Onward Into the Unknown

Sitting in my office across from an accomplished international development worker and scholar, I had a moment of insight. For the last four years I have spent countless hours discussing, thinking, and writing about culture and my experiences here in Southeast Asia. Now, in the creaky wooden chairs of my Chiang Mai office the search went deeper.

As my colleague and I mulled over a complex problem facing the university, he spoke critically about the actions of the university administration. Impatient with my coworker’s “lack of understanding of Thai culture,” I delicately explained the intricate cultural forces at work in the situation based on several years of being an assiduous student of Thai culture. My eloquent description went beyond explaining the problem and into the sphere of justifying it. You see, I had spent two years in Thailand ridding myself of cultural ethnocentrism and gaining deep insight into Thai culture, or so I thought. My explanatory speech turned into a ego-driven soliloquy as I smugly thought I had check-mated my colleague with my cultural acumen. Alas, my queen was left unprotected as he stoically responded, “Yes, but not all culture is good.” Like other consequential moments in my life, the conversation is pressed in my memory, replaying that line over and over.

The search for a nuanced and balanced understanding of culture has led me to feel like I stand on a tire swing swinging between unruly ethnocentrism on the one hand and impotent cultural relativism on the the other. And searching for an understanding of culture has touched deep questions.

One of my core questions is this: What, if anything, within the context of my own cultural heritage, can and should I make judgments about in this crazy world? What, if any, spheres are off limits in regards to discussion of belief, morality, organizational management? Keeping in mind that all judgment and discovery should be laced with humility about the unknown (and that which one presumes to be known.)

I work at Payap University as the Head of International Campus Life. The decisions, policies, and actions of all the leaders at Payap (including myself) have direct consequences on my work and international campus life as a whole. As I delve deeper into the institutional inertia, the layers of cultural modi operandi further unravel. I’m learning more and gaining confidence in my assessments and predictions. But as my knowledge and confidence seem to grow, I am pulled in the equal and opposite direction, tumbling down a rabbit hole of culture, wondering how deep it goes and how much there is to learn. And as Socrates showed us, the more we learn, the less anything seems to make coherent sense.

But perhaps that is the way it must be. Perhaps growth in understanding creates a larger space, which necessarily reveals the greater dearth of understanding. Perhaps growth in understanding is more of an illusion. Perhaps discovery means letting go of “knowing” something and instead journeying deeper into the unknown.

I’ve become more of a realist regarding culture and humanity. No one is perfect and I don’t expect anyone or myself to be as such. We’re all in this together, learning and growing. How I make meaning of it all, however, continues to change. Onward into the unknown.



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11 Responses to Onward Into the Unknown

  1. Rustam says:

    This is interesting. Having been raised in a different culture, but now living in the US I ask myself the very similar questions that cross your mind. I have come to many different conclusions every time.
    I like what you said “growth in understanding creates a larger space, which necessarily reveals the greater dearth of understanding. Perhaps growth in understanding is more of an illusion”. Isaac Azimov once said “Historically, we were always wrong, what makes us think we are right today?” (may not be exact quote). But my question to you is: Do you think it is more right to seek more knowledge and act on what we know is true despite the fact that we may be only more confused, less knowledgable and wrong at the end? This question may be answered in many ways. But I want to hear your response in the frame of Christianity. I might have a follow up question based on your response.
    Hope this makes sense.
    Love, Rustam

    • I have no idea. You’ve got to be careful here. All we can ever do is act on what we know and think we know. I tried to say that it’s important to be humble about what we don’t know and think we know but it’s always true that we could be very very wrong about our ideas about reality. My mom used to say that we’re all going to get somewhere when we die (or nowhere) and realize we did and thought things that were terribly wrong. That’s not a bad place to start. At this point I do think it is “more right to seek more knowledge and act on what you know” but hold that softly knowing you could be utterly wrong about it all. Regarding a Christian worldview, Christians are often told (or at least act like they are) to have confidence in their beliefs and I would hazard to say that’s not a good idea. Christians can/should have confidence in their personal relationships with Jesus, but that should be coupled with off-the-charts humility on how to express that in their lives. Most problems in the world caused by Christians and non-Christians alike have been by people who severely lacked this kind of humility. So it’s not just a recommendation to Christians.

      We all need to grow in searching for understanding and truth. Perhaps more than that, though, we need to grow in a type of humility that keeps us on the journey, searching and growing. And maybe I’m repeating myself. Maybe a true search for understanding and truth necessitates humility.


  2. Amelia says:

    Love this post Oz. I’m working for an international group of education leaders and constantly come up against this question – where does wanting ‘the best’ for every child in terms of a set of standardised skills turn into one (Anglo-American) culture imposing itself on others? Is it possible to try and ‘equip everyone’ for the 21st century without eradicating whole ways of life in the process?
    Sounds like you might have more answers than me! Work is taking me to India in October and January, perhaps I can tack a trip to Thailand on the end…
    Hope you’re well,

    • Oh awesome to hear Amelia! Your job sounds great! India isn’t too far from Thailand 🙂 In the last 2 months alone I’ve had Phil, Lindsey, and Sanderson Hale come visit me out here! I hope you can make it. You’d love it! Great questions to be struggling with. You’re a lot smarter than me so let me know what you figure out… Come to Thailand and let’s talk about it!


  3. drkencosh says:

    Learning (experiential?) leads us to knowledge, and analysis of said knowledge leads us to understanding [Ackoff]… Where is that ‘understanding’ going to lead you??

    a) to ‘inertia’?
    b) to confusion (a further dearth of understanding)?
    c) to frustration?
    d) to empowerment?
    e) to wisdom?

    Perhaps I’m reading between the lines…

  4. Heidi says:

    Good post Ozzie. I find myself still struggling with these issues back in the States, especially being in a MA/TESL program. It’s true that not all culture is good culture. I’m finding that I identify a lot of things about my own culture that I dislike after returning from my year in Thailand. So how do we discern what is actually unhealthy without being ethnocentric and judgmental? I like your emphasis on humility. If we can listen to each other and speak with honesty and humility then maybe we can all benefit. You just got me thinking. Thanks.

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