Jan 20 2015

I’m not good

I’m not a good person. I’m not a bad person either. I’m no more good or bad than I am evil or holy or righteous or monstrous. Very few people can be called these things.

Words like good or happy are tossed around lazily in daily parlance. They are loaded with so much meaning from the very first time your parents scolded you, to the McDonald’s advertisement that just played on your television.

Be good. Be happy. Make others happy. Happiness is all that matters.

For what?

A wiser friend than I once made me question the notion of happiness. Everything we do is motivated by the goal of obtaining greater happiness in our lives. Sometimes it’s helping others that makes us happy. Other times it’s helping ourselves. There are many ways to get ‘happy.’

But what else is there? What about fairness, equality, health, justice; bringing more of these into the world. Practicing mindfulness, selflessness, being content, too. A tranquil state.

Does happy have inherent goodness and sorrow have inherent badness?

I’ve lived my life to bring happiness to others, but I myself cannot be called a happy person. I often find myself in a dampened state of mood. I don’t know what it would take to flip this around, but does it have to be? Why can’t this be an acceptable state of being as well.

Trying to do good, doing what you think others want – we go in assuming there’s only one definition of what good means. To lend a hand, but sometimes it’s interference. To say kind words, but sometimes it’s invasive. What you do isn’t always wanted or appreciated. It could be misinterpreted. Does that mean you’re in the wrong? You committed a bad deed? Intentions, actions, outcomes. It’s seldom a matter of A to B to C.

I can’t always give others what would make them happy, either. There are times when I’ve done just the opposite, intentionally or not. It doesn’t feel great, that much I’ll say.

Hurting and being hurt, giving and taking, to hold open the door or shut the door on someone. No one’s allowed to have their cake and eat it. Not without consequence.

No good deed ever goes unpunished.

Aug 28 2014

Best vs Right

Hello world,

Hao jiu bu jian (that literally translates to ‘Long time no see’ in Mandarin. Did you know that the English phrase is coined from the Chinese saying?)

Is there a difference between doing the right thing and the best thing? I’ve been thinking about the possible ramifications of choosing one over the other.

Let’s do some thought experiments to help with this moral conundrum.

#1: One of your friends has hurt you in some way, but they don’t know this. What do you do?

The right thing to do here may be to let said friend know what they did, how you feel about it, and smooth your differences over. That seems fairly straightforward.

But what about the best course of action? That’s left to much more interpretation. Some may argue that it’s best not do anything… let time heal all wounds, don’t jeopardize the friendship, or even let the friendship dwindle into nothingness at this point. Or even get revenge, but that’s left to only the most unscrupulous of individuals.

#2: Your lover betrays you. What do you do?

Ah, here is when it gets trickier. The right action may be to let them go, as the lover has clearly broken a bond of trust that the two of you had. It’s only fair that they don’t get to have their cake -and- eat it, right?

But many would beg to differ. The best outcome is reconciliation, dialogue, understanding, forgiveness. In spite of a wrong being committed, we as humans are more than willing to give those wishing repentance a second chance. Love is a strange concoction that throws convention definitions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ out the window.

I can’t think of many other examples at this point. I’ve been too long out of practice with writing, but I hope to start writing in this blog soon. But on principle I do believe there is a difference between doing the right thing and the best thing. It’s not always easy discern; in fact it’s very difficult in most circumstances. We are all predisposed towards one over the other.

As for myself, I used to be a ‘right’-minded kind of person. But now I find myself leaning towards the ‘best’-outcome scenario. And sometimes that means compromising on my values and what I thought I had once believed in.

May 03 2014

One year later

When is the best time to write?

On Sunday mornings, I want to sleep in as late as possible. And when I’ve realised how late it is I hurry to the shower and then throw on my day clothes to get ready to spend the day at grandmother’s house.

On weekday evenings, I’ve just returned from a day of staring at computer monitors – mostly reading, sometimes writing – hence my desire to continue to do more of the same is at its lowest.

Saturdays are when I try to pack in everything I couldn’t do during the rest of the week. I always set lofty goals for myself, like ‘Go to the gym’ or ‘Finish reading that novel you’ve been neglecting for four months.’ It wasn’t until this morning when I opened up a correspondence from my friend in England and he asked me ‘What happened to your blog?’ that I went ‘Oh!’ and promptly began to compose this piece.

My 26th birthday passed just over half a month ago. It came and went without much fanfare. Dinner with friends. Not all of my friends were there; I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there will always be an empty seat wherever I go. That’s the flip side of having lived in different places. I had a party afterwards, it was fine.

May 26 will mark my one-year anniversary of living in Vancouver. It’s been a tumultuous affair with this city, much like London but also totally unlike London. I won’t go into the details, for there are too many, but at times I yearned to leave it and other times I wished to make it my home. The people are what make a place worth calling home, and for the time being I like the people here: my family, the friends I’ve made.

I’m returning to a stable state, no longer reaching outwards as much as I did before. I’ve learned a lot in 12 months – that’s an understatement. My entire world has changed, and so have the people within it. I must learn to not rely on others for happiness, but I am fine with making other people happy. I must learn not to trust everyone I come across, for there are some people out there who were never taught how to treat others.

I thought it was in London that I finally emerged from my cocoon. I was mistaken; it was only in London that I spun it. These wings are growing restless, it’s almost time to see the light. But not yet.

Mar 18 2014

Reverse Innovation: Healthcare Lessons from Developing Asian Countries

Re-blogging this short piece I wrote for my foundation:

It’s been nearly six years since I left Cambodia, but my memories of those sweltering summer days spent wading through rice fields still feel fresh in my mind. Cambodia was the first country I ever visited outside of Canada, and it remains the most profound of my travels to date. I learned a great deal in that short period of time, including how to use portable water filters to create clean drinking water, how to stay cool in 40 degree weather, and how to turn a shipping container into a makeshift laboratory. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of these were examples of innovations – small actions that people took to make their lives a whole lot easier.

Now, lessons from living in developing Asia no longer need to be confined to the experiences of summer exchange students. From policy wonks to pharma bosses, Western audiences are paying increasing attention to developments in low- and middle-income Asian countries, where the combination of scarce resources, lax regulations and urgent health problems creates fertile ground for innovation. Under these circumstances, innovation is a low-cost, highly effective weapon in the fight against poverty, and some of these innovations could very well be solutions to our own healthcare woes, such as rising healthcare costs and rural health service delivery.

Turning conventional thinking on its head, reverse innovation – the flow of knowledge from developing to developed countries – has much to offer Canadian health professionals.

Innovation has become a buzzword among business and science leaders, and increasingly in policy and public health circles as well. It’s been used to describe a myriad of products and services, from automobiles to fine dining and electronics to pharmaceuticals. At its heart, innovation simply means “new ideas that work.” Oftentimes, innovations are envisioned as new devices, drugs or material goods, but they are just as powerful when applied to processes, policy, financing and partnerships.

Countries like Canada and the USA have the luxury of spending their research dollars on high-tech innovations to improve the quality of life of relatively healthy people. Meanwhile, in countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and India, innovations aren’t so much about improving quality of life as they are about preserving it.

Such innovations might take the form of training community health workers to deliver simple treatments for common illnesses, enrolling low-income families in micro-insurance schemes, or streamlining operations in hospitals in order to see more patients at significantly lower costs. One of the most well-known innovation success stories is the Aravind Eye Hospital in India. By maximizing efficiency, standardizing procedures, implementing strict cost controls and taking in large volumes of patients, visitors to Aravind only have to pay a nominal fee or nothing at all, dramatically increasing the number of people it can reach. The system has been so successful that the hospital has expanded into a full-fledged healthcare network, treating over 30 million people since its inception and playing a key role in preventing blindness and severe vision impairment in India.

In a time of global austerity and rising healthcare costs, most people don’t entertain the notion that perhaps spending less can achieve the same or better results – that healthcare isn’t just about shinier machines and bigger budgets. We take for granted our universal healthcare system and other public services. In developing countries where government corruption runs deep and public services are near non-existent, people cannot afford to stand idle. Social enterprise takes root, and creative, innovative solutions arise. After all, necessity is often the mother of invention.

It doesn’t take spending a summer in Asia to recognize the great potential for knowledge sharing via so-called North-South partnerships. We should stop thinking of this relationship as a unidirectional flow of information from rich countries to poor countries. Some of the brightest and most inventive ideas are emerging from the most unlikely places, and Canada can learn a thing or two from these budding innovators.

Mar 12 2014

Unfinished story

Dug up this delightful short story I had begun writing a while back. I don’t think I’ll ever finish it, so here it is:

Shattered glass, crumpled tissues, cushions strewn across the floor.

She clutched at her chest and tore at her hair, desperate to stay above water. When she called out to the lifeboat, it struck her with its paddle. What was worse – the pain of the blow or the despair of abandonment? It was taking all of her energy, all of her will, to keep afloat now, though the cold abyss seemed such a good resting place too.

Anger, regret, bitterness, rage, disappointment – anchors that drag down the heart, so easy to let them just sit there. So much easier to sink than to fight against the waves.

The boat was gone, no use calling for help anymore. Into the mist it drifted until only a wake of rippling memories and whispered promises remained. Her tears added another inch to the sea.

Night fell and the cold seeped into her bones. She ached from head to toe, each beat of her heart was a labour of grief, she so desperately wanted to let go.

Let go and sink, be forgotten and forget.

In a momentary lapse she recalled the events of the day. The ship was struck. It was a slow descent, and before she could stop it she was already waist deep in water. Every struggle to break free only caused the ship to break further – valves exploded, windows shattered, floors gave in, walls collapsed. She choked on the ocean and managed to just avoid going down with the rest of the cargo. Now she was alone, lost, cold and frightened.

Feb 28 2014

Is working in international development a privilege of the upper-middle class?

For anyone who wants to enter a career in international development, this usually means working in ‘the field’ – the jungles of Southeast Asia, the slums of India or the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa. I’m grossly exaggerating here, but most people in ID will have some kind of story about roughing it out in some remote place of the world at some point in their lives.

Working in ID means a starting salary that can only cover your groceries and rent (in a homely but ‘culturally diverse’ part of town). You’ll slowly work your way up from intern to project associate to program officer to director and, maybe one day, founder of your own NGO. Your reward will be a comfortable paycheque that nowhere approaches what bankers make, but it’ll be more than made up for by all the feel-good vibes, right?

When I lived in London, there were many of these ambitious sorts at the school. Young adults who were well-traveled, educated, sophisticated and connected. These were the leaders of the future! Change makers, global citizens, trailblazers.

It takes a certain type to get into ID. You can’t do it if you don’t have the capital to travel overseas, because ID is all about getting that real world, dark and gritty, life-changing experience, and if you don’t have that experience then you’re not hireable. You can’t do it if your family gave up everything when they immigrated to Canada to start a new life, because they didn’t invest all their life savings in you just so you could fly back to the place they escaped and scrape out a living in the bush. Working in ID means you have the freedom – economically, socially – to go and do whatever you want.

I sound very harsh, but where I grew up and attended middle and high school there weren’t any kids who wanted to travel around the world saving people’s lives. Each of us had a hard time enough where we were – fitting in, being Canadian and pleasing our parents. I don’t know why I was different from them. Once I got into post-secondary and especially after entering my masters program, everyone around me changed. I don’t mean that they themselves changed, but the people I associated with were a completely new breed. They all had such fortunate upbringings, made good decisions early on, built up formidable resumes. I was lucky to be among them, thanks to my parents’ frugality over the years.

If the ends are met, then does it matter which means are used to get there? It’s great that these ambitious, successful young adults choose to spend their professional lives in ID rather than, say, investment banking. But the idea that it’s only these lucky handful who get the chance to ‘change the world’, to go out into the big wide world and do something about all the injustices while everyone else just sits back and feels thankful for their contributions – there’s an injustice in that too. But even privilege is built into the most altruistic of careers, and only the cream of the crop are allowed in.

Feb 09 2014

Photos from Victoria

I only have one handwritten journal entry from my trip to Victoria yesterday:

Had serious doubts about committing to my trip this morning. But then a thought came to me: nothing good comes out of inaction. I’m on the ferry now, it sways considerably.

On the way to Victoria

The purpose of the trip was to have some alone time and forget about the things that were bothering me in Vancouver. I had to repeatedly remind myself of that. So it didn’t matter what others thought of me. I was not seeking anyone out – I was seeking me. Repeating that mantra in my head washed the journey in an entirely different light.

Continue Reading →

Feb 07 2014

Hyperbole and a Half

I go through bouts of feeling depressed. You could probably track them if you keep track of this blog, but I’ve gone back and privatized the overly revealing posts. Right now I’m just wading through one, ankle-high, but in the shallow end. Allie Brosh wrote and drew a good blog post describing what this feeling feels like.

I’m more or less functional, perhaps due to the overwhelming sense of duty and need to honour my commitments that’s been hammered into my head from a young age. The thing about the D word is that it’s only noticeable in the absence of something, thus it is often passed unnoticed. I have friends and family members who have been, or are, depressed yet when I’m with them I can’t see any traces of it at all. I imagine that’s why when I tell my friends ‘I’m meh’ or ‘I’m bleh’ they tend to just give a pat on the back and say Look on the bright side.

The days are OK. It’s when I come home, come back to a space where I don’t have to put on faces, that everything that’s happened in the preceding hours suddenly doesn’t matter. Everything is shit again. I watch Netflix or play games in order to not dwell on it. But eventually I do have to sleep, and in lying awake it’s when I feel like I’m on thin ice. It feels bad, numb, but it still throbs inside my chest. Sometimes I wish that I could fall asleep and not wake up for a while, or ever.

Morning brings some relief. It’s how I’m able to write this down now. Once I shower, fix up my hair, change into my Going Out clothes, I’ll feel more prepared to face the world again.

The thing is that I have good friends, a caring family, a good job, more things I should look forward to. Objectively there’s no reason to be in this state. People have said such incredibly kind words to me, tried to comfort me, yet still it lingers. Maybe because I’m tried of Distractions. I want to know what real, true Happiness feels like, one without hesitation, without bars, without having to hold anything back. I think I’ve come close to it but it’s always fleeting.

Everything is shit, anyway.

(please do read this though, Brosh puts it much better than most people can)