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.