When asked why I chose to study at Chiang Mai University – my answer begins with “Well, I was young” as if my university was some kind of drug I decided to quit.
Thomas went to Stanford. At the time I was seeing him Stanford was ranked number three on the World University Rankings by Times Higher Education – the Billboard charts for education that universities are obsessed with.
“I could have gone to the National University of Singapore, too.” I said, referring the top ranked university in Southeast Asia that only English-speaking people care about. “But it was the baby panda that made me decide on CMU.” The year I enrolled for my university course, the star-studded Chiang Mai Zoo announced the birth of a baby panda – Lin Bing – and the whole nation gone crazy.
For me Lin Bing was a big deal. The university could be hidden in the woods where students would get a degree rewarding our survival. I wouldn’t mind as long as I could walk around campus and being greeted by a peacock or stopping my bike to feed a deer knowing that I could always buy a ticket using my student discount to visit Lin Bing.
World-ranking universities weren’t in my equation back then. I wasn’t impressed even when I learned that Thomas went to Stanford—the only thing that came to mind was their infamous prison experiment. Strangely it was what happened to Thomas and myself.
Thomas and I signed up to play Escape Game (the popular real-life puzzle game in which you are locked in a room and have to work your way out of it using clues to find the key to unlock the escape door). Vaguely similar to Stanford prison experiment—we were two people from different education backgrounds locked up in the same room and forced to help each other to solve puzzles to win the game. At the outset, made me start to question the credibility and what else I can make out of my third-world university degree.
The room was called “The Motel” in which the storyline described as ‘a team of forensic scientists were sent to investigate the murder of a woman in an isolated motel.’ Thomas and I had 45 minutes to find the clues and solve all the puzzles to win. Thomas was excited and as soon as we found the first clue he was all over it and taking the role of the lead forensic scientist.
The first clue was written on a paper. It has four lines of some kind of symbols with the equation signs. Even in the dark room that resembled the apartment hallway, I could tell that we have to solve numeral puzzle. We just needed to sit down and make sense of these symbols and use this as the passcode to enter the motel room. My guess, it was serial number. But something else was going on in Thomas’s mind. When I tried express a thought, he shot a look at me which seemed to broadcast the message “I went to Stanford, therefore I should lead.”
He then proceeded to take notes and draw mind-maps on his Samsung phone and I was a mere observer. I was nervously checking my watch, while Einstein was solving the puzzle. After three attempts and almost ten minutes has passed, I then suggested calling the staff for a hint. But Thomas refused and my idea was brought to his attention for the first time. Five more minutes had passed and we are still stuck on the first puzzle. The staff monitoring us outside on the CCTV must be laughing. We asked for a hint after we attempted another passcode and failed. The staff guided us toward finding the passcode. Although my answer was incorrect, what we needed was just a basic knowledge of serial numbers.
The clues were obvious and often times straight forward. One was a white rose in a suitcase – which should be the clue to unlock the combination lock using four English letter word. Before I got a hold on the combination lock, Thomas snatched the lock from me, “Wait! Why is the rose white? It must mean something.”
“It is rose! R-O-S-E Goddamn it. Give me the lock!” I interjected.
And, yes, I was right.
And, yes, we couldn’t make it out in time.
I called him an idiot at some point…
In retrospect, it was our combined or in this case disjointed thought process that happened during the game that mesmerized me. While his focus on theoretical thinking only contribute to wasted time; my practical thinking, on the other hand, solved most of the puzzles.
His university aimed to create thinkers and innovators with ability to lead for the powerful United States. Mine was mainly focus on creating workforces to keep up with the challenge of tight economics in Southeast Asian countries. What happened to us in the room is what would happen in real life when CEOs roll up their sleeves to work with their employees who were supposed to get them out of this room. For sure, in a different circumstances, his strategic thinking would be much useful.
Lin Bing has grown up and being sent to China – the thrilled is gone. My days of animal watching and freewheeling lifestyle are behind me. Thomas is now a lead computer engineer working at a respected tech company in San Francisco and he’d prove his intelligence by ghosting me. He left me in the dust with his theoretical thinking compared to my proud practical thinking; my third-world university degree that seemed to get me nowhere.
Then an opportunity to work for Uber turned up, and I turned it down. With that decision (even after a friend who worked at Uber said to me that I made a good decision, and the company is in deep with loads of scandals and recently the subject of a massive data breach), turning down a job offer from one of the big tech giants who gave an opportunity to me made me think ‘Is it the university degree that I think is useless, or is it me?’
At 27, how much longer can I afford to look back at my poor decisions and said, “Well I was young…”?
There’s an awesome quote from a Guinness advert that say ‘we are the choices that we made.’ Surely, Thomas would become one of the cautionary tales of a successful person who has lost his way and morphed into a cookie-cutter molded corporate zombie who speaks jargons and manipulates people. And I would spend the rest of my working years trying to find the perfect escape from that motel room.
Sam Nathapong is a writer and lifestyle journalist living in Bangkok. Twitter @