Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Thrice Dead Kỳ Sầm

The 10th day of the first month of the Lunar calendar marks the end (finally) of the new year's celebration in Vietnam, which means that shops are slowly reopening, the ADRA Cao Bang staff will finally stopped whining about being the only office employees back at work, and, of course for the people of Cao Bang Province – the festival to commemorate one home-grown national hero, Mr. Kỳ Sầm.

The temple memorializing this long and many-time fallen hero is only a few short kilometres outside of Cao Bang Town. He might also be described as an almost-completely-forgotten-except-for-the-very-local-locals national hero. One aspect of the Vietnamese national pride is the sheer number of national heroes that have been immortalized through their almost constant struggle to maintain their separate identity through almost a millennium of invaders and occupiers. To best disperse the national pride to the common people, there are enough of them for each of the small communities to claim their own hero and each of the time periods during the last thousand years to boast at least a few. And, as time embellishes almost all greatness or wickedness, the less contemporary the hero the more legendary and mythical they become.

Kỳ Sầm is no exception to the small-town-hero-gone-big-time rule. According to the local telling, Mr. Kỳ Sầm was a great warrior who lived sometime in the 12th/13th centuries AD, during one of the many wars/incursions of the Chinese into northern Vietnam. It's not clear if was born in the northern lands or if he travelled there as an army general and fell in love with the people and the lands of the north and became the biggest champion of their cause. Either way, he inspired many warriors and lead many into successful battles against the Chinese, driving the invaders further and further back into Chinese territory.

In honor for his great achievements in war and in uniting the peoples of the north lands, Kỳ Sầm was granted governorship over a vast northern territory. He brought together the ethnic groups to create a province to stand against the forces to the north.

Yet, despite his great leadership, the strength and persistence of the Chinese was not easily overcome, and the war became long and drawn out. Even the great Kỳ couldn't inspire the young men to remain forever in the never-ending effort to protect and expand the homeland.

In time there came the build-up to an exceptionally important battle. Kỳ, in his preparations for the vital encounter, called together his advisors. "If I am killed in this battle," he directed them, "do not bury me in the ground. Simply lay me on the ground among the other dead and leave us there." His advisors thought with horror about the possibility of losing their great leader, but they agreed to do as he said.

As Kỳ foresaw, he was indeed killed in the next great battle. All the people mourned his loss but promised to honor his great leadership and victories in the way he had requested. They left the great Kỳ Sầm and all of those killed in the battle in their place on the field and promised to remember their leader through all time.

Three months later the Chinese again threatened the communities of the north. The people trembled in fear not having the great warrior to protect them. Then, just as they were about to surrender to the invaders, an army came riding over the hill lead by their hero and all the warriors fallen in the last battle. Kỳ Sầm had resurrected himself and his entire army to return and defend his people again.

But battles never end, and despite Kỳ Sầm's amazing victory after his resurrection the army was soon called upon again to repel the invaders. Again Kỳ called together his advisors and gave them this direction: if I am killed, bury me in a reed marsh.

And again the armies were victorious, but, in accordance with his prophecy, Kỳ was killed. The people mourned him and once again obeyed his instruction and buried him in the wasteland marsh area full of reeds beyond the rice paddies.

Months passed in relative peace. Word travelled to the Chinese side that the great warrior Kỳ Sầm was dead, and slowly the Chinese generals began to amass and army for an attack that would, if successful, finally place the northern lands under their indisputable control. The armies once again began to move.

This time the people looked with hope towards the lands where Kỳ Sầm had been buried. Many of their sons and brothers and husbands were dead and gone, but maybe simply the miraculous return of their leader could inspire further miracles on the battlefield.

And his people were not disappointed – almost before their eyes the great man appeared before them, walking out of the marsh. An even greater miracle was following him: all of the reeds of the swampland stood up as he passed and as they stepped into formation behind him, the greatest army the northlands had ever seen materialized. The Chinese army was defeated where they stood – half died from the shock of seeing such a great vision, the other half were killed by the ferocious courage and strength of the reed soldiers.

The following years passed in peace. Slowly the pain of the defeat was forgotten and again an invading army was amassed. This time a plan was made and the front attack aimed at the great northern leader, cleanly beheading him where he stood.

The leader did not fall. Rather, he bent down and picked up his head where it lay on the ground. Leaving his army to battle the invaders without him or his head, he walked back to his great house.

He went directly to his mother and presented his disembodied head to her. With great supplication he asked the woman that had brought him into the world if there is any way that a head, once separated from the body, might be restored to its rightful place. His mother looked with cold pity at the headless son standing before him. "A bamboo stalk, when cut, may regrow from its stump, but a man can never regrow a head."

This bitter finality angered Kỳ Sầm and his head spat a curse at the woman who had raised a mighty leader. "If this is the way you love your flesh and blood, let the only offerings made to you after your death be of manure and the excrements of the lowliest cows!"

And with that, the great leader died for the third and final time. The people mourned his passing by building a temple to him on the high mountain from which he had lead his resurrected army to rescue his countrymen from their enemies. To his mother, his final promise was kept – a second temple was built in her homeland where people made only offerings of animal dung in memory of her inability to help her son.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Year of the Rat

Here are some highlights from a fun article about lunar year 2008: Year of the Brown (Earth) Rat

Turbulence ahead for Year of Rat, Chinese astrologers say

HONG KONG - CAUTION will be the watchword for the Year of the Rat, the new lunar year that begins on Thursday, as Chinese fortune tellers predict financial and political rumblings, tsunamis and epidemics in the year ahead.

The reason, they say, is that water and earth - two of the five elements Chinese mystics believe are at the root of all things - are in conflict in 2008.

'Earth usually conquers water, but it is too weak to control the rat, which symbolizes the most powerful water,' said Mr Raymond Lo, a Hong Kong master of feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of trying to achieve health, harmony and prosperity by the arrangement of dates and numbers, building design and the placement of objects.

Year of Rat start of a booming year in Vietnam Tran Quang Thieu, 54, director of a rat extermination company on the outskirts of Hanoi, was revelling in the Vietnamese belief that the rodent population multiplies during a lunar rat year.

'This holiday will mark the start of a booming year for us, so this is a special Tet,' Mr Thieu said. 'From a spiritual standpoint, I hope that our rat-killing techniques become more popular this year, so that everyone can protect their crops, factories and businesses from being ruined by rats.'

Mr Nguyen Tien Phat, who sells freshly butchered rat at a village market in the northern town of Bac Ninh, shrugs off any notion that more rat will be eaten this year than any other. They've been eating rats there for centuries, boiled and flavoured with ginger, lemon and fresh herbs.

'Those who like it will eat it, and those who don't, won't,' said Mr Phat, who sells rat for US$3 a kilo (S$4.25).

Rats are sneered at in the West as filthy, despite the hit Hollywood animation 'Ratatouille,' which showed a more refined side to the gutter-dwelling rodent. They are revered in the East, however, for their anthropomorphic characteristics of wit, charm and ability to amass great wealth.

People born in the Year of the Rat include authors William Shakespeare and Truman Capote, actors Marlon Brando and Cameron Diaz, Britain's Prince Charles, climate change champion Al Gore, and former US President George H.W. Bush.

Welcome to the Year of the Rat

Chuc Mung Nam Moi! And if you can’t remember what that means, you might want to check out a few of my posts (1 and 2) from a year ago. But, Têt comes around on an annual basis, and tonight it has arrived yet again in full force.

Têt arrived with a literally explosive *BANG* tonight as at the stroke of midnight the town began shooting off several billion Vietnamese dong worth of fireworks over the river. I was in Cao Bang for Têt last year, but due to some cost-saving measures, the annual fireworks display had been cancelled. So I felt doubly fortunate this year to discover that the fireworks were back on the agenda and that my new house has an almost perfect view from the upstairs balcony. Rachael and I enjoyed an almost 10 minute display of continuous bangs and sparkles ricocheting through the sky, bouncing off of softly floating lantern balloons drifting through the thickening smoke.

After the tremendous display, Rachael and I dropped down to the street to watch small children playing with and teenagers jumping through the shower of sparks sent off by smaller fountain fireworks and to look at the mini-offerings placed outside the doors for the ancestors. I was just about to photograph a few of them when Rachael screamed, “Behind you!”

The next thing I knew we were in the middle of a war zone. Without any warning to us or the other neighbors, the owner of the house across the street had lit a huge firework charged with 20+ rockets in the middle of the street. Each charge screamed up about 30 feet and exploded at about the third story of my house which was directly in the line of fire and sent showers of hot ash bulleting out of the sky while the spent charge was propelled out into the street, many barely missing us. Rachael and I were trapped between a house and a parked car with our only options being to cower where we were or run back into the line of fire. Talk about friendly fire.

The whole show probably lasted two minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Then, just as the box was winding down to its last pops, four motorbikes and a cop car pulled around the corner. Obviously whatever thing this was wasn’t so legal – considering the fire danger something exploding at barely roof level or lower, I’m hardly surprised it attracted attention. But the police simply waited for the charges to stop firing, then circled around and stared at the people on the street (mainly, the two foreigners, uh-oh), grabbed the spent box and drove off. We were surprised and gratified that it got a lot of attention, for all the good it did.

And with that our new year was off with a bang. Tomorrow the feasting begins, as do the responsibilities of shine care-taking that comes with house ownership. But more on that tomorrow.

(Thanks to Rachael for saving my life and for the pictures...)

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Honeybee Among Flowers

As you might remember from my past posts, ADRA in Vietnam suffers from an extreme imbalance in the male:female ratio. We are so tipped to the female end of the spectrum that members of the ADRA team can't even seem to give birth to sons anymore. And despite tremendous efforts, recruitment of suitable male candidates to fill vacant positions only wound up hitting repeated walls. Until last month. Finally we found a crack in the dike and pulled in our first new male hire in the Cao Bang office since my arrival a year ago.

We currently have two projects working out of our Cao Bang project office staffed with eleven full-time workers (including me) and one volunteer - all women. It was the peer education training project that was in desperate need of new field coordinators to join the team of five women. Then three weeks ago, our self-described honeybee arrived. Phong, a young graduate from Hanoi's public health university bravely agreed to leave the city behind and venture into the wilds of the northern provinces and into the equally daunting wilderness of an all-woman office. I left for Hanoi the day he arrived, leaving him to dive in and sink or swim as he would.

I returned to Cao Bang with a bit of apprehension about how our newest member would be doing. I was much relieved to find to all appearances, and extremely well-adjusted young man joking along and generally holding his own amidst the almost extreme girl-yness that can take our office by storm. Having a guy around has proven useful to the girls in all of the stereotypical ways - someone to reach things on high shelves, carry boxes, fix motorbike helmets and do other minor repairs. They've also recruited him to chauffeur some of the girls to the more difficult communes in the bad weather. His natural good humor seems to keep him floating along quite well as the ladies go on about their boyfriends and husbands and general gossipy bits of their lives. He puts up with and even seems to appreciate their obsession with clothes and makeup and other things that most estrogen-soaked beings can't seem to get enough of. And our office is absolutely drowning in estrogen. And, at least for a start, he seems to be quite capable and competent technically for what we hired him for.

I often worry about the staff we hire from Hanoi who can feel even more the foreigner in a place like Cao Bang than myself. Fortunately our last two Hanoi hires have begun to adapt themselves to the life here - and Phong, at least for a start, is taking to it very well. His estrogen-full days haven't left him seeing pink in the evenings, and last night we found him at the shop outside our offices where his apartment is, happily playing pool at the tables outside. He invited Rachael and I over for a quick round. Phong now has the honor of being my first employee to teach me to play pool - and he's not a half bad teacher (because I'm really bad at pool!).

Tonight our three Hanoi-hired staff departed for a long Tet holiday at home with their families, and they left me with renewed hope for the continued genial working atmosphere in our office. Changes to the office make-up always chance tipping the balance, but I have strong hopes for the continued productivity and camaraderie that keeps our team here strong. Now, if we can only find a few a bit more testosterone for the mix and still maintain the balance and amicable energy - I didn't realize social organizer was in my job description.

Rain, rain, go away…

I have had that old children's lyric, ´It's raining, it's pouring," running though my head non-stop for over a week now. It may be snowing enough to cause a Chinese-sized national disaster in China, but that means it is cold and raining in northern Vietnam. Temperatures have not gotten above 45o‑F (8oC) during the day and the rain just keeps coming. The damp means nothing is dry, and there's just nothing like warping yourself in a cold, damp towel after a hot shower.

I am back in Cao Bang after two cold and rainy weeks in Hanoi. Every time I enter the office in the morning I say a prayer of thanks for my new home. In all my new place isn't that much warmer than the office – I only have heat in one room in my new house and have to rely on a small space heater that really only makes psychological difference in my bedroom – but when I step into the entry way at the office with the chill breeze chasing through the open grillwork on the front door into the kitchen, I am eternally grateful for solid doors and windows and no wind blowing through my new kitchen and dining room.

I do have heat in my office, which makes work bearable. The damp chill is miserable, but I would tolerate it if I had an active job and a warm bed to return to at night. Instead I have a desk job and a damp, chilly room. The small heater makes a world of difference, although I haven't figured out what to do for my toes that freeze underneath my desk while the top of my head roasts snugly under the breeze from the heater.

The other thing that makes life bearable here is tea. Copious, obnoxious amounts of tea. We boil water almost continuously and pour bucketfuls into thermoses that almost immediately gets transferred into cups. I must drink a liter and a half of hot water per day. Green tea, strawberry tea, mint tea, Lipton tea, random herbal tea, you name it. My most exciting find last week in Hanoi was at literally 5 pm on my way home after a long cold day of shopping before heading back to Cao Bang. I spotted the ceramic-selling ladies who wheel bicycles laden with random pottery pieces around Hanoi – and there dangling from the back were these giant coffee mugs.

A proper mug is far more difficult to find in Vietnam than cheese (and cheese is nigh impossible in most places). Traditionally the Vietnamese love their tiny little ceramic shot glasses for tea, with miniature tea pots to match. Our office is made out in an assortment of old ADRA mugs and coffee mugs from other NGOs and one random souvenir from a Vietnamese sea port (thank you Ali), but the ADRA ones are so old they're beginning to crack when overheated. I, however, was desperate for a mug big enough that the contents would actually be cool before I could finish drinking it.

I am supported in this habit by a new addition to our ADRA family – a new volunteer by the name of Rachael. Rachael hails from the Sydney area of Australia and is enjoying the winter about as much as a root canal. She and I are basking in my discovery of mugs that hold nearly a half liter of liquid and the purchase of a two-liter thermos for hot water. Sheer survival, it seems, depends entirely on our ability to force hot water into our stomachs and to keep our hands warm by cradling hot ceramic between our fingers.

Rachael was brave enough to accompany me back to Cao Bang in the height of the winter – and is generous enough to insist that Cao Bang is "beautiful" at this most miserable time of year. We have just completed our third full week without sun and I fully anticipate a full two months ahead of dreary, wet darkness. So far we've subjected her to freezing mornings, cold days in the office, miserable wet motorbike rides to various points of town and wearing layers of the same clothes day after day after day.

But she's also getting to see the Cao Bang team in action and at their best right before the Lunar New Year holiday. We've done Vietnamese hot pot for dinner and a karaoke night to welcome new staff. She's learned the glory of a warm scarf, dry feet and a whistling tea kettle. And we're all appreciating having solid windows, walls and a roof over our heads and warm blankets on our beds after a hot shower at night. And someday the clouds will lift enough for her to see the mountains – and then she will know that Cao Bang really is a beautiful place. If you can like it in the rain, you won't help but adore ait in the sunshine.