Please help a shooting victim in need

This blog post is a departure from my Unexpected Year in Thailand series, and from the usual types of posts I write in general. But I wanted to bring some attention to the plight of an ex-pat in Chiang Mai who was shot recently, and is in need of serious financial help. His name is Nic Brown, he's 35 years old and he has been living in Chiang Mai for about a year. While out with friends one night, he helped break up a bar fight and saved a drunk man from a serious beating. That man returned to the bar with a gun a little while later and opened fire. Nic was shot, and the bullet punctured his lung, shattered his ribs and damaged his spine. He's currently in the hospital, and doctors estimate it will be between one and four years before he walks again.

Nic Brown

I interviewed Nic earlier this week in his hospital room, and was deeply moved and impressed by how good-natured he seems. It was also chilling to think about how easily any one of my friends, or even myself, could end up in his position. We go out to the bars in Chiang Mai all the time, and we have hung out at the bar where he was shot. This wasn't in some sketchy neighborhood nor was it a seedy bar to be avoided. Nic did nothing wrong and is now in a hospital bed, unable to move his legs, and faces years of physical therapy and recovery time.

You can read more about Nic's story at Asian Correspondent, where I posted an article on his situation. A friend of mine (who also wrote a piece about the shooting) and I were talking about what happened, and both said that when you're living abroad, you can only hope that when something terrible happens, the ex-pat community will come together and give you a hand. I know money is tight for everyone, but please give if you can, or even just share his story in the hopes that other people will help him out.

A fundraiser will be held at Bar Eve in Chiang Mai on August 9, and those not in town can donate via the site helpnicbrown.com, or by contacting Nic directly on Facebook.

My hometown: A former Jersey girl's reflections on Hurricane Sandy

When news first broke about Hurricane Sandy, I felt almost as though I couldn’t comment on it. After all, I haven’t lived in New Jersey for a long time - nine years, if you count from 2003, when I moved to Maryland for college. What could I say that would have any relevance? Then I started to see the photos, read the Facebook status updates and news stories about the devastation at the Jersey Shore. I glanced at one local news site and read that Brick Township had been particularly hard hit, with a house rumored to have floated into the Mantoloking Bridge and structural fires breaking out around the town. Casino Pier in Seaside had been washed away (that link has good photos; apologies that they’re in a story about MTV’s “Jersey Shore”). Route 35 in Bay Head was completely flooded.

The Mantoloking Bridge

To someone who isn’t from Ocean County, New Jersey, these names might not mean much. But Brick Township is where I grew up; for a significant portion of my life, the Jersey Shore was my home. The thought of so much of it being destroyed was surreal and incredibly sad.

For the past week, I’ve found myself occasionally lost in memories of the years I lived at the Jersey Shore. The long afternoons spent playing in the waves and getting sandy and sunburnt while boogie boarding at Brick Beach III. Secretly picking out which beautiful beachfront houses I would buy if I ever had the money. Summers during high school when I worked as a badge checker at Jenkinson’s boardwalk in Pt. Pleasant, slapping bracelets on loud-mouthed Bennys who made the trek from New York to spend a day at the shore. Trips to Long Beach Island and the excitement of getting to play mini golf and go on the rides at Fantasy Island. Getting a taste of freedom when I was finally allowed to walk the Seaside boardwalk at night with friends.

Brick Beach III

I remembered the many nights I drove home from work or a friend’s house down Rte. 35 in Bay Head, one of my favorite drives. The road runs parallel to the ocean, a block away from the beach, and was badly flooded during the hurricane. It takes you to the boardwalk in either direction - Point Pleasant to the north; Seaside to the south, and to the Bay Head train station if you want to catch a train to New York City, a trip I made many times. Most of my jobs during my teenage years were located somewhere along that road. It became in some weird way a constant in my existence. Even when I came home from college for summer or holiday breaks, I would drive down 35 because it was in that familiar setting that I did some of my best thinking.

Ironically, my thoughts on those drives often revolved around my determination to leave New Jersey, Brick specifically. By the time I graduated high school, I was hell bent on moving out of the Garden State and never coming back, except for visits. My attitude toward my hometown has softened over the years - it was a nice place to grow up and I appreciate its charms far more now than I did when I lived there. I’ve been living in Asia for nearly three years and have made a life for myself that I love, but it is still heartbreaking to see so many places from my childhood destroyed or washed away, and to know how many people have lost their homes.

Route 35

No doubt the shore will be rebuilt over time. The boardwalks will be repaired, new and improved rides will take the place of the old ones. Homes will be salvaged. People will still flock to the Jersey Shore for the summer. But I can’t help feeling sad that, should I have children someday and want to show them where I grew up, many of the places I loved as a kid either aren't there anymore or won’t be quite the same.

It's been encouraging and heartwarming to see, via social media, the outpouring of love and charity by people across the shore area as they help one another begin the recovery process. It always seems to be the case that in the face of devastation, the best of human nature appears, which is bittersweet. My thoughts will continue to be with everyone at the Jersey Shore and I look forward to one day visiting and seeing it restored to its full beauty.

I am removed from what's happening at the Jersey Shore right now, but not so removed that the images of the devastation, and the thought of all of the people who lost their lives and their homes, don't bring tears to my eyes. Perhaps this blog post is my small way of acknowledging what has happened to my hometown and the surrounding area, and saying that although I don't live there anymore, I do feel the loss.

I'll end this with a song from Bruce Springsteen that has been running through my head for the past week, and will always make me think of the Jersey Shore as it was when I was growing up there.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31Qbx9oo-Ac

All photos courtesy Jersey Shore Hurricane News 

On Chen Guangcheng, human nature and despair

So you know how sometimes something enters your consciousness and lodges itself there until it consumes your thinking and forces you to pause and contemplate life for a moment? That happened to me a couple of weeks ago. For days, news and rumors about the whereabouts and treatment of Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese activist who escaped house arrest in Shandong province and came to the American embassy in Beijing seeking assistance, dominated Western media reports about China.

Something about the case fascinated and haunted me. I followed it obsessively on Twitter and scoured news sites for fresh information every day. I even ended up writing a piece on the Chinese media’s initial blackout on the situation.

Sometime during that week, I was walking along a crowded street in the middle of Sanlitun, a popular foreigner-friendly neighborhood in Beijing, pondering the fact that not far from where I stood, Chen Guangcheng sat in a nearby hospital in the middle of this diplomatic shitstorm, not knowing his fate or that of his family.

Suddenly, a wave of despair struck me and stopped me in my tracks. Contemplating the stories I had read about the situation — threats that Chen’s wife would be beaten to death, fears for the safety of his family and those who had helped him escape his unjust house arrest — I felt utterly sickened by the depths to which people can sink in their treatment of each other.

It wasn’t just about Chen. It was about the sadnesses and tragedies I witness all the time. Children chastised and ignored by parents who refuse to put down their phones even while they are out having a meal together. Couples screaming at each other to the point of tears. Drunk, irrational brutes tackling each other along the sidewalks.

It’s also not just about China. While abuse and irrationality thrive in this culture, the people here are not alone in their transgressions. Cruelty, unkindness and injustice exist everywhere. Chen Guangcheng is but one person who defied an unjust system and paid dearly for it. How many other people disappear or are murdered for a similar offense all the time?

Beyond that, I thought about the way people treat even those closest to them, the people they claim to admire and love. How many lies, hurtful words, cruel gestures are made to those closest to us all the time? How many times do I end up acting out and hurting those I care about the most? How much are we all products of vicious, wounding behaviors?

Generally speaking, I take an optimistic view toward humanity, perhaps because it feels so hopeless and depressing not to. I believe people are good and capable of beautiful, marvelous, inspiring behaviors. I know they are because I’ve witnessed a great deal of beauty in this world as well.

But there are times, as on that night, when I could not help feeling a deep, raw despair that even after so many centuries spent evolving and creating and advancing as a species, people still haven’t learned to live with kindness and warmth and generosity, and can still treat each other in unspeakably cruel ways time and time again.

A Somber Afternoon in Koh Phi Phi

I've been in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand for about a week, and the experience thus far has proven to be full of beautiful beach landscapes, a neverending Spring Break party scene (which is not quite as charming as it sounds, depending on your perspective) and moments ripe for self-reflection. A few days ago, however, I stumbled upon something that took my thoughts outside of myself, for a moment anyway.

I was about to enter a quiet beachside bar to check out their happy hour situation, when I spotted a sign for the Phi Phi Tsunami Memorial Park. I had already passed numerous tsunami evacuation route signs during my walk, so I had already been thinking about the tsunami that hit Thailand in December 2004. Up to this point, those thoughts had mostly been of the "I know it's unlikely, but what would we do if a tsunami hit while we were here? Would I be able to get to safety? What if that's how I die? Is the evacuation route actually of use to anyone or do most people die anyway?" variety.

The memorial park was quite small: a few thick overgrown flower bushes, three benches and a stone memorial covered in plaques naming those who had died. Aside from three cats sleeping on the benches, I was alone in the park.

As I stood in front of the small memorial, I started to get that sick feeling in my stomach. That vaguely nauseous one that creeps into the gut when presented with the reality of death, and of lives that ended abruptly, without any warning. 

A handful of pictures and letters had been placed around the memorial by loved ones who had come to pay their respects. The photos are now faded from the elements, but most of the faces are still visible, and haunting.

One plaque described a man and woman as "missing in the tsunami disaster on 26th December 2004." Somehow that chilled me more than if it had simply said "died in the tsunami of Dec. 2004." Immediately I imagined the man and woman, whose names had been Craig and Barbara. I imagined what death had been like for them, and for all the others listed there. How their bodies had washed away, and were never seen again by those who loved them.

The tragedy felt immense to me. I found myself crying as I read the other notes and inscriptions that had been left, ones that recalled a man named Jeremy's sense of humor or one survivor's hope that he would live a life of which those who had perished would be proud. 

The three benches had been purchased in honor of two young men who died that day in Koh Phi Phi. One's name was Connor. His parents had purchased not only the benches, but another plaque as well. There was an inscription promising to honor his memory, and below that a photo. The tears welled again as I looked at the picture. It was a graduation portrait, perhaps from university. He was probably about the same age as me.

The other bench bore simply the name of another young man, James, and below it the word "Irreplaceable." He was only two years older than me.

The stories, and the photos, went on. Just beyond the small park was the water, calm and beautiful, receding to low tide. I thought of all the people I had just seen on the beach, all also young, on holiday, happy, partying, most likely all with the expectation that they'd make it home, or on to their next destination, safely from Koh Phi Phi. I thought of Will, and Kelly and Phil, who were off snorkeling for the afternoon. I thought of myself.

I shuddered imagining the morning that tsunami hit, the fear, the panic, the desperation that must have seized people. I cried thinking about lives ended so quickly. One night you're out playing beer bong and socializing at tacky Banana bar, the next you're dying, killed by a force of nature you neither expected nor could have escaped.

As so often happens in those moments, the mild irritations I had been nursing earlier in the day seemed far less important than they had 15 minutes ago. The idea that I could die tomorrow has always been one that helps shift my priorities into perspective. I know it's cliche, but it's a good way of recognizing what's actually good and bad in your life, and what's absolutely of the highest importance imaginable and what doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

I tried not to dwell on the thought the rest of the day, though. I tried instead to be present and appreciate the incredible beauty surrounding me. Sure there were a few empty beer bottles sullying the otherwise lovely flower bushes, and sure it would have been more pleasant if the beach had been a little emptier and less riddled with drunk Euros today, but are those really problems to be dwelled on? No.

The rest of the day I spent indulging innocent whims: walking and shooting photos along a seaview path, savoring a glass of chilled white wine while lounging in a hammock and reading A Dance With Dragons as the sun began to set over the water. They were small pleasures but they mattered. I decided then that if I should have the great misfortunate to meet my end in some tragic way, the way those poor souls when the tsunami hit Koh Phi Phi, I would like to know that the day before, I paused for at least a moment to remember what was important and to be present for the little things that make up a life.