December 26, 2006

Written in Stone

Forget the piece of flimsy, tiny paper shoved into a cardboard holder.

Now this is a Diploma!

In the central courtyard of the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first University built in the 11th century, are 80 of these stone stelae mounted on the back of turtles, erected for each graduating class. Each graduate has their name etched into stone as they pass their strenuous exams after five years of study. And in the spirit of learning, I discovered that Chinese characters were used in Vietnam until the 17th century, when a Portugese missionary phonetically translated Vietnamese into the roman alphabet.

There must be a hidden academic in me somewhere. I love visiting universities. I love the tranquil atmosphere, and the idea that people (well, only men) a thousand years ago traveled thousands of miles overland by foot to obtain knowledge. It was thrilling to visit the first university in Morocco, built in the 9th century, as well touring the very new Kathmandu University, built in 1991. Knowledge and education flourish only in times of peace and prosperity.

And so, a wish for peace and prosperity in this holiday season, and a happy and bright New Year!

December 14, 2006

Zen and the Art of Dodging Motorscooters

Arriving in Hanoi felt like we jumped in a time machine that zipped us back 25 years.

As soon as we left the gates of the modern international airport, we were surrounded by rice paddies, with people diligently working in fields, actually wearing those classic conical straw hats! The concrete highway cut through the landscape dotted with farmers harvesting rice, by hand(!), and the occasional water buffalo.

We soon came to the city limits and were surrounded by fleets of motorscooters, carrying entire families or strapped down with furniture. The scooters outnumbered cars at least 20 to 1. Not a helmet in sight, the scooters weaved in and out of traffic whereever there was a space. And it seemed every single one of them needed to honk to let us know they were passing us. The greatest thing was that most of the women wore wide brimmed hats, and hankerchiefs covering their noses and mouths, looking like bandits about to make a getaway.

The streets of Old Hanoi were equally clogged with these scooters, and with the narrow sidewalks covered with vendors, beer stalls, parked motorscooters, people cooking meals with only one pot, tiny plastic stools, and souvenir stores, it was impossible to walk on the sidewalk down an entire street. The sounds and smells and sights were overwhelming at first – it was hard to know which way to look, or which way to move to get out of the way. (Check out Jonathan’s nice collection of pics of Hanoi).

As a result, crossing the street was a slow motion zen experience unlike anything I’ve experienced. Without traffic lights or stop signs, the motorscooters and cars have no reason to come to a stop. If I stood on the edge of the sidewalk and tried to wait for a clearing, I could stand there for hours. As the locals demonstrated, the only way to cross is to become one with the traffic, to join the flow.

Leaving the relative safety of the roadside, I made eye contact with drivers coming towards me. I watched as scooters gauged where I was and simply continued, full speed, to swerve around me. This gave me a big enough gap in the traffic to move forward another foot or so. At all times I maintained eye contact and kept my movements slow and predictable. While standing still in the middle of oncoming traffic went against all my instincts to escape death, making a mad dash to the other side would have ensured I become splattered on the concrete.

And however crazy it was to be a pedestrian in Hanoi, hopping on the back of a moto taxi (scooters with a driver who will take you where you want) was fantastic, zipping along the narrow lanes, the wind in my hair and the street stalls whizzing by.

Way more fun to be on a motorscooter than trying to avoid them in the road…:)

December 9, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam (whether you like it or not)!

I felt like someone had put my head inside a drum and started to pound on it.

I had spent a sleepless first night in Hanoi, battling with Jonathan for the barely large enough sheet, listening to the incessant honking of motorscooters on the street, hearing the clanking of the airconditioner, and sleeping with my head underneath a towel to block the hurricane force wind directed at my head from the ceiling fan above. I finally fell asleep, earplugs snugly in, at what felt like 5:59 am.

At 6 am, on the dot, a woman’s voice began blaring in Vietnamese. The Voice was everywhere inside the room, bouncing off the walls. I was so startled that I jumped out of bed and peeled back the curtains to look on the streets, expecting maybe a bomb threat, crazed pedestrians running in all directions. Instead, all I saw were some bleary eyed vendors, sitting uneventfully on the side of the street. I tried to identify where the horrible voice was coming from, but couldn’t see anything. This went on and on, until the Voice was replaced with some truly terrible upbeat muzak.

I was furious. I was out of my mind and in a sleep deprived rage – anything to stop it. Jonathan, with his earplugs, stunningly didn’t hear anything. I looked out in the hallway, seeing if any hotel staff were around, but no one was in sight. I gave up and sat miserably in my room until 7, when the thing mercifully stopped.

Later on, I found out it was the “Voice of Vietnam”, spewed from loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles all througout Vietnam, courtesy of your friendly Communist party. It turns out there was a loudspeaker about 10 feet from our room. When I asked the hotel staff what was going on, he seemed surprised that I was so startled by it, it was so commonplace. This particular morning, he informed me, was a message telling people to wake up, be virtuous on the weekend, to clean their houses, and get a start on the day!

One more reason to be grateful for living in a democratic nation…

December 7, 2006

Welcome back to Hong Kong

Ten years ago, I visited Hong Kong with my parents, a place I had not been since my family moved when I was 3 years old.

I found it crowded, noisy, inhabited by rude people busily rushing to and fro in a skyscraper jungle. My overwhelming impression was that it was New York City on steroids, sort of like being stuck in Manhattan’s Chinatown, but without end.

And now? I couldn’t be happier to be here. Did I change? Did Hong Kong change? How has my travel changed my views, especially just coming from Kathmandu? I can’t say. I suppose that’s part of the problem of trying to use myself both as the control and the experiment…

Hong Kong itself was much more orderly and clean than I remember 10 years ago. There are signs and directions and rules for everything, and the city runs very smoothly. I was impressed by the new Airport (I flew into the one runway airport right before it closed down in 97), and the transit system was something out of a dream compared to the T in Boston. Subways run every 3 minutes, with signs in the station telling you exactly how long before the next train arrived. Melodious pre-recorded voices told you which station was coming up in three languages. The immaculate subways eased into the station and lined up precisely with the sliding glass doors. Arrows on the floor indicated where one should enter the subway car (on the sides) and where people should exit (through the middle) for maximum efficiency. Transfers between different lines was as easy as walking across the platform.

One thing I noticed that was definetely new were the public service announcements, ranging from helping the blind and volunteering, to disease prevention. Last time, I remember giving up my seat to an elderly person on a bus, who quickly took the seat but then looked at me like I was a chump. Now there are bulletin boards inside the train promoting this behavior.

I was most enthralled with the Octopus card, a smart card with stored value, which can be used on all forms of transit (bus, subway, ferry) and at 7-11s and pharmacies. It was scary how easy it was to forget that it was real money…just whip out the card, put it on the little reader and presto!

It was strange to be in Hong Kong without my parents, and to see my parents’ friends without them. Last time, I was still a kid in their eyes, but now, married with husband in tow, it must have been as strange for them to see me as an adult. Being here without my parents has also given me a much better sense of Hong Kong geography — last time I never knew where I was, as all we seemed to do was visit relatives and friends. And eat.

I forget how much English my mom speaks, compared with her friends – “Hello” was about it. Jonathan graciously sat there and ate everything pushed in his direction while conversation swirled about him in Cantonese, with occasional bits of English translation by me. Even my contemporaries, the children of my parents’ friends, who had all taken English in school for years, could speak very little. I can hardly fault them – my 5 years of French from school is pretty abysmal.

It was fun to see Man Sook (Uncle Man), my Dad’s best friend for almost 50 years. Though pushing 70, he looked in good shape. Last time I was there, I mostly listened as my parents talked. This time, being alone, I got great stories of my Dad in his youth, pre Mom. As quiet and introverted as my father was, his friend was talkative, especially about the past. Lots of random things I knew about my Dad became clearer as I was regaled with stories of their meeting, how they used to go to my Dad’s hometown in Fushan for Chinese New Year, how they signed up for mechanic lessons instead of English lessons in Hong Kong, so they could go and be of better service to the glorious revolution in China. They had made it through the training and were waiting to cross the border, when escapees who had just made it back brought stories of the real horror and nightmare going on. They quickly got the heck out of there! Man Sook not only knew my grandmother, but my Dad’s older brother, two people I had never really heard about, never mind seen a picture of.

And of course, how could I be in Hong Kong and not go on about the food? We had some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had at a restaurant named Dong (East) on Nathan Road. Everything was excellent, but especially interesting was the different take on the shu mai – ground pork stuffed in their little yellow skins, but covered with a thin slice of scallop and topped with bright red shrimp roe. Seafood abounds, with tanks and displays of huge and succulent shrimp, fresh fish, scallops, and Hairy crab. We had a great meal at a seafood street stand by one of the night markets.

And the fresh, fragrant, fluffy jasmine rice was just as I like it. I was home.

December 3, 2006

Talk the talk

I was positively giddy to be in Hong Kong.

Not only did I fluently speak the local language (Cantonese), but I spoke the second most spoken language, English, even better! Ask the guy how to get to the city? No problem! Wittily chat with the taxi driver on the way to the hotel, and find out that it changed its name and ownership just a month ago, along with some sordid gossip on the hotel owners? Simple, when you speak the language, and utterly impossible when you can’t.

I was half afraid that Hong Kong would now be speaking mostly Mandarin – it had been 10 years since the handover back to China, and I had heard it was the main language of instruction in the schools. But clearly on the streets, and in the hearts of the people, Cantonese is still the primary language.

I could walk around the streets and hear the banter between the guy sweeping the street and the shop owner on his stoop. I could understand the things random people were saying – completely mundane and boring things, like “Check the temperature of the freezer”, or “No, those are only 2 for a dollar”. I think it is a common phenomenon, but when people are talking near me in a language I don’t understand, it immediately makes me think they are talking about me (maybe snickering to their colleague at the outrageous price I just paid for apples). But not so here – all the stuff that is completely off the radar to a tourist who doesn’t speak the language was mine to understand.

No more explaining in broken mandarin to mainland Chinese that yes I was Chinese, but I didn’t speak mandarin. No more puzzled looks from Tibetans who assumed I was mainland Chinese. No more being able only to say “Hello” and “thank you” in Nepali. I felt like I had been restored somehow, and a giant barrier was gone. Things that were so difficult, like trying to patch together the correct phrases to ask the taxi driver to turn down the music, were so trivial now.

I know that this will wear off soon – just like I take for granted I understand everything going on around me in the States. But it really makes me understand the importance of being able to communicate – and how isolating it is when you can’t.

And of course, being able to order all my favorite dim sum dishes is a big plus too. :)