest friends, because I don’t feel as if they’ve ever needed to know. But recent conversations with some acquaintances have gotten me thinking about the my relationships with my parents, and when I think too much, I need to let a bit out. The nature of family relationships change so much between people, and so does the amount they discuss it with others. I’ve never talked about it much because it leaves a slightly bitter taste. Well, one half of it does. Let’s start with the other half.

My mother is the single most amazing woman I’ve ever known, and she’s been a role model and friend to me since the second I opened my eyes. Her intuitions and predictions about the outcomes of situations in my personal life are rarely ever wrong. It’s frustrating, sometimes. Sometimes I can approach a situation with the best rationale and intentions in the world, and despite everything, what appears to be luck guides it towards whatever she expected. But that’s the point to note: it only appears to be luck. In reality, she knows what’s going to happen because her experience is more valuable than my reason. I’ve learnt to trust her experience more than my own because mine is far less complete than hers. Her advice has never done me wrong, so far, and nor have her judgments of people. When she first met my university friends, she liked all but one instantly, and she told me so. I was surprised and frankly insulted, and I defended that friend angrily against her words. In recent months, however, each and every one of her initial opinions have demonstrated themselves to be true, one after the other. I’ve got no choice but to respect her knowledge, not because she forces me to, but because the evidence forces me to. In any case, she’s brilliant, and she’s cared for me and my sister better than anyone else, put up with all the shit we sent her way, and gives us all the love we could ever ask for, without us ever needing to do so. Oh, and her food is the best in the world.

I love my mum, and my relationship with her is incredibly strong. Strong enough, in fact, that it makes up for the relationship I have with my dad.

If I ever grow up and find that I’ve become my dad, I’ll know that I’ve messed up somewhere in life. He is angry, cruel, stubborn, manipulative and spiteful, emotionally and previously physically abusive to me, my sister and my mother. So much so that he’s the reason I asked my mum to let me learn karate as a child (I’m now a Third Dan Black Belt). He’s mellowed over the years, but he’s still one of the worst people in my life, and if it weren’t for my mum, I wouldn’t bother coming home from university every few weeks. Since my sister moved away, and has become independent with a good job and a caring husband, she’s begun to cut all ties with him. I’ve begun doing so already, leaning more on my mum, whose more than happy to take up the slack. She doesn’t feel happy with him, and we’ve been encouraging her to get a divorce and find someone who actually respects her. She’s become incredibly strong-hearted, and she doesn’t take his crap, but it drains her, and hurts her, to keep resisting the misery he imposes upon us. The three of us would be far happier if he weren’t in our lives, and I honestly wouldn’t care if I never saw him again.

As you can tell, this isn’t what most would class as “healthy.” My opinion of my parents are polar opposites. I wonder what effect this has had on me over the years, and how it’s affected my behaviour. Perhaps one of the consequences of this kind of binary switch relationship is that I get slightly irked when people tell me that I should always listen to my parents unconditionally. On this matter, I take the view of a hero of mine, George Carlin, who said, “The truth is, obedience and respect shouldn’t be granted automatically. They should be earned. And they should be based on the parent’s performance, the parents’ performance.”

Respecting and obeying my mum, I know from evidence, will get me very, very far. There’s never been a time when I’ve followed her advice, or followed her example, and not come out the other side happier. On the other hand, respecting and obeying my dad would probably destroy every human interaction I can ever have. I make a point of not listening to him, nor following his example. If me and my mum disagree on how to approach a social situation, I know I’m wrong. If me and my dad disagree, I know I’m right.

The point is that, for me, “They’re my parents” is not a valid reason to listen to them. Like any other person, you listen to them because they’ve earned your ears. If that’s not true, then you are wasting your time.

Some people I’ve gotten to know over the past year choose to listen their parents in totality. They probably have good reason to do so, as I do in the case of my mum. But I hope they understand why unconditional acceptance of their parents’ wishes or desires is something I can never empathize with, nor respect.

Time and Reflections

On of my closest friends is an engineering student. Last year, before coming to University and whilst completing his A2 Levels, his offer to Imperial College London was 3 A* grades. He missed one of those grades by 1 mark, and as a result, he had to come to his second choice university – Southampton – where I would meet him, and he would meet me. If he were here with me, he’d force me to mention that at the time of his exam period, because of a freakish medicinal side-effect, he had so little blood in his system that he technically should have been in a coma. “But, blood! Imagine what grades I could have gotten with blood!”

That was just an example of the ways in which the luck of circumstance dictate my friendships and relationships. Given the vast spectrum of human interaction, it’s safe to conclude that almost everyone in our lives apart from our parents are in our lives because of luck. I have made no secret of my disdain for this idea, but I know that I’m not going to win this battle. I’m good, but I can’t beat the Physics itself.

During exam period, I bumped into an incredibly cute girl during a revision session in the library. We exchanged a few smiles, and went our separate ways. Later on, I would meet her in a club, at which point I asked her out. Save for a little awkwardness towards the start, our date went well, full of laughing and swapping stories. There was something mysterious about her, and I wanted to see her again, and at the end, I asked her out again. She said yes.

Owing to circumstances surrounding her workload (she’s a post-grad currently writing her dissertation), we cancelled. And because I was leaving for home at the end of the week, there was no time to reschedule. And so ends that story.

I can say, if I want, that I didn’t ask her out soon enough, and that’s why it had to end so fast. But then again, I didn’t meet her fast enough. And that’s just physics, operating on biochemical processes in both our brains, making sure that we both had different places to be before we didn’t. But then again, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the library before exam period. And if it had been a few months earlier, I would have still “like-liked” a friend of mine and wouldn’t have noticed her. A few months before that, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to ask anyone out.

Whatever the reason, circumstances converged in such a way that something that could have been amazing never happened. For tiny moments, I irrationally believed that somehow the universe was conspiring against me. I don’t know what could have happened. It was the first date, after all. But what makes me sigh the most is that I’ll never know. Part of me wonders if one day in the future we’ll meet again, but we all know the odds on that. I’m hoping for a bit of luck.

The future can speculate for itself. Meanwhile, another 262 days have passed since I moved into my university accommodation nervously. 162 have passed since I started this blog. An average human life in the UK can be approximated at about 82 years. As it turns out, about 82.14 years, or 82 years and 50 days, corresponds to exactly 30,000 days. Of that, 0.87%, or 87 for every 1000, of all the days I’ll ever know have turned through time and vanished since I started university life. Without a doubt, the change I’ve undergone in the last 0.87% have been the largest I’ve ever been through in my life. The best thing is, everything has been for the better. I’m slowly becoming more confident, more willing to meet new people, generally happier and less stressed. I’ve worked out a good routine to beat the “Good Grades-Social Life-Sleep: Choose Two” triangle, and very little can take down my mood right now.

My opinions of people have changed in the last year as well, in some cases, from one extreme to the other. I’ve decided some people are worth spending time with, and that some people don’t deserve my patience. Two of my friends, one of whom is reading this blog, have coupled-up and isolated themselves from the rest of us to the point that I don’t feel like I know them anymore. Somehow they’ve managed to do this whilst simultaneously making sure that everyone else suffers with them when they argue. Other more bearable couples are wondering how to tell their parents that they have a girlfriend/boyfriend. This doesn’t sound hard, but if you bring strict Asian parenting and religious and regional selection criteria into the mix, it becomes near impossible. I don’t envy them, but the risks they take to remain a couple and the courage it takes to defy their parents are absolutely astonishing.

I’ve forged close friendships with people I thought I’d hate, shut out people who I thought were decent but turned out to be pricks, and become cautiously optimistic about some people I’ve met with respect to what could happen next year. I wish I’d come into uni with this particular 0.87% of experience. It would have done me so well. But I guess that’s part of the deal. The experience you need to deal with a situation well only comes once you’ve already dealt with it badly. It reminds me of a succinct quote by computer scientist Randy Pausch, who said, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.”

People tell me not to have regrets. But the thing is, I do. I do regret certain actions of mine, and opportunities not taken. I guess the real message behind that saying is: Don’t dwell on regrets. Call them experience and learn from them, instead.

The last thing to take away from this year, is that of my followers, I now know two of them personally. One of them hasn’t blogged in about six weeks, and until she does, I’m not linking to her. The other belongs to the girl I met too late. Her stories of her travels are absolutely incredible, and all of them are detailed in herlittlejournal.

That is to say, http://herlittlejournal.wordpress.com/.

 

“Isn’t It Better When Everyone Just Gets Along…?”

The title of this post is a phrase that comes up a lot when dealing with issues in friendships and relationships, where something stands to be lost. I hate it. I lose all my respect for people who subscribe to what I can only describe as a self-bullshitting ideology. Sometimes to the point of being annoying, I’ll reiterate to my friends my policy: Given the choice between making me feel better by lying and making me feel bad with the truth, give me the truth. Given the choice between brutal honesty and comforting lies, I will always prefer it when people are honest to me, even if it completely ruins my friendships or relationships.

My experience with diplomacy, with not being honest so that everyone can be friends, is that it is a temporary, short term fix. Eventually the problem will surface and you’ll get destroyed completely. And crucially: It doesn’t matter when it comes up – it will have the same effect. And therein lies my rational – it may as well stir things up sooner rather than later, so that at least whichever parties are involved can work it out and move on, or just move on. And though that may seem painful and unnecessary in the short term, in the long term, it is good for everyone.

I expect honesty from my friends. And when it hurts, I usually hate their guts. But give it a few hours, and I’ll realise that they were acting in my interest and out of respect for me. Is it wrong for me to assume that process is symmetric? By which I mean, is it wrong to assume that they would want the same thing back?

Perhaps. People are very different. I can’t expect others to think in the same way I do. But at the same time, I’m vainly convinced that I’m right.

“Always be honest.” It’s something a 5-year-old would say if asked, “What do you think is a good moral value?”. And the adults would say, “Oh, I agree!” and then roll their eyes as they turned away. Or the politicians would say, “That’s so naive. Come on, kid, you’ve got to learn to play the game.” All the time I’ve been alive I’ve been led to believe that the adult world of “playing the game” is the only way to keep the world functional and happy. Perhaps its the other way around. Perhaps the world is as messed up as it is because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing that diplomacy is really the only way to keep people satisfied.

I applied that standard to one particular problem that’s come up in our friendship group, this morning, and it went down as well as I predicted. As much as I try to rationally convince myself that what I did was acceptable, another emotional side of me wonders if it was worth it. I was an absolute arsehole. I really was. And I’ve probably created a lot of hatred by saying exactly what was on my mind. Do I care? Yes. I don’t like feeling like this, and I hate knowing that I’ve caused someone else pain. If I think about it too much, I physically shudder. I’ve spent the last hour blotting it out of my head. And when I see the person in question again, there are going to be repercussions.

Nevertheless, a small part of me remains convinced that what i said was justified. The backlash for this is short term. In the long term, I at least feel like it’s going to be better for everyone. Perhaps not. Perhaps I misjudged the situation completely. And that’s what worries me most. But if it does any good for the future, I don’t mind being hated for it.