Travel & The Throughline: Applied Belonging

 Throughline: A metaphor involving a line, as in a rope or string, that is connected through time, from the beginning of a story to its end. It can refer to a character, or to the story itself.

I’ve never worn the term “Asian American” well. I grew up in a predominantly White Chicago suburb in the 1970s and 1980s. During these years, my refuge was my parents’ friends and their children. Looking back, this was a fairly specific group of people: engineers who immigrated from Punjab, India in the early 1970s and were friends with my father’s elder brother, who had immigrated to Chicago, Illinois a few years earlier.

If “family friends” were my refuge, then school was where I worked, where I strove, where I bulldozed — for grades, for affirmation, for friends, and, mostly for fitting in. I sought and found friends who were more proximate to “normalcy” and power (don’t ever underestimate the power politics of middle school) than I would ever be; I had White school friends for a long time.

I did not seek, nor did I find, the effervescence of collective power until much later. And before that happened, I felt in my bones that I was an Indian American midwesterner, daughter, sister, cousin, student, lawyer, and advocate. But somehow “Asian American” felt too big, too clunky, too tenuous, and too powerless.

Eight weeks ago, we started our travels in Asia, through Japan, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.or the first time, I felt the throughline between my history, Asian history, and the community of Asian Americans.

Japan

During our first week in Japan, I didn’t notice my shoulders starting to edge away from my ears. I didn’t feel my heart rate slow. And I didn’t associate Tokyo with my growing ease. (I mean, check out Shibuya Crossing [link to video] — ease is not the first thing that comes to mind in the world’s largest metropolis.) 

We had just been in New Zealand for three months and had an out-of-this-world good time [link to the Top 15 blog post]. I thought my growing comfort was a sign that we were just getting into our travel groove, three months into our year of travel.

At the end of our time in Tokyo — a fast three days — we arrived at one of our many tours, the Cherry Blossom Dinner Tour. The only other attendees of this (way-overpriced) experience were a mother and daughter — affluent White Americans from Los Angeles. My shoulders were hunched back up. My heart rate quickened. And I felt a mini-tornado growing in my belly. Then it struck me. 

I felt more at home in Japan, a country in which I do not speak the language nor share any modern cultural history than I did among people who were representatives of my own country. 

At this point, I did notice my internal calm but couldn’t make it out at all. I hypothesized that, as a Buddhist, the very act of being in a Buddhist-majority country calmed my nervous system in a way I had not appreciated. Now brought to the surface, I reveled in every shrine we climbed towards, every Buddha figure we saw, and every pagoda we visited. Not willing to pass up an opportunity to connect with who the Buddha represents to me, I took my time. At almost every figure, I brought my hands together in reverence, closed my eyes, and looked for the quiet part of myself. Given that we visited dozens of shrines, I had many opportunities to sit with the best version of myself (for at least a few minutes at a time). 

At night, I would read about the varieties of Buddhism practiced in Japan. I asked anyone who was generous enough to spend a little time with me about their religious practices, and how they shaped their individual experience and their country’s character. I wondered about how Buddhism, which grew out of Hinduism in the 6th century CE, made its way to Japan, and about the forces that changed it into what it is today in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and more. 

I talked with Sendhil about putting the Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage on our list of walks to complete. (For better or worse, I’m always thinking about our next adventure.)

Like so many important truths, this one has revealed itself slowly, and only through immersion. 

Singapore

Singapore is a multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural Asian society. Major religions include Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism. With one of the largest Tamil communities in the world, outside of India and Sri Lanka, Singapore was an easy fit. 

Simultaneously, despite an explicit commitment to both “meritocracy” and diverse representation in government leadership, there remains a large gap between communities, especially the Chinese majority, and others. Here I found myself thinking about the nature of power and its effect on the human species. And since race is a social construct, power affects us all. The more we have of it, the more many of us lose sight of our own humility and interconnectedness. 

If power undermines solidarity, how do we stay in solidarity as individuals and communities so we gain more influence? Systems change may only be possible from the inside out. 

Vietnam

We were in Vietnam for 6 weeks, in big cities and small rural villages. I learned so much about the US invasion of Vietnam, as well as the history of Chinese, French, and Japanese occupation of this land.  This is all the history that is left untold in our country. I learned about the written Vietnamese language – the only Asian language that uses Latin letters, and spoken language – six tones. I learned about the four sacred animals – the dragon, the unicorn, the phoenix, and the turtle. 

We became friends with our homestay hosts in Te Van, laughed with them, talked about politics and racial constructs with them, compared parenthood, and more. I felt, actually more than saw, how people we met, including those in the tribal communities near the mountains, shared approaches to family elders and children and gave me greater context for my own traditions, actions, and beliefs. 

On top of this level of psychological comfort, I was awed over and over at Buddhist and Hindu places of worship. In the My Son Sanctuary, I stood among Hindu tower-temples in constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Kings of Champa Kingdom, an Indianized Hindu community on the coast of contemporary Vietnam. At one time, the site encompassed over 70 temples and important inscriptions in Sanskrit and Cham. Finally, My Son is likely the longest-inhabited archaeological site in Mainland Southeast Asia; much of it was destroyed by US bombing during the American/Vietnam war. 

Even more than My Son, the city of Hue holds a piece of my heart. One of my spiritual guides, Thich Nhat Hahn was born in central Vietnam in 1926, and he entered Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue, as a novice monk at the age of sixteen. I had been looking forward to going to Thay’s home temple as much as I had been looking forward to going to Vietnam. 

When we arrived at Tu Hieu Temple, we walked around, took in the lotuses, and felt Thay’s presence as best we could. Sendhil and I prayed with the monks, while kids waited because they knew how important this was to me. After the chanting finished we talked to a monk who had been with Thay in Thailand and Vietnam, where he passed away. I said to this monk “You are so lucky” and he replied, “so are you.” 

And, I could feel it from head to toe, “so am I.” I have rarely felt as calm as I did at Tu Hieu Temple, or as grateful. This place in Vietnam, through the venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat, will be part of me forever. I hope I will carry the love, respect, and gratefulness I felt in that place, at that moment, for the Vietnamese people to their ancestors and descendants in the United States. 

Laos

I came to Luang Prabang, Laos, not knowing what to expect. I knew there were people, temples, and food. I found a world that seemed far away and right next door. And it turns out for good reason, “the indigenous culture of Laos was intermingled with Buddhism, while Sanskrit and Pali made deep inroads into the script, language, and literature of Laos.”

The Ramayana, a Hindu poem about the struggle between good and evil, is very popular in Laos. We went to a performance by the Royal Ballet of Pra-Lak Pra-Lam, the Lao version of the Ramayana. The Lao version and the Royal Ballet’s interpretation reminded me that one view of religions is that they are simply stories that we hold sacred because they speak to our higher selves. And the Lao story spoke to me. The dancers inspired my desire to be brave and loyal, and move with integrity in the world. 

The people of Luang Prabang also inspired my joy and love. Laos has the tragic designation of being “the most bombed country in the world”, in large part because of the US bombing during the American/Vietnam War.  In my conversations with a few Lao people, each shared a focus on the present and graceful resiliency that made me want to hide my head with shame and anger at our role in the deaths of so many people. (See Karthik’s post on the land mine museums in Laos and Cambodia.)

Not surprisingly, we experienced deep kindness in our brief time there. One place has created this in spades – Big Brother Mouse, an organization that is a publishing house, school, and learning hub all in one. We spent a few hours volunteering at the center in Luang Prabang by chatting with young adults in Siem Reap who wanted to practice their English. It was so fun – we chatted with kids who want to be soccer stars, many who want to travel abroad, and some who are looking to advance in their careers. 

I was reminded over and over again that our histories – and therefore our futures – are intertwined. As Thich Nhat Hahn writes of our past, present, and future together:

“Interbeing is the understanding that nothing exists separately from anything else. We are all interconnected. By taking care of another person, you take care of yourself. By taking care of yourself, you take care of the other person. Happiness and safety are not individual matters. If you suffer, I suffer. If you are not safe, I am not safe. There is no way for me to be truly happy if you are suffering. If you can smile, I can smile too. The understanding of interbeing is very important. It helps us to remove the illusion of loneliness, and transform the anger that comes from the feeling of separation.”

I am connected to the Lao people, and the Lao people are connected to me. 

Cambodia 

Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge – these are the words I knew about Cambodia before we landed in Siem Reap. I did not understand the significance of either, nor did I really understand that more important than either of those “markers” was the lives of Cambodian people today. 

I can’t say that I have a much deeper standing of either Angkor Wat or the Khmer Rouge, but I can say that I am more centered on how the famous and infamous are actually part of a more important ecosystem of beings. 

Angkor Wat fascinated me as a battleground for the kingdom’s beliefs from Hinduism to Buddhism. I erroneously thought of these religions as “peaceful”. Not true in Cambodia or Southeast Asia, and probably elsewhere. As the Angkor and Champa kingdoms fought for power and territory, their religious beliefs did not temper their appetite for land, war, or slaughter. Knowing this has certainly taken my righteousness about being a Buddhist down a notch or two. It is not Buddhism, Judaism, or Islam that is peaceful or not peaceful. It is the person. 

Does a person allow religion, or sacred stories, to guide them even in the face of the corrupting influence of power? How many people are capable of this? How do we create people who are more capable of this?

My favorite temple in Cambodia is Ta Prohm (now a celebrity temple, among celebrity temples, due to the film “Tomb Raider”). Here the trees and temple structures merge. It’s hard to know where nature stops and worship begins. There is otherworldliness and ancientness surrounding this place, even without the movie effects. Being there was a gift. 

Cambodia’s beauty through its temples sits in stark relief to the wickedness of the Khmer Rouge. I cannot explain the history of the Khmer Rouge better than Wikipedia, and it must be explained:

The Khmer Rouge regime was highly autocratic, totalitarian, and repressive. Many deaths resulted from the regime’s social engineering policies and the “Moha Lout Plaoh”, an imitation of China’s Great Leap Forward which had caused the Great Chinese Famine. The Khmer Rouge’s attempts at agricultural reform through collectivization similarly led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, including the supply of medicine, led to the death of many thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. The Khmer Rouge regime murdered hundreds of thousands of their perceived political opponents, and its racist emphasis on national purity resulted in the genocide of Cambodian minorities. Summary executions and torture were carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during genocidal purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978. Ultimately, the Cambodian genocide led to the deaths of 1.5 to 2 million people, around 25% of Cambodia’s population. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge)

Pol Pot was the Party’s General Secretary, and he wrought devastation everywhere. Reading the facts does not sink in like stories we heard from the people we met. “We lost a generation of people.” “After the Khmer Rouge, there were only 4 people in the whole country who had bachelor’s degrees.” And the reading of the facts does not sink in like reading First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung.  

The Khmer Rouge only ended its insurgent reign of terror in 1999. 1999, less than 25 years ago. 

My history is tied to the history of Cambodia, and as our paths are connected so are our futures. 

During our visit, Siem Reap was vibrant and welcoming, a cross between Varanasi and Cancun. Bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, colored lights crisscrossing above the streets, windows with wood and marble statues mirroring those found at Angkor Wat, and so much more. And the people we met, many of them tour guides, were funny, vivacious, and grounded. I’m so grateful to all of the people who took the time to welcome us, explain to us, talk with us, bargain with us, and hold us as we walk along our path to greater understanding. 

This is what I now understand better than I did before our travels: I am Asian American, and Asian Americans are me. Solidarity takes time and understanding. It is slow work, but perhaps the only work that will carry us forward better than we were.

I’m so lucky. So are you. 

3 thoughts on “Travel & The Throughline: Applied Belonging”

  1. In this age when all information is available online, and we can research almost everything, it is the small, personal stories we encounter from the people we meet on the road, or the feelings we experience while walking around the Tu Hieu temple, that truly make us to look deeper into our souls, breathe slowly, and gain a deeper understanding of life and how interconnected we are with others. It’s great to know that this trip has positively changed your view, as well as that of the whole family. Stay well.

  2. This was so insightful on so many levels, Venu. Thank you for sharing your experiences and continuing to inspire me to expand my horizons.

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