In Myanmar, Learning What is at Stake in Our Travels

In the summer after my freshman year of college I travelled alone through Myanmar. I used as a guide not Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor, but Somerset Maugham’s book The Gentleman in the Parlour, his travel diary of reflections and stories from a trip through Indochina in the early 1920s. I travelled by river, as Maugham did, on a restored Irrawaddy Flotilla Company steamship; I visited the sights that he wrote of, and stayed in the same hotel in Rangoon (now Yangon). Along the way I saw Myanmar through Maugham’s eyes, though that doesn’t mean I agreed with his descriptions.

There were surreal moments when I felt as though I was in Maugham’s world entirely, as though not a single thing had changed in the intervening 91 years. In these moments it took something to break the scene for me to realise I lived in a different world to Maugham’s. One evening I sat on the top deck of the ship which was tied up on the banks of the Irrawaddy near Mandalay. I was reading The Gentleman in the Parlour, as I did each day of my trip, but the passages I read that night were of the exact sights and sounds that I presently looked at; his ship might’ve been tied up in the exact spot mine was, and that evening’s weather and sunset seemed identical. As he recorded it: “The sun set on the other side of the river and a red cloud in the west was reflected in the tranquil bosom of the Irrawaddy. There was not a ripple on the water. The river seemed no longer to flow. In the distance a solitary fisherman in a dug-out plied his craft. A little to one side but in full view was one of the loveliest of the pagodas. In the setting sun its colours, cream and fawn-grey, were soft like the silk of old dresses in a museum… It was impressive to reflect that it had stood for so many centuries and looked down impassively upon the smiling bend of the Irrawaddy.” But I’m obliged to add to Maugham’s summary that in the background of this majestic scene were the guffaws of Americans and Australians, along with the perpetual droning of outboards attached to barges. Thousands of famished mosquitoes settled in for a feast despite their hosts’ best efforts to keep them out of the pantry, and a Californian felt the need to show off his camera’s new electronic viewfinder to all passengers nearby. It was thirty-three degrees celsius, the humidity unbelievable, and my clothes still stuck to me after the day’s stroll in Mandalay.

When one reads The Gentleman in the Parlour one can’t help but think that Maugham had the unique ability to never experience anything in his travels that detracted even slightly from a moment’s perfection. But moments when the spell was broken showed me how unlikely it was that that was the reality—only the reality he chose to pass on to his admiring and well-paying readers. Speculation, yes, but surely the mosquitoes were louder and noisier, more vicious, and as Maugham was later to discover, more likely to be carrying malaria. Surely his fellow passengers were equally as obnoxious at the wrong times, and roaming dogs, rabid, frightened him during the last few seconds of an Irrawaddy sunset. I’m not able to believe that Maugham was a traveler immune to every annoyance, perfectly calm and able to take everything as equally beautiful and part of a scene.

If that is true, then he was no different to any of us today. If Maugham were to make a Facebook account (despite the chuckle that image causes) he would fill it with beautiful pictures of himself frowning-smiling, as he did, in front of the sights of the “East”. Drink in hand, he would pose on the sun deck of the Flotilla Company steamer at sunset, next to friends and locals and other glamorous people, thinking of the sighs of awe that his reading public would let out when they see the photo on a foul London day. Travel writing was, in Maugham’s time, an earlier version of the Facebook glamour shot, available to the adventurous and wealthy few. We all engage in Maugham-style omission, projecting only the highlight-reel of our lives, and some seem to relish the thought of friends’ jealousy back home as much as I’m sure Maugham did.

Or perhaps there’s another explanation, which I was only able to see when re-reading Maugham after my trip: that I’m only able to speak of perfection and annoyances—I’m only conscious of them as an idea while traveling—because I view everything through the lens of Maugham’s writing and the perfected photos I’ve previously seen. I’m conditioned to seek out those “perfect” times, as defined by others’ photos and stories, so full of omission. If that is true, then travel is a search for the unattainable: nowhere, at any time, will ever come near to our preconceived notions. And out of fear of being viewed as inauthentic travellers, or unable to admit that the reality did not live up to the vision, we go home to partake in our own omission with curious friends, family, strangers… propagating that irreconcilable chasm between expectation and reality. It is telling that I couldn’t see this while in Myanmar, but only when I left and could look back on myself as a traveller.

I first remember critically reflecting on Maugham’s book that one evening on the top deck of the ship, right after the sun had set and I struggled to believe that Maugham’s descriptions were honest. But it is only recently that I’ve come to critically reflect on my own journey, on myself as a traveller and my use of Maugham as a guide.

I travelled to Myanmar because I wanted to see a country I’d heard so much about, and I used Maugham’s book as a guide because I wanted to view it through an historical lens. But in retrospect perhaps that was a mistake. I viewed the country through an historical lens, yes, but a lens that was so tied up with empire and colonialism that it was almost dangerous. On a separate trip to Phnom Penh in Cambodia I again stayed in a hotel that Maugham had stayed in and which he had written about in The Gentleman in the Parlour. Coincidentally—and these sorts of occurrences are what created my link to Maugham as a writer in the first place—I was placed in the hotel’s “Somerset Maugham suite”. On one level this was exciting, an inexplicable coincidence that left me examining every object in the room for signs of his long-ago presence. But in another sense it was troubling. It sold Maugham’s colonial lifestyle to wealthy travellers who never stepped back to question what it meant for a European traveller to be quite literally buying, for a few days, that life.

Writers often envelop us, holding us tightly when we read lines that cut to the heart of our thoughts and attitudes. These create powerful bonds that can often last a lifetime, and indeed there were aspects of this to the way I read Maugham—his attitudes to his own country while abroad, his patriotism, his descriptions of personalities he liked and disliked. But what I’m realising now is how we become different people through reading, no matter how much we have in common with the authors whose works we read. I’ve now read Maugham in over six Southeast Asian countries, three of them since my trip through Myanmar, and what has been more valuable than that trip to begin with has been seeing how my own attitudes have changed, including my attitude towards my own trip. My journey through Myanmar now seems to me less a grand adventure than merely a continuation of colonial influence and Orientalism in Southeast Asia, the sign of an unreflective teenager succumbing to the lure of pomp and grandiosity in what once seemed a part of the “exotic” “Orient”. Just as Orwell left Burma in disgust at his own role in the dynamics of empire, I too now worry about the systems of ideas and knowledge that led me to consider such a trip, and which blocked me and the other travellers I encountered from seeing the part we were playing in a larger historical narrative. Only now, years after my journey, can I see how Maugham’s version of the Facebook glamour shot kept me, just as it keeps many of us, from seeing what was really at stake in my travels.

Learning How To Do Nothing

I don’t remember the crash.

I was riding my bike in a race at West Point, the United States Military Academy. The peloton of over 80 riders was moving fast, over 60km/h, on a gradual downhill section. It was a wonderfully sunny day, one of the first since a New England winter that had sucked the vitality out of landscapes and people, and everyone was riding hard but still able to enjoy the springlike roads and scenery. I was right in the middle of the pack of riders, sheltered from the wind, and as the speeds picked up on the downhill I had that magical feeling that comes from riding in a group at high speeds—the smooth sound of aerodynamic bodies and bikes slicing through the wind, the clicking of expensive freehubs rotating as sheltered riders pedalled softly. The riders around me all had the same feeling, and we couldn’t help but exchange grins despite being competitors.

A slight unexpected movement amongst the riders ahead of me. Then I’m on my back on the concrete, my legs tangled at inhuman angles with my bike, one foot still clipped into a pedal, and I’m doing mental checks to determine the damage to my body. Pain everywhere, blood down my left arm and leg, an intense, sharp jabbing pain in my tailbone, difficulty moving my right leg. I didn’t know it at the time—it must have been the adrenaline—but the tailbone wasn’t my main concern. The medics, when they reached me after checking on some of the other riders who had broken bones, noticed immediately that my helmet was shattered. I still don’t know if I had passed out or for how long, but the pain and dizziness in my head hit me a few hours later while I waited to be seen in a nearby hospital.

Concussion. Which, my doctor tells me, science still knows relatively little about. I was prescribed ’cognitive rest’, which essentially involves this: do nothing to stress your brain, in the same way you wouldn’t work out after pulling a muscle. No reading, no intense conversations, no laptop, and as little phone as possible. Maintain this regimen until you feel better.

The first couple of days after my crash were confusing and irritating, and I cannot emphasise the difficulty I had in avoiding the magnet-like pull of my phone to my hand. But with time came ease of thought and a clarity of mind that I have not felt before. There just seemed to be so much time. From the moment I woke up and proceeded  to not spend the next ten minutes checking emails and Facebook, life was slower and more internal. Each hour lasted longer, and evenings stretched on. It was an unbelievable change from the busyness and rushing and stress and the feeling that there was never enough time in a day that I’d had throughout the previous week, month, years.

I kept wondering what to do with my eyes. Over breakfast I stared into my coffee, stared into my bowl, stared blankly at the table, and felt absurd for not doing anything. I couldn’t pretend to read a newspaper and couldn’t pull out my phone, which is our automatic act whenever faced with being alone with nothing else to do. I feared what people would think of me sitting alone and just staring, doing nothing at all other than thinking.

Our society is one that seeks productivity and disdains anything that isn’t, so much so that the feeling of what I call leisure guilt is one most of us are familiar with. Leisure guilt is that niggling in the mind during activities we find pleasurable but which don’t involve a laptop. I get it when I’m out cycling or when I go for a walk, when I spend a little too long with friends over dinner talking politics, and when I’m reading a book unrelated to schoolwork. I’ve even had leisure guilt when spending too long on class readings I’m enjoying, because I should be moving on more quickly to other tasks. Leisure guilt says this isn’t going to help you achieve anything, get back to work.

If we feel leisure guilt even when reading or discussing politics with friends it’s no surprise we feel it when doing precisely nothing. Doing nothing these days usually involves lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram; it needs to be distinguished from properly doing nothing nothing. The latter can even seem impossible. Who these days sits on a park bench with their hands on their knees and stares into space? Where would you even look? Wouldn’t people think you’re strange? And if you do try it, the urge to pull out your phone can become all too great to resist.

Another word for doing nothing is ‘daydreaming’, which is often used as an insult. It implies unproductiveness, impracticality, a head in the clouds. No one wants to be called a daydreamer, that person alone on the park bench staring awkwardly into space. Yet with my concussion, unable to be productive and do things, I could really only do exactly that—sit on a bench in the sun at Yale’s Cross Campus and daydream, letting my mind wander as it pleased.

Daydreaming is the antithesis of productivity. Productivity is to be sought and daydreaming avoided, society says. Where daydreaming at its best still leads to nothing tangible, productivity gives us the pleasure of ticking off to-dos, sending emails, reading pages, writing words and crunching numbers. Productivity leads to results we can see, and makes us feel good about ourselves. With limited time each day and a culture of busy, who would consciously take time to daydream, to do nothing?

But what crashing my bicycle taught me is that we undervalue doing nothing—and even if we realise its value, it is a process to learn how to do it.

The truth is that without daydreaming our productive time may be spent on activities that weren’t worth pursuing in the first place. To focus solely on productivity, without ever giving ourselves space and time to daydream, is like starting to cook a meal before knowing what you want to eat or even having a recipe. It is to ask yourself a more specific question before asking yourself the larger question that determines which specific questions to ask. You don’t go to the supermarket before asking yourself whether you even need anything, and you don’t start cooking before knowing what you’re making. And yet when it comes to productivity, we frequently fill our days with tasks before giving ourselves the space to ask whether those tasks are ones we ultimately want or need to be doing in the first place.

Life sweeps our bicycles out from under us. Had I not had time to do nothing, I would have learned nothing from my crash. Yet having had this time, I maintain that daydreaming’s most important function is in giving us the mental space to answer fundamental questions about ourselves and our lives. Productivity is merely time spent, never to be recovered, unless it is done with a purpose that is well understood. We must give ourselves the time and space to form the blueprints of our lives, and to do that we must realise the absurdity of our leisure guilt.

Connecting the Dots of Our Lives

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Steve Job’s Stanford commencement address is one of those talks I rediscover perhaps once a year, watch twice in a row, feel that my life has changed, and then forget about a few days later. As much as I want to hold onto all that wisdom and let it change me, life always seems to get in the way.

I wrote recently about the difficulties with wanting to go abroad to do something different, to discover new interests and passions. To go abroad for study, for instance, requires an application that forces you to outline how this experience “aligns with your academic and career goals”. To be honest—to say simply that it doesn’t align, and that’s precisely the point—is to put you in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario with other applicants.

But I think that’s applicable not just to going abroad, but to what we want to do with our lives. Perhaps part of the reason I forget again and again about Jobs’ speech after feeling so deeply moved is that the daily reality of thinking about my future forces me to connect the dots looking forward.

Yale’s Office of Career Services recently asked me to send them my latest resume in order to talk through how it will set me up for the type of work I want to do over summer and after graduation. Through even requesting a resume, the question asked of us is not what do you want to do, but what can you do. The entire conversation is framed from there, with possibilities built on who we were rather than what we want to be and what we could be. We are incentivised by college career offices and employers to connect the dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging. That is a fallacy, an ever so costly one, and we must recognise that change is the point of our education. To leave college on the same path as one began leaves me wondering again what our time here was for.

A resume is the ultimate dot-connecter, and it requires that those dots are perfectly linear. I’ve heard from other students who went to their college career services office, who sat down with an adviser and were instantly labelled. “I can see from your resume that you will go into public policy”, the adviser says confidently, going off two previous public sector summer jobs the individual had listed.

Those summer jobs themselves were chosen by happenstance and serendipity! At age 20, to be told what career options are open to you based on a cumulative four months’ work! You wanted to be home one summer, you knew someone who offered you an interesting job, so you took it. Chance, fortuity; taking opportunities as they are presented: this is the right thing to do, and it is not connecting the dots forward. But to then be told by someone, supposedly a professional who knows how to best set you up for a career, that your dots will align only with a limited range of others… Your life’s work decided by happenstance!

I exaggerate, but perhaps only slightly.

And we know the answer were we to say, no, that’s not what I want to do with my life, in fact I want to be an artist and work on climate change. “But what experience do you have?” Job applications list as a requirement “former relevant work experience”. Your adviser tells you, “You’re competing for this museum curation job with other applicants who have spent the past three summers in that type of work. Why would they take you over them?” Friends and family say about your public policy job offer, “it’s a fantastic opportunity and a prestigious career, you should be pleased.” Resignedly, you decide that perhaps the public policy job wouldn’t be so bad. And so you connect one more summer’s dot, and as that line becomes longer it becomes yet more difficult to begin a new set of dots entirely. Each dot acts as a magnet, drawing yet more similar dots to it, and the more there are the stronger the magnetic field becomes. Two dots connect on your resume and decide the next fifty for you.

I exaggerate, but perhaps not much.

In class with David Brooks this semester we spent a few sessions discussing how to choose and shape a career. We were discussing careers in the traditional narrative of “needing the stars to line up”, in the same way that Jobs talked about your dots connecting. Someone frustratedly said “It’s not about how well the stars line up, but how creatively you draw a constellation between them.” I hadn’t heard that before, and it hit home.

The same advice is embedded in Jobs’ talk. From India to calligraphy to Mac OS is no path that a career adviser could ever have seen, or which Jobs could have put on a resume. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He did what he felt was right, and later, after working out what he wanted to do, realised how these past experiences could make him better at whatever work he wanted to devote himself to. Had Jobs met with a career adviser or needed to apply for a job through a resume, where would he have ended up? What creativity, passion and talent would have been wasted?

We need to be aware of how our personal narratives and the lives they lead to are shaped by the structures of resumes and career thinking. Without understanding this, well-meaning career advice may hold us back from drawing a constellation between the dots of our lives, forcing us instead to draw an all-too-straight line between them.

“Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?”

A: Also, I have a philosophical question for you. Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?

B: Thinking about life is one of the only things we can do that transcends our own lives. It speaks to something more timeless, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a life, in fact.

It’s kind of the eternal conversation. It’s internal, it’s you grappling with your own mind, I would even say it’s the only way to work out what being human actually is.

A: Hmmmm…

But by that metric we might as well have been born brains only.

What’s the point of having able bodies if we spend all our time inside our heads? Or what’s the point of having such a gigantic diverse interesting special world, and special people in it, if all our time is spent thinking about things we haven’t necessarily lived?

B: I’d say it supports the mind. Without being a body in the world, with those special people, we wouldn’t have anything to feed the mind with.

It’s the physical experience that gives rise to thinking about life. Unless you’re Descartes.

A: Right, exactly! Hence my question.. We spend all this time thinking without actually having the physical experiences to give basis to those thoughts.

We think about the physical experiences of others, be them fictional or historical characters.

Rather than going out there and having them ourselves.

B: How do we make sense of our own experiences in the world unless we’ve given thought to the experiences of others before us? We’d be actors going onto the stage cold, it’d be as if we lived in a vacuum where no one had lived before us. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate ignorant life, animal-like?

A: No, I mean… of course we should give thought to others’ experiences, but I think we often leave it at that.

But also life is not a play that needs to be put on properly… it doesn’t require rehearsal, the whole point of life is that no matter how much you read or prepare, it’s never going to go as planned.

I’ve been thinking about this because on Friday my friends and I were playing never have I ever, and I realized that I know a lot and I study a lot, but that very often I don’t live my life to the fullest.

And not even in the way of doing crazy things, but of just experiencing things for myself rather than taking others’ word for it.

B: Now you sound like Kundera, and I hadn’t even realised where I got that earlier phrase from: “Because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come… We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”

And one part of me has always loved that phrase, wanted so desperately to agree with it in order to feel that lightness, to just live without the burden of all those who have lived before and all who will live afterwards. But—and I don’t know how to properly describe this—I feel like that’s abdicating some human responsibility.

A: Human responsibility to what?

B: I get asked that a lot (including by you!): do you actually live? You don’t drink, you don’t go out, everything is so structured and ordered, what new experiences are you having, how do you know what kind of life you want to lead without trying? And the truth is I’ve never really wondered, because the decision not to do those things has been so firm. There’s a million things you could do and you’ll never do all of them. Commitments are our way of limiting the choices open to us, what we can do with our time over the course of a lifetime. I don’t feel at all as though I’ve missed out, and that time I’ve spent reading and looking internally has (I hope) given me a way of making greater sense of all the experiences I have had and will have.

A: No yeah I know what you mean, but I think my question is not necessarily that we need to live our lives by those metrics of drinking and going out, but more of… meeting new people, taking big risks, doing things for the hell of it and not as part of a plan, etc. And sometimes I wonder if I’m being ungrateful of the fact that I have a healthy and privileged life and that instead of taking advantage of it to live everything I possibly can that its being wasted.

B: Of the billion directions your life could take, of the limitless spontaneous ways you could live your life, how should you know which directions to even take if you haven’t, through thought and reading, come up with some internal framework and blueprint for the fundamentals of how you want to live?

I think that’s where all this thought and reading comes in. I refuse to think it’s wasted time. It’s what gives meaning and sense to external life that would otherwise be wholly existential.

A: I just don’t think the internal framework and blueprint should come from other people’s experiences, from what some old white dude wrote in a book a thousand years ago. Nor should it come from assumptions about life that I make in my brain without actually having gone through them in reality. I think the whole point of youth is that you’re given a chance to go out there and create an internal framework through trial and error, one that works for you because you are unique, and not one that you’ve lifted from someone whose life circumstances were entirely different. And I think reading and thought should come in at the point where they aid you reflect on what you have experienced, but not manuals for how you should experience things. Reading in particular can help you get an idea of how others have dealt with similar problems, and thus you can feel less alone in your overly human struggles, but they should not be taken as guides on how to act.

B: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

So, to end: was this conversation a waste of time, should you have been outside living life instead? 😊

A: I am! Hahaha I’m driving to the club 😛

B: Ah, then there’s our answer. False dichotomy!

Why should we go abroad?: On connecting the dots of our lives

There were a few great lines about “finding yourself”, to use the cliche, in a Wall Street Journal article the other day. The article, titled “The College of Chinese Wisdom”, was wide-ranging and disparate, and I felt that the interpretations of Chinese philosophy for an American newspaper left something to be desired. But nevertheless an anecdote unrelated to Chinese philosophy in the middle of the piece left me thinking, and is worth quoting in full:

“Imagine a student who has decided he wants to become a diplomat. He’s always been great at mediating conflicts among his peers. He was involved in Model U.N. in high school, the international section is his favorite part of the newspaper, and he’s become pretty fluent in Spanish. He knows that majoring in international relations and taking his junior year abroad in Spain will give him the experiences that will propel him toward that career in diplomacy.

So he goes off to Spain, but after a month falls ill with a severe respiratory virus that lands him in the hospital. It is his first experience of hospitalization, and it plants a seed: He becomes curious about how and why doctors and hospitals do what they do.

Things can now go one of two ways. He can remain wedded to his long-term plan and let that interest in health care die out. The hospital experience will make for a few good stories for his friends, but it won’t interfere with his plan to take the diplomatic world by storm. Or he can keep diving into his new obsession, reading everything he can, maybe making friends with some of the young residents on his medical team, and eventually return to the U.S. and devote himself to a health-care field instead.

None of this has anything to do with the fact that he was in Spain; it’s just that one series of experiences led to another and opened up things to him that weren’t part of the plan. There’s nothing wrong with spending a year in Madrid or majoring in international relations. But there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going.

Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.” [Emphasis mine]

The difficulty comes in how the structures of our decisions are imposed on us from above. In his application to study abroad in Spain, the student will have had to outline how the experience will fit with his pre-defined goals. For instance, in my application to study abroad (I’m currently spending a semester abroad at Yale in the U.S.), I had to answer the following:

“Please explain why you are interested in studying abroad at this institution. Include in your answer a tentative list of courses that you would be interested in applying, and how might these courses help you achieve your academic and/or professional goals?” [Dodgy grammar was theirs, not mine]. 

We may well want study abroad to be a transformative experience, exposing us to new interests and ways we could live our lives, but taking this approach will make being accepted to the program far less likely. Institutions demand that we have our dots connected, so to speak—that where we are going aligns very neatly with where we have been and what we are doing at present.

A resume, for instance, which I was required to attach to my study abroad application, needs to show why the application makes sense for you. The truth could have been that I chose my study abroad precisely to do something entirely different, and yet my resume would then have had no narrative, and my responses to interview questions would have lacked the force of someone who had all their dots connected.

So I entirely agree that there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going. And yet for students to take this advice to heart, to go abroad—or choose jobs—with ideas about what they could become and where they might go will require acceptance of this approach by overarching institutions. It is not students’ mindsets that are the problem, but rather the structures of decision making and narrative building that are imposed on students by long-standing institutions. The structure of a resume dictates the possibilities that are open to us.

Perhaps the risk should simply be taken, the questions answered honestly: I want to go abroad to do something I have never done before, something that might not make sense for my academic and professional goals but which I think I should try nonetheless. It’s prisoner’s dilemma, of course. The students who take the chance risk losing out over the students who answered the questions by connecting the dots of their lives. But ultimately losing out in an application that aligns your life along one straight path might be precisely the opportunity you needed to do something transformative that you had no seemingly good reason to do.

 

Thanks to Maria for sending me the link to the WSJ article.

Declaring Makes It So: What it Means that the U.S. Now Thinks it is a Pacific Nation

 

Note: this article was originally published on Fox & Hedgehog.

In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region [the Asia Pacific] reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” His phrasing belied a rather circular logic: if the United States has always been a Pacific nation, how can it suddenly take a new notice of the region it believes marks its own identity? And if the United States must now declare itself to be a Pacific nation in order to be one, doesn’t its absence of prior declarations show how new this understanding of itself as a nation is?

A declaration of national identity in terms of geography is very different from a declaration in terms of ideology or creed. The latter, I believe, are internally focused declarations. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, is the declaration that speaks to Americans as a people about what as a nation they stand for. It describes the markers of difference between Americans and the British. But declarations of geographic identity are not like this. Declarations of geographic identity speak externally, giving those outside the nation an idea of what that nation believes its interests to be.

The United States of America pre-1916 was just that—it defined itself on its own, consciously rejecting external labels of association. It stood for itself, and in its isolationism made no declarations of what external geographies it saw itself as part of. But 1916 meant that security required looking across the Atlantic to Europe, to events there that threatened American interests within its own borders. The Atlantic commitment grew and grew as U.S. interests were threatened for a second time by Germany, and then became seemingly irrevocable with the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as U.S. grand strategy came to embody the response to the Soviet threat.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization: an organization, focused on the Atlantic, that counts as members nations that share no border with that ocean, and which exists to respond to threats nowhere near the Atlantic. The Atlantic here is simply a construction used to declare externally where ideology and interests lie, without necessarily remaining faithful to geographic truth.

Even as U.S. territory in the Pacific was attacked in 1941, the response seemed not to require declarations of Pacific identity, but only an immediate military response. The focus of U.S. identity remained across the Atlantic, in Europe, where the U.S. saw itself fighting for its own values, rather than solely its territorial defence.

There were tepid attempts by the United States to look westwards following WWII—the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), for instance—but these did not extend to definitions of identity, even as the U.S. became embroiled in Vietnam. Christopher Hemmer and Peter Katzenstein have explained how following the Second World War the United States tried to secure itself both from the west and the east, but the approaches it took to doing so demonstrated the relative importance of each region. The U.S. preference for multilateral institutions in Europe and bilateralism in the Asia Pacific, argue Hemmer and Katzenstein, shows clearly where the United States’ self-identity lay during the latter half of the twentieth century. Because U.S. identity lay so strongly in Europe, it was willing to give up a larger degree of control to European partners through multilateralism than to those in the Asia Pacific. Existentially threatened by the Soviet Union, the U.S. was defined by the Atlantic connection.

The United States indeed shares a long coastline with the Pacific ocean. But geographic features do not define a nation’s identity. New Zealand, a country with no geographic markers other than the Pacific, nevertheless defined itself as a European country until forced to focus anew on the Pacific following the fall of Singapore. That a country geographically as far from another as is physically possible can still align itself ideologically to the other side of the world demonstrates the constructed nature of geographic identities. It seems disingenuous for the U.S. to claim long-standing identity as a Pacific nation merely because of its Pacific coastline, or its territories in that ocean.

But if the world’s superpower declares something to be so, it most often is. “The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” It matters not whether the historical record supports this; that the United States now believes it is enough to change the record, to change the commitments of nations, to make it a fact that must be taken into account when calculating responses. It is a fact that is now incorporated into the international political security market.

All this is to say: geographic identity descriptors are the strongest statements that can be made by a nation to demonstrate a commitment to a part of the world. In other words, these types of statements are the broadest conception of a grand strategy, where all other components within a nation must then adhere to that broadest commitment made. Those who question the commitment should not do so easily, because such a descriptor has proven historically to be long-lasting and meaningful.

The United States’ “pivot to Asia” seems itself a component of its newfound Pacific identity. Without being a Pacific nation, it is a stretch of imperial power for the United States to claim interests in the East and South China Seas. Only through believing itself to be a Pacific nation can the United States justify its re-alignment of military and economic structures to focus on Asia.

It is also interesting to reflect on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in light of the new U.S. commitment to the Pacific. Discussion has been strong over the purported benefits of the TPP to signatories’ economies. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative estimates real income benefits to the United States of approximately $77bn annually; other sources put it at up to $131bn. At its best this represents a 0.5 percent increase in annual GDP resulting from the TPP—a not insignificant material benefit, but nonetheless not the sort of world-changing trade deal that the TPP has been billed as by governments. The fervour of the Obama administration in getting the TPP through represents, I think, the recognition that the deal would cement the U.S. de facto as a Pacific nation, as the major partner in the Pacific’s trade deal. To anyone who then questions the U.S.’ Pacific identity and commitment, the U.S. can simply point to the TPP and ask what all the fuss is about. Trade benefits are important, but pale in comparison to the effect that the deal may have on the U.S.’ grand strategy contra China.

There seem to be two further points of interest in relation to the TPP. First, there are signatories to the TPP that do not even touch that ocean, showing, just as with NATO, the necessity of constructed geographic groupings. Second, China is expected to lose approximately $35bn annually through a successful TPP implementation. If the deal was just about increasing incomes through increased trade, China would have been included in the deal. For the deal’s major partner it is about much more than that.

There are, I think, two things that can be taken away from this brief history of the U.S. as a Pacific nation and of the uses of geographic identity descriptors. The first is that U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific should be reassured of the United States’ commitment to the region. As a Pacific nation the United States cannot let other countries it believes not to be Pacific states fundamentally destabilise the region. Second, and more broadly, is the way that other nations themselves may use geographic identity descriptors to align themselves more deeply with allies. This is an important lesson for countries like New Zealand, Australia, and even those nations that do not lie in the Pacific but believe their national interests to be fundamentally affected by stability in the region.

What Is Our Time Here For?: The Meaning of Yale-NUS College and the Liberal Arts

 

Note: This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Octant, Yale-NUS College’s student newspaper. 

This semester at Yale University I’m taking a class called Successful Global Leadership with New York Times columnist and author David Brooks. In class David frequently refers to what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. As he described them in his most recent book, “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed”.

It struck me that how we think about these two virtues will to a large extent determine the way we approach our time at college—the major and classes we choose, how we think about grades, and which student organisations we choose to commit to. Not only that: the way that Yale-NUS College, or any institution for that matter, thinks about these two virtues will determine how it views its mission, and how it educates generations of students after us. Daily life, with its classes, meeting and events, loomed over by exams and papers, can make it all too easy to forget why we are here in the first place. I think that is true not only for us students, but also for faculty and college leadership.

The resume virtues are ever-present in discourse, to the extent that it can be hard to realise there is anything else. As David describes, “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” Juniors are in the midst of applying for penultimate year internships: the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE) and our advisers are stressing the things we need to do to land our desired internship, to in turn get the job we want after graduation. The major and classes we choose, the student organizations we join, and the amount of effort we decide to put into different aspects of student life—I would be disingenuous not to admit that my decisions are at least in part determined by how these things may appear on my resume. And the resume virtues are inculcated in us from the top, by our CIPE and major advisers, some of our professors, and even by the thought that Yale-NUS’ long-term impact depends on our own post-graduation professional success.

I think that if we fall into the trap of viewing this institution as a unique fast-track to impressive resume virtues then we will have missed an incredible opportunity to shape our own lives, and to “redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world.” The question asked by Yale-NUS’ inaugural curriculum committee was “What must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?” It was not, let’s be clear, “What must a young person learn in order to get their desired job?”

The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom, in our case—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations, with “inner character”. I’ve come to think that college is, at its core, about beginning to build a wide and sturdy foundation of eulogy virtues, upon which we can build our external and professional lives. I learned this the risky way. With just over a year left before graduating from high school, I left to work at a technology company. I returned not long after, once I’d learned what education seemed to really be about. It took leaving school to show me that there was a difference between “an education” and “becoming educated”, to highlight the parts of school that seemed fundamentally meaningful, and to show me why it was worth devoting four years to college. To put it another way, in the words of Bill Deresiewicz, who visited Yale-NUS earlier this semester: “College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake that work of self-discovery… There’s nothing “academic” about it.”

I am not saying that resume virtues are unimportant; they are. But I believe we are here for something more than that, and that the decisions we make during college should be about those larger ideals first, resumes second. Resumes can be built upon a sturdy understanding of yourself, but I don’t think the reverse is true.

I’m fearful that in the relentless focus on how our time at college will serve our resumes and our careers we will end up wasting the chance to expand our opportunities, and to create the foundations for meaningful lives. Not only that, but I’m fearful that Yale-NUS will forget its mission, falling back on the easy and externally satisfying pursuit of resume virtues for itself as an institution, and for its students. We all play a role in Yale-NUS’ mission, and in setting its tone for decades to come. So, at the very least, let us think about the tone that we want, and whether the decisions we make today are ones we would be proud of when we gather at Yale-NUS in three decades’ time.