The Lady Boys of Thailand

Our first morning in Thailand followed a jet-lagged, sleepless night in a decent Bangkok hotel. Sure, the faucet in my shower broke, allowing it to run all night. But the rooms were comfortable, and the lobby boasted shiny floors, large pillars, and plush furnishings. The hotel also served a satisfying breakfast in their homey dining room.

Without a wink of sleep, I got up out of bed, put on a fresh change of warm weather clothes, and walked down to breakfast. They offered two types in the buffet trays at the front of the room: rice/noodle dishes for the Asian-style eaters and scrambled eggs & diced potatoes for the Western palate. I dug into the eggs.

Meanwhile, hotel workers–young men and women in attractive grey/green attire–refilled the food and wished guests morning greetings. When I had first entered the room, one worker had caught my eye. She was thin and tall–almost as tall as my 6′ 1″ frame, in fact. A woman of this height is rare anywhere; for Thailand it’s unheard of. Typical though, was her long, shining black hair flowing down her back and following her like a wisping shadow whenever she changed direction to go about her job.

After I filled my plate, I walked over to the beverage table. She stood behind it attending to the guests. When I approached, I looked at her from across the table and noted a face of strong features. Contrasting the petite femininity of the female faces in this part of the world, she had a stronger jaw and deeper eyes.

“Is this orange juice?” I asked her pointing to a pitcher.

She looked at me a blankly for a moment.

“Is this one grape?” I continued while pointing to another.

Pointing to the first one, she said, “This is orange.”

Her voice mimicked her facial features.

“Oh man,” I thought. “She’s a man.”

Then my second thought went immediately to what my friend Matt said to me just before leaving for this trip.

He being my friend most resembling the stereotypical frat brother, his version of bon voyage was, “Watch out for the ladyboys!”

How prescient. I bumped into one my first morning here.

Just to confirm, I walked up to her after I finished eating. She not knowing English, I asked via a phone translator: “Are you a lady boy?”

The translator perhaps not too good, she couldn’t decipher it. So I tried a simpler question. “Are you a boy or a girl?”

She uttered back to me, “ladyboy.”

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After traveling for two weeks through the cities/country, rivers/hills, parks/museums of Thailand, our group made our way back to Bangkok. At a shopping center food court featuring probably 15 little kitchens lined along the wall, I stopped at one with a food display that looked the most appetizing.

The female worker standing behind the counter fit the stereotype of the young employee unenthusiastically wearing the work uniform while preoccupied. Unlike many modern youth, though, it wasn’t a smartphone in her hands but a pen on paper. She drew. She drew pictures of sexy women.

And when I got a closer look at her and her art, I realized she may have been drawing that which she hoped to become.

She too was a ladyboy.

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***

Thailand is known for their ladyboys–typically young men or even teenage boys who assume the female gender.

Though I had known about this class, and had recalled such individuals at nightclubs in Phuket a few years earlier, it took seeing these individuals intermingled with the daily activity of Thailand for me to really appreciate the prevalence and acceptability of this way of life here. It’s not just a tourist attraction or something designated for the clubs on a weekend night. It’s also just an open way of life.

The public realm of America has been opening its arms in welcoming the transgendered community with legal protection and awards for bravery in recent months. But I gather that the overall acceptance and the sheer numbers of transgender people (by percentage) is significantly less in the US than it is in Thailand.

Why is that? And why Thailand?

A modern factor is that once something is popular in one place, it perpetuates the behavior. Why are all movies made in Hollywood? There’s also economic incentive for these boys to assume this way of life through the entertainment and sex industries. And this trend, according to one Thailand traveler writing Quora.com, was spurred on by American troops on R & R during the Vietnam War. Perhaps this put Thailand on the map for this culture, and it took off from there to what it is today.

Another traveler, though, states that the origins of transgenderism in Thailand goes way back, and an acceptance of this way of life–even a historic veneration for this group known in Thai as kathoey–has allowed this community to live their lives with relatively little friction from society.

In all, most people cite the external reasons for the numbers and freedom of ladyboys in Thailand–the economic, the cultural, the tourism. But these contributors neglected the obvious–that there are virtually no women-to-men to be found. This observation helps point us to a factor that offers a deeper cause for this class, the cause which creates culture: biology.

A male’s innate feeling that he is a woman or vice versa is said to be a conflict one is born with. Apparently, this biological gender-identity clash happens more to men in Thailand than to women.

Human DNA is a library whose books are mostly unread by researchers. We simply don’t know which genes, and in what ways, they work together (and interact with the environment) to make people act in the ways they do. But we can infer. And from such inference, one might say that a society with a propensity for individuals born with male-to-female potential coupled with an openness toward transgender identity would nurture a ladyboy culture. Throw in the economic and the tourism, and we have the booming population of ladyboys in Thailand that we have today.

That’s just a theory I float out there.

While it’s fun to postulate, it’s just as interesting to sit back and watch a society with different features and norms than one’s own. It stretches the potential for humanity, the potential for what we can experience.

For me, that’s the whole point of travel.

***

Thanks for following me along as I traveled Thailand. I look forward to sharing in future Sundays future travels I take. Until I set off on another adventure, the next Sundays will feature “reruns” of my favorite travel stories from China, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.

The Bugs (and other creepy, crawly, slimy things) We Encountered in Thailand

While I said goodbye to Thailand last week with a post looking back at the highlights of our three weeks there, I do have a two addendums on special aspects of our experience.

This week’s: bugs (and other animals)

Beetle, leaf bug, mega mosquito…

Food, pest, welcome guest…

Insect, arachnid, reptile, and then some fish.

There are many animals that give people the willies, the recoils, the scrunched up faces of disgust.

Thailand is a tropical, largely undeveloped nation. And so their winged, long-legged critters flutter or crawl their way into the towns and homes of the locals.

Things that make you go, “Eek!”

But they are fascinating life forms. Enjoy these pictures, stories, and even some video of the creepy crawly animals of Thailand.

***

Our sister school in the village Huai Khu offered the best display of such creatures.

One day on the patio of the classroom building, students spotted this fella on the window mesh.

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Then one of our students, a Karenni boy who moved to America just five years earlier and had grown up exposed to such animal life in his Thailand refugee camp, picked up this bug.

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Another day, many students from either school sat on this same patio during a talk. Too bad for the speaker, an ornate, eye-catching, large, bright-green flying insect a-fluttered above the students’ heads and landed on the beam above. My camera followed their pointed fingers.

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Between classes at the school, I saw a bug that reminded me of ones I’d seen in Minnesota. I don’t know what they’re called, so I’ll simply refer to this one as I refer to them back home: giant mosquito.

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It wasn’t just insects at Huai Khu. There were many geckos. (There were many geckos all over the country. They were so common, I forgot to photograph one for you. Sorry about that.) But I’ll make it up with a reptile twice the size and twice the surprise.

On the upper level of the classroom building, the young man computer teacher led me into the lab. Never mind the PCs. Look what sat there on the floor.

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This molting lizard–somehow up on the second floor–just chilled there, probably wishing we’d leave. I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass me by, though. So I captured it–with some video.


Huai Khu offered us more than classes and activities.

***

Outside Huai Khu, students found another reptile in a stream. It just lay there, so they did what 14 year olds do. They picked it up.

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At a temple complex within a park, I looked up to see this hand-sized spider.

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Keeping with the temples, the gorgeous complex called Wat Tham Krabok featured a pond laying low beneath the elevated banks from which we viewed the water–and then fed the slimy creatures within:

 

Want to see some more fish? Okay. At a park in Bangkok, some students and I tossed bread at the large catfish in a pond just below the bridge we stood upon.

 

How very Midwestern of me to end on fish.

Such wildlife was not at all the reason for our trip, but after three weeks in Thailand–and if you keep your eyes open–you’ll see enough to write a story.

Next week’s post–the final from Thailand–also covers a topic you’ll notice if you keep your eyes open: the unique openness of cross-gender behavior and identity.

Until then, enjoy the bugs and lizards in your life.

The Hmong Have Caught on to Minnesota Fishing

The Hmong have been in Minnesota for 40 years. Which aspects of a culture does a people bring to a new land? Which do they leave behind? And which aspects of the local culture does one adopt when entering a new land?

These are the questions I’m asking in an article I’m working on. And I’ve discovered that one aspect of Minnesota culture that the Hmong have adopted is fishing.

You don’t see many Somali, Indian, or Latino guys out on the lakes trying to catch lunkers. Yet this morning at 5:30am on Lake Minnetonka, a normal sight: a friendly, seven boat bass tournament organized by some Hmong fellas from St. Paul.

Organizer Mark Xiong, 37, said he’s been fishing since growing up poor in California.

“I started with a can and string,” he told me as we stood on the dock.

A couple of days ago, I spoke to another participant, the man who invited me out here. Khai Xiong, 28, said to me from his work office that five years ago he was newly married and had to leave the party life behind. A cousin invited him out fishing, and it awoke something in him.

“I’d practice casting in my yard,” he said of the days following his first fishing experience.

Now fishing is his passion–in all seasons.

“What gets me through the winter is ice fishing,” he said.

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Khai Xiong

Back on the dock, the guys talked and readied for their tournament’s 6:00 start time. After speaking with them a few more moments, they roared off in their boats in the order they drew.

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Ten minutes later while I was still standing on that dock enjoying the sunrise, a Toyota Tundra backed a boat into the water. It was another Hmong foursome.

“I just talked to some other Hmong guys heading out for a tournament,” I said to them as they loaded their boat.

“We love this lake,” one responded with a grin. And off they went.

***

Of course, leisure is just one aspect of life a culture includes. I’ll be sharing about others–religion, music, romance–and the ways in which these aspects have meshed/clashed with the rest of Minnesota, in this upcoming piece as well.

 

Thailand: A Look Back at the Best Moments/Photos

River rides, elephant rides, Hmong villages, Long neck women…

Art, blossoms, schools, sports…

New friends, new terrain, and lots of food and shopping…

And that covers just a bit of what we saw and did on this student trip to Thailand.

Travel has a way of really packing a punch, of squeezing as much out of each scarce hour and minute as possible.

So let’s look back the best squeezed out of our three weeks touring Thailand and getting to know the people there.

***

Early on in our travels, we got to know the animals.

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One of our first activities was The Maetaeng Elephant Park outside Chiang Mai offering an elephant show, elephant rides, and raft rides.

Nature would play a big part in our entire trip, as the lush hills and mountains of northern Thailand served as the back drop for the villages, the parks, the cities, and the rides in between.

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On our way to Huai Khu village to visit the sister school.

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Huai Khu

Though nature is inseparable from any aspect of human existence, it was the humanity we were indeed here for.

Specifically, we came to see the Hmong way of life back in the “Old World” of Southeast Asia. Throughout our stay, we visited a few Hmong villages in Thailand. Most of them featured residents waiting for, and relying on, the tourists for business.

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She sold many typical trinkets–as well as the not-so-typical offering of baby elephant tusks.

Another village relying on tourists was the “Long neck village” whose residents sold trinkets–and also themselves as attractions to come and see.

The neck coil tradition of the Kayan women served a purpose, but as a tourist attraction it seemed stripped of any cultural significance anymore.

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Temples were a regular feature of our trip, none more impressive than the modern “White Temple” outside Chiang Rai. Read more about the construction, symbolism, and how the White Temple incorporates modern storytelling from Hollywood into its mythology.

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Outside Chiang Rai, we’d visit area natural sites around the main stop of our trip: Huai Khu School.

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Farmer in his cabbage patch

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A famous lookout point on the Thailand/Laos border

We arrived to Huai Khu school the morning of Day 10. We were greeted by the principal, and one our students was greeted by his relatives.

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Tommy from St. Paul offering gifts to his mother’s cousin and her daughter.

For the students, this visit to their sister school was about engaging with their peers on the other side of the world.

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In class

One afternoon we toured Huai Khu village.

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Huai Khu was off the beaten path, so no one here tried to sell us souvenirs.

A day trip from Huai Khu was to the Golden Triangle, a point on the globe where the countries Burma, Laos, and Thailand all meet.

I stood on Thailand, and viewed Burma (Myanmar) to the left and Laos on the right:

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We took a boat ride across the Mekong River into Laos for an hour. Here, the Laotians waited with things to sell.

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Near our motel, back near Huai Khu, we had a down day. I spent it wandering the market. Smiling faces and bright produce complemented some of the stranger offerings.

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Our last stop was in Bangkok, and outside of it is a famous former refugee camp of the Hmong.

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Now razed, some of our Hmong chaperons and students had to recall what it was like back when they lived here.

Nearby is a famous temple.

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Finally, our last day in Bangkok had us see the Grand Palace.

Indeed it was.

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And that afternoon, we went to the top of Thailand for an appropriate final overview of the city and country where we had spent three weeks, visiting three regions.

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***

Each picture tells a story. Enjoy them by clicking the corresponding links above.

Taken together, these glimpses into the lives in Thailand created collage of the diversity in this one country, and so, the diversity to be had on our planet. And much of this diversity came from individuals within a common ethnic group. 

In all, the students and us chaperons (and I hope readers of these stories) enjoyed a deepened understanding of the potential and actuality of humankind the world over.

I’ll have two more posts about Thailand the next two Sundays. Both are specific looks back at two very different aspects:

-The bugs and creeping, crawly wildlife.

-The openness of gender identification and the prevalence of a group of people known as “ladyboys.”

He Had Everything, So Why Did Robin Williams Commit Suicide?

 

When someone kills themselves or suffers from depression/substance abuse, we’re quick to ask why and point out the external factors: poverty, bad childhood, or lack of support (financial, personal, or medical).

I think we do this because the external factors are visible and so easier to credit. Plus, it has us look at ourselves and ask, “What more could we have done?”

Or we look at who’s to blame: “If only [name or group] did/didn’t do [action].”

For the impoverished who suffer, we can the credit their condition, their treatment from others, or their lack of resources.

But then a rich man in America 2014, a human with literally more resources at his disposal than anyone in history, decides to kill himself. Robin Williams died a year ago on Tuesday.

Well, people still looked at the external: marriage challenges, his canceled TV show, and a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. Taken together, failures in love, profession, and health can appear a perfect storm that even a rich and famous person can’t overcome. But this idea floats only when you don’t consider that all people suffer professional and romantic challenges and that the vast majority of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s don’t kill themselves.

Robin Williams killed himself not because of external circumstances but because he suffered from mental illness. And the seriousness of it is evidenced by the fact that he had the best comforts money could buy, the best therapy, the best treatment centers–which he had recently completed, the best doctors, the best medication, etc.

It still wasn’t enough.

We hesitate to credit mental illness because it’s so difficult to imagine life with depression if you don’t have it. To feel chronic lowliness, the objective feeling of not wanting to do anything, of asking, “what’s the point?”, of having to regularly feel that which normal people feel only occasionally as a consequence of difficult circumstances.

And it turns out that severe depression wasn’t the only mental condition which Williams suffered. He was diagnosed with dementia with paranoia, which doctors said was the deciding factor in his choice to take his life.

That there was nothing anyone could do for Robin Williams is a discouraging reality. But it’s also encouraging. That a beloved man of means would still choose to hang himself by a belt in his closet should have us realize our current remedies are inadequate and so encourage us to devote increased money and manpower to a new avenue of medicine: finding and curing the biological reasons for mental illness.

Once we crack the code and repair brains that predispose people to a life of struggle, we’re going to see a new age of recovery, and mental illness will be a thing of the past.

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The Grand Finale of Thailand: The Grand Palace

 

Grand it was.

I just wish we had spent more time.

Check out the ahead pictures,

and you’ll understand why.

The aptly named Grand Palace of Bangkok is perhaps the most striking architectural offering in all the Kingdom of Thailand.

It didn’t hurt that the bright blue sky hung above while the sun shone upon the large, color-saturated structures. Their golds and whites exclaimed their visual brilliance while also displaying the history and culture of this country of SE Asia.

Buddhist temples, royal museum, and the King’s Grand Palace.

This, our final day in Thailand, would end our trip on a royal note.

***

Our last day in Thailand was also our hottest here. Sweltering, equatorial heat forced us into the shade, which if we were smart, would have been with us wherever we went via large-brimmed hats or umbrellas. We didn’t think of that.

But the Chinese tourists did.

As I remembered from my time in China, and as I recalled when visiting the elephant park in Chiang Mai, the Chinese are adept at escaping the sun.

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Our group of students and chaperons made our way to the entrance.

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Once inside, a visual feast stood before us:

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Construction began on the Grand Palace, or Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang, in 1782. At that time, the US was but an infant, but the Thai state had been around already hundreds of years. Construction continued into the 1900s.

Today, the buildings serve as much a tourist and historic purpose as a practical one. For instance, the king no longer lives here. But there are yet religious and government services held on the grounds.

Where to begin looking?

It was as simple as following my travelers heart. I followed the beat to the sound of worship.

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I could hear the nearby sing-chants of a Buddhist service.

After watching the religious activity, we checked out more of the buildings.

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…and statues.

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Walled in within this “downtown” of sacred skyscrapers, I sought the open escape of an executive building. This wasn’t a plain-jane state structure, though.

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Known as Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat, this palace was built in 1876 with the help of English architects from the East Indies (present day Indonesia). Inside are ballrooms, galleries, and something called the Throne Room. It’s an architectural blend of English and Thai

Also reminding me of the English, was the guard out front.

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I posed in like fashion.

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Then we lightened up.

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At least I did–as would he. Not shown here, but he wasn’t too serious to smile.

After taking in The Grand Palace, we had one more site in Bangkok to tour. And boy was it a sight–a particularly appropriate one.

***

Our one last look was an astounding and literal overview of our time in Bangkok–and all of Thailand.

Taking the elevators to the 80-something floor of the Baiyoke Sky Tower, we looked down on this:

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And this:

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And finally this:

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Bangkok is a grand city, Thailand a grand country.

We flew home the following day.

Next week, we take a look back at the best pictures and moments of our three weeks here.

Whether You’re Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, the Undercover Planned Parenthood Videos are Good

It’s easy to go back and forth about the morality of Planned Parenthood. They are huge. They provide many services. Some controversial, most not.

Like any large entity, people who dislike it can point out the bad; and people who like it will point out the good. One could do the same for, say, the Catholic church. Detractors can point out the scandals. Supporters can point out all the “St.” hospitals and colleges. Judging these organizations is not so much about balancing the facts as it is about the predetermined perspective from which one views the entity.

Flipping the coin, supporters of Planned Parenthood will accuse the detractors of not just attacking women’s rights and services for the needy, but claim that that is the detractor’s main function. And detractors will then accuse supporters of Planned Parenthood that their main goal is murder.

Making/reading these arguments is spinning wheels. If progress is the goal, it’s disheartening to see Planned Parenthood making statements about these recent undercover videos being done by groups whose sole purpose is to attack women. Why can’t Planned Parenthood accept that maybe people are attacking Planned Parenthood because they don’t like to end human life?

And why can’t detractors accept that supporters of Planned Parenthood aren’t fans of abortion? They are supporters of the multitude of services the organization provides.

Sides are created and lines are drawn and positions are held because Planned Parenthood is not just an institution. It’s a symbol, an icon–making it both something more and also something more focused than what it really is. To supporters, it stands for women’s rights and services for the poor. To detractors, it is America’s leading provider of abortions and a symbol of moral decay.

Progress here will require us to view Planned Parenthood holistically and be more honest about where the supporters/detractors are coming from.

***

While I’m an optimist and see a bright future for humankind, I do empathize with the idea that overall American morality has become twisted over this issue.

You can see this in light of these latest undercover videos–not just in the footage itself, but the reaction. The people behind the videos have been labeled as “anti-abortion extremists” by angered politicians, the media, and Planned Parenthood.

How confused are we about right and wrong when being against abortion is seen as a negative?

And if being “anti-abortion” is so bad, then is the correct position to be “pro-abortion?” Perhaps it is, as we have have the National Abortion Federation, and I see bumper stickers on cars like this one in Minneapolis:

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It’s one thing to support the legal choice of abortion. It’s another to advocate abortion. I believe in ending the War on Drugs, but I’m not about to say I’m “pro-heroin.”

This brings us to another twist: When black market heroin or elephant tusks are confiscated by law enforcement, the protocol is to destroy the product. Search images online of literally tons of elephant tusks going up in smoke. They do this in East Africa, because they don’t want to encourage the market.

Even though there is all this ivory, which is a fantastic medium for finite sculpting; and all this heroin, which would have supplied weeks of great high time for users across the region, governments destroy this wealth because they don’t want to encourage illicit opium farming or elephant hunting.

So what are we doing using aborted fetal tissue for research?

Never mind that the mother doesn’t get paid for the abortion or that Planned Parenthood says they don’t make a profit. When we rely on abortions for anything, we’re encouraging the practice.

While this offends me, I understand it doesn’t offend many others. To some, abortion just isn’t that big of a deal. Part of the reason for this, I think, is simply a lack of visibility and empathy.

It’s easy to ignore the results of abortion. The procedure and its providers function behind closed doors. And who can empathize with its victims? Fetuses haven’t yet had a name or a personality or friends or a job. Literally everyone can feel okay about abortion, because no one had to endure it.

Meanwhile, victims of ALS are obviously seen and rightfully loved, and so this well-meaning writer extols the benefits of fetal tissue for the potential sake of people like his late best friend who succumbed to ALS. But then minus any consideration for the life sacrificed, the writer calls abortion “an act of altruism.”

For this reason alone, I think these undercover videos are good. Information is power. Police footage is showing the public law enforcement abuses, which will hopefully reduce these incidences. Footage of talk of killing and dismembering unborn lives shows the cold-hearted nature that resides within the abortion community, and the publicity of this controversy puts in peoples’ minds the details of the gruesome procedure.

But while I believe that life begins at conception, I also believe in maintaining the rights of the woman to choose whether to keep that life, and that sometimes an abortion is necessary under certain conditions. My optimism offers the solution that abortions will become less necessary with medical advancements, fewer unexpected pregnancies, and most of all, a heightened understanding and morality about what abortion truly does.

The Lion, The Myth, and the Morality Tale

Hype and myth are loaded themes that go hand in hand. Once something is mythologized, it’s easy to go overboard about it. Meanwhile, look at something that garners a strong reaction, and you may be able to explain it with myth.

Enter Cecil the lion and the reaction to his death.

Yet to the demonstrators outside of Dr. Walter Palmer’s dental clinic on July 29, and to many of the thousands of people who’ve called and written angry rants on a variety of websites, this really wasn’t about the death of one lion–or his cubs. Nor was this about the well-being of the people of Zimbabwe. Points such as these have simply been used to defend, justify, explain or even mask the actual foundation and motivation of their anger.

This is about human beings’ susceptibility to mythology–and the actors who represent the good and evil in this morality tale of nature vs. man.

***

Once humans have their food, shelter, health and other basic needs met, they have the luxury of fighting for their world view.

We all have a world view or ideology that fits best with how we think and feel.

Some of these ideologies are summed up politically: conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism. Some are better explained in narrative: the Randian innovator going up against the stifling government, the Erin Brokovich-type employee taking on a giant corporation, or the rich American hunter killing an innocent lion.

For many, these stories best hit home not as documented history, but as resonance with our spirit of right and wrong. To narrate life requires the greys within to be divided into black and white. Erin Brokovich = good. Corporation = bad. Now we have ourselves a morality tale, a myth, good vs evil. Star Wars, James Bond, Lord of the Rings.

In the case of Cecil the lion, many people accept the mythological narrative of the exploitative American killing the defenseless creature. This is why people are so upset. This event, to them, is good vs evil.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with myth and symbolism. They are emotional-mental tools used to categorize our world, to seek its improvement, to add meaning, to sink our emotional teeth into life and cultivate richness around our experience. Epic is awesome.

It was awesome for those who cried when seeing Barack Obama elected because of the interpreted representative step forward and victory of our nation. It’s awesome to feel moved by the sight of an animal that represents and elicits majesty. And it’s awesome to find other like-minded folks and bond in celebration or fight for a better world.

But there’s a risk.

To the degree that we subscribe to a particular ideology is the potential for us to color the events of our world with its tint. Suddenly we have something invested into these events–our world view, our ego–and exaggerated responses result. We’ll fight to defend our ideology, details and facts be damned. Get with like-minded folks, and you can create a mob.

Reality isn’t a morality tale. Yet to these protesters, Cecil the lion wasn’t a lion. He was “good.”

Palmer wasn’t the man who shot the lion. He was “evil.”

And that’s all there is to it.

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Walter Palmer protesters

Neglecting facts in favor of the emotions of myth and succumbing to its pull can misalign ourselves with decency.

Mayans sacrificed people at the altar of their god. Puritans burned women believed to be witches. Things have improved today. But we’re yet kicking the can down the road as protesters fighting for Cecil–fighting for good–stood in front of a sign directing a fellow human to “Rot in Hell.” Go to Palmer’s dentistry Yelp review page for more examples of people fighting for good.

Less extreme, but just as telling, is their demand that Palmer be extradited to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has one of the worst recent records of human rights, run by a man responsible for countless deaths. Palmer could be killed.

Doesn’t matter.

A fellow human’s suffering is outweighed by an ideological-driven person’s need to have the world act in accordance to his/her world view. And much of what is stated to explain such anger is mere decoration:

-Cecil’s cubs will now be killed, they say. Yes, they will. Just like the cubs Cecil killed; just like his cubs would have whenever his eventual death occurred.

-This hurts the Zimbabwean economy, they say. It may, but insignificantly. The average Zimbabwean has already had their comforts decimated by the policies of their government. Working just to get food, shelter, and fend off disease, the vast majority of Zimbabweans don’t have the luxury to fight for ideology, plight that until a lion was killed most protesters knew nothing about.

Undoubtedly, there are other factors at work: the accepted bigotry toward rich white men; the bubbles we put ourselves in, ignorant of the circumstances of the hunt or the conditions in Zimbabwe; a media feeding the narrative constantly referring to Cecil as “beloved” when not one outlet mentions who actually loved this lion; the modern movement of “social justice warriors” out to attack anything that offends them.

But the underlying factor is myth and the lens of the morality tale.

My hope for Palmer is that he can understand this, that though the insults and attacks are directed toward him, he knows that the angriest people aren’t angry at him so much as afraid of losing the epic battle of this perceived morality tale.

My hope for the protesters is that they become aware of how much they’ve succumbed to this tendency to mythologize and take too seriously one’s ideology.

My hope for the US justice system is that they aren’t too influenced by the mob and hype too put a human’s life at risk.

Myth is a powerful force that colors our world in amazing ways.

We just have to be careful not to get carried away and forget the reality (and our humanity) beneath.

Refugee Camp Ruins and a Buddhist Monastery

 

Our van motorcade approached a monastery community with row houses, a large, black statue of the Buddha, and temples. These structures sat before a backdrop of grassy, rocky hills.

This was all for the monks.

Adjacent to the temple property were the ruins of a former refugee camp: piles of concrete on what is now empty farmland, the remains of a blue/white tile floor interrupting the plowed rows. But not all the refugees had left. Four Hmong families remained, the last standers of the hundreds–if not thousands–of families who had once lived here just ten years earlier.

We walked into their compound mixing livestock with living quarters in and around a few thin-walled buildings for the few remaining souls living here.

We met the leader, a middle aged woman who was getting ready for her morning as we arrived:


After she readied, she showed us around.

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Other family who lived here

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She made money by selling handmade jewelry. Our students looked.

Then we toured the ruins-now-farmland.

What had been blocks of homes was now a banana tree farm.

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Under the hot sun, dust billowed with each step we took. Still, it was the season for blossoms, and beautiful pink flowers decorated some of the trees. We met the others here doing daily chores under the shade of these trees.

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They keep song birds. I don’t know how they attracted the first birds, but I’m told the tactic to getting more is to use one to attract the others into a cage.

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We continued to more ruins.

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This whole camp had been a huge grey zone (and according to the Thai government, an eye sore) on this quiet landscape an hour outside of Bangkok. The Hmong originally congregated here, because the Thai government had closed down all the other official refugee camps in the north. Forcing them to assimilate or emigrate, many were stuck in a grey zone, as they couldn’t become residents and they couldn’t/or didn’t want to leave. They came here to Wat Tham Krabok, the temple whose head monk–a Thai–was both sympathetic to the Hmong and influential in these parts. His blessing for the Hmong to build homes adjacent to his temple forced the Thai government to relent and allow the camp–though they then created a fence around the parameter.

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What has been cleared out is now farmland.

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Eventually, the Thai government grew impatient, and in 2004, they told all the Hmong here to leave. A group from Minnesota arrived (including Kazoua Kong-Thao, the head chaperon on our trip) to see about hosting several of the refugees (including two students in our student group here.)

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Our students/staff under the shade of a blossoming tree.

The Hmong have an interesting relationship with the past. Not only do many have their homelands merely in (or i their parent’s) memory, but some have had their homes erased from the face of the earth.

***

Walking to the temple Wat Tham Krabok, we encountered the monk’s quarters.

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Then we saw how they spent some of their time: on arts and crafts.

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Monk talking with a fellow chaperon on the banks of their catfish pond.

Then we saw their awesome temples and statues:

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I didn’t find out nearly as much about their buildings, statues, or lifestyle as I would have liked. But we were here for the Hmong after all.

All I know is that it was a contrast of fates: a people whose homes were torn down, another whose structures stood impressive; a lifestyle of unsettled moving about and uncertainty, another of centered practice and solidity.

 

How to End Trophy Hunting in Africa

 

Okay. If you want to end trophy hunting in Africa, here’s how to do it:

First you need to understand why it exists. People enjoy big game hunting for the same reason people in my family like deer hunting–or even fishing. It’s about strategy and problem solving, a mental exercise of knowing where the animal will be and when, how to overcome our relative, human shortcomings–poorer eye sight, poorer hearing–with our minds to sneak up on an animal and take it. Many consider it barbaric. Well, then many still like to flex these barbaric muscles via this tactical game taking place in the great outdoors. And when you’ve correctly assessed the landscape, the wind, the timing, and made a good shot, you’ve accomplished something. If you’re tempting to mock it, avoid the laziness of doing so. 

Years ago, I remember once fishing on Lake of the Woods with my brothers. It’s a huge lake and the wind was blowing our boat all over the place, so I eyed the horizon and suggested we go into a small bay near the landing and troll the shore. We did this, and I landed a couple of small northern pike. “Yes!” I pumped my fist. I was perhaps more thrilled with those humble catches than I’ve been for 20 pound lunkers I’ve caught since under my big brother’s direction. Because for the little ones in the bay, I directed the action and was proud of the results.

This is the same lure of hunting.

Now, why do they have to kill rare animals like elephant, rhinos, and lions? And aren’t they cheating by baiting these beasts? Depends on your rules, I guess. The thing is, these are exotic animals whose catch is made thrilling for what they are more than how they are. And how they are helps us to understand the next part of the puzzle.

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The lands of these animals are the most impoverished on Earth. A $50,000 (or more) price tag for a big game hunt sure beats the $150 I spent on a safari when I lived in Tanzania.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, big game hunts–managed appropriately–don’t decrease the numbers of these animals. Killing an old male–the usual target, that has already sired many offspring–doesn’t lessen the number as much just hastens a life span. I know this may sound cold, but the numbers are the numbers. And the relatively small amount of animals taken by above-the-board hunts don’t dent the tens of thousands of, say, lions in Africa.

But there are enough big game hunters with cash that are willing to pay exorbitant prices. So of course, there are countries interested in servicing them–and keeping these tourist dollars coming in. You have to appreciate that it’s hunters and hunting outfitters–whose hobby and livelihoods depend on the survival and thriving of the species–that also want to keep the numbers up, albeit for reasons entirely different than perhaps you might.

The money is used to help preserve habitat and populations. At least that’s the theory. If that’s not what is happening, if the government is corrupt–then we have a large problem on our hands. Because people angry about this hunting want it to be made illegal. But how can you trust a corrupt government to enforce that?

People who are angry also choose to simply shame the hunters. In words that belong in bathroom stalls and Quentin Tarantino films and curses that belong in satanic rituals, people generously spewed Bloomington, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer’s Facebook page, work website, and answering machine these last 24 hours.

Palmer recently killed a popular lion in the country of Zimbabwe. Mourners for the lion, Cecil, paid a touching/expressive tribute on July 29 to the lion on the dentist office’s door:

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This recent uproar–along with previous uproars–will probably put a dent in the interest of a hobby that is likely going out of fashion anyway. But as long as there are interested hunters–of which there are several; and as long as there is a supply–of which there is enough, arguably; then this industry will continue.

Telling these governments–corrupt or not–to make big game hunting illegal is asking a lot. I think it is unlikely that the poorest nations in the world, with people dying of diseases eradicated long ago in America, are going to say no to millions of dollars from these hunts.

UNLESS, these countries’ economies don’t suffer as a result.

To those wishing to end these hunts, stop demanding and start offering. Stop cursing people to hell, and start a solution.

Start a fund to raise money for these countries outweighing the money otherwise earned through big game hunts. Offer it to nations like Zimbabwe under the condition that they prohibit big game hunting. If they can prohibit the activity without an economic sacrifice, they will have much easier time doing so. And you will have provided a lifeline to the animals who you wish to see saved from the arrows and bullets of big game hunters.

 

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