The contradictions of travel, power, and emotion

Cross Island Line, Airtravel, travel that teaches, and positive emotion and anger

I realise I write and complete a newsletter about once a month. It feels like that’s roughly the time it takes me to recognise various things about myself…. there’s something oddly moon-like about this. This week, I bring thoughts on travel, and end off with some food and climate news and a programme you can sign up for on soil - right at the end!

As you read this, I am on my way up north to a tiny farmstead in Chiang Mai (for this). Travel is work, energy-in-motion, and experience. This trip, though, I don’t feel the regular guilt I usually do. I’ve made this trip for the last 3, maybe 4 years now, and it’s become part of a ritual. So much so, this year I made it a longer trip than usual without thinking about home. And now I’m here, missing home, wishing I could spend the new year with my mom.

Travel, though: it can also be a very commodified experience, very lavish consumption.

Recent news in Singapore in the last two weeks makes this sentence twice as stark to me: with the announcement that the Cross Island Line will cut under the last remaining stand of forest we have in Singapore. Even if 70m underground, I wonder if part of it is not also to practise below-ground drilling, get some granite for poldering (to make up for the needed loss in sand imports), and to make sure visible construction doesn’t get in residents’ eyeline (and make for greater unease).

But I am speculating. Please read with large pinches of salt.

As much as I am conscious of the energy that it takes to get groups of people across the world, I’m also conscious of the way transport and mobility is driven not by the immediate consuming body (e.g. the passenger) but by the consuming subject. On an afternoon flight from Doha to Madrid in mid November (not for COP25), I counted 12 seats filled in a 130-seat cabin of the aircraft—just a sixth of the passenger capacity of that craft. Part of a commercial aircraft’s journey is made viable by the transport of cargo—especially, I think, of fast-moving consumer goods.

If we keep tabs on the implications of our different choices, the guilt of sitting in an aircraft as it takes away from land could run in parallel with the guilt of social mobility. (I wonder if guilt is a feeling only a minority enjoy?) I think working through these contradictions and spelling them out are important: if we are all in stages of growth, we need to permit ourselves (as individuals and collective beings) to grow; equally, we need to talk about the discomfort or twinges of unease in that growth, since changing lanes / changing social norms is difficult at scale, precisely because our moral emotions and logical reasoning keeps us stuck to the same norms. There is something severely unsettling about the unevenness of inequality, especially the closer we are brought into contact with people holding different positions of value and resource.

I’ve learnt recently to think of liquidity this way: the ability of capital to split itself into ever-smaller, more flexible components. Perfect example: the co-everything movement.

On one hand it’s great—more opportunity for social mobility; on the other; I wonder if greater access can come with greater assurance and social support, to build a collective support structure alongside greater flexibility? Otherwise it’s stressful as hell.

Maybe this is where my other thought of the week comes in: the importance of finding and talking about new role models (who defy any conventional age, gender, power, income and social class norms present in our societies) who allow us to see the societies that are coming into being. And to keep us going.

Alongside role models who are older and more experienced, are role models who are youth making a world that will no longer look at youth and say, “you have no power”. Greta Thunberg shared the stage at COP25 with six other youth delegates (watch them give their addresses here): from the Marshall Islands two meters above sea level (and which contributes just 0.0001% of the world’s emissions), the Philippines, Russia, Chine, Uganda and the United States.

I’m switching now to a slightly different topic: from guilt and urgency—emotions that constrict our gut and close our bodies, preparing for condemnation or battle—to openness and acceptance. Also equally important to know how to carry.

Power and acceptance

I learnt a great deal in Madrid in November, amongst a group of 30 women delegates and more partners and trainers. (All this was happening alongside other things in my own life, too, which were also teaching me a great deal). Out of the many conversations we had, some seeds continue to make their way into conversations with friends and colleagues - and people I’ve once worked with. As the days pass I’m realising I feel different, too. Some expectations I’ve carried of myself have lifted.

agency + power

Since returning home I've started seeing myself become more comfortable accepting compliments, remembering what someone else has shared too about this (and still learning to actually respond to the compliment, instead of just stepping around it!). Something else I find interesting: as I've become more able to accept and hold power, without feeling like I owe someone for it (that it's not really mine), a sense of shame or guilt and accusatory judgment I used to have around beauty (not a particular look, just the feeling of it) is slipping away. As I become more comfortable holding my own power and less wary of being seen as too much of something (whatever that is), I feel more at ease--in different situations, with men and women. I've realised that I have been carrying implicit associations of beauty as a surface skin women plaster on for men / for attention, only used to attract power in order to share that power (but never own or make it).

I don't know about you but the number of drama serials and films that have role modelled this dynamic for me is really high... (thinking about all the Taiwanese, Korean, Singaporean, Chinese, Hong Kong serials that I have ever watched or been exposed to - there was always one woman painted in a really bad light - "witch" or "temptress" or "scheming mistress".)

I thought at first it was funny I had to learn about power in order to learn about beauty, but now I see that beauty, as an inner light and experience of oneself, IS power. And I understand now what people mean when they say to "own our successes/story/etc."--it's not about arrogance, but holding our space to acknowledge the capacity that has made an achievement possible.

When we really own our successes we are also paying tribute to the things and people who have made what we do possible, and we hold the space to pass on the torch, and watch it grow stronger.

accepting that the costume and performance enables one kind of growth, of learning it in order to play with it, and that engaging with it first is necessary to bring us to the next step—of transcending our previous boundaries—which is more freeing than ignoring, rejecting or resisting it.

Still, for especially powerful or seductive things, taking the time to grow, and become confident that we can maintain due course while engaging it (whatever “it” is for you), is really important.

We can be starkly aware of the disingenuities of capital, while holding our own and navigating the foreground of things. I think we have to be in order to hold the powerful (in skill, language, and network) to account. The powerless must find and create a different sort of power: a constant ebb and flow. We have to wade into the foray without losing ourselves. Sometimes I find small symbols help. On my right wrist I wear a band gifted by a friend; it’s purple, yellow and red; it comes across as pink. It reminds me of her and her daughter: a woman whose story I have yet to tell.

That’s more for another time - perhaps in late December :)

In food and climate news:

My wishes for the world in 2020 (can you grant any?)

  • Pathways to open more humane futures in which inter-being is prioritised—and not merely a universal human-centred one.

  • Programmers and coders who understand humanity and cyclical time (edit: looks like I just found one…!)

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Have a wonderful end to the year - the wait and the longing can also be the best enjoyment~

Love, Huiying