AhCheng in Wondercity

Today, I got so lost that I drove myself right out of the city without knowing.

And it was not even the first time something like this happened.

 

If you’re close with me, there is no reason why you don’t know I’m practically dumb when it comes to navigation.

I met up with some friends in Toul Sleng, and we decided to get to a place near the Monument of Independence. I was the only one on a bike, and confident with my new knowledge of this city’s streets, I proudly devised a plan to get there, without getting lost.

News flash, I got lost, so so bad.

 

I decided to go right on a street I did not know much of, and found myself near Sonsom Kosol Pagoda. It was so unexpected that I felt exactly like Alice in Wonderland, popping into unexpected places, except I was not 12 and Phnom Penh was no wonderland. But I was not completely hopeless. I had a hunch that if I kept on going, I would land on Kbal Thnol Bridge and would only be a short distance from the Monument of Independence. So far still pretty okay until for God knows why, I decided to turn right at the bridge which meant this gal was heading to Chak Angre area.

 

Silly me still thought I was on my way back into the heart of the city. I drove and drove under the 2 o’clock sun. My dread kept on increasing exponentially out of habit. You know, once your lover has criticized you very unkindly of how dumb you are at navigation, it just stuck.  As a counterpoint maybe, my mind kept playing Phil Kaye’s and Sarah Kay’s poem, “When Love Arrives”, the bit where he said, “Love knows where she’s going. It just might take her two hours longer than she planned.”

Though it was sweet, I knew my friends would not appreciate me being late. The anxiety of finding the right route kept on mounting and mounting until I saw a billboard saying it was the way to Kandal Province. Apparently, I had been travelling to a city in the last 15 minutes, just not to the city I wanted to be in.

 

I took a U-turn and thought of the literally hundred of others of times I got lost in this small city I’d been in for the last 10 years. And it struck me, no matter how lost I got, I have always managed to find my way at the end.

 

And thinking back put a smile on my face.

 

Lesson of the day: don’t take right at Kbal Thnol Bridge if you wish to stay in Phnom Penh.

 

Another lesson of the day: It does not matter if you’ve lost your way. You’ll get there as long as you keep finding your way back.

Be a Tourist in Your Own City

 

When was the last time you travelled, whether it was to a nearby province, or to a country right on the edge of the world? How did it feel as you strolled through the streets and just observed the people, humming, buzzing around you going about their everyday life? For me, that’s one of the wondrous things about traveling. All the literally butt-hurting bus rides, and anxiety-inducing trip-planning pay off once I get to observe people from other places in their very natural habitat, doing their thing, going to their usual places.

People often cite the ability to see another culture, other ways of life, or the beauty of surrounding nature as the main benefits they enjoy from travelling, and that’s true. I’ve had the fortune to travel to many different cities last year and though there were some big differences, most of the things were still the same compared to my own city.

People were still people. Dogs still barked. The air was still hot or biting. And there were still flowers of all kinds along the pavement.

For the people of those countries, life was probably dull until their next visit to some other places, maybe to my very own city. It used to surprise me how amazed foreigners could be with my dear old Phnom Penh. They would stop, stand still and admire an old rusty pagoda gate for ten minutes straight. The old porridge-selling lady at the corner of the street whom I’ve barely spoken 100 words with during the five years of my knowing her is a person of infinite interestingness to a foreigner.

 

I get it, grass is greener on the other side. However, apart from the external green grass, I think when we travel, we also switch persona on the inside. It’s as if once we put our foot on the plane, we embody this big-eared, huge-eyed, large-tonged person hungry for experience, for observation, for fun. We put our personal troubles, the complication at work, the unanswered texts from exes aside and be a sponge for a few days. In another word, #holidaymoodON.

 

The sad fact of life is for most of us, travelling a long distance a few times a month cannot be a reality. You might not have enough budget, or time to spare, and well, sometimes, you just want to live out of your closet instead of a backpack, you know. BUT the happy fact of life is you can always try to tweak your perception. Of course, you might not be able to physically travel into a new place, but that’s only half of the equation. You cannot change the outside, but you can damn well try to change the inside, to induce the feeling of being a traveler even when you’re not travelling to anywhere new.

Here’s what I’ve been doing for a few years now and have reinforced during the last few months: pretend to be a tourist in your own city. Mark off a day from your calendar as a trip day. Before the big day, search your city up on the internet and find interesting bits of information and spots to visit. Well, at least that’s what I do, anyway. Pack up your bag and go about the city as if you were seeing it for the very first time. Notice the people around you-  how they behave, how they talk, how they live. Give attention to the small kids playing along the pavement, or the lack thereof. Take notes of observations of the places you visit. Breathe in the fresh air in a park (or the foul air of a really small alley). Really taste the food you order for your mid-day break as if you might never come back to that restaurant again after your trip. Take the time to listen to your tuk-tuk rider’s story. Take pictures, loads and loads of pictures. Sketch a place or two. Go clubbing with strangers. Do whatever you normally do when you’re on a holiday in a strange land.

The cons of this is that you might have to spend say, $15, and not able to hang out or work for a day. But the upside? Well, the upside is that you can slow down, and really witness the great lumbering beast of a city you’ve taken for granted for too long and maybe come up with one or two fresh new observations of the people you call your neighbors, the culture you call yours, and the place you call your own.

(Featured image credit: Parinha Seyhak)

Complimentary reading on why you shouldn’t be too eager to travel out of your city)

Kids Are Awesome, No Kidding

In Cambodia, it’s common to see parents paying attention to the behavioral development of children only when they are five years old. (Cough cough namely, when the children are enrolled into pre-schools and are found to have problems socializing or following instructions.)

A closely-held belief is that children, aged between 1-3 are just blank paper, waiting for us to teach them how to survive in the world, so parents only concern themselves with teaching the young ones how to walk, or talk. They think the social, emotional, and cognitive lessons can come later. THEN they’d spend years asking themselves, “How did this happen?” when the child turned out to be lacking in either cognitive, emotional or social skills even as adults. The crucial thing is that in the past few decades, research has shown that the first few years of our lives actually play a huge rule in laying the foundation for who we become later on.

Although a few books have been written, well, more like translated on this phenomena, I doubt the information is that widely spread, which calls for a more accessible spread of information, *drumroll* like this movie called The Beginning of Life, directed and written by Estela Renner.

The Beginning of Life is a heartwarming, informative feature documentary about how important the first years of human lives are. It was was filmed across Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Italy, Kenya and the United States, following the early lives of (simply adorable) babies and their family from various background ranging from stay-at-home dads, to same-sex couples, and single parents. You name it; they have it. It was also sprinkled with experts in the field of childhood development.

I think the central message is that instead of regarding children aged from 1-3 as blank slates, waiting for our input, we should regard them as what they really are: tiny adorable scientists. The reason is when we regard them as puppets, waiting for us to teach them how to live, we’re more prone to controlling behaviors when they do something we deem as unreasonable. We yell at them when they drop the spoon, again and again, (and again) even after the tenth time of us telling them not to. However, if we think of them as tiny alien scientists, trying to do experiments to find out who they are, and how the world works, instead of being annoyed at the spoon dropping, you’ll see that the baby is just trying to test their hypothesis about the dropping of the spoon.

“If I drop this, it will make a sound. Will it make another sound if I did it like this? Again? And again?” or
“Every time I do this, uncle does this ugly frowny face. What if I do it again, but this time, farther than before?” And when you do indeed end up with an ugly frowny face, the baby will all be like, “Yay, I understand uncle now!”

In these formative first years, the movie explains, what the baby needs from us is not total controlling instructions on how to live, but a good lab partner, who is willing to support them when they find themselves in sticky shit (sometimes literally). Instead of holding their hands and guide them through life, what they need is the freedom to explore, but with a hand at their back, ready to embrace them should they fall. The movie also shows the cliche but very true power of love. Affection from the adults around them, whether it’s from a single parent, a stay-at-home dad, a same sex couple, as long as it’s pure affection shown by attention, even something as simply as replying to their blabber, is enough to give the child self esteem which is crucial in motivating the child to explore, to persist, and to ultimately find success, not just in their early years, but throughout their lives as well.

I think everyone, even those who are not a parent, and not thinking of becoming one anytime soon, should watch this movie. Apart from the squeals you get from seeing too many cute children and their families, you can also reinforce your new view of small babies as tiny alien scientists. I mean, after watching this movie, I went out for a lunch break and spent a good 10 minute playing sword fighting (more like tooth pick fighting) with a 3 year old child. Sometimes, it’s good to get out of our conceptual adult mindset once in a while and just simply giggle with a child after you’ve lost to them in a sword fight.

You can watch the trailer of The Beginning of Life here, watch the movie on iTunes, and the six-episode series on Netflix, or find more information on how to watch it on Videocamp (here)! If you don’t mind waiting, keep your eyes out for UNICEF Cambodia’s possible free screening of this movie in the future (follow them here)!

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Ten Taren Ten Ten Ten

You are my ice cream man.

And no, not the kind I know you’re all thinking about,
but genuine ice cream. The kind that makes kids run wild after an ice cream seller on a September afternoon, screaming, “Uncle, uncle! Give me one!”

Every time I meet you, my inner bells launch a series of off-tune jingles, which sound a lot like holidays and naps on the beach. Your sparkling eyes remind me too much of a shining droplet of juicy goodness reflected off of sunlight. And when we talk, I feel like you’re the coconut to my ka-rem, the mold to my orange soda ice cream. The irony is, with you, I am the one who melts.

 

But you are also not my ice cream man.

Because I remember living in a second floor of a run down building. Cheap white paints, narrow stairs and a busy street. We never got much money to go around between the four of us, but I always managed to save some for you.

Then it was time to wait.

And wait.

And wait. Until that familiar jingles come around the corner. I’d scream at the top of my lungs, from the bottom of my heart. Stop. Stop. Notice me. I want you. Stop.

But he just went on his merry way, about to make other kids happy no doubt. That’s how you’re not my ice cream man, because I shouted, he didn’t hear;

you heard and you still went on your way.

 

 

How to Not Be an Existential Crippling Little Shiz

It’s 7 in the morning. Sunshine has completed its slow invasion into your bedroom. Outside, you can hear the regular hum of the traffic, of the usual faceless people who are like bees, always buzzing, always have places to go and people to see. As for you, you are lying quite unmovingly on your bed. The ceiling has been the target of your stare for the past ten minutes. If you tilt your head at just the right angle, those three dots on the ceiling actually resemble a smile. But you don’t want to smile, or cry. You’re just lying numb. Compared to the bee people outside, you feel like a rotten tree bark, rooted to one place, slowly slowly wasting away.

Sounds familiar? This is usually my friend’s usual “Oh, my God. What do I do with my life now?” episode after finishing a very good game, but to some people, this can easily be their every morning. You know, to the people who cannot help but constantly think about what they are doing with their life, and always on the lookout for ways to improve.

These people are natural tinkerer. They like to take apart a system, and then figure out how to improve it better. Involve them in a project, and before you know it, you are bombarded with observations and suggestions to make it run smoother.

And they have the same attitude towards life. They like to contemplate life from the outside and would like to ideally find ways to make it perfect. You see these people reading self-improvement books, trying out all the crazy yoga classes, and talking about “finding the meaning of life” with a person they just met 10 minutes ago, or reading this post. (I mean… if you read my blog, admit it, you’re one of us. Welcome home, Tinkerer #205, your spot of the ceiling is there from 5-6pm.)

Jokes aside though, even if it feels very satisfying and undoubtedly helpful to reflect upon your life once in a while, it can become quite inconvenient once you’re in the mood for it for a whole month and cease to be able to function normally in your life.

“Hey, you wanna grab breakfast?”
“No, I can’t. I don’t even know if breakfast is good for you or not, and I have to think about whether to quit my part time job to finally establish that goat farm I’ve always wanted, or should I quit school and become the next Bill Gates? Or…. maybe I should just sell everything and spontaneously move to Thailand and resume a new identity.”

“Uhmmm… okay… Maybe breakfast tomorrow then?”

Weirded-out friends aside, this constant contemplation of life also depletes your energy.

“To being with, it (work) fills a good many hours of the day without the need of deciding what one shall do. Most people, when they are left free to fill their own time according to their own choice are at a loss to think of anything sufficiently pleasant to be worth doing. And whatever they decide on, they are troubled by the feeling that something else would have been pleasanter,” said Bertrand Russell.

It also leaves you with a feeling of guilt because what are you doing with your life by just staring blankly into the air? You decide on something, say, you would like to become the next tortured artist, and you have a goal of improving your sketching techniques.  Day one, you watch a YouTube tutorial and sketch for 30 minutes. Day two, you sketch for another 30 minutes. Day three, you are looking up at the three dots on your ceiling, and spend 30 minutes wondering if you really wish to be an artist after all? What if being the owner of a dog shelter is really your dream?

And so you go back and forth between setting goals, feeling insecure, giving up and feeling guilty.

This is an extremely depressing process because as a tinkerer, you want to be better in life, but you seem to be caught in this perpetual cycle of setting goals and not completing them and stuck staring at nothing for hours on end and the lights at the end of the tunnel seems so far away.

But don’t you worry because there is a simple yet elegant system to keep your daily crisis at bay. The idea is originally from this post, and you should definitely check it out because damn, that person could write!

Anyhow, the idea is to stop yourself from thinking about life. Descend from the cloud of contemplation and actually live out your life.

Think of it like this, you are in a dark room and the only way to get out is to find a hidden door. You can either sit in a corner and think and think and think of where the door should be, or you can get up, feel around and figure it out along the way. And life? Life is a beautiful little dark trap. I don’t think anyone has ever found a door out successfully by just thinking about it (except for Buddha, but that’s a rant for another time). Most people learn to live a better life by groping shakily in the dark and gradually accumulate wisdoms on where to go and what to do. The point is, live life. Stop thinking about what to do and just do it! You will figure it out along the way and you can always take a new turn.

“But how about life contemplation? Is life even worth living if we don’t get to think about it?” you scream. Yes, Tinkerer #205, I hear you. I knew you would feel very irky if I told you to stop thinking, and just living which is why you should incorporate what I call a Meta Day in your month. A Meta Day is the day that you stop living and just do your thinking.

This is how it works.

These past two months, I’ve actually had a routine set up, you know, wake up at this time, do laundry at this day, and sketch at this hour. It’s so regular that my new breakfast place has my order and no-plastic-straw-request memorized. The goal is to free you of as much decision making as possible. You just KNOW what to do most of the time.

I have also chosen the 15th of every month as a Meta Day just because I fancy the fact that it’s the middle of the month. You can choose any day of the month, really. On Meta Day, I use my saving for the month to have a small getaway from town, preferably alone. Needless to say, you don’t have to flee town, but it does help make the Meta Day more exciting. On that day, I just lounge around and think about life. That’s it, none of the usual routine. Then I write down what I should change and/or try out (like maybe I don’t want to improve sketching for now).

After Meta Day, I descend from the cloud and live out my life with newly altered routines to accommodate the changes I have written down (like changing my sketching session to blogging). And the most reassuring point is that I won’t be allowed to change the life direction or routine until my next Meta Day comes around, so suck that, three dots on the ceiling!

I have been doing this for the past two months, and it still amazes me at the amount of help such a simple set up can bring. There you go! Try it out a month or two and see for yourself!

Sugar, Spice and Everything Logical

For a society whose children pretty much memorize the four Prum Viha Thor (roughly translated as the four Brahma’s houses, or good knowledge to house your mind), and for a country which has, through toil and sweat, built literally hundreds of enormous statues symbolizing those four principles (the Bayon Temple, everyone?), the lack of its practice, even in the most “cultured” of citizens, is astonishing.

Meta, Karuna, Obekha, Mutita.
Meta, Karuna, Obekha, Mutita.
Meta, wait, what do these mean again?

When recited too often, with not much explanation, and even less examples in reality have made these concepts too abstract, so abstract that they remain mere letters strung on a paper, rather than practices where you mind should reside in.

Now try blanking your mind, and take a long look at the people you see for a day:

  • How many of them scowl at passer-bys in traffic with their brows knotted, eyes suspiciously screwing, with a barely noticeable sigh? I’m absolutely certain that you’ve been one of them. Or maybe you are looking at these scowling commuters with a scowl firmly fixed upon your face right now! Would you feel this annoyed if you tried to be a bit more understanding?
    “Yes, he’s cutting the line. But then again, he’s probably never had a proper education and was never really taught to think about the little things he does on the road.”
  • How many of the gossips you have overheard would be non-existent if only these people were more open to the possibility that *gasp* maybe they are not the only credible judge in the universe? That others are entitled to have their own motives, struggles and choice as well?
    “She’s so fat…. and that is probably because she feels too helpless in trying to change the way things are.”

When the news of a tragic young teen suicide reaches the public, you bet your ass there are going to be an unending stream of comments which resemble these:

“That kid had everything one could wish for. What a shame she killed herself! Such a waste of space.”

“She was so young, so fresh. I just don’t understand. She shouldn’t have done it.”

“Just a spoilt kid who didn’t know how to handle life.”

Now, how many of the “judges” put the efforts in trying to understand the circumstantial evidence, motives, and influences of the case before handing out their verdicts?

This is an unpopular opinion, but I believe even the government deserves our empathy. What sort of fucked up thing happened to make some of them this corrupted, selfish and so woefully incompetent? As much as I want to dish on the 2017 New Year road sign, if you really think about it, how many competent people are really working for the government? What were the alternatives they had? Or maybe… Maybe that was all they had learnt. Some time before this new year, an official ended his/her day with a sense of pride in his/her chest, believing he/she just made a great contribution to the celebration of his nation’s coming new year.

Of course, at this point, many simply give up on being empathetic altogether because it makes them wushy-smushy. It makes sense that when you are constantly trying to glimpse from others’ viewpoints, there’s this threat of losing your own footing, and the sight from your stance. That’s the risk of not putting your equally valid wants and needs on the agenda.

If you just charge straight from empathy to decision without adding more digits, you might find yourself transformed by your decisions (or lack thereof) into a passive little weed, swaying hither and tither by the wind of people’s perspective, unable to hold a firm stance and introduce any change.

  • That old cocky guy who cut you off in traffic might never learn he’s not as smooth on the road as he thinks he is
  • Your overweight friend who keeps chomping down an alarming amount of weight might never have the push to finally don the gym armor and work out
  • Kids might just get influenced by romanticized suicide (born out of too much empathy, I dare say), and choose to reach the light at the end of the tunnel by themselves instead of braving the road bumps when some minor inconvenience happens
  • and probably the worst of all, our government might just stay slothy, corrupted and continue to produce eye-jarring designs year after year after year.

 

This is exactly when logic comes into play.

After thoroughly (as thoroughly as you can) analyzing the problem from others’ standpoint, zoom out, and zoom back into your own flesh just to make sure you don’t become that boneless little weed. Many nice people run the risk of burning out by being overly compassionate, helping people all the time without taking their own needs and wants into account (we can’t all be Buddha, you know).

Some altruists might claim to be eating just for the sake of having energy to do noble services to others. Well, wouldn’t it be a nicer world to live in, if those altruists also enjoy eating and still able to help people?

Come back into your own perspective. What do you think of this? How does this action affect your wellbeing? For example, you might see where an abusive friend of yours is coming from. They might have had a terribly abusive childhood. Their efforts in building a codependent squad might stem from their insecurity and abandonment issues. Yes, you can see all these motives and past heartbreaks, but how about your side of the sob story? How have you been affected by their actions? Are you willing to put up with their problematic behavior?

And after that, assume you are a floating eye connected wirelessly to a mob of consciousness somewhere looking down at the issue. In case you didn’t catch that totally awesome simile, it’s to look at the issue more objectively (well as objectively as your human flesh allow, anyway). This is done to determine the best course of action which would be in the best interest of the both of you. By doing so, you might:

  • end up creating a workshop, or a social media campaign which aims to educate older people of the little do’s and don’ts on the road.
  • having a heart-to-heart with your friend, and maybe also become her gym buddy.
  • donating to mental illness organizations who provide consultation for suicidal folks.
  • ending a friendship on a relatively good term
  • or when next year comes rolling around, you might try to create a petition for the government to hold a bid for the best design firms for their logo because you’re sure even you can beat last year’s record.

Or… you can just do nothing. But this doing of nothing, laced with empathy is, I believe, still better than doing nothing laced with bitterness and hatred. Buddhism says that to hold onto anger is like palming a burning charcoal. Continue doing it, you burn your palm. Throw it at people, it scorches their bodies. Why not just throw it into the bonfire of life and invite others to join the dance?

In this case, at least one person in the world is less annoyed (hint, hint, it’s you). Now, go get that wall of empathy built. You’re already one fourth of the way to completing your house of mind!

 

For the Sake of Shakespeare, Cross Speedreading out of Your Resolution

Anyone who has tried to build their reading habit has had this one thought, “What if I can read it faster?” and then your mind launches into this dreamy fantasy of you breezing through War and Peace as if it were a boring celebrity magazine with a huge library of books that you’ve finished in the recent years.

It certainly is a sweet fantasy because to be completely honest, reading takes time, a lot of time, the same time that can be spent sleeping, earning money, or hanging out with your family at your back porch.
But should you entertain this fantasy? Should you want to read faster?

I think not. I mean, some things should be sped up for the sake of your sanity, i.e., reading assigned textbooks that were actually written by your professors, but meaningful activities should not be sped up! Do you wish to be at the end of your life, and say with a self-satisfied smile, “Phew, now that’s a quick life. I’m glad I got that over.”

If you have the urge to speed read through your current book, then either you’re reading the wrong way, or the wrong book. It takes time to dig depth and forge intimacy. It doesn’t matter how soon you can breeze through a book, it’s the impact of the book upon your life that counts. Books are not trophy for you to hang upon the wall.

“But I can actually remember the essential information from the book I’ve speed read, so speed reading is not that bad” you said. Well, does that matter? Information can be looked up pretty easily in this age. Books are supposed to make you think, to make you evaluate your life, to see things in a new light. Information gained from books might be enough for you to survive final exams, but to add flavors to your life? That requires more than a few simple hours of leafing through pages. It demands digestion, comparison, and explanation. It demands that you should have an intimate dialogue with the author through the work and ask questions, life-changing questions to your assumptions. And that simply cannot be achieved through speed reading.

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Don’t fall into your ego’s trap and try to surf your way through reading just to increase the amount on your “read” list. And if you’re halfway through the trap already, well, ask yourself, of all the hundred books you’ve boasted of having read, how many can you really recall? How many still emits a warmth in your heart just by thinking about it? Because great books? Great books that you’ve thoroughly read on the pages and between the lines? They stay with you. They might not always float through your consciousness, but just like a beautiful childhood memory, they will visit you from time to time and leave a trail of perfume scents on its wake.

“But.. but, this book is too long. It’s 700 pages! How can I possibly enjoy reading it slowly?” you ask. Well, if it’s a great book, you will have to bear it. Great lives have boring period and great books have boring sections. Would you rather read 3 mediocre, plot-driven books that you are likely to forget 2 months from now instead? That’s like wishing to have 3 acquaintances whose names you will only remember for a week instead of a close friend who knows all your woes and happiness. A deep friendship takes lots of time and struggle to form but once it’s established, it adds so much more value to your life than three acquaintances whom you occasionally party with. Books are the same. If you really wish to gain wisdom from the compacted thought of a person in the form of a book, to savor the enjoyment of pacing a new world, then I’d suggest you to not speed read. Take your time. Look at the cover. Spend time with the characters. Study their motives. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Appreciate the author’s way of constructing a new world through a dozen squiggles on the page. Soak in the sunshine of metaphors. Now, even if you’re not big on fiction, you can do the same with non-fictions. Don’t just pace through the book. Read it and spend some time turning the concept over. Prod it from several different angles. Draw your own examples. I assure you, reading is much more satisfying and helpful in the long run that way.

The irony here is that, as you spend more time soaking up books in the appropriate pace for you to comprehend, you will actually increase your reading skills and be able to read faster. Don’t believe me? Read a few of these blog posts about the flaws of speed reading techniques and do your own research!

https://www.wired.com/2017/01/make-resolution-read-speed-reading-wont-help/

https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2015/01/19/speed-reading-redo/

http://lifehacker.com/the-truth-about-speed-reading-1542508398