Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Xin Chao and Happy Holidays!

Hello there!


I'm writing this at midnight in our hotel room in Quy Nhon, hoping to get the chance to upload it in the morning, so I don't have internet access to see where I left off last. I'll approximate. I can't fill everything in anyway; it's been a while and it's all pretty piece-meal.


Basically, this month has been a lot more like a series of field trips than anything else. Any sort of coherent project pretty much fell apart. Plans got changed last minute left and right. (Our plan for this week in Quy Nhon for example was originally to spend about 5 days composting, then 4, then 3, then half of Monday, all of Tuesday and half of Wednesday, then just half of Monday and all of Tuesday and then just Tuesday, at which time we ended up splitting into two groups, one visited a small composting facility in the morning and people resettled by the government away from beach shanty-towns in the afternoon while the other visited a larger composting facility in the morning and two small villages where ENDA, the NGO we're sort of partnered with, has implemented clean water projects in the afternoon.) We've had a lot of interesting environmental lectures, read books and watched documentaries. (I highly recommend An Inconvenient Truth, The Corporation and Regret to Inform – all documentaries – as well as Cradle to Cradle – a quick read, although because it's printed in a generally environmentally friendly way, the book is really expensive and you might want to check it out of a library instead of buying it). We've split our time, I'd say, about 65%-35% between discussions about the environment and the Vietnam war (which occasionally overlap, mind you). It's been worthwhile, if rather different and improvisational.


I think, instead of trying to do a play by play which, frankly, is impossible, I'll just hit things that I think of as I'm writing. A general overview of the feeling of the month, though, would be a good start.


It's been a lot of hurry up and wait. We're either busybusybusy all day or we have nothing scheduled for the weekend. I played a lot of guitar in our guesthouse in Ho Chi Minh City (I'm reteaching myself) and had the chance to read several books which I really needed. Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, is his best yet and a fast read and Rory Stewart's The Places In Between is well-written, fascinating, informative, entertaining and not at all dense. I'm nearly through with The Golden Compass which I have on my iPod and have been listening to on our recent wealth of bus rides. I've read it before, but it's still wonderful. You should read it. All of you. Yes. You. :-) I've also had time to watch a lot of movies (a lot of people have been watching a lot of movies…our group bootleg DVD collection is very impressive…) and spend more time with our TBB crew. Everyone is so different and so interesting – I want to really get to know each person individually. I think the one of the worst things that could happen would be to get home and feel like I wish I'd talked to so and so more. I'm not naturally particularly friendly and outgoing, but I'm determined so watch out. Anyway, tangent, sorry.


Ok, here's my random spattering of thoughts and images. And go!


Ho Chi Minh City is absurd. I strongly dislike it. There are motorcylcles everywhere and to cross the street you just have to hope they don't hit you. You have to walk in the street most of the time anyway because the sidewalk is taken up by parked motorcycles or these giant stupid trees they've planted in cement squares of dirt in the middles or it's just gone entirely due to construction or lack thereof. The pollution is pretty awful and it's always hotter than is pleasant despite the fact that it is apparently the cold season (it's probably 90 out and there are women in coats not to mention the fact that because of the pollution and the trend dictating that pale skin is desirable, women ride around on motorbikes in shoulder-length gloves, socks and cloths wrapped around their faces). The telephone and electric wires are all one huge tangle at corners. There are quite literally two and a half foot high tangles of black wire clinging to telephone poles every few blocks and then every now and then there are just a couple of wires with naked tips hanging down in the middle of the sidewalk (if you're lucky enough to find one on which you can walk) like vines off a tree in Tarzan. You hope you notice them before you walk into them, but you might not since you have to spend a substantial amount of time looking at the broken up ground making sure you don't trip. Fun story: I was walking to our writer's workshop (something optional that Beth has started and which has been held sporadically) laughing hysterically out of embarrassment because it has just been pointed out to me several times that I talk to myself quite a bit more than I thought I did, when my knees gave out under me as my foot hit a bump and I went straight down to the ground. Most of the TBB group was ahead of me crossing the street and didn't notice, but a group of three or four twenty-something Vietnamese outside of a swanky restaurant pointed and laughed until I staggered up and away, still choking on embarrassed giggles.


Rylan did point out the other day that, although none of us much like Ho Chi Minh as far as I have heard and it's much easier to feel useful and part of a community in a rural area, as long as we're studying development, it's probably useful to see one of Asia's growing mega-cities. He's right. As much as Ho Chi Minh has nothing to do with how I imagine Vietnam, it is a part of the country and the region and such cities will only become bigger, more crowded, more polluted, and more relevant.


We've been hearing a lot and talking some about the Vietnam War, or, as they call it, the American War or the War of American Aggression which, really, is probably more accurate. We've been to the War Remnants museum in HCMC, we watched the documentary Regret to Inform, we visited the Cu Chi tunnels (a tunnel city built by the Viet Cong about an hour outsided of former Saigon), we met with some families with children affected by agent orange and we visited Son My, the site of the My Lai Massacre. The Things They Carried, one of my favorite books, is also floating around the group and I intend to reread it soon.


It's a pretty big topic. You can look at it from an American perspective, a Vietnamese perspective, a communist perspective, an environmental perspective and a human perspective. Each has its own big questions. What was the real point of the war? What is the point of any war? Does war ever have a place in this world as an answer? When does a war end? How do countries really reconcile? What are a combatant country's responsibilities in a war with regard to civilians and the environment? What about lasting consequences both psychological, physical and environmental? One of our discussions was framed by the question: Who is the enemy in war? Answers ranged from "everyone" to "ourselves" to "ideals and governments" to "greed."


Other questions were raised for me, too. I tend to react to personal stories very strongly, much more than I do to generalizations or statistics. We watched Regret to Inform as I've now said several times. It was a documentary made by an American woman who lost her young husband in Vietnam. She returns to the place where he was killed along with her Vietnamese friend who left her country after the war. Along the way you get not only their stories, but the stories of several other couples from both sides that were broken apart by the conflict. It's heart-wrenching, not unexpectedly, but somehow the thing that struck me most, listening to all those women and seeing the wedding photos and the snapshots of the dead men, was that all of those people were basically my age. Learning about war when you're younger, you think, oh, that's horrible, but those boys are older and stronger and braver. Or maybe you just don't think about it at all. But watching that movie, it hit me really, really hard.


I've said for a long time now that if there were a draft today, we wouldn't still be in Iraq. There are socio-economic inequities in our military that make it so that those families most directly affected by the war tend to have muffled political voices and it's difficult to get really worked up about something that doesn't touch you personally. If there were a constant threat that all of the men you held dear (and possibly women too) could be packed up and shipped off to Iraq at a moments notice, there would be a lot more protesting going on. There would have been ofr a long time and I think the troops would have been pulled. But there has been no draft. (There are a lot of things wrong with our military, actually, don't ask don't tell being near the top of my list (did you know we've discharged 10,000 able-bodied men and are now accepting people with criminal records and mental issues to replace them?))


After watching the film I looked around the room at our five TBB boys I was horrified. They're all eighteen or nineteen and any of them could have been drafted if this were 1968 and not 2008. Suddenly I saw them all in uniform, shrouded in the jungles of Vietnam, shooting, being shot at, killing and dying. I started sobbing. I love them all and the images were too much and they wouldn't go away. They kept playing themselves over and over in my head. No one should be made to kill or asked to risk their lives for some high ideal in a far away and unfamiliar land. No one is prepared for that and I don't know how anyone can come back from it still whole.


I'm against the war in Iraq, but I've never gone to a protest. My being against the war has had no bearing at all on anything, really. Like I said, I have trouble connecting to theoretical people, people that I know exist, but that I don't actually know. But this, this is something I feel in my gut. I get it now and I didn't quite before.


We visited the site of the My Lai massacre (a four hour bus ride each way instead of two to touch on plans changing again). The event was abominable and not an entirely isolated occurance. There is no way to apologize for something like that. At the museum on the site (the best museum we've been to in either Cambodia or Vietnam, I think) our tour guide told us about the three American soldier who didn't take part. One shot himself in the foot and the other two rescued a few survivors, pointing the gun of their helicopter at American soldiers to keep them away. We watched a short video in which there was a line that said something to the effect of "My Lai is something that should never happen again and hopefully will not" and another that said "If I were there, I would hope that I would have the courage to do the right thing like Thompson [one of the men in the helicopter]." I also saw, scribbled in the guest book, the idea that those soldiers were bad seeds and that the entire U.S. army should not be judged by their actions. Every army has bad seeds. Those three ideas bothered me. First of all, atrocities like My Lai happen every day in places like Sudan and the Congo. Every day. What are we doing about it? Pitifully little. Second of all, I too would hope to do the right thing in a horrible situtation, but what was it that made all of those soldiers do otherwise? They were certainly not all bad people. They were probably terrified, angry, numb, crazy, drowned in a mob mentality. To live the way they'd been living, they must have had to begin to see the enemy as something not human, the lives they were taking as worth less – how else could you live with yourself having killed another human being you'd never even met? None of these things, of course, in any way excuses their actions. The horrific nature of the massacre is literally beyond my imagination. But what makes good men, boys really, do such horrible things? It reminded me of a study I've heard referenced where college students were divided up into two gropus: prisoners and prison guards. The guards ended up so violent and abusive that the study had to be stopped after just a few days. So what made them do it? War. The whole idea of it, the environment in which they were dropped, unprepared. Yes, I would hope that I would do the right thing. I bet they all would have hoped that too. But would I? Would you? I don't think we can rightly say. I hope I never have to find out.


Needless to say, all of this made us think about America. What it is, really, and what it stands for. I've never been a fan of blind patriotism, but I was talking to Emily who said she'd once been told that she didn't have the right to complain about the U.S. because so many other countries had it so much worse, and my views solidified for me. I complain about a lot of things in the U.S. There are a lot of problems to complain about. And I think I should complain. I can pick out the faults and still love my country and appreciate it for its good as well. Ultimately, however, I don't love America as much for what it is, as for what it has the potential to be. I love its ideals, its ability to change and to grow. I don't hate my country when it does something wrong any more than a parent would hate a child who made a mistake. I'm disappointed in my country as that parent would be in his or her child. The most patriotic thing I think I can do is expect a lot from my country and help it to meet my expectations. Or I guess I could just put a flag on my lawn and eat hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Same thing.


One more fun story, to end on a lighter note, and then it's bedtime for Becca. I think I'll call it "Bus Misadventures: The Sequel" or maybe, "Aventura Dos!" Anyway, our drive from HCMC to Quy Nhon was supposed to be eight to ten hours. We charged up the computers, grabbed our ipods, fought to get a solo seat and set off at 6am. About 11ish we pulled over to the side of the road. "Why have we stopped?" asked the voices of the many boys and girls, their groggy heads bobbing up from behind the pleather seats. "Why have we stopped?" asked Robin and Beth, their fearless leaders. They got off the bus and sat in a roadside café in the middle of nowhere, Vietnam. The speediest of them grabbed the ten or so hammocks, the rest settled for plastic stools and chairs. After an hour of napping, reading and cribbage playing (a game in which Lily and Becca dominated Dave and Noah, to the competitive boys' chagrin), it was announced that our bus's radiator had broken beyond repair, another bus was coming from HCMC and would arrive in five hours or so. Five hours?! But wait! Two vans would come for us and take the us next hour and half to our lunch stop, a cavernous and empty Vietnamese restaurant, and then on another ten minutes or so to a beachside motel where we'd rented rooms in which we could stay. Hooray! Broken bus beach detour, not so bad after all. At least we hadn't hit anyone. After lunch, some beach and some dinner, our replacement bus arrived with our luggage stowed underneath. We set off again at 7:40pm. "How much longer?" the students' voices chimed? "About 500 kilmeters," came the answer. "Maybe seven hours." Seven hours? But that would mean the students would not arrive at their destination until 3am! Again, they hunkered down for some sleep or, in the case of the back row, a late night showing of Fargo on the green computer. (Incidentally, a pretty good but not fabulous movie). On the tired students rode over a bumpy and dug-up rode with a necessarily tired driver until, at 3:30am, they parked on the side of the road and heard a soft "we're here." Bags were collected and hauled up the steps to the fourth floor (also known as the fifth floor, because everyone but Americans counts the ground floor as zero). A good night's sleep was then had by all (but not before room 441, Lily, Liz and I, put up the hammock Christmas tree, the three strings of lights and the small golden menorah to brighten the small, dull room).


The End


Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night

And to All Others a Happy Chanukah

(we're playing dreidel on Christmas Even night, then watching the Grinch and then having a Christmas party at a schmancy hotel on the 25th)


Much love and good wishes,



p.s. I think I've not mentioned our biggest plan change of all! We're no longer going to India. After the bombings in Mumbai, TBB determined that it would be too dangerous to take 18 Americans into Northwestern India. It makes sense, as far as decisions go, but no one was happy about it. Our plans had been in limbo until today. We will be going to Thailand instead, still studying sustainable agriculture and getting to do homestays. I was pretty bummed about spending even more time on this peninsula in SE Asia. Yunan was just north, then Cambodia, then Vietnam and now Thailand and for our enrichment week afterwards Laos! I want to see other parts of the world! BUT our plans for Thailand sound really incredible, actually, so I'm getting kind of excited. We'll spend a week in a facility that teaches locals and foreigners about sustainable living and then go live for three weeks in a community that has just switched from chemical to sustainable agriculture. We'll have two language teachers with us the whole time which, in combination with homestays, means I may really learn some Thai. My Vietnamese, incidentally, is abysmal. I can say hello and goodbye  (sin chao), thank you (cam on), pork, beef, chicken and fish (heo, bo, ga, ca) and iced coffee with milk (café sua da). Sometimes I can count, too, but that's about it. Ah well…


p.p.s. We've been talking and thinking a lot about environmental stuff too, but I'm rather tired so that will have to wait either for another post or for a coffee date when I get home :-)


p.p.p.s. I'd just like to remind you all that you get to keep up with my by reading this blog if you so choose, but I require emails to keep up with you…so send them along! It's winter break, kids. I know you've got free time :-)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Good Morning (from) Vietnam!

How long have I been waiting to use that Blog title? You don't want to know. It's not even that creative.

I'm getting spotty on blog posts aren't I? I feel like I start off every one with an apology for how long it's been since the last. So, on that note, sorry…


Anyway, where did we leave off? Angkor Wat right? Let's see…


On the third and final day of our Angkor Wat pass I asked one of the people working at the hotel's desk which temples were remote, relatively untouristy and relatively unrestored. He pointed me to a few, but one in particular, which I then looked up in the Tourist Guide I'd grabbed somewhere. I decided to check it out, convinced that it would meet my requirements when I saw it's measely two star rating in the guide. Don't tell, but it was called Ta Nei.


I hopped in a Tuk Tuk (you literally couldn't walk five feet without finding one) and negotiated a plan with the driver. He would take me as far as a Tuk Tuk could (the road apparently would get bad about a mile before the temple and I would have to walk since motorcylcles are not allowed on TBB and I can't ride a bike…) and then meet me back at that point (or, I think, just wait for me) four hours later. So that's what I did. He offered to walk me to the temple so I wouldn't get lost, but it was just one road so I figured I couldn't miss it. Little did I know that the one road forked three or four times and there was only a sign once. I magically chose the right direction every time, though, so it worked out just fine.


Ta Nei was pretty much deserted. There were two other women there when I arrived and a biker showed up later. There were also several Cambodian guys chilling out in this thatch-roofed building thing…I'm not sure what they were doing except chilling, but it seemed like that was their job.  I went around taking photos for a while, although the light wasn't ideal (black and white helped a lot with that, actually, if you're wondering why I have so many black and whites…they just look nicer) and then I camped out on a bench outside of the thatch-roofed building and got down to business: postcard writing. Sandy and Robin had us each write about 20 postcards to TBB donors, thanking them for their contribution and letting them know what was going on with us which I thought was a nice idea. It might encourage them to give again before the fiscal year ends (I mean…because of the holiday season…) but either way it's nice to put in a little effort to thank all the people that helped make TBB happen and I think it would be fun, were I a donor, to get a postcard from a TBB student written about their time in China but writing from, say, Angkor Wat.  I journaled some and then on my way out took more photos. I didn't want to do everything over, but the light was much better so I did take some. Too bad I didn't think of that before and save photo-ing time for the end.


The next day…I think…One day, anyway…We went to see the fabled "floating village." We hopped in our TBB sized bus (the tour company had a bus with exactly enough seats to fit us all) and drove out to the lake where we hopped on a boat as our pictures were being snapped by a random Cambodian girl with a camera. Our guide didn't say much as we jetted out past the few homes we saw into open water. We continued on for about an hour and a half with nothing on the horizon. The sky was pretty grey, which made the water pretty grey, which made them sort of blend into each other so that the horizon line was actually pretty hard to distinguish. It was pretty cool. Finally, we got to floating civilization. It was cool, yes, but it was very apparently a very poor community and I felt really strange about being on a boat full of reasonably well-off Americans driving through their village taking pictures. "Oh look at that beautiful tin and decaying wood house!" Snapsnapsnap. We were dropped off at what we were told was a monestary and school, walked into the yard and were promptly accosted by about 10 women selling notebooks. It took us a while to figure out that they wanted us to buy a pack for $5 which we would then give to the school kids. Theoretically, they were going into Siem Reap to buy the books which would then be financed later by tourists. This makes sense, assuming that's what is actually happening. We each bought a pack of notebooks. It was virtually impossible not to. There was nowhere else to go and we were staring at the schoolkids playing in the yard and it sounded like a good cause. We got right back on the boat after that and jetted back where we came from (minus a 20 minute stop at a floating store where we could buy souvenirs and drinks). That was the entire "tour." Our fearless leaders were a little put off. That wasn't exactly what they'd expected the "tour" to be. It wasn't what we had expected either. We all were under the impression that we'd be meeting the people, walking around, getting to know the community. We hadn't realized it was so touristy. (Remember that girl who'd taken our photos when we got on the boat at the beginning? Well, as we were getting off the boat, we were greeted with plates with our faces on them that had somehow been made from those photos in the three hours we'd been gone. I guess some people must buy those or it wouldn't be worthwhile for them. I hope they can reuse the plates because we certainly didn't buy any. Who does? I wonder…) Anyway, because I'd felt to weird about using their village as something resembling a human zoo (at least, that's how it felt to me), I didn't mind so much that we'd been plied for money that may or may not be going to school children (although I very VERY sincerely hope it did go to school children…). It felt like we were using them, so they should be using us too. It evened the playing field. On the whole, though, I do not recommend a floating village tour to any future Cambodia tourists.


We also had our own little TBB Thanksgiving dinner at our hotel. Sandy worked really hard to get the kitchen to make Thanksgivingy food for us and while it wasn't perfect, it was adorable and delicious anyway. Pumpkin soup, some sort of veggie and gravy casserole, mashed sweet potato, chicken and…mango for dessert? We also made hand turkeys thanks to Liz and Katie R who had the foresight to purchase supplies. Then we headed up into the penthouse (where two of our roommate groups had been displaced to due to a booking error by the hotel) and played a game Beth taught us called Celebrity. So. Much. Fun. And then we set up a new game of Gotcha. That game is going much slower than the last. The first winner won only yesterday and we wait until we have three. Robin got me out by getting me to say "space shuttle" which apparently I miraculously avoided saying the first four times he brought it up. It was pretty impressive. I helped Sandy get John to say "sea cucumber" even though he knew the word and who had him by having her forge a messily written letter, part of which said: "…sailing in the Mediterranean sea…cucumber sandwiches were served for lunch…" then stuffing the letter into the package I got and having John help me decipher the handwriting. It was fabulous :-)


That was not exciting travel information was it? Sorry. It does give our group personality doesn't it?


Anyway, from Siem Reap we traveled to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum. (Short Factual Interlude: Pol Pot, a communist leader, came to power in Cambodia around 1975 and moved all city dwellers to the countryside in an effort to up rice production and create a communal society…Many died on the walk out of the city and many more were killed in his purges as he grew increasingly paranoid that enemies were everywhere plotting against him. Thousands were tortured and forced to confess to things they had not done before they were brutally murdered. Pol Pot was deposed when the Vietnamese invaded (for their own reasons: not wanting a two front war against China and it's ally Cambodia and so pre-emptively striking Cambodia which would be by far the easier adversary). The Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, located at the former torture facility S-21, were opened not long after. If my very cursory summary was not enough, I recommend a book I picked up in Siem Reap called Brother Number One which is supposed to be about Soloth Sar (alias Pol Pot) but, as very little is known about him, is actually mostly about the political situation in former French Indochina during the 20th century and is pretty informative and not too long. ) I don't want to try to describe the Killing Fields or the Museum here because I couldn't do it justice without getting a little more personal than I'm in the mood to. Needless to say it was horrifying, moving, confusing and upsetting for all of us. Actually, I shouldn't speak for everyone. It was all of those things for me and, judging by our discussion later that night, it was at least one of those things for most everyone.


From Phnom Penh we flew to Ho Chi Minh city. It was probably the shortest flight of my life. We went up, flattened out for maybe 2 minutes while the stewardesses served drinks and then we prepared for landing and landed all in about 30 minutes. We were greeted at the airport by Rylan, the head of CET Vietnam (another study abroad program and our program contact for this month…he's helping us organize everything including our partnership with another NGO called ENDA) and the three Vietnamese students with whom we'd be living and working. They seem more like program assistants than students in function, but they are all three college students in Ho Chi Minh. Their names are Tram ("Chum"), Vnang ("Vuh-nAng") and Phat (…"Fat"). I'm sorry if I'm spelling those horribly wrong. Then we bussed over to the "Government Guest House" where we're staying. No one seems to really know what that means, but it seems to be a hotel/meeting room facility with a restaurant on the ground floor. The girls are five to a room, the boys two to a room. Tram is in my room along with Alexandra, Liz, Katie C. and Emily. Vnang is next door with the rest of the TBB girls. Noah is rooming with Phat and the other TBB boys are paired up two and two. The boys get rooms with showers and refrigerators and we girls are in giant rooms with five beds (which can break, incidentally, because the legs are miniscule…Emily's is already slanted and mine creaks menacingly when I move), one bedside table, a dresser and four coat-hanger racks. Backwards? I think so! (To be clear, this is joking complaining and not sincere annoyed complaining…a distinction which is difficult to make in a blog…are rooms are perfectly adequate, well air-conditioned and well-lit. Plus, we've decorated them for the holidays. Both rooms have Christmas lights and my room has the lovely addition of the small menorah that was sent to me in a package. The other room made a coat-holder into a Christmas tree by draping it in a green hammock and hanging candy canes on it and put socks – er, Christmas stockings – on another coat-holder and filled them with candy. It's very festive. To extend this tangent: All of Ho Chi Minh city is Christmas obsessed. Every storefront is somehow decorted and walking down the street you hear Christmas jingle remixes blaring out of every third doorway).


ANYway, our itinerary changes daily which can be frustrating, but Robin, Sandy, Beth and Rylan are all being awesome about making the best of every situation and every change. As it stands now, we'll spend most of our time in Ho Chi Minh city save for a daytrip to the Mekong Delta on Saturday (this changed since we got here…it was originally a three or four day trip) and a week long excursion to Quy Nhon ("Kwee Nyon") where we'll be observing a composting facility and driving out to Son My, site of what Americans call the My Lai Massacre. We'll be having our Holiday Party in Quy Nhon, followed by three free days during which we can, if we so choose, do independent student travel. Sadly, Hanoi is a little far to get to by bus, so I think that particular travel destination is out of the question.


We spent our first few days having several lectures which were very interesting, getting two two-hour survival Vietnamese language classes which were great but from which I remember almost nothing (every time I try to say something in Vietnamese it comes out in Mandarin…), meeting with an economist, a guy who studies monkeys and a woman in the foreign service whose very appropriate name is Sunshine at the U.S. Consulate General, watching An Inconvenient Truth which I'd never seen and liked quite a bit, and meeting with ENDA (the NGO). The ENDA meeting was…interesting. A lot of plans changed after that – ours and theirs. It's fascinating to meet so many NGO heads and Americans working abroad. There are a lot of nutty people around. They're well-intentioned and may be doing great work, but they're still nutty. To be clear, we TBBers don't escape my glaring generalization of nuttiness. We aren't all so normal ourselves.


Anyway, as it stands now, we'll be having some sort of "conference" at the end of the month with us and Vietnamese students that Phat, Tram and Vnang will find where we'll be discussing environmental issues in Vietnam. Our media projects will somehow be incorporated into this conference (and so must be finished by then…) We haven't talked a ton about this and it's sort of vague – I don't quite get it – so I'm withholding judgment on whether I like the idea or whether it will work. I hope it does. I hope it's awesome and I'll do my best to make it so. I'm just not sure it will be. Open mind.  By the way, this conference idea didn't exist last week. I did say things were changing quite a bit. Luckily, our Fearless Leaders along with Rylan are good at rolling with the punches, not easily discouraged and have a wealth of creative plan Bs, Cs and Zs.  


I don't want to make it sound at all like TBB is not meticulously organized. It is. It really, really is. It's just that, as I'm learning, partnering out with international NGO's all headed by other nutty individuals and working in foreign countries with foreign cultures requires an incredibly level of flexibility, diplomacy and cheer. I have a lot of respect for Robin, Sandy and Beth (and Rylan and I bet Chris, too) for working night and day to make this work and to make everything as valuable an experience as possible. If everything were perfectly smooth, we'd be getting a pretty inaccurate picture of how the world works.


To bring us up to the present, this week is our service learning week in Ho Chi Minh. We've been split into three groups based on our media project groupings (the writing group being split apart and spread among the three). I'm Google Earth this month (the one medium I was not looking forward to and not one that any of our group is very gung ho about…Google Earth is not very intuitive to use and makes our choice of topic difficult because it has to be constantly geographical so that we'll always need a map to explain what we're talking about…still…think positive. Open mind. It may turn out awesome. It totally could. We'll see.) Anyway, my group is working with a guy named Steve who owns a company called Green Energy. We're split into twos and going around cold-calling restaurants trying to raise their awareness about environmental issues, but mainly trying to get them to let us buy their used cooking oil which Green Energy will then use to make bio-diesel. A lot of restaurants already sell their used cooking oil which often gets reused by street vendors (not at all healthy) and thrown in the street (polluting the water and often coming up out of the gutters after a rain). Mostly, restaurant owners and managers (who generally speak English in the area he sent us to because it's touristy and the restaurants are fancy) don't know where their cooking oil is going, although a lot of times the head chef is already selling it. Still, there's a fair amount of interest and most shocking to me, when we go into a restaurant (during off hours, of course) and ask to speak to the owner or manager, we're almost always shown to chairs and sometimes given water or even tea to drink while we talk. Today John and I (my canvassing partner) returned to a restaurant we'd visited yesterday to meet with the owner (who had been absent) and found Steve already there talking to the owner who had already called him at the number we'd left with an information sheet. So we got one, at least :-) The other two groups are doing something with trash collecting and trash sorting.


That's about it for now. I'll update eventually assuming I'm still around. You take your life in your hands every time you walk down the only occasionally existant sidewalk or cross the crazy motorcycle packed streets (where having all vehicles traveling in one direction in any given lane is a quaint notion and nothing more). Supposedly if you walk slowly across the street, everyone will go around you, but I'm not a fan of the putting faith in the fact that everyone else is paying perfect attention and is not drunk idea. Still, there really isn't another option if you want to go anywhere other than around the block. Ah well. We're all still here so far.


Merry Early Christmas and Happy Early Chanukah,



P.S. Don't worry about us not getting gifts. We're doing Secret Santas over the whole month. Fun!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Things That Are Up:

1. The podcast! (And the other media projects) Go to www.thinkingbeyondborders.org then go to "Student Voices" then go to China and, well, you get the point...
2. My photos from Shaxi and Cambodia (on picasa)

Under the category of Things That Are Not Up I would put, a new informative blog entry. Sorry.

~ Becca

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From Kunming to Shaxi (back to Kunming) and then to Siem Reap

Well, it has been a while, I'm sorry. I'll get right to it.

We had our farewell homestay banquet and I headed home to pack and give my family their gift – a Peruvian Chess board. They seemed a little amused by it, but when I explained what it was my host father said his son (my absentee host brother) plays and I suggested he could teach them. Then they wanted a picture with me (so I taught them how to use the automatic timer on their camera) and my email address. I guess they didn't hate me. The next morning on the way to the car to drive to the University where I'd catch our TBB bus my host mother asked me if my parents had been to China, which seemed odd, but really her point was that if my parents ever DO come to China, they're welcome to stay with her (are you listening, parents?). I reciprocated the offer (still listening?) It was really sweet, actually.

So after picking up a last round of the best University street food (a ball of sticky rice with sugar and one of the "Chinese Burritos" – a thin pancake cooked on a flat black slab, covered with a spread around egg, chives, parsley, a crunchy thing and plum sauce (I avoid the picked root and the spicy sauce)) we headed off on our 10 hour bus aventura. (Incidentally, "aventura" has become our word for a potentially less than thrilling adventure…as in "Where's Isabel?" "Oh, she and Sandy went on a hospital aventura" or "What exactly ARE we doing for lunch?" "I'm not quite sure…aventura!") The first 6 or 7 hours passed smoothly. I made my Top 50 Playlist and listened to more of They Came To Baghdad, the Agatha Christie audio book I started on our way out of Bua. (The Top 50 Playlists were, I believe, Katie R's idea…basically each TBBer will make a playlist on their iPod of their 50 favorite songs, or the 50 songs they think everyone should know…mine turned out to be the latter. I can't say that the Lip Gloss song is a favorite of mine, but it would make my life easier if people understood the reference…and I feel like it's awfulness will be fully appreciated by many group members…if you don't know the Lip Gloss song I don't know what to tell you.)

And then suddenly, it really did become an aventura. Brace yourselves. We hit someone with our bus. Yes. Yes we did. Driving to Shaxi mainly consisted of country highways where our driver would honk and make people get out of our way, except this time, the guy on the bike came right at us. Amazingly, our driver veered left enough so that only the corner of the bus hit him. It still didn't sound good, but he ended up under his bike on the side of the bus and not under the bus itself which seems to be the better of the two options. He turned out to be miraculously alright. He also turned out to be drunk which explained why he didn't move and also why he yelled at Yuen and Charles for at least half an hour. Luckily (if you can call it that), Sandy, Robin, Yuen and Sam hit someone with their van last time they drove to Shaxi and they learned a few lessons from the experience. First, people will act injured even if they aren't to get money. Second, you can't just call the police, you have to get someone local to call for you so they don't just look at you as some foreigner whose fault the accident must be. Yuen called a friend to call the police (because even Yuen isn't a local…she's a city-dweller) and the police came, took the guy to the hospital where his drunkenness was confirmed (as was his being otherwise alright) and we continued on our way.

We ate dinner at a restaurant that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere just outside of Shaxi, but by that time it was dark so I can't say for sure. It was lazy Susan family style, as all our meals in China were. Honestly, it's disconcerting to order food individually all of a sudden.

We arrived in Shaxi at about 8pm. Our families were all waiting in the main square to pick us up and take us to our homes. Katie C. came with my host mother/grandmother and me because all the families had been waiting for us for so long that hers had gone home (we were delayed by the biker incident…).  It turns out that she lived directly across the street from me and we ate nearly every meal together, one day at one house and the next day at the other. Our families may have been related, they may have been really good friends, or they may have found it convenient because they both had host kids at the same time. Who knows? In case anyone has missed this point, I don't speak Chinese and no one in Shaxi spoke much English.

Shaxi was not at all like I'd expected, physically speaking. I'd been imagining a Chinese Bua. They had been saying "rural China" an awful lot. I guess it was rural. There was certainly a lot of agriculture going on. But where Bua had one hundred and some families, Shaxi had 4,000. I heard someone say 22,000 people. Only in China, with its largest city of 30 million people, is that a tiny rural village. The roads were paved mainly with cobblestone and there were some trucks and a few cars. There were also a lot of alley-type roads much too narrow for cars or trucks to drive down. There were all sorts of shops selling traditional shoes, food, baked goods, cell phones…in the main square there was a store with a sign out front that said "We Brew Real Coffee." And it did. Shaxi has just started to get more tourists and with tourists, apparently, comes real coffee.

Homes in Shaxi are traditional Chinese style houses. They are square with beautiful carved woodwork and tiling and are centered on a courtyard. (That description reminds me a lot of Spanish-style houses and actually, they have a lot in common with regards to the layout). They were houses in use, in no way well-preserved relics. The barn next to my room had animals in it, the outhouse was an outhouse that ran into the field and the upper balcony was used to store corn cobs and to dry peppers. My family had a TV and DVD player in their living room area along with two worn out couches, a few stools, a chalkboard for my little host brother and a circular metal plate on a stand that held embers and was used as a personal heater. There was a refrigerator in the kitchen and running water from the tap in the courtyard which they boiled for cooking or making tea. I've already mentioned the outhouse. I'm not sure how showering worked, though, because it was very cold and I just decided to be dirty for four days. You weren't there so I'm not apologizing to you :-P

Families in Shaxi were more traditional than in cities as well. While in Kunming I lived in an apartment with only my host parents (though, granted, my maternal host grandparents lived a three minute walk awa), in Shaxi I lived with a grandmother and grandfather, a girl who I can only guess was their daughter who was about 28 and a little boy who was 7 (which is exactly what I guessed…I'm magic!). Three generations in one house – the way it used to be all over China. Katie had host grandparents, but isn't totally sure that they lived in her house. Her house was bigger than mine so they could have lived in a section she never really saw. She also had two host siblings, a twelve-year-old girl and an eighteen-year-old boy who goes to school in another city and comes home only on weekends. Rural families and minority families are allowed two children, not one, and the families we lived with qualified as both rural and minority (they were Bai).  (As a side note, Katie and I just talked and are guessing that my host mother/grandmother was her host grandmother's sister or something like that).

My little host brother was adorable and very attached to me. In fact, he didn't like Katie at all, probably because I paid attention to her. We played for hours with little rubber not-so-bouncy balls, kicked around a soccer ball (as I tried in vain to get him to kick with the side of his foot and not his toe), drew on his chalkboard and played hop-scotch, which I taught him and he seemed to like. I also taught him UNO, the card game, which was a little difficult considering the language barrier and the fact that he was only seven. It was entertaining for the hour that we played, though.

The "cultural center" in Shaxi, or rather, the guesthouse owned by Sam and Yuen, was our TBB hub. It was beautiful AND it had wifi. What more could you ask for? Actually, you could ask for a dog with a severe but endearing underbite named Shahu who just had a tiny itty bitty puppy the week before we arrived which we may or may not have named Tabibi (get it? TBB?). Before you get all huffy about me not being in touch, let me say we were pretty booked up in Shaxi. In addition to eating three meals a day with our families, we had seminars, met with the head of the local middle school (which has 1,048 students – there is no local high school), observed English classes at that school one afternoon, taught at that school the next afternoon, watched a movie called Baraka, visited an awesome Buddhist temple with real monkeys and a giant golden Buddha, had a farewell party with traditional music and dance and worked on our media projects (which should be up soon, by the way, although they aren't up yet).

A few of those listed activities deserve elaboration, so here it goes:

1) The Middle School: There are about 2,000 kids at all the local elementary schools combined and 1,000 at the middle school, which makes sense sine elementary schools are six years and middle school is three (seventh through ninth grades…sort of). They start learning English in seventh grade and while the teacher seemed like a pretty engaging teacher as far as teachers that must teach to tests go, her English itself was not very good and her accent made me squirm in the back row when she had kids repeating "com-pu-ter game-uhs" (computer games) and "theeze-uh" (these). (Sidestory: they thought that "computer games" was the word for computer…Katie C and I – yes, we were paired as teaching partners, too – tried to remedy that during our lesson but when we had the kids repeat the phrase we'd written on the board, "I play computer games on my computer," they all added an extra "games" to the end of it. I think we did eventually get the point across, though.) The Chinese also call ping-pong paddles "ping-pong bats" for some unknown reason. But hey, they're the ping-pong masters so I guess we should defer to whatever they want to call it. It was a little strange when it was in the lesson we were teaching though. (We just taught the next lesson in the book because that's what the school wanted us to do and we ended up teaching for one day and not two because Friday was randomly declared a school holiday for some reason I can't recall…Dali province something day or something like that…)

o   The principal also told us that they have "labor class" at the school where they tend to a hundred acre garden (Hundred Acre Woods anyone?) which I think is really cool. We just read some of Gandhi's "India of My Dreams" and he talked about the importance of honoring manual labor so that kids who go to school don't all think its degrading to be farmers or factory workers or artisans etc which I think it a good point and relevant to Shaxi.

2)  Baraka: It's an hour and a half, no words, all images of the world. Pretty cool and, since humans have a compulsion to link images into some sort of sensical story, pretty interesting. I recommend it to you if that sounds good. If it doesn't sound good, you probably wouldn't like it.

3) The Buddhist Temple: It was very cool. I didn't have my camera, but everyone else did, so I'll be stealing people's pictures at some point and uploading them. Pictures may be a while, though. Sorry.

4)  Farewell party: There was traditional music and traditional dance (some of which was Tibetan for those of you interested in Tibet, because Tibet borders on Yunan) and when they were done, we joined them in a traditional Bai dance that was 90% the Hora and 10% very similar to the Hora. THEN we had to reciprocate the musical section of the performance which we had not prepared for…so we tried and failed to do the Macarena and ended up singing "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" from Mulan…there were about 8 of us who knew all the words. Probably not the best choice of song for Shaxi, China, but they don't speak English so they'll never know. I believe, too, that there is a video of all this floating around somewhere…I'll let you know.

5)  Media Projects: I'm podcast group this month along with Renee, Katie R. and Alexandra and I am very proud of our final product. There was a bump or two in the road, but generally we were a well-oiled podcasting machine. The recording is seven minutes long, so I know you can find time to listen and when you do, please pay special attention to the balanced volume of all the voices as well as the beautiful fade-in and fade-out of the music at the beginning and the end (both clips of music are from Shaxi). I don't want you to think it was easy though, so I'm going to add that I got 6 hours of collective sleep our last night in Shaxi and our one night in Kunming before heading off to Cambodia.

Which brings us toooooooooooooo: CAMBODIA

There are many wonderful things about Cambodia.

The first has very little to do with being in Cambodia: we get free time! I have  (among other things) this blog to write (nearly Check!), TONS of journaling to catch up on, postcards to write, photos to upload and organize and our enrichment week book to read (it's called How To Save The World…I haven't started it yet because I'm reading a thinish book I bought called Brother Number One about Pol Pot which so far is very good and quite informative since I knew little to nothing about the Cambodian genocide or Cambodian history in general before getting here).

The second wonderful thing? Mango. Everywhere. They peel and cut them and sell them on the street as snacks. You can buy them at all the fruit markets. There is mango juice at restaurants. Coconut too. Coconuts hacked open on one side make a great drink/bowl. Nature's own design. But mango seriously takes the fruit cake.

The third wonderful thing about Cambodia? No one yells. Everyone speaks relatively quietly (relative to me, not relative to people in China who speak at a constant projecting-to-the-back-of-the-Pantageas volume). More than that, though, people here are seriously nice. It's hard to explain, but it's not just polite, its like a general level of genuine friendliness that's just higher than say, Los Angeles.

The fourth wonderful thing is that Cambodian style art is beautiful (it helps that Cambodian people are generally beautiful so the drawings of them get a leg up to begin with) and it's everywhere. Our bit of Siem Reap is Angkor Wat Tourist Town so they sell elephant and Apsara everything in stores and especially in the main markets (one for day, one for night). Apsaras, by the way, are mystical, mythical dancers that came from the sea of milk as the gods churned it and decorate everything from the temples at Angkor Wat to table runners. This makes gift buying substantially easier than I have found it in the past…Although Peru was pretty good, too…Maybe it's something about enrichment week countries…

Incidentally, in my Peace Corps ruminations, I had pretty much decided that if I do do Peace Corps (and it's still quite an If, I'm just a big planner…I have plans A through about G right now for after college) I would do Eastern Europe. The two countries I want most to visit/work in are Turkey and Russia, neither of which currently have any Peace Corps volunteers, so Eastern Europe was my next choice. Cambodia, however, because of the second and third wonderful things as well as the fact that I have a feeling that I could be of use here doing something with orphans or landmine victims or just…something…has moved up on my list from, well, from not being on the list at all. Just a thought.

I also ran into a guy when I was coming back from the market my first full day here who was riding a red motorbike and asked my name. I said Becca and made to continue walking, but he keep talking and we were in broad daylight on busy street so I kept responding. I was careful, please no one freak out. It turns out that he works with an NGO that runs an orphanage for children whose parents were killed by landmines (landmines may be one of the more evil things in the world). It's 60km outside of Siem Reap, but he was lent the motorbike to come into town to buy more English books for the kids. They were $1.75 each, he showed me a bunch, and his job was basically to get tourists to donate money. He showed me a several photos of kids and books and volunteers and a paper or two from the NGO. It's legit, so I donated some money and made sure he got my email address and that I got his. I want to look into it and may seriously consider coming back and volunteering to teach English. That's actually what got me started thinking about the whole Cambodia Peace Corps thing – how I would be making a real difference in these kids lives by teaching them English. They would be able to get a job in a tourist related industry, which is huge around here. What an impact compared to teaching a huge class of relatively privileged and test-stressed kids in China. I have been left with a serious urge to teach someone something after that slightly frustrating teaching experience in Kunming. Oddly enough, that turned me more ON to teaching, not off.

We also visited some of the temples at Angkor Wat as a group yesterday and then about half of us went back this morning for sunrise. The number of tourists is staggering and I've become quite skilled at cutting them out of my pictures. Still, I'm much more attracted to the ruined temples than the reconstructed ones and tourists generally flock the other way, so for the final day of our three day pass (before out Thanksgiving meal of course) I'm thinking of getting a TukTuk to somewhere remote. (A bunch of people are biking, but oh wait…) There is something very beautiful about giant trees growing out of ruined but beautifully carved stone. I can't put my finger on it exactly…Maybe something about the transitory nature of seemingly immovable and incredibly important things. Maybe something about the beauty lost and the beauty remaining…the fact that it is possibly more beautiful this way than it was in its full glory. Maybe something about the poignancy of the lives lived and forgotten in that place, the everyday lives of courtiers and servants and the royal lives of the kings and princesses all gone, all equally lost and yet all giving some sort of power to the ruined temples. I love to sit somewhere quiet, close my eyes, and see, smell, feel, the entire place in it's heyday. Then I open my eyes and I still see it (thank you Strasburg sense memory training) and I can sit in the quiet and journal. That sounds like such a good plan. I will try to do that tomorrow morning. Right after I finish up my own petty life's duties and take my dirty laundry somewhere where it can become clean clothing once again.

I'm taking lots of pictures, Dad, and I may have even gotten you a souvenir :-)

I've really got to skidaddle now. I'm going to watch a movie with Katie C. and Ian and, not to worry you, but I really need to check up on what's going on in Thailand. I heard something about a bombing at the airport and the airport being closed…apparently the coup that's been threatening to happen for months finally has. We're supposed to go there next month, in case you aren't up on the itinerary, so we'll see what happens with that. Aventura! (But don't take my word for any of this news. Check it for yourself like I'm about to…anything I've heard has come from random Cambodians just chatting about it).

As always, I want to be kept posted on all of your goings on!

Much love from Siem Reap,


P.S. You'll never EVER guess what I happened upon while popping into a convenience store to grab one of these amazing pomegranate green tea drinks I've discovered here: A and W Diet Cream Soda! I know…what? I wasn't even looking because I was SURE I would be seeing that again until May. So. Exciting! Add those two drinks to my list of wonderful things about Cambodia :-)









Thursday, November 13, 2008

In Case You Want a Visual...

I put up some more photos on picasa (http://picasaweb.google.com/becca.title). Hooray!

We're working hard on our media projects for this month and finishing up teaching here in Kunming. (Incidentally, today Noah and I were absolutely mobbed by kids after class asking for "signs" or "names" and sometimes email..."signs," for those of you not well-versed in Chinglish, are signatures...literally, they wanted out signatures...I signed someone's ping-pong paddle. I was also given a little hand-written note that says, "Dear Becca/I am China girl. Nice to meet you! I welcome you to China. I like your class very much!/A China girl, He Xiangmei" which was very sweet except that I think she spent class writing the note and not actually paying attention -- that class was also the worst class we've had yet. No one paid attention. The teacher never showed up and Grace wasn't there either so no one could translate or stand menacingly in the corner, their mere presence keeping the kids from goofing off...and we teach 7th graders so the translation comes in handy sometimes...so does the presence of actual authority...we felt like no one was paying attention or getting what we were saying and then suddenly, after class, mobbed! Ah well....)

The point I was trying to make, however, before that lovely digression, was that we will be leaving Kunming for our 10 hour bus ride to Shaxi ("Sha-shee") Tuesday morning, will come back Saturday night in time for our farewell banquet with Sam, Yuen etc. and then head to the airport Sunday morning to fly to Cambodia! (We say Goodbye to our families Monday night, so there's that farewell banquet, too...Saturday night we'll stay in the university hotel.) Shaxi is rural and we probably won't have much in the way of internet so you may not hear from me for a while since after Shaxi we'll be traveling and settling in somewhere new. I'm pretty excited for Cambodia -- Angkor Watt, relaxing in hammocks (we've been informed that THIS enrichment week we will in fact have time to sleep :-)), the killing fields (back to business). Then off to Vietnam. Also exciting!

Keep in touch and remember the photos!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Weekend Update: Kunming

Saturday Night, November 8, 2008

Hello there, again!


Lucky for my 3 loyal readers that I have a free weekend and a penchant for procrastination :-)


This week was fairly uneventful. Nothing big to report. I didn't teach Wednesday, Thursday or Friday because my school was having exams, so I had a little free time, which was nice. It helped me catch up on the sleep I missed during that crazy Quito/Machu Picchu/Three-day-plane-flight-followed-by-jet-lag period.


I went to something called English Corner on Thursday night. It's a weekly gathering of Chinese teens, 20-somethings and adults who want to practice their English, so finding an American (or Australian or Canadian or Englishman etc…) to talk to is like striking gold for attendees. The only problem is that there are some people I would rather not strike me, but by the time I figured out which people should be avoided it was too late, as you'll hear in a moment.


There were probably 250 people, although it was dark and difficult to really get a good estimate. Most of them are probably very nice and very interesting. A good number want to ask about colleges in the U.S. either out of curiosity or because they want to take a year abroad. One girl specified that she wanted to go to a famous University. Having just gone through the college application process myself, I tried to explain about the value of attending a school that's a "good fit" as opposed to one with a good name brand. She asked about transferring universities (difficult but not impossible, I told her) and about changing majors (not really that difficult at all). In China, you can't really change majors which is too bad because it seems that no one likes the one they've picked. Granted, I've only had the "do you like your major?" conversation with about 4 people, but they were four separate conversations at different times with students at different universities and no one was happy with their choice. The general complaint seemed to be that their major was too difficult, although I have a feeling the underlying issue is that no one had a major that they found interesting enough to make the work go quickly. In the U.S. most of us are lucky enough to get to choose a major because we find it interesting, hence the wealth of "impractical" majors like English (…and theatre…). Students with impractical majors may face the occasional "what are you going to do with that?" but those majors remain popular, nonetheless. I'm not sure how majors are chosen in China, but I would guess that people's parents have a lot of say and that pragmatism reigns supreme. The girl I spoke to at English corner was a business administration major, or something to that effect, and she told me she really disliked math. She had actually been an Arts student in high school (when students enter high school they are either placed on the math/science track or the arts track which is more humanities based). Too bad her major was math based. She asked what my major would be and when I told her I intended to double major in theatre and international relations she perked up. Did I think it was important to be interested in my major? …Well, yes. I told her that I thought I would be much happier if I was interested in my major since I would be spending the rest of university and probably the rest of my life studying or working in that field. She told me that international relations was where her real interest lay. I suggested that there might be a way to work in international business, that she should be creative with her career since just switching her major seemed out of the question, but it appeared that her plan was to go to the U.S. and change over there. All I can say is that that's a long way to go to change a major.


That short conversation reminded me again how thankful I am for the American system of education, with it's emphasis on a broad range of subjects. I spent a few weeks at Oxford during the summer after ninth grade and I fell in love with the city, but even then I knew I would never apply to university there. The British system, in which you choose a major before you even arrive on campus and study basically only that subject for the rest of your time, is just not for me. The Chinese system is not for me either. I like flexibility. I like being able to double major in two subjects that seem wholly unrelated and not entirely practical. I like being able to take a class in philosophy or linguistics or the literature and culture of Southwestern Pakistan just because it sounds interesting. I like it a lot, and I feel very lucky to have that opportunity.


Most of my time at English Corner, however, was spent being lecture by one of those miners you wish had struck gold with someone else. What I meant to say is that I was lectured by a 30ish year old man with one of those protective face masks around his next for a good 45 minutes about food security in China. Any time anyone else in the circle that had formed around me changed the subject (usually to Barack Obama) he would inevitably interrupt and bring the conversation back to food security. Ocassionally he would branch out to food security in the U.S. or even "ecology farming" (which is NOT organic farming and which I still do not really understand). I know very little about food security in the U.S. I know we have the FDA and generally I assume my food is safe. Maybe I should know more about where what I eat comes from. That is a valid point and I'm pretty sure we'll be discussing that when we study sustainable agriculture in India. We'll be reading parts of The Omnivore's Dilemma which I know at least touches on that because I had bits of it read to me by a friend on an airplane last year. However, as valid as that point may have been, I'm not sure that was the point he was trying to make. I have no idea, actually, what point he was trying to make and during that 45 minutes I learned very little about food security anywhere. All I remember is that people worry about it and that people in Kunming really like fresh vegetables and they go to the market every morning to buy them so markets are sold out by noon. Good to know. I finally escaped by telling him I had to go find my friends. (That was actually true because when I finally came up from my underwater lair of food security fears and looked around, all the other TBBers that had been near me were gone. I had an apprehensive minute during which I thought I had been left and tried to mentally walk the route home, but luckily when I stood on a nearby rock to get a better view in the crush of people I saw that Noah and David were still there…thank goodness for tall people, particularly in China. The blonde and the baseball cap didn't hurt either. And so I made it home without incident.)


As I think I mentioned before, we've been reading Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (or POTO, which slips more easily off the tongue). It's dense and I occasionally yearn for a dictionary, but it's very interesting. The big question (at least for me) that came out of our discussion Friday was this: Can one be an effective agent of change without being a martyr? Freire's theory is (I'm trying to summarize here…) that the Oppressors (which would include me because I wouldn't consider myself Oppressed and there is no Door #3) are dehumanizing both the Oppressed and themselves through their oppression, but that any change to the system must come from the Oppressed. An Oppressor can basically defect and be in solidarity with the Oppressed if he or she becomes convinced of the need to liberate the Oppressed (thereby making both the Oppressed and their Oppressors "more fully human" – a term he has yet to clarify and which I find annoyingly vague and hand-wavey), but it seems to be impossible, at least as I'm reading it, to be in solidarity with the Oppressed without cutting oneself off from Oppressor society. It's interesting to think about this in the context of Three Cups of Tea and also in the context of international development or even just community service. Is it possible to help people without being "one of them?" If I want to help the poor do I have to become poor, leaving the trappings of Oppressor society behind me? If I'm unwilling to do that, is there any way I can still help?


I hope I haven't butchered Freire's ideas too terribly in that summary. I'm interested to see what he says in the rest of his book, but I have a feeling it won't answer those questions for me. I think we'll be talking about those questions for a long time…the rest of this year, yes, but even beyond that. Thinking Beyond Borders asks on its website: What does it mean to be a proactive agent of change? No one I know thinks they have the definitive answer to that question. There may not be a definitive answer. But I know a lot of people who are asking and thinking and talking about it. Now maybe you are too :-)


On a lighter note, life with my Chinese homestay family is getting better. I think it's a combination of changing expectations (both on my part and on the part of my homestay parents, whom, after their talk with Charles, have been slightly less overprotective…it's interesting to have gone from effectively being an adult old enough to have two children in Bua to a child who should be studying and living at home with her parents here in Kunming…many of the TBBer's host siblings are in their early to mid twenties, after all) as well as very slight but very useful improvements in my Chinese, their English and my miming skills. I dare you to challenge me in Charades after this year. I dare you.


And, in case you thought China was sounding like all work and no play (we do have Chinese homework, POTO reading, journaling, lesson planning and media projects to work on after all) I thought you might like to know that I've had a chance to watch some of the (bootleg…shhh don't tell!) DVDs I bought last weekend. Last Sunday night I watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, last night I watched Notorious with Isabel (so, SO good…I just love Ingrid Bergman…and Claude Raines…and Cary Grant…) and I'm in the middle of watching Bridge on the River Kwai (which I did not realize was quite as long as it is and may not have time to finish before I turn this computer over to Katie C. in about an hour…bootleg DVD's aren't always entirely accurate on their package movie length estimates, apparently…I should have known better seeing as it's directed by David Lean who also brought us such epics as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago). I'd just like to point out that I'm risking not getting to finish Bridge on the River Kwai so that I could type up this blog post. Then again, I own it, so I can finish it whenever I can next manage to snag a laptop.


However, the exciting moment of the day for me (besides getting to chat with the 'rents and Annie, I mean…maybe…) was finding a pair of jeans that pretty nearly fits and has minimal writing, fading, stitching or sequins. I didn't bring jeans on the trip and I have regretted that since we've been in a city and not a rural area. REI pants just don't measure up to the fashion standards of Kunming…or of normal teenagers…but people in China are small and a lot of the jeans are very flashily decorated so I thought a good pair would be pretty hard to come by. I looked a little last week, but today I met with success. Hooray!


I think I'll leave you on that very uplifting note. I know it just made your day :-P


I would sign off in Chinese if I knew how,


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Little Break From The Concrete

Stepping back from the main plot line, I have some abstractions and side comments to share from the internet cafe I finally found in the first free time we've really had (thanks to the school I teach at having midterms today, tomorrow and Friday).

First of all, in case the news got here first, OBAMA IS GOING TO BE PRESIDENT!!!

Not being in the U.S. for the last two months (or, more specifically, being in a bubble of rabid Obama supporters) has made my anxiety about the election a little remote. While I consciously knew McCain could win, the danger was theoretical. I didn't feel it in my gut. Still, I'm ohmygoodness so excited. We got to watch a little of the election coverage on broken-up live-streaming from CNN.com and I saw both McCain's and Obama's speeches (or most of them, at least). I thought McCain's was really classy. In fact, I liked him far more during that speech than I did at any point during the campaign and I think he may have been more successful had he struck that conciliatory, hopeful tone during the campaign. Then again, I missed a lot of the campaign so take my opinion there with a grain of salt. (WITH a grain of salt? WORTH a grain of salt? I have the same problem with "speak my PIECE/PEACE..." Which is it?) Obama's speech was pretty good, too, although that was more broken up so it was harder to get the continuity. I did appreciate his story about the 106 year old woman, although I thought there was something in it that he could have hit a little harder...it ended a little flat for me. Still, I teared up while listening, and I know several other TBBers did, too. I think Obama will be great for a lot of reasons, but since I'm traveling I think I'll only touch on internationally relevant ones. Obama is going to be much, much better for our relationships with foreign governments than McCain would. McCain seems to have a 20th century view of the world, where America is the only superpower (since the USSR is gone) and where we can do what we want, generally succeed, and still have the respect of much of the world. We may get that respect back with Obama in office, but I think our superpower days are over and we have to accept that. It isn't really such a bad thing, is it? Additionally, many people I've met seem to think that the racial situation in America is stuck in the '50's. While it is far from perfect, I think we've made progress since then and electing an African American to the highest office in our country sends a message to the world about equality in the U.S. It feels weird for me even to mention that, because while I realize that we've never had a black president (or a female, or any other minority group at all, really), it doesn't feel impossible (and clearly, it isn't). I grew up in a liberal area in a liberal family with a lot of books for little kids telling me that I could grow up to be whatever I wanted to be. I came of voting age at a time when Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson and Barack Obama were all viable presidential candidates and that seemed totally normal. I'll take that to mean we're making a lot of progress. If having a woman and a minority battling it out for the Democratic nomination seems normal, if what I was focusing on was less that they were a female and a black man and more on their policies and, let's be honest, personalities, then maybe presidential races with four protestant white males are really becoming a thing of the past. Let's hope so. (Then again, I really liked John Edwards, so instead of hoping for the downfall of white males in politics, let's hope to move to a point where race and gender become moot because their distribution among politicians mirrors relatively fairly the population of our country).

Second, books. We're currently reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is not an easy read, but seems pretty interesting so far. I'll get back to you on that. We have also just finished a lighter book called Three Cups of Tea. The story was fascinating and having read it, I'm glad I did, but I have to warn you that reading it was painful. It is just terribly written. I don't know how it ever got published. Where was the editor with the red pen? There are bad cliches ("Was the glass half full or half empty?"...referring to an actual glass and intending to be deeply metaphorical), overly sappy passages and some very awkward transitions, all of which I found incredibly frustrating. As I read, I felt they took me out of the story (and a lot of my margin notes attest to that...I have many and "ew" or "why would you write that?" scribbled on the side of the page), but having read the book, I remember the story fondly. It was pretty darn interesting despite the writer's best efforts to make me put the book down. I don't know if I recommend it or not. It depends on how picky you are about things like this...but even I am glad I read it.

Third, language and homestays. As you might have gathered, my homestay here in Kunming is less than spectacular and it's gotten me thinking about homestays in general. In Bua, it was awesome to be able to communicate with my family well enough to have discussions about politics, environmentalism and life in general. I learned a lot from living and conversing with Germania, Wilson and the other Tsachila. It was also really great to get to practice my Spanish. In Kunming, I am clearly not having those complex and fascinating conversations. I can barely say hello. (I am trying to learn, it's just not that easy!) Other TBBers can communicate, some well enough to have those discussions, but those discussions are always in English because being able to communicate means that the host family speaks some English and not that we speak Chinese. While it's great to have that sort of give an take with people from other cultures whatever the language, something about coming to their country and expecting them to speak our language sits wrong with me. China's government is convinced that English is an international language and so now makes it mandatory to teach English in schools. Still, I would much rather speak Chinese in China. I know I can't speak the language of every country I visit; that would be too much to ask, but for me, at least, it feels important to speak the language when doing a homestay. I'm coming into their home, benefitting from their hospitality and it feels like the least I could do would be to communicate, however badly, in their language.

Speaking of benefitting from their hospitality, I'm going to be late for dinner if I don't get home ASAP and that would be rather rude, something I try to avoid being. So I'm signing out for now. Keep me posted on all of your news.

With hope for our future,