Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. David Owen, Associate Professor of Government Political Affairs and International Studies at Millersville University. With his military and cultural background, Dr. Owen shed some light on his journey to becoming a professor at Millersville.
I started off the interview by diving into his military background and whether this experience impacted his interest in studying the Asian region.
Dr. Owen explained, “I joined the military when I was 17, right out of high school.” As a summer baby, he had the option to either go one year ahead or one year behind, and his parents chose to send him to school one year early. This allowed him to graduate at the young age of 17.
“I grew up in a southern Virginia, ultra conservative community where almost 100 percent of the people were of the southern Baptist faith. So, for me, joining the military, not only being exposed to people who are different in the military itself, but also to the different religious persuasions, was something I’d never really been exposed to up to that point.”
Dr. Owen spent about ten years in the U.S. Air Force where he was stationed in various countries, including South Korea and Japan, and described this as an “eye-opening experience on so many levels.” He also completed his undergraduate and masters while in military service.
“The military, I think, gives you options where you may not have them. For me in particular, the military intentionally teaches you to suffer, in many cases for no reason other than to teach you the skill. I think with that, it prepares you especially as you go through basic training, to sort of deal with the world. There’s a lot of suffering in the world. For all the problems and the conflicts America gets involved in, in many ways, you personally being in the military get to see the suffering. You get to see people on either their worst day or next to their worst day, and you have to deal with it. The suffering the military makes you do is necessary,” Dr. Owen explained.
“I think what more Americans need to understand is that the suffering in much of the global south is far different than here. So no matter how much the military tried to prepare me and others like me, there is only so much you can do. Being from America we really don’t have an understanding of what extreme poverty looks like. Not only do individuals not have resources for basic necessities, like food and medical care, but even if they had the financial resources to purchase these items, they’re just simply unavailable. The country is incapable of providing that and so you suffer on at least two fronts: as an individual with or without your resources and as a country. The access to medical care is just simply not there. So being in the military you get to not only see this, but you have to engage it,” he continued.
Dr. Owen sums up his military experience as “ultimately, being in the military you’re gonna tap into that compassion that you have, you’re going to explore yourself a little bit in good ways. You may think your story is the worst. You may think maybe going into the military that I’ve had a tough life and so forth, but you’re going to see what a tough life is really like, and that was one of my greater takeaways from my military service.”
Next, I asked him what in particular made him want to become a teacher in international studies.
“When I separated from the Air Force in 1998, I decided to go to Southeast Asia. I had been there many times on duty, several times off duty, and the interesting thing I found about Southeast Asia is how for many people, these states in the global south just had problems sort of getting to the start line, in economic terms. But even with poverty defining their existence, they were still happy, they were still compassionate. The communities were strong and I just kind of, for reasons that were accidental in nature, went to Thailand after separating from service in Japan, just as a last hurrah in Asia.”
At this time, Dr. Owen had plans to return to the U.S., but after spending about a week in Bangkok, he was hooked and found himself a decade later still living there, fully immersed in the Thai culture.
“I found the people to be very kind, very compassionate. As a matter of fact in 1998, while in Bangkok during that first week, I met up with a few gentlemen who were teachers in Thailand. They convinced me to go over to Bangkok University and sit down and talk about maybe teaching for a semester, so I did. I secured a teaching position and that was my first teaching gig, so to speak. Not only did I find the people that I enjoy studying today, but also it was sort of my introduction to teaching in higher education,” said Owen.
He goes on to describe how he “enjoyed it very much” and “was pretty appreciative of that experience and also very appreciative of the military experiences too.”
“Even though I study politics and political attitudes and behavior, it’s very difficult to separate that from the culture itself. I think by spending so much time in Thailand in particular and other countries, it just really helped to reinforce that idea that culture does matter. So when you look at many of the problems in Thailand, an uninformed outside observer may say ‘why can’t they just fix that?’ But as I learned in Thailand, there are other things to consider and oftentimes they’re directly related to culture.”
“So when I think of why I am here today—when I lived there, I had a lot of questions. It seems almost every time I interacted with people, more questions formed. I began to understand that even though the output of culture looks similar, the input and process are oftentimes very different. So to not understand that necessarily means you’re probably going to misinterpret what’s going on, but to understand it is kind of cool,” Dr. Owen elaborated.
Professor Owen further explained the influence behind his teaching methods. “I enjoy understanding and explaining how and why other cultures do what they do, so that hopefully my students benefit from this. I feel like I can contribute something, I feel like I can help in some sense.”
“Being a faculty member from another country, it is very common in Thailand that faculty are simply moving from university to university: a two-year term appointment at Bangkok University, and when that concludes, you move on to a term appointment at a different university. There is a deficit of teachers, so they have a greater need for teachers than they have a supply for teachers. With that oftentimes, you end up teaching at different universities at the same time. “
This allowed Dr. Owen to interact with a multitude of students from diverse backgrounds, due to Bangkok University’s affluent student base, which he said was a “very rewarding experience.”
I also had the chance to get Dr. Owen’s impression on the country of Thailand as well as its education system.
“Thailand is a very peculiar place in that society is hierarchical in nature, and in many cases it’s extremely rigid. Thais are perfectly comfortable interacting with other Thais. Here in America, I think Americans in general can just interact with anyone…this is more commonplace in an individualistic culture. In Thailand, being collective in nature, being hierarchical, things function a lot differently,” explained Owen.
Dr. Owen continues this distinction between cultures, “When I engage in a conversation with another person, that person needs a certain amount of information in order to engage me properly. So, for one, when we look at that social hierarchy, that person needs to understand where they fit, and they also need to understand when they engage me, where I fit, and how we relate to one another.”
“When you’re a professor on a Thai campus, perhaps one of the most important things is that you look like a professor, meaning how you dress. Oftentimes there was a mandatory dress code. It was actually stated in the contract that you must wear a necktie,” stated Dr. Owen.
He described how Americans might see this example as “suppression of individuality,” when in Thailand it means something deeper. When students see their professors, they know who they are and “who defers to whom” based on how they’re dressed.
Dr. Owen gives a real life scenario of this when he was in a bank in Thailand and tried to engage with this Thai woman to see if he was in the right line. He promptly introduced himself and to his surprise she responded with “How much money do you make?” Due to his obvious confusion, he thought she misheard him and re-asked his previous question. The woman then not knowing how to respond, ran out of the bank with no explanation.
“For her, she couldn’t tell who should defer to whom, and that’s so important as the hierarchy is ingrained into who they are. I didn’t give her the information that she needed so that she could say ‘Oh you’re above me or I’m above you,’ and so the conversation just never happened,” Dr. Owen elaborated.
Dr. Owen continued, describing the defining aspect of Thailand’s education system. “This hierarchy is prominently displayed in the education system too. So that relationship between faculty and students is one of a hierarchy, the relationships all across campus are hierarchical in nature, and it is very important that people play the role. Here it is less important.”
Additionally, I asked Dr. Owen how long it took him to become accepted and accustomed to the Thai culture.
“For me, by the time I arrived in Thailand, I think my mind was already open. I had seen the suffering of a lot of people by that point in the military. One of the things I always appreciated during many of those difficult times is again the compassion of people. That, to me, is something the Thais look for. When you attempt to learn the language and engage them, I think they see it. When I look back on my relationships with my Thai colleagues, they’re very warm, very friendly, very open, and I think that type of environment encourages you to dig a little deeper when people respond so positively,” Owen responded.
“One of the reasons why I was so adamant about studying the language was because I really wanted to talk and engage them. As I did, I found that the more I was willing to engage, the more they were willing to engage,” Dr. Owen shared.
He goes on to explain his difficulty tackling the language. “Learning the language was very painful. It was a trial and error process and there’s no standardized phonetic translation system. After about a few months of trying to learn the language through a phonetic system, I just threw all that aside and focused on being able to read and write the language, and then from there I built on that. Thai is a tonal language and also everything about the language is foreign to a native English speaker.”
“When you make yourself available to them, they’re not standoffish at all and that, to me, is one of the nicest things about that country. It makes it much different from other countries that I’ve been to. They will treat you, assuming you’re willing to engage them, as one of their own,” Dr. Owen explained from personal experience.
Teaching in Thailand helped Dr. Owen confirm this was the career path he wanted to follow and, therefore, he eventually found himself back in the U.S. where he completed his doctorate before teaching at Millersville University.
Dr. Owen elaborates on why he enjoys teaching at Millersville. “One of the things I truly enjoy here that I would venture to say, I’m just not going to find anywhere else outside of Millersville University, is the courses I teach. In this particular department, faculty teach the courses they enjoy. None of my colleagues, including myself, teach classes we don’t want to teach, so I can exclusively focus on what I want to do. I enjoy teaching courses on the international realm and the Asian Pacific. Not only do I get to teach those in the political science realm, but also in the interdisciplinary realm in the international studies program.”
“Not only am I teaching what I enjoy, but it’s also relevant and students benefit in a useful way,” he continued. “When the semester breaks come, I spend that time in the Asia Pacific working on research that actually adds to the depth of my classes,” said Dr. Owen.
To end our interview, I wanted to hear about Dr. David Owen’s long term and short term goals going forward in his career.
As one of his long term goals, Dr. Owen hopes to continue teaching what he loves. “One of the things I enjoy about my job at Millersville University, is that I have the time and resources to really focus on quality engagement, in Thailand, in particular, and much of Southeast and East Asia. To be able to engage people in ways that add depth to my classes. Having the time and the resources to do that I think are just essential to my growth as a professor and to my students. I think it’s our job to become better professors.”
“One of the things I’m working on now really helps me better understand the culture. What I did last year is I worked with an organization (มหาเมตตาใหญ่) that teaches Thai values to Thai people, while reinforcing the values of kindness and compassion as not to be forgotten,” he explained.
Through this collaboration, Dr. Owen adds, “I was invited last year to come and chat about this, and to discuss certain sections in here on what it means to be Thai and my interpretation of that with Thai people. As a foreigner, being able to go to Thailand and teach Thai people the beauty of Thai culture, is an experience that very few would have.
Therefore, “one of my long term goals is to see what kind of role I can play in this localization effect of globalization,” exclaimed Owen.
As for his short term goals, Dr. Owen is reaching high and elaborated on possibly collaborating with one of his favorite Thai singers, ดา Da, in a duet. “She would have to teach me how to sing first, but I still would love to do it,” said Dr. Owen.
Dr. Owen explains the meaning behind the song as, “It’s a male/female duet and the song is about a great challenge called, ไม่รู้จักฉัน ไม่รู้จักเธอ, which simply means “I don’t know me and I don’t know you”. It’s about this breakup in a relationship. Here in American culture, when personal relationships end, people look for a victim and an aggressor, but in Thai culture none of that exists. In this particular song, ดา Da was able to capture the essence of the culture.”
In Dr. Owen’s opinion, this song represents how nobody is essentially the bad guy in a relationship. Individuals just simply mature and change over time. The suffering element which is such a crucial part in the Thai culture, is also expressed throughout this song.
Hopefully Dr. Owen will be able to live out his dream as a Thai superstar in the near future.