Wednesday, 7 January 2015

thoughts on vacation

Inle Lake Myanmar
One of the great things about a family holiday is the opportunity for conversations about everything as you're spending a fair amount of time together and not rushing off somewhere.  One of the discussions we had was about travelling and tourism and holidays itself.

Since we had kids we've changed our travelling quite a bit, in quantity, quality, location, duration, well everything.  We no longer add a few days holiday to a business trip, fly off somewhere for a long weekend.  We've made rules for ourselves, like we're not both out of the country at the same time. We don't take them out of school for holidays. We stay at hotels with a decent chance at hygiene and sanitation and no risky behaviour.  But we still like to see the world.  So in Myanmar, fabulous vacation by any standards. Interesting, relaxing, lovely people, beautiful scenery, learning so much.  And the conversation we have is that they'd rather be in the Netherlands hanging out with family or in Switzerland in our place there that is "ours" doing absolutely nothing and particularly "not being a tourist" than any of the experiences they had during the vacation.

Inle Lake Myanmar
So we start discussing the summer. Which is split usually between Holland and  Switzerland.  8 weeks is a long time, wouldn't they like to explore some other part of Europe, is there nothing else of interest to them?  Nope. No.  Not really.  "Except perhaps Jane Austen's England, and to see what the picturesque scenery of Gilpin is about" says daughter who was wading through Sense & Sensibility in her current obsession of 18th century literature.  "Absolutely not, the weather in the UK!..." says my husband.  "What about Spain? At least it will be sunny, and we did live there for 3 years after all" - nope, not so interesting, except perhaps if we were to go to Madrid for the Real Madrid open day - football mad son adds.   I remind the table that I had once been promised a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg that hasn't materialised.  And what about my daughter's childhood friend in Sweden who keeps inviting her?  No.  It is home and hearth and identity they are after. Not exotic climes and foreign cultures and history. It is roots and familiarity.

Bagan, Myanmar
Time to read is another wonderful thing of vacations. And between the kindle and iPad and the great books the NLB has on Overdrive, we were adequately supplied.  Plus the appallingly slow internet guaranteed reading time instead of internet surfing.  Even my son got through 6 books (which is probably more than he read the whole of last year).  My daughter insisted that I start reading Ray Bradbury's short stories.  Then I remembered I'd had 451 Fahrenheit and Martian Chronicles on my "to read" list for just about forever, so I took the easy way out and downloaded the audible versions to accompany on a long train ride and my walks on the beach.

451 Fahrenheit is the most appropriate book I can think of to describe aspects of Singapore.  I just loved some of the passages.  Here are some quotes:

If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change.” 
― Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451
Ngapali Beach, Myanmar

“Why aren't you in school? I see you every day wandering around."
"Oh, they don't miss me," she said. "I'm antisocial, they say. I don't mix. It's so strange. I'm very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn't it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this." She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. "Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don't; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film-teacher. That's not social to me at all. It's a lot of funnels and lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it's wine when it's not. They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can't do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing 'chicken' and 'knock hubcaps.' I guess I'm everything they say I am, all right. I haven't any friends. That's supposed to prove I'm abnormal. But everyone I know is either shouting or dancing around like wild or beating up one another. Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays?” 

― Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451

I think my kids are fortunate to be in a system that is not just about facts and summative assessment. That it is about enquiry and learning and passion.  But I also wonder about many of the conversations I hear about if that is enough, whether they know enough "facts" have enough background. Certainly the parallel local system here is more factual and exam based.  Is that a tool for mind-control or is it merely a hangover from the British System that's become entrenched? Is it entrenched because it was useful or because no-one has brain space and time left over to ponder it all?

But what I do worry about is the running ragged of students.  There isn't much time for social and for quiet contemplation and conversations. It is a very demanding system.  It is a machine and it keeps on running with little pause except for the summers and vacations. But then everyone disappears into their individual little vacuums somewhere across the oceans and the conversations are held elsewhere in other contexts and don't feed back into the system.  And if your children should stop and stare and not run themselves ragged, they would only be able to continue to talk to you and themselves, since everyone else is rushing by.  It's been a topic on social media recently amongst some mums here. How their kids are friends with everyone and no-one. How the friendships stop at the school gate. How they don't come home because the schedules never meet. How they don't just hang out and there is the nostalgia of when we grew up and our best friends and how much time we just spent with each over.  Not that we had any particularly profound conversations that I can remember. But we were present (no internet, no mobile phones) and together.   

Outside the transit sheds, Yangon
Perhaps that is what my kids are hankering for in their vacation? An idealised view of our childhoods?

The Martian Chronicles was the most apt and amazing book to be listening to for the Myanmar experience.  It was like living in a parallel universe where the ideas of "virgin" territory and neo-colonialism except not exactly, but the rushing in and taking what one could and putting in your own values and demands and ideas into a society that had been relatively isolated was definitely there.  The chapter on the priests was almost unbearable to hear, a constant inner cringing, particularly since I was reading Anne Carter's "Bewitched by Burma " (about her father / family, the missionary and bible translation attempts in the early 20th Century) at the same time.

“They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressure; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.” 
― Ray BradburyThe Martian Chronicles