It sounds almost unbelievable, but a number of US citizens are deciding to cash out of the elusive ‘American dream’ as they settle down in foreign places, such as Vietnam, where many of them were once loathed as invaders.
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. For many Americans, those names invoke powerful memories and images of unspeakable violence, and perhaps the last places on earth to consider visiting. Yet not only are more US veterans and retirees visiting Southeast Asia, an increasing number have decided to call it home. The reason? Many point to affordable healthcare, cheap rent and a rising standard of living.
“Aging American boomers are living a lifestyle reminiscent of Florida, Nevada and Arizona, but in Vietnam,” the Los Angeles Times recently reported. “Monthly expenses here rarely exceed $2,000, even to live in a large unit…including the help of a cook and a cleaner.”
That just might be the mother of all ironies. Retired US soldiers and average American retirees would rather take their chances living abroad among their erstwhile enemies than trying to make ends meet on their pensions back home in the US. That doesn’t say much about the condition of capitalism in America. Indeed, let’s not forget that Vietnam is socialist, which is about as close to a four-letter swear word in the US as you can get. Yet none of that seems to matter to the new arrivals, some of whom were sent to the Asian jungles many years ago to help eradicate the ideological convictions of Washington’s sworn enemy.
Although the Vietnamese government won’t reveal the exact number of American veterans and retirees now living permanently in the country, it is no secret the country has relaxed its visa requirements for many foreign citizens, Americans included. Cambodia, another nation that suffered immensely during the war years, is also proving to be very accommodating to foreigners with pensions to spend.
As way of anecdotal evidence, I reached out to an American acquaintance of mine – I will call him ‘John’ since he requested to remain anonymous – who has been living in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) for the last five years with his Vietnamese wife who he met while studying at university. Since relocating to Vietnam, he has noticed a “definite” increase in the number of foreigners, especially among Americans, and all of them seem to have different stories to tell.
“Many of them served in Vietnam and wanted to reconnect to a place that had such an emotional impact on their lives, others are retirees who wanted some adventure and decided to visit this part of the world, never guessing they would end up staying,” he said, while emphasizing that the country surprises many visitors. “Not only are the Vietnamese friendly and accommodating, but food, rent and public services like healthcare are extremely affordable. Plus, you are never far away from beautiful beaches.”
More bang for the buck
For some US veterans and retirees, those factors are proving irresistible as they are coming around to the grim conclusion that their monthly pensions and Social Security benefits barely cover the necessities. Unless they were able to scrimp and save during their working or warring years – and statistics indicate the majority could not – then they may be in for a surprise.
Although Donald Trump recently introduced legislation that extends medical coverage to more US veterans, the plan is already straining under the pressure to accommodate everyone who qualifies. That’s bad news for millions of veterans, many of whom desperately need physical and mental treatment. To underscore their problems, an estimated 17 veterans are committing suicide every single day.
In fact, the total number of suicides among veterans has increased four of the last five years on record, according to the Military Times. Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than Americans who never served in the military. For female veterans, the likelihood of suicide is 2.2 times greater.
Would moving to a more affordable place – like Southeast Asia – ease their tensions? It seems that an increasing number of US veterans and retirees are willing to take the risk and find out, despite the painful legacy of the Vietnam War, which deeply scarred Americans and Vietnamese alike.
Between March 1965 and May 1975, over 50,000 US soldiers (and many times more on the opposing side among civilians and soldiers) lost their lives as part of Washington’s bungling effort to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
According to Vietnam’s official statistics, up to 2 million civilians lost their lives on both sides of the protracted conflict.
Today, many Americans must be asking themselves a simple question: was all that death and destruction on both sides of the war really worth it? Even for those who survived the protracted war, they received no hero’s welcome back home. In fact, they were largely shunned by society. Meanwhile, thousands of these veterans still suffer the physical and psychological effects of combat, yet cannot receive the minimal amount of medical care. Now, the former killing fields not only look more attractive, they have become home for many.
Will future generations of Americans learn the lesson of this terrible tragedy? If history teaches Americans anything, it is that it will always be repeated.
One of my family’s favorite things to do is wander the neighborhoods of Tokyo. The narrow streets, filled with colorful visual, olfactory, and aural details, never fail to fill me with a sense of wonder. Yesterday one of my daughters showed me a YouTube Channel called Nippon Wandering TV. The person who runs the channel uses a high resolution GoPro (strapped to his chest or head, I guess) and walks through different Tokyo neighborhoods at different times of the day. He doesn’t narrate the videos, and I’m glad he doesn’t, because it’s nice to hear the sounds of the streets — talking, cars, music, etc. Each video is about 30 minutes long.
I’d had enough. It was October 2017, and I’d been wondering what the point of my job was for far too long, and while I’m sure there was something meaningful somewhere and to someone in what I was doing day-to-day, it had certainly lost meaning for me. For all the good that writing another academic research paper would do, I thought I might as well be cycling to Bhutan.
The idea of cycling to this small country nestled in the Himalayan foothills is one I’d had for many years. Bhutan is famous for deciding to value its population’s happiness and well-being over economic growth. As an academic researcher focused on understanding happiness and well-being, the journey looked to me to be something of a pilgrimage.
Before I quit, I’d spent more than ten years at different universities, trying to understand what the most important contributors were to well-being. But what I found was that I was burnt out. Given the nature of my research, the irony of this was not lost on me. I needed to do something different. I wanted to travel; to explore and understand happiness through a non-academic lens. But I wanted to connect the research I’d been doing over the years with what was happening, or indeed not happening, in the world.
Purpose and meaning
When I began my research, I was motivated by the importance of the subject. Most people I knew wanted to be happy and so, I thought, my research might help people to do that. I did what academics are incentivized to do: publish in the best peer-reviewed journals (indexed by academic readership and citation counts), as well as bring in research funds. I also did things such as engage with people outside of academia that might not ordinarily read my research – the public, the media, governments, policymakers – things I wasn’t always incentivized to do, but nevertheless did because they contributed to a personal sense of purpose and meaning.
When it comes to living happy and fulfilled lives, we humans need meaning, we need purpose. People who feel there is a deeper purpose and meaning in what they are doing in their day-to-day lives tend to be happier, healthier, and more satisfied. Research shows, for example, that a life orientated towards meaning brings greater satisfaction than a life oriented toward hedonic pleasure. Those that have a strong sense of purpose in life live longer, and having a strong sense of purpose may be just as good for your health as engaging in regular exercise. Some would even conceive that purpose is, by definition, a key aspect of happiness itself.
Work is an important source of purpose and meaning for many people. When people get made redundant or become unemployed, much of the loss in well-being they experience is often due to the loss of purpose and meaning, rather than the loss of income. Even if there is no deeper personal purpose and meaning in the actual work itself then there is much to value in our daily social interactions and the structure that work provides us, although they are easily overlooked.
It is purpose and meaning that helps people get up each day and it doesn’t necessarily have to be specifically about work. Purpose and meaning can take many different forms and is deeply personal. It might be looking after family, following a hobby, passion, or faith. Purpose and meaning is also an important source of resilience, helping people get through the difficulty and challenges that are an inevitable part of life.
The importance of purpose and meaning is well recognised. In the UK, for example, one of the four questions that the government’s Office for National Statistics asks in its Well-Being Survey is: “Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?” To which people are asked to respond on a scale from zero “not at all” to ten, “completely”. In the UK the mean score to this question is about 7.8, suggesting people feel their lives are relatively worthwhile. However, there is variation around this mean. Around 15% of the population answer a score of six or less on this question and this level has been relatively stable.
Walking the talk, being authentic
It has always felt important to me to apply my research findings to my own life. My research consistently showed that once basic needs are met, having more money is only weakly related to happiness and well-being, relative to other things such as relationships, health (mental and physical), and our personality characteristics. Taking this on board, I have decided not to take better paying jobs or strive for promotion (one of my first ever published papers demonstrated that promotion can have detrimental effects on one’s mental health) for the sake of it. Instead, I tried to create a life where I had more space to focus on those aspects of life I knew to be the most important for well-being.
Another important contributor to our well-being is something psychologists term authenticity. Authenticity reflects our tendency to live in line with our beliefs and values rather the demands of others, of society. So in following what I believed to be true from the research I and others were doing I was doubly rewarded; I was happier.
I felt despondent. What was the point in writing another academic paper? Perhaps, I thought, I ought to be doing something a bit different. Not only to rediscover meaning and purpose, but to continue striving for an authentic existence and, through that, perhaps a little more happiness too. It was then that I finally decided that it was time to leave my full-time job at the university and to start my cycling odyssey to Bhutan.
A kingdom of happiness
We might not hear about them very often, but there are actually many places in the world where economic growth is not so overtly favoured above other things. It might be just a few people who have decided to live together and put their well-being above economic gain; there are small communities, towns and cities already doing this. But in the case of an entire country – Bhutan – the stated central aim of government is to increase happiness and well-being.
In 1972, the fourth king of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, first expressed the idea in an interview. He said: “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” Initially, Gross National Happiness was a concept rooted in the country’s spiritual traditions, and government policies would be evaluated based on their supposed influence on well-being rather than its economic effect.
Back in 1972, however, there was little in the way of reliable metrics to compute the influence of a policy on well-being. So the idea of increasing happiness remained more of a philosophical concept. Nevertheless, the happiness concept became embedded in the policy-making process. Some of the decisions that arose from this approach included a ban on television (up until 1999), making tobacco illegal, and restricting tourism to preserve the country’s culture.
The Bhutanese have since developed a Gross National Happiness Index to measure the country’s collective level of well-being – this has been the government’s goal since its constitution was enacted in 2008. The index has direct links to policy making and it is meant to provide incentives for the government, non-governmental organisations, and businesses to operate in ways that increase the happiness index. For example, environmental protection is enshrined in its constitution, which puts a limit on profitable industries such as logging.
Nevertheless, the case of Bhutan continues to inspire conversations as to what should be the purpose of society and how countries can measure success. Bhutan also illustrates what might just be possible if there were the political will.
The journey, not the destination
Against this backdrop, I set off from the UK in October 2017 with the barest of essentials packed onto a bicycle and my route, you might say, has been circuitous. As I write I am in Canada, and it was important for me to travel across South and North America, as I wanted to pass through other places that, much like Bhutan, are exploring new ways of living and where the economy does not necessarily dominate political and social life.
I also wanted to visit Canada, which has an exemplary national index of well-being that was developed in conjunction with citizens. It was developed as a bottom-up process with clear and direct links to policy. From a research perspective we know that autonomy and having a voice is important for well-being and I have learnt from personal experience how important it is to feel heard.
I’ve flown some of the way (across oceans) but cycled most of it in a bid to make the journey authentic and purposeful. Not only did I think cycling would be good for my own well-being (physical and mental) but because it is a form of travel that has minimal ecological impact and therefore would not harm the well-being of those around me. Plus, my experiences traveling on a bicycle before I began this journey showed me that it is a fantastic way to meet people. It is a fairly unusual form of travel in some parts of the world and it draws interest and builds connections.
People can often make a place. I knew that the people I met would form an important part of my trip and I wanted to create long lasting connections, which are of course an important component of a happy life. These connections have come through sharing experiences of what it means to be happy – sharing my own research and personal experiences of happiness and also being willing to hear about the experiences of others, from the people I have met in the street and the plazas to the people making policy decisions.
There are many people who are interested in implementing programmes and happiness policies into their own lives and the lives of others as a means to genuinely promote happiness and well-being in the area where they live.
When I spoke with people involved in policy decisions in Costa Rica, for example, we discussed the country’s involvement in the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. This is an organisation that resembles the G7 group of countries, but rather than a focus on the size of the economy, these countries – including Costa Rica, Scotland, New Zealand and Slovenia, among others – aim to promote well-being.
My journey has been undeniably amazing on a personal level. Each day can bring something different, unexpected, challenging, and that demands a lot psychologically. Suddenly I might find myself in the home of a person I met in a plaza sharing food with their family. The next day I could find myself sitting in my tent alone but in the company of a beautiful night sky. There have been some truly special moments and, through these, I have often felt happy and learnt many interesting things about myself. For example, that I am much more than just an academic, and that sometimes what we perceive ourselves to be can limit what we can be.
Yet it has not been easy, and has definitely not been a holiday. My journey has involved a substantial amount of physical effort and at times deep challenge. About two months into my trip I got bitten by a street dog in a tiny village in Peru. The need to deal with the physical effects aside (treating the wound, getting to a hospital, getting vaccinations), the experience reallyaffected me psychologically.
I wanted to come home. I was struggling to find the emotional strength I needed to get through. I felt alone. But I persevered and I put my ability to do so down to eventually finding the support I needed (both locally and from back home), as well as having that clear sense of purpose.
I’m glad I persevered with the journey as all the other experiences I’ve since that incident and the people I have met have been enormously enriching and given me a greater feeling of wholeness. Plus, an important part of happiness is dealing with adversity and building resilience for when difficult things happen, as they inevitably do.
Now, I’m in Canada and, in truth, I’m surprised I’ve made it this far. I often wonder whether I’ll ever actually make it to Bhutan; there are many more mountains to climb and seas to cross. Lately, I’ve been having a difficult time on the road – it’s been a year and I deeply miss the surroundings of home, friends and family.
Maybe I don’t actually need to go all the way to Bhutan. Maybe what I’ve done is enough. Either way, I can rest assured that happiness is found in the journey – not the destination.
Here it is – my short film about North Korea. No need to drag it, to prolong it – let’s just watch it all together:
The Faces of North Korea
This is my 25-minutes piece about the DPRK (North Korea) – country that I visited relatively recently; visited and loved, was impressed with, and let me be frank – admired.
I don’t really know if I could call this a ‘documentary’. Perhaps not. A simple story, you know: I met a girl, tiny and delicate, at the roller-skating ring in Pyongyang. How old was she? Who knows; perhaps four or five. She was first clinging to her mom, then to a Korean professor Kiyul, even to a former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Then she began skating away, waving innocently, looking back at me, at us, or just looking back…
Suddenly I was terribly scared for her. It was almost some physical fear. Perhaps it was irrational, like panic, I don’t know…
I did not want anything bad to happen to her. I did not want the US nukes start falling all around her. I did not want her to end up like those poor Vietnamese or Iraqi or Afghan children, victims of the Western barbarism; of the chemical weapons, depleted uranium, or cluster bombs. I did not want her to starve because of some insane sanctions pushed through the UN by spiteful maniacs who simply hate “the Others”.
And so, I produced a short film, about what I saw in North Korea. A film that I made for, dedicated to, that little girl at the roller-skating ring in Pyongyang.
When I was filming, collecting footage in DPRK, the war, an attack from the West or from Japan or South Korea, looked possible, almost likely.
When, some time later, I was editing, in Beirut, with a Lebanese editor, US President Donald Trump was threatening to “take care of the North Korea”. What he meant was clear. Trump is a ‘honest man’. In the film I call him ‘a manager’. He may not be an Einstein, but he usually says what he means, at each given moment. You know, the Yakuza-style.
Now when I am releasing this humble work of mine, things look brighter after the Singapore Summit, although I really do not trust the West, after more than 500 years of barbaric colonialist wars and crusades. The ‘manager’ is perhaps honest when he says that now he likes President Kim, but then again, tomorrow he could be ‘honest’ again, declaring that he changed him mind and wants to break his arm.
Time to hurry, I feel. Time to hurry and to show to as many people as possible, how beautiful North Korea is, and how dignified its people are.
I can “sell” footage or “sell rights” and make some money for my other internationalist projects, but the whole thing would get delayed, and only limited number of people would see it in such case.
By releasing it like this, through one of my favorite media outlets in the world – New Eastern Outlook – the film will make nothing, zero, but I guess it is my duty to do it this way. Hopefully, the piece will be seen by many and the pressure on the West and on Japan will grow – pressure to stop intimidation of the people who already suffered so tremendously much!
If someone wants to support my films, including my works in progress (two big documentary films I am working on right now, one about Afghanistan after almost two decades of the NATO occupation, another about almost total environmental destruction in Kalimantan/Borneo), it can be done here. But no pressure. Just enjoy this particular film and other films that I will be soon and gradually releasing.
In the meantime, North Korea is standing.
While the West is calculating, what to do next. I don’t have a good feeling about all this. I hope I am wrong. I hope this is just a beginning of the serious peace process…
But I guess I have seen too many ruins of the cities, of countries and entire continents. Most of them were bombed, reduced to rubble after various ‘peace processes’. Mostly the bombs and missiles began flying after some sound agreements were reached and signed.
I don’t want the same thing to happen to North Korea. I don’t want this girl whom I spotted at the roller-skating ring, to vanish.
What I did this time is not much, but it is something. In this dangerous situation, almost everything counts. Let’s all do “something”, even if it is just a tiny bit. Rain is made of water drops, but it can stop a big fire. This time let us try to stop the madness.
It was May 19, 2012 and a young and determined Canadian was proudly standing on top of the world after an agonizingly slow climb up Mount Everest. Shriya Shah-Klorfine had reached the summit. But in the hours that followed, things would go dreadfully wrong and she would perish, like hundreds before her, high up in Everest’s “Death Zone.”
Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent of Everest almost 60 years ago, it has been an irresistible fascination for aspiring mountaineers. Hundreds make the attempt every year, and many don’t make it. This year was no exception as hundreds made their way to the summit even as worrying signs pointed to trouble. Among them was Shriya Shah-Klorfine, the cheerful and energetic Torontonian. She had never climbed a mountain before, and despite warnings from her friends, husband, and seasoned Everest sherpas, she was climbing the world’s highest peak, determined to succeed. In this 2012 documentary, Bob McKeown travels to Nepal and pieces together what happened with exclusive never-before-seen video of Shah-Klorfine’s final hours on Everest. the fifth estate uncovers startling information about her deadly climb into the icy oxygen-thin expanse of Everest known as the Death Zone.
Turkey has warned its citizens to revise their travel plans to the US or act with caution if they go ahead with a trip, according to the foreign ministry.
A statement on Friday cited risks of “terrorist” attacks as well as arbitrary arrests in Turkey’s Western ally.
“It has been observed that there is a recent increase in terrorist and violent attacks in the US,” the foreign ministry said, referring to several deadly incidents over the past few months.
“Attacks by vehicles being driven on crowds, in addition to bomb and gun attacks, are likely to continue to target city centres, cultural events, subway stations, state buildings, places of warship and school campuses,” the statement continued, adding that there is also a risk of arbitrary arrest for Turkish citizens travelling to the US.
It added that the New York City subway pipe bomb attack in December was “an example of far-right/racist incidents”.
The ministry also warned of alleged “arbitrary arrests” of Turkish citizens, including public servants travelling to the US for official duty.
The move came after the US announced a new travel advisoryon Wednesday and named Turkey as a country with an “increased security risk” along with Sudan, Pakistan and Guatemala.
Separately, Turkey summoned senior US diplomat Philip Kosnett to the foreign affairs in Ankara on Thursday over Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Tensions have been simmering between Washington and Ankara for some time.
In October, the two NATO allies were involved in a visa dispute, motivated both by Washington’s concern over Ankara’s Syria policy, and by the arrest of a US embassy employee who allegedly had information on American involvement in the 2016 failed coup attempt.
A 100-year-old ghost town founded during the California Gold Rush is being modernized for the “green rush” after a cannabis company purchased all the land, buildings and businesses for $5 million.
On Thursday, American Green, a marijuana technology company, announced they purchased a small town in San Bernardino County with the intention of turning it into the “the country’s first energy-independent, cannabis-friendly hospitality destination.”
“The Cannabis Revolution that’s going on here in the US, has the power to completely revitalize communities in the same way gold did during the 19th century,” David Gwyther, chairman and president of American Green, said in the announcement.
Located on the border of Nevada and California, the desert town of Nipton has a population of around 20 people, according to the Los Angeles Times. The town also comes with its own water supply, a general store, an RV park, a campground and a five-room hotel from 1904.
Last year, the previous owner, Gerald Freeman, placed the entire town on the market for $5.2 million dollars because he was too old to maintain it anymore. He told the Las Vegas Journal-Review that he wanted to sell it to “someone who’s committed to sustainability of the human race.”
American Green, the largest and second oldest publicly traded cannabis company in the US, said they bought the town as part of a 120-acre land purchase. The company plans to keep the existing structures intact and build new ones that they hope will attract tourists and boost the local economy.
“This acquisition allows us to channel the myriad interests in cannabis production and consumption for an immediate positive impact to this community’s members and to cannabis consumers across the country,” Gwyther said in a statement.
The company said it will start by bottling and distributing water infused with Cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabis compound that is believed to have medical benefits without making people feel “stoned.” Then, the company plans to spend $2.5 million over the next 18 months to revitalize the town, according to Bloomberg.
The company wants to develop the nearby aquifer system and expand the town’s existing solar farm to create a completely energy-independent town.
Tony Castrignano, who is the owner of the realty company making the sale, told the Las Vegas Journal Review that the current photovoltaic system provides up to 45 percent of the energy the town needs.
Ultimately, the company plans to host other marijuana-friendly businesses and events in town, including CBD and mineral baths, cannabis-product retail outposts, artists-in-residence programs, culinary events and Bed-and-Breakfast lodging.
Project manager Stephen Shearin said he hopes the work they are doing in Nipton will inspire other companies.
“We thought that showing that there was a viable means of having a cannabis-friendly municipality and further making it energy independent could be a way of really inspiring folks to say, ‘Why can’t we do that here?’” Shearin told Bloomberg.
Shearin said he wants to “create a community that is accepting and understanding” of marijuana use.
“The [idea] here isn’t to create ‘Woodstock 2017,'” Shearin said. “It’s about creating an environment where people come to work and share in a community.”
Both Nevada and California are among the four US states to have legalized marijuana. The drug is still illegal under federal law.
“Our citizens should know the urgent facts…but they don’t because our media serves imperial, not popular interests. They lie, deceive, connive and suppress what everyone needs to know, substituting managed news misinformation and rubbish for hard truths…”—Oliver Stone