Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
When I signed up to be the first week’s blogger of Class 15 at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University my motivation was clearly selfish, get the assignment out of the way. As soon I sat down to write though, I realized I had made a mistake. Since no classes have taken place I cannot really say what the lectures are like during my first week or how they have affected my thinking on global peace. All we have done so far is orient ourselves with the program and visit with the Rotary Centre in Thailand, to which I know all the fellows are grateful for the hospitality and welcome. So now what?
I sat looking at my computer and thinking, what was the most important thing I learned in my first week at Chula? Clearly it was not that I have a ton of reading, or where to do laundry or how to say hello in Thai. It was a lecture by one of Africa’s most promising young writers, a woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose inspiring TED talk was shown to the fellows at the end of our first week of class. Adichie is the author of two novels, The Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, who deal with her native Nigeria’s economic and political troubles and the Biafran War. Adichie talked about the concept of “the single story,” what we laypeople would call stereotyping. She warned about its effects on our understanding of the world and our inability to protect ourselves against viewing our surroundings through the lens of the single story we humans construct for everything. So, I found myself thinking about the single stories that I have carried with me to this new country I am visiting for the first time. I am what I would call a seasoned cultural thrill-seeker, as I have lived for more than a couple of weeks in several countries around the world. Could it be that I have fallen for this single story trap?
So as part of my first assignment in this course, frequented by very smart and intellectually curious people from around the world, I offer my self-examination and deconstruction of single stories I brought from America, like unwanted baggage weighing me down. First, I tended to think of Thailand as a vacation spot not a country where people go about their lives struggling with the same issues I have as the father of three boys, the equivalent of Club Med if you wish. Something like that would probably irritate me if it was offered as the description for my own native land, Greece. Secondly, I tended to think of Thailand as the third world which if you look at the average per capita income of 8,600 and the Gini coefficient you can make a strong case is not a single story, it is the truth. Consequently, I was visited by my Kenyan classmate, George Chacha, and during our discussion of comparative wealth among different states I was strongly reminded of Amartya Sen’s argument that economic growth does not equal economic development. Thailand is the land of smiles and yes it is less developed than other countries but that fact is not even half the story. Happiness cannot be measured in terms of the money you get every month to pay the rent, nor do Thais think of it this way. It seems to me everyday I’m here they are genuinely happy and extremely friendly people. George thought so too, and his comparison to his native Kenya makes him want to work harder to reach such level of development. Finally, I though of Thailand as a sex paradise, admittedly the worst single story a country can have since it brings the connotation that because it is so underdeveloped most women can be bought in the sex trade. It is true, there is prostitution, but that is a single story if I have ever heard one! I can’t help thinking to myself that this country is suffering from an image problem. The international media has turned Thailand into a circus because, although not an expert on the subject, this aspect of Bangkok is no different than Amsterdam, or Hamburg for that matter. Thai streets are no different than those in NY or Kansas City apart from the fact that they are more crowded.
I have been in Thailand for only week, I have traveled around Bangkok and have reexamined my thinking and all this in a week in which my program offered no actual classes. I can’t wait to see what happens next and how it will change my life, for I am now convinced it will.
Akis Kalaitzidis, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2013 Session