Sunday, December 21, 2008

Social Mobility and Transportation

I am so enjoying this blog space (Nation Weblog) because so many ideas are being thrown at me from my fellow bloggers.  Thanks to Massein for this one.
Tricycles, bicycles, tuk tuks, buses (public and private), affordable efficient/clean railway systems, cheap taxis, pickup trucks, ten wheelers, cheap cars, brand name cars, anyone being able to move from the center to the periphery or from periphery to center in about 12 hours, and pedestrians claiming the roads when they feel the need, are pretty much vibrant representatives of social mobility.  Not only physically moving themselves around but actually moving between their symbolic and social positions as well.
Next time my dear readers have a chance to travel to a strange place, try to notice how people have different behaviors on their roads.  I've found it can provide some interesting insights into a society's social mobility.  
Like when I went to Beijing, that was one of my first eye opener on the meaning of roads. I realized, "Oh, bicycles (armies of them) have the same rights to roads here as cars do, as do the pedestrians zig zagging between the bics and cars, cool!"  I had a ball when I travelled their country side and discovered that even their grain had a right to dry out on interstate highways.  When I was in India in the early nineties, I felt I stepped back in time because all the cars seemed to belong to another era, now I expect it to be totally different.  In Thailand, I love it when the buffaloes come out on the roads in Isaan (sadly that doesn't happen much anymore).  In the middle east, I loved the Bedouin and their sheep pressing against our car.  In Singapore, I was careful not to cross a driver's path.  In Montreal, I learnt that you don't need to wait at the red light when there were no cars approaching because over 5 minutes in that kind of cold can severely damage your heath.  In Mexico, it was amazing to travel one of the world's oldest and longest subway for only 30 cents, but I learnt that I needed to cultivate a special awareness when traveling in their taxis and peseros.  Living on Mexico City's main avenue, Reforma, which can be seen from the airplane as you enter the city from the south (one of which crashed recently close to this same main avenue as I mentioned in an earlier blog), I have witnessed poeple in thousands and on rare occasions a million, claiming their road with marches, football victory celebrations, religious pilgramage, parades, and even regular Sunday closure for bicycle enthusiasts.  After crossing the US-Canada border with both Greyhound and Amtrack, hearing the fascinating story from an Amtrack employee about how the railway expanded in the US and how Walmart's inventory doesn't sit in a warehouse but are constantly moving on those rails was both impressionable and a discovery about humanity's ingenuity to conquer the lands.
When you see that a country has so many transportation modes, that its people have the confidence to claim the roads in so many ways, you can be pretty sure that is a lot of social mobility going on, again it is not simply the movement of people, it is people moving between positions in societies, up and even down.  Like when I saw the homeless in sleeping bags on the streets of Toronto in the middle of winter, that's a pretty depressing down to see.  Some of whom were interviewed only to reveal that they actually didn't need to be there but it was their choice to turn their backs on their society, makes you wonder what went wrong.
Then come back to where you started your journey and you will be able to see how vibrant the road is where you are.  
There's the taxi driver whose sister was a hairdresser who bought the business and then the taxi he was driving.  There's the monk stepping up onto the bus finding a free education that brings him away from the country into the city who may one day receive the veneration of even the highest of the social class.  There're the young, innocent teenagers taking the skytrain securely to their public schools who may one day discover the cure to cancer or design a solar car.  There are huge transportation trucks trucking goods to remote areas and bringing back to commercial centers products to be sold on the international market, some of which ranks first in world exports.  There are businessmen flaunting their new riches in Mercedes Benz who have hired hundreds of people to grow his business who are now re-adjusting their worldview questioning the obvious limits of growth.  
Don't tell me that there is little social mobility in Thailand, you may not have allowed your eyes to witness and your heart to hear.  If your imagination can't help, I offer you the humble words of this great grand-daughter of traders who moved over the Mekhong river to avoid war and poverty and learned how to be farmers, whose grandfathers' volunteerism built one of the first law houses in the remote northeast, whose father through night school and his own merit became an honorable bureaucrat who blessed his daughter with an open mind to see the world, not by any deliberate personal education, by the way, just by following the flow of the social structure we all belong to.

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