I recently read Jonathen Franzen’s wonderful novel, “Freedom”, and this past week in Malaysia has given me the chance to reflect a little more on the notion. I gleaned from the book Franzen’s efforts to demonstrate the limitations of positive freedom (‘freedom to…’ as opposed to ‘freedom from…’ as John Rawls wrote), a prescient reminder in today’s world of short-sighted libertarianism and self-branding.
I spent the past week in Malaysian Borneo split between time with extended family and taking a diving course while staying at a youth hostel. It felt a little awkward, jumping from personal vacation mode to the traditional responsibility of seeing relatives, but I’m glad I did it—I would have felt guilty spending the entire time holidaying and too obligation-laden amongst relatives with whom a sizable cultural divide exists. Also, splitting time made clear the striking contrast between two worlds that exist here: that of exotic expatriates and that of more grounded locals.
For most backpackers in Borneo, Sabah’s attractions have little to do with its people. For the most part, foreigners flock to its world-class dive sites, where sea turtles and colorful fish flourish amongst the warm waters and picturesque islands of Sipadang. Inland, the other major activities involve ascending the region’s tallest peak, Mount Kinabalu, or trekking through its renowned rainforest jungle. If there is to be a human interest, it’s in visiting native tribes deep in this jungle, whose head-hunting, blow dart-shooting evokes an untamed romance.
Staying at a local hostel, I enjoyed the free-flowing range of topics that make up standard Southeast Asian backpacker discussion: transcendental drug trips, exotic festivals and burial practices amongst remote minorities, Thai sex show tricks. One new American friend, an engineer who’s lay-off led to an ongoing two-year sojourn, shared insights into a copper mine in Cameroon that he invested in, after studying the data provided by an ex-stunt motocross mohawked punk rocker that he played poker against in Vietnam. With a Swiss teacher for deaf students, replete with dreadlocks and multi-hued baggie hippie pants, I discussed matters of sign language grammar and cross-dialect intelligibility. I loved every minute of it, precisely because I know I’d never have met these individuals in my normal circles and simply because it tuned me onto altogether new matters: I think good vacations, along with being relaxing, rejuvenate the mind so.
During my dive course, I enjoyed the experience of being surrounded by a tight-knit school of fish, hundreds-large, and simply interacting with an utterly foreign, startlingly intricate world. Sitting aboard our catamaran, speeding out to the islands, I learned from my fellow course participant of expat life in Borneo. Based in Paris, she’d previously had the chance to telecommute, and chose to do so for a year in Sabah, where she had friends. Oil rig workers, resort owners, marine biologists, they all sounded so outstandingly liberated and superior, living out their days in balmy warmth, going on fishing trips and sipping fruity cocktails year-round. She spoke of starting her own communications company and moving out here for good. I wondered what it would be like to switch jobs with my dive instructor.
On the last day, an experienced diver from Los Angeles joined our boat, hoping to photograph seahorses underwater. While donning his dive outfit, his naked back revealed small tattoos of a sky diver as well as a scuba diver. “You sky dive as well?” I asked. “Yeah,” he responded, “I’ve done about 500 jumps.”
He is self-employed, exporting goods between his native Philippines and the US, and spends about four months out of the year abroad, diving in the Maldives, jumping out of planes and the like. I didn’t try to mask my envy of his geographically un-bound lifestyle, with its extensive time for pursuing extreme hobbies and cavorting in the tropics.
Amongst my cousins, however, who were born and raised here, we discussed affairs of a less enchanting nature. My cousin, who works now for a cocoa exporter in Indonesia, described cruel bosses at his previous job, assembling electronics in Singapore over grinding 12-hour shifts. Working at various manufacturing plants or restaurants abroad, the higher incomes they earn are tempered by the increased pressure that city life brings. Those who stuck around or moved back to Sabah—and almost all of them wish to return eventually–do so to be closer to family, and because they prefer its slower pace.
“Many people I meet from West Malaysia like it better over here,” my cousin Joanna, a Mandarin teacher, told me on the way to the airport. “They find that they can have a life beyond work here.”
Given my fellow Westerner’s obsession with the waters in the region, I asked my cousins if they go swimming at the beach. None of them did—many don’t know how to—and expressed both a lack of interest and general fear of the ocean. Malaysia’s national hobby, it wounds like, is cruising around air-conditioned malls, and I did find the most populated areas in Kota Kinabalu city to be its many shiny shopping centers. It always strikes me as a humorous mix: the Westerners one sees on the streets here are generally dressed in either hippie casual or jungle explorer outfits, ready to launch themselves into exhausting white water rafting or mountaineering challenges or otherwise laze along the beach languorously. Meanwhile, locals go about their jobs and then shop. Such is the nature of a tourism-driven city.
Of course, some people fall somewhere in between this rough dichotomy. One evening, I had dinner with Izzie, a local who had returned after a decade in Kuala Lumpur. Not having many friends here, and finding little to do of interest, she passes her time meeting and hosting foreign backpackers through Couchsurfing. She gets excited when discussing plans to move to Korea, whose pop culture she follows. She would have set off earlier, but for her parents’ disapproval.
This past week in Borneo reminded me that personal freedom (I’m not discussing the political sort) always has a lot to do with economics. Earning US dollars or Euros or likewise means that a primary teacher in Switzerland can take months off to travel around Asia, something a Malaysian primary teacher would struggle to do. It’s also about culture and education: while many might be perfectly capable of discussing sign language syntax and marine life species, it takes a certain level of cultivation and wide-ranging education to even possess an interest in such topics. And for Westerners who come from colder climes, it takes an obvious level of job freedom to acquire the luxury to live somewhere tropical and warm, beyond the nine-to-five.
But freedom is not simply limited to economic means and disposable income. Given my abundant educational opportunities and lack of current responsibilities, I’m free to pursue a wide range of career and lifestyle options that my cousins lack. But there’s a certain freedom of personality, one linked more to long-term relationships and intimacy that I noticed my cousins share with one other. To be completely uninhibited and at ease amongst company—I feel like I sacrificed such freedom to a certain degree each time I moved city, curtailing certain friendships (at least face-to-face) in exchange for new ones. As my cousins chatted happily, I realized how rarely in Beijing that I find myself in settings where I am completely unconcerned with the judgments of company. As with anything, geographical freedom comes with its own set of real costs.
Upward mobility and ambition also carry their own set of costs. I am privileged to even be in a position to apply to an elite MBA program; most people would balk at the application fee, let alone consider strapping themselves to a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, then working some 80-hour, job-as-life position upon graduation to pay it off. Certainly, not everyone takes such a route. Many would consider the work-life balance untenable, others surely have other passions and pursuits they’d rather follow. But amongst many 20-somethings that I know, life is primarily focused on accomplishment, with its emphasis on toil and acquisition and accumulation. A middling position involving (only!) 40 hours of work and relaxed evenings at home is not sufficient; we must be ‘agents of change’, ‘thought leaders’, tacklers of climate change, poverty and corporate effectiveness. Such ambition requires opportunity, but also involves lifestyles with precious free time in between the endless functions, blogs, side projects and dynamic activities that being self-realized and successful entail.
Moreover, such middle-class mobility comes with a broader array of concerns, and sometimes the border between privilege and duty can grey. Around my cousins, I felt freed from monitoring the trends and news and popular culture that I find myself devoting significant time to during my regular routine. Obviously, nobody forces me to read the Times each day, or the most current China politics/climate change screed or classic Russian novel. To date, thank God, I’ve managed to keep distance from the constant buzz of twitter feeds. But the drive towards consuming more information gnaws constantly, like the tyranny of choice. It sounds terribly bourgeois to wonder if I read the Economist because I want to or because I ought to—in truth, a see-sawing combination of both—but it does make me wonder how free that makes me.
For years we’ve been told that we’re becoming knowledge workers. I am sure that in the past ten years, the amount of (largely digital) information that I consume on a daily basis has grown significantly. How much of this information is necessary, or useful, or contributes to, say, my level of happiness? That’s much harder to say. To the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss:’ while I believe there’s clear limitations to that form of bliss, it’s even clearer how great burdens of mental weight are tied to the freedom to connect online anywhere, anytime. The democratization of information and media might be empowering, but being empowered can be awfully exhausting. My cousins, less plugged in and concerned with current affairs, seemed much freer in their personal outlooks.
Ultimately, this past week in Borneo reinforced for me the need to practice reflection regularly. To be judicious about the decisions I make regarding how I spend my time and towards what ends. To appreciate being conscious and free to think spontaneously, to enjoy the daily process of living a fully-fleshed, ordinary life without treating it as one constantly rotating to-do list. To allow technology to augment my life as opposed to atomizing and isolating it. To better acknowledge those things that bring me joy—community, intimacy, learning—and to consider such things in relation to the weightier matters with which I busy myself (career and personal development, keeping up with scheduled activities, accomplishing lofty goals). To adapt from Spinoza, freedom is more about being free to choose a more balanced path, one that regularly mixes striving with enjoying—the mountain trek with the beach session, the manufacturing stint with time off amongst loved ones—than about simply doing what one pleases. It just took some time off amongst cousins and backpackers to remember.
20-something Australian-Chinese MBA student at Duke's Fuqua School of Business (Class of 2013). Previously worked in business education and international development. Interested in social progress, culture, travel, languages, joyful living.