Thursday, November 22, 2007

Shelf Life in BKK

As I've mentioned in my previous post, my work is generally not demanding. On normal days I practically don't do anything except surf and chat, surf and chat, surf and chat... or go to my room and take extended midday naps.

On rare occasions, if I have some actual work to do, I finish all my tasks by lunch time and so I revert to surfing and chatting (what else?). This seemed exciting for the first weeks but I realized eventually that I have to make wise use of my time rather than allow my brain turn into mush.

So I started raiding our small library, which has an amazing, amazing, collection of books on art, architecture, travel, culture, history, archeology, economics, geography and perhaps every other topic that excites me (except porn, damn!).

The books are quite old though but I don't care. The library is in such a disarray as well, making the search for really interesting books doubly exciting.

I started by reading some books on Bangkok, about the evolution of its urban landscape in particular, and about the rise and fall of the Thai economy. These I've finished a few months back.

One of the most enlightening books that I read is Southeast Asia: Past and Present (D.R. Sardesai). It's strange that in school we were taught about the history of China, Japan, and Europe, and perhaps every other part of the world but our Southeast Asian neighbors.

The book reaffirmed my embarrassment at how little I actually know about the historical experience of this region. I asked my Thai and Singaporean officemates if they also studied Southeast Asian history in their school. Apparently, they did not as well. How strange is that?

I think one of the most interesting questions of Southeast Asian history however is how it can best forge an objective account of its past despite the many fissures that existed and may still exist between these countries.

For instance, Cambodia and Vietnam used to be bitter enemies, and even way way back, Thailand and Cambodia were enmeshed in recurring episodes of border wars, conquests, and such.

If history is to be written as a tug of war between heroes and villains, identifying who is who is definitely another point of disagreement when it comes to writing Southeast Asian history.

Another book that caught my fancy is Race and Culture: A World View (Thomas Sowell), which takes a look at how often one group's culture determines their social position in societies where they migrate to (often taking the role of racial minorities).

Repeatedly the author cites the examples of the Chinese and Jews who almost always rise to occupy higher economic standing wherever they go. This he credits to cultural values of these people, such as willingness to work longer hours and their high propensity to save. Further, the author discusses the implications of race on slavery, migration, economics, conquest, and even intelligence.

At at time when talking about race is practically taboo, the author was courageous enough to cite trends in history that show how certain racial groups tend to exhibit adeptness in certain fields wherever they may be. However, perceived "superiority" in this fields are not always fixed and may change over time.

Anyway, here's a list of some of the books on my shelf: three guide books on Cambodia, one about Angkor, another one about old buildings in Bangkok, and one on the art and architecture of Myanmar. Right now I have in my hand a book that I'm not supposed to be reading at all. Wink, wink.

Photo credits: (1) Perseus Books (2) Shop this Blog

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