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Joel S.

What words could grasp this?

By 2010, Asia No Comments

This will be my final blog as a traveler and as a pilgrim with St. Stephen University. I had so recently traveled through Europe this past summer, and it seems like only days have passed since I arrived from being in Southeast Asia this fall. I am among a handful of students who decided to travel to these two completely different areas in a time span of 4 months.

What words could grasp what I would like to express right now?

This is the first blog post for which I don’t have words. What happened in the last 4 months is unlike any 4 months I have ever experienced (and probably ever will experience, due to the unique travel context SSU offers). What is now entering my mind are fragments of pieces of culture, growth, knowledge, understanding, lessons, and difficulties, too. As I begin to process these things, different memories of specific moments stand out at different times (there are so many of them). Some of the most recent memories include riding on the backs of elephants through Thai hill sides and across Thai rivers.

And now, I remember the distinctive characteristics of my two different home-stay families (one home-stay was in the Philippines, one was in Thailand – both were phenomenal, but altogether entirely different in terms of their family environment, worldview, and means of hospitality).

Q. After what I have seen and learned, how can I possibly continue to view the world as if inside a box? I must remember that there is always more to know.

So my eyes have become prisms. I have noted before that I have discovered the world to be a greatly complex and intricate place. I have grasped this in a way that has required the experience itself, and cannot be adequately measured or expressed in words, only. I have taken gifts which will stay with me for the rest of my life, allowing me to recognize a world outside of my own, one that is filled with a multitude of angles and perspectives, colors and shades. What this certainly will do, is provide me with a more enhanced means of analyzing and interpreting my own worldview.

Who I am, at my very core, has been broadened.

Here I go. Signing out.


Mawage, oh, mawage (Princess Bride reference).

By 2010, Asia No Comments

Hello, crew, friends, family, readers.

I will now answer to the things that have interested me lately through my stay in the illustrious city of Chang Mai, Thailand. More than any other place in Asia, I have seen a far greater amount of Caucasian people, Europeans, Americans, Australians, and the like. We are not viewed with the same type of ‘celebrity’ or ‘alien-like’ status as has been the case in the other SE Asian countries. One of the strangest observations, to me, is seeing the (many!) culturally intermixed couples where an older, Caucasian man is in relations with a young, beautiful Thai woman. To add more context, I will state the moment where a young Thai woman asked me (half jokingly, albeit half seriously) that she wanted to come to Canada with me to be my wife. It seems to actually be the case that Thai women will be much more inclined to marry a non Thai, and instead  European or American men.

I learned about the different Thai customs in marriage, where there is more emphasis for the Thai woman to act in service to her husband. My homestay father told me: “when a European man comes here to find a wife, he knows that he will get A) a wife B) a maid, and C) a nurse, all in one”. In contrast to this, in America and Europe it seems there is more emphasis on male chivalry (and, perhaps the notion that man and wife serve each other by equal measure – keeping a stable balance). However, given these things about Thai marriage customs, it makes perfect sense that a Thai woman would want a marriage that is culturally intermixed, likely as a liberation from these customs.

So, not only would she not feel compelled to abide by these customs, but she might find a man that acts in chivalry and in service to her instead, AND, it might be the case that he has a lot of money in his pockets. This also works in favor for the old American man who has experienced divorce and can then find a chance for love (can I call it ‘love’?) with a younger woman.

With this whole picture, I am left with mixed feelings, and am not exactly sure what to think. With all the variables at hand, what type of moral judgments am I to make? Perhaps there is nothing wrong with the old white man to desire a second chance at romance here in Thailand? (What would I do as an old, lonely man with no wife at his side?) Though, is this really the right type of liberation for the Thai woman? … ahem. Let’s step back for a moment. Why am I so interested in this? I don’t know. But it is plainly interesting. In any case, I do not mean this as a staunch critique of the Thai culture in general, as there have clearly been many, many things that I have come to appreciate with great depth, as well.

On a completely different note, from the Buddhist monks, I have grasped great treasures in learning about their methods of meditation. I will be sure to use them as a means of both relaxation and clarity of mind, even when I exit Asia and enter back into Canadian life. I am grateful for this, alone.

The adventure is almost over. How will I reflect on all that has happened in the spaces that come when I return home? How will I notice the changes within myself? Only time will tell. I look towards the future as a person who has gained treasures, who has truly learned and experienced, and who will – beyond any doubt – never be the same.


Cultural Malaysia

By 2010, Asia No Comments

Upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I shifted mental gears to approach the different modes of cultural diversity revealed to me. I am now in a different place than I was before, apart from the fond and cherished memory of the Philippines. The citizens of the Philippines, as a people, seemed to share more similar distinctions. I noticed that there was a certain distinction within the flavors of ethnic history that brought them together (the Spanish influence seemed especially evident on their appearance, for example). Most people I encountered there seemed to also follow either a Protestant or Catholic tradition.

Our home-stay experience gave us a specific perspective on Philippine culture, for which the location of our hotel being in ‘Little India’ also gives us a unique perspective on the culture here in Malaysia. However, here it seems there is an even greater mix of people and perspective.

A basic example of this is when I was waiting in line for Burger King (at this point, I was admittedly craving Western Food). Behind me, two completely different people – an Arab and a Chinese Malay – were communicating in badly spoken, substandard English. I quickly realized that English was not their primary language. They were evidently speaking in English because they could not, in fact, speak each others first language. This is an interesting account of people who have chosen to overcome social, ethnic, or otherwise communicative barriers in a very culturally mixed nation so that they can unite (the pair, though speaking badly, were speaking with enthusiasm).

I am at a place where there is an undeniable influence of many things, whether it be the ever pervasive Western Influence, along with the Muslim, Arab, Indian, and Chinese aspects, among others – including religious distinctions. From my point of view, I could not actually tell you or bring a clear picture as to what a stereotypical Malaysian citizen actually is. In any case, it is undeniable that I benefiting greatly from experiencing a great multitude of influences. I look forward to what other mysteries lie ahead in Thailand! Again I will enter as the minority, this Canadian-German. Out.

we are the aliens

By 2010, Asia No Comments

When stepping off the airplane after a flight of over 15 hours, I was taken by bus to a hotel. Weary from traveling, I looked out of the bus window and could see immediately that I had now entered an entire new world in Manilla, Philippines.

Along urban regions that were darkened by the coming night, the reality of the Philippines as a 3rd world country became visible. The tiny, clustered shacks, tin roofs and cloth-covered houses stood in close quarters to the industrial Western influence – the large, Americanized billboards, the ‘Americanized’ malls & restaurants. Side by side with expensive Porsches, among other nice vehicles, I then looked to see the numerable rusty, self-assembled ‘Jeepneys’. Independent Taxi service is clearly big business in this big city.

After spending more than 10 days here, I have also seen the immense amount of joy and love among these people, despite the considerably frugal conditions that some live under. The Filipino, I have learned, consists of a great mix of heritages, ethnic backgrounds and traditions. Within that blend, I sense the type of important unity of a people-group who are greatly accountable to one another. Family is of the greatest importance.

The warm smiles and joyful faces are everywhere as we greet and wave to people. I dare to say that I do not think we in the West would quite readily embrace foreigners with the same level of welcome.

Many customs and practices remain unfamiliar and new. I am entering a place where everything I see is completely interesting to me. It is a world where I am the alien, and I know with certainty that there is much from this cultural experience that I will be able to bring with me on my return home.


Europe Full Circle

By 2010, Asia, Europe No Comments

Returning to the normalcy of home life, and being once again immersed in familiar routines and in the mundane, it is strange to imagine that I was once in the most majestic of places, such as Florence, Italy. It wasn’t long ago that I was in Salzburg, standing inside Adolf Hitler’s hidden bunker. It was only a month ago that I was in Bruges, Belgium, gazing up at the wondrous St. Salvator Cathedral. There are parts of this trip for which the memory of them now seems almost surreal, like a dream, because of its great contrasts to the Canadian living experience. There is already a longing within me to return to what I had encountered in Europe, with the constant exposure to history, its ancient beauty, and its cultural magnitudes.

I DARED to share this feeling with a group: if there is anything that I have grasped from the Europe trip, it is that the world is so much bigger than myself. Think about this. Not only are you but one human being amongst billions who dwell the earth, each with their own story and unique cultural heritage, but you also live on a tiny planet amongst an entire universe that is indescribably more immense. The thought of being like a speck of sand on a grand, cosmic beach is something that scares me at times, but it also leaves me in awe. And I am left in awe from being on the Europe trip, because I am now fully aware that the earth is a grand and intricate place; there is much to learn about it, and so much to experience. I can no longer imagine keeping any part of myself boxed in, when everything within me now acknowledges that there is so much more. Looking at the view from the top of of Montserrat, Spain, is one of many experiences that confirmed this understanding.

Your Rop

By 2010, Europe No Comments

As someone who uses art as a means for contemplation (and often times, therapy), I would have to allow myself to be quite passive in order to not be affected by the art we’ve seen in Europe.

My favorite movement in art history is probably Impressionism, because of their creative innovations that break away from the rules and structure of art’s establishment. It is interesting to think how new worlds can open up once you bend the rules a little! Should art be given formulaic constraints? The Impressionists saw that art should roam free.

Aside from being inspired by great art and great minds, I am also impacted in other ways through our experiences. I have been shaken, as well. I will never forget walking through the Dachau concentration camp and suddenly feeling no sense of morality, losing any grasp of good and evil. Nietzsche was right, God is dead and everything is permissible;  my mind went to chaos. I then realized the spiritual element to this.  I realized that I was impacted so much precisely because of the inherent worth that exists in all of human kind, a type of value that is indeed God-given. When you enter a place where people have experienced suffering through extreme oppression, a place where their inherent value has been utterly rejected, you cannot leave without feeling something.

Our journey through Europe ends soon! And I will not leave it an unchanged man.

Joel S.

Contrasts (far away, so close)

By 2010, Europe No Comments

Because of the immense complexity of both culture and history in Europe, it is easy to miss many of the details we are confronted with here. Of course, there are also a lot of details for a person to take in and absorb, with powerful revelation. As for me, I’ve noticed the contrast between extravagance and subtlety. Some memorable observations include the line up to the magnificent Vatican museum in Rome where I saw cripples and beggars, some laying flat on their face, in the midst of apparent desperation. They appeared in sharp distinction to Rome, an affluent masterpiece; Rome a prosperous centre point of both historical and artistic significance (questions here remain unanswered).

In many of the cities we have traveled to we saw street vendors attempting to make ends meet, as well as unknown sketchers and painters who stood in the shadows of some of the most legendary and influential artists of all time. We saw the magnificence of St. Peter’s Basilica, a magnificence that, in all its glory and visual momentum, swept me completely off my feet.  Days later we saw the subtle and reserved nature of the peaceful churches in Assissi. Despite the differences, I was drawn to both with a similar notion of awe and wonder. We learned about Francis’s legacy in his dedication to Christ through the stern rejection of material culture (his legacy of materialistic rejection and an ultimate focus on God is influential to my own life perspective), and then we saw ‘Francis of Assisi’ collectibles displayed in the shops nearby, an unfortunate contradiction to his legacy. Everywhere we go, we see the tiny shops that stand in close quarters to monuments and sites of magnificence. We see people who live enthusiastically in the present, with appreciation for the powerful history that seems to bind everything together.

As I have witnessed, Europe is so enriched with its extravagance and its simplicity, its contradictions and its points of focus, its failures and immense achievements. I am affected by the tiny details as much as I am by the grand ones. It is impossible to proceed through Europe without being affected, and with excitement I enter further into its gates, deeper into its mystery.

Joel S.

Reliving Europe

By 2010, Europe No Comments

For me, Europe is a place once experienced as a child, and now, 11 years later, I will relive it as an adult.  Europe to me is a memory, filled with mystique and allure, with the experience of having been fluent in a language with which I could interact with other kids my age in Neunkirchen, Germany (the language itself can only be recollected now in abstract terms).  Back then, my brothers and I used the Deutsche Mark to buy snacks from the local corner store.  We traveled across the continent with our family, and there are pictures in my mind of castles, monuments, gorgeous villas and marketplaces.

In less than a week, I will approach this great place, where can I expect to have both the sense of familiarity and newness, as an adult.  The nostalgia will inevitably be mixed with novelty, and as an adult who has studied Europe in depth through the SSU curriculum, and as an artist who has now studied the history and the progression of art, my experience in Europe will surely be valuable beyond measure.

Chaim Potok’s insight into what it means to be an artist (as lived through the character Asher Lev) has been especially influential in how I will choose to absorb what I see around me.  As Asher chooses to digest ‘new worlds’ and open up his mind so that he can integrate it into his art, the same philosophy will apply to me as an artist as I broaden my worldview, become exposed to dynamic aspects of culture, and view majestic pieces of art that have changed and refined this world.

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