Reflections on South-East Asia

While filling out a form today, I had forgotten my address and telephone number in the states. The only thing I can conjure now is my passport number. I just realized I’m going to be flying on September 11th – FOR 26 HOURS STRAIGHT! Dangerous! No wonder these tickets were so cheap…

Here’s where I went–not including the month in Korea, since that’s old news by now:

I visited 11 cities, the rest was horrendous bus rides.

I’m in Thailand again, Bangkok. I don’t care to write about the protests and state of emergency here, since none of my Thai friends give a damn about it and I certainly haven’t seen any political action yet.

I’ll take this last blog to reflect and indulge myself on the time spent on the road. And on race.

Racially, I’m half white, and half “other,” as I like to say. The “other” has given me a brown tint in my skin, which has made traveling in South East Asia an especially revealing experience. Here are the stats:

Pro: Walking into tourist sites without having to pay, since I look kind of like a local.

Con: Being spoken to in the local language, and everyone assuming that I understand it and know what’s about to happen to me.

Pro: Getting to know the locals mush easier than the white people can, and not being seen as “a customer” but as a curious traveler.

Con: Feeling racially alienated by every Australian or Danish person I meet. “He can’t be half white” they say. “He’s lieing” they say.

Pro: Especially at night clubs and bars, the locals don’t notice the brown foreigner has walked in who intends to steal their women.

Con: At times, not getting the extra attention and becoming overwhelmed by a sense of loss.

Pro: attempting the guise of the bourgeois local, who all the locals respect and bow to.

Con: Nobody believes I’m American except Americans and the Brits.

To put it simply, being brown allows me to be more tactful in straddling the line between the foreigner and the local, though I can never fully be either one. Let me present my guises, in the interest of full disclosure:

Meet Nico

Nico the Filipino student. He is poor and lost from his traveling group, but boy wouldn’t it be nice if you bought him a drink? He’ll tell you everything about what it’s like living in Manila and how he feels being in a foreign country for the first time (Even in Cambodia, they think the Philippines is a shit country).

I take the guise of Nico when I don’t want to spend too much money someplace, when I’m being solicited, or when I want a woman to buy me a drink just for the hell of it. “Nico” is of course an Eastern European name, so the fun never ends. My most mad misadventures occur as Nico, since being Filipino automatically shoves him into the “exotic underdog” category. And everyone loves an underdog.

Nico took some time to master. At first I was amazed at how fast people pulled out their wallets for me, or just stopped trying to sell me things on the basis that I’m a poor, lost Filipino student. When I was testing Nico, I was found out a couple of times, but even that I could use to my advantage.

Of course I can’t pull of Nico with Americans or British, they know immediately that I’m full of shit. Aussies and just about any other whites don’t believe me when I tell them I’m half white anyway, so they have no problem seeing me as a Flip and ignoring me from that point forward (or using me as a photo prop). In that sense, I have no ethical dilemmas about using Nico. If you think it’s so unbelievable that I’m American, then screw you, I’m taking all your money, and you’ll find my middle finger up in all your photos of the “exotic SE Asians”.

Wildcard

“Wildcard” is just a nickname for a chameleon guise I inhabit when I meet a local family, or am just out during the day-time trying to meet locals and get in to their parties. The role is that of a prodigal son. Wildcard’s mother belongs to whatever race I’m trying to talk to, but being an innocent American, upon his mother’s death, Wildcard has returned to her natural “people” in order to savor the memory of his mother.

I didn’t fully inhabit Wildcard until Vietnam, since there are so many American-Vietnamese people, it’s a very believable story. There my name was Van Nguyen, and I met many a family, shared many a drink and had many a good mad time with the locals. I can’t begin to emphasize the amount of cultural capital this experiment yielded unto me. I learned so much about Vietnamese culture from families forcing me to try every food and meet every girl and fall in love with their country in every possible way. When a family or local gang meets Wildcard, they see it as a chance to instill a sense of national pride in their own wayward son.

Wildcard knows nothing about your language, your culture, your ways–but he wants to come back to his roots, to discover the “truth” behind his history. Won’t you help out this poor American existentialist?

Adrian the American

Following the same pattern as “Wildcard,” Adrian is a full American visiting his long-lost race, but he’s not interested in the culture or returning to roots. He’s interested in aid, investment and research.

Adrian is an American in study–a master of linguistics, economics, financing, urban development, you name it. He’s here to study the land, the culture, get statistics, all that nonsense. Under Adrian the locals suddenly become different people. They suddenly shout “My God–we are so poor!” or they say things like “They all lie, there is free food in every temple!”

Adrian is not here to travel or mess around. He’s not here to shop, go tubing or do anything fun, because this is not a vacation for him. He’s an American with a pen and a pad, trying to get the truth of your urban environment for investors, politicians and study groups. People are honest with Adrian. They don’t want to sell him things, or show off their country, or get help from him in any immediate way. Adrian serves a higher purpose, he can offer some sanity amidst the rock-and-roll tourist capital that submerges everything.

I’ve had amazing conversations with Korean and Japanese investors to prepare for the roll of Adrian. When investment capitol comes into play, suddenly things get serious, and a local says “you know, we make it seem like X, but really, it’s X.” Being brown only adds to the trust that people place in Adrian, since he is racially “one of them.”

I would say I’m most like Adrian. When I talk to locals under a guise, I’m Adrian about 20% of the time, “Wildcard” about 30% and Nico about 50%. Sometimes I’m just me.

It’s a Race!

I’ll be back in Seattle soon, where race is ridiculously politicized and masked in “safe words” and absurd “toleration training” that forces people to treat each other differently based on gender and race–since someone might get offended! As if Seattle isn’t one of the most segregated places in the States.

Race to me is just my body as it was when I was born, and has nothing to do with who I am except that I’m perceived as “not white”. In America this was never a problem, nobody cared, I was called an “island hopper” just as facetiously as I would call others “chinks” or “Nazis.” In Las Vegas, it’s all in good fun.

But of course, the world is not like where I grew up in Vegas and Portland. Especially outside of America, race is the biggest signifier of one’s identity, and even having “a brown tint” can make the difference in the type of bus I ride on, the treatment I get, the people I meet. Because race is class.

I’m repulsed with the way tourists in these countries view race. Because I’m somewhat brown I get alienated immediately, and many tourists, when I tell them I’m American or “half-white,” think I’m a liar, a local just trying to be “cool.” And they laugh. Isn’t it cute this brown local thinks he’s one of us? He even dresses like us! Hahahaha

I have never and will never make attempts to get back to my “roots”–whether they be white or “other.” I end with Badger Clark’s “The Westerner”:

The Westerner

My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,
And each one sleeps alone.
Their trails may dim to the grass and rains,
For I choose to make my own.
I lay proud claim to their blood and name,

But I lean on no dead kin;
My name is mine for praise or scorn,
And the world began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’ve just given up sleeping on the buses here. I get sick, fall over in an old man’s lap (or he falls asleep in mine), and smell vomit throughout every bus ride. I give in to it now. It’s fine.

I met a man from a kibbutz in Israel who farms dairy cows and is fine with that until the day he dies. Another man from a kibbutz in Israel seems to want nothing more than the perpetual high that Cambodia can offer, since every drug is available here. Both of these men are named Edo, and they never met each other.
I was witness to a Cambodian party, where teenagers did traditional dancing (barely moving with their hands in waves) to songs like “SHE HIT THE FLOOR–NEXT THING YOU KNOW”. The men copped out early.
 

 
Counter-Strike has officially swallowed Asian gaming. In PC rooms in Korea, Thailand and now Cambodia, I hear the sweet sounds of “HEADSHOT”

I met a group of three Germans, each one from a different part of Germany. None of them had ever heard of Hegel or Heideggar. I spelled it out for them. Still nothing. I think I was taught that these philosophers were of epic importance to Germans, but apparently they find it hard to give a shit. I ended by singing a verse from Beethoven’s 9th symphony to placate our cultural wars.

Most travelers I meet can be separated into three groups – sexpats, drugpats, ecopats, and the few people who just criticize all the others. I fall into the latter.

I arrive in Siem Reap with a man holding a sign that says “Kris,” Apparently the last hostel had given out my information. He took me to a very nice hotel with no running water that was $3 a night and had some hot black girls from the U.K. so I thought I’d stay.

People are extremely nice in Seim Reap. After walking some friend home, I was lost at around 1am last night in my usual “Ï dunno where I am–shit here comes a storm cloud!”-phase. Some Cambodian guy picked me up and drove me around for half an hour looking for my hotel, and never asked for money.

Cambodia has bedbugs. And nude children running around everywhere like in a diaper commercial. It’s hard getting to know Cambodian people when they keep asking you for money. The only ones open to harmless chat seem to be the ladyboys, who just like the attention.

 
The temples at Ankor Wat are gorgeous, amazing, and old as hell. You might remember some from the Mortal Kombat games:
 

 
My favorite was the “jungle temple”:
 

 
So that’s Seim Reip. Now to jump on a motorbike back to my hotel, and get offered to sleep with Cambodian girls for “Cheap cheap!” I always tell them I have a girlfriend and she would get mad, they always say: “Yes, I have girlfriend too, they no ask!”
 
Good times…
 
And so, prostitution makes its comeback! Let me get this straight: Every male in South East Asia is a pimp and a drug dealer.  That’s an extremely racist epithet! Yet once the sun goes down, it’s difficult to walk the street for more than five seconds without someone coming up to you, spouting: “You want a girl?” then “you want marijuana?” then “how about…” and the list of drugs goes on.
Not all of these people have drugs or women to sell, but they do know where and how to get it, and (I’ve heard) take “finders fees”. Even in the hostels I stay at, the male workers will always ask: “You want girl?” and when I say no, they lower the price. Apparently the bargain deal is $10 an hour, about as much as a ticket to see the new Batman movie.
 
I should clarify, since my mom reads this blog and I know she’s curious–I don’t sleep with prostitutes. I have nothing against it personally, but to me it would be like getting to the top of Mount Everest by paying for a helicopter.
 
Naturally there’s a movement even in Cambodia to legalize it (don’t criticize it). I fully agree with this, as well as legalizing marijuana, though I’ve never smoked a joint or paid for sex. These women need rights, not imprisonment:
 
 
 
At any rate, I think I’m supposed to be in Seattle soon, for…something?

Holiday in Cambodia!

Phnom Penh is a sprawling city, though its urban poor, copious and helpless. There are women sleeping in the streets with their arms around their infants, and herds of hungry children follow me everywhere, rubbing their stomachs and sobbing.

But on the plus side, I got to share an Angkor beer with a monkey! He was just chillin by himself, so I got to chill with him until some tourists came and took so many pictures that he ran off. They chased away my drinking buddy!

I’m currently in the only mall in all of Cambodia. There are “escalator helpers” to make sure people understand how to approach a moving staircase. I can get a pair of pants at the market just outside for about $4, a Versace’ shirt for about $6, and a normal shirt for $2. This is normally considered over-priced, and if I hunt enough I can get all that for about half as much.

The “New Market.”

The backpacker district in the capital is hard as hell to find, but it’s a paradise of extremely cheap food and beer, and hotels overlooking a gorgeous lake where children in rowboats offer rides around the lake for a dollar. The kids here are quite industrial, and unlike their parents, they know how to make a real deal. They follow me everywhere, helping me pick out the cheapest things, perhaps only pretending to be on my side to make more money. Either way the children are some of the best resources in Cambodia for good deals and underground fun (shooting ranges, extremely cheap alcohol).

On that note, child sexual abuse in Cambodia is well-known around the world, and to warn tourists there are gigantic posters and even highway signs that show foreigners going to jail for child sex crimes:

Today I was handed a brochure by a little girl with numbers to call and methods to take to ensure these sex criminals are found out. Then I think about my days in graduate school:

“Don’t brochures like these just reinforce the ideology of arbitrary anti-child sex values, values brought on by the Western hegemonical force of global capital? Shouldn’t we learn to respect–“

I quickly shook such evil from my thought-process, and gave the girl some money to fund her program.

Other terrible things that have happened to this city, beginning with the Khmer regime’s infamous “Year Zero.” One day, a man named Pol Pot decided to go to France, where he was indoctrinated with Marxist agrarian philosophy. Twenty years later, the most horrendous genocide in East Asian history takes place (est 1.7 million people) due to the poilitical actions of a Cambodian named Pol Pot. His main goal was to emulate Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” with the Cambodian “Extreme Leap Forward.” Needless to say it worked. He did exactly what Mao did, only moreso–resulting in hundreds of unmarked mass grave sites, turning the cities into ghost-towns, and displacing an entire population.

The skulls go very far back.

Perhaps because of their familiarity with violence, the Cambodian people don’t stray from a fight. Only after two days here, already I’m used to seeing street fights occur by drunk Cambodians. It’s considered a “rough spot” for travelers, because they get jacked. I met an Aussie who had his wallet and camera stolen. There are pamphlets around that suggest:

“If you are the victim of an armed robbery, do not panic, simply hand over your wallet. Many times the robbers will return your important items to your hotel, so do not resist.”

First of all, money IS an important thing in my wallet, if not the most important thing in there. Second, how the hell is the criminal going to know which hotel I’m staying at, unless it’s an INSIDE JOB? God-damn! I might as well buy a knife!

On an end note, I discovered the next greatest thing about this trip: SE Asian ice cream! For $1 a cone I think I might return to America in my teenage form–that of a FATASS.

Chasing Miss Saigon

Arriving in Saigon, I thought I had magically come back to America. There are freeways, on and off-ramps, intimidating towers, huge shopping malls and a Western-style infrastructure. What a nice surprise!

This city is ostensibly non-communist. Most of its inhabitants lived in Saigon before it was “liberated” by the North Vietnamese in 1975, but were displaced, forced into the rural countryside by the communist regimes. They snuck back, and though they couldn’t legally own property, they were forced to rent. That’s right, the Communists became the landlords for the capitalist migrant workers! Isn’t that ironic as hell?

By the way, this city is officially called “Ho Chi Minh City,” named for the Communist dictator who didn’t live to see it reunified. Nobody here calls it that. From the Vietnamese I’ve talked to, the government sanctions are far more liberal in the South. People here get to vote. There are private banks on every corner and just about everything is decentralized.

People here wear T-shirts that say: “I love America” and “I want to be Americanized.” What the hell. I was expecting to find the enemy!

At any rate, this city is not too different from cities in Korea. It has advanced extremely quickly, thanks to it’s uber-privatization, its work ethics, and, probably the most helpful, the foreign banks and foreign investment capital. Just the names of some of these banks are astonishing: “The Bank for Investment of Capital in Vietnam,” “InvestCo,” “Saigon Investment” etc. Somebody got extremely smart and began advertising Saigon as a promising enterprise for any foreign banker. Needless to say it worked, the city is quite developed, and hopefully Laos, with the large amount of Japanese, Korean and Chinese investors I met while there, will follow the same path as Vietnam.

So far, this has got to be one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to. Before I came to Saigon, a traveler told me: “It’s just another big city.” Being an urban traveler, the naetivity in such a statement is insulting to one’s intelligence. Niagra Falls is just a big waterfall. Why be “humbled” under an oversized faucet, when one can be mesmerized and made proud by humanity’s great achievements on display in a city like Saigon, from the Opera houses to the malls, to the gigantic War memorials, to the zoos, to the banks. In the words of Ayn Rand, upon seeing the launch of Apollo 11:

For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel—not “How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!”—but “How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!”

As for the museums and memorials, more emotion, more sentiment. The “War Remnants Museum” is especially horrendous. One is faced with collages of people disfigured, death tolls and photos from both sides of the war, but mostly the atrocity of the B52 carpet bombers and agent orange (and purple). It’s extremely horrendous, and only insulted by the fact that America is still doing the exact same thing to a different type of brown people.

Now that I’ve mentioned it, I’ve already seen dozens, perhaps hundreds of war victims in Vietnam and Laos. They’re all over the place, and the babies who are born disfigured and with brutal malformations (from their parents being exposed to Agent Orange) are especially difficult to walk by without handing the mother some compensation for my country’s bloodthirsty zealots (all those who went along with Johnson).

Just take a look at the My Lai Massacre: An estimated 500 civilians murdered by U.S. soldiers, almost entirely women, children and the elderly.

Anyways, today I went to the Zoo, and they had trained the elephants to dance for visitors, staring at you dumbly and sneezing on you every now and then while waiting for sticks of bamboo to eat. Awesome!

On an ending note, Saigon is the only place I’ve been to where the markets don’t constantly try to screw you over. There are set prices for everything, and I’ve only had entirely ethical transactions–an extreme rarity in SE Asia. Needless to say, it’s time for a shopping spree!

Central Vietnam – the DMZ, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang

About 85% of the Vietnam people are rural. If Hanoi is an impressive, busy metropolis, the rural areas of Vietnam might be said to be impressive, busy grasslands. A joke about SE Asia may illustrate what I mean:
The Vietnamese plant and grow rice.
The Cambodians watch the Vietnamese plant and grow rice.
The Laotians watch the rice grow after the Vietnamese have planted it.
The Thai sell tickets through the rice fields that the Vietnamese planted to unsuspecting tourists.
Rural Vietnam is filled with bustling farmers and incredible beauty. There is very little pollution, and the rivers actually reflect the sky. The large industrial complexes have a great measure of pride, and are accompanied by propaganda and such.
Central Vietnam and the DMZ is the site of the Tet Offensive and everything bloody and destructive from the Vietnam war. Some of these old bombed buildings have been preserved, others completely renovated, and it’s interesting to see the changes in the last thirty years.
Hue, the old Imperial Capital, is now a popular tourist destination, with its own “Forbidden City” (like Beijing’s) and large markets. Like all of Vietnam so far, it’s filled with incredibly annoying solicitors, as well as uber-friendly Vietnamese who “love America” and invite me, off the cuff, to eat dinner with their families–something no traveler can ever reject.
One of the reasons I came to Hue besides the other eco-tourist cities, was that this was the site of one of the largest atrocities of the war, performed by the Communist regime against thousands of intellectuals, monks and bourgeois. After the Tet Offensive, the Vietnamese took Hue for a month. When America won it back, they discovered mass graves full of the intellectual class that they had known and protected throughout the war, most of the bodies tortured and many buried alive.
The Vietnam War was so unpopular at the time, that few newspapers bothered to print the atrocity, and only later, after the war, did it get its deserved publicity, in which most Vietnam Vets confessed that they would have stuck to the war, had the newspapers published the mass grave cites.

It’s the same story in Vietnam, only moreso, since I am in a totalitarian country. There is no acknowledgement at all that the Hue Massacre even occurred, though the monks and intellectuals no longer exist. I would have appreciated a grave site, or something. As totalitarian as the government is, it still seems more liberal than China, since there seems no limit to Internet access.
At any rate, the beaches here are deserted, except for the fruit shakes and beer. I spent one afternoon completely alone on one of the most gorgeous beaches I’ve ever been to. Splash spalsh!
Hoi An is a UNESCO world heritage site, because of the age of its “old city”. Actually, it’s not all that old by European standards, but with the amount of bombing and such, having buildings only a century old or more means a great deal.
Remnants from the past colonial eras are everywhere, and I don’t mean from the French or English or American eras. The Japanese and Chinese also colonized Vietnam, and there are still Japanese and Chinese mansions throughout this city, as well as government offices and volatile infrastructure.

Nha Trang, where I only spent a couple hours, has architecture akin to a “poor man’s” Vancouver or Victoria. It’s surprisingly modern for being so small, and has classy green emerald designs in the architecture. It seems like a perfect beach town, more for the Vietnamese on vacation rather than for outsider tourists.

Before I forget, last memory of Hanoi:

Going through a “propaganda” museum and seeing thousands of depictions of “evil” Frenchmen using the Vietnamese as their slaves, being fanned, carried about and served hand and foot by their colonial “others”–then me, walking out of the museum only to be harassed endlessly by Vietnamese people trying to fan me, carry me about and serve me hand and foot.