January 25th 2017: The Last day at UNESCO
I woke up late today and stumbled over to work with my travel backpack on. In the office, I was greeted by a goodbye card and a round of hugs from the ICT team. Then I went out for lunch with two Thai colleagues and enjoyed their sarcastic banter about online dating and the challenges of being single. It reminded me that introverts think before they speak and extroverts, like myself, speak and think simultaneously, if they think at all. Therefore, we should listen to introverts and just hear extroverts.
My goodbye came without much fanfare, but still enough to feel appreciated. My team wasn’t present so the team next door did their best to send me off. However, we hadn’t worked together much. They knew me mostly as the footsteps creeping towards the snack drawer. Since we hadn’t worked together they couldn’t comment on my work, but liked my “contagious good spirits”.
UNESCO is a transient place where interns and consultants come and go. If I return for a visit in a year or more who knows who will still be here. I left with an official letter of completion and tons of great experiences, then I slipped out the door. And as I walked out the door a new path began.
This internship is the final part of longer path, I decided to pursue in 2014 when I started applying to Penn. A path that started before I had ever gone to Vietnam, met Tabitha, or witnessed my grandfather’s passing. Stepping into the streets of Bangkok with its tame chaos mimicked the swirl of decisions and lost chances that speed by us along our roads. Until recently, the decisions and chances ahead intimidated me.
However, I reassure myself with the understanding that I don’t lack ambition, I have fine morals, and I am responsible enough to keep my house in order. These little self-compliments are anchoring me while I figure out the next moves. I decided that during my unemployment, I will wake up, get dressed and go to work. Even if my work is just a quiet corner in a cafe. This discipline should help me from drifting into temptation. No not the ubiquitous whorehouses that infame Bangkok, but Youtube, self-doubt, and limitless distraction of travel.
I will divide my season of unemployment into three spices searching, skilling, and living. Searching means I will devote one portion of my working day to looking for work or networking, skilling means I will spend the next portion of the day teaching myself computer programs and studying online courses, and living means eating, talking to Trinh, and working out. This is my plan for self-discipline during the interim between jobs.
Before this starts, I’m joining the world’s largest mass migration and heading to Vietnam for ten days to celebrate Tet/Lunar New Year with Trinh’s family. The world’s largest migration is people returning home for Lunar New Year in the Sinosphere (China, Taiwan, HK, Vietnam, and Singapore). I am also going to scout out some networking opportunities in Vietnam. My UNESCO manager is supportive of the idea that I network as much as possible within Vietnam and try to specialize in that market rather than the regional work in Thailand. I like this idea, but have grown accustom to the comforts of Thailand. Which is why I need this trip to reconnect with Vietnam and decide where to throw my hat. This time Vietnam gives US citizens one-year tourist visas. Last time I went through all sorts of gray deals to get four tourist visas per year.
I landed in Vietnam and beasted the visa line with experience in the abysmal line to get a visa and with my fine-tuned mental map of the airport, I jumped over seats and ran down hallways to get my visa first, then efficiently passed through immigration and exchanged money all in one intentional act. I thought to myself, “damn I became the internationalist like I wanted to” Then I got in the car with Trinh and her dad. I made my best effort to talk with her dad in Viet and admire the city’s neon lights.
Having not been in Vietnam since October, I saw the place through renewed eyes, not fresh eyes of wonder but more experienced eyes of comparison. I realize how much poorer and more disorganized Sai Gon is than Bangkok. I re-felt the streets lit in an orange glow, the humidity of the rain evaporating into the night air, the houses that cover the sidewalk and the neon lights of shops I know all too well give awful customer service.
But the highlight was dinner with the family and admiring the new things their home and city. In Vietnam, people park their cars in their homes. Watching Trinh’s dad move the car into the house was nerve wrecking because they had built a ramp for the car up the front steps and the ramp was almost too narrow. Trinh was holding her breath that her dad wouldn’t crash his car into his own house or off the ramp. Now we are going to bed because tomorrow we drive into the country side to visit their rubber tree plantation.
January 26th: Heading to the Farm
This morning we rolled out of bed and into the car. Then we traveled with Trinh’s parents and uncle to Binh Duong. A neighboring province. We arrived at a large patch of skinny rubber trees. The farming family that lives on the land does not own it, but they sustain their economic existence off the land with cows, chickens, and their service fee for maintaining the rubber trees. Trinh and I walked through the trees and watched as the family slit the throat of, boiled, and pulled the feathers off two chickens as gifts for the new year; Year of the Rooster. Then we got back in the car with those chickens in a bag. The highlight of the trip was a friendly calf that scratched against me like a cozy cat. Then we surfed through the relentless traffic home.
Trinh parents dropped us off in the middle of the city, I now think of Sai Gon as such a tiny place. We waited for my friend Phuoc to arrive. The three of us drank coffee and talked about Phuoc’s pending move to Canada.
Phuoc is a great soul that I met months before Trinh. Phuoc is from a rural town in the Mekong delta and carries that provincial morality and work ethic with her. When I met her she lived in a room that wasn’t much bigger than 8 elevators, and she lived there with five girls. Phuoc has my complete respect because despite our enormous income gap she never tried to use my money. She also is an extremely hard worker and ambitious person. I gave Phuoc a token lucky money red envelope and she went off on her 2-hour motorbike ride back to her hometown for Tet.
Then Trinh and I paced around the city’s Tet Flower Show and watched a Tet movie in the cinema. We got entertained walking through a downtown book market took a taxi home. We talked and went to bed.
My simplest learning for the day was about rents. Although the Communists abolished private land ownership in the south in 1975, it returned to the region by the late 80s. It was interesting to see people living off of land that they didn’t own and, despite their toil to make the land productive, paying the landowner a large sum of crop yield and accepting a waged salary.
Landless farmers had been enthusiastic supporters of the Communists, now as if nothing had changed the farmers were landless again, but content because the system has in the 42 years since reunification benefited them, even if only in a small way.
And what of the American farmer? Instead of continuing the system of landless peasants, we automated the farms and employed illegal Mexicans in order to not pay them their fair wage. We gutted the human connection to farming and created a mobile landless peasantry that disappears after picking season.
Finally, the wall Trump wants to build. The wall is popular among farmers because the wall prevents Mexicans from leaving before the harvest is over and gives farmers more leverage to exploit people who cannot escape back into Mexico.
What are you talking about? It is a common practice that Mexican workers rarely are given their final pay for the picking season because the farmer is not legally obligated to pay them, they can get new people next year, and calling the border guards is a cheap way to clear a field of workers without paying their final wage. Because of this many Mexican farm labors will leave after their 2nd to last payment and not risk abuse before their final payment. Look at the Mexican labors as America’s landless and voiceless peasantry. Their inexpensive labor is the only factor that makes American agricultural products globally price competitive. Just like the slaves made the south rich.
If what is happening to Mexican workers was happening to Americans, you could best believe that a storm would be brewing in their hearts and that storm would scream for, just as I mentioned in Sri Lanka and now in Viet Nam, land reform.
January 27th & 28th: New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
Tet is the Lunar new year which celebrates the 12th new moon of the year and the transition to the new lunar new year. What I enjoy about Tet, compared to the Roman new year is that Tet is framed around an actual astrological event, not an arbitrary statistical calculation like December 31st. Tet is Thanksgiving and Christmas put together, for children it is a time to receive lucky money and new clothing and for elders it is a time to feel visited and important.
Tet is celebrated across the Xinosphere, but traditions vary. In the Chinese-speaking world, the differences in Tet customs were exacerbated by the interruption in Chinese culture that was the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, mainland China and the Sino-states celebrate the new year slightly differently. Viet Nam was a Chinese colonial possession for 1,000 years. As you can imagine the Viet celebration is unique both from China, and between North and South Viet Nam. Northern Vietnam has a more Confucian and Chinese-like culture than Southern Viet Nam. The majority of American-Vietnamese will follow the Southern Tet traditions. I’ll share a video about Tet here.
Tet eve started with Trinh and I at home with her parents. Before Tet, we must clean the house for good luck. I impressed Trinh and her mom by cleaning the house without being asked. We spent the whole daytime inside napping away the heat and eating. Vietnamese parents think it’s a futile waste of money to use the air conditioner during the daytime, but for Princess Deren they made an exception and let me use the A/C in my room. Trinh, her dog, and I went for a jog, but we kept getting interrupted by some badass killer dogs on the street. A duo of jackal-like pit bulls totally put me off to running in the neighborhood. I still support eating dogs.
At about 6 PM Trinh and I headed into the storm of people downtown who are posing for photos in front of flowers. There were easily 10,000 people swarming around us in the new central park. It was nice to see kids and women in the Ao Dai; Vietnamese dress.
Then the highlight was seeing Trinh’s best friend Thanh. Thanh and I were really great friends when I lived here and seeing him and reliving our memories together reminded me that once upon a time I lived here and people expected me.
I took Thanh and Trinh to a Turkish restaurant and I introduced them to Shisha, Lamacun, and Turkish tea. It was great to listen to Thanh spell out his nervous ambitions as he adjusts to life at work as a graphic design intern. Then we rode a taxi home.
Arriving home before midnight, Trinh and I watched Viet singing and culture shows and as the clock struck midnight. We took incense to the five prayer stations around the house. Waving the incense at the symbolic offerings and to photos of ancestors.
The most interesting incense station to me was above the stove where we prayed to the kitchen god, Ong Thao, to keep us safe. This was relevant to me because since returning to Viet Nam my stomach issue returned. It was disheartening to think that my “good” season was over. Most chronic conditions are healed best with prayer since their solution lays beyond the frontier of medicine.
When it was time to honor our ancestors, I thought about how before my grandfather died he said, ” I know your gonna do great things” and I promised him I would watch over the family. And I thanked his moral influence that now sits in my heart. It acts like a trampoline, both cradling me from a hard landing and pushing me up again. Then I slept, the first morning of Tet we wore red and went to a Buddhist Temple. Driving in Viet Nam was a bit nerve wrecking for me, but I made it.
It was interesting to see how Viet temples are a mix of influences. The Buddha appears both skinny (India) and fat (China), Hindu gods seem to be hanging on the walls and the “Lady Buddha” a matriarchal Buddha that is popular in Viet Nam as also hanging out.
Religion is not particularly important to the daily lives of the majority of Vietnamese, but religion’s place in tradition is important. I recognized that Buddhism doesn’t give commands for the behavior of women and men the way that the Judeo religions do.
We drove home and then decided to go out. It is uncommon to go out during Tet day 1, but Trinh’s family insisted we have time away from them. We went to Korea town, Korea town is not celebrating Tet and so we thought some shops would be open. It is bad luck to argue on the first day of the year, and Trinh and I narrowly missed an argument. Apologies came easier, when we remembered that the Jade Emperor is judging us from Heaven.
Even Korea town was a ghost town, but we found a place to play the ukulele and eat Korean food. Then we came home to have yet another huge meal with Trinh’s flock of cousins. I played around with the teenagers like a goof ball and then feeling exhausted came to bed to write this.
In my spare time, I have been reading Ta Nehesi Coats’s 20-page article, My President was Black. It was a sobering and insightful recap of Obama. I pinned down Obama as one of my main role models.
January 29th-31st: Hanging in Saigon and Trang Bang
Monday was spent in Koreatown’s fancy malls and at Trinh’s house hanging out with Thanh. It was sorta like being a teenager going to malls and hanging out at home while parents were home offering us snacks.
Monday I went with my former manager to Trang Bang; a rural area near the border with Cambodia. You know this town as the site of the infamous naked napalmed girl photo. I found myself in the midst of a rural men’s drinking party.
The most senior man there had learned basic English phrases to confuse US soldiers that were walking through the jungle. Then a local party official appeared at the party for the free drinks and to tell me how much he loves anti-China Trump. The men all got really drunk and slept on different pieces of furniture. It was an interesting experience, the men had been especially kind to me because I am white and that made me feel a bit like I was imposing on them.
Later, I was on a motorbike that was following Trinh as she drove home at night. Watching her drive home, gave me of view of her as just someone driving home through a harsh city. I think after living in Bangkok, my eyes see some of the mess and disorder of Saigon as caustic and unnecessary. We drove past a motorbike crash, where a teenage girl in shock had blood running from her mouth down and across her white uniform. She stood there in a bloodied shock as a crowd of onlookers tried to negotiate some street justice. I just felt bad for Trinh having to live on these terms every day.
Tuesday morning, we woke up to take a trip into the mountains with a friend. However, when we arrived we found out our friend had already departed and we would be traveling just with his parents. So for the last six hours we’ve been winding up a mountain with our friend’s parents.
February 1st -5th: Da Lat and Nha Trang City
Trinh and I were in the Hill station Da Lat for three nights. Hill stations are cooler mountainous towns that were popular with colonialists as “hygienic” places without the drudge of the tropics. Da Lat is one of the growing locations for Starbucks’ coffee, so you can share in this experience by going to Starbucks and asking for coffee from Da Lat. It’s there I’ve seen it in NJ.
Da Lat was a wonderful refuge from the heat of Southern Viet Nam. Da Lat also has pine trees, which are rare in Southeast Asia. Da Lat is pretty Catholic and surrounded by pretty scenery. It hosts a nascent wine industry, started by the French. Today’s Da Lat wines are so low quality that they are served with ice and used as a cleaning product.
Da Lat hosts an interesting site for Vietnam’s education development; the campus of the former colony’s elite boarding school. The school was a fabulous example of segregation, racism, white-washing, and colonial hierarchy. It masterfully used Jesus to justify the worship of white people.
Visiting the school and the residence of Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam (1920?-1997) was an interesting history lesson. Bao Dai was the last emperor of the Nguyen family and aligned his reign with the French colonial structure. He was a castrated figure. He was puppeted again by the Japanese to declare Viet Nam an independent kingdom under the Japanese Empire. In this futile gesture Bao Dai pre-dated Ho Chi Minh as the first independence figure. Once Viet Nam liberated itself from the French in the late 1940s Bao Dai abdicated his divine mandate to rule and, according to the winners of history, gave that mandate to Uncle Ho. True or not, it was a powerful legitimatization of Ho to the Vietnamese. Bao Dai joined the Southern Republic as an advisor but was expelled from Vietnam by the Southern leader Diem. One of Diem’s many missteps. Bao Dai lived until 1997 in France.
Bao Dai attended the elite school in Da Lat along with the young King Sihanouk of Cambodia. The two school boys’ lifespans would take them from young monarchs to ghosts of an old world order. Sihanouk would actually end his life in 2012 as the reigning King, the long march of history pulling him in and out of the throne.
Pop my teacher bubble!
I am on another ass-clenching bus ride but this one is over a mountain range. What really frightens in about this month’s ass-clencher is that we are sledding down a mountain with the grace of a fat boy on a snow day. The roads have unchecked rubble, rocks, and mud from landslides. There are cliff-hanging turns and all of my anxiety in confounded by the nervous fact that we are still above the cloud line. To my amazement, there are fuel trucks braving these potholes, tight turns and disorder to deliver gasoline to Da Lat. As our double decker bus descended into the cloud zone, I was mentally herding the clouds away from the mountain side to give our driver more visibility. That didn’t work and now we are haunting our way through the night’s mountain mist.
The “aggression” shared by all the drivers is unnecessary. Our driver insists on passing people as we tumbled down the mountain fog at night. In the US, these roads would be closed as they are too damaged, my cell phone flops out of my loose grip as we hit a pothole. I also don’t think it is wise to run double-decker buses on a damaged mountain road.
We are on this bus to go to Nha Trang. The Miami of Viet Nam. Nha Trang has a special place in the hearts of the Russian people as a place to sun burn themselves. This affinity for Nha Trang started when Russian warships occupied Cam Rang Bay to prevent the US navy in the Philippines from returning to Vietnam. Cam Rang Bay is a natural deep water port and still an important geostrategic location for the ongoing contest for the East Sea. Mental note! Before the US and China were debating over it, the US and Russia were having their own east sea issues. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdraw of US troops from the Philippines left today’s power vacuum in the East Sea. In a twist of fate, arms, and iron the US navy was invited to return to Cam Rang as a bulwark against China. Who knows what will happen.
Just as Portugal and Mongolia, now peripheral on the world stage, were once global empires. So too was the Khmer empire of Cambodia. The Khmer empire predates Buddhism’s existence and arrival in Asia. The Khmer empire spread throughout Thailand and southern Vietnam. The people living in southern Vietnam during the time of the Khmer empire were not the Chinese like people you recognize, or don’t recognize, today. They were a darker skinned people like the modern Cambodians. Khmer means “brown” in the Cambodian language. The heritage of this Kmher-ish (Cham) population could be attributed to some differences between deep southern Vietnamese and northern Vietnamese.
Nha Trang plays into this story because it hosts an ancient Khmer temple. The existence of this Hindu temple in Vietnam reminds me… that as once great empires decline, and their lands are populated by the victors. Their culture and language are gradually pushed into the periphery and eventually the humiliation of protected minority. History is the mixing and blending of peoples, the process extinguishing older colors and taking the hue of the dominant ingredient.
This happens on every piece of land. The natives of North America, the Berbers of Morocco, and the Welsh of Britain. This flow from the majority to the minority to a relic is a hard reality of cultural contact and conquest. The minorities of today’s old world are just the fading colors in the swirl of history. This spin never ends and it is what drives human history.
We arrived in Nha Trang and spent one night there. The highlight was snorkeling and eating, Nha Trang was full of Russian and Chinese tourists. We took a 9-hour bus back to Saigon and slept until late Sunday afternoon. Then I spent Monday visiting my manager for lunch downtown and opened my laptop to edit this.
I feel that this trip met all its goals, I reconnected with Vietnam and made important mental notes should I ever return here for work.