All the World's a Classroom

Indonesia: The Prelude

In about 15 hours, I’ll be taking off to Hongkong and Shenzhen for the first four days, and Indonesia (Jakarta and Bali) for the rest of this 22-day trip. They’re all familiar territory, except for Shenzhen, but it just has been a while. The last time I went home over three years ago was for a less fortunate event, so this visit will be very interesting.

All the world’s a classroom has been a personal motto of mine for many years. Last August, I had Honduras as a classroom for 10 days with many amazing personal lessons. To have the same mindset in a place I call home, where I would naturally want to kick back and relax, will be a bit more challenging.

But considering where I am in my life, about a year away from the end of grad school and probably the most important life transition, I suspect there will be tons of reflection and thoughts during the next three weeks and after.

Needless to say, I’m excited. My sister, Nestor, and Aiko will be joining me in Jakarta next week and then in Bali the following week. We will for sure have lots of good food. Stay tune for food and other pictures.

My Right Brain

“I’m a left-brained girl,” is a phrase I have said often, particularly in reference to poetry. You know, being an engineer and all, I just don’t get poetry. You feed me a poem, and I would have no idea what it’s talking about.

But I think there may be some changes to my right side of the brain recently, because not only poetry, I just have increased appreciation for the arts in general.

Take paintings, for example. When someone likes a painting, I used to ask, “What do you like about it?” The person would say, “I don’t know, I just do. It’s art.” I would then think, silently or out loud, “How can you like something and not know how to explain why?”

Now I know what it feels like to experience a painting without the need to explain or interpret it. I talked about my amazing experience at Musée d’Orsay in Paris in a previous blog post, and I totally resonate with Bonhoeffer’s quote that I put in there.

Then, another surprise was when I read the poem Bright Star by John Keats the other day. Why the surprise?

The first time I came across this poem some three or four years ago, I totally didn’t get what the poem meant. I could only digest the first line, and after that, I was completely lost. The poem and I were going at different wavelengths; it just didn’t register.

But for some reason, I was drawn to it again a few days ago, and… I thought it was the most beautiful and powerful poem I’ve ever read. Absolutely magnificent. Here’s the poem for you.

Bright Star

by John Keats


Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—

Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—

No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fail love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I don’t know what it is, but something’s happening to my right brain. I think.

If I Lived Then

In the 2006 biopic Amazing Grace, my favorite monologue takes place in a scene where the movie’s hero, William Wilberforce, is compelling an elite class of society to come face to face with the horrid reality of slavery. During a lunch cruise, the luxurious reception is interrupted by the ship’s pause next to a less lavish ship called the Madagascar. It is a slave ship.

“Remember that smell,” on the putrid smell of death emanating from the ship, “Remember the Madagascar. Remember, that God made men equal.”

My recent blog posts, starting from A Child of All Nations, Human Strudel, and the three-part series on the Story of Complex People (Part I, II, III), are spawned from personal reflections on recent reading and watching materials. They comprise of historical accounts and biographies circa World War II, the Bosnian War of the early 90’s, and stories of war survivors. I need to process the information and answer the questions, “What have I learned from history?” and “How am I to live now that I’ve learned these things?”

In this historical journey, I encountered incredible accounts of human resilience, the inconceivable horror of torture, and humanity’s amazing capacity of both good and evil. In war situations, reality and ethics are thwarted. People who previously mingle together can quickly become hostile to each other once they are convinced that their subgroup is superior to the other. Everybody is a victim of war, no matter which side one belongs to.

The end of Wilberforce’s monologue in that movie scene emerges as the silver thread: God made men equal.

It seems to me that at the root of many ethnic conflicts, wars, and massacres, is the attitude that says, “I am better than you.” The thought may seem innocuous at first, but translated in situations where entire societies are swayed by convincing propaganda, it can easily turn into “I am better than you, therefore I can exist, and you don’t have to.” Our love for vanity and (group) pride cannot be underestimated.

It is easy to be distant and judgmental of the great evil recorded in historical books: “I cannot believe how evil these people are.” But what guarantees us that we would not act the same way given the same situation, living in the same cage of manufactured hatred by the prevailing powers? I’d like to think that I would stand for the tortured if I lived during Nazi Germany. I’d like to think I’d champion Wilberforce’s cause to abolish slave trade in Britain if I lived in the early 1800s. But what guarantees that I would indeed be such a person given the social pressure of the time?

If I don’t have human compassion right now, there is no guarantee that I wouldn’t be part of humanity’s evil in any part of history. What I can do right now, as a 21st century global citizen, is to abolish any notion that “I am better than you” due to socio-economic status, race, education, or any social strata we have manufactured for ourselves. I need to cultivate that human compassion by seeing each person with respect and dignity. Then maybe, if I was thrown into complicated situations, I would actually have the moral backbone to stand for fellow mankind, no matter what race, religion, level of education, social status, or any group they belong to.

The antidote of many great wars and conflicts lies in the simple, but profound, powerful statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because my neighbor and me are equal. The phrase is said often, perhaps too lightly. But it carries with it such power that can counter and prevent much evil. And isn’t it fitting, that those who should first and foremost live by this statement are the same ones who say it the most?

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