Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Techno, Loin cloth, Fire, and a 12 foot Python; Or Why Our Moon Festival Kicked Ass

Ok, well, it’s been a while. The new school year is in full swing, and it began with a bang. One of the first events of the year was our Moon Festival at the school. The Chinese calendar is based upon lunar cycles, and at the start of September is typically when the farmers begin to harvest their rice. They celebrate the end of the harvest with the Moon Festival, like a non-scary version of our Halloween. Kids dress up, families are visited, moon cakes are consumed (moon cakes are weird rice flour cakes that are very dense and salty/sweet. An acquired taste for sure. I can only get through about half or a quarter of one, even though they are only about 3 ½ inches in diameter), and in general, it’s a family holiday. Last year our school had a traditional dragon dance to celebrate. Dragon dancers are the guys you see in Chinatowns that form sort of a human dragon made out of paper mache and dance around to the rhythm of loud drums. It was pretty cool.

This year, the school tried something different, and hired three performers. A snake handler, a magician, and two jugglers.  The snake handler came out to pumping techno music, a Vietnamese guy wearing nothing but bulging muscles and a loin cloth.  Around the room, jaws dropped.  He starts gyrating around the room in his loin cloth, and it looked like a scene from a bachelorette party, but instead of horny bridesmaids, it was junior high school students. Then he breaks out the snake, a 12 foot long python weighing 175 pounds!  He dances around the rooms wrapping the snake around him, and then for the finale gets some kids to stand up, close their eyes, then proceeds to wrap the giant snake around their terrified, squealing bodies, letting it coil up around them, then pulling it off them. I’m pretty sure in the States, that would get your school shut down, but here, it was all in good fun. The kids loved it, and the staff was alternately gasping in horror, and laughing in surprise that we could actually get away with this.

Next act was a magician, who pulled a lot of doves out of things. Pretty standard, until he poured gasoline all over a box and lit it on fire. In our meeting room, with the flames reaching up to our drop ceiling, just next to the sprinkler system. Same reaction of horror/amusement from the staff, same reaction of awe from the kids. Again, I’m not sure you could get away with a guy almost lighting your school on fire as part of his act, but hey, we’re in the Wild, Wild East.

Luckily the school wasn’t burnt down, and we went to the third and final act, jugglers. Jugglers, bah, what risk or adult themes could this bring? None. Unless…He misses one of the bowling pins he’s juggling and almost knocks a student out with it, and then they begin to strip down to nothing but their boxers as they’re juggling and then juggle their clothing back and forth as they put their clothing back on. Oh Asia! So unintentionally adult themed and dangerous! 

 I have to admit though, I do kind of appreciate the fact that there is no “culture of safety” like we have in the West. I mean, some basic level of safety preparedness is good, about at the level that we thirty-somethings had when we were kids. You could still trick-or-treat at night without parents tagging lamely along, and playgrounds had monkey bars and climbing obstacles higher than 3 feet. Yeah, you could get hurt, but that’s life, most kids don’t, a few do, they heal, and life goes on. Now, it’s Litigation Nation, and Always Someone Else’s Fault. But not over here. Of course, here there’s still no sidewalks and random bottomless holes in the middle of the roadway, so there’s a happy balance to be had somewhere.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Englishisms, Part 1

So it's been a while.  I got back to Hanoi about a month ago after spending a great summer in back in the States with my friends.  But now it's back to the Wild, Wild East, and the frontier style teaching that comes with it.  Textbooks?  Library?  Computer Lab?  Bah, who needs them new fangled edu-macation things?  Students and teachers, one could argue, but they're not an option here, so I continue Little House on the Red River style.

Anyway, one of the more painful things I have to do is teach kids how to write research papers.  Research papers are something they've only had to do if they are in Western schools, and that very rarely.  Vietnamese education tends to rely exclusively on memorizing and testing, rather than understanding.  So, they don't really get the idea.  But that's my job, to teach them how to write, and not just copy and paste an article from Wikipedia, as they are so prone to do.  I doubt that's just an Asian problem though, I'm pretty sure that's an Internet Generation problem, but I wouldn't really know, as I don't teach in the West.  Anyway, here's some pretty good Englishisms I've had so far, all unintentionally hilariously created by my kids in various papers I've had them write.

"The most techonoligcal nation is Finland, althuogh this country was exposed to industrialisation only in the 1050's."

Question, Who in the planet uses the most water?  "In conclusion, people use the water most."

When discussing clean water and poor countries "Firstly, they are still retardation countries, so they don't have ebnough money to buy water."

When discussing special ed.  "In Korea, they have some special schools for Autism, aspergers, handicapped people, and retards."

When discussing soil pollution, "The reason  is soot of cars and factories, chemicultivation, shampoo, and so on."

About Climate Change  "I think we are trying to make the world worse if we don't know how to contribute to climate change."

About Asian diet  "Nevertheless, we are Asians, our father's like dog meats, that's disgusting to me, but some of my friends like it."

About the Vietnamese culture (written by a Viet student):  "But Vietnamese are very lazy, and don't try to learn about new things.  When we go to foreign cultures, people think we rude because Vietnamese people so loud all the time.  And Vietnamese so greedy, they rather live like rats than to spend a little money on nice things".

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Farewell to Kings?

So, on a non-Vietnamese note, I just finished watching the movie, "The King's Speech", and while it was a good film, it got me thinking about how stupid people are.  Most things probably do get me thinking about that eventually.  But a thought I couldn't help thinking throughout the movie was, 'Why does anyone give a shit about the king?'  Now, that's probably just my American upbringing, combined with a healthy dislike of authority, but really, what's the deal with kings?  I mean, it was one thing 400 years ago when you didn't have much of a choice because we are all dirt farming peasants under the control of some guy who controled a lot of bloodthirsty goons in armor, but today?  Still? 

I know, I know, 'But it's a national symbol, etc' but haven't we outgrown all that?  Hell, the bald eagle is a  national symbol of the USA, and our patriots shot the damn thing to near extinction.  Yeah, we're done with our kings, but we've replaced them with our Hiltons and Oprahs.  Which makes me think, it must be something attached to the human condition to make us worship people we don't know.  Kings and celebrities could never exist unless we wanted them to exist.  Unless we make them real, they don't exist.  And why do we need them?  Do we need to always gaze at someone or something we imagine better than ourselves?  A king, a rock star, a religious icon, a sports figure, they're all versions of the same thing.  And chances are, if we knew them personally, without all the bullshit cult of personality stuff, we most likely wouldn't think they're that great.  Not anymore than you idolize your neighbor or coworker.  Not bad people by most accounts, but worthy of a poster with their smiling face in our bedrooms?  Not likely.

So, why do we put up with that from others?  Is it because everyone else worships them, and like insanity, it's amplified by a crowd?  I've met a few minor celebrities who I didn't even really care about, but when I met them, I even felt that "wow, I can't believe I'm talking to X", like a kid.  Is it because we think we're not as good as them?  That they possess some special magic that apparently everyone else has given them, so we should too?  It must be something pretty deep in us as a breed.  Maybe some mass-cultural desire for a Great Father or Mother figure, some figure of overwhelming wisdom and perfection.

There's been social movements and even other Great Father figures who've encouraged us to smash our Great Fathers.  Most of them started in a bloodbath of anger and revenge for duping ourselves.  The French filled the streets of Paris with their royal blood, the Russians, Chinese, Americans, and Vietnamese amongst countless others have all seen it fit at one time or another to murder their Great Ones, and within a few years, return apologetically with our hats in our hands, asking for their forgiveness.  The King is dead, long live the King.  Replace one with another.

So, will this combination of idolation of strangers and loathing of ourselves and our neighbors be an eternal cycle repeated throughoutt history, or will there come a time when we finally get tired of paying attention to the lives of others, and start focusing on our own lives?  Will there come a time when when we look to ourselves for the answers to the questions only we can answer?  Maybe, but probably not for a long time if even a cynical bastard like myself can get star struck... 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Vietnamese suck at driving, according to the World Health Organization

 So, at the start of my time here, I marveled at how few accidents there are, and how the traffic seems to work out pretty well, in spite of the sheer chaos of it all.  Well folks, research and experience has proven me wrong.  In fact, the World Health Organization noted that 36% of all deaths in Vietnam, between the ages of 15-29, are accidents.  And that is significant, as something like 80% of the country is under 30.  As a whole, 25% of all deaths here are accidents, in any age range.  For comparison, about 4% of all deaths in the US are accidents (including firearms deaths).  So basically, Vietnamese die like flies.  Imagine all the people you know who have died, and now imagine 1 out of 4 died through an accident.  Most of these are traffic accidents, with drowning followed second (Almost no Viets know how to swim, there are a lot of water bodies here, but most are too polluted or gross to swim in, and it floods all the time here).

Morning rush hour is crazy.  If you don't like the way we drive in Hanoi, stay off the sidewalks...For real.  Sidewalks, if they exist, and are not blocked with parked motorbikes or squatter cafes are a legitimate driving zone here, but with the parked bikes and "cafes", that's only about 5 meters on a hundred meter "sidewalk".    No one knows how to drive here, cars or motorbikes, but the car drivers and bus drivers, due to their sheer size, are the worst.  They are all first generation drivers, so people apply the same rules they do to walking or bicycling to driving a car or motorbike, like blowing red lights, driving on the sidewalk, driving in the wrong lane, and all sorts of madness.  An excerpt from UNICEF's website about traffic deaths in Vietnam sums it nicely (with parenthesis by me) :

- Limited awareness of road safety and its high death toll in Viet Nam  (there is no concerted government effort educate people about driving safety, at all, but plenty of propaganda about the glory of living in the Worker's Paradise, after all they have to have their priorities straight)

- Limited knowledge of traffic rules (the driving test here is this :  Can you drive a figure eight?  Yes?  You pass, that's all.  I'm not joking.  And that's if you actually go through the hassle to apply for a legal permit, as opposed to simply bribing the appropriate person to get a license.  I assume that's the most popular method with the rich car owners.  Although, many of the nouveau riche types in Hanoi can't drive, and instead, have their own drivers)

- Limited knowledge about safe driving behaviour (A very smart thing here is that people drive on whichever side of the road is most convenient at the time.  Head on collisions are the most common accident death here.  People will also pass someone, who is passing someone, who is passing someone, so essentially, the road goes from being a two lane to a single one-way in the course of two seconds.  Not to mention, cars rarely stay in a lane, they prefer to drive down the center stripe, in order to try and pass the motorbikes-even though they are immediately then passed once the whole road slows down because of people practicing the same behavior, but more on Asia's "Me First!" attitude later.  And last but not least, we have the Vietnamese "No Look Merge".  The proper way to merge into traffic here is just to barrel into traffic without actually looking at the traffic first, with the expectation that the people approaching will stop for you.  Sometimes they do, and sometimes that causes accidents, sometimes they don't, and the merger gets run over.)

- Fatalistic view about traffic accidents. Many people do not understand that these injuries are preventable. (This is also very Asian.  They believe strongly in Luck and Fortune.  If your baby got sick, you obviously did not burn enough spirit money to please the ancestors-it has nothing to do with the fact that no one washes their hands.  If you get sick, it's because the weather "changed" by 10 degrees, not because the meat you eat was kept on a hot sidewalk, inches from the sewage filled gutter, all day long.  Not making that one up either, most raw ingredients are sold on the street, and animals tend to be butchered on the street, or in the back yard rather than a proper slaughterhouse, but that's another article.  Anyway,  everything here is "lucky".  There is little sense that you can change your destiny, because in reality, you rarely can in such a stratified society where people die everyday due to "accidents".  Everything seems like an act of the gods, from your economic position to traffic accidents)

- Unsafe traffic environment and poor road infrastructure. For example, traffic warning signs are rare and no safe areas for pedestrians.  (You'll be driving down the road, and SURPRISE theres a gaping hole in the road, umarked by any signage.  You either notice it and don't die, or don't notice, and die/get injured.  And I'm not talking a "pot hole", I'm talking like open manhole covers, etc.  If you're lucky, someone has stuck a tree branch down there, so people will notice and avoid.  Oh, and also, street signs don't exist either.  Also, there are no sidewalks here, so you are forced to walk in the middle of the road as a pedestrian, competing with speeding buses, cars and motorbikes.)

- Use of motorcycle helmets is extremely low in spite of good quality, locally produced helmets.  (The reason for this is obvious for a Vietnamese.  A helmet will restrict growth of a child's brain and neck, and for adults, it will mess their hair up.  I'm not kidding, these are the actual quoted reasons why parents won't let their children wear helmets.  Because traumatic brain injury will only help a child's brain grow, i guess.  Although helmet use has improved here due to crack downs, most of the helmets would make NO difference in a crash, they are basically baseball helmets, ill-fitting with no padding.)

- Poor enforcement of traffic rules.  (Occasionally, I see people pulled over by the cops here, and i wonder, HOW BAD DO YOU HAVE TO DRIVE TO GET PULLED OVER!?  Seriously, do you have to be going the wrong direction, through a red light, weaving, with 7 people on the scooter, while talking on a cellphone  and not wearing a helmet?!)

And I'll just add in one last thing, the honking.  People honk their horns all the time here, it's just non-stop honking, all the time.  This isn't deadly, but it is annoying.  I'm not exaggerating this, wherever there are vehicles here, people are honking just as a way of driving.  Instead of turn signal, honk, instead of looking where you're driving, honk, in a traffic jam, honk, to pass someone, honk, while being passed by someone, honk, if someone in front of you is driving slower than you want them to, honk.   Especially the car drivers, who drive around just holding their hands on the horn, blaring so that all the motorbikes in front of them get out of their way, although the motorbikes outnumber the cars 100 to 1 and are almost always traveling faster because they are more maneuverable through the traffic here. 
But the person in the car is rich, and so, the inferiors on their bikes should move.  And they do, because it's a society of inferiors and superiors, masters and servants.  To illustrate this, ambulances here are completely pointless, as no one moves for them, or if they do, it's to chase ahead of them, or behind them, while if there is a government official, or a VIP in traffic, they get a motorcade with cops  on motorcycles using batons to beat anyone that does not move out of the way quick enough so they can whip through town. Seriously.  It will be an amazing testament to my self control if I make it through two years here without pulling a driver out of his car and curb-stomping him, for holding his horn down as he drives behind me.  I just hope it's not a VIP.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Back Alley Slaughterhouses and Bear Paw Booze

So, I've decided to create a blog for more short posts, just general, every day weird stuff I see over in the Wild Wild East.  I'm aided in this by one of the world's most entertaining newspapers, the Vietnam News.  This is the official English newspaper of Vietnam.   EVERYTHING here goes through the censors first, website, newspapers, magazines (if it's an international magazine, and it has something unpleasant about the Worker's Paradise, they will simply have someone black out the text with a sharpie, FOR EVERY SINGLE MAGAZINE THAT ENTERS THE COUNTRY!  Seriously, that is a whole department of the government here, guys with Sharpies who cross stuff out of foreign magazines), and art too.  All the art galleries must have their exhibits pass the censor's muster before they are allowed to hang anything. 

Anyway, the Vietnam news is great.  Even with the censor's heavy hand, they have some of the most bizarre stories around.   Most of the news is good (they, like media outlets all over the world, are great at lying by omission, they don't make up stories, they just don't tell you the WHOLE story).  But also there are these other true articles which mention horrific things happening here.  Like the percentage of food found to have e.coli bacteria on it (30%!!!) here.  So, without further ado, here are some great headlines from the Vietnam News!

"Shoppers happy to pay for clean meat. July 6 2011"
"Dinh Tu Cau, who resides on Tran Duy Hung Street, decided she had seen enough slaughtered pigs as "pillion passengers" on motorbikes and even dragged along the street without any protection....It's impossible to buy hygienically slaughtered meat in markets, which is the most popular place to shop for food. It can only be found at a small number of supermarkets or food chains scattered around town...Ha Noi's five qualified slaughtering centres can currently only meet about 1 per cent of demand for pork and about 7 per cent for poultry...."
--So, yeah.  You wonder why I get sick all the time?  Even when I eat at western-style restaurants?  That's the reason.  If I had a nickel for every street butcher's wares displayed on the sidewalk, inches from the sewage filled gutter, which in turn, is inches from the motorbike filled, exhaust choked streets, I'd be a rich, bacteria-filled, man.

--Speaking of meat, here's some more disturbing news I have first-hand experience in.  Keep in mind, most of these animals are endangered.
"Wildlife consumption rampant in HCM City May 25, '11"
"Well educated, middle-aged people and public employees tend to consume wild animal products more frequently than their less educated brethren as well as people of other age groups, a survey has found.  Nearly 51 per cent of 4,062 local residents polled said they have used wild animal products, consuming them as food, drink and health supplements, or using them for ornamental purposes.  Wild animal health products such as bear bile and tiger bone gelatine were taken by 7.5 per cent of people, while 1.5 per cent had used fashion and ornamental products made from wild animals.  Nearly 3 per cent have kept them as pets.  Snakes, wild boars, stags, deer, wild chicken, spot-billed duck, lesser coucal, porcupine, bear, civet, weasel, fresh water turtle, python, and monitor lizard are among wild animal species that are most widely consumed.... The consumption of wild animal products is also related to social pressure, curiosity and emerging habits and tastes.  Others said they brought business partners as a prestige symbol."
--Yeah, that's the way to impress people here in Asia.  The more endangered the better!  And by the way, a lot of this stuff is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.  I bet they don't teach that at the yoga center TCM classes in Portland.  I got to experience a little Taste Of Endangered when my new landlord, a real nice old Vietnamese grandpa who speaks no English, invited me and my friend in for a drink as I was moving in.  He comes in waving a severed bear paw (Asian black bear, endangered due to the magical TCM properties of their stomach bile) which had been soaking in a jug of rice liquor.  He puts two large teacups full of the stuff in front of us, waves the severed paw (tendons and all) at us, and with the little VNese I understand, I gather him saying that "It makes you strong, good for the man!"  Well, I wasn't too excited about this, but to refuse his hospitality, especially on the day I am moving in, I thought would be rude of me.  So, we drank the teacup of Bear Paw Booze (with little bits of hair and bear parts floating around, yum).

It wasn't horrible tasting, but a double shot of it was more than enough.  Immediately after finishing it, he refilled out cups.  Ugh.  My buddy gave me "please, help me" look, and I felt obliged, since he was helping me move, so when my landlord wasn't looking, I gulped down my teacup (by this point the 'uniqueness' of the taste had worn off, and it was now plain vile), and quickly dumped his into mine.  As for the "makes you strong like bear" part of it, not so much.  I still had 3 trips up 4 flights of stairs, and was ready to puke by the second trip.  A few days later, my landlord kindly gave me a bottle fillled with the stuff (minus any large bear parts), wishing me much good fortune in the new house.  Being a good traveler can be hard on the stomach.  That was the second most disgusting thing I have consumed in Asia so far (the first was raw duck blood and guts soup).