Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Take Me to Kyoto

Here was our itinerary flying back from Singapore to New York City.

Three hour flight to Seoul, five hour layover; two hour flight to Tokyo, six hour layover; fifteen hour flight to Newark. Sigh...Such was the limitation of frequent flier miles and basically, our return trip would last over 30 hours. Did I mention I am an incomparable planner?

My mother took one glance at our itinerary and told me I was crazy. She adamantly refused to spend two whole days in transit/airports and demanded that we "break" the traveling by spending the weekend in Japan. Not Tokyo, she was very specific about this, but Kyoto.

An ambassador's daughter, my mother had spent ample time studying at Sophia University in her youth. In fact, my earliest stories from Japan were her depictions of fat, drunken Japanese men haunting the Tokyo metro late at night, grabbing young girls in their supposed stupor, and flashing them. It was quite traumatic for my aunts. When they got to my mother, she unleashed her secret weapon: the sharpened end of a safety pin. Regardless of where she pierced, they never bothered her again.

So the technological fascinations of Tokyo held very little appeal for her (although it did for me). The decision was made: to extend our "stop-over" to the historical and cultural heart of Japan, Kyoto.

First step was buying tourist bullet train passes from abroad, as they were extravagantly expensive in the country. Nevertheless, they nearly broke my budget at $400 per person for 3 days ($800 total and the tourism bureau assured me it was a bargain).

Then storage of our over-sized, month-long suitcases at Narita Airport. Remember, these were still bulging with multi-weather attire and boxes of Ritz Crackers, Fig Newtons, and Oreo cookies that we transported from the States, "just in case" my mother's stomach could not tolerate foreign food. Well, my mother tolerated the spice of kimchi, latong kalasa of Singapore, and dumplings from Malaysia just fine. We wound up dragging everything back, and I was down over $100 for 3 days storage!

Of course, we had to locate a suitable hotel, since my mother would not brave youth hostels. We found a bargain on, $400 for three nights, but it was limited to smoking rooms only.

So our spontaneous, adventurous foray into the legendary lands of geisha and samurai had not yet begun, and I was worrying about my wallet. We were on the last leg of our journey to the Far East, not many places accepted credit cards, and no, dummy that I was, I did not use an ATM card. I didn't even have a passcode.

Did I mention I was running out of cash?

(To be continued...)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What's Left for Me in Vietnam?

People inevitably ask me if I have been to Vietnam, assuming that a) I actually have the intention to visit the country of my ethnic roots and b) it is only a matter of time before I get there, being an avid traveler of the world.

Words of wisdom: never assume. I was born in America, during a tumultuous snowstorm in the very heart of the Big Apple. The city that never sleeps, with its brusque honesty, flurries of diversion and distraction, art and money, dizzily fast-changing attitudes, is more my homeland than Vietnam will ever be.

I confess that I have never felt completely comfortable in the States, that there is some flavor or spice in me that is different. Perhaps all immigrants feel this way. I do gravitate towards Asians, even though I was raised in a Caucasian neighborhood. There is an altar dedicated to my ancestors, embellished with photographs of my grandparents and reeking of incense. Yes, I have the dull ache, the yearning to belong to a people who look like me and to immerse in a language that is uniquely our own, the sounds my tongue was shaped to pronounce.

But Vietnam is not the way. Simply put, I reject Vietnam because Vietnam has already rejected me. After 1975, the citizenship of all those who emigrated abroad was effectively nullified. Property was confiscated by cadres of the Communist Party. Tombs were overthrown and remains scattered to the four winds. Those who dissented were imprisoned and re-educated. According to Doan Van Toai's memoir, the Vietnamese Gulag, political prisons that housed 300 under the South Vietnamese Thieu administration held over 3,000 after 1975.

Over time, emigrants were valued because they provided a consistent source of income, as the local, state, and national levels of the Vietnamese government took generous cuts of money before it went to feeding the impoverished families left behind.

Circa 2010, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has officially re-categorized us. There are native Vietnamese, there are foreigners, and then there is us: Viet Kieu (Vietnamese From Abroad). We are the new minority: successful, worldly, educated, and "different." It is as if we are no longer ethnically Vietnamese, and the government has somehow bastardized us, particularly those who were born on that soil and now no longer have any claim to be there.

Despite our understanding of the language and tradition, we Viet Kieu are grouped with foreigners and expected to pay over-priced rates (triple the accepted amount), even though we are aware of being ripped off. The Vietnamese natives appeal to our sense of commonality only to ingratiate themselves to our wallets, or even better, to find a ticket out of there. Marriage is typically the path of survival for many young girls blessed with beauty, sexual prowess, and a whole lot of ambition. And no, they don't mind if the man is already married.

This brings me to culture. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Republic of South Vietnam is not the same nation, despite the immutable physical land many of the estranged Viet Kieu still call home. Politics define freedom (or lack of it), freedom provides a framework to make choices, and choices are the living fiber of our lives. The culture of a democratic state versus a communist state don't even fit on the same page. (Think West v. East Germany. Or the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia v. USSR.)

So I wonder if the culture of my mother's country (which no longer exists) is embodied in the earth of Indochina, or if it is embodied within my mother herself, her values, her teachings, and her spirit. Our culture dwells within us, within the stories that continue to be told.

Many raise the development of Vietnam to quell my views on the regime. It is a booming economy, they say, and it is getting better. I would agree that constant construction of hotels, and an influx of industry are definite pluses for the country. Money is definitely pouring in. Yet, it is getting better for whom?

Developing countries disseminate resources into education, building roads and infrastructure, and improving agriculture. In Vietnam, the transportation system is comparable to what was prior to the war, agriculture still relies primarily on human labor and beasts of burden like oxen or buffalo, and public schools are in shambles. Compare Saigon (oops, I mean Ho Chi Minh City) to Beijing, where the 3 ring highway system became an 8 ring highway system in 10 years, or the multitudes of foreign students who travel to Chinese universities. Who travels abroad to Vietnamese universities to study? So who is benefitting from the newly acquired wealth of Vietnam? Certainly not the people.

It pains me when travelers intimate the beauty of Vietnam, the diamond sand beaches of the south, the melancholy shrines of Hue, and tiny romantic islands of the north. I long to breathe in the air of the earth that once, long ago, was my motherland.

But I won't. Non-Vietnamese friends don't understand the sensation of being cast off by a nation, a government that severed the bonds of commonality, and now only wants you back because of the benefits you can offer: resources. Vietnam is now inviting all Viet Kieu back because the intelligentsia fled long ago.

I won't go.

You see, Vietnamese Communists are like sweet-talking men, promising something they never intend to deliver.

I would rather stay home.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Danger in Kuala Lumpur

I remember Kuala Lumpur as a dangerous city, non-discriminating to native or tourist alike. The Department of Tourism reported casualties that resulted from purse snatching: the victim would be walking with a handbag or backpack slung loosely over the shoulder, and a thief on a motorcycle would grab it coming from the opposite direction. Not only were valuables lost, but the victim crashed backward into the cement, suffering from cranial damage and sometimes even death. Blood was spilled for petty gain there.

I trembled every time I stepped outside of my hotel, an upscale architectural wonder with a fantastic view of the Petrona Towers, courtesy of Marriott points from my corporate days.

Yet Kuala Lumpur was one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited, harboring an amalgam of the colorful heritages of Malay, China, and India. Sandstone and creme-colored mosques heralded the Malay's Muslim roots. Varied tribes and the richness of their costumes were showcased in festive dances that enthralled the eye. Chinese cuisines sizzled with the poignancy of taste available only in Hong Kong or Shanghai. Indian woven fabrics and handicrafts populated the open markets, and some women graced the streets in saris.

Although Singapore boasts a melting pot of the same cultures, Malaysia offered a startling sense of authenticity. KL was unabashed and uncensored compared to its very hygenic and commercialized neighbor. Here the curry was spicier, soy sauce was tangier, and racial tensions were more pronounced. The Chinese-Malaysians were clearly the nation's economic backbone, driving business and commerce. Indian-Malaysians constituted the mercantile class, small shopkeepers. For the most part, indigenous Malaysians have been relegated to more labor-intensive work.

Resentment of the races was so thick you can cut through with a knife.

And it was the most attractive culture I have ever experienced.

What is it about danger that we find so irresistible? I was drawn to streets here more than anywhere else, like a moth drawn to a flame. Here I had a greater chance of being knifed by a stranger than anywhere I've been. Yet, I was intrigued.

Perhaps it is only at the risk of destruction that we discover courage. Perhaps it is the challenge of finding what we are made of, testing the "mettle" of our souls. Perhaps that realization is worth perishing for.

Perhaps it is just plain stupidity.

Perhaps it doesn't matter.