Category Archives: Do-gooding

Service — The Bad

Bjorn holds up some shoes that need their mates during our shoe-sorting service project in Berlin. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)
Bjorn holds up some shoes that need their mates during our shoe-sorting service project in Berlin. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)

Let me preface this post by saying that no service project that aims to truly help people is bad — unless by “helping people” that means helping self-interested parties to wider profit margins by taking advantage of free labor from naive volunteers that work like dogs.  That sort of service project is not just bad,  it’s ugly.

I believe they are also sometimes called internships (ba-dum-pum!)

Seriously though, I have found a surefire way to sour any service project: Take the focus off of others and turn it on yourself. I can almost guarantee that thinking about the self makes any service project less fun, less satisfying,  more intolerable and more likely to make you lose it in an embarrassing, foaming-at-the-mouth bit of frenzy.

For example:

Bjorn and I decided to check out donation sorting. A service organization needed help with organizing goods that were given to them. The goods were either given to the homeless/impoverished or sold in their second-hand stores which cycled the profits from the sales into more programs helping the needy.

I pictured myself holding up items of clothing and commenting on their cuteness and/or tittering over their excessive ugliness with the other volunteers. All would be lightness and gaiety. Oh, the times we would have!

When we showed up at the appointed meeting spot, we were led downstairs into the basement. We were shown through a rabbit-warren of rooms until we reached one that was piled floor-to-ceiling with dusty, stuffed, plastic garbage bags in the front. In one corner, boxes upon boxes overflowed with old shoes.

We were told the shoes needed to be matched, then the pairs separated into three categories: shoes for the needy; shoes that could be sold in the second-hand stores; and shoes that needed to be thrown away. Plus, they needed to be sorted for size and gender.

We were kindly offered drinks and a radio. Then we were left there. By ourselves.

It was eerily quiet. The walls were made of concrete blocks and the one tiny window near the ceiling was taped over with plastic. A lone, naked bulb cast light for the entire room. Although we were underground, the room felt like it was growing warmer.

About 15 minutes later, someone came to check on us. “How are you doing?” she asked.

“It’s sorta hot in here,” I said, steam fogging up my glasses, beads of sweat dripping from my hairline.

“Yeah,” she said sympathetically, “the heating system for the entire building runs through this room.”

Jammie sorts shoes during a service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)
Jammie sorts shoes during a service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

The heat got worse. And so did my mood. Sorting shoes is a dirty, nasty, time-consuming process. First, we dumped a box of shoes onto the ground. Then we picked through them, looking for matching pairs. When we found one, and if the insides of the shoes looked OK, we put it in a box of the right size and gender. Labels had to be made by hand and taped onto the boxes. Many times, the shoes did not have their size printed on them, so we went from box to box, comparing them. Within minutes, my hands were filthy and curiously (also sickeningly) sticky.

Bitter thoughts crept in. This is just poor people management, I fumed. Why would they have newbie volunteers doing the worst jobs? They should start new volunteers on easy and fun jobs to get them hooked. Then, once those volunteers are committed, the organization can ask them to take on harder tasks. Better yet, why not have the people they actually pay (we found out a person at the donation center gets paid part-time) do the dirty work??

Longingly, I thought about places that do volunteering right, like the Feather River Hospital in Paradise, Calif. Volunteers there commit to only four hours a week (we were working a six-hour shift in one day), eat for free in the cafeteria, have a volunteer banquet held for them four times a year and some of their volunteer activities seem to require doing little more than smiling at people.

Still ruminating furiously over my perceived ill treatment, I turned an eye on Bjorn. He was humming happily, glancing over at the movie playing on his iPhone and doing much, MUCH less work than me, I thought.

Bjorn seemed to sense the change in the winds. He is an extremely perceptive man, with acute social and emotional intelligence. Plus, he may have noticed that I was glaring at him with enough intensity to rival Superman’s heat vision, mouth in a straight line, breathing heavily through my nose.

He deftly suggested we take our lunch break.

The change in environment and the food (of course, the food) helped to calm me down. Plus, it gave me time to reflect on some things:

1.) Just because all true service projects are good, does not mean that all are a good fit. It is wise to know yourself, your capabilities — and to set boundaries in accordance.

2.) Even with the above being said, you should still try new things and stretch yourself. I would not have learned the above if I had not tried this service project.

3.) Like I said at the beginning, focusing on self — how you’re feeling as opposed to how to help others — will make any service project, no matter how fun, a grizzly chore. After we got back from break, I began envisioning the people that would receive the shoes I had just matched. I imagined the comfort and protection the shoes would give, and how happy the people would be to have them. I started to smile again.

4.) Even if you absolutely hate the project, joy can still be found in a job well done. As I looked at the stacks of boxes around us, the order being created out of the chaos, I felt the  warm glow of satisfaction.

The second time we sorted shoes, it went much, much better. It went so well that we are almost done. We probably have only one more shift left before the project is done. I can’t say that I’m going to miss this project, yet I am glad we decided to stick it out.

But I’m pretty sure I’ll never look at a pair of shoes the same again.

Bjorn stands in front of stacks of boxes of sorted shoes after the first day of our service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)
Bjorn stands in front of stacks of boxes of sorted shoes after the first day of our service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)

Acid Attack Victims and the Foundations Helping Them

International volunteering took a huge blow this week with the news that two 18-year old British women were victims of an acid attack in Zanzibar.  Two men on a motorbike threw acid in the women’s faces.  They had been volunteer English teachers on the African island.  It is hard to know how to react to such horrific news.

The following organizations help the victims (most often women) of acid attacks:

The Acid Survivors Trust International is an international organization that is specifically aimed at ending acid attacks around the world.  It is Canada-based, with partner organizations in:

Bangladesh

Cambodia

Pakistan

Nepal

Uganda

India.

They deserve our support for their work with acid attack victims and for their efforts aimed at social reform. Spread the word!

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Getting rid of (the idea of) second class citizens

“Fag”.  The word was etched into the red brick, an unmistakable manifestation of the hate that was still directed toward gays on the Christian campus where I spent most of my college years.

“I’m sorry buddy, it’s still there and it is going to be hard to get rid of.”

An act of bigotry

It was agonizing. One of my best friends in college was gay. He had noticed that someone had defaced a brick that he had bought to support a fundraising campaign. Unable to bear the pain of seeing the slur again, he had asked me to go check if it had been removed.

Originally the brick was elegantly inscribed with a dedication to my friend’s father, but the added detail that showed who had paid for the brick had evidently attracted one of the bigots that crawled campus.

My friend was close to tears. I felt sick to my stomach. It was my first personal look at the effects of the discrimination against gays that often is accepted in “decent” society. It made me furious. The experience marked one of the turning points for me in my understanding of the gay rights movement.

I am a Christian and struggle with finding anything that resembles a coherent Biblical theology regarding homosexuality. This post isn’t about arguing for or against a gay lifestyle. But I feel personally responsible for defending kind and fair treatment of gays in society and supporting any efforts aimed at promoting equality.

Taking a stand

Enter the work of another good friend from college. Actually, one of my best friends to this day: Aaron Beaumont, a Los Angeles-based musician and composer, along with co-creator Peter Berube, is in the second stage of development on “Behind Closed Doors: A Second Class Cabaret” a show that sold out completely for each night of its first run in 2010.  The show, set in a future where a tyrannical government brutally persecutes those that don’t fit into societal norms, won rave reviews.  It was nominated for two Broadway World LA awards, and legendary 35x gold and platinum songwriter Marty Panzer proclaimed, “every song is a home run.”

At its core it stands for equality for and solidarity with the LGBT community.  I flew down from Northern California to see the initial “workshop” version of the show and it was worth every penny I spent.

Behind Closed Doors is clearly headed for Broadway and you and I can help be part of its success. Right now, Aaron and his team are raising funds to complete a cast recording of the show’s songs in order to pitch the show to Broadway producers.

How you can help

The fundraising is already past the 60% mark and is only gaining in momentum. With your support, this very worthy project can succeed. Plus, a portion of proceeds goes to support the It Gets Better Project, aimed at helping LGBT teens during the years in which they will likely experience the worst societal abuse for their orientation. Lyrics from the show’s “One Small Choice” song sum up the spirit of hope that defines the show:

“No more whispering in the street

For no revolution ever stayed behind closed doors.

It grows from one idea

That no army can defeat:

Freedom, surely as the air we breathe, is mine and yours.

Come near my brother

Stand for another

Your world is yours to create.

Love is always a dangerous song

But when you sing it, I’ll sing along.

Come near my brother

Dream of another

World that is only so far

As your heart from the sound of your voice.

Freedom starts when you make one small choice.”

This is a project that deserves backing.  I’ve made my pledge. For more info and to join me and other supporters click here.

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Service — The Good

Today marks the start of a new chapter in Culturemutt history. My wife, Jammie, joins me as a blogger on the site. Her posts will focus more on our travels and our day-to-day activities. Take it away, Jammie!

Jammie helps set up a room in preparation for an Alzheimer Tanzcafe in Berlin, Germany. (Bjorn Karlman photo)
Jammie helps set up a room in preparation for an Alzheimer Tanzcafe in Berlin, Germany. (Bjorn Karlman photo)

Sometimes, you find a volunteer project that you thoroughly enjoy. It fits your tastes and energies exactly. The work you do instantly brings a smile to your face and to the people you are serving. In fact, it doesn’t feel like work at all. This kind of project is  gratifying on so many levels; in tangible and not-so-tangible ways, you know the project is a true benefit to others.

For me, that project was partying. With old people.

Bjorn and I helped out at an Alzheimer Tanzcafe (literally, dance cafe) recently in Berlin, Germany. It really did feel like we were getting ready for a party. We pushed tables together, put out chairs, laid out flatware. Bottles of mineral water were placed, napkins folded fancy, flower bouquets positioned.

The guests started to arrive. Most came in wheelchairs or with walkers. Many had caretakers or family members with them. Some didn’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s, but had other, varying disabilities. A few were not so old.

We went around the room with the other volunteers, shaking hands and greeting the  guests. Then we sat down at a table. Other volunteers came around, serving coffee and huge pieces of peach cheesecake. It was drier and more clumpy than the cheesecake I am used to in the U.S., but still very tasty.

We chatted amiably with the others at our table. Sometimes there were language obstacles, but it’s amazing what a cheerful smile and large hand gestures can do.

And then the magic happened.

The musician at the Alzheimer Tanzcafe also played the saxophone. (Bjorn Karlman photo)
The musician at the Alzheimer Tanzcafe also played the saxophone. (Bjorn Karlman photo)

The hired musician at the back of the room began playing old-school music on his huge synthesizer. Volunteers started asking people to dance. The coordinator pointed out a woman that I should approach.

I walked over to her with some hesitation. She sat unsmiling, her face a wreath of wrinkles, eyes staring blankly but resolutely past me, even when I was near. What if she didn’t want to dance with me? What if she refused? Now I know what a junior high boy feels like, I thought. I pasted a big smile on my face, bowed and held out my hand to her.

She put her hand in mine and immediately stood up. She led me to the dance floor and automatically and nimbly began dancing a waltz with me. She grabbed one of my hands and held the wrist of my other one. It was awkward.

As we made our way around the room, I realized I knew the tune; it was the “Blue Danube Waltz.” I begin to sing along with it, “La lala la la…”  She smiled, dropped my wrist and held me closer. She sang along with me.

The moment felt surreal: Here I was, waltzing to the “Blue Danube,” in Germany, with a woman. It was awesome.

My next dance partner held me close — real close. He, too, had sat with an emotionless mask on his face, but as soon as we got on the dance floor, he crushed me to his chest and began moving around in expert and complicated dance steps. I struggled to not step on his toes and maintain some space between us. I tried to crane my head back for more air, but he held me in a vise grip.

I said to Bjorn afterward, “I bet that guy was a player back in the day.”

Bjorn said, “Who, the tango guy?”

Ah, the tango!  Of course that’s what he had been doing. It all made sense now; the tango is a very close, intimate dance. I felt foolish and a little guilty for thinking the music seemed to revive more than memories in some.

I danced with several others. At one point, a conga line formed and we danced around the room — and around and around and around. It went on so long, most of the guests dropped out. It even got me tired.

But perhaps my favorite moments occurred with a dance partner from my own table. He had sat silent and unresponsive throughout the cake and coffee, even though his relatives had tried hard to engage him. They told me he had dementia. He didn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone. His balance didn’t seem too good, either. When he stood, I got the feeling that he could fall over at any time.

One of his relatives asked me to dance with him. He was already standing, gripping the back of a chair. He refused to dance with me. His relatives stood around him, softly cajoling him in German. Smiling, I held my hands out in front of him, palms up.  I began softly singing to him. He released his grip on the chair and took hold of my hands.

I led him onto the dance floor carefully. I started doing a slow two-step, hoping that he wouldn’t fall. I sang louder. He gripped my hands tighter. The louder I sang, the more he seemed to perk up. Steadily, he began moving my hands side to side in rhythm with the song. He took over the two-step. Pretty soon, he was leading me around the dance floor.

He was a very thoughtful partner. He never made eye contact with me, but I knew he was aware of me and was looking out for me. As he led me around the dance floor, he made sure I didn’t run into any objects and guided me so that we didn’t bump into the other dancers. When he was tired, he escorted me back to the table, and motioned me toward a seat. He didn’t sit down until I had — a gentleman until the end.

I was still smiling when all the guests had left. I smiled while gathering the dirty dishes and putting them away. I smiled while I hunched over and pushed the trolley of dirty dishes outside. I smiled as we walked to the bus stop and all the long way home. I was still smiling when we finally made it to our apartment.

Sometimes, the person who benefits most from a service project is me.

First Rule of Fundraising: Shut Up

In the thick of it... back when I was a fundraiser in Northern California
In the thick of it… back when I was a fundraiser in Northern California

I have an unreasonable addiction in life.  It is all consuming.  I can’t help but get excited about it.  If the topic comes up in conversation I am automatically into it.  To me, this activity is the great enabler of most of what is best about the world today.  It can relieve poverty, build schools, elect better leaders, even save lives.  If you are good at it, you wield enormous do-gooding clout.  If you are not, your cause will often fizzle.

What is this obsession?  Simple: it’s fundraising.

Bush doctor…

Before I was born my mother worked as a bush doctor in West Africa where she raised the money for six rural health clinics that were built during her three years of work in the country. She passed on to me her fascination with fundraising.

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve headed out to collect funds for various causes. I can remember knocking on doors as a kid growing up in the Philippines, with a little can asking for spare change for humanitarian relief.  These early experiences sparked an interest that actually turned into a career for me later in life: raising money for hospitals.

The catch…

I can literally talk all day about fundraising. But here’s the ironic part:  If you want to raise a large amount of money for a noble cause, one of the first things you should do is shut up about it.

How it works…

Allow me to explain:  If you are a smart fundraiser you make sure you distill your stormy madness of ideas about how to raise funds for your world-changing cause into some kind of coherent method.  Whether the goal is a few thousand dollars or a few hundred thousand dollars, the most effective approach to take to reach the goal is to think of the whole thing as a campaign.

Campaigns broken down

A fundraising campaign can be broken into two key parts: the silent phase and the public phase.  Here’s how it works:

Shhhh…

In the silent phase you quietly gather your most important supporters and tell them about your cause.  You get these movers and shakers on board and between them and the deep pockets that you have access to through your personal connections and those of this group of power players, you secure as much of your goal as possible.  Different people quote different percentages of what you should have in the bank but a safe figure to shoot for is 50% of your goal before you move on to the next stage.

Going public

Once you have raised this much you go public.  By the time you get to this public phase you already have momentum.  If you have already raised half or more of your goal, people are more comfortable getting on board and supporting because they feel like they are joining a winning team.  It is easy to get people excited and to cruise to a finish if you have winnner’s momentum.

Savvy, global do-gooding

CultureMutt’s tagline is “savvy, global-do-gooding” and every post is about enabling you and I to actually live a lifestyle that is defined by internationally-minded service.  It is time we got into the nitty gritty of how to concretely fund this kind of service.  So this is the start of my fundraising posts which will pop up more frequently than not on CultureMutt in the future.

Contain your excitement

For now though, let’s remind ourselves of the first basic point:  Don’t talk to everyone about your fundraising plan from the get go.  Contain your excitement and instead talk to a select few.  Sit down with them and quietly strategize about how you will reach your goal.  After you have a concrete plan in place and you have secured enough funding to demonstrate momentum you can release your inner blabber mouth and tell the world.

Get this right and you can change the world through fundraising.  Savvy do-gooding works.  Unguarded bubble blabber doesn’t… it just leads to a painful death soon after your mom and Aunt Elma donate.

As I said, more fundraising posts are in the pipeline… in the meantime, feel free to share your fundraising successes and failures in the comments.  Together we can find ways to harness the power of fundraising to make this world a better place.

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Approval is Overrated

At the Berlin Wall.  July, 2013.  7 months after declaring our independence from approval:)
At the Berlin Wall. July, 2013. 7 months after declaring our independence from approval:)

Here’s a handy rule for getting nothing done in life: Seek approval.  Have your family sign off on your every decision.  Get a job where the very lifting of a finger requires your boss’s signature.  Never do anything out of the ordinary or risky for fear of failure or ridicule from your peers.  Think that your friends have to agree with or be jealous of your decisions in life.  Live the entirety of your days, stepping around gingerly, all concerned with what people are thinking.

Don’t get me wrong.  Approval is nice.  It is nice to have family, bosses, pretty people or peers approve of what you are doing.  It feels all warm and fuzzy to get the thumbs up for all your major moves.  It is validating.  It is reassuring.  It feels right.  It’s all smiles.

Here’s the one little problem with that strategy:  It leads to absolutely nothing.  It does not change the world, it only deepens mediocrity’s rut.  All that a life of approval-seeking does is produce more of the same.  More people on anti-depressants.  More impressive pot bellies.  More cookie cutter houses that are built too fast and that ensnare their naive owners in too much debt.  More blah, day-to-day living, much of it spent commuting to a barely tolerable job doing something you don’t enjoy for people you don’t like.

Freedom

If you have had enough of approval-fueled existence realize one thing:  No Pony Express is rushing to the rescue with a delivery of some cure for your own timidity.  Changing your life is going to take some really uncomfortable, bold moves on your part.  You will have to go against the grain.  You will need to ruffle some feathers.  You are going to get people talking about you.  And yes, you will have people disapprove.

If this sounds too awkward and you don’t think it is worth the trouble, do us both a favor and stop reading this.

If, however, a life more meaningful, exciting and intentionally-lived is of appeal, join me in my working Declaration of Independence from the Approval Culture:

From this instant, decide that you will do whatever it takes to absolutely and completely live these truths:

You don’t have to care about what everyone thinks.

This isn’t about being a rebel or being reckless.  This is a fundamental truth in life:  if you care too much about what other people think, you become imprisoned by the prevailing attitudes around you.  You are no better than those that stood by and condoned the worst atrocities in human history.  You are the epitome of small town thinking or big city politically-correct-and-impossibly-fashionable lifestyle adherence (equally despicable ends of the same plinky coin.) You are expendable and destined for the rubbish heap full of everyone else who blindly followed.

You were never destined to be imprisoned by your cubicle

As comforting as it is to have a measure of climate-controlled stability, you were never supposed to be holed up in your cubicle.  You can decorate the walls of that office cell with pictures of Yosemite and quotes about dancing like no one is watching.  You can pin up big-fonted affirmations of the riches, Riviera-lounging and adventure that will some day flood into your life.  But the reality is that if you are not gutsy enough to execute a prison break, the farthest you will go is down the hallway to the water cooler for another rousing conversation with the guy from Accounts Payable.

Your current income (READ: Capacity to take on even more debt) was never meant to define you or your future

There’s a predictable cycle for most reasonably competent types.  You finish school, get a foot in the door of some workplace as a coffee-fetcher that is paid the bare minimum.  You stay in the job, lured by the prospect of promotions and raises.   Time passes, youth and its sparky ideals fade and you may be able to impress those above enough to get a raise.  Either that or you just stay put long enough that your step wage increase makes those 10 to 40 years of doing the same thing add up to ensure that you are one of the better paid photocopiers around.

Either way, there is a huge temptation to think your worth and self-esteem should be tied to the way the system pays you.  It is hard to resist the endless cycle of approval-seeking at work and society. You obsess about the opinions of others so as to increase your standing, which (hopefully) will increase income and, because you are a slave to the system, your self-esteem. STOP BUYING INTO THIS.  It is a slow, painful, unrewarding death march.  You can liberate yourself.  Freedom and meaning are possible.

Prison Breaks Take Planning

If you see yourself (as I did for longer than I care to admit) described by the depressing verbiage above, it is often tempting to do something drastic, like march into your boss’s office right away and say you quit.  For some, this may be just right.  For most, however, an effective escape takes planning.

If you belong to the second pack, make sure you start planning TODAY.  If you are dissatisfied at work (or in any major life context), decide exactly where you want to be a year for now.  Do you want to be on the beach in Thailand? It’s pretty nice.  Do you want to be in a better job? You can.  Do you want to be your own boss? Hey, crazier things have happened.  Each of those options are possible.  And quite frankly, “possible” is enough reason for you to get off your butt and put your all into making it happen.  It’s up to you.  Is it going to be the orange cubical jumpsuit or is it going to be a life of fulfillment?  You can do this.  Dumber people have pulled this off with spectacular success.  Don’t sell yourself short.

The world is dying for you to do something different

Here’s the deepest reason of all for shunning the approval culture: You are called to a life of service.  The world is suffering from a malady that only you can cure.  This isn’t grandiose thinking.  It is reality.  Face up to it:  You are supposed to help people in a way that is unique to only you.  You can make this world better in a way that nobody else can even imagine.  You have something that nobody else does.  If you squelch this individuality by conforming to the oppression of approval seeking, the world will be all the worse for it.

Realize this isn’t about you.  The biggest reason to declare your independence from the approval culture has nothing to do with you.  It is unselfish.  It is altruistic.  It is about following a calling.  It is about finding and following the reason you are living and breathing.  It is about relishing the fact that you are different and it is about giving yourself entirely to making the most of this life and its ample opportunities for service.

_________

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

(Apple ad copy from back in the day when they were the scrappy new kid on the block)

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Don’t Waste Your Life

Adventure time!!

Are you wasting your life?

When you get up in the morning, do you feel like you are one day older yet not a step closer to what you have spent your life dreaming you could do? Do you feel like you are just working for the paycheck? Do you feel like you are in a self-made prison? Do you wish you had the guts to call things as they are? I felt that way for a very long time.

OK lives

In many ways there was nothing wrong with our lives. Jammie and I had respectable, sought-after jobs. We had wonderful, supportive friends. We lived in a fun little college town in Northern California. We made decent money for a young couple. We were active in our communities. On the surface, our lives looked fine. If life continued as it was, we could really settle down, live comfortably, start a family and raise kids who would repeat the cycle.

The burning desire

But for years we had harbored a will to do something bold and fresh. Something that wasn’t just about a paycheck, benefits and water cooler conversations… about going through the motions. Something that would change our lives completely.

The secret plan

We knew what it was and for years we had secretly been talking about it: a trip around the world. But not just any trip. This would not be just a vacation. It would be an extended trip. A long-term adventure where we helped other people through service projects. This would be something idealistic. Something radical. Something completely, utterly life-changing that launched us on an international, meaning-filled life of service for years to come.

Every time we talked about it we got more excited. We knew this could change everything.  And every time we put off the trip off we grew more frustrated.

Enough is enough

In the fall of 2012, Jammie and I decided that we could not wait any longer. We simply could not put off our plans any more. If we didn’t take the step now, life would make it harder and harder to escape and we would just grow old, fat and frustrated bemoaning the lives we wished we’d pursued.  We simply could not let that happen.  We made a pact:  “We are doing this and we are doing this now!”

ACTION!

We did all the scary stuff as fast as we could so we wouldn’t back out. We told those closest to us of our plans. Job resignation letters were drafted, re-drafted, signed and delivered. We sold, gave away or dumped a ton of stuff that we had collected over the years. We bought round-the-world tickets. And we got on a plane.  This was it!

Five months in… 

We are now one month into living in Buenos Aires (city #2 of our Bangkok-Buenos Aires-Berlin-Bombay tour) and starting the  fifth month of our year.  We are starting to adjust to our new life. I am not going to pretend that we like everything.  We often miss family and friends.  I could do without the nightly mosquito bites and I could kill for some decent Mexican food.  But for the most part life has improved drastically.

I could spend several posts listing all the ways our lives are better but for now I can say this with all honesty:  For the first time in years it feels like everything I used to dream of doing is still possible.  I walk around unbelievably excited about life.  I am no longer as cynical.  I don’t roll my eyes when I hear people talk about their lives being happy.  I am happy.  And I am rapidly gaining perspective on how I want to live the rest of my life.

Here are some things I have learned:

Don’t waste your life thinking things will change – Part of what kept us from taking the bold step to get on a plane and follow our dreams was the vague feeling that things would change if we just put in a little more time. Maybe things would change with a little more money… or a more adventurous week of vacation time or a slightly better job. The truth was that none of those things would really change anything. Every little step we took on the same conventional path confirmed the obvious: more of the same would lead to a lifetime of boredom and regret.

Don’t waste your life thinking that “benefits” are a valid reason to stay in a job – Medical, dental, paid time off, growing retirement funds… we couldn’t just walk away! Or so we thought. But the golden hand cuffs were surprisingly easy to shake off when we realized that they were standing between us and doing what we really wanted with our lives. Security is fine but not if if means being handcuffed securely to a suboptimal life!

Don’t waste your life dreading risk – Within two weeks of landing in Bangkok we were offered four jobs between the two of us. We were not interested in taking them just then but we did the financial math just for fun anyway and the reward for shaking off the golden handcuffs was clear immediately: If we were to get jobs we could easily save over twice what we had been saving in the US. So much for our risk-averse golden handcuff thinking!

It was already clear that this world was full of opportunities and that risks where never quite as scary once you took them.  The rewards of action are great.  Everyone’s circumstances are different but don’t make the mistake of living your life dodging risk.

Don’t waste your life worrying about acquiring stuff - Traveling has taught us a lot of valuable lessons but one of the most important is this:  acquiring more “stuff” is one of the most pointless things we do in life.  Jammie and I ended up donating a ridiculous amount of our possessions to our local thrift store when we left Northern California.  I mean it was crazy. These were mostly things that had cost quite a lot to buy.  And in the end it was all just stuff… stuff that was in the way of us and a better, freer life.  This stuff didn’t add value; if anything it was a hassle, a nuisance.  The hours we spent giving or throwing it all away have taught me one thing as we walk past shop windows around the world: Keep walking.

Don’t waste your life chasing the American Dream – The house, the car, the white picket fence.  Keeping up with the Joneses is less and less attractive when you realize that they are upside down on their house, their possessions own them and living life chasing the American dream has them tied down and miserable, running faster and faster on the hamster wheel while their finite days on Earth slip away.  The American dream is not what it is cracked up to be. People should get over it.

Let’s end with some good news:  It is never too late to make a change… to make the jump.  If you are wasting your life, the time to stop is right now.  Right this second.  Stop it.  Seriously.  Don’t rationalize away this moment.  If you are tempted to do so, accept this absolute truth: This post was written for you.

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How to fight the sex trade in Bangkok

Nana... the main "sex for hire" area for expats in Bangkok

Huge risk

“They actually walk up to bar girls and other trafficked women in bars and brothels and try to offer them ways to escape.

I was listening to a friend of mine who I’ll call Kim.

“It’s a really bold approach. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it really backfires. When it works they can sometimes work with a UN agency that can transport the trafficked women back to their home countries. When it backfires the pimps find out, it gets ugly and you’ve got to get out quick.”

Jammie and I leaned in with interest. We had never heard of any organization tackling sex slavery this directly.

The trap of sex slavery

“Sometimes they can get enough time with the girls that they are able to befriend them.

The stories are so sad. Whether they are Thai women from up north or young Cambodian or Burmese girls, many come here because they are promised well-paid work through which they can support their families. When they get to Bangkok they are forced into the sex industry.”

Kim continued “It’s very hard to leave. Thai girls that are forced into prostitution are often controlled by pimps that threaten them and hold them in economic bondage.

Due to their low levels of education, prostitution is often the most lucrative work available. If they don’t bring in enough “work” they are fined by their handlers and they fall into debt. It’s nasty.

With foreign girls it is even worse because they are often here illegally. Unless they cooperate with their employers, they can be reported to the authorities and locked up at the Immigration Detention Center without documentation.”

It was deeply depressing to listen to.  And the results of what Kim was describing are on open display in Bangkok.

The sexpats that fuel human trafficking

Walk down the street after dark in areas like the Nana district of Bangkok (a major shopping and eating area) and you will see middle-aged male tourists leaning in to negotiate prices with Thai bar girls.

Everywhere you look, men are pulling purchased women into cabs and others are being stopped in the street by prostitutes pressured to meet quotas.

Fighting back

As much as most visitors to Bangkok are shocked by the strength of the sex industry, and while many Thais and foreigners agree that something must be done, most are left scratching their heads about what to actually do to help.

Which brings me back to what Kim was talking about. There are a handful of organizations that are tackling the issue aggressively.

To protect individuals and “undercover” organizations from unwanted mafia-like intervention, I am going to omit names of specific individuals and organizations.

Heroes

But I will say that I have the utmost admiration for their bravery and willingness to step up to the plate.

One lady that I talked to had moved to Bangkok from the US with her husband and kids to work with a ministry that taught ex prostitutes valuable life skills including how to make a decent living making jewelry.

A handful of organizations do what Kim described at the top of this post:  Female aid workers walk Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong (the biggest red light districts) and try to start a dialogue with bar girls, massage parlor (often a front for brothels) staff and other prostitutes.

They befriend their contacts and offer them alternate ways to make a living or ways to get the financial and legal means to return to their home countries if they are foreign.

It is hard work. Although prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, police are paid off by pimps and bar owners to look the other way. So it is hard to count on support from the authorities.

Sometimes you feel like you are not even making the smallest dent in the problem. Everything feels hopeless and the challenges of fighting sex slavery seem insurmountable.

Not impossible!!

But I want to end on an admittedly sentimental note: As I write these words I am on a British Airways flight 32,000 feet above Russia. Jammie and I have completed our three months in Bangkok and are headed to Buenos Aires to start our work there.

It’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as I think back to the orphans we said goodbye to a few hours ago, the inmates that we had the privilege of working with and the dozens of friends that we made during our time in Thailand. We leave feeling incredibly inspired by the stories they have told us and the way each of them works to improve their community, their city.

One of the most inspirational things I got to personally witness happened during the coffee hour at a church I visited one Sunday.

I was quizzing an aid worker and she told me about the results of her organization’s work fighting the sex industry.

“There’s an entire table over there full of women that have been liberated from prostitution. They are now making a living for themselves and their families creating jewelry. This can work. They can have a brighter future!”

Indeed they can.

This, my final post before I start chronicling our Argentina adventures, is dedicated to the brave heroes that take the risks to rescue those that are currently enslaved. We will forever be inspired by your bravery, dedication and service. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you do.

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Should You Ignore Beggars?

A family I came across, begging in the Nana district of Bangkok....

It kills me every time. Walking past beggars in Bangkok is harder than it is in most of the places I have lived around the world. There is something about the depth of desperation and despair that just feels more acute here.

You may see an amputee with no legs, dragging himself across the sidewalk amidst the storm of pedestrian traffic. Or it may be a mother with two tiny babies, holding up a soda cup on top of a foot bridge.  Or it could be the dad with his two kids (pictured), pleading for change outside 7-Eleven.  It’s hard to know how to respond.

I wrote a post – Should you give to beggars? – when I still lived in Northern California. At the time I lived in a college town with a large population of transient 20 somethings that begged for cash. The knowledge that there were relatively well-funded shelters nearby and the fact that the travelers looked to be in good physical shape made it easier to walk past. In Bangkok, the same is not true.

Here are the questions I struggle with in Bangkok.  I’d would really like to hear your ideas and reactions in the comments. Jammie and I really want to make a difference out here, however we can:

Does the fact that begging is professionally organized make it unwise to give? It’s no secret: begging in Bangkok is an extension of organized crime. Beggars are organized by bosses that function much the same way pimps do in prostitution rings. It is merciless and pure exploitation. There is no doubt the beggar is suffering. The problem with giving them cash is that the money goes back to the bosses and the beggars only get a pittance.  Google “beggar mafia Bangkok” to see what I mean.

Will my giving help? – If the bosses take the cash, how will my giving help? In an immediate sense, giving beggars food instead of cash will help meet needs like basic nutrition. But it does little to address their larger needs like shelter, security and healthcare.

Is it OK to simply help aid organizations? I used to think that the real answer was to give to charitable organizations that would in turn help the people. After spending half a decade in the world of professional fundraising though, I know that a lot of my cash will go to things I don’t support, like executive salaries that are often in the six figure range.

How much is enough? So I am caught in a quandary. I still give to organizations that I believe are ethical, not overly top-heavy and make a difference but between that and the occasional direct gift to someone in need, I think “how much is enough?”

What is the bigger picture? Most professional aid workers I talk to will talk about the big picture of poverty alleviation. Often politics come into play. The right will say that you “have to allow people to fail and learn to help themselves.” The left claims you “can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you don’t have boots” and then tries to justify another government program as a solution. I am not convinced by either approach.

No response is going to be perfect (this is easy to see) but this cannot freeze me in undecided inaction. I’ve got to start somewhere.

As mentioned before, Jammie and I are currently working with an orphanage and with prison visitation. We want to expand our work to help homeless beggars. Help us think of an effective way to help beggars by leaving a comment with your thoughts and suggestions. We are all in this together.

Thanks in advance for your comments!

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Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand

Why Aid Should Never be Used as Bait for Religion

In a replica of an old Thai church at Ancient Siam, near Bangkok....

It pissed me off. I just couldn’t handle it. It was as if you had to buy into Jesus before they would help you!” Annika set her coffee cup down hard on the table and looked across at me.

Jammie and I had been doing weekly orphanage and prison visits here in Bangkok as part of our service work. We’d caught wind of some interesting work being done to encourage entrepreneurship among young women in the Bangkok slums and, here I was, quizzing Annika, a Swedish expat, about it.

“I finally had to part ways with the Christians I was working with in the slums,” she said. “I am not a Christian, I just want to help. They, on the other hand seemed to think that it was only OK to help if they racked up a few conversions.”

I sympathized with Annika. I am a Christian and the quid pro quo she was complaining about bothered me too. It reminded me of the time I had done some research on homeless shelters on skid row in Los Angeles. The one I visited made you sit through Christian chapel before they would feed you. I admired the generosity of the shelter and their desire to help. But I couldn’t shake the sick feeling I had about their methods.

It all seemed wrong somehow. Here’s my reasoning. I would love to hear your ideas in the comment section:

1). You are exploiting weakness – All kinds of scandals are bred around aid organizations. When one party with ample resources is helping another that is desperate, power is often abused. When Christian (or other religious) aid organizations require Bible studies, religious services or outright conversion in return for food and shelter, that is exploitation, plain and simple, no matter how much the administrators believe they are “helping”.

2). Faith just doesn’t work that way – You can’t force faith. I find my faith to be the most meaningful thing in my life. But I’m willing to bet that I wouldn’t feel that way if it had been forced on me. There simply is no buy-in with coercion. As the Christian colonizers of old proved when they forced conquered peoples into baptism: faith, when forced, is only skin deep (the locals retained their ancient religious beliefs while putting on an outward religious “show” for their colonizers).

3). The “What’s in it for me?” factor – You can’t offer genuine, focused aid to someone if, all the while, you have an ulterior motive. If you are simply trying to fill pews at church, your “aid” efforts will come across as hollow and insincere. The aid is about the people being reached, not about the giver or his views.

4). Aid becomes a transaction – When people catch on and realize that they simply need to profess faith to receive aid, many will gladly do so. Faith becomes currency and the whole process is corrupted. Rather than help the disadvantaged become self-sufficient, this “faith for aid” transaction encourages dependency and dishonesty.

5). You cheapen religion – I am not against religion. I am actually hugely in favor of a sincere, compassionate, generous out-living of faith through the practice of religion. But trying to purchase believers through aid packages cheapens religion. It is completely shortsighted and makes a mockery of true religion.

Obviously, not everyone agrees with my reasoning. There are passionate defenders of charities and nonprofits that require at least some exposure to religion before they will help the disadvantaged. They argue that this is the best way to really help those that are suffering, that they are helping the “whole” person.

What do you think? Where is the line? What is the best way for religious charities and other organizations to offer help to those that need it? Tell me in the comments.

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Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand