Day 51: It’s a Non-Issue

I forgot completely to mention how happy I was that I got to Day 50 in my last post — that’s half way through the goal of one hundred days that I had set for myself at the beginning a few months back.

It’s been, of course, more than 50 days since I have not been consistent about writing a post a day. I have always been very bad at disciplining myself. The original plan was to write about 1,000 words a day to reflect on moral and personal issues that I’d anticipate to be facing in the dissertation writing process. But as you know, as I’ve begun to write passionately, everything and anything have become more and more personal. My posts have become longer and longer, as my ability to restrain myself to write more than I had planned become more and more limited. At the end, I just gave up altogether.

As I have begun to reflect on my dissertation writing process, “the issue” that I would like to spend the rest of my life unpacking has become clear: the meaning of it all.

It’s true that I should not try bite off more than I can chew. Although I have a deep and sincere belief that writing could somehow get me there, I also always wholeheartedly acknowledge the limit to the ability of words in expressing and describing the “things in themselves.” Language has its limits. Language is shaky, as often because more than one interpretations could be derived from even a single word, it’s confusing to understand fully the message that the language is being used as a vehicle for sending it across from one mind to the other, and also from oneself to the other self residing within oneself (i.e., communicating with your own self). Like the philosophy Laozi once said, “The way (dao) that can be expressed is not the everlasting way; The names (ming) that can be named are not changeless names.” If we’re to interpret Laozi in a contemporary way,  we might want to resort to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument about the problematic role of language in philosophy, in which the idea that one cannot think about complex philosophical inquiry without a language (try it, can you?) paradoxically entertains the idea that it is not possible to communicate ideas through language because not everyone understands a concept in the similar way. For instance, how can we begin to talk about the philosophy of “love,” without an absolutely shared and common understanding of love? Can we have an absolutely shared and common understanding of love? Wittgenstein would probably say no, and so would I. That is, language itself may be the obstacle that prevents us in arriving at the meaning of a concept (in this case, love).

In this post, I’d like to share an essay written by a student who interviewed me for her journalism class’ paper. The original title of this post is “My Oral History (as Written by Someone Else),” but I changed it to the current title to honor the creativity of the student who wrote the piece. I had guessed that the point of the interview was for this student (and many of her classmates who had to produce similar assignments) to learn how to compose and coherent essay based on a single interview with someone from whom the student had an interest in learning more. I was more than happy that this student, Kaiwen “Karen” Wu, was interested in my story, as a teacher, and as an architect.

So, with her permission, of course, I’d like to share with you this assignment of hers, in which she wrote about me based on an informal yet in-depth interview she had with me one morning a couple of weeks ago. To make it read better, I have made a few edits throughout the piece, with her permission of course from Karen who would like to call this piece, “It’s a Non-Issue.” The parts written in different colors are my annotations to help contextualize the piece.

It’s a Non-Issue

Born in Bangkok, Thailand in 1981, Non Arkaraprasertkul (王光亮) is a trained architect, urban designer, historian, and anthropologist. Growing up in Thailand until he was 16 [after which he left Thailand for Oklahoma City for high school there], he has a simple childhood. His great grandparents were from Chaozhou, a small town in the southern province of Guangdong. Unlike his great grandparents who came from China, Non’s [both paternal and maternal] grandparents were all born in northeast Thailand in the 1920s [therefore Non considers himself more from northeastern Thailand rather than Bangkok]. As members of the overseas Chinese community, Non’s [maternal] grandparents [to whom he had been much closer compare to the grandparents on his father’s side, told him that they often] felt as if there were not many interesting things for them to do [as the opportunity for the second generation Chinese migrants like themselves were not abundant, especially before and during the anti-Chinese movement and campaign by the elite Thai in the 1950s-1960s]; they only farmed and made a living by running a small grocery store. [In fact, his maternal grandparents often told him the “family ethics”: always get up early in the morning; always eat fast; and always work diligently. All of these were to reinforce his grandparents’ sense of identity, which was the outsiders to the Thai community; hence, working hard was the only possible way to live a decent, dignified, and comfortable life]. His grandparents’ frugal lifestyle is the reason why Non believes his childhood life was “pretty simple.” He played with his friends in the rice field, and there was not much intellectual stimulation at all. This was the environment in which the young Non grew up.

When he was 16, he went to a high school in Oklahoma City as an exchange student. In 2005, he was awarded the Fulbright Program scholarship and was admitted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). [It’s not that there wasn’t anything interesting between 1998 and 2005. There’re many interesting stories. Some of which have been written about in the I Was Lucky post]. Non received two graduate degrees from MIT: one is history and theory of art and architecture [a field combining architecture, aesthetics, and general philosophy], and the other in urban planning and design. According to him, MIT was the school that was most pivotal to his personal development. The experience at MIT has contributed immensely to his way of thinking later on in many ways. He has often written about his years at MIT on his blog. For example, he gave an example that if a student said that he or she is “not feeling well that day,” whereas that student might get an extra day to work on his or her projects, nobody at MIT would be bothered to care. If your exam result was bad, then you’re out. [MIT during Non’s time was one of the toughest schools that were happy to kick you out if you were not good enough to be there]. You may complain to people as much as you wish about your failure, and no body would care to listen because most people would be fighting their own fights. Complaining, for instance, that “I am not a native speaker of English [which was something for which Non had blamed himself with regards to his first few unsuccessful semesters there], I have to struggle to learn so much English every day,” would not do any good, as no one would show any sympathy. The goal is to achieve good grades.

My goal was to learn as hard as I could. If you’re not a native speaker of English, then read more books and try harder to promote your English. There’s nothing about which to complain!

The reason why MIT made him stronger is that it left him with no room to waste his time by blaming his destiny, or himself, or other people for his failure. “If you fail, you fail,” said Non. [Non’s life at MIT got him the first glimpse of existentialist way of thinking about life, which was to perform his best with the greatest intention without wanting to resort to someone else to be responsible for the outcome of such performance.] Non claimed that this made him very strong because he had to fight his way through everything.

After MIT, he was admitted to Oxford University and earned a master’s degree in Modern Chinese Studies [with the focus in history and anthropology] from the Oriental Institute there. Non, however, does not believes that he had learned as much from Oxford as he did from MIT. Oxford was a very lofty place. “People were reading articles from decades, or even centuries ago without any critical mindsets,” said Non. Discussions were not based on intellectual engagement, but on the ground that nothing except memorization.

For instance, if students were going to discuss history, they wouldn’t be talking about how to understand history, or what they can learn from the history; instead, they would be talking about in a specific year something happened: An example of a typical Oxford discussion that he partook goes in the following manner:

Student A: Let’s talk about the movement that I believes happened in 1961

Student B: Oh no no no, it’s in 1962, it’s not 1961; by the way, it’s in May and not April,” don’t you know that?

How could these two students arrive at anything meaningful in history if the objective of the conversation was, simply, to compete in showing off how knew more encyclopedic sort of facts? These people were simply debating facts, which they believed to override the importance of the crucial historical lessons from which they could learn. Like one of his favorite philosophers Michel de Montaigne, Non only cares about what he can get from studying history and how history tells him how and why one can attempt to “not make the same mistake again.” That’s the most important thing for which he thinks history is worth studying.

When discussing how he has developed his interest in many of his fields of study, Non said that he had been most interested in architecture — the core around which his other fields of study spun. He started with architecture but after he has taught it at various universities, and practiced it for years, he realized that he did not know enough about the subject and he needs to know more. He believes that to design a building that nobody wants to use is not architecture. He thinks that people, human beings, should be at the center of architecture. So he wants to engage in a study that allows him to better understand human beings. By better understanding the users of the architecture – the people – he believes that which will in turn make him a better architect, as he writes in an essay in honor of his friend and mentor at MIT, Professor Jan Wampler:

When I first started learning about architecture, I too naively thought that excellence was equated with distinctiveness – and to be distinctive and architect would have to invent something from scratch. Unfortunately, as I have also learned through personal experience that when distinctiveness is created for its own sake, the excitement often dies quickly, giving way to architecture that is soon looked upon as hackneyed, mundane, and obsolete.

Personally, I credit my architecture education under Jan’s mentorship with my current academic career studying history and anthropology. While Jan would probably never admit that he is as much an anthropologist as he is an architect, I am always reminded by his teaching that regardless of what I do for a living, I will always be an architect – not because I was trained as one, but because like him I hold paramount the goal of making a better living environment for all.

That is why he made the switch from architecture to humanities, to history, and then to anthropology. Although he was originally trained as an architect and urban designer, Non has taught many courses in humanities and social sciences. As a teacher in these two broad fields, he always make sure that the course’s learning goals are set at the beginning. These goal include making sure that his students can learn how to absorb and express ideas critically — in other words, how to read and write intellectually. He always wants to make sure that his students are able to engage in critical discussions and debate with open-mindedness. His personal goal is that he always wants his students to learn from his classes not just for grades, but to achieve the goal of becoming better people and to be better at living their lives.

Also, there is something, which he believes wholeheartedly — He believes that as a moral person, he needs to be able to voice his own opinion regarding his personal sense of morality. For instance, with regards to gender equality, he believes that we should be able to make man and woman equal. There should be only one gender in this world: the human gender.

In his spare time, Non likes to bike around Shanghai. He bikes 40 kilometers a day because biking makes he feel liberated.

Non cares a lot about faith. He believes that he has good faith, as opposed to “bad faith,” which is a concept coined by the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. He believes that there are two kinds of faith: bad faith and good faith. Bad faith is when you happen to believe that things “have to” be the way they are, and therefore close the door for other possibilities. In Non’s view, speaking to people with bad faith is a waste of time. If he realizes that someone has bad faith, he will not bother trying to talk to him or her again. [“If you have bad faith, you’re dead to me,” said Non]. He believes people of bad faith do not see the complexity of human diversity — that there are many unique people and experiences in the world.

Talking about his plans for the future, Non told me that he does not usually plan much. He used to plan a lot, but because things didn’t always go as planned, therefore he’d stopped spending too much time on planning altogether. The pivotal moment for him was when he realized that his most important plan, which was to take his father around the world, was shattered into pieces because of his father’s abruptly and unexpectedly death. In Thailand, his father worked for the government therefore his retirement age was strictly at 60. Non had hoped that once his father retired, he could take his father around the world with his savings. His father retired at 60, but unfortunately at 61 he passed away owing to his chronic illness.

Non planned really well, but that around-the-world trip didn’t happen, because his father’s untimely death. Since then, Non had stopped planning altogether. Non told me that if he had known his father would die at 61, he probably wouldn’t go abroad. He probably wouldn’t have gone MIT. He probably wouldn’t have gone to Oxford, and he probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere. He probably would have just stayed with his father. Non would have spent last ten years of his father’s life with him in Thailand. He would have given up everything for his father. So after his father passed away, he simply stopped planning, and instead begun to open himself up for serendipity – by not having fixed plans. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do for the future. He is still working on everything because he believes that no one really knows what the future will be like. You never know which comes first: tomorrow or an accident that could end your life there. He is living in the moment, in the present, and therefore he always wants to make the best of his life everyday. His goal in life is as simply as in his described childhood:

To be able to get up in the morning with energy; to know exactly what he is going to do that day to make his life meaningful; and, then to give it all into whatever that is that gives him the meaning in his life.

If he teaches, he would put everything –passion, energy, love, care, and so on – into his teaching. So when he gets back home in the evening, he could go to bed and rest reassuringly because he knows that he has done his best to do everything he could for those who he cares whether that be his students, colleagues, or the education and the society as a whole. He just lives his day to the fullest. He believes that life is that simple.

At the end of the day, the only right that Non believes he has and will always possess – in the sense that no one can take it away from him no matter what – is his right to be critical. Like the writer Ernest Hemingway who refused to go on with his life when he realized that his ability to write had been taken away by his illness, Non thinks that he would not be able to live a meaningful life if he were not allowed to be critical [although he rejects suicide as a way to emancipate because he values life — every life, including his own]. He is most critical about himself. He is mildly critical about his students and his colleagues. He is somewhat critical about the entire world — precisely because that’s what allows him to be himself. When people talk about Non in the school, they always say, “oh, Non, he is very critical.”

And he believes that it is usually a good thing.

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