Friday, July 29, 2011

Ready to Roll

We leave China in a little over two weeks and are approaching that inevitable part of any adventure where, on the one hand you feel desperate to get out and, on the other, you think of things you will miss and things

you haven’t done. We have an action-packed two weeks planned including a trip up north to Lijiang, which sits on the edge of Himalayas. We chose this particular city largely because it’s famous for its performances of traditional Naxi music. In the style of a nineteenth century anthropologist who doesn’t speak the language and knows nothing about the culture, I’ve been doing my own exploration of soundscapes and, despite the fact that we are in a place with an ethnic minority where more women dress in traditional clothes than western clothes, it’s extremely hard to find music that doesn‘t sound like anemic western pop. Lijiang also sits at the base of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Obviously with three kids in tow we can’t do any heavy high altitude trekking but we can at least look at the snow. (In May Manuel mailed a piece of lab equipment and some warm clothing for this trip. The boxes have reached China but are stuck in customs for about three weeks thanks to the Asian Games, which, apparently, create a need for especially vigorous scrutiny of scientific equipment, jeans, and peanut butter pretzels. ) Locally we’re very busy with going to the Dai village with a Dai student, apparently taking the whole lab out to dinner, and gathering up useless paper and plastic items to give to friends in the States.

But despite all of these tasty treats, Manuel has been telling people for a few days that he thinks I’m done with the jungle. I lost it a couple of days ago when my running water bottle and computer power cord suffered an army ant invasion. So what follows is a list of signs that we may have reached some sort of tipping point here…

I now know that the Chinese government’s Great Firewall blocks PBS kids but not Feudalism II or the “Meet Chinese girls “ site Jonathan found before I quickly unplugged the computer.

I manically worked on an ice cream without an ice cream maker project all day and we got exactly five bites each.

Our entire credit card bill last month was Kindle and iTunes charges.

In addition to various natural jungle soundscapes I can tell by ear when the AC will go off, when the power will surge, when the breadmaker will finish its kneading cycle, when the two year old next door will erupt into a tantrum, and when the big potato who lives across the street is coming home.

Last night while Manuel was out drinking hooch and eating Dai barbecue with his lab, I actually cursed at my four year old when he wouldn’t go to bed. After all three kids finally went to bed I settled down with a cup of chocolate sorbet made by my own brute force and a little shot of “disposed wine.” I spent a delightful hour trolling through the UVa special collections catalogue for quirky items to display in an exhibit. This seemed like the most fun I’d had in days.

I painstakingly created home made mac-n-cheese and short bread cake in a toaster oven with butter acquired by plane ride to Vietnam, and the kids told me it looked suspicious. I told them they are pains in the ass.

I passed two peacocks humping on my run. I did not think they were beautiful or even note the cool factor of sharing the road with said birds. I just cursed at them for blocking my path.

Our kids are basically feral.

Because we’ve all had boils and other dirt induced illnesses, we’ve been stressing hand washing. The kids are becoming slightly germaphobic, and I overheard Jonathan explaining to Eli that he really needed to wash his hands carefully even if Chinese kids don’t because Americans are just neater than Chinese people. That’s exactly the kind of cultural generalization/judgement one hopes an experience in another culture will smack out of their kids, not drive into them.

Our collective idea of home-schooling is now CCTV documentaries where the kids learn about various acts of aggression against the never-at-fault Chinese government.

In our first months here, my attitude towards things that cost 25 cents was “just because it’s almost free doesn’t mean you can have a new one if you loose it or break it. We must respect things.” But, yesterday Jonathan discovered that Eli had lost too many pieces of this third magnetic chess set by turning them into a clone warrior army. I decided that, given the price of $1, I wold buy a new one just to keep both boys quiet.

The next door neighbor is mad at me/the kids because Eli “snuck” a rock into her house by putting it behind his back and said because her kid was mean to johnny he would “huff and puff and knock the house down.” He got the ending of that book wrong.

Rebecca and Eli between them ate two servings of heart, liver, and kidney from unknown large vertebrates (maybe mammalian) the other night. We thought we ordered beefsteak. Luckily I was at the store buying beer and soda when the food came so I didn’t even have to look at it. Jonathan ate one piece of bread and some Sprite, and that seemed fine.

The kids want us to drink more (beer) because they are collecting bottle caps. But the beer is so weak and tasteless that I don’t even want it.

Given the paucity of reading material and the computer gymnastics it takes for me to add things to kindles, we’ve given up worrying about whether books are appropriate for eight year olds. Consequently both Rebecca and Jonathan frequently use phrases that may not fly at school, “police are cynical bastards.” “do you think that is a guild of exotic dancers” and “check out those gams.”

We don’t think that it’s strange that the a.c. doesn’t start working until after 5 when the sun lowers a bit. The best-case scenario of turning it on is that it goes off every 6 minutes. The worst is that it starts a fire or a flood. Not does it seem strange to go look at the pool every few days and see if it has water in it. And part of any bedtime ritual involves sending armies of ant to meet their maker before crawling into bed.

It seems pretty normal to me that a few times a week garden staff waltz into the house ostensibly to fix something but don’t touch anything in the house. When one of the dudes spends a good half hour playing with eli and taking his picture, I do not assume he is a pedophile as I might do at home if a strange man started snapping my kid’s picture.

And of course most importantly we all miss our friends and family; our google phone, skype, and email usage is going up not down and the kids are worried that their friends have forgotten them. It’s true that we’ve been away for this length of time before and that we’ve had friends go away for a year but something about being so very far away seems to magnify the time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back at the Market

It turns out that our kids think the fact that they have not seen the latest Harry Potter flick almost counts as child abuse. I tried reminding them that they have seen the Great Wall, the Lama Temple, the Cu Chi tunnels, monkey blood, rubber trees, etc…. And I stressed that they regularly see kids who do not have running water, will probably not go to school past age 10, and have never been to a doctor. They actually said “Mommy are you done with your speech yet. This is a long one.”

I took my three ungrateful spawn plus two extras into town today. The kids have made appearances at this slow Buddhist market at least twice a week for 2.5 months now. I don’t think I’ve seen a single other Caucasian in the market besides us, and we go to the same stalls every time. I always do the grab your boobs buy chicken boobs thing at the same chicken lady, I get yummy short bananas from the same fruit lady, and I even have my favorite Lao pineapple guy. And yet each time we go we attract attention and comments. It’s gotten almost rote for me to say in Chinese “the three white ones are mine” and then to nod my head vigorously at how lucky I am etc….. Eli, too, has his own market trick. He figured out early on that twins, especially of the dragon/phoenix variety are quite remarkable here so he screams out the Chinese word for twins and points to the kids. This invariably ends with multiple people touching them, looking at them, and using phones to snap pictures. He then disappears behind my skirt. The big ones hate it.

Despite the fact that as it turns out our rural market habits are as predictable as our Retail Relay orders, we find something new almost every time. Today the kids spotted a table where women used giant hatchets to chop up the congealed cow blood. This occurred just next to the chicken slaughterhouse, which I also had never noticed.

The best discovery, though, happened in the grocery store. They have a bounce-n-play style indoor playground with slides, trampolines, and ball pits. How have I not known about this? The whole thing is about the size of Rebecca and Jonathan’s bedroom and costs 45 cents per kid. So what if it’s 98 degrees here and there is no a.c. and all three kids looked close to heat stroke when I got them. Of course, you sign no consent forms and grownups can’t stay mostly because they don’t fit and no one supervises the kids. Rebecca, who had been there before, informed me that I was supposed to shop while they played. And to make the whole thing even more delicious, the store now carries cold coke zeros; something that when we got here required a plane ride to procure. The store is tiny, crowded and filth, but is Targetesque in that in addition to food you can buy clothing, toys, dishes etc.. Even so, it’s more of necessity kind of store than an enjoy-the-shopping-experience one. But with the new find I got the bright idea that I could dump them, buy a diet coke, and peruse crappy plastic items, moonshine, pickled chicken feet, and mystery sauces to my heart’s content. I took one swig of my diet coke before I was yelled at and escorted back to the front of the store. After doing penance for that one amazing coke zero swig I found an isle of facial scrubs promising “skin whitening” and a cucumber scrub called “skin Love” that “penetrates pores”. I also discovered rows and rows of individual condom packets hanging in between crocs and bras. This stuck out because previously I’ve only seen condoms hanging from ceilings in little outdoor shops. In these contexts they are pretty much indistinguishable from packets of yeast, which you cannot buy in the grocery store or in any shop that sells flour. So it took a while for me to learn which was which.

On the condoms I really hope that given the one child policy and the ensuing often-horrific consequences of accidental pregnancy out here in the stix that there is an isle of birth control pills around somewhere to go with them. In rural areas storefronts featuring pictures of serene women looking upward unregistered abortion clinics. Scalpels are a whole lot more common than rubber gloves and antibacterial soap. Just last night my Thai neighbor told me that the extreme grime and dirt of her birth experience in the big city a flight away was almost enough to send her running back to Thailand. No gloves at delivery, street clothes not removed, and a level of dirt that she said I’d never believe. They do have incredibly up to date equipment though. My unprofessional hunch is that the rural abortion clinics probably are even less clean.

On a lighter note, we’re leaving in about three weeks so I’m shifting my purchasing quest from butter and cheese to local stuff. I keep reading about all of this fabulous Chinese and Mongolian gritty rock in the Western Press, so I’m looking for that. Needless to say, no one here admits to having ever heard of it; even the grad students who regularly do karaoke and claim to be hip. But one of the students agreed to help me on my quest. Rebecca, Zhuanfang, and I rode our bikes in a pouring tropical rainstorm. Luckily, I had my trusty straw hat made out of rice straw to keep the rain off my glasses. The CD store in town was full of “baby monks.” Zhuanfang is Dai and takes her Buddhism very seriously and that’s what she told us they were called. The babymonks themselves seemed most interested in slapstick humor DVD’s, but they agreed to help us find good tunes. We came away with recordings of traditional instrumental music, cheezy love ballads, a blue ray disk of red songs with Mao on the cover and the one piece of gritty sound in the whole town—a Mongolian rock CD. The whole shebang cost me $8. None of this played on my new Mac, but it all played on Manuel’s old PC; again the Chinese tech gets me.

Meanwhile, Rebecca wanted to have Dai dressess made for her cousin and her friend Reid, so, armed with their measurements and Zhuanfang’s Dai, we took care of that. My great-grandmother was a dress designer, and all I can say is I think my kid got the gene. It was the most excruciatingly detailed dress purchase by an eight-year-old girl ever. She did some of her own talking and pantomiming in Chinese and very carefully chose fabric for each girl. Each one had to have different necklines, embroidery, sleeves, etc… We can only hope that in a decade or so they think that the babymonks, cow blood, and crazy indoor playground were worth waiting a month to see Harry Potter grow up.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Chicken Feet and Cheese

I have no idea what traveling to Vietnam would have felt like if we had taken a plane directly from Dulles to Ho Chi Min City. But coming from Menglun a town in China that is a ten-hour bus ride or hour-long plane ride from a city(Kunming) that the woman who found the fake Apple Stores in China called the End of the Earth; HCMC felt like Paris, really comfy! Kunming is a city of 7 million with an airport that has direct flights to cities such as Singapore and Seoul not to mention snickers bars cheese and corn flakes so I’m not quite sure what was meant by the End-of-Earth crack. And, while at a different time in my life I might well have scorned these comforts, I have to admit that at this point, after two months of jungle living, I soaked up every bit of bourgeois and Western pleasure I could.

Back in the Garden I’m staring out my porch window as my feral looking kids scramble up a rugged jungle footpath carrying rambutan, and I have all the windows and doors open because the ac doesn’t actually work during the hottest points of the day. I just got back from buying rice in the market, where I squatted and sniffed like all the other women. (I have no idea what I’m sniffing for, but everyone else does it). From this vantage point Vietnam seems like Asia-light—it’s Asia but with the trappings and conveniences of a Western city. In the end it felt uncanilly familiar because it was a mash up of our Western lives and our home-away-from-home in the Jungle. We’re used to seeing a whole family on a vespa; in fact, we sometimes are that family, and banana leaves and rubber trees barely attract our attention any more—an azalea or a large carton of milk would be more shocking. Rebecca and Eli who a few months ago probably would have thought rambutan looked like a small sea animal were thrilled to find it at the breakfast buffet. They had plenty of chicken feet and pigs ears, but as the kids said “whatever...” Moreover, a lot of what we saw in Vietnam lived up to expectations gleaned from guide books, newspapers, movies, and restaurants.

For sure, lots of the trip was cool and fascinating because it was different and new. The Cu Chi tunnels were provoking and grotesque. And the water puppets came with music that was by far the most interesting I’ve heard since we arrived in Asia. It lacked the cheesy enya like harmonies and boring drum tracks that undercut most all the other music I hear in China. I didn’t hear a single diatonic scale the entire night. Rebecca even noticed the difference. “they don’t have so many triads in this stuff.”

But really, the creature comforts made the trip; baguettes and croissants for breakfast, English speakers at the markets, restaurants where no one spits on the floor or tosses empty beer bottles around. I found clothing that fit my giant white body not to mention real cotton T-shirts for the boys {Manuel, however, could find neither shoes nor shirts, but he could get pants, }. In Vietnam people wear helmets on their vespas and wash their hands frequently. I’m not a germaphobe and, indeed, bad vision keeps me from being bothered by a lot of dirt; but it is filthy in China, and Vietnam’s like an operating room at Brigham and Women’s by comparison. You can’t drink the water there, but it’s a whole lot cleaner than the water here—I hadn’t felt so clean in two months. I agree with David Sederis in his Guardian piece “Chicken Toenails anyone” that at first it’s pretty disconcerting to see people spitting on floors, kids pooping on the street out of their split pants, etc.. And, while unlike him, we’ve stayed long enough that it doesn’t bother us, it did feel good to be back in a place that shares more of our hygiene norms. (thanks Bridget for sending that article)

Some of these creature comforts emerged from the fact that the tourist experience comes with a certain kind of uniformity across cultures and locations, and its inherent voyeurism rarely gets beneath the surface of the destination and the moment. We never saw the HCMC equivalent of Menglun’s AgMarket with pig-eyes and chicken toes. Manuel’s high school friend Juliet, who lives in HCMC, told us that the market near her house has a range of products that would make us squirm in the same way Menglun’s fresh duck intestine does.

In addition, it is s disconcerting to think about how many of the core familiarities of Vietnam emerge from a darker past. As an enlightened liberal, it pains me to admit that these European elements that made us comfortable are very vivid remnants of the colonial project. The French left Indochina in 1954. It sounds like a long time ago but cultures move at almost glacial paces. And it’s equally painful to realize that even the “authentically” Vietnamese parts of Vietnam are more familiar than anything in “our” part of the Mekong because of the Vietnam War. What that means is that a lot our pleasure and enjoyment emerged out of a long history of violence, domination and cultural destruction. I did not take the opportunity to explain to the kids that the baguette they happily snarfed was the product of such a fraught history.

I did try to explain exoticism to them, but it went nowhere. References to Mulan and Aladin did not help. Both hotels we stayed in made promises on their websites of “the real Vietnam” and an “exotic” experience. That it didn’t feel exotic at all to us kept sending my thoughts back to learning about orientalism and exoticism in college. I have a vivid memory of reading Edward Said’s Orientalism in a literature class where we focused on exoticism. I remember little lights going off because I always knew that Beethoven’s Turkish march had little to do with Turkish people. (ok this is crass now but I was seventeen) A lot about those concepts went over my head, but I remember the notion of orientalism as created not by facts but by Western fantasies of the orient. And then I found it everywhere; it was kind of like when we learned about phallic and Christ imagery in AP English and all we all found it in every single thing we read, saw, and heard (our slightly repressed English teacher encouraged this).

Part of the reason it wasn’t that exotic in Ho Chi Minh City was, of course, the food and the cleanliness standards. The kids had pizza almost every night. David Sederis’ droll assessment of Chinese food put all of the mundane details of cusine here under a snarky colorful microscope in the Guardian piece I mentioned earlier. And, like most satire, some of it was spot on and some was just over the top offensive. I’m still disgusted by chicken feet, and I try really hard not to think about the fact that most of the people who cook our food don’t use soap to wash their hands. Vietnamese food didn’t taste or feel more familiar to me because of a lack of chicken toes. It felt comfortable because; it tasted a lot like Vietnamese food in Harvard Square and Arlington, VA. It was a little fresher and a little spicier but basically variations on a theme. In contrast, almost nothing we eat here has any resemblance to any Chinese food I’ve ever encountered. But no one here makes me eat chicken toes or pig eyes. In fact, anyone who has encountered a westerner, and even those who haven’t, knows I will find those things repulsive and thinks it’s kind of funny. And they take one look at the color of my skin and turn the spicy down a notch. Even my Indonesian and Thai neighbors do that on the spice meter. But eople here are disgusted by cheese—especially the really good expensive pre rotted kinds. And Sedaris seemed bothered by tongue but my people, European-descended Jews, eat a lot of it, and I have a vivid memory of my friend Cynthia’s mom feeding it to me. (I didn’t’ eat it) Anyway back in the local market today I passed up the tongues, feet and brains and stuck with my usual veggies and Tofu (and, we also bought more rambutan, mangosteens, little yellow mangoes, weird white mushrooms, and steamed buns with spicy mystery meat).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Great Kindle Rescue

Sadly I’m not a good enough writer to truly capture the experience of rescuing Jonathan’s Kindle in the Guangzho airport. It sat with the “Luggage Team for a week, and he had been using mine during that time. Luckily he did not get through all of my books. About a year ago I identified e readers as the best low vision aids on the planet and put as much of my research and teaching materials on it as possible. Thank you project Guttenburg! One of my best teaching tricks, or ticks depending on how you look at it, involves using modern texts, music, and videos to seduce techno-craving undergraduates to the early modern and ancient worlds. For example, in my Music and Gender Class I paired up the Kama sutra with a book called Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man. Fortunately Jonathan got stuck in baroque mysteries and didn’t find either of those.

But I digress…. We arrived in Guangzho, the airport from hell, with two hours until our next flight. Apparently this airport has a large problem with foreigners sneaking into China and thus needs extremely thorough and harsh passport control stations. Thank goodness I thought to hide “TinTin in Tibet” very deep in the luggage… They even insisted that Rebecca and Jonathan go through all by themselves, which caused both kids to freak out. And, predictably, Jonathan left his passport with the mean looking passport control guy—I got it back. We retrieved our bags and went to the luggage claim desk where we had been assured that we could call a special phone number and retrieve the lost Kindle. The baggage woman made the call. Describing the Kindle even while holding one proved very difficult. We now know from the news that fake Apples stores with fake ipads abound, but Amazon Kindles have not made it here. The woman very carefully spelled out the logo while looking sort of alarmed at the device. She informed us that we’d have to go to some other location to get it back it but we had all noticed that our flight was already boarding. Thus ensued multiple phone calls with very fast and urgent Chinese. Then she told us to follow her and run. Though she sported a pencil skirt and high-heeled pumps she took off at a pace that would give a lot of runners a run for their money. And we huffed and puffed behind her. Eventually she tossed us onto a stretch golf cart that drove faster than most cars do here in Menglun. We almost took out at least three people. The kids meanwhile looked completely stunned between huffs and puffs. Along the way she said we’d have to pay about 20 Yuan per person for this whole operation, and we said fine assuming this was some kind of airport bribe. Finally the golf cart stopped at an undisclosed location and we were all booted off. She left the kids and me in the rig and took off with Manuel down a back alley of the airport that looked e like it might lead to a little white room where they lock up trouble makers. Somehow he came back with the Kindle, and we arrived at another security checkpoint. We all jumped out of the stretch golf cart and put our bags through security. The kids were by this point almost collapsed in asthmatic fits. As the kids and I got back on the cart Manuel struggled through security and we noticed him emptying out our carry-on suitcase, which caused even more upset to the spawn. “we can’t leave without daddy” “I better go check on him.” Yes, indeed, we had to pass the dreaded cheese test. Cheese appears so infrequently in Chinese airports that they have no idea what it is on an x-ray machine or what to do with it. They made Manuel take it out and everyone sniffed it and we got back on the cart. Somehow we transferred carts and gave some money to a random man and sped along to our gate where, low and behold, the flight was delayed…

The Kindle rescue marked the highpoint of our eighteen-hour journey back to the jungle. For extra fun at each of the three flights you have to fetch your luggage and recheck it. I also enjoyed swiping the little individual servings of New Zealand butter from the first airplane. I felt close to my grandmothers who both embraced diner-snagged sweet-n-low when I opened the packs to fix pasta and butter for the kids. While sitting on these planes I took the time to read thoroughly two Chinese English Newspapers; which do not come this far into remote lands. The news and editorials reminded me again that we do not currently reside in the kind of political system I am used to and that no matter what recent regimes in the White House did to civil liberties we still have it pretty good on the other side of the world. And I might add the tone and tenor of the newspapers is one of many reasons why I do not like my children going through passport control by themselves.

The Sports section argued that Chinese do not excel at soccer because their students are far too busy learning in school to build early skills. A second page news story explained that it would be impossible to reduce the use of capital punishment because life sentences simply do not deter crimes.

We have a large community of Tibetans in Charlottesville so I was drawn to the front page which told the story of the “liberation” of Tibet in 1951. In their version until the Chinese took over “Tibet used to be a society of feudal serfdom under theocratic rule, a society even darker than medieval society in Europe. The dark days are gone.” The article also stated that The US President Barak Obama welcomed the Dali Lama to the white house for a predictable run of Chinese bashing.” The author abhorred the “stale claims of cultural genocide” “For those people everything under the Dali Lama was good. No mention is ever made of the cruel realities of the savage serfdom that existed then.”

At a celebration of the liberation vice president Xi Jinping said that China needs to take immediate steps to prevent infiltration and sabotage activities by Tibetan separatist forces in order to safeguard stability in Tibet as well as national unity. This warning came in the wake of incidents in Hotan just the day before. Depending on which country’s newspapers you read the incident involved police protesters gunning down rioters at a peaceful protest or rioters attacking the police station in an “organized terrorist attack” Just below this news story an opinions piece said that “”The Middle East and North Africa is viewed through western eyes as if the transformation of Ali Babba and the Seven Thieves into Thomas Jefferson and the international Court of Justice.” Full disclosure, a professor at Loyola Marymount in California wrote the last comment.

We arrived back in Banna very late at night, and it seems in some ways almost as far from Hotan and Tibet as it does from Ho Chi Min City. The government classifies the Dai as a good and docile minority, and seems to leave them alone.

Yesterday morning we returned to China normal. After a week of no running in Vietnam, I took off for a steamy rainy run and exchanged pleasantries with the locals. I checked out the pool and found it empty on a super hot day. The kids fought and wreaked havoc on an already trashed house. We took showers in our yucko water. I know now that people pay big bucks to soak in sulfur hot springs, but it’s not great for getting super clean! Eli and I went with our neighbor Sumi to the market in town on a Vespa—yup that’s three of us on one with no helmets and purchased various fruits and vegetables that I’d never seen until we came to China. We chased geckos around our bathrooms.

Cu Chi Tunnels

The government placed a shooting range within the War Memorial Park at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The sound of gunshots assaulted my ears and made my stomach hurt. The constant gunshots felt crushing. I’ve never heard so many shots so close. As we came closer to the range, the kids covered their ears and tried to escape the sound—even my over-militarized boys. They don’t know that you can’t hide from aural assault. The jungle has grown back sufficiently that the guns and shooters remained invisible until we were right at the edge of the firing range—the disembodied sound is indeed uncannily powerful. (note to musicologists, Carolynn Abbate is spot on) Whoever thought of including a shooting range, complete with Vietnam era weapons, as part of the tourist attraction was either a sadist or a brilliant sonic artist. For a couple of bucks you can shoot an AK 47 and lots of people apparently do. It made the whole thing that much more real.

When we decided to go to Vietnam Manuel immediately said he wanted to go to the Cu Chi tunnels. I have to admit I knew the name but had no recollection of what they were. Thanks again Google and Wikipedia. I was born in 1968, the year the Tet offensive launched from the Cu Chi tunnels. This makes me a little too young to remember the war but old enough to have it as a pivotal moment for people just slightly older than me and, of course, my parents’ generation. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot that year, and anti war protests were on the rise. It’s a strange year to have been born in. When I went to Brown my freshman hallway had seven people on it who were born in October or November of 1968 and whose fathers were born in November or December of 1942. Our parents had been against the war, and our fathers all got the last paternity deferments. And while in college we learned about the Vietnam war as history and we learned that for the most part that the working and impoverished citizens took care of the messy jungle parts of the war (My uncle was an exception; he enlisted). Amy Carter was a class ahead of us and hung out on campus with Abby Hoffman, and students born in the sixties attempted to reenact the decade of their birth protesting everything.

So on Saturday morning we piled into a mini van with Manuel’s high school chum Juliet and her two kids. Our guide, Mr. Trunh, was a very friendly 38 year old who looked to be about 24. We learned at the very end of the day that his father had lived in the tunnels. The entrance was full of tour groups; not many Americans but lots of Foreigners. Guides quickly ushered visitors into a ditch to watch a documentary film. I couldn’t see any of it, but I hear it was black and white and grainy featuring B52 bombers going off, villagers running for cover, and Viet Cong fighting bravely. The narration came straight out of the Cold War and said things like “Cu Chi, the land of many gardens peaceful all year round under shady trees until the American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside.. “the crazy devils fired into women and children” “Cu Chi will never die.” At some point we began to wonder if any of this was appropriate for the children; though, as it turned out the gritty black and white texture combined with 1920’s style sound rendered the whole thing largely incomprehensible to them. The little kids (two four year olds and a two year old) got a little bored so I turned on the panda cam on my ipad, which made quite a visual, aural, and cognitive dissonance. Just outside the trench theater guards in green fatigues lead tourists through jungle trails that would seem rugged if you didn’t live in the jungle. (to us they seemed tame) Very real automatons dressed in black trousers hang out making weapons, holding Viet Cong flags and generally adding to the scenery.

The site marks a central spot on Vietnam’s war tourism map; in the last fifteen years the Vietnamese have apparently begun marketing the gory past, and it comes off as an eerie combination of capitalism and propaganda. One of the official websites about the tunnels. says this “system of “fighting tunnels”, the inheritance is crystallized from spirit, power, will, intelligence, creation and efforts of Cu Chi military and people as well as soldiers from everywhere in our country living, fighting and devoting thoroughly 30 years in the fierce battle. The purpose is also to propagate, educate revolution traditions to Vietnamese youths and foreign travelers visiting and researching. .”

The Cu Chi tunnels comprise a seventy-five mile maze of tunnels that at their peak housed sixteen thousand people, ten thousand of whom died during the war. Tourists can now explore a small portion of this. The guides all emphasize the cleverness of the Vietnamese people and state the gruesome parts with a disaffected bluntness. The kids were taken with the idea of camouflaging air holes with fake anthills and termite mounds. They know exactly what a jungle termite hill looks like now. The systems for bringing food and water in and out during the night come across as ingenious games if you let your mind wander from the horrors of it all for just a moment.

Our guide pointed out that they didn’t have enough food, water, or air and that thousands of people died of malaria because of mosquito infestations. We were all fascinated with the exhibit of traps which the guide set in motion—trap doors which trapped enemies in spikes, a folding chair that ended in a spite necklace etc. Like the torture museum in San Gimangiano, it’s oddly and sickly fascinating. Automatons inhabited multiple ditches eerily and repetitiously making weapons. They were by far the most realistic automatons I’ve ever seen. To be honest, from a distance they didn’t look that much different that the identically clad real live people making rice paper.

Various points on the trail feature opened entrance holes which visitors can lower themselves into. Picture a hole that is barely wide enough for most Western Men’s shoulders to fit through. The guy who tried just before Manuel got stuck and it took two people to pull him out. The kids all panicked when their parent went in. (Manuel and Juliet did it; I didn’t) The kids couldn’t wait to explore the three levels of tunnel open to tourists. But the first time Manuel, Juliet and the kids four and over tried to go down to a level two tunnel a few of the kids panicked. Jonathan, Rebecca, and Eli all went down to the second level of tunnels and went through about 40 meters. I’m just claustrophobic enough to be very grateful that Juliet’s two year old needed someone to hang out with on the outside. At the second attempt all the kids went in. Manuel reported that while the westerners all went on hands and feet the guide walked in the tunnel in a squat. He experienced it as a low place to walk and they experienced it as a place to be horizontal; bipedal v. quadrapedal. Given that I couldn’t even make myself go down for five minutes I cannot begin to fathom how anyone lived there for a decade. And it makes the war that much more incomprehensible from the vantage point of history. If people were willing to live in those conditions how could anyone possibly beat them. And certainly bombing the hell out of the ground above would not do much damage.

As always taking the kids to a site that is hard to swallow makes the whole thing all the more surreal. The big kids wanted to know who won the Vietnam war. We said the Vietnamese did. They wanted to know why Americans went there in the first place. How do you explain that to eight year olds? The four year olds obsessively reminded us that the guns were fake like toys. And because they are four we did not contradict. We told them that lots of people died here a long time ago but now no one does.

We all wondered at various points during the day whether bringing the kids there was a good thing. In the end I think it was good or irrelevant. Certainly the War Remnants Museum would not have worked--parts of the tunnels seemed like a game to them and that’s probably fine. What little kid doesn’t fantasize about a secret world that adults are basically too big to inhabit? But there was enough reality to it to make at least the older ones understand that something very bad had happened there and that no matter how much they like games from, guns are scary and war is complicated. As a parent I struggle often with how to teach kids about hard things. Obviously, we don’t completely shelter them or we wouldn’t be here in the land of staph infections, massive rural poverty, safety norms that would send a lot of Americans running.

They know what the Nazis were and they know at some level that their Grandfather and his sister fled them when they were small children. They know that the Nazis killed lots of Jews. But we have decidedly not shown them pictures of concentration camps or taken them to the Holocaust Museum. Likewise, I saw no reason to make our trip to Vietnam a gut wrenching study of the war. Without kids we would certainly have explored more of that side of Ho Chi Min City. But I also saw no reason to completely shield them from it. War is ugly, and they need to know that. But they need to know it in a way that leaves them still feeling safe. One message we have al received loud and clear during our time in Asia is that safety in all forms is a privilege. But it’s a privilege I need my kids to have.

Monday, July 18, 2011


I’m writing now from the Ho Tram beach resort. Our exit from Ho Chi min city was a little rough on me. Note to self: if the sign says yogurt with roasted nuts, DON’T eat it. Somehow I’ve made it through two months in a place with foods that are totally mysterious and not a word of English without incident and a giant English sign got me in trouble (Manuel was great, very kind and supportive toward me and taking over all matters logistical while wrangling the children, who were acting as though they had taken the epinephrine shot. Later he told me he was thinking the exact same thing, “We finally get to a place where they tell you in English what the food is, and you eat NUTS!”). So, thanks to the allergic reaction, an epipen, and three Benadryl, I spent most of the first day at the beach asleep. The R and R is great for Manuel and me; we are both physically exhausted from our time in the jungle. But, more importantly, the kids love this, which reinforces one of the most important rules for traveling with kids; plan lots of down time and things that will thrill them and that will feel familiar. Our hotel room has an outside bathroom—as in you can lie in the bathtub and look at the stars. The restaurant has Vietnamese and western food, which works fabulously for us. Other highlights include the playground, collecting shells on the beach, and the cartoon channel. Eli summed it up by saying, “they do all of our jobs here and all we have to do is eat and drink.” Eli looks dapper this morning in the gap pj’s I purchased for 70 cents at the Saigon market the other night.

In Food news we especially liked the Vietnamese Hot pot which was not at all what we expected and included an array of freshly caught seafood that we then cooked in the pot. Rebecca had a fabulous sea bass in a clay pot and we drank wine and cocktails. While we were cooking squid and mystery fish Jonathan entertained us with his summary of a baroque mystery. He’s reading my kindle since he left his on the plane. He found Cruel Music, a terrible mystery that has a castrato in it. His narration included discussions of the “Jewess” who had decided to become “pagan” pronounced with a soft g like agent. She discovered the magic of Diana and could not resist apparently. He’d like to meet some pagans in Charlottesville. He then explained to his siblings that castrati, which they all know about, had high voices because someone found the very best boy singers in all of Italy and cut off little bits of their tongues or maybe their vocal cords. I have to admit that I’ve glossed over the mechanics of making a castrato with the kids; they’ve heard tons of music for castrati, heard me lecture about it, and even read some of my sources. And they’ve even heard me explain the procedure. But I’ve never quite explained it all to them. So Manuel carefully explained the whole business of smushing testicles and hormones and the way that voices get low when you hit puberty. And in the end what they took from it was that it must have been very hard to live with smushed “intestines”, and they couldn’t figure out why smashed intestines made it hard to get married. Given that we’ve already covered the Vietnam war, the needless death of children, and abandoned orphans since we got here, we decided to just leave the whole testicle thing alone. (I’m still processing the war parts of the trip so more on that later)

We head back to Ho Chi Min city this morning and will do some errands and take the kids to a water puppet show. We need to buy coffee, chocolate, cereal, pasta, butter, cheese, antibacterial soap, and hand sanitizer. If we have time I will probably buy a few more clothing items for the kids. Nothing gets clean in the jungle so their clothes are just nasty and both boys have outgrown shoes. And I probably need some sort of fashion treat for myself!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Epic Journeys

Our epic journey to Ho Chi Min City involved three planes; when you go from one communist country to another you can’t actually cross the border in very many places. And at each point the notion of Americans going from China to Vietnam stumped the passport people. Lonely Planet makes it seem like back packers do this all the time, but the Chinese did not get that memo when they confiscated all those guide books. The second plane advertised “gorgeous human origin intoxicant fertile jianshi; hand cream made with human placenta. They did not, I’m sorry to say, sell it on the plane.

I’ve never had such a complicated time getting out of a country; and that includes living in Slovakia in the early 90’s and traveling around Eastern Europe. At some point I really felt like a fleeing dissident and the insistent percussive rubber-stamping made an oppressive soundtrack. We flew through Kunming, which, when we arrived two months ago, felt like the exit to Lost... and this time seemed familiar. The temperature of 64 degrees made us all cold for the first time in two months. We then flew to Guangzho, another one of those cities of twenty four million that I had never heard of before. It felt like the biggest airport in the universe, and the golf carts are the size of Toyotas and zip through it faster than cars do on highways in Yunnan. It took us about an hour (55’ says my scientist husband, who timed it) to walk to our next gate, and the security at the customs/exit station was intense. My shifty eyes do not play well in a communist country, and a certain points I would not have been surprised if someone tossed us in a little white room for extra questions. Guangzho is a center of international commerce, and feels like one of those places with factories full of thousands of underaged girls that you read about in newspapers. And, delightfully, it’s an earthquake center. Sometimes it’s probably better not to google things. In any case we noticed an immense racial diversity. We have seen almost no white people anywhere in Yunnan and exactly one Black person who happens to be a Cameroonian grad student at the Garden. The kids explained all of this to us in the first two minutes of airport time. The real blow came when Jonathan realized he’d left his Kindle on flight number two and understandably collapsed in a puddle. Thanks to the big brother is watching you aspect of China they found it before we even took off from Guangzho, and we can get it on the way back. With spy cameras everywhere the things that get left places rarely to actually get stolen.

It also became very clear that had the five of us needed to escape a repressive regime and keep the Jewish people alive we would never have made it. Rebecca makes the worst possible escape; she looks around dreamily and takes on an almost aggressive and selective need to follow every rule, and then dreamily looks around some more. When I told her to cut underneath the rope to make our 10 mile hike to the customs agent quicker she put her hands on her hips and said loudly "but the sign says follow the arrows." Meanwhile half the time we saw a threatening looking guy in a uniform Eli had one of two stress responses; pretending to shoot him or refusing to walk. I’m sure the Vietnamese especially like to see little American boy shooting.

We finally arrived in HCMC at about 11:00 and had to get our visa; the visa agent promptly ripped off but at least we got in which is not true for the Russians on the plane with us or the Dutch guy who didn’t even get to leave China. When we got to the hotel at midnight the kids had to explore every nook and cranny of our rooms before going to sleep. Eli let out a huge yelp and announced "wow i've never seen a vacuum like that before...." The joint does come with hot water, bath, bath salts, slippers, robes, cartoon network, a pool with water in it etc... This morning I took the best shower I’ve taken since we left Charlottesville. They popped up at 6:30 ready to swim. Instead, we went to the breakfast buffet full of croissants, bread cheese, real yogourt etc... We were all kind of overwhelmed at first and probably could have sat there all day. In case you need reading material for elementary aged kids I recommend an English language communist propaganda newspaper delivered to your door; simple, clear politics and a good deal of rah rah. They loved it, read the whole thing wanted to know if we'd get another one tomorrow etc...

After croissants and coffee Manuel headed to the doctor to deal with the giant pussing oozng staph boil on his elbow. One of our fun family bonding actives has been draining boils and spending time sending gross pictures to doctors at home to decide what to do. Jonathan had a doozy on his chest and one of my love handles is now scarred from one on my hip—rude. The doctor in Ho Chi Minc city told Manuel that he sees this all the time with westerners who move to Asia. The boils, though not attractive are nothing to worry about, but we do need to rinse with some antiseptic soap. We can add this to the list of moments when I wish we had a doctor anywhere near us and to the list of things that someone who is supposedly shepherding us through the process of living in remote China might have shared. So none of us will meet our demise by boils, and we’ll have to do something other than lance boils for fun.

While Manuel went to the doctor, the kids and I headed out on the town. First we changed Yuen to Dong which got us funny looks. The exchange rate from Dong to Dollars is about 20,500 to a dollar, so it really does work like the old lira and it’s totally confusing me. I made Rebecca take charge of the map and for dealing with the traffic we developed a routine of holding hands and running across the street. Eli thinks he’s seeing motorcycle races. The green clad crossing guards sometimes sort of helped. They are not, however, dumb, and understand that it is best for them to wait for traffic to stop before stepping out to stop traffic. And the traffic works kind of like shock therapy for someone with an overzealous panic response to oncoming cars thanks to last springs SUV runin. We basically spent the morning as consumers doing exactly the things that in another life I would have scoffed at. Eli found a little wooden bicycle and Jonathan got a jumbo pack of Bakugans. Rebecca and I got fitted for new custom made dresses (about $20 each; silk for me and cotton for her). We also got cone hats, cookies, chocolate some of which we might well be able to buy on the down town mall in Charlottesvile. We found an English bookstore and purchased some gems there too.

To add to the excitement of the morning I looked at the proofs for an article and noted that the illustration is wrong. The analogy would be it say look at the pretty cat and instead you get a Philadelphia pretzel. I’m editing the journal issue so it’s my fault... So I sent my fabulous graduate student to find it. When it wasn’t at my house she tried to go to my office. But, oops, my office is not office anymore, my stuff is in boxes, and I don't even know where the new office lives. While working on this, my little internet trick stopped working, which spun me into a panic as I envisioned finishing out the summer without google, facebook, new york times, etc… I did get it work again this morning with some very complicated computer gymnastics--go me. So far, we are all loving it here and in fact it does feel refreshingly like Paris!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Spawn

Every time I talk to someone on the phone they ask what the kids are getting out of this and what I think they will take away from it. In truth, I do not have a clue. In that inevitable way of children, they take everything in stride, and things that still seem exotic and scary to grownups register as nearly normal to them.

Eli has picked up the most Chinese, though he will not use it on command. When I try to get him to perform here it’s not only in an “isn’t my kid cute way” but also a way of saying “yes we are giant white people who do not speak your language or understand your culture, but we really are trying and at least one of us can pronounce things accurately.” His pretend play includes not only Chinese activities in which he frequently becomes a grounds worker or a plumber but also words in Chinese, Thai, and Dai. But I don’t think he understands them as different languages. Obiwan mostly speaks a mash up of these language and spitting noises these days. He can also have a full out conversation with one of his acquaintances Chen Chen in which neither of then understands a word the other is saying; but they do speak with conversational inflections, stop for questions to be answered and giggle at the same time. Since at almost five he still spends much of his time on a different planet, this whole business of jungle living in some ways may seem less weird; he, for example, regularly sends emails to friends, cousins and super heroes and often comes home from the woods bearing gifts of precious gems, wild animals, and high automated rifles.

The big kids also frequent fantasy worlds, but theirs bears a striking resemblance to a Mekong village town. They sweep and mop the porch. They say it’s safe for kids to do that here because no on uses soap anyway. (this is true) Any kind of pretend cooking requires filtered water and dramatic banging on something. All three of them dress their stuffed animals in Dai clothing crafted from scraps mooched from the Dai seamstresses in town. They very casually inform me on walks “watch out mommy that’s an elephant ear; it’s poisonous.” They know exactly where to buy anything they want in town—soda from one supermarket, dim sum buns from the lady in the back of the market, fabric trim next to the spicy noodle shop etc…. Rubber trees, tea plants, banana leaves, coconut trees, and mango trees don’t even bear mention any more; unless they are hungry and want a mango. They can, in other words, identify plants, animals, foods and sounds that I had never even imagined before I came here, and they don’t think it’s unusual.

All three of them enjoy a kind of freedom and independence here that eight and 4 year olds do not enjoy in the United States for practical and cultural reasons. They hike on a footpath through fairly rough forest for 2/3 of a mile to say hi their Chinese friends or play with their dogs, pigs, and chickens. They get on their bikes and cruise around the compound on road that they share with cars, motorcycles, and the occasional lost truck—there is nothing funnier than Eli barrel-assing around corners on his little blue bike with training wheels. And we all ride into town alongside giant dumps trucks full of concrete blocks, which are never strapped down and could crush one of them at any moment. We use the size of these blocks to justify not wearing helmets We leave them alone when we go running; they amble through the market alone buying snacks. While our pool at home reliably comes with chlorine and lifeguards, Rebecca will no longer be able to simply hop on somebody’s Vespa or get on her mini green bike with any family cruising by and take a dip.

Some things simply go over their heads. Thanks to the Communist Party Birthday celebration we discussed communism, but it made no sense to them. When we explained the economic theory, the response was “but there are rich and poor people here.” When I was reading about Chinese artists thrown in prison or sent out for re-education and launched into a discussion of the virtues of free speech, they simply could not fathom a place without it. They, like Mr. Jefferson, seem to “hold these truths to be self evident” And while Yuen feels like play money to me they think that paying 60 qui for a bicycle would be a total rip off. They don’t understand the economic and cultural implications of the fact that everything here is obscenely cheap by American standards.

Mostly I’m struck by the ways that they cannot absorb the tremendous gaps in wealth and modernization. Given that I spent much of my sabbatical free time working with kids in Charlottesville’s most impoverished housing project, I am more than aware that we have tremendous wealth disparities too. But I cannot think of many places in the US where a house with three bathrooms, a.c. with 5 zones, and double-paned glass is only 200m from a house with no indoor plumbing or kitchen. When the kids took me to the farm I was stunned. They noticed that the Chinese kids have two TV’s but failed to register that only one room has electricity. They are jealous of the animals but didn’t notice the toothbrushes neatly put away outside in a cup. And like all privileged Western animal rights advocates, they worry more about the fate of the dogs whom they’ve now diagnosed with ADHD, multiple personality disorder, and “post tragic” syndrome than about kids who will be lucky if they are allowed to finish school. And they traipse down the hill and inform me in passing that they came home because “another elderly gentleman came to drink alcohol with the grandfather.” (It was 10:30 in the morning when they said this and the grandfather is no much older than me)

Though they accept much of the world around themselves, the kids are not by any means enjoying and It’s-a-small-world style complete harmonious bonding with rural China. They find things as frustrating as we do and often express it in ways that we are too politically correct to say, even in our own home. Material differences that affect them make the strongest impression. Food, of course, looms large, and they can give a long list of the indignities of eating in China and of the things that they are miserable without. But they also fully accept and expect sticky rice balls and mangosteins for snacks. They know that the Chinese export the good stuff and make a game of predicting how quickly things will break. They constantly fume at the swimming pool; they know it should have chlorine, be filled on hot days, and staff life guards who yell at people who run, smoke in the pool, throw their lunch trash in the pool, and don’t get out when they hear lightning. They, too, have had multiple skin infections and wash their hands with a kind of vigor I never thought I’d see. And they understand that we get flu shots and take antibiotics, which kids here don’t get to do. The radical differences in music and ambient noise also beg constant attention. Often they talk about sound in a comparative way. “that sounds like queen don’t you think” or “why do they have the same piano on all the radios” (they mean the same inane synthesizer tracks) “The bugs here are 20 times louder than anything at home”

The big kids, like their parent’s, process a lot through reading and information. Both of them speak in a tone I thought was reserved for arrogant male academics when they inform other foreigners about Chinese culture. They can quote facts and stories from various dynasties and frequently reference the Red Guard and Chang Chai Shek. And like the good comparativists that the solipsism of childhood makes them, many of their cultural observations come out in terms they already know. We spoke with Manuel’s student about the problem with Dai men drinking and gambling: Jonathan said. “oh yes in our country the native Americans have that problem especially on reservations.” During a conversation about the vastly inferior schooling in the Dai villages Rebecca said “isn’t that like an achievement gap.” Not to mention the question we got early on “how come all of the Chinese men shave their entire bodies?” And while I have often complained about the horrors of bringing up boys, there may be hope for at least my eldest son. During a discussion of what are by our standards completely regressive domestic arrangements of everyone around us Jonathan said with a smirk “well that works out well for the men but not the ladies. Mommy wouldn’t stand for that.” (And for the record when I say regressive I’m not talking about arrangements of men working outside the home and women working in it) And, despite our failed attempts to explain communism and wealth disparity, they did understand it when we said an important marker of what I think of as the wretched gender politics here is the fact that a country that makes and distributes amazingly zippy cell phones to even the most remote communities and technology superior business accessories (both of which are primarily used by men), they cannot sell any kitchen convenience including a good sponge. Why make women’s lives easier?

As to the question of what they will remember I just don’t know.It is true that Rebecca and Jonathan remember Rome quite well; or at least they claim to. But my scholarly life does not exist in a separate plane from our home life, and anytime they see me preparing a power point presentation for a talk they see places where they played. All of us love to go to Mona Lisa and buy Perugino; not because I think it’s the best chocolate in town but because it’s what we used to bribe 2.5-year-old Rebecca to suck down unsweetened prednisone. They hear me speak Italian on the phone and when they’ll have it I read to them in Italian. And I usually end up in Europe at least once a year and come home with some kind of Italian treat. It’s not in the end that far from their normal world. This is very far away with few flashpoints at home.

In closing I quote from Jonathan, who frequently has long involved conversations with his best friend Kiren during which I sometimes write down his words. I tune out for long discussions of Warriors, which is a completely wretched book series. He has already learned to make things that spin him into tantrums seem interesting or buff to his friends. This is especially true when it comes to food, which challenges all three of them in big ways.

“We have made several observations. The nanny’s all ride pink bikes.”

“I have quite a bit of a diet. There is bread. There is very good cheddar cheese. Jinghong has a restaurant that has good pizza. Their eggs are phenomenal no matter where you go. And then we have some buns in case I start to starve. We found these things that are like Chinese granola bars. So actually I‘m not bad off.” (Jing Hong is an hour away and we’ve been twice)

“we’re stuck in china getting eaten alive.”

“you know our mom played a song for the communist party’s 90th birthday”

“we do have a bug zapper. It looks like a tennis racket”

“There’re two Indonesian slash dutch girls and two Malaysian slash Texan girls and there’s one four year old Thai slash Scottish girl”

“Becca she’s fine she’s sleeping right now though. Sometimes the garden exhausts her”

“Wait let me guess Chile also made a declaration of independence. A lot of countries did”

“I’m on my dad’s computer which just happens to have this funny thing from the new york times” (followed by a complete reading of the NY Times op ed piece of the US’s Facebook page)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Monkey Parts and Wine

On Wednesday one of our neighbors told us that the monthly “dai” market on the Chinese Lao border was very cool and that if we went we could purchase wine, beer, and monkey head. It pops up on the 7th and 8th of each month and sellers from Lao cross the border to sell their wares, which consist largely of illegal animal products. As always it seemed slightly mysterious, and guide book and google research yielded very little information. Supposedly, the only way to go involves getting someone from the Dai villiage with a van to drive. Luckily, Manuel is working with Zhuangfang who happens to be from the local village, and she said she’d hook us up. The guy her mom found had never worked as a driver so he said he wouldn’t do it without Zhuangfang, which was a bonus for us since she is super fun and speaks Dai, the lingua franca of the market. She told me later that her mom wanted to find driving work for this guy because most of the men in the village spend their time away from the rubber plantations where they work gambling, drinking and playing illegal lottery games and this man has avoided all of those things. He is exactly my age and already has grandchildren.

Driving out of town and looking around without worrying about whether or not my kids were getting hit by a car allowed me to really look which led to a “wow I can’t believe we live here” moment. Shortly after we left town began passing through seemingly endless rubber plantations. We saw miles and miles of tightly planted rubber groves taking up every bit of available space on terraced hilltops. As far as I can tell, most of the local men currently work as rubber tappers. In the mid twentieth century this area still consisted largely of tropical rainforest. In the 1950’s when the west imposed trade embargos on China the government made Xishuangbanna a hotbed of rubber as part of a larger plan to render the country agriculturally independent. In the 1970’s local people were still considered too lazy for this kind of work but educated urban youths in need of re-education did a lot of time on rubber plantations. Land reforms of the 80’s and 90’s gave land to individuals and encouraged the continued planting of rubber. The Garden in which we live does quite a bit of research on the environmental impacts of rubber planting and is responsible for some as of yet completely unattempted plans for reforestation. I’ll have to do a little fieldwork in the compound to understand the science of it. For starters I found this quotation from our neighbor and director of the institute. (He is not the party secretary) “The future of the botanical garden is intimately linked to the future of the ecological environment of the region,” says Chen Jin, director of XTBG. “The day when the forests are gone and rivers dried up would be the end of the XTBG.”

At some point the kids got restless and miraculously the little minivan with no seat belts and no ac sprouted a TV screen playing music videos of red songs and Xishuangbanna anthems. I could not see the tiny screen but I’m told it featured scantily clothed dai women dancing with plants and exotic animals. Eventually we turned on to the infamous Kungming-Bangok expressway, which goes through China, Laos and Thailand, linking Mekong river countries. The highway contributes to a trade infrastructure and will in theory have great impacts for globalization. As of January, studies predicted that it would double the trade between China and Thailand. It also considerably opens up relations between China and Laos. I know nothing about this area but I can only imagine that the highway will have large impacts on cultural trade as well. The people of Yunnan, Laos and Thai are ethnically linked and their different political situations are imposed by their different nation-states.

The Mohan landport is the only land border crossing between China and Laos and, as we cruised down the highway, sure enough a market sprouted up out of nowhere. They apparently open up the border for this endeavor once a month. At first glance it looked like the usual market except it was full of women from a variety of ethnic groups that we had not seen. The colors were stunningly vivid. As always in the region women dress in traditional dress where as men wear crappy looking modern clothing often doing away with the inconvenience of a shirt. I found the Yao who come from the hilltops and wear amazing brightly colored skirts particularly arresting.

Like the market here, it had none of the bustle and hustle of a big city market, or of a village market in Latin America—not a single person tried to get us to buy something. That may be the Buddhist thing. We were the only white people or westerners in sight, and the kids attracted a lot of quiet attention—no photos but a lot of stroking of their hair and skin. We’ve learned that at times when women here stroke the kids arms and seem to sort of measure them they are checking to see if they are healthy. Interestingly, Rebecca who wears tank tops attracts the most concern on the health front.

Since this was day two of the market, there were no monkey heads left but If you’ve seen my pictures on facebook you know that we passed up opportunities to buy all sorts of yummies. Zhuangfang did buy deer skin which she says tastes good and betters health if you roast it on an open fire and suck the juice out—we passed. Zhuangang and I located monkey penis which given my work on castrati it might well count as research. It’s dried and long. They also sold congealed monkey blood, which apparently cures menstrual cramps. The kids imagined a Red Cross blood drive scene with nice ladies giving out cookies, not poached monkey’s shot and drained. Rebecca desperately wanted an ivory comb but since it was actual illegal elephant ivory she had to settle for a rabbit’s foot made out of otter. They also sold ground up tiger bones, rhino horn, and bear bile.

We bought none of those animal delicacies but we did buy raisins, which I’ve had no luck finding here. Other treats were peanut and sunflower brittle and some very yummy crackers made from sticky rice and honey. A fruit vendor gave us a bag of mangosteins for no clear reasons and we bought fresh honey. Manuel bought a gorgeous Laotian basket, which I used to carry rolls to a birthday party yesterday, and I purchased some Dai fabric that looks a bit different from what we get here.

Our next stop was the duty free shop, which turned out to be two shops. The first one specialized in food and yielded olive oil, Italian spaghetti and chocolate. The kids spent a good 10 minutes picking out m and m’s which turned out to cost $40 so we did not buy them. We had to find duty free shop number 2 to get the booze, which I wanted. I am desperate for wine. This involved going directly to the border crossing. They have a brand-new swanky building that looks like an airport except that the check in counters are customs and passport control. We ran into a group of monks crossing from China to Laos. We saw the gorgeous sight of wine and bought three bottles.

The ten and under crowd took this all in stride, as if in our family when neither the Charlottesville farmers market nor Retail Relay can meet our needs we regularly traipse off to a market of illegal animal parts on the formerly closed China/Lao border. Things that to adults seem phenomenally interesting, disturbing, or simply markers of what a different planet we inhabit this summer already register as normal for them. In contrast, we came back to the news that a long postponed birthday party for Eli’s four-year old friend Rona would occur as a pot-luck picnic in the pagoda on top of the waterfall. The excitement in the compound may have exceeded our kids’ reaction to the Great Wall. By 9:00 in the morning we had a full report on the pink cake, and Eli had already gone to help make it. Manuel and the big kids rode bikes into town to procure supplies for our contribution, and Rebecca carefully plotted turtle and R shaped challah buns, and the kids all planned various games. (Each kid was supposed to bring a game) But 2:30 we were asked every three minutes when we were leaving and finally at 3:45 when we saw Rona’s 6’ 3” Scottish dad drive off on a bicycle wagon built for a 5’ tall person hauling his daughter, the cake and various treats, the pitch was high indeed.

And the whole event made such a stark contrast to the day before that I once again had that the disconcerting sense of living in a not quite post-colonial compound. We all arrived on bike or motorbike, and the bulk of the party was the group of foreigners in which all of the families other than us are comprised of white scientists married to Asian women. Revellers also included a few Chinese grad students, and, best of all from Eli’s perspective, Rona’s Chinese friend Chen Chen, whom Eli flirted with shamelessly, much to Rona’s chagrin. I took a picture of Eli and Chen Chen playing a drum brought back from Tanzania and titled it “An American boy, a Chinese girl, and an African drum.” Other than Chen Chen, these are the same seven kids who spend every day together, and all eight of the kids were out-of-control excited. The setting was truly spectacular, on top of the waterfall and overlooking a pond and more plants than I normally see in a month.

The temperature probably passed 100 degrees at some point and everyone was red faced and sweaty. The kids had sack races, three-legged races, and played British bulldog and Tug-o-War while the adults sucked down warm Lao beer opened without an opener. And though no one has more than two burners and a toaster oven in their kitchen, the food included beautifully presented (and excellent tasting) pizza, cake, apple pie, spring rolls, Thai noodles, tempura potatoes, watermelon, and a few fruits I’d never seen before. One of my problems in these sort of pot luck scenes is that everything I make looks like one of Eli’s playdoh project. I simply can’t become one with my battered electric toaster oven and stovetop that beeps and shuts off when it doesn’t like the pot. The whole scene seemed very far from the China/Laos market with it’s monkey parts, brightly colored ethnic minority clothing, and the ever-present hooch.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

More Floods

I didn’t even leave my house today and I still inhabit the twilight zone. As always the joys of Chinese construction add excitement. Our kitchen sink, the one with the explosive water valve, has been leaking again for a few days and every day some one else comes to fix it and every day it still leaks. Today it leaked and the bathrooms flooded. The appropriate calls were made but nothing happened so we went about our business as usual.

We’ve started a new plan in the compound where the seven foreign kids have a specific house to go to each morning and that house will contain one adult. Call me bourgeois, but I’m not completely comfortable with the lord of the flies scenario of seven kids aged 4-10 hanging out unsupervised in houses where the electricity sparks every few minutes and valves burst about once a week. Manuel organized this as a way to prevent me from going completely and totally crazy since mostly they all come to me and with me everywhere I go. Today they went away, which left me alone to do something that actually had to get done today—it didn’t.

We’ve figured out that if we keep the a.c. off as much as possible during the day it and the rest of power might stay on from about 7 pm on—which is when the killer bugs come out so the windows and doors need to be closed. So I set myself up in shorts and a tank top with every single door wide open in the house drinking coffee and working away at a little application. I had the great idea to stream in WFUV in the evening for some funky music. At some point I looked outside and saw four police officers and four garden workers hanging out on the porch in chairs and squatting listening to the tunes too. This seemed like not my understanding of personal space but... They hung out for a while and then went away and came back with their own music. So we had a kind of ipod battle of the bands. I took the whole thing as just another weird China moment. Manuel didn’t quite feel that way when I called him.

The kids eventually toodled home for lunch and some time in the lab. The hotel in the garden made the mistake of storing a lot of hotel things in our garage—little toothpastes, combs, shower caps, blue slippers etc… So these kids who live in a giant lab now spend much of the day walking around in shower caps and blue booties doing experiments. While the six young Dr. Frankenstiens worked in the lab I went to lie down for twenty minutes and made them promise not to blow anything up. Because it’s a commune and we don’t do personal space I woke up to find a Chinese guy with his shirt pulled up halter style and the obligatory water bottle of hooch standing over my bed saying “Hi, water kitchen” in Chinese to me. He did his thing, gave me the thumbs up, and then left. An hour later after we had made rolls in the shapes of turtles, skeletons, and baseballs the sink started leaking again. At that point I lay down on the couch with a novel on my ipad and pretended I was somewhere else until a policeman came to deliver a few ten gallon jugs of water.

While preparing a stir fry of mystery greens and mystery spices the leak seemed to get bigger and bigger, so more calls were made. Manuel (who is not a plumber but has caused floods in his own lab) noticed that the drain hose did not in fact attach to anything so the sink water simply came up out of the ground. And then the water-bearing policeman came back. He too performed experiments on the sink, which prompted him for some reason to turn the water on and keep it running thus flooding much of the kitchen. Manuel kept turning it off and saying in English “this makes no sense” while the policeman-waterdeliveryman-plumbeman turned it back on and said in Chinese “let me do my job, you idiot.” Finally, his wife, wearing a dress almost identical to the one I performed in on 1 July, arrived on a Vespa. She turned the water on while her husband squatted underneath the house and smiled. The two of them smiled, mopped, and told us “OK”, with the obligatory thumbs-up. And like Angels of Mercy departing toward their next act of kindness, they were gone. Eli is now playing plumber which involves saying “I am plumbing the house first I have to flood it.” Then he goes outside speeds up to the house on his little bike and whips out his cell phone into which he screams the same ten words of Chinese over and over.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Pennies and Moonshine

There is nothing funnier to a Dai Buddhist than a gigantic white chyc who can’t afford her dozen eggs. Yes, that was me in the market counting out every last bill (some worth no more than 5 cents) and still finding myself ½ a yuan (7 cents) short and my plastic wallet empty. The nice ladies are Buddhist enough to wait patiently and tell all their friends but not Buddhist enough to just give me the damn (and small) eggs. This morning I made the mistake of going to the market without raiding the cash drawer. We live in a completely cash-based economy. (Note to the New York Times and to Capital 1. The miracle Venture 1 Visa card does not work here. ) Money seems very much like play money; it’s the size of monopoly money and it reminds me of spending lira in Italy before the Euro—very hard to think in.

My market mishap, which also left us without July 4 watermelon, came at a timely moment. I’ve been trying to figure out our accounts today because we head to Vietnam for a visit to a disease lab and a vacation in Ho Chi min city and a beach resort at the end of next week. I’ve made it very clear that in addition to a cultural experience I want straight up Western luxury; wine, cocktails, food my kids will eat that I don’t cook, swimming pool with chlorine, hot water that doesn’t depend on a summer day, cable TV and really good not Yunnan style food.. (Manuel is concerned that I’ve watched too much TV and confuse Siagon with Paris which will lead to disappointment…) This involves taking stock of the financial situation because we want Manuel’s Chinese salary to completely support us here. The first not trivial question involves whether we can use Chinese money in Vietnam. The second equally not trivial question is exactly how much we have. Everything here is fluid, including salaries—when one gets paid, how one gets paid, how much, etc… To get a sense of the financial scale we have spent about $500 in six weeks here in the jungle. The house comes with the gig so that’s not part of the accounts. But it includes four bicycles, my fancy custom made dress, new sim cards for our phones, new shoes for all the kids, plastic crap to amuse the spawn, three sets of roller blades and two trips to the most expensive grocery store in China stocked with Western Imports. Despite the feeling of living in a glorified bamboo hut, we maintain a very expensive lifestyle by local standards.

As I’ve said to anyone who will listen I crave most a good glass of wine or a good beer. But I should make it clear that it’s not at all the case that people don’t drink. They just don’t drink stuff I want. There is a huge drinking culture, and it’s almost a competitive sport. When you toast you down the whole glass of whatever it is—kind of like the four glasses of wine at the seder. People give each other drinking names “does not fall down,” “can’t walk home” etc….. And I won’t mention any names but the hooch is so strong that it knocked a number of not petite Western Scientists off their feet and led my own npWS to have a nice nap on the bathroom floor when he came home the other night. And it’s everywhere. I noticed a couple of weeks ago that every so often the maintenance guys or the water guys leave water bottles with a mystery liquid in it around our house. I assumed it was a cleaning chemical and quickly got rid of it lest the spawn drink it. But actually they travel with hooch. This may explain why everything breaks!

And it’s July 4 and no one but our kids cares. Of the foreigners we are the only family with two American parents and the only ones whose kids have lived exclusively in the West. I’m not especially patriotic or invested in this holiday, but the kids are. Thanks to the help of my email advisors we are planning some minor festivities. More on that next time but the kids spent the morning decorating their bikes for a parade and Rebecca and Jonathan have spent much of the day lecturing on the Declaration of Independence. Coming just three days after the giant Communist Party Birthday, this makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Red Songs go Glee

Last night’s song competition for the Communists Party’s 90th birthday was one of the most bizarre musical experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some doozies. Imagine a combo of the TV show Glee, a Maoist communal farm rising up in song, and a martial tune on repeat with an overzealous drum and synthesizer track in the background. One of our theories about the seeming lack of planning and organization is that everything is so structured, ritualized, and prescribed that the locals do not need careful instruction. The foreigners, for example, didn’t even get a straight answer on the time until two hours beforehand.

As always, the event remained mysterious to the foreigners, and most of what I figured out came from reading international newspapers that Red Songs were hottest during Mao’s heyday. “Protecting the Yellow River,” which we heard several times last night was composed in 1938 during the Chinese/Japanese war and concludes with these words

The green fields are full of courageous soldiers
Wielding their rifles and their pistols
Waving their swords and their spears
Protecting the homeland, protecting the yellow river
Protecting the north of China, protecting the whole of China

The command performance of Red Song competitions comes as part of an effort by the government to beef up red culture—a giant pep rally. In big cities governments organized Cultural Revolution style mass choruses and every institution including mental hospitals and jails staged these events. The irony is thick and critics in China say that you can’t feed people with songs. University professors say that forced group revelry attempts to control and that the songs represent an attempt by the party to reclaim control in an atmosphere people no longer believe in communism as a political system and where as an economic system it no longer exists.

We are far enough away from the center of power that almost none of this tension seemed to exist. I even asked the grad students leading questions and still got nothing. The foreigners’ were also asked to participate in a show of solidarity. In a bonding of the other kind of way our group made up of American, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, French, Russian, Dutch, British and Scottish people felt very connected at that moment. Our Russian friend had flashbacks to her youth and couldn’t believe that she was actually at an event like this. Our contribution to the event included my playing a Chinese song on the viola dressed as a Dai woman and then the whole group singing Auld Lang Syne in English and Chinese. Luckily the genomics conference that occurred this week left us with a few extra foreigners who could carry a tune, and we had an accompanist, which seemed good until it became clear that he considered the tune to be a traditional Scottish funeral processional and chose his tempo accordingly. My fashion became a collective project. I tried to buy shoes to match but the only thing I could find in town that fit were men’s red flip flops. Rebecca and her friend Surya spent the day beading them and finished it off with a lime green bow—child labor.

The Chinese groups all dressed in matching outfits, which for the most part consisted of black pants and matching bright colored golf shirts. One group’s shirts said Jamaica and another had the playboy bunny on the back. The grad student girls wore tiny plaid skirts and white shirts, which looked like Catholic school uniforms. So I, the tall white woman, was the only person in traditional clothes. And I wore the festival outfit of the Dai people, who are an ethnic minority that comprise the majority of the local population. In 1950 The CCP began labeling ethnic minorities. In their hierarchy of these minorities the Dai stand as ideal. They are “exotic,” and “docile.” Of course this also means that they neither assimilate nor modernize and thus stand far from the ideal Chinese. I’m not clear on the political and practical ramifications of this classification. The government allows the Dai special privileges; they can have more than one child, receive tax breaks, and can practice religions that were banned for Han Chinese. But they have no real political power. And when the government decides that an ethnic minority has gone too far the story is not pretty. So I can’t begin to figure out how to read the performance of a white woman in Dai clothing at a CCP festival. After all, Westerners exoticize the Chinese and the Chinese do the same with the Dai, so the whole process was turned on its head. In the end I was the exotic one.

The foreigners walked up the hill towards the auditorium together, and as we walked we sensed something big. We saw more cars than we’ve seen since we got here. When we arrived the place bustled with groups practicing, all in their outfits. Everyone, including the men had make up on; we especially liked the blue eye shadow to match the blue shirts. And some of the groups sounded really good. This rendered the kids temporarily speechless, and Jonathan wanted to know why their patriotic songs sounded just like ours. A triadic common time martial tune apparently sends a rather universal message.

At about 8 everyone filed into the auditorium and sat in assigned seats. As soon as we saw that the stage featured a scene of the Garden with the Chinese flag functioning as the sun and hammer and sickles all over the place we knew we were in for quite an evening. We saw no picture of Mao, but he was there in spirit. We learned that we were number 13 out of 16. The party secretary of the garden introduced the judges and welcomed everyone to the event. In case we forgot that we are living in a communist country the institute has two administrative tracs—scientific and communist party. The senior scientists (big potatoes according to the students sitting next to me) performed first. What had sounded in the rehearsal like a small decent choir came out as something completely bizarre. They had piped in an accompaniment which was very techno sounding; with a rhythm loop, lyrical overdubbing, and for the martial tunes aggressive triadic accents. The conductor waved his arms enthusiastically in a beat that had nothing to do with the drum loop, and the singers sang together and followed neither the drum loop nor the conductor. The solosits, including the party secretary were terrible. Only a few of them seemed to sport real revolutionary fervor.

The grad students’ stole the show with their glee style combo of “Walking towards rejuvenation” followed by “Love Each Other” I’m working on getting translations of the songs. The first was classically martial and prompted Eli to march up and down the aisles with a pretend sword. Jonathan said it reminded him of the Red Guard and wondered if they were coming. Rebecca was sitting with her friends, so I have no idea what she thought. The grad students had serious revolutionary fervor, big smiles, swaying to the beat. The march moved seamlessly into a cheese pop with techno underpinnings ballad, which basically talks about, shared goals and shared love. The song featured two very buttoned up students belting out soloes as if they played lead roles in a romantic drama. The conductor, who will begin her PhD in Madison, WI this fall, turned around and had the entire audience clapping and singing along by the end. We also heard from the garden staff (as in grounds keepers,) retirees, tour guides, bus drivers, and cleaning people, the pharmaceutical company, and a few others I lost track of. The rejuvenation song came gain and again as did the anthem of the Cultural Revolution: The East is Red.

Interestingly the retirees and grounds keepers had a different kind of timbre; their singing sounded less polished and the pitches warbled. As is poignantly obvious when you live in a fancy house two hundred yards from people who don’t have running water, communism is far from a classless society; in fact the class systems are more rigid here than anywhere else I’ve ever been. But I’ve also never seen an event that literally puts on the same platform high-powered government officials and senior scientists with grounds keepers and people who get up every morning at 5 to sweep the roads with bamboo brooms.

When it was time for our group to take the stage, the grad student in charge ushered us out into the warm up area and sent Manuel, Eli and me to a special entrance with the pianist. This also meant that we had left nine foreign kids with no supervision. I have my Made-in-China crappy viola with me that I purchased for the rock band with me. Our conductor wanted me to talk about bringing my viola to its homeland. I said that dressing up and playing was all I could muster. I was actually getting nervous; this is a big crowd with varying degree of fervor, and for all I knew the idea of white chyc in native garb playing red song was terribly offensive. And for the record it’s been a long time since I TA’d for a world music class, but it sounded more Jewish than Chinese to me. My friend Chai Shen turned pages, and I let it rip. When I got the melodic part that was supposed to be soft I suddenly heard many many people humming along—they did in fact know the tune. I gave up on dynamics and just belted out. Usually, when I perform the Pixar effect of the whole thing, every little thing is exaggerated and brightened, works most dramatically on my mistakes, scratches, fingers on fingerboard etc.. This time I found the sounds of the auditorium captivating—old people humming along with me, little kids clapping, and the occasional screech of one of my children from outside. When we sang out dirge style Auld Lang Syne the audience also tried to clap but it didn’t quite work. Jonathan and Rebecca kept saying “we have this song on the UVa band cd. The words should be glory to Virginia.”

The graduate students won the event which made sense; they rocked. The big potatoes came in second; they sucked. Coming in second though was clearly strategic. They couldn’t win because they so clearly sucked but they couldn’t not place because that would mean loosing face.

When it was all over the foreigners walked down the hill and all noted that in no other place could they imagine an event like this. Rather than booze, watermelon, fireworks and games, the patriotic anniversary was celebrated with a serious song contest, and everyone participated. Manuel wants UVa to conduct similar events to promote school spirit and harmony. I’m pretty sure I have not done it justice but if we get a dvd of it I’ll happily share.