The Art of Waiting

As the rainy season accelerates into full gear – as with Bangkok’s near-miss with Typhoon Wutip last week – I’ve been experiencing more of something that I never used to think about: namely, the act of waiting.

Waiting at the MRT Station

Being a California native, I’d rarely been subjected to bouts of weather that disrupted my activities in any major way. True, the freeways in LA and the Bay Area seemed to screech to a halt with every light drizzle, but I felt this more as a minor inconvenience than any serious impediment to my daily activities.

However, there are moments in Bangkok, especially given my car-less lifestyle, where natural events take on a new prominence. I’ve seen fantastic lightning storms of the kind I only encountered previously in glossy magazine spreads. And now, some storms can stop my day in its tracks – though (luckily) generally never for too long, as they tend to ebb and flow in severity, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

Detail from Waiting #26

Brett Amory. Waiting #26 (detail). 2008. Oil on wood. Image by Warholian via Flickr.

There’s a strange beauty in this ad hoc culture of waiting. For one, it’s a shared acknowledgement that an external event is affecting us all in common. No matter where we thought we were heading, we find ourselves caught in a moment of temporary suspension.

Four years ago in San Francisco, I worked at an art gallery that featured the paintings of Brett Amory. He creates hauntingly striking and ethereal images of people waiting, in that delicate moment of transition between one state and another. I am reminded of those paintings very much now.

Just a short blog entry for this month, as I’ve been busy writing posts for East by Southeast, which you can read here, here and here.

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No F.O.M.O., or 6 reasons not to be that bummed about missing Burning Man

This post, I thought I’d do something different. I want to share how I’m dealing with my F.O.M.O. (“fear of missing out,” for the uninitiated) over not going to Burning Man this year. I’m learning to apply these lessons to other areas of my life, and I hope this resonates with anyone else who struggles with this.

So a quick background note: I have always had really bad F.O.M.O. I used to be the type of person who felt compelled to make it to every single event and social obligation. In fact, it would give me a strange sort of anxiety not to. I’d construct elaborate fantasies about how much fun my friends were having without me and what amazing things I’d be missing out on. But now in Bangkok (ironically, given its reputation as a party town) I’ve finally learned how to slow down.

As the days have been drawing closer to the Burn, I finally acknowledged that I wouldn’t be making it to the playa. This would have been my 7th year, and this summer feels different because every other year since 2006 has been rhythmically punctuated by this annual ritual. But knowing that I couldn’t go this year forced me to sit down and really look at my values.

So how to get over the F.O.M.O. of missing Burning Man?

  1. See this as an opportunity for growth. It is really good for me to not always get what I want, in the same way that I know going to the dentist is good for me. Tackling unpleasant but necessary tasks is a very adult characteristic – it means acknowledging that you’d rather be doing something else but knowing that the world will still go on as it always has even when you don’t. Chalk it up to maturity.
  2. Go with the flow, not in spite of it. I know that when I’m meant to go to the Burn, it’ll be effortless. This year, there is just too much resistance and friction. Burning Man has always been about the beauty of spontaneity and synchronicity, and those qualities apply to the decision to go as well.
  3. Opportunity cost, opportunity cost, opportunity cost. What else could I be doing with my time? This year, it means going to a regional development conference on the Mekong, which I’m genuinely excited about. And because I’ve opened myself up to not going, a couple of other writing-related opportunities have also emerged that I probably would have overlooked if my mindset was focused on preparing for the playa.
  4. $$$. No matter how worthy of an endeavor, Burning Man is an expensive affair. Tickets are hundreds of dollars, and food and gear and camp dues run the same. That money can be put towards forwarding other important life goals, like traveling or taking classes or buying new equipment.
  5. Live your values. In my heart of hearts, I know that the values of Burning Man hold true for the rest of the year. I wouldn’t have kept going all these years if I didn’t honestly aspire to its principles: radical self-reliance in adversity, inclusivity in diversity, and a healthy blurring between play and life. This is a chance for me to bring the Burn to my default life.

  6. A good friend I consulted about my F.O.M.O. gave me these sage words of advice:
    “Don’t miss out on your present just because you’re scared of missing out on the past. Maybe this is your Burning Man – why do you need a week when it can be in your life? You’re honoring yourself by living your passion.”

  7. It’ll most likely still be there next year.

Transport Me

What is my experience of Bangkok so far? As a newcomer, I find that my experience of places and where I actually end up going are heavily dictated by their proximity to the BTS and MRT rail lines and to a much lesser extent, the canal ferry.

By way of explanation, apart from being a critical part of any city infrastructure, modes of transportation are intimately tied to the ways in which we mere humans perceive time and space. How we experience spaces have so much to do with the ways we move through them. As a former art history major, I can never forget that this basic, fundamental underpinning of architecture and sculpture.

Wolfgang Schivenbusch said as much about the impact of railroads on the newly industrialized European psyche back in the 19th Century. To people who had never before encountered machine speed – newly freed from the constraints of human and horse power – railways “annihilated” space, compressing distances to a mere standardized unit of time. I’ve been entranced by Schivenbusch’s ideas since I described how the layout of Burning Man distorts perceptions of time and space in my undergraduate Reed thesis

All this comes back to me as I continue to explore the behemoth of a city that is Bangkok. Newly industrialized and multi-nodal, it’s difficult to define a clear center of the city. 

Compare this to a city like Beijing (where I have also lived for periods of time), in which major driving routes are arrayed like concentric rings around the old imperial center. The city’s centralized design reflects the power it is meant to embody – on a smaller scale you can see this in the layout of the Inner Court of the Forbidden City, where gates encircle ever smaller areas down to the Emperor’s personal residence (the Palace of Heavenly Purity) – the most guarded and empowered space.

My perception of Bangkok thus far has been one punctuated by railway stations. I board from one stop, step into a sanitized, air-conditioned tube, and then disembark in a different neighborhood. I have no referent as to the actual distances between places. Marc Augé coined the term “non-places” to describe spaces like this, where people merely pass through on their way to other, more important places.

But lately, I’ve been wondering about all those in-between places – hidden pockets that I feel a duty to explore. I think it’s time for me to take on new perceptions of the city by choosing different modes of transportation. Up to now, I’ve created a personal mental taxonomy of transportation that I clearly need to rethink and possibly dismantle:

  • Motorbikes are good in a pinch, though dangerous. Can’t beat the fun factor though, unless it’s in…
  • Tuk-tuks are for tourists willing to pay a price for the novelty. Makes for great photographs though.
  • Taxis are for travel to the airport or traveling with more than two people. The price to pay is the risk of being stuck in notoriously unpredictable Bangkok traffic.
  • Walking through the city comes with a number of obstacles. This was literally one of my first lessons here, as I dodged motorbikes riding on the sidewalks.

There’s much to be gained in such exploration. The BTS and MRT hearken to a modernized, more developed Bangkok that has turned rich, lived spaces between railway stops into mere empty space on a map. But there’s so much more to the city than that, and I mean to find out. As soon as I decide how to get there.

Morning Commute

After moving to conveniently located Thong Lo street, I now get the additional benefit of starting every work morning with a minor thrill. To get to my office, I take a ferryboat through a khlong (or canal) before hopping onto the MRT (subway).

photo (6)

As with anything, there are advantages and drawbacks. True, it feels a bit romantic, passing by trees and other boats. But then again, the water in the khlong is nearly black, and a distinct odor lingers in the air. The smell made sense after it was pointed out to me that sewage pipes run directly into the canal. 

A tarp is strung up on either side of the ferry to keep out the canal water. This was the water, mind you, that I was warned against on two separate occasions. According to a coworker, canal splashback allegedly gave one German passenger an eye infection. “Always wear your sunglasses on the boat,” she warned me. This is all hearsay, of course. But then again, perhaps this explains why the ferry crowd is always fairly quiet, even during busy commute times.

photo (2)

Assertiveness and dexterity are required to ride the ferry as well. The disembarkation procedure is such: an attendant jumps off onto the dock and lashes a rope around a pole to hold the boat steady. In the meantime, you have to grip one of the ropes running the length of the boat and then quickly step onto a narrow ledge to hop onto the dock, hopefully not while the boat is in process of drifting away from the dock.

After a few trips, the process no longer seems so thrilling, as all novelty wears off eventually. But it’s still kind of nice to have to start my mornings off this way: I never fail to be more present and somewhat more optimistic after getting off the ferry. After all, it’s all about enjoying the small moments.

Landing

I touched down in Suvarnabhumi Airport a week ago, and each day since then has been filled with an appreciation for the worldiness of Bangkok, this cosmopolitan hub teeming with over 9 million people. Walking down the street or riding the MRT subway, I listen to a hum of different languages being spoken, a constant reminder of the incredible diversity in this region.

In fact, the landmass of SE Asia – also called Zomia by some — is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places in the world. According to historian James C. Scott, rugged terrain and geographic obstacles contributed to a splintering of different cultures who, pre-WWII, were not historically subjected to the yoke of centralized statehood. Tribes resisted assimilation into kingdoms and later, nation-states.

By definition, a frontier is where power looks upon the edge of its own limits. Historically in Zomia, State confronted frontier, peering into a world it did not control. And now in present day as a collection of more and less developing countries, it’s become another kind of frontier, with fortunes to be made and much else at stake.

This first week, I’ve attended a regional forum on hydropower in Cambodia, where villagers shared stories of personal devastation caused by dam projects and voiced their resistance. I observed a workshop with Burmese journalists hailing from a country where not so long ago such a profession would have carried a risk of imprisonment or worse. And at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok, the walls showcased an exhibit by a photojournalist tragically killed in the 2010 political unrest.

Yes, the frontier is palpable here. Everywhere people were talking about the shape of the future to come. There’s a rosiness and also a pessimism in these discussions that’s always underpinned by questions of power and control.

There’s a lot to absorb, learn and understand here, and I’m grateful to be in a position where I can spend time digging into these issues. More to follow…