Friday, August 20, 2010

Anthony Bourdain in Laos

To a certain extent, not all trips are complete.  In terms of the Vietnam War, it actually encompassed Vietnam, Cambodia and also Laos.  Laos was visited by Brian Doan just prior to the Fulbright Hayes GPA visits in July 2010.  I am thinking about exploring this country, which is still Communist, and in some ways, what Thailand was about 25 years ago.

Anthony Bourdain Q&A - Dos And Don'ts

Some good advice.  Well, and yes, I eat street food.

Higher Education Comparisons & Overall Thoughts

SEAMEO RETRAC or South East Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Training Center was the Vietnamese sponsor for the Fulbright Hayes GPA people.  According to sources at the US Counsel General in Vietnam, they are probably the most innovative of the educational bodies in Vietnam.  They made the arrangements in Vietnam/Cambodia for us.

We had visited a number of colleges and universities during the trip.  The system in Vietnam and Cambodia is somewhat different than the USA.  It is a closed system in terms of admissions.  You have to score well on the exams to get to any sort of higher education institution.

Generally, we were always well received.  As you can tell, we are always posing for group photos.  The fact that we are from the USA seems to make it more important to them.   You could think of them saying, "They actually flew across the Pacific to see us." 

This university had an elaborate presentation about the minority groups represented in the Mekong Delta.  
So this is the sense of what was going on during the trip.  We were also ironically showing up during their semester breaks, so getting to more colleges and universities was problematic for the schedulers.  

What is interesting is that Vietnam is experimenting with the Community College formula.  Dong Thap Community College was an important stop.  They are however not open access like the US Community Colleges.  This is something that I found very interesting about Vietnam.  Although it is a Communist country, education isn't always equally available.  You must test to get access to a college.  

Remember this pic?  Yes, we were really there.  The head of the college was actually very very nice.  He managed to secure better housing for us, when the hotel we were booked at was really scary for many not used to travel in this part of the world.  

As noted before, to show gratitude, and also for paying for our lunch, Chef Steve gave him a cook's uniform.  This was greatly appreciated.  I posted a different picture of this, but Mike's reaction was not documented in the precious post.     

All of the colleges and universities in Vietnam, also to a certain extent, Cambodia, have a high graduation rate.  This is because they actively screen their students.  Now, this is good in the sense that generally students accepted will graduate.  What is not good is that your life is basically determined when you are 17 to 18 years old.  

The visitations by these American professors turned out to be a big thing.  We were often given gifts, as evident in Jeannie's and Joy's display here.  Now, there seems to be a clear difference between the two systems, especially Vietnam versus the USA.  The universities are highly specialized.  They are not like our land grant universities that offer multiple disciplines and majors.  They are devoted to specific areas like the sciences, arts and languages.  The concept of a general education plan is not even a part of the system.  

Cambodia is also proving to have problems with their higher education system.  The Royal University of Phnom Penh was shut down during the Khmer Rouge days.  It has since reopened, but it is a public university with a unique problem--keeping the faculty.  The pay rate for the public university professor basically stinks in Cambodia.  They are finding many fly by night, basically for-profit colleges and university's popping up everywhere.  In terms of maintaining the academic rigor, it is an uphill battle of keeping up with the attrition of their faculty being lured out by private universities.   
Whatever your thoughts, higher education in Vietnam and Cambodia is important to their economies.  Without a developing pool of intellectuals, you can not compete in the global oriented economy.  As with Thailand, they are also a part of ASEAN.  While at ABAC, I saw a few Burmese, Vietnamese and Chinese students.  I also noticed a higher number of Iranian students, specifically maybe due to the recent protests that occurred there.  Strangely no Cambodians, but then there is long standing political conflict related to Preah Vihear temple.  

General Ideas & Thoughts
There were a lot of lectures during the trip.  However, I am not going to go over any specific lecture, as it seems that there is a limit to speech, specifically in Vietnam.  The intellectuals are mindful of the limits of their discourse, and some of the discussions were on very touchy subjects, like politics.  So, for the sake of being ethical, I'm not going to clearly identify who said what and where.  I will have to generate a simplified broad analysis. 

1.  They like our system.  Their jaws dropped when we said anyone can go to our colleges.  Our community college system ironically is more Socialist than their system in Vietnam.  

2.  They would like to change the system.  The US model is highly attractive to them, but our model may not be possible.  The organizational structures are already in place.  The testing system is fully entrenched in Vietnam and Cambodia. Change is difficult.  US style research based universities are not the norm.  The one land grant style university, Can Tho University, is located in the Mekong Delta, the South. It was established in the South prior to the fall of Saigon, so it retains a US structure of a broad academic departments.  It is the university that is focusing on the issues of the Mekong Delta.  That project is called Mekong 1000.  However, the Vietnam National University is modeled around the Soviet model, so you don't get students with a general education background.  You are also not certain if they get any general education.    

3.  The Vietnamese intellectuals take academic risks, but they are not stupid.  Many of the Viet academics were very careful in their statements.  You had to read between the lines to really hear what they were saying.  It is still a tough job.  Professor Joy Zhao did some surveys about the most important books in Vietnam, and the responses were pretty standardized.  Ho Chi Minh was always on the list by the way in Vietnam.

4.  Support services.  We have support services, but it is because we are more open access oriented.  We have to serve the needs of a wide population with even wider disparities in terms of academic preparation.
5.  Facilities.  I would say that some of the facilities are not on par with US universities, or even some of our community colleges.  They are trying however.  

As it is right now, I got no buzz words that are floating in US Educational discourses like student learning outcomes, course outlines, and other matters.  Most of the students in Vietnam, Cambodia and also in Thailand are very passive according to some interviews.  They sit and listen.  They generally don't question.  

Overall, I would say that there are benefits and drawbacks to either system.  Because of our open access in the California Community College System, we have more problems in terms of retention, graduation rates and other matters.  But we do offer a student a pathway.  On the other hand, their system is closed, but it seems that they don't have the same problems in terms of student preparation that we have.  You don't have to worry about variables like academic preparation levels.  

It could be worse like in Burma.  The University of Yangon is basically shut down.  Burmese students are showing up in Thailand, specifically because many of the higher education institutions in Burma were shuttered by the junta.  In this way, Vietnam has made more progress in terms of academic freedom.  Cambodia is basically still in the process of rebuilding their system.  Remember, during the Khmer Rouge years, if you were an academic, you were killed.  An entire generation of intellectuals got wiped off the landscape.  It takes time to rebuild such a huge loss of intellectual capital.

American students do not know how lucky they are.  

Last Days at ABAC

These are the last days at ABAC, or otherwise known as Assumption University in Bangkok.  I'm working with friends at the Graduate School of Psychology.  My best friend from high school, Dr. Sunya Ratjatawan is in charge of the practicum students.  I had a number of things that I wanted to do here, and ABAC was my base station.  

1.  Deal with my scholarship program.  I returned to Khuk Khak School during my first week in Thailand.  Khuk Khak school basically goes from K-6.  Prathom is what they call it here.  

Rural schools in Thailand are very poor.  When the Tsuanami Children Foundation (TCF my little NGO) had arrived, we managed to get power to their computer room, some software, a DVD player, and I helped to develop some curriculum to be executed by the Princeton In Asia fellows.  For the most part, TCF is now going to be a scholarship program.  It could have been bigger, but other than myself, none of the people had any real NGO management experience, and it took all my efforts to keep the projects alive, let alone grow.  To salvage the status of TCF, I've shifted the organization by sheer will to a scholarship formula.  I'm not known for being Mr. Fix It for nothing, you know.    

A scholarship program?  In order to do this, I have to find students.  Initial inquiries through ABAC did have some leads, but the candidates didn't screen well.  Returning to the tsunami related school in Phang Na, I was a little disturbed.  The area has not faired well.  The initial influx of relief work financing and economic stimulus was gone.  Gone are all but a few groups.  Still, Dr. Ratjatawan and I managed to talk to the Khuk Khak administrators, and we have a tentative agreement to sponsor a child.  At 2,500 Baht a semester, it is possible, and given a 10,000 US equivalent donation from Singha, we should be sustainable for at least a while.  By the way, at the 2010 exchange rate, that's just over 60 dollars.  For 60 US dollars, you too can send a child to school.  Technically, all Thai public schools are free, but it is the other costs that make things difficult.  Thai literacy rates are actually pretty good.  I have to follow up on this.  We have an agreement, but no scholarship candidate yet.  The Takuapa School District had some ideas, but I will be back in the USA by the time I have a clear answer.  On the other hand, the process has begun.  In Thailand, things are not always done quickly.  It takes time.   

2.  Set up a program to insert GSP interns at Yaowawit School.  
Yaowawit, or Children's World Academy is located in Kapong, Thailand.  It is geographically near Takuapa, which is the district impacted by the Tsunami.  Pi Wit, is the principle of the school (holding the umbrella), and Dr. Ratjatawan (standing next to him in grey shirt) and myself met up with him.  We had worked with Yaowawit earlier, helping to counsel the teachers on interventions and counselling issues.  I had tried to get Princeton In Asia involved to insert long term ESL interns, but they changed their mind, soon after the economic downturn of 2008-9.  Dr. Ratjatawan was going to set up a program to send interns to the school to offer practicum hours of counselling.  This was the other purpose of the trip.     

The profile of the student body is generally quite tragic.  There are a number of children who survived the Tsunami, as well as HIV orphans and extreme poverty cases.  They are housed here, and they are fed.  The school is self sufficient.  They have several acres of land, and actively farm and raise their own produce.  There is a hospitality training center, which trains students to work in hotels.  It also generates income.  Given the exchange rates, the budget for Yaowawit School isn't always set.  This was the plan from the beginning.  I have to give it to Germans.  They know how to figure out a way to do things.  The Yaowawit people are also good at developing alternative income streams.  They do not want to be purely dependent upon donations, which is why TCF is basically now a one pony show.    

The students are generally well behaved.  When we first had worked with the school several years ago, the place was in disarray.  Student behavior was not good.  Teachers were frustrated.  I managed to get Dr. Ratjatawan working with them actively, and it ended up pretty well.  Now returning to the area from Bangkok after over a year, Dr. Ratajawan was asked about teen problems.  Many of the children are becoming teenagers, and the principle is worried about teen sex, drugs, alcohol and smoking.  It's an ongoing problem with any teenage population.  Yaowawit is no different than any other school.  It is unique in that it has students from kindergarten to high school.  This is why the placement of interns is going to be good.  We will also have a consistent presence at the school, and I can find out about any ongoing issues.      

I'm the one who writes the MOU proposals.  The sending of the interns to Yaowawit is a done deal.  I drafted the MOU, and the ABAC GSP faculty approved it.  The MOU will be faxed to Yaowawit soon for signatures.   This is step one.  What is step two?

One of the other things that I did with ABAC is to set the groundwork for potentially recruiting students from Yaowawit to go to ABAC.  This was done about a year ago, when I had first visited the university.  I had a good meeting last year with the head of ABAC, in which he said that they could find money for special cases.  I had pitched that it would be good press for ABAC to help out students in real needs, or with complex histories.  The head of the college agreed, and I have been working on this ever since.  Dr. Ratjatawan and I are covert philanthropists.  We may not have money, but we can find ways through connections.  These two girls are the ones that we think might be good candidates, and we are going to monitor their academic progress.  I follow up on things, so I will push the agenda forward.    

3.  Gratis Lecture
At one point this week, I had been asked to give a gratis lecture on scholarships, and also a brief presentation on my Fulbright Hayes GPA experience.  I explained to several students about the different strands of Fulbright scholarships and grants from the US State Department's version to the US Department of Education versions.   I basically went over the application process requirements for the PhD students in terms of scholarships and grants.    

I also went over the issues of NGO and the set up of nonprofits.  This was more of a sober discussion, as I had used Yaowawit as an  example of how quickly an NGO can be set up.  With German/European financing and Royal Family of Thailand backing, the school was instantly created.  However, most NGOs do not have this luxury.  We all basically work on a shoe string budget.  I also explained issues about expectations, and the inherent need to really know what you want to do.  Also, I warned them not to base their budget and operation on donations only.  It is a recipe for disaster in terms of sustainability.  

Charity work is fun for me.  It forces me to go to places that I would not normally go to.  It also grounds me.    
I had thought about Vietnam and Cambodia as of late.  I had a detailed discussion with a monk trying to set up his NGO, and I went over some of the problems.  It will take me some time, but if I use ABAC as my base for the region, I think some good things can happen.   

I have only a few days left, and so much needs to be done.  Time.  That's the hardest commodity to manage.  

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Geological Profiles: Thai, Viet & Khmer

Of course, this is Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. 

This is the view from Phang Na Province, on the road back to Bangkok.  Khao Sok National Park to be exact.  

The soil in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia is red in color.  Limestone formations also dot much of the Southern part of Thailand, and it looks very familiar to Vietnam's Ha Long Bay profile.  

There are soil maps that you can see here from Australia.  Geologically, much of this area was under the sea.  The limestone formations are a direct result of the receding seas leaving these interesting formations.  The deep rich red soil seems to allow anything to grow from rubber trees (Malaysian source), Palm oil, coconut, perfume trees, bananas, etc.  

I'm not an Earth scientist.  What I can give is pure observation.  The plains of Cambodia do differ from Vietnam and Thailand.  The land is more flat.  There seems to be less jungle. 

I was unsure if there was an overuse of resources in Cambodia.  I initially suspected there was a level of deforestation, but further inquiries show that it has one of the highest rates in this region.  My suspicions were confirmed by some Internet trolling.  In Thailand, there are checkpoints.  They are not for DUI, but rather for illegal migrant Burmese workers and illegal logging.  Much of Thailand has become a national park under the Royal Family's guard.  To illegally log is to violate the King's decree, which is not a good idea.  I am unsure of what Cambodia is going to do with its rainforests.    

Cambodia according to resources found on several environmentalists website, the rainforest went from 70% in 1970 down to 3.1% in the 1990s.  Not only does it change issues of land use, but it changes the profile of the land.  

For this region of the world, the major issues of concern will be land use and also management of natural resources including wildlife.  In some parts of Vietnam, wildlife poaching is also a problem.  Some of this is related to China's appetite for specific wildlife for medicinal purposes.  The thing with 2 billion Chinese around . . .  how can it be sustained?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fulbright Hayes GPA project status

If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong--Murphy's Law

Vietnam Projects
1.  Bibliography?  Well, this is a dead project.  There is not a whole lot of contemporary fiction and poetry being generated in Vietnam that has been able to clear censors.  I did not expect to see such censorship levels, but when I asked about the parameters for clearing the censors, no one was able to clearly tell me what could ban a book.  I will have to go through Amazon and Borders to locate texts.  
2.  Comparison/Contrast Powerpoints.  I've compiled enough photographic material to show some comparison/contrast images of Vietnam War era images and contemporary images.  
3.  New.  I'm going to develop a module surrounding George Orwell, and perhaps Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.   

Cambodia Projects
1.  Verify the service learning link with AFESIP and Somaly Mam Foundation.  Unable to visit the sites, so I am unable to verify what exactly AFESIP does in Cambodia.  Will develop a service learning module, but only using local NGOs like CAST in Los Angeles.   
2.  Khmer Rouge.  Visited both sites of the Genocide, and I think I will develop a module surrounding the issues of genocide and mass killings.  Perhaps I will base it upon Hotel Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, among other things.  Powerpoint on Khmer Rouge will be developed.  
3.  Bibliography might be compiled, as I have some resources.

Projects have to be completely revised using local materials available in the USA.  Powerpoints will be easy to compile.  Bibliography projects have to be massively changed.    

Thai restaurant--literally a hole in the wall.

Okay, this is what you see at the entrance.  Would you think that this is a popular restaurant?  They wash the dishes by the street.  Every customer must walk past this food police nightmare to get to the dining area.  

This is what you see when you walk through the kitchen.  Yes, this is what you see inside.  What you may have thought was a total dive turns out to be something really nice.  

And you can see the food is not too bad.  A seaweed soup, oysters on a sizzling plate, wontons, etc.  

When you come to Thailand, or Cambodia or Vietnam, you must Un-Americanize your head.  If you go through any part of this section of the globe, things are done differently.  Much of the rule is to go to a place that is relatively popular, but not toooooo popular and busy.  Quality might go downhill.  Don't go to a place that is dead.  There might be a problem there since no one wants to risk it.  Restaurants are rated by popularity, not by A-F grades, or Yelp, or anything else like Chowhound.  

Locals know where the beef is.  Just go with locals if you can.  

Remember this rule:  What you see isn't what you might get.  

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sawasdee Bangkok (Thai) and Three Seasons (Viet)

This is a clip of a series of shorts called Sawasdee Bangkok.  The clip is basically about a country boy who hooks up with a prostitute, who well . . . you'll get it later.  Actually, it is an interesting angle, given the references to the recent protests.

Three Seasons came out in 1999.  It was the first film to be produced by Americans in Vietnam after Pres Bill Clinton normalized relations.  It stars Harvey Keitel, but in fact the movie is more about the Vietnamese characters than Keitel's American returning to find a child he fathered.  The Vietnamese would call her one of the "children of the dust."  

When you watch the two clips, and perhaps both films, you can see how vulnerable women are portrayed.  Also, you get a sense of the beauty of the countries.

Solitary Man and Traveling Alone

Solitary man.  No, I'm not a real Neil Diamond fan, but this song sort of got stuck in my head.  People have asked me how I could travel for so long.  It's very simple: I'm a solitary man.  I'm also inherently an observer.    

If you write, you try to get focus, to ge clarity, to get the words right.  I don’t blog like a maniac.  I tend to try to reflect before I post something onto the Internet.  Even then, I will return and edit.  Still there will be errors, and some of my statements are subject to re-evaluation.  I have my share of grammar errors, and I would fail my own class if I measured out my syntax.  (The profusion of the 1st person voice doesn’t help much here.)  Some of my thoughts will not align with others, but I tend to approach my view of things from the angle of being aware, of being mindful, of being locked into the present.  You must be fully aware of the surroundings and people, both good and bad, both positive and negative.  Most importantly, you must not judge, but then this is difficult for human beings.  We are inherently flawed creatures.   We have our tastes.  We have our self imposed limits.  We are full of vanities and needs.  I approach things from the viewpoint that I may be wrong.  If someone insults me, it doesn’t matter.  Actually it does, but I try to suppress it.  To write, you must be an observer.  Everything is a subject of inquiry.  If you look at a person, how do they react?  Watch the couple engaged in intimate conversations that can not be overheard.  Be true to the present.  When you analyze it, it will become the past.         

One aspect, that makes me different than most, is that I am pretty much--totally alone.  I don’t’ have too many obligations other than my elderly mother (who still drives and I have on life alert), my cat (which is more dependent than my mother) and a house.  I can disappear for 2 months.  Who is this psychotic sick puppy?  I live alone.  I eat alone.  I sleep alone.  I drive alone.  I am an only son.  Someone once called me a monk as far as my lifestyle is concerned.  Given this, you either are totally dependent or like me totally independent and self sufficient. 

Right now, I’m in Thailand in university housing.  The hot water doesn’t work.  I prefer cold water to the lack of electrical power.  Can’t type if the computer is dead.  There is mold in bathroom.  There is mold and mildew everywhere in SE Asia.  Don’t even try to avoid it.  I eat street food.  Watch cute Thai girls pose for Thai boys who actually might be gay.  Watch foreign men lust over Thai girls in the worst way, not realizing they are really men who have been sexually reassigned.  Observe the almost pervasive infiltration of Korean soap operas on Thai TV, and the ever presence of the Doreman character in Japanese Anime in everything.  Hear songs by Lady Gaga being sung by some band (who don't understand English) for a late night restaurant.  (Yes, even that pop icon of 2010, Lady Gaga, is present in SE Asia.)  I can sit in a room alone in Bangkok and type because I am alone.  How long this will last is up to speculation, but my premonitions have told me once that this is probably the way it will be for years.  I am inherently, a solitary man.  

I have managed to network and to make friends with a few people in Cambodia and Vietnam.  Whether or not they will develop beyond surface connections is up to speculation.  Both countries are in points of transition.  There are some common aspects to VietnamCambodia and Thailand.  Cambodia and Thailand have more in common than Vietnam, which has become more of a secular society.  Of course, all of them are not the USA.  

Samantha Brown: Fish Pedicure in Cambodia

This is her version.

This is my version.  No, no video.  But the expressions.

Rebecca finds it weird.

Sara can't handle it.

Brian wants them for his fish tank.  

Stress, Travel and Americans--the Vietnam experience

A Joseph Campbell Journey in real time.
"To travel is to take a journey into yourself."
Danny Kaye

All travel is a journey.  With travel, problems will happen.  Problems always happen.  Why?  People's perceptions.  In many ways, I expected this trip to be more troublesome for a few.  It's not Japan, England or France.  Thailand is more developed than Vietnam and Cambodia, and it isn't very convenient there.  Try to get Neosporin there.  Just try it.

The pace of the movement and locations visited by the team was rather frenetic.  It was frenetic for me, let alone less seasoned travelers in SE Asia.  Remember, I did relief work in rural Thailand.  I filled a trashcan to have water to take a shower.  What is often not known is that Thailand is considered a 3 star vacation spot overall.  Not 4, not 5, but 3 stars.  It is known for being a budget destination, which means budget issues.  If you want real 5 star accommodations, go to Europe.  To get those 5 star accommodations, you will pay for it in SE Asia.  You are talking about places that might be 90 degrees plus 80 percent humidity on average.  Cambodia and Vietnam are not in the same economic condition as Thailand.  When you travel, you have to be like Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods.  Be open.  Be willing to try anything.  Be willing to be uncomfortable.    

Some people almost had almost a mental breakdown, I thought.  We would stop by a location for a day and then move again.  For a few people who don’t travel at all, it was enough to drive them loco in the cabeza exponentially.  I actually found this interesting.  I think Americans don't necessarily travel that well outside of certain comfort zones.   We have a higher propensity for culture shock.  

My theory.  Stress.  Americans are stressed out.  We stress about our doctors.  We stress about our jobs.  We stress about our grocery order.  We can't leave that stress; it carries with us.  It then gets into the travel discourse, because we can't separate the destination from our stressed out symptoms of American life and expectations.  Consider this.  As an American, you can't drive without thinking about cops, about photo radar, red light cameras, your psychotic road rage drivers, and making it to work.  This is only before getting yelled at by your boss.  Then you get more stressed out when your friend tells them about a bad date they had or a letter from the IRS.  Right from the beginning you are stressed.  Combine this angle with travel which can unhinge you, and you got the picture.  

Why Stress Yourself Out?  But don't go "bamboo."
"People who don't travel cannot have a global view, all they see is what's in front of them. Those people cannot accept new things because all they know is where they live."
Martin Yan 

I view every moment in my existence as a learning moment.  You have an opportunity for a new experience the minute you walk out the door.  This is sort of a Buddhist vibe, but again as before, I’m a horrible Buddhist.  To gain anything requires a sort of analytical methodology to travel. The food, the streets, the random gatherings are all mirrors into a human society governed by certain norms.  It is up to you to perceive what those norms are.  Crossing a street in Vietnam was an adventure.  Go steady.  Be clear in pace.  People will ride around you.  What must occur is an ability to be in the present.  When you can do this, you can engage a country more effectively.  For all the insanity of the trip, Vietnam has peaked my interest.  This is at least my conclusion, but then Anthony Bourdain seems to also have the same sensibility. 

I like Vietnam.  There is more to study.  It is also a test bed for the role of the artist in a society in transition.  It would be important to track this.  It is also important to see how a country defined by almost a century of perpetual war comes to grips with stability and peace.

There is a symptom that exists with Westerners.  They want to move to SE Asia after visiting this part of the world.  They often hate being there, but they miss it when they come back to the USA.  One thing that my logical mind tends to point towards is not to go bamboo (deciding to move to a SE Asian country and leave everything behind).  Yes, Vietnam has its attractions, but be clear about what you are getting into.  It is Vietnam, not Georgia, Arizona.  It's Vietnam.  Do not go "bamboo!"

Americans are not used to certain things that exist in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  Freedom.  Although Vietnam is a Communist country, in terms of daily life, there are more freedoms. There are obvious restrictions like free speech; however, there is this ease in life that that doesn't exist here.  If you decide to travel there after reading my nonsense, avoid going "bamboo."  My advice.  Go there for real for a few times, not just once.  Wait until the luster wears off.  Experience a power outage when you are showering.  If it doesn't bother you, then go for it.

For many expats in Thailand, there is a prominent theme.  "I can't live in America.  America isn't what it was.  When it becomes great again, I'll go back."  They probably aren't going back.  On the other hand, there are plenty of stories of expats who died due to going overboard in SE Asia.  Essentially, I think people go "bamboo" for the beauty of the place.  There is beauty in real people.  There is beauty in real nature.  There is beauty in things that are not American.  See the beauty, but know that beauty has layers.  See the layers for what they are.  All society's have their benefits and drawbacks.  Just do not get into "the grass is greener on the other side" mentality.  Grass is just grass.  If you move there, you will give up something.  The question is what will you gain.  That would be something only you can answer.             

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why burn yourself?

Broad tolerance in the matter of beliefs is necessarily a part of the new ethics.
Lafcadio Hearn 


Journalist Malcolm Browne took this picture of Buddhist Monk, Thích Quảng Đức, burning himself alive.  This was largely a result of a protest against Diem's government which was heavily Anti-Buddhist in sentiment, since he was largely a Catholic.  

In Hue, you can see the car that transported the monk to Saigon.  What I find very troublesome is the role of religion in terms of oppression and discrimination.  Some of these issues can be found in the entire conflict between the Abrahamic based religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and others.  I am not entirely certain why there is this strange vanity that develops between sects and religions.  

When the monk burned himself in a pyre, it was the beginning of other protests of a similar kind.  The power of a religion seems to be ever present.  

Recently, the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, was barred from going to Vietnam.  Apparently, he was getting a little too popular among the young.  He's a Zen monk, so I don't see how he could be a threat.  He does practice engaged Buddhism, but that is not also really a threat.  Perhaps what is feared is the power of a monk burning himself alive.  In fact, there were members of his sangha that did burn themselves alive in protest.  This might be the core reason for their fears.    

Monks have been actively moving in Burma, even though the Junta has made it known that they will kill the monks.  This is in direct contradiction to their public positions in which they actively try to get the monks to sanction their actions.  For the supposedly free election in Burma, there is a planned crackdown as noted in The Independent, a British paper.  

I suppose there is power in a saffron robe burning.        

Tsunami areas after 5 years.

Ban Nam Khem revisited.

It occurred on December 25, 2004.  In Khao Lak, it occurred in the morning around 10:00 AM.  This is the footage of Khao Lak.  I would be staying at one of the rebuilt hotels where this video was taken. 

At one point in time, there was a huge village called Ban Nam Khem, which was sort of like a cowboy town in the Takuapa District.  It was a fishing village, with old wooden homes and a huge number of people constantly engaged in conversations, social events and of course impromptu fish barbeques.  In old articles from 2005, the villagers were complaining.  They are still complaining today.  

Those things changed.  Once the waves hit the village, the place was never the same again.  Bodies were shoved against the walls of the Wat or Buddhist temple of the village.  Boats were on top of homes.  New salt water ponds were left around increasing the saline content of the soil.  Families were decimated.  Some people lost 20 members of their families.   I came back to this area.  I came back to see if things got better after 5 years of relief work.  I’m not sure. 

The Tsunami Children Foundation could have been big.  It never was big.  In fact, we never really got the substantial funding that was necessary to make it big.  We did a number of things by partnering with other groups and governmental entities.  We made due without the money that we needed.  Essentially, TCF was a NGO of 2 people--myself and Dr. Ratjatawan

Did we help?  I don’t know.
Ban Nam Khem.  I’m sitting down with a few survivors of the tsunami in Ban Nam Khem.  

These are a rough bunch.  Guarded men.  Proud men.  Suffering men.  All of these men lost someone to the tsunami.  And yet, when we came back to see them, they were really really happy.  They prepared a meal for us, and it is served in one bowl with one spoon collectively shared.  Dr Ratjatawan and I were invited to break bread this way, the local way.  They treated us to the local hooch, a very powerful alcoholic drink made of herbs.  It was then that I get the real picture of Ban Nam Khem and the people. 

Many who survived the tsunami are almost a lost generation.  They suffer from a sense of anger.  Ban Nam Khem at one point in time was a rough town.  It was the Old West of America in the middle of Thailand.  Not even the provincial authorities would go into Ban Nam Khem.  In some ways, some say, they are paying for the past sins.  This is Thailand.  It is Buddhist and Animalist.  Spirits houses are located on each property.  When you visit a location, you ask the spirits of the location to welcome you.  Tattoos are often in Sanskrit or Pali.  Thai Buddhist amulets are ever present.  My friend tells me, “A Thai does everything for a reason.  There is a reason for any action.” 

A drive through the Khao Lak area during the low season reveals a few things to me.  Things are not exactly better.  Gone are the NGOs.  Gone are the projects.  Gone are the people attached to those projects giving the local economy a false economic boom.  The jungle is also taking over much of the land.  Roads are closed. 

I am wondering if I did any good.  I then return to my thoughts about hanging out with the villagers.  We ate seafood at a survivors restaurant on the seashore by the tsunami memorial.  Glasses of Sangsom Rum (they call it whiskey, but it's rum.) were shared, and stories of a night out with the visitors echo in the wind.  Perhaps just being there was good enough.  I hope so.  

This road still goes to nowhere.  It was wiped out by the waves. 

The sunsets are still beautiful.  

Who is this Tim Page I keep coming across

During this trip, I brought along two books.  They are penned by Lt. Gen Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway.  The first book is the source for the movie, We Were Soldiers

I’ve begun to view the texts as a sort of metaphor of the Vietnam War in America’s psyche.  Whether or not I will use these books in a class is up to speculation.  How many people really want to read a  book about a battle?  It isn’t exactly fiction.  It’s nonfiction, but unless you are a war buff, probably not the most universally appealing.  I’m fascinated by military history, so that colors my viewpoint on the text too.  How could I get away with assigning this text?  On the other hand, I did need to think about what exactly I was going to do.  My initial project of using contemporary literature translated into English has been met by a through lack of texts available.  Turns out, most of the important writers are already translated and published in English, having come from a specific time in which censors were more open to textual innovations.  I have been struggling with what to do to meet my Fulbright Hayes GPA obligations, but the previous assignments would stand.    

At one point in time, I had accompanied photographer Brian Doan to an interview ironically in Phnom Penh.  The hotel where this was going to happen is called Raffles now, but it is better known as Le Royal.  It was here that many of the reporters to the Vietnam War were housed.  It was here that I would meet a person now mentioned in the second book, We Are Soldiers Still.  I met Tim Page.

The two photographers meet.  One older, one younger.

Brian gets to interview a photojournalist legend.

He was openly critical of the US Military policies.

And you can tell he is still an intense man.

Now older with a distinct accent that sounds Australian but not exactly so, Mr. Page was initially resistant to talking to Brian.  Eventually the ice was broken, and he allowed Brian to interview him.  Now, for me, the Vietnam War is a historical record.  For Brian, it is a historical reality since he is Vietnamese.  Mr. Page gave a pretty good interview, but I remember him saying that America has a problem with getting beaten up.  There were additional musings about the current 2010 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

I did not realize what happened until I got to Bangkok, and I finally got to read carefully the texts that I had brought with me.  The pace of the trip did not allow me to read or to prepare properly.  Most of the trip is a haze of bus rides and hotels.  I had my friend, Dr Sunya Ratjatawan, pick me up, and we promptly drove down to the Tsunami impact zone of Khao Lak, Phang Na.  We returned after 5 days, and only now have I been able to open up my books to examine what I have accumulated. 

Tim Page is everywhere.  He was mentioned in a magazine on the Vietnam War.  He was mentioned in one of those books that I read.  He was mentioned in some articles I saw on the Internet.  I shook hands with a veritable legend.  Amazing.   

It is all beginning to align, but it is all mixed.  I ran a lecture about PTSD and my experience with Veterans in my classroom.  I tend to get a lot of veterans in my classes, so I have some familiarity with the problem.  Eventually, I touched upon Brian and Chef Stephen’s stories, but there was something more to it.  I read about this need to revisit Vietnam in a Vietnam War History magazine.  As I read both of these nonfiction texts, the model was the same.  2 of the professors were trying to answer unanswered questions with this trip.  Equally, a Lt. General and a journalist were also trying to go back to Vietnam to answer certain questions.  Corresponding to both of them is the fact that Tim Page, the famous journalist, was also ever present. 

My psychologist friend explained to me what they were doing.  It's a form of psycho-drama, which stems from Gesalt Theory.  It is actually a real therapy treatment plan.  Essentially, when you have unfinished business, you must somehow purge these things from your psyche. This could include elements of ritual, reenactments, revisiting old places.  Tim Page was shot up pretty good during the war.  I'm wondering if he is there for the same reasons.  Other journalists also returned recently to the Caravelle Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.  

Strange how texts shape up. It is very weird to actually meet people mentioned in texts.  It is also strange to see psychological therapy treatment plans actually revealing themselves in the texts.     

From Saigon to Bangkok to Phang Na

Immediately after the Fulbright Hayes GPA trip, I flew to Bangkok, Thailand.  

If you care to know, I’ve been trying to run some nonprofit operations on a no string budget let alone a shoe string budget.  Basically, there is no budget, my friends, nothing, nada, zilch.  After Hurricane Katrina, BP oil spills, fires in Russia, floods in China, earthquakes everywhere, there isn’t a whole lot of money for 2004 Tsunami related projects.  My buddy from the high school days, Dr. Sunya Ratjatawan, was initially my point man in the Khao Lak, Phang Na tsunami zone, but now he is located in Bangkok at Assumption University’s Graduate School of Psychology (GSP).  We are working together with Assumption U to find solutions for outstanding problems in the Khao Lak, Phang Na region despite the disappearance of funding.  Part of the logic is that I feel that a person must be engaged with the world, not engaged in just making money, or getting a new car, or finding that new job.  I also find it to be more rewarding to know that you have done something good for a change.  It is my rebellion against the pervasive American materialism that now defines globalization. 

Immediately after getting off the airplane from Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, we got into a car and rolled into a 10 hour drive down to Ban Nam Khem and Khao Lak.  More of the reflections later.  It appears that there are still things to be addressed, but what I have found is that nothing is ever really finished in the realm of human endeavors.  All nonprofits are limited.  We can only do so much.  Everyone thinks that being a humanitarian is an easy job, but in fact, it is probably one of the most aggravating things to do.  There are always blocks and barriers to overcome.  For every two steps forward, it seems that you step back three.  If you are famous, you might be able to raise the funds and do some good work.  Most people are not celebrities, so our work is a little tougher.      

Part of the reason for going to Bangkok and Thailand was to isolate myself in the cultural vibe of South East Asia.  I decided I needed a soft landing versus a hard landing into the grind of American life.  Also a part of it is to focus and write down my thoughts in a more concise and focused manner.  I don’t have cable, or easy access to the Internet.  So, I’ve been editing the blog and reading all of the materials I have gathered, while also prepping to give a gratis lecture of nonprofits, grant writing and the pitfalls of trying to be the savior of the planet on August 19, 2010 at for the GSP of Assumption U.  Yes, I do many things for free.  We all realize that we have a purpose to our existence, or at least we think we have that thing defined.  I am rather unsure, but I know what I am good at.  I can make things work even if they are dysfunctional.  I believe in doing action not talking about doing an action.  So, why do I need to clarify my thoughts?  What you think you know isn’t what you really know.  What you thought you knew, probably isn’t true.  What you want to know is often something that would require a lifetime to understand.