Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
I’m a white guy from the middle of the United States. My mom was a social worker and my dad an attorney. Most of the people I grew up with looked like me. Our families had similar values and shared experiences. I liked my hometown and the people around me, but I had a nagging sense that I was living in Plato’s cave.
A desire to break free led me to New Orleans for university. I met for the first time people who were openly members of the LGBTQ community. I saw The Vagina Monologues. I took courses on philosophy, gender, and post-colonial studies. I studied abroad in Buenos Aires where I was exposed to critical perspectives on US foreign policy. I recall most vividly the deep structural injustices and racism exposed by Hurricane Katrina.
Sensing there was more out there further beyond the cave, I moved to Vietnam in 2006. I expected to stay a year but remained in Southeast Asia for ten years and counting. During this decade, I fell in love with the daily life, histories, cultures, and cuisines of Southeast Asia. I learned Vietnamese, Khmer, and Burmese. I worked in rural development in the Mekong Delta, developed service learning curriculum in Yangon in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, lived alone in a farmhouse on a hillside in Ratanakiri, and rode my bicycle deep into Angkorian history.
In 2010, I founded a regional peacebuilding organization in Phnom Penh. We connect youth from conflicting ethnicities and religions in Southeast Asia through immersive, collaborative exchange programs. Together we create football camps, we undertake construction projects, and we celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanity through the arts, music, and our diverse cultural traditions. We live together and form an authentic community.
Being a minority (granted still a privileged one) and perennial outsider these last ten years in Southeast Asia has been eye opening. It has offered a window into how societies and cultures create meaning and construct social identities around issues such as gender and ethnicity. I have new eyes for my childhood and my home country. I regard both the United States and Southeast Asia as home. At the same time, I feel equally a stranger in both places. You can never go back.
Exiting the cave has left me with many questions and few answers. My mind is in a perpetual state of contradiction, viewing situations as they arise from multiple cultural lenses. Inside my heart, the feelings are equally confounding. For me, there’s something profoundly uncomfortable about being a white man in Asia. The colonial legacy remains, as do the craters from my country’s bombs. It’s not just history. I see its logical continuation each time I pass a brothel in Phnom Penh catering to foreign men.
I struggle to understand how I fit into this historic and contemporary dynamic. As a white, straight, upper-middle class, American man in Asia, I exude privilege. On six different counts. Each of these identify groups to which I belong has exercised violence, both direct and structural, over other groups of people. Some of the violence is seen, and much more is unseen. As a child, I participated directly through discriminatory words and actions grounded in ignorance. As an adult, I consent tacitly and explicitly to oppressive systems.
I feel guilt. Corollary to guilt is shame. These are the automatic feelings that arise within me when I think about my physical identity: my body, where I come from, and what it means. Shame is antecedent to anger. I feel anger and self-pity over the fact that I am feeling guilty about who I am. After all, I say to myself, I didn’t choose which time, place, and body to be born into. Then, I remember my privilege, and I feel embarrassed that I’m complaining to myself about the “unfairness” that accompanies my privilege. The sum of the parts is a cycle of shame and anger.
I’ve observed carefully the comings and goings of this painful, destructive cycle, and I desire freedom from it.
This is where the Rotary Peace Fellowship enters the picture. During a rich and impassioned classroom discussion on gender and conflict last week, it suddenly dawned on me that this cycle of shame and anger is enabled by my underlying assumption that I am personally to blame for the history of violence against women, minorities, and other oppressed groups. When I read, hear, or think about oppression, I blame myself. I see myself as the oppressor. While I undoubtedly bear a measure of blame, my stark framing of the situation in terms of my bearing ultimate culpability is neither accurate nor helpful towards becoming the person I wish to become and co-creating with my fellow human beings a more just, equal, and sustainable world.
With this realization as a catalyst, I hereby make a commitment to endeavor to transform my guilt, shame, and anger into positive action that I hope will play a small but significant role in the creation a better world. What precisely this means and the form this commitment takes, I have yet to discover.
The Rotary Peace Fellowship is valuable for many reasons. One such reason is that provides a space for individuals like myself to safely explore their identity with a diverse group of peers from around the globe. There’s no endpoint in the journey of unpacking my identity, but last week marked a significant milestone along the way. One step further out of the cave. A step in the direction of hope and a gesture towards transformation.
Wesley Hedden, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow, January 2016 session.