I Received an Old Dollar Bill as Change; A Lesson Ensued

 

“Hold on,” said the barista as she studied the bill she was about to hand back to me for change.

She looked down at it with wrinkled brow. The she held it up to the light. I joked about counterfeiters probably not wasting time producing dollar bills.

The barista couldn’t find her counterfeit-finding pen so just handed it to me to look at. I thought it might be real–and real old. So I said I’d take a chance on it.

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Turned out it was real–and pretty old. 1957. Back then, our dollars didn’t say “Federal Reserve Note” across the top but “Silver Certificate.”

Can you guess why?

***

We aren’t that good with money knowledge. But such facts tell us something about our country, the nature of money, and social psychology. (A much more detailed and complete history of money can be found here.)

Back in the day-way back in the day–money was invented as a way of exchanging goods and services without having to trade or barter, to have to find someone who wanted to trade what they had or offered with what you had or offered. Money allowed one person to simply exchange value for a good or service whether they had something the other person wanted or not. This first money is considered commodity money, because it was made of something with inherent value–precious metals like gold and silver or seashells. 

Eventually, representative money came along to replace the unwieldiness of carrying around a sack of gold. This money started as receipts for deposits made, and people started trading them instead of the deposits themselves. This turned into the first paper money. And thus, the US government used to print money like the bill above as certificates exchangeable for silver. Back when our parents or grandparents were running around, they could’ve taken a bill like this, gone to a bank, and exchanged it for a bit of silver.

But then, governments decided to try something: would people trust this paper as worthy even without the backing of something tangible? Perhaps–if government made it law to accept it, illegal to make other competing currencies, and even under FDR criminalize gold possession–the citizens would be compelled to trust it. They did. In fact, they may have trusted without all these measures. Today, Americans are allowed by law once again to buy gold and yet we all still trust the dollar, which in the 70s lost all ties to precious metals and thus, bills like the one above ended.

Today we don’t carry Silver Certificates. We carry Federal Reserve Notes, the Federal Reserve being the national bank in charge of monetary policy. I do think it’s a raw deal that I’m not allowed to exchange this bill for silver from the government. Feels like Uncle Sam went back on his word. And the inflation of currency since being decoupled from precious metals, and the resultant devaluing of the dollar, has money-savers crying foul. (If you saved money all your life, your savings has dwindled. But if you find (or have) pre-1965 quarters, keep them. They’re actually made of silver and worth much more than face value.)

But for most, the modern identity of money is acceptable. In fact, that’s exactly what’s been discovered over this grand worldwide experiment: money simply comes down to trust, believability, and acceptance. The dollar is just paper, but gold is just metal. And that Picasso is just paint on canvas. Value for these items is subject to sociological processes–mass acceptance. Generally, as long as trust is high, the currency, and thus the economy, will operate smoothly.

Finally, as this time of year encourages, we can now look back on our nation’s history with a little more understanding. 

 

The Hmong Mountain Village in Thailand

We walked past one-room houses of bamboo stick walls, straw roofs, and dirt floors.

Chickens scampered and clucked about.

Children played barefoot and parents in flip-flops tended to the babies, prepped meals, or conducted other daily chores.

This was a quiet lifestyle. No machines–though it felt as if we had entered a time machine and gone back to the days when my great grandparents lived in similar conditions, minus the bamboo of course.

This was a hill village in Southeast Asia, and we wandered it on May 11.

***

All this day–sports day at our sister school, about which I shared last week–I had been teased with images of the adjacent village activity. Then by mid-afternoon, after the students had kicked their last goal and shot their last basket, it was as if life heeded the call of these photographs, and Kazoua, our trip supervisor, called out, “Okay everyone, we’re going to tour the village!”

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Sister school soccer field with village beyond

All 37 of our students, us six chaperons, and a village guide began the walk the village, Huai Khu near the Thailand-Laos border.

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We walked down the hill atop which the school was perched. Nearing the bottom, we took in the activity of main street, a tar road lined with concrete, painted buildings with metal corrugated roofs.

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Huai Khu is a young municipality–maybe 40 years old, a settlement of Hmong former refugees after their refugee camps were closed, and so the Hmong assimilated within Thailand.

Though the people here identify Huai Khu as a “village” rather than a “town,” I admit this part feeling more “townish” with the convenience stores of food staples, cold sodas, and candy; mopeds zooming along the road; and electricity powering the lives along this stretch.

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Then things changed.

We went off the main road, and as happens in cities all over the world, a mere minute of walking can see the scenery adjustdrastically.

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Bamboo chute walls replaced the concrete. No more cement floors. Floors were earth. Overall, people lived with less distinguishing between work and home.

And then we really went off the beaten path.

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Our guide, an employee at our sister school, directed our group of students and chaperons up a hill path. Heading deeper into the woods of the hillside while climbing higher, the path became narrower and even a bit treacherous as one feared slipping and tumbling down unless a tree should interrupt your fall.

And the crazy part was that this was the route some of our sister school children took every day to get to class.

Eventually, moving a few, eye-level branches out of my way, I had reached the plane of the hilltop where things opened up. There were several simple buildings.

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Fowl waddled about.

Children looked at our group–especially at white man me.

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And as was apparent with the girl above watching her younger sibling, the ways of life here were evident.

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Caged birds and a man sharpening a knife

The Hmong are known in Southeast Asia as “Hill People.” It seemed that after leaving the refugee camps, they assumed their ways up here.

The views were lovely.

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After several minutes wandering, we made our way back down to one of those convenience stores for some refrigerated water.

***

The average American has compartmentalized the elements of life: work, family, vacation, spirituality, leisure. I believe this demarcation is in line with the American strength of productivity. Separating these element leads to more impact for each.

But while life is enriched by these impactful elements, and while it can be cleaner to organize them exclusive to one another, there is also something relaxing and calming and serene about the way things were done here at Huai Khu.

Don’t worry about having to look the part, impress others, meet the deadline–often all at the expense of missing out on our breath, our existence. To soak in the pleasure of feeding chickens or sharpening a blade is to realize the joy in life’s fundamental elements. It’s really about being in touch with life. Heck, up here even the line between civilization and nature itself was blurred in ways further than I was used to.

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It’s a blessing to experience, and then understand, how different lifestyles exhibit different strengths and expand the potential for humankind.

After the tour, we made our way back to our motel in the nearest city a hilly hour’s drive away.  The next day we’d drive both schools’ students a couple of hours away to a place where we could see three countries standing in one spot.

The Minnesota Mike Rowe

 

Meet Chris Hensiak, welding instructor at Hennepin Technical College.

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I met him while researching a story about work being done to help lives in inner-city Minneapolis. His school is partnered with a north Minneapolis nonprofit to provide welding and machining education to local young adults.

The demand, on both ends, is high.

“They’ll take as many guys as I can feed them,” he says of local power companies.

Young adults arrive to find “hidden jobs they never heard about. Schools have this theory that everyone has to go to four year college,” he said.

Chris is the Minnesota Mike Rowe.

Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe is the TV host who’s become famous in recent years for his programs about blue collar work in America. By hosting these programs, Rowe discovered that these jobs weren’t just interesting to learn about–they were in need of good workers. Then he uncovered the stone causing this: a systemic undervaluing of hard work in America preventing young people to not just shy away from physically demanding work but to shy away from hard work in general.

Chris Hensiak echoes these sentiments. But this attitudinal hurdle isn’t his only obstacle. The guys he works with–the ones in the inner-city who most need the jobs–are also the ones at a higher rate of not qualifying. Working at a power plant or oil refinery means needing to have no criminal record according to guideline set by US Homeland Security.

But he’s not deterred. The need is there, and the jobs “pay huge,” he said. It’s rewarding to work with the guys he does get qualified, to train them for a career they can be proud of. Today, in fact, he’s got a class of eight guys who are going to try welding for the first time.

 

Teaching Football to Thai Students

 

Blue 42; Blue 42!!

Our interactions with our sister school in the rural hill country of Thailand went beyond the classroom. Scheduled for two days were: a service project and a sports day. And like my Mom taught me, you do the work first. Then you can go play in the field.

***

A service project is one of those things that sounds like a nice thing to do with your day. Help out. Do your community some good. Make the world a better place.

Well, the world here had a heaping pile of sand that wasn’t going to move itself.

The day after our students joined theirs in classes, we arrived via our vans cruising over and around green hills of farm and forest on the warm, sunny morning. We arrived, parked, and disembarked to see the local students already in action.

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Shovel and shovel the dirt into the wheelbarrow to roll and dump over yonder, and do it all over again. And again. And again.

But no worries. Many hands make for light work, and we had 37 students to go along with theirs, who admittedly worked harder than ours. The stereotype that First World life can soften a person held true, though our students certainly worked.

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I compared the Hmong youth from here in rural Thailand with sun-baked skin and wearing only flip flops on their feet vs. our students in looser, cleaner clothing, trendy baseball caps and tennis shoes, many of whom probably hadn’t put in a hard days’ labor in ages if not their entire age.

First World living is preferred by most, but easy living also means the option to get soft. You may have to work to work–to choose it. Though it may seem an odd choice, strenuous athletic activity is part of our body’s evolutionary expectation, and thus, our mental makeup. In order to feel good from head to toe, we have to get up and get active.

We asked the students to do so a bit today and they stepped up alongside their Thai peers.

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The job was finished within two hours.

And that was really it for that day. Other tasks were on the docket, but the task leader from their school was unable to arrive. So we didn’t have to put in as much work to reap the reward of playtime the next time we came to the school.

***

This next morning we arrived to a downpour, a rain on our parade of a plan for a sports day. We settled for indoor, gym class-type games in the school cafeteria.

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But then things let up.

Some students went to the cement basketball court to shoot hoops and bump volleyballs. Others followed me down to the football field.

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Field to the bottom right

And when I say football, I mean soccer. This isn’t America.

But I’m American. So though it may have been a soccer field, I carried with me a football–the American, egg-shaped one. It was likely the first time the local students in this isolated village had seen one, let alone use.

I had a little work to do.

In fact, football isn’t exactly a popular sport in the Hmong community in the US, either. Our K-8 institution does not offer football. So I was tasked to show Americans and Thai alike the finer points of throwing, catching, and eventually even playing.

Five boys from the school here wanted to give this odd ball a try. We started with some catch.

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They caught on to catch pretty quick.

Good thing, too, because now it was game time. The big leagues. The international games between a Hmong charter school from St. Paul and a Hmong village school from Thailand.

A match for the ages.

The teams lined up, the quarterback yelled, “Hut!”, and the players all ran out for a pass in this two-hand-touch, American football recess-style.

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Here, too, the Thai students caught on–as did one of the teachers, a 40-year-old fella with excitement in his step and tight grimace of a game face as he ran out, caught a pass…but then would think rugby or something and pass it again to another teammate.

Didn’t matter.

The point was that all enjoyed and got involved. Sports–like chores had been the previous day–was a conduit for building relationships.

While they continued bonding in competition, I looked around outside the field to the adjacent village action.

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Lunchtime.

Teachers called out to the students, and all ran back up the hill to the cafeteria. Well, most used their feet. These two from the Thai school used their scooter.

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After a lunch of rice, spicy meat, and mango, students from both schools teamed up once more–and once more over chores: doing the dishes.

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From shoveling to sporting to soaking, these two teams worked as one.

While they did so, I caught glimpses of more of the surrounding village.

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The afternoon saw the sun come out.

Under the burning bulb in the sky, I used an umbrella for something other than rain for the first time in my life. Students weren’t so concerned about sunburn and “non-American” football was now in play.

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After an afternoon session, the sports day came to an end. Yet those village shots above proved a foreshadow.

After the afternoon games, we all took a stroll. Earlier Hmong village visits on this trip had been influenced by tourism, vendors ready for our and others’ arrival. This time was different. This late afternoon village wander was quiet minus the calls for goods for sale and less colorful minus the flamboyant Hmong traditional wear hanging on racks.

This was what you might call a “real” village in the hills of Thailand, and I’ll show it to you next Sunday.

 

Why Do Americans Think There Are Way More Gay People Than There Really Are?

 

What percentage of Americans are gay?

The standard, pop-educated answer is 10% — based on research from Alfred Kinsey from the 40’s that has become stuck into the collective wisdom. The problem is this number is considerably higher than the actual figure.

Interestingly, though, people not familiar with the 10% idea are even more inaccurate. In the poll cited below–and consistent with polling in the last decade–Americans, as a whole, think that a full quarter of people are gay or lesbian.

The reality? 1-4%

This article from The Atlantic says less than 2%. This piece from Bloomberg cites research indicating 3.8%.

How can we be so far off on a figure?

Exposure.

I credit the overestimation to the same phenomena leading us to believe that there are more vegetarians (3% of Americans) than there really are in America, or Jewish people (2.2% of Americans). Certain groups in the US have a larger footprint than their representative population might indicate. This is to their credit, as policy, attention, etc. are then paid. And indeed, these groups are unified, organized, have a pronounced culture, and are dedicated to benefit their cause.

There is also an argument made that fear contributes to the overestimation. A feeling that “they’re everywhere,” which is said to be involved in overestimates of foreign-born Americans and illegal immigrants. Yet with homosexuals, people who tend to be more tolerant also tend to estimate their numbers as higher.

Overall, I believe the numbers are explained by the issues in the media today: gay marriage, businesses not serving gay couples. It’s also trendy to feature gay characters on television. Then, cities like my own (Minneapolis) will host a huge festival celebrating being gay, which shows to the thousands in attendance large groups of gay people.

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But why all the exposure? I just think that sexual behavior is such a hot-button issue, that even if just one in a million people were gay, the attention might be as strong toward them and the overestimation of percentage of the population just as steep.

It’s an interesting look at how our perceptions are shaped by exposure and volume.

Now guess how many gay Jewish vegetarians there are.

 

Visiting our Sister School in the Hills of Thailand

 

On the morning of May 7, we awoke in our half-star hotel in Thoeng to fulfill the core purpose for our school’s travel to Thailand: meeting our sister school in the rural north.

As we had done the day before, we loaded up the vans, left town, and rode the windy, up-n-down road to-and-through the hilly countryside.

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We crept along, taking in the views and meeting locals on their vehicles.

Eventually, we reached what could have been just another mountain village, except this one happened to be named Huai Khu.

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As we got into town, we toured the narrow, dusty tar road past the wooden buildings, kids running in bare feet, adults (or kids) driving mopeds past the area homes/general stores. We reached a driveway to the right, scaling a hill beyond the front gate. This was Huai Khu school.

***

History Lesson:

On last year’s trip to Thailand, our school (Community School of Excellence in St. Paul) was introduced to this fellow Hmong-student school in Huai Khu. This is a Hmong village not even 40 years old, a community founded by the Hmong who had been in refugee camps when fleeing nearby Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

History Lesson Deeper:

See, the Hmong aided the Americans in that conflict, and for that, many were killed by the communist Laotian government. Naturally, many hightailed it out of Laos for neutral Thailand. Thailand cooperated by allowing the Hmong to stay, but in these humble camps–so huge they were like shack/cabin cities, really.

But Thailand wasn’t going to let them stay indefinitely. Something had to be done. Many Hmong came to the US starting in the 70s-particularly Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. Many also stayed–and started villages like Huai Khu. Here, they sort of picked up where things left off before the war: agrarian lifestyles in the hills of Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, those to who came to the US had to hit the ground running to keep up with fast-paced American life. The two halves diverged, and this day they came together.

***

We exited the vans on the dirt drive at the top of the hill. Several buildings–classroom, lunchroom, storage–of various size (and all exposed to the elements without glass in the windows or without doors) made up the small school. I looked in one particular direction to take in some nearby area homes.

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I looked down to take in some area farm animals.

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Right away, things came together for these Old/New World Hmong in a powerful way. One of the boys in my group was called over by the head of the school. Tommy, 14, walked over in his clean tennis shoes and Yankees baseball cap to a local woman in white blouse and floral dress, her little daughter standing beside her. She was Tommy’s mom’s cousin. He had been told she would meet him here, but it was a surprise to us, and when seeing her he and she yet seemed struck by the encounter.

Tommy handed the relative he had never met a gift from his parents: a bag of clothing and a $100 bill.

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Bloodlines began this connection in an intimate and powerful way.

Here’s some footage of our arrival:

 

Next we went into the school building, where our schools would connect doing what they do best–conduct classes.

We walked down the hill to classroom building. When we got there, I looked down further to the sports field, as well as enjoyed a sweeping view of the village and rolling countryside nestling and nurturing this community.

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The two story structure of approximately ten rooms had a “school feel.” It’s just that compared to the US, standards were different–as was the language and decoration.

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That’s the Thai king in casual wear from years ago. Today, the king is elderly and of ill-health but no less revered. You see his image all over the country.

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The Thai language, a complicated script.

Before students entered class, they began their day seated in the classroom building portico.

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After a couple of welcomes were offered by school administration, classes began.

First was Thai language class.

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Rooster chillin' outside

Rooster chillin’ outside

Then came computers.

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Lecture rather than practice. I saw this emphasis of theory happen in Tanzania, too–even when these schools had labs.

After they learned about computers, I walked up to the second floor to see them.

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The computer teacher started speaking to other chaperons and myself about starting a email pen pal exchange between his students here and students at our school in St. Paul.

Kazoua, our trip leader, said to me, “Brandon, maybe you can help with this.”

“Yeah, I think  I can,” I thought. I had done this very thing in Tanzania.

So I sat with the computer teacher in the lab, explaining in my plainest English how he logistically could best arrange this with their slow internet speeds here (accessed via cell phone towers).

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Huai Khu computer teacher

Emails should start in the fall. I’m excited to be able to help facilitate this continued connection between the two schools.

Oh, and there was a shedding lizard in the computer lab.

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In the afternoon, students learned art.

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And then English. Thus, each school’s students were able to help their Hmong peers from across the Pacific with their respective non-Hmong languages.

Finally, students finished classes by interviewing one other about their daily lives.

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“I noticed they combined Hmong and Thai languages,” said one of our students. Meanwhile, he/she might might use an English word that would confuse the Huai Khu students. They learned that language is both something that endures over time but also evolves. Differences in language, though, didn’t keep them from connecting with one another.

And they’d have the chance to connect in ways outside the classroom in the coming days.

 

 

Forcing Liberal-Leaners to Rethink their Ideology: Ivy League School Discrimination of Asians

 

“Asian-Americans have to score on average about 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students and 450 points higher than African-American students to equal their chances of gaining admission to Harvard.” –The Wall Street Journal

As was discussed recently when a Minnesota senior was accepted into all eight Ivy League schools, the issue of race-based college acceptance is once again rearing its head. This time, though, it comes with a twist: students of color are the ones on the short end of the stick.

Many argue that elite colleges don’t judge candidates on their race. This is typically argued to defend the success of recipients. But I approach this wanting to move past this debate. These private colleges do factor race into their acceptance decisions, just as some public schools had done until it was ruled illegal.

The real debate is about whether such favoritism is justified. And the recent lawsuit filed against Harvard on behalf of Asian Americans throws a monkey wrench into the discussion.

Michael Wang filed a complaint with the Department of Education after his rejections. In addition, last month over 60 Asian groups came together to file a lawsuit against Harvard.

Michael Wang filed a complaint with the Department of Education after his rejections. In addition, last month over 60 Asian groups came together to file a lawsuit against Harvard.

Just weeks ago, the Indiana state governor was on a Sunday morning political television show being questioned about his state’s then-new law regarding the legal right to discriminate against gay people. This Sunday, it could just as well be Harvard’s president on television. Only his presence would be a real twist, because this time progressive–not conservative–policies are the reason for the discrimination. And Progressive ideology strongly condemns discrimination.

It also advocates diversity policies, designed to prevent discrimination against people of color. But now these policies are precisely that which are discriminating against individuals of color–because there are too many students of the Asian “color”.

To be real, diversity policy has always discriminated based on race–but with the angle that it’s helping David battle Goliath. Most of America has been okay with this.

Goliath is white people–especially white males. David is people of color–or sometimes women or gays.

But if diversity = good

and discrimination (against Davids) = bad,

…what side do you take when to get the “good” you have to commit the “bad”?

I’ve read one pundit defend Harvard (beyond the fact that they have the right as a private institution), because if Harvard didn’t hold Asians to a higher standard, then Harvard would be mostly Asian and not the bastion of diversity he and they want.

Maybe many other liberally-minded people agree but are keeping quiet. I don’t blame them. To come out and admit that what Harvard is doing is okay is to go against a moral tenet of liberal American thought. This is what makes this case so interesting: it forces those who would most likely be uproarious over discrimination to question their own favored polices.

This situation is actually very valuable in that it reveals the inherent shortcomings of an ideology–and all have shortcomings, embedded contradictions that force the adherent to reluctantly admit they don’t have all the answers, that life is more complicated than any ideology can best fit.

But it’s hard to admit ideological defeat, because our egos like our particular worldviews. To admit that our chosen ideological brand–liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism–is inadequate is like a religious person admitting their faith is baloney. It’s a huge rug being pulled out from underneath the person. Who wants to end up on their butt?

On the other hand, this case provides a unique opportunity for the Progressive ideologue to get over the fear of their worldview faltering. You just need to answer some tough questions:

Is it okay to discriminate?

Is it okay to discriminate against someone because they are part of an empowered group? (Affirmative Action)

Is it okay to discriminate against a person of color because their “color” is too plentiful? (Harvard and other college practices against Asians)

If not, are you okay then with such institutions representing hardly any black students? (The result if current discrimination ended)

This is an example where an ideological initiative has come around to bite its own implementers. But in general, it makes us all answer some tough questions about the price of diversity and the blanket judgment against discrimination we have in the US.

 

From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and Our First Look at Laos

 

Only one letter separates them, but these two places in Thailand were distinct–especially since we had stayed in Chiang Mai the city and we were now going to be in Chiang Rai the rural province.

We said goodbye to the beautiful urban for a quieter, less developed environment. This meant fewer “nice” things like accommodations, but it also meant things were less touristy. Visiting a village in Chiang Rai province truly meant visiting a village.

But first we had to get there.

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Leaving Chiang Mai traffic

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Chiang Rai, hang a right

In between the cities, two cool sites:

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Hot spring where the lady to the right gave us quail eggs to boil and eat.

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Then we had the White Temple, which I don’t show because I know much about it. I show it because it looked amazing.

All I know is that some rich businessman built this structure in recent years. It is said to represent resisting temptation to reach heaven.

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The hands are temptation.

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Even the fish are white.

A modern creation, the influence of contemporary morality tales in present. And who is the biggest tale teller these days? Hollywood, of course. So busts (pure white, of course) of X-Men characters and The Predator hung from trees just outside the these grounds.

Also just outside was this wishing well.

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The White Temple was located near Chiang Rai the city, which we spent little time in because we had to drive another hour away from the urban to the small town called Theong. (Pronounced “tung”, but real tight and with a forceful tone. The Thai language is tricky.)

We got to a modest motel in Theong. We filled all the rooms.

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View from the motel balcony; Buddhist temple in the distance.

View from the motel balcony; Buddhist temple in the distance.

***

To break in our first day in Chiang Rai Province, we decided to hike to a famous lookout point from atop the highest peaks of the mountain chain along the Laos border. The point is callled Phu Chi Fa.

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First thing: breakfast. Here we saw a glimpse of Hmong living in this part of Thailand.

My school, Community School of Excellence (CSE) had been here before. As such, they’ve built a relationship with a Hmong woman with a roadside eatery in a nearby village.

Our grey conversion van motorcade rolled out of Theong the next morning, May 5. Landscapes outside the town were flat and green with some equally green hills in the distance. As we escaped any sign of city, the land took its cue to start filling the void by beginning to get wavy. Up and down and mild winds, the narrow paved road lined through the countryside mixed with fields and forests.

We came to and through villages. Here zoomed by two ladies on their moped, a man on a rickety ladder leaning against his rooftop, a stray dog, palms and fruit trees, buildings with the red/white/blue striped Thai flag atop, an old truck rattling by with workers in the back, the occasional, ornate Buddhist temple–and all of this with shades of green beyond rising and falling with the hills in the distance.

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Soon we stopped for one of these villages and enjoyed our breakfast.

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Footage of our arrival:


 
Nourished, it was time to ascend to Pu Chi Fa–first by car, then by foot.

The land began to get gorgeous.

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A 45 degree-sloped cabbage patch motivated us to stop.

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After several miles of dramatic scenery and roller-coaster riding, we met the sign for Pu Chi Fa.

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We also saw new, large buildings and tourist infrastructure. So far from anything, I was surprised such development occurred this far off the beaten path. Getting so far away from any city, this was my first impression that Thailand isn’t Tanzania. Not all “developing” nations are the same.

We disembarked in a large, dirt parking lot and started to climb.

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We weren’t alone.

There were a few other tourists, but the real splash (and a concurrent reminder that we were in Hmong country and that Thailand indeed is a poor country without a welfare system) were the locals, women and girls dressed in traditional gear. The women–presumably a mother or relative–sat in the background while the girls performed a song and dance for donations.

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They were such sweethearts. I had soft spot in my heart for them. I donated. I wanted to do more. I’m not sure what. This is life. But I felt bad for them, which maybe was the wrong feeling to have. They seemed content. Though I wished they weren’t relegated to standing in the sun, hoping for the generosity of passing strangers–all for a meager income in a poor country–perhaps all that matters is that they were healthy and seemed happy in this moment.

I just wish such beautiful children could have brighter futures or at least be secure in the essentials of life.


 
Two kinds of beauty at Pu Chi Fa, the other being the obvious–the view. We just had to make it up to that rock, which one of our students dubbed, “Lion King Rock.”

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We made it.

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From up here, we could see Laos. And actually, according to one of our Hmong chaperons familiar with this area, we were in Laos due to a border technicality. Google Maps would agree.

Map Pu Chi Fa zoom

This would be the first of two times we crossed the border without having to cross customs. But Laos, Thailand–we didn’t care. The point was that we were in an incredible part of the world, unseen by most, largely untouched except for the village spotted below.

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Next week, we’ll visit such a village.

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Bike Hype

 

The announcement is making the rounds.

Minneapolis is only U.S. city on worldwide bike-friendly list

A Minnesota city making a heralded list of 20 Most Bike-friendly Cities on the Planet has now made news on Wired.com, Minnesota newspapers, and on my Facebook feed.

As I saw Facebook friends sharing the article, I thought about why they did so and why in the excited manner in which they did.

One senses out there in the social ether an unconditional support for biking. Many of these folks will tout the health and environmental benefits. But generally, such benefits aren’t the reason for bike-friendliness. They are justifications they come up with after the fact.

There exists a predisposition to cheer for biking. This is because, for many, biking isn’t about biking. Biking is a proxy for that which humans are susceptible: hype, myth, and morality tales of good vs. evil. One of these in the US is the myth that cars are evil and bikes are good. Thus, anything we can do to help bikes–more paths or bike riding programs or any bike lists we can make–is a win irrespective of the cost or inconvenience to the majority of people who don’t bike.

According to the US census bureau, less than 5% of people in Minneapolis bike. According to some recent numbers from the University of Minnesota, that number is just over 9%.

This isn’t insignificant, but biking progress doesn’t seem to warrant the attention it gets. What about lists on “car friendliness?” Way more people drive, roads are more vital to our modern existence, and traffic is a much bigger problem than a lack of bike lanes.

But biking has a become a symbol, and people respond to symbols in binary. (This has a flip side, of course: those who don’t like the symbol. This reaction equally flies in the face of reason, but “anti-bikers” aren’t trendy or significant these days.) I’d like to see fewer people caught up in this dichotomy. Pro-bikers draw the ire of a reactive anti-biking movement. Vice versa. They feed off each other as people in arguments do.

Off to the side, we can see that biking truly is great. There are indeed health and environmental benefits, and it’s fun. It’s just not as important to society as a whole as everyone seems to think. (If you’re truly concerned about environmental health, you should be cheering on Tesla and other electric car makers.)

We should become conscious of bike hype–not because bikes are bad, but because any such lack of awareness opens the doors of bad decision-making. And ultimately, people can suffer–or at least not as much good will be done as could be.

Biker in Minneapolis

Biker in Minneapolis (Minnpost.com)

Are the millions spent each year on bike paths in a city like Minneapolis the best way the city could spend this money? A reasonable assessment may agree. But blindly supporting any cause can come at the expense of more pressing needs. Yet if the Minneapolis mayor would reduce bike spending, you can bet that headlines would read “Mayor Cutting Support for Bikers” in the same way that calls to reign in school spending result in “Mayor Reducing Support for Schools,” and people gasp at the audacity of hurting children.

Such thinking is an open door to waste.

 

The Art and Artists of Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

Long-nose beasts and long-neck women starred in previous posts and indeed highlighted our time in Thailand’s northern star, Chiang Mai.

Yet Chiang Mai itself was one, big highlight made possible by the constant beauty of, from, and around the city.

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Day Two in Chiang Mai had us load up into our vans and lumber up a nearby hill, offering the view above. On the way, trees were in full bloom, branch tips alit in a palette of pastels. I asked our driver about this, and he said that this was the month for tree blossoms. Lucky us. And yet just the tip of the iceberg of the artistry–natural or manmade–that pervades Chiang Mai.

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Our first introduction to the craftspeople and artists took place on the balcony from which I took the shot overlooking the city. Up here, some came with works for sales.

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Others set up shop for their on-the-spot service.

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Another hilltop near Chiang Mai featured a Hmong village. Up here were artists of another type.

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Land sculptors are the Hmong.

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Nearby was some other structural art:

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After this hilltop, we headed down to an artists’ studio, a large, open structure with cement floor, boarded back wall, and several local artists in a row of stations working their craft.

A few worked together making paper umbrellas–and I mean make from scratch.

This lady made the paper for the umbrella shade.

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She pounded wood fiber into pulp. Put the fibers into water, sift them into a thin layer, let it dry, and you have paper for your parasol.

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Other workers made the frame and the handle.

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Check it out:


The other half of the this place saw a few artists perched on stools painting designs on clothes, bags, cell phone cases, or in my case, a camera case.

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Interestingly, two days earlier, I had just had a discussion on Facebook with other traveling friends of mine, one of whom said they routinely pay more than asking price from local artists, particularly when the work is done for very cheap.

That was the case here. So, inspired by the conversation, I gave my guy an extra bump in compensation.

He seemed as pleased with it as all the artists here were for the business from our entire group. Of course, all of us–newly decorated–were happy as well.

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Our group at the art coop, picture taken with a “paint” filter on my camera–appropriate for the day and for this particular article.

Next we were hungry, and mealtime in Thailand is often beautiful as well.

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Artistic was also the guy who served our lunch:

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So I took an expressive picture of him.

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In fact, I went a little crazy with this “paint” filter on my camera the whole time in Chiang Mai.

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But looking back, I see how appropriate it was for this city of striking artistic expression and beauty to inspire my own artistic side.

So let the filter pictures shine!

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Seeing the lives here in Chiang Mai, and then the art created by them, perpetuated to a point of eye-popping beauty for which I was not in store.

***

I’ll be honest, neither of our next two destinations–Chiang Rai and Bangkok—would rival this attraction. But they would each offer amazements that Chiang Mai did not.

Next up was Chiang Rai.

Here, the touristy would give way for the authentic. If “real” village life was what we were after, we’d fall right into the middle of it. Old World and New World Hmong would interact. And developed/developing, Eastern/Western worlds would come together and learn from one another.

Today, we say goodbye to Chiang Mai. Next week, we begin our second leg on this Thailand trek, Chiang Rai Province, and the villages and schools in the hill country of northern Thailand.

 

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