Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Thursday, February 15, 2007
So as a result, I had a dwindling workforce as the week wound towards Thursday. It wasn’t a big deal on our parts – since most of our work is with schools and other government partners, there really wasn’t that much to do outside of officework and catching up on reports and papers. But there was still enough left with random minor emergencies and last minute meetings and engagements to keep me on my toes. And you could see the slow winding-up of that rubber band inside the staff members that remained in the office as the number of preparation days wound themselves down.
So as work was winding down a bit, the life of people outside my office was gearing itself up. For Vietnamese, as is the case with almost every country that has been influenced by our capitalistic and material modern society, as the amount of time allowed to prepare for holidays dwindles, there is a proportional increase the amount of “conveniences” that are made available in the form of consumer goods to help make up for that shortfall. I began observing those tell-tale changes coming to the items being stocked in our local supermarket a month ago – first just a larger quantity of unopened boxes waiting in the wings, then some unusual baskets that I hadn’t seen in supermarkets before, then an increase shelf space allotted to the candies and snack foods, and finally the all-out deluge of gift baskets, specialty items and fancy alcohols.
Meanwhile, out on the streets, the changes became more pronounced beginning about 10 days ago. My first indication that something was afoot was the amount of traffic on the main road outside of our office – and the late hours that that traffic continued flying by. Then, the Karaoke bar across the street started keeping its tone-deaf customers and late hours again.
Finally, last Saturday it all became official. The local “mall” and the green market were absolutely flooded with people pushing New Years-y items and even more people determined to buy them all. Out of nowhere grapefruit and other things I couldn’t hope to identify started appearing in the fruit stalls. Then the crème de la crème: the New Year’s trees.
I have no idea whether this idea is related to the Western Christian Christmas tree idea, whether one inspired the other or whether they grew out independently. Regardless, now the streets of my city are lined with people selling blossoming cherry trees, some chopped off, some with their roots wrapped carefully in bags, for families to take to their homes and decorate (with many the same items as Christmas observers use) in honor of the Lunar New Year and approaching springtime. Then, on the corners not already full of squatter cherry tree sellers, are the miniature orange trees. These to me seem slightly more happy trees as at least they have a chance of prolonging their lives as they all sans exception have their roots at least carefully bound in a rucksack, if not secured in china pottery.
But I hardly criticize - I who have happily dragged away a large number of rootless evergreens for my own holiday revels. Still, I will admit a slight chagrin when I admit that I am now the proud owner of a large specimen of hacked-off cherry tree which, being too large to be brought up the stairs is at least making my dungeon kitchen a little more cheery.
I am also holding out a bit for the post-holiday period when maybe, just maybe, the price of the miniature oranges will drop to such a point that I could hardly say no to rescuing one…or two…or more. Too bad my dark dungeon kitchen would only be a death sentence to these little darlings as they certainly would help cheer it as my soon-to-whither cherry is.
So, even if walking down the streets of my town currently gives me that same nasty headrush that entering Walmart on the 23rd of December does, it does help that you get a strong whiff of bracing citrus zest that bolsters you and keeps you moving through the throngs towards that long-forgotten goal that suddenly doesn’t seem nearly so important. Not quite the familiarity of evergreen, but certainly a scent of the season. And as a persistent rain has settled in to help welcome the spring time, a bit of bright orange with white blossoms is hardly unwelcome by anybody.
And it was with that kind of feeling that we here in ADRA office in Cao Bang made it through this last day. In consideration that not much work was likely to get done staring at a computer screen, I called on the remaining staff to give the office a good cleaning – a tradition of sorts to help welcome the ancestors and to sweep out an remaining bad spirits. And, as we were doing that, I put them to work on doing a thorough office inventory in hopes of actually figuring out how much of everything we have and to which project it all belongs. The staff really enjoyed breaking out of desk-jockey mode and putting the building to rights – and I will say the place certainly feels better for it. We also moved things from the hallways and pathways into designated storage areas, and now the office actually feels more spacious. A good way to work into Têt.
But as they left this afternoon, I was left exhausted and feeling greatly in need of a restorative spring. Tonight the rain is falling steadily on the roof, mercifully drowning out the worst of the karaoke and keeping the traffic on the road to a minimum. This may be my first quiet night’s sleep in over a week – and for that I will continue pray for rain until this holiday has set in a people can leave the commercial centers and begin observing the true traditions of home and family – in villages, far, far away from here.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
And this week my staff took me all the way up to the border to get a better look. We were up in a district observing several project activities and we scheduled in a lunch picnic at the Bản Giốc Waterfall on the actual border of
The ride was fun and smooth – very little traffic and generally a very good road. The wind was almost warm (the US has been suffering a major cold snap, but northern Vietnam has gotten a mid-winter heat wave – 80 degrees by this weekend), the company was pleasant and our projects were going well. Almost too soon we pulled up in front of a large impressive building – the
We were welcomed by one young Mr. Linh who I was excited to meet because of the bit of histoire that was developing between him and one of my translators. Unfortunately she couldn't be with us for this trip, so while he was perfectly cordial in welcoming us, he couldn't help but show he was just a bit disappointed that I had betrayed him by bringing a different translator. I gave him my most abject apologies (she was off in
Yet, I found the dry season to be of huge advantage for exploring. If it were fully wet we wouldn't be able to climb to the top and get as close to
The river level was quite low, and we could easily see the Chinese tourists looking at the waterfall from the other side.
I will be excited to go back there as the seasons change and see the change in the falls. I've seen pictures from almost every season, and it is truly a beautiful and relaxing place to spend a few hours. Plus, a nice reminder that there is a border nearby even if I never actually cross it.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
I woke up on Sunday to discover the power was out in our building…not that much of a surprise as the power often is off one day of a weekend per month… we were due. Yet, our generator is supposed to come on automatically when the power goes out, but while I heard it come on, it shut itself off again almost immediately. Because I had a Skype date with my parents I tried to start it manually, but I only got 15 minutes of power before the internal circuit breaker on the generator flipped and refused to stay on. I figured that was a bad sign, so I gave up.
My new Japanese housemate and I made lunch with supervision provided by our nosy (but fairly pleasant) next door neighbor – ahh, the pleasures of having an almost-public kitchen on the ground floor. That in the end was fine – we just made spaghetti and it was fine except for we had to try to fry the garlic bread instead of toast it in the electric oven. Things started going downhill when our nosy neighbor pointed out that his compressor for his motorbike washing business was working again, so the electricity was back on. Except that it wasn’t in our building.
So we ate lunch, and then I went down to investigate. Ali had warned me that sometimes our generator/electrical system was touchy, so I first checked to see what was going on down there. Sure enough, the lights on our super high-techy electric box were lit, but no juice coming out. So I flipped some switches and pushed a few buttons. Nothing. So I opened up the box – and looked at the rows and rows of wiring. I found a couple of circuit breaker switches – and noted that they were all (except one) tripped. So I pushed on – and the power came on. I let go and it tripped right off again. Great.
Time to call an electrician. Oops, wait Erica, you’re in
The next guys who showed up at least had a volt meter, so I took that as a good sign. Not that they looked a heck of a lot more confident, but some of the right equipment was a start anyway. Turns out the system they installed in our office was installed by a company in
The started tearing into the board, pushing this and prodding that. And a lot of the time, just staring. I’m amazed at the ability for men from any race, country, ethnicity or creed to develop fascination with boxes. It doesn’t even seem to matter what the box is really like or what it contains (as anybody who has watched a man who married a blond will attest), but they can spend hours doing nothing but stare at it. And if one man is staring at a box, then every other man who passes by must stop and stare also. Soon we had some 10 men standing in a tight corner of our motorbike park, staring at the lights on this box (which refused to change). I should’ve taken a picture. The poked and prodded some more, then finally asked permission to do what they should’ve done in the beginning – disconnect the generator.
I’m not sure if it’s just what my translator was saying, or if they guys were actually concerned, but according to her, they didn’t want to disconnect the generator in the electric box because they were afraid that I wouldn’t want the generator to be unavailable as a back-up power source. Well, now come on. So, the problem at the moment is that the power is not on in the building, apparently because the generator is disrupting things, but the generator itself isn’t working, so it can’t give me power either. Duh – so I would like power from whatever source I can get it, preferably from the city power source, and the generator is a nice thing to have, but not essential.
So they took out the little box that connects the generator to the rest of the building system. And voila – the lights came on. And sure enough, the little box with all the generator controls was a small mess of fried wires and melted plastic. Something overloaded (the generator, apparently) and the circuit box was doing its exact job.
I’m sure I missed half of what all was going on due to a lack of translation (my new translator isn’t trained to keep me in the loop so well yet), but some of the questions she “translated” for me seemed downright funny – like them telling me that now I won’t be able to use the generator while they were holding the generator box in their hand. Well, yeah, duh – not like I was able to use it before either. Sigh.
Anyway, it’s over and the lights are on. The guys are going to try to repair the box, but I think we need to look at repairing the generator first. After this all got started and while the guys were busy staring at the box on the wall I asked my admin assistant when the last time the oil had been checked or the air filter had been changed in the generator. Or any other maintenance for that matter. Apparently not for over a year. And it has been running rough, if at all, the last couple of times the power went out but nobody has made any effort to address these problems. Today about 15 minutes after I started it, the AC circuit breaker tripped on the machine – but the machine was running so rough (bouncing up and down) that I wondered if the physical movement of the machine had flipped the switch. So I shut down, flipped the switch and ran it again. Again, about 10 minutes (enough for me to get downstairs) and the power was out again – and again the AC circuit. So I’m not sure what was chicken-and-the-egg in this – if the generator is overloading and fried the circuit box down below, or if the circuit box got damaged and the generator circuit breaker got flipped accidentally, but this week we will be servicing the thing before we try hooking it up to our building’s electrical systems again. Or if I can get that translated correctly we will.
staff members who accompanied me and cheered as I cleared the figure 8 and
the smiles of the testers (who may have just been amused to be watching a
white person navigate a figure 8), I must've passed.
The whole thing started kind of funny. I took a key to a bike and went down
and jumped on and decided to take it for a warm-up spin in our neighborhood
while waiting for everybody who wanted to come to make their way down the
stairs. When I came back from around the block - whoops, only one biker was
left waiting for me and nobody was left to drive me to the testing ground
(I'm still technically illegal to drive - especially TO my driving test!).
But they all laughed and said it was their plan - my warm up was to be the
drive to the test - don't get in a crash now! Well, we made it without
It was kind of a strange atmosphere - I didn't really know what to expect,
whether I would be the only person taking a test or if it would be a zoo.
Zoo won - I never guessed that so many people in Cao Bang didn't have their
motorbike licenses - and it wasn't just a bunch of first-time driver kids
either. In fact, most were middle-aged men and women (more men) who looked
like they should've been riding for years. I mean, how else had they gotten
around for the last 20 years of their lives? And many of them actually
looked wobbly and tentative, not like they had simply been operating without
a license either And the thing is, they do that same test tomorrow and then
next month and next month ad next month...I suppose for the amount of
wobbliness it could have been a bunch of repeat test-takers, but really, not
So we showed up and had to wait. And wait. So I did a couple of practice
figure 8s. Now that was fun - there are 2 practice 8s painted on the ground
and about 10 people using them at any one time - 5 per 8, and seriously,
that 8 is not very big, so it was a very crowded. It's one thing to be
navigating the tiny 8 on your own, but when you have to worry about the
other guy crossing your path in the middle every time...and that other guy
isn't exactly in the greatest control of his bike. It would be fine if it
was in-and-out 8, but no, the last chunk requires you to backtrack on the
part of the eight against traffic - that caused a lot more traffic jams or
close calls than the middle crosses. And it actually would have been fine if
everybody lined up and did their eight and out, but no, some people just
kept going around and around and around... then some people started at the
starting point, others just jumped in at random (thankfully all going in the
So after all that excitement I was still waiting. Like I said, half my staff
accompanied me to the test for moral support. So, we had 5 or 6 motorbikes
for all of us. So I decided I was going to choose the motorbike I was going
to use for the test. So I systematically went through all of the bikes we
had with us. The one I had originally was running too rough for me to be
really confident in it. Another one was surprisingly heavy - really good
control around the corners (nice and smooth), but getting into the 8 at the
odd angle required was touchy - I tended to just drive straight on out. Then
there was the motor scooter which was fun, but not really appropriate for
this test. Then there were 3 other bikes of the same make, both which I
really liked and handled well with a good brake. I finally settled on one to
use for the test - and just in time because my name was called.
Like I said, they were all amused to see me. There was a bit of a panic
trying to get me all checked in. My staff members had gotten bored so they
took off to grab street food on the corner. My translator wasn't there when
my name was called so the admin assistant who had stoically waited with me
whipped out her cell phone and called the translator while dragging me over
to the judge's table. Turns out what I needed to do barely needed
translation: sign here...sign there...again...and another time here. Then
they asked for my Vietnamese car driver's license - good thing another staff
member with a bit of English was there, so it came out as "paper for know
Then fun was over. It was time. There was sudden silence as I took my turn -
ahh, I love being the center of attention. Fortunately I didn't freak too
much and while I didn't drive as smoothly as I would have like, I did it!
And like I said before, if I was at all worried, my staff gave me reason not
to fear when I excited the 8 and the whooped and cheered and basically
embarrassed the heck out of me while other people were beginning the test.
When I finished the whole course they cheered again and I had to hush them
up so that they didn't disturb the people on the course behind me. Sigh.
Then they proceeded to translate the comments of all the other people
standing around and watching (and some of the judges' comments).
But it's over. And then they left me to drive away by myself again - I was
like, is this really okay, to be leaving your test (you still have to wait 2
weeks to actually get your license) where they KNOW you don't have your
license yet, driving out onto the open road? But they didn't stop me and now
I can only hope they don't penalize me by not giving me my license.
But I drove safely all the way back - only to be cut short at a red light
right across the street from our office. So I pulled the trick of making a
right turn thinking to just whip around the block and come in from the other
side. But no, they chose that day to clean our street with compressed air
and there was such a mess of dust that I had to pull up short, do a u-turn
and circle back again the other way. At least it was a good joke for my
staff who were seriously wondering just how I could have gotten lost when I
was just across the street behind the other two people a minute ago. Serves
them right for running the yellow and leaving me behind...
So, there you have the getting-your-motorcycle-license-in-a-foreign-country
story. And thank goodness it's over. That's an experience I only need to
Saturday, February 03, 2007
Okay, humor me for a minute. Let’s play a little word association game.
You say: War.
Okay, stick with that theme. Then I say
You say World War II. Now I say
I am sure that some of you, when you thought of me moving to Vietnam as an American, had to wonder about what it would be like to live in a country that worked so hard to kick us (and our democratic or whatever ideals) out, physically and diplomatically, for so long. Would the experience be uncomfortable for one or both sides?
The short answer to that is, frankly, no. This issue really is subtle enough that I need more time in this country before I can fully express it, but let it suffice for now to say that the Vietnamese have been very preoccupied with protecting their homeland for the last couple of thousand years – sometimes from Cambodia and other Asian dynasties, more often from China – and these have all been very serious threats. The American War, for them, was a very brief blip, if a somewhat nasty, chemical-y blip. Really, the only blatant effects of the American War was to solidify Ho Chi Minh’s place in Vietnamese history and the warrior-poet’s place in karaoke music (more on that in a minute). The Americans went away to some place far over there, and the Vietnamese continued on in their lives to normalize relations with their more threatening neighbors.
Still, it can make for interesting moments. Like the karaoke nights I mentioned above. The Vietnamese are a very romantic people and all of their karaoke songs are dreadfully slow and sappy, usually involving lots of slow-motion shots of people walking through the rain looking like their lives are about to end, mourning the loss of or the inability to win their heart’s only love. Really, it makes Malagasy music videos look like the MTV music awards in comparison. Such as, most of the songs can’t even come up with their own original footage, but have to steal the same clips of men walking depressed through the rain or women waiting in vain at the bus station for their true love to come and rescue them.
But the Vietnamese also have a long history of glorifying the poet-solider. The man (or woman) who spends all day clawing their way through the mountains/forest/jungle teaming with unseen foes, and then nights around the campfire composing songs or poems or inspiring speeches that give their fellow soldiers the courage to face another day of death and hardship. Several of these songs are very popular, and several of these songs specifically refer to
Yet it is funny, and occasionally a bit awkward when my staff and Vietnamese friends are busy singing their hearts out to one of these songs – and all of the sudden realize they have an American sitting in their midst. They get this look of momentary horror on their face (and usually I haven’t even been paying attention – I don’t understand what’s being said after all!), and look at me to make sure that I’m not about to disown them. I always just laugh and the singer looks relieved and they continue on; the feeling is remains for me – there is baggage there.
So, there’s my everyday contact with the Vietnam/American War in my life here. But now let’s add another dimension.
I have been to
Yet, then came the scene, right after WWII ended, with the occupation by American forces and the Osaka city streets and okiya filled with American GIs – and that sudden uncomfortable feeling of sitting next to Tomoko and watching this play out. Not with the faces of the stately and ordinary elderly veterans than we’re so used to seeing, but with the faces of people our age, that made it look like it could have been yesterday. Maybe Tomoko didn’t even notice, but I sure did.
Now, a final dimension:
This dimension may have had more weight with Tomoko because it started when Tomoko first saw my family name: Brewster. She asked what ethnicity it was. I explained that it was English, but that I’m half German. Silence. With Tomoko there is a lot of silence, so it may have meant nothing. But later, while watching the movie, they played soundclips from radio reports about “our friends, the Germans” and other WWII propaganda – and suddenly the concept had weight with me. So now we have made it full circle. We have an Austrian-German-American and a Japanese (who really didn’t have anything to do with WWII) sitting on a couch in northern Vietnam where both are working on a development project to benefit a people that spent decades in isolated poverty instigated by a war with the same country that had so much to do with the change in culture in Japan after WWII and is now affecting a large part of the capitalistic influence in Vietnam. Between the two of us and our connection to the Vietnamese staff, we represent so much of what has happened and what is currently happening (wrong or right, only time will tell) in the world. That is a lot of energy for one small place to contain.
It is moments like this, when all the pieces come together, that make me realize just what a small world it really is. You may think yourself as too far away from the opportunity for these things to coalesce, but there they are, waiting for you. You can go to the far corners of the earth, but history will always meet you there. God is history and history is God – you can climb to the mountains, run to the seas, go to the east until it meets west – but the earth, time, and God are a circle and you will meet your self both coming and going.
In the end, though, we represent another generation of energy – and I can only hope that this generation has truly learned from the experiences of the recent and not so recent past – and will be able to help direct that energy in a different direction. On a small scale, we are all people bridging differences to work together and share our skills to reach a common goal. Our goal must be based on history and in the future, but by stretching between the east and west it will bring both ends of history together. Finally, whatever that goal may be, it may be the act of working towards it that has the most effect in the end.