Young, Old, and Incurious
He’s in his early twenties and handsome in a swarthy and athletic kind of way, and his left arm has a series of overlapping tattoos that run from his wrist to his elbow. He modestly describes himself as a carpenter. He was able to
shift his two-week yearly vacation time to coincide with that of his girlfriend’s two weeks of free time. She’s a grammar school teacher in Melbourne. She’s got strawberry blond hair and Nordic skin and the bones of a big
moma in the making. She’s also in her early twenties.
This was their first trip together, and their first time out of Australia, and they decided to spend ten of their days in Boracay in the Philippines. On the beach. Doing nothing more, I surmised, than sunning, reading, sleeping, and otherwise
doing what young people lustfully do. They saw no more of the Philippines than the beaches and tourist shops and bars of Boracay.
When I met them, while enjoying a whole grouper baked in a banana sauce, they were on their last of three nights in Kuala Lumpur, excited about all the street activity around them and what little they had seen of KL. What had they seen in this rather
large and prosperous city of Malays and Chinese and Indians and foreigners like themselves? The only answer I got, and from the young woman, was: I’ve been shopping for three days. Not: We’ve been shopping for three days. But: I’ve
been shopping for three days.
Scared the shit out of me—for her boyfriend.
What she was shopping for, and buying, I had no idea, and didn’t want to know. I only wondered whether her boyfriend could see even two inches beyond the lust he had for her, and had given even another two minutes of thought to being
with a woman who cheerfully spent nearly a quarter of their vacation time “shopping.” I could only imagine what this said about her values and what she’d be like in five years, to say nothing of twenty-five years.
How blind and innocent of a word like shopping we can be at the tender age of twenty-two or two-four, or even forty-four I suppose if we can’t put down a hammer long enough to see what a woman is really saying.
From time to time I wonder if people as young as this couple even see me, or if they ever have a single thought about what I or someone my age might be doing. Alone. A table away eating, drinking, pointing my camera, letting my eyes wander
over one and all. On these trips I have often talked to young people, and I will do so for as long as they will engage me. What strikes me about so many of them—all of them, it seems—is their utter lack of curiosity. Never a question
aimed at me of the sort: What do you think of Malaysia or Kuala Lumpur? Where have you gone and had what might be called adventure? Why do you travel alone and for so long? What do you do with your days and nights? There is almost never a question
about what I do, or have done, or why I find myself in Malaysia or India or Laos or…
But of course it is the same at the university where I teach. I can give a lecture course to 350 students and in the span of ten weeks get no more than a single question or two, if that, about something I have said. Or a claim I have made,
sometimes a claim or an assertion that might strike any thinking person as wrong, or outrageous.
Is all of this utter and relentless self-absorption by young people? And perhaps by people two and three times twenty too? Is it thought impolite to ask questions as I ask questions of everyone who crosses my path, or of those I am sitting
with after inviting myself to their table solely to be able to talk about whatever they want to talk about? And to spray them with questions at every pause or interlude about themselves and what they’re up to, my agenda. To learn in this
case about a young woman spending three days of a two-week vacation shopping; and then allow myself the luxury of sitting back and wondering what that says about her, about her boyfriend, about this woman twenty or thirty years into the future
when she has three kids and looks like a blimp, and wants to once again go abroad on a vacation to go shopping.
Maybe some of these people, all the people that I invite myself into their lives on these trips, would say that I am a boor, an intruder, lacking common courtesies. Like, man, can’t you mind your own fxxxing business? Well, no I can’t.
I simply have this urge, seemingly uncontrollable most of the time when traveling, to get one more story. Be forced to think about the words, the gestures, what is not said by people I have never met before and know nothing about. To bring to
the table of the moment everything that comes to mind, asking simple and innocent questions. Well, I lie about this; my questions to anyone are rarely innocent and without forethought about what I’m after. I always have an agenda, and it
grows and mutates with each answer, each frown, each look of surprise. Each unguarded revelation.
Do I care if any of these people later talk about my inviting themselves into their lives without even knowing their names? Or giving them mine? I’m nearly certain that I rarely if ever bring these kinds of thoughts to mind. I simply
couldn’t give a rat’s ass about how anyone feels about my intrusiveness. Is this how all seasoned journalists and good anthropologists who get the real goods feel?
I guess it’s fair to ask if I’m simply a voyeuristic predator, always on the prowl to get complete strangers to reveal something revealing about their lives, their inner thoughts, their successes, their failings. And then, to
boot, not tell them what I am up to, or that I will more often than not write up something about the conversations we had and rarely be concerned about their privacy, unless I give a promise to that effect. Or my right to not just ask the kinds
of questions I do but to then write up what I have heard, rarely forgetting the telling detail.
But, yes, curiosity. Why is there so little of it in the people I meet when I travel, when I teach, when I go about my ordinary life at home doing the most ordinary things? And why do I feel compelled to get curious about what all these breathing
bodies around me who belong to the same species have on their minds, are eager in fact to reveal to a perfect stranger about whom they know nothing? A person who will lie to them about what he does and is and his motive for asking what he’s
asking—a question that comes at me from no more than one in fifty people that I interview without ever letting on that that’s what I’m doing.
Even those close to me, or as close as anyone can get to me, ask me almost nothing about my travels. Not enough to even fill a single page. Why? Are people as curious as me really a kind of freak? Am I simply living most of my life in that
tiny space called the third standard deviation? A claim about me that I have heard more than once.
And then I return from time to time, and more often of late, to a question that makes me chuckle, laugh, go for another beer. What would the university say to me if they knew that in ten years of traveling in Asia—three to four months
each year–I have written more than 800,000 words on what I have seen and felt, and a good many of these words on people, hundreds of them, that I have talked to; and to boot I have taken more than 40,000 photos in these years in Asia. Not once
have I ever asked a single person for permission to use or write about what he or she has said to me, and fewer than half a dozen times have I asked permission to take someone’s photo, and one hell of a lot of my photos are face-on shots
of people. Yes, what would the uptight university, every uptight university—and they’re all uptight in their fusty and corseted liberalism, want to say to me? Tell me in a dozen different ways that I have had no right to do what
I have done. What I cannot imagine not doing, and for as long as I can do it as I have always done it. Done it because, well, I’m just fxxxing curious about a thousand things, and especially other people’s lives and how they think
about this or that question that I will put on their plate, knowing that I am asking them to come forth with an answer they’ve not often given much thought to and thereby revealing themselves in ways that add to my library of questions
to ask, if not the person I’m with then the next one I meet.
Yes, where are all the signed permissions that the university in all of its heartfelt dead serious liberal wisdom demands? Would most certainly demand were I to have a grant of almost any kind, or using my own money and say that I was affiliated
with a university of such and such name. Signed permissions to ask questions, and of a particular kind! Imagine the studied and elusive and dishonest answers that one gets! Horseshit, two-bit “fieldwork” that no hot-trotting, self-important
academic would have the balls to admit that this is just what it is.
I have never asked anyone anywhere to sign any kind of permission to talk about anything. I don’t in all honesty even know what a university or grant-related permission form looks like.
On the road, on all these infinitely fascinating roads that I travel, I have been for years a mere and ordinary man with a name like Jack Bodie or Dan Jansen or maybe just Korski…and I just happen to own a huge hunk of valuable property
in northern California, and when in need of money to do what I do and now cannot do without I sell a piece of it. There is no story about how I got the land or just how much I have or even if I live on it—though I have no problem with a
brief run of lies of three or four sentences here and there if I just happen to be with someone with a little curiosity. My brief tale told, I am on to my next question, always anticipatory, always eager for what I might hear and learn, even when
full of alcohol and sleep deprived.
I wonder if one reason you have found youngsters don't ask questions or challenge you is somehow related to political correctness, where asking a pointed question may be considered critical of someone's choices and as such is un-PC. And being considered un-PC is something most youngsters wish to avoid.