The Older I Get; The Less I Know

Many of you know my fascination and appreciation for Northeast Asia cultures, in particular Korean. My  first visit to Asia was 20 years ago, visiting Korean Airlines in Seoul, for a business-related trip. I found the South Koreans a marvel to work with and I ended up finalizing a NOTAMs product for them.

Father and Daughter

Twenty years earlier every stereotype I held about Europe and Italy in particular, was dashed on the bus ride across Milan from one airport to another. How could the New York Times have been so wrong?  Thus, I was a bit better prepared for my first trip to Korea. I’d even read a book, “Culture Shock Korea”, which turned out to be very good for that trip and started a long-term relationship with the people and the country for me.

I’m embarrassed to admit now, that before that, I had lumped the cultures of Northeast Asian: China, Korea and Japan, pretty much together.   Hard to imagine that, when 10 years later, I even had a Korean language program in my 100% Black and Hispanic school in the Bronx.

Quitting Time at the Factory

Fast forward to the present. For my first foray into Southeast Asia, I knew to leave everything I thought I knew at the door. I read a number of books this time. I was helped with my correspondence with Trinh. It was obvious even then that it was a whole new world.

Vietnam seems like I guess Korea was back in the 1980’s, maybe how Italy was in the 50’s. Countries pulling themselves up by their bootstraps with a population that was dedicated to hard work and sacrifice.  I have also learned that in spite of the convenient geographical reference of Southeast Asia, Vietnam is really culturally and linguistically closer to Northeast Asia: China, Korea and Japan.

In my first weeks here, as I became more accustomed to the heat, humidity and motorbikes, I started to see far more similarities to Korea than I would have guessed before. Initially, all I saw were differences, but within weeks, I realized it more like 90% similar, 10% different.

One of the big differences is the culture of the motorbike. They are popular here because of cost and they work because the climate is warm enough year around.

It took me a while to get my head around the system. At first it seems like no system, but anyone who has driven a motorcycle knows, mistakes hurt. You don’t have two tons of steel around you to protect yourself from your own stupidity.

At the simplest level, the rule is don’t hit anything you can see. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. What amazes me is the total lack of any road rage or even emotion. It’s just a very cooperative system. I’ve been on a road that is already narrow, with motorbikes reduced to one line to get around some obstruction and someone is that line will get a cell call and just stop. Now everyone must also get around them, but there are no words, not even any looks.

I’ve always thought that NYC is a cooperative place to drive. Drivers int eh middle lane, will move left and make room for the car in the right lane, if they see the right lane is blocked. Most other places that doesn’t happen.

So, I’ve have finally gotten my GoPro going and will upload the videos I make to my smug mug site sooner rather than later. The other good news is that I have many Videos made on Dauntless also that never saw the light of day because they were inverted. I finally was able to fix that.

I would appreciate any suggestions (please email me) on the best way going forward to post my action videos. You Tube Channel??

This is a static video showing the intersection by my cafe.

Here is the link to my motorbike adventures

Anyway, enjoy and let me know.

 

 

Tet – It’s Not Only a Holiday; It’s an Adventure

Yesterday as I was watching my girlfriend Trinh prepare the food at her grandmother’s grave, I realized how much my perspective has changed since crossing the Atlantic.

Food laid out at her grandmother’s grave

I accept a level of uncertainly, magnitudes above, what I would have been comfortable with even 10 years ago.

The cemetery is about 20 minutes from Trinh’s mother’s house, where we are staying these days of the Tet holiday. Trinh and her mother had been cooking all morning. Finally, they meticulously packed a large bad hat would sit between my legs in front of me on the motorbike.

We set off. I had been to the gravesite two days previously, so I thought I knew what was going to happen.  Upon arrival, I see the box of cookies we had left the previous visit. Obviously, her grandmother hadn’t eaten any. Yes, I was being flippant.

Incense was still burning; Trinh mentioned that her step-brother, must have just been here. I never knew she had a step brother, but what the hell, I’ve only known her for little more than a year!

Trinh proceeded to unpack the bag, which contained not only food, but plates, utensils, clothes and even money. When you’re dead who knows when you may need extra cash.

In spite of my flippancy, I really like, respect the Asian reverence for the dead and elderly. It was one of the differences (in my mind) between western and Asian cultures and a reason I became so attracted to first Korean and now Vietnamese culture.

After 15 minutes, Trinh was putting the final touches on the dinner. I watched as she meticulously spooned a little fish sauce seasoning on the two main plates, a tuna steak and a plate of sautéed squid. Looked so good, I thought it a shame to waste.  Knowing the Vietnamese don’t waste anything, I was surprised.

She poured little glasses of wine and water, giving the old water to the potted plants, and refilling the glasses with fresh water.

When everything was done, she lit the incense and did her little prayer ritual.

Then, just as I was thinking we were ready to leave, she started to undo all the work of the last 15 minutes by putting all the food back in the containers it had come it. Nothing wasted, even the little sauce, went back into its’ little bag.

(two short videos of her getting it ready, then putting it back)

Putting it all back

Surprised? Not really, more like bemused. After my first Atlantic crossing, I learned to not be surprised at anything. I also learned to not complain about anything. When I dared complain about the 12-foot waves, they became 18 feet.

Mother Nature taught me as only she can: Be grateful for what you have, because it can always be worse.

Oh, I can still be as miserable as I want or as the situation dictates, I just can’t express how bad it is. Can’t even think it, for who knows who is reading your thoughts nowadays.

Those three storms, each a day apart, in the North Atlantic in the last week of August 2014, re-forged my brain.

New Yorkers grow up in a culture of excellence. That’s because we complain about anything that isn’t top notch, price notwithstanding. As teacher, then principal, I took that attitude with me. I did what was best for the students and built the teachers into a successful team. I complained to the powers to be about policies and procedures that were not conducive to student learning. I was listened to. While we had a reform minded Chancellor, that was very effective; but as soon as that Chancellor left, the reactionaries returned and I was out within 6 months. My only crime was my naivety that results (graduation rate from 40% to 70% in 4 years) would speak for themselves.

Food, money, wine, water, clothes and of course money (in USD of course)

Dauntless was the crucible that helped me through that abrupt change in life.

Three years later, on the North Atlantic, heading to Ireland, this was the forge. I would become accepting of what is or else. Now, this doesn’t mean I accept just anything. More than ever it simply means that if I’m not happy with a place or situation, I need to not be there or accept that I can’t change it.

Thirty minutes after arrival at her grandmother’s grave, now, really ready to leave, I still had to ask, with a little smile on my face, but what happens if she is still hungry? Trinh answered deadpan, “she ate”.

That was that. I knew what we were having for dinner and it was quite tasty, though the tuna was a bit drier than normal!

The North Atlantic taught me not to complain; to accept. The North Atlantic opened me to the possibility to be in an Asian culture in which even when I think I understand, I don’t.

I watch, observe, but don’t judge. I assume I don’t understand the full situation at any given time. I keep my questions simple, where do you want me, when?

I never ask why. Like waves on the ocean, it is, what it is, could be better, could be worse. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else, but don’t try to change it.

Maybe the Happiest Day in Vietnam Since the End of the War?

And for once, that may not be an exaggeration.

Yesterday, Vietnam beat Qatar in the semi-finals for ASEA U23. I think it’s the first time Vietnam has ever been in the finals. It was a very close game and the Vietnam team kept on coming back each time they fell behind.

But I had no idea the town, HCMC, would go so wild.  When Trinh asked if I wanted to go out and check out downtown, I said sure, I’m always up for an adventure.

These pictures and videos show the traffic, at a density I have never seen before. The main road we are on is a road I take a few times per week, sometimes at rush hour. The traffic is heavy and slower (10mph instead of 20 or 25mph!), but this gridlock, this number of motorbikes and people on the road was astounding.

I was also struck by the number of families out. It was clear from how people were dressed, that many had picked up family members after work or been picked up.  Many, like Trinh, had gone home to pick up her son, Thien, after his after-school tutoring that ended at 7:00 p.m.

We only got about halfway to our intended destination, by then I realized it was more about the experience and not about the place.

The final will be Saturday afternoon. I’m sure it will be interesting.

A few more pictures and videos of the crowds can be found at: https://dauntless.smugmug.com/Vietnam-Life/Asian-Cup-U23-Semi-Final-Victory-Celebration/

 

On a side note. As a proud American and military veteran, even after 9 months, I still have mixed feelings of seeing the (North) Vietnamese flag flying. This night there were more than I’ve ever seen, hundreds of times more than on Independence Day. But in spite of that history, in all my travels around the world, the Vietnamese here in Ho Chi Minh City, (Saigon) are the friendliest to Americans I’ve ever encountered.

Ever.

Markets in HCMC

I am amazed by the markets in HCMC.

 

If you Google “markets” about 10 show up. The problem with Google or any trip app for that matter is that they do well with the stuff on the bean path, but once off that path, fuhgeddaboudit.

Therefore, even the reviews must be read with “a grain of salt”.

I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. Just remember that the key to live successfully in a different culture is to accept what is, as is. Every place I’ve ever lived has advantages and disadvantages compared to somewhere else.

Vietnam is no different.

Vietnam has really grown on me.  The people are so very nice, curious and so very hard working.

On this trip to the market, Trinh (pronounced “din”) was looking for pork chops and some squid.

A few things that stand out:

  • I see you bugs or flies, ever. Maybe Agent Orange did them all in, but will so much meat hanging, I’ve never seen even one fly.
  • Trinh touches and feels closely anything she is interested in.  I realize the first step in her fantastic cooking is the selection and preparation.
  • Any place you can walk, a bicycle can go, anyplace a bicycle can go, a motorbike can go.
  • products, produce from China is plentiful and is usually less expensive; but is avoided whenever possible.
  • Fish and shellfish need to be brought early in the day, from 06:00 to 10:00, not after.

 

People waiting outside the market
Trigh gets some chopped garlic
Three different types of garlic. Bottom basket is from Vietnam, as is the red garlic. top of picture garlic is from China. It’s cheaper but is to be avoided.
traffic jam

the clothes section