These are thoughts and activities from August – September 2018
Our trip to Bangkok began with Trinh and I playing billiards in the Saigon Airport Bar. This is the only place where we ever play billiards, despite the fact that the ground floor of Trinh’s house is a billiards saloon. I guess that with the airport’s windows looking out on taxi-ing planes, fancy drinks served by the waiter, and the internal excitement of our own pending takeoff, billiards is more palatable for us here. More palatable than with the pit bulls, shirtless gangsters, and brutal smoke of the saloon under Trinh’s house. To those billardisos, Trinh is the landlord’s highbrow daughter, frowning down on them elitely – a sympathizer with the dogs who are chained to the trees outside the saloon.
At least the dogs are chained. In Trinh’s neighborhood, most dogs run free in horny packs, waiting to be hit by motorbikes, loved, or caught for dinner. My Saigon, seeped that HCM haze, doesn’t have wild dogs – it has wild cats and chickens.
There is a cat who sleeps on my fire escape, waiting inconveniently to be stepped on in an emergency.
They built a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant near my house. The property development in my rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, thanks to me, is so uneven, that the house across from the grand sterile B-Duds has actual wild chickens running in front of it. They are Saigon’s real wild wings.
When we arrived at Bangkok’s DMK Airport, Lord, I was overjoyed to see that they made an immigration line just for “Chinese Passports”. Noticed the nuance? China has more than just Chinese people. The exclusion of Chinese from the immigration line was a miraculous blessing. The Chinese tour groups are really tough to get along with. They have little sense of personal space, they tend to yell, push, and cut in line waiting.
If waiting in line with a single nationality can tell you anything about the pursuit of happiness in that place, China must be crushing.
Due to this modern rendition of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the line took just a few minutes instead of an hour. Feeling an hour younger, we taxied to Ari, Jonas’ neighborhood. It was good to see Jonas again, alive, full of energy, less bearded, and more talkative.
Saturday morning, we walked to a modernismo Café for poached eggs and mini-French toast. We have the palate of bottom-feeding gourmands, a millennial tongue nostalgic for Saturday morning breakfast in pajamas. Hungry for status and willing to pay any overprice for bourgeois classics like poached eggs.
After le petit brunch, we brought ourselves, by means of a hired driver, sent to us by an iPhone App, a Cloud computer, and a work-hungry driver, across Bangkok to a painting class. Again the joy of elementary school art class long forgotten in the daily dust – come back to life in a paint-by-number rendering of The Scream
The Scream is a near meaningless painting that I saw in Norway in 2003, was printed on my guitar strap when I was in all my failed high school bands, and a painting that Jonas protected as a part-time museum guard in Sweden.
The Scream was, not under Jonas’ watch, stolen in an art heist – a chillingly Scandinavian art heist in that the thief just picked it up and walked out the door. Leaving the onlookers stereotypically blue-eyed, blond-haired, and speechless.
In trying to follow the painting instructions, I did what I always do when I can’t do something right; I do it funny. Instead of making the front of the Scream’s face horrified, I made the Scream facing the opposite direction to gaze on another Screamer shouting for someone to help zim fetch a stray soccer ball. I giggled at how I repurposed the open mouth motif into a joke and spared myself an overly proud eternity of looking at a ghastly Scream painting pompously hung onto my wall.
After painting, we eat veggie burgers at Broccoli Revolution, an establishment propped up by the last bastion of the revolutionary left – Vegans. Vegan refugees, scorned in a meat-lover’s world, finance their subversive Broccoli Revolution by disguising their dogma as delicious faux meats.
We later met up with Brandon and his lady friends traveling from the US to Thailand for Japan’s summer Obon holiday. Brandon was unrecognizable in how super in shape he is now. I was embarrassed not to recognize him when I said pointing at a man who looked like Brandon, “Nah, that can’t be Brandon, Brandon is not that big.”
After hearing about his life, Brandon, as always, inspires me with his strength. Not just physical strength, but mental, measured by how infrequently he drops the heavy weights of optimism to judge others.
Sunday morning we had breakfast at another café in Ari. Jonas encouraged me to buy Trinh flowers and to do nice things for her. He urged me, “Do not grow accustomed, Do not take her for granted”. My attempt to buy her flowers was muted by the cheap yellow rose that I bought for her and shamefully decided to carry myself inside of give to her.
Jonas took us off to a Japanese spa and restaurant, where we melted down to the core. I love the Japanese amenities in Bangkok. They give me what I want, short Japanese escapes, fluttered with the Japanese language, priced for Thailand – with no 12-hour workdays required. For its globalized opportunities and its expression of the region’s monoculture, Pan-Asia, Bangkok is the best city for me to imagine raising a kid. A kid that can know the efficiency of the West, delicacies of Japan, and the optimism of Southeast Asia.
That evening we saw Brandon and his friends again. We ended up playing Cards Against Humanity on Jonas’ floor and hearing Brandon’s shockingly loud laughter and listening to the ongoings of his life in Japan. It was funny, Jonas and I had not been able to find the store that sold Cards Against Humanity in Bangkok. So for my going away party in April 2017, we printed hundreds of cards and cut them by hand for the party. Jonas had kept the cards for a year now. It was nice to see a relic of myself still kicking around Bangkok. Brandon, who I last saw in Bangkok in December 2016, never moved back to the US after we moved to Japan in 2012. He and I are still in a sense on that adventure separately and together.
Returning to Vietnam, moving on with my life.
I remember that in 2008, I caught my Japanese host grandfather walking around the tatami mat floors wearing a suit. I asked him in elementary Japanese, “Why are you wearing a suit these days” he responded, “I have many funerals to attend”. I feel, in a lighter-hearted way, this is a time of funerals for in my social life. All of my friends are leaving and my social calendar is just goodbye parties. Sam & Liam, Jonas Lind, Joao, Jonas Dahlstrom.
In a weird twist of fate, Sam and Liam, SEAMEO’s interns, had their goodbye party at the same place that SEAMEO was having a dinner for their conference and we had to sit in the same restaurant without running into each other. It seemed almost planned.
Since Jonas Dahlstrom is moving to Tanzania soon, Trinh and I visited Bangkok to visit him for a final time. Even though we traveled there to see him, he ended up joining us on our trip to Taiwan (spoiler alert Trinh and I took a long weekend in Taiwan just after coming back from Bangkok). Finally, Jonas Lind is moving back to China.
Most of my Swedish friends are named Jonas, it must’ve been a popular name in the 80s for a curious Swede, one better suited for hot weather.
And in a crushing blow, Joao moved home to Brazil. With all my transient friends further spread across time zones, my phone call schedule follows the Sun. In the mornings, I can talk to Joao and hear about his attempts to find work in workless Sao Paulo, in the afternoons I talk to my MommAmerica, in the evenings I can call Brandon in Japan and my early rising friends in the USA.
While saying goodbye to Jonas he said, “Come to Tanzania, I expect you to come to Tanzania”. Just as he did in Korea in 2013, when he inspired me to travel to India and pursue development, he planted that adventurous seed in my mind to go to Tanzania.
I talked with my mom over lunch about her trip to Tanzania in 1976. It was wonderful to sweep passed her “daily dust”, and for her to encourage me to travel. It was fun to remember/imagine her as a young piglet gunning for adventure. Imagining her, the only white woman and the dance in Tanzania, on a Safari with Indian newlyweds, and traveling around the country by bus.
That weekend Trinh, Jonas, and I went to Taiwan. The highlights of the trip are captured in these photos and their captions.
This last month has been a time on-the-go, I’ve traveled to Bangkok, Taiwan, then a mid-week work trip to Can Tho, and Phu Quoc Island. Despite all the weekends away, I feel normal, not jolted from travel shock. I’ve grown accustomed to a life of high contrast weekends, no longer over-stimulated like the travel junky I was when I was statistically younger. I joked with Trinh that constantly being on the move together is keeping us from the creeping complacency of the mundane. In between Taiwan and Phu Quoc, we spent one weekend in Saigon together during which, I almost exploded with anxiety. I feel claustrophobic in our small town trapped in a big city – our Providence Rhode Island inside Detroit.
As I approached the last bastion, age 29, – the last 365 days when my cells can replicate undamaged by time, the Sun, or their intersection, I’m reflecting on becoming 30. The flimsy gateway out of my generation’s prolonged adolescences. One clear thought is that, “I give my best mental time, the morning, to my employer”. By pushing my “me time” to the evening, when my brain is tired of working, I’m neglecting my personal goals.
Today, I’m writing this in the morning before heading to work. I have given my clearest mental time to myself. Now I’ve tried to wake up early many over many times, but couldn’t get myself out of bed. When I understood my best mental function is an age-dependent and deplete-able resource, it triggers my instinctual selfish to hoard my resources for me. Since I can’t salt and store time away yet, I’d best give that precious resource to myself.
When will I stop thinking about myself? Eleven years of writing this blog proves something – I worship myself and I write so I can create a Time Machine, a place I can revisit at the end of time and laugh.
I guess, my self-centered thoughts will change when I become a dad, a transformation my father took at 24; I’m still a proud bachelor at 29. I realize that at the birth of my child, my baby’s Mama and I will become unique in our unconditional love for that child. My baby’s mama and I can have our mutual, but separate, love for the kid motivate us to make the necessary compromises of ourselves to stay together. Beyond the humdrum of a little petite bourgeois life, we can have our real journey, adventure, mission, our endless, inshallah, project – raising a person above us. That’s not now though, later I’ll pass that gate, where I don’t write about myself but about the obnoxious self-obsessed child I find in front of me.
This then leads me to ask who do I want to be as a father? To be a resent-less person, I’ll knock out my bucket list while I’m not knocked up. It makes no sense, but this question inspires me to see Africa. So I can, like my mother, bring a wider worldview to my kids. So that in each diverse moment they find themselves, they can learn more about others and then of course, about themselves.