Sometimes I’m From Canada: Being American in Countries America Screwed

Everyone loves Canadians. They’re harmless and adorable with their “eh”s and their arctic tundra. No one’s got any beef with Canada.

America, on the other hand…well that’s a different story. Everyone hates America, and they often have reason to.

Let me begin by talking about myself and my “Americanism.” I’ve never been too much of a patriot. Sure, I’d stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in school and put my hand over my heart during the National Anthem at high school football games. But I never understood the extreme patriotism I saw in others: the flags hanging on the porch, the stars-n-stripes painted mailbox, the red-white-and-blue themed kitchen.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for having been born in a place where I’ve been free to practice a religion, where I’ve been able to state my opinions, etc.  But I don’t think I’ll ever understand the “greatest country on the face of the planet” mentality.

I’ve known a lot of super-patriots, and some of you reading this right now may be that.  One thing I’ve noticed is that they feel like America is the best country ever, therefore the American people are the best people in the world. Arrogance ensues.

“We’re better than you because we’re ‘free.’ We’re always right. You’ll never bring us down. Mess with us and we will make you suffer. I’m right because I’m American, never mind my status as a high school dropout.”

Ironically, many of these super-patriots are those who have never left the country for more than a cruise to Mexico or perhaps a vacation to Paris.  Many have not experienced the lives of other cultures, especially eastern cultures. They treat the world as a tourist attraction to be enjoyed for a weekend in which they can visit the beaches, taste local cuisine, and carefully ignore the local way of life, because it is sometimes ugly and almost always “wrong.”

 Most people I’ve met outside the US want what we want: to be happy, to raise and care for their family, to enjoy life. Yes, even in communist countries.

America is not always right. It is not the objectively best country in the world. It has faults and makes mistakes.

I’ve been out of the country for a year and a half now, for the second time. This time around I’m happy that I’m away. I’m glad I was gone for the elections. I’m glad to not have been embroiled in the war between my liberal and conservative friends about same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana.  I’m glad to have not been present for the news stories of school and other mass shootings, and the ensuing debate on gun control.  

Instead, I’ve been in Southeast Asia, learning about the peoples and cultures here, learning that there are far more important things than talking about who can marry whom. In Thailand, for instance, “lady-boys” blend into the public and no one questions or cares about their sexuality, relationships, or genital circumstances.  Instead, they focus on religious traditions, cultural festivals, and the growing education sector.

 Furthermore, I’ve learned of some of the atrocities committed by the United States that makes me ashamed to claim it as my motherland.

Currently, we are in Vietnam. Everyone knows what happened here, I assume. The reasoning as to why  it happened is unclear and weakly disguised in a big-brother attitude of protecting freedom.  You can imagine my feelings of shame and awkwardness when locals ask me where I am from.

Perhaps worse still is what happened in Laos. We have talked about this tragedy here and here. If you don’t want to look at the links, I’ll recap.  America was so set on destroying the “commies” of Vietnam, that they attacked Laos with cluster bombs to get rid of any of the Vietnamese that may have spilled over across the border. A large percentage of these bombs did not detonate, and now, 50 years after the bombs were dropped, they kill or injure hundreds of people a year. I’ve met people who are missing hands or legs or are blind because of these bombs.

And I apologize for being American.

When I can’t admit to being from the country that maimed them, an unintended target half a century later, I claim Canada.  I’m too ashamed to admit being from the Great United States, an invader country, an enforcer of “freedom” and “democracy,” whether wanted or not.  Canada serves me just fine.

And yet the amazing thing about it is that when I do let out where I’m from, I am forgiven. I can see in their eyes that the moment of awareness, that moment of connection. I am from the place that killed their family, destroyed their homes, disrupted their lives. And they can see the apology in my eyes, and they forgive.

A man we gave a ride to didn’t turn us out of his home. Instead, he invited us in for dinner. His mother welcomed us with open arms, despite my heritage. As she gave me a hug, I wanted to apologize for every ill my country committed against her, for any pain she has ever felt because America “knows better.”

I know of fellow Americans who decry “the communists,” that disembodied word that stands for every evil worthy of condemnation, who would turn away a Vietnamese man who fought in the war for being a threat to freedom. That same man would likely invite you to a glass of homemade rice wine and chuckle as you grimace from the strength of it and challenge you to another glass.

Now in saying all this, please understand I’m not “anti-American.” I don’t wish the destruction of my country, and I’m not in cahoots with so-called terrorists.  I admire the hard-working attitude of many Americans, and the national drive for ingenuity, creativity, and inventiveness. I recognize that our drive to “help” other countries may be misguided, but derives from a genuine desire to share with others the freedoms we enjoy.   I don’t believe other countries are perfect either. Each country has its unique challenges along with its strengths.

But it is my wish that every American take a step back and have a good long look at your homeland. It is not a god-country; it is not infallible. It is not perfect. It makes mistakes. Contrary to popular belief, communists are not the devil. Obama is not a socialist. And unless you’re going to ship your leftovers across the earth, you have no right to talk about “starving children in China.”

I encourage you all to take a look at what works in other countries. The only way our country can improve is to glean knowledge and practices from other places where such things are proven to work for the good of the country.

I have no intention or desire to return to the States for a while. Instead, I’d like to take some more time for my worldview to mature. I’d like to understand the workings of societies and communities outside my own. I want to widen my zeitgeist to include the good from other places. When I do return, I want to have something to offer.

Until then, I’m Canadian, eh?

Markets, and Wrecks and Children, Oh My!:Surviving Sa Pa

Up in the mountains, all bundled up!

Sorry for the long delay, faithful readers! It’s been a wild ride. Well, six wild rides. For six days we rode the motorbikes, a few hours each day. There have been break-downs (of the mechanical and emotional types), loose chains, broken lights, busted suspensions, landslides, overwhelming cold and mist, road work—but we made it to our Christmas destination on Christmas Eve.
Waiting for a landslide to be cleared up on the road.
Ricky gets his suspension fixed on day 4.

I don't really need to say anything, do I?
Sa Pa is a town in the north, at a very high altitude and is thus pretty cold, and often the mist rolls in and visibility is pretty low. For the past couple days, for our Christmas season celebrations we mostly stay in the hotel room watching bad Christmas movies (Jingle All the Way, anyone?) and go out only for food. Today, however, was an interesting day as we walked around the town.

The day started off with a walk to a restaurant for lunch (yeah, we didn’t actually leave til about 2pm). On our way, a tiny elderly tribeswoman came up to us and said “Walking? I walk too!” We walked a bit and told her we were about to eat lunch to which she replied “Ah! Walking Sa Pa, hungry!”  Then, she pushed her sleeves up and showed us the silver bracelets she was selling. We decided to buy one and got a picture as well. She was adorable.

She's cute 'cuz she's little!

As we ate, however, things took a turn for the…intense? There we were, eating our sandwiches and tomato soup, enjoying a nice hot chocolate, when we heard a crash sound outside. Ricky went out to see what it was and I followed a minute later. There was a man lying on the sidewalk. His helmet was a few feet away and  his motorbike was on its side. There was a puddle of blood near him. People had come over but weren’t really doing anything. The man was bleeding badly from the head, just above his eye, and his hands were scraped up too. I took off my scarf and Ricky held it to the wound as I held the man’s head up. We tried talking to him, but he wasn’t responding. Every once in a while he would try to roll from one side to the other.

We unclipped his shoulder bag to get it out of the way and tried to get anyone to call a doctor, but to no avail. After a couple minutes, a man lifted him up like a baby and carried him to a motorbike. This man held the wounded man just like that, like an infant, behind the driver of the bike. We were worried about his safety, but grateful that someone had taken the initiative to take him somewhere for medical attention. That doesn’t often happen in Asia.

We returned to the restaurant to clean the blood off our hands and finish lunch. I was caught between feeling good for having helped a little, and a little squeamish—not because of the blood or anything, just that I was so involved with the situation.

After that, we decided to walk down the mountain a bit and see the rice terraces. After a while, though, we decided that it would be better if we left earlier and on the bikes tomorrow instead. So we turned back and headed to the market to browse. Except browsing is impossible in Asia. Any time you look at anything, vendors won’t let you leave. Usually you can get away with a smile and a “no thank you” but not in Vietnam.

At one point I was looking at some earrings and made the mistake of asking how much they were. I really was just curious, because I tend to lose all my earrings, no matter how safe I think they’ll be when they aren’t in my ears.  I had to decline, especially at the $8 she wanted. But the woman linked her arm in mine and wouldn’t let me go! I eventually had to pull away and just walk off. But she did get down to $3 for the earrings, without me even trying to haggle.

Leaving the market, we passed through a large square where some local women set up their beautifully hand-embroidered cloth goods. A couple of little girls were playing with a feathery weighted toy (played with like a hackey sack). Of course, Ricky joined in, and then more kids joined in. I shared some strawberries I had bought and then we took our leave. It was quite an adorable scene.

Those little girls never knew what hit 'em.

Note the heavy mist in the back.

As we walked around the lake, the mist rolled in and out, leaving some places with excellent visibility, and some with virtually none.

And here we are again, in our not-so-warm room, after a very weird and eventful day in Sa Pa. Can’t wait to see what strange things happen tomorrow!

Oh, the Scams: Getting Hanoi-ed in Vietnam

We really wanted to like Hanoi. Really.  And we did for a while. But then it just got so hard. By the time we left today, we were fuming.

Me on Hammond's Minsk!

Day one in the city was actually pretty cool. Here's what happened:

 Ricky got to drive through the Hanoi traffic for about half an hour, while I was on a bike with another man.

Ricky and I were in a 3 person motorbike sandwich (Driver, me, Ricky). 

I sat on Richard Hammond’s pink Minsk from the Top Gear Vietnam Special episode. 

Here's a pic that was hanging up outside the bike shop. Richard Hammond has one arm on the red thing (actually a model ship) behind the pink bike.

Ricky in the jeep we got to "roll" in.

We rode down the crowded streets of Hanoi in a Wilson jeep.

We took a stroll around the lake.

We saw a show at the Water Puppet Theater. 

The Lake in the Old Quarter.
The Water Puppet show.

Day two was no disappointment either: 

We picked up our bikes. 

I learned to ride mine.

Everyone survived.

The next day was a big sight-seeing day. 

We saw  B-52 in a lake.

The B-52, still in the lake.
Got to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum,a few minutes before they closed for lunch, but it was kind of disappointing anyway, so we didn’t mind. 

Ho Chi Minh sees everything.
Got some lunch.

Paid for "free" parking

Went to prison (Now a museum), and saw John McCain's Pilot uniform, along with a French guillotine.

 Saw a strange temple where photo shoots were going on.

Saw an embalmed 250 kg turtle found in the lake in 1965.
That could make a lot of soup.

One of the lovely models.

Now, here’s where it gets bad. See, throughout the first three days, we’d been having problems with food. We had some gross pig-foot noodle soup, when we actually ordered something different, and some pitiful portions of other foods. At every turn we were overcharged, even after asking the price before ordering. One night Ricky got me a few donut-type things these ladies sell in baskets on the street. For just a few of them (they are small and round) the woman wanted 150,000 dong, which is about $7.50. He got her down to 20,000 dong ($1) but was irritated that she would even ask for so much.

We started getting the feeling that all the scams we had heard about were very very real.

So the next day (yesterday) we drove over to the Temple of Literature, which wasn’t actually all that interesting, except for that there were a bunch of high school graduates in their caps and gowns taking lots of pictures. We had parked the bikes a ways back. As we locked up the bikes with our chains and padlocks (we’re taking no chances) people across the street laughed. Oh well, we thought.

Soon, though, we decided to head back, because we were concerned about the safety of our rides. As we walked up, Ricky saw a couple of men looking at us and laughing, and one was sitting on Ricky’s bike. He walked across the street as we walked up. We unlocked, pulled out, and were getting ready to go, but Ricky’s bike wouldn’t move. His accelerator cable was missing. I looked across the street and saw that there was a repair shop, where all the laughing men were. So, what happened was that those guys broke Ricky’s bike so that we would have to go across the road for them to fix it. And everyone on our side of the street was pointing for us to go over there.

Well, we most certainly weren’t going to do that. Instead, Ricky pushed his bike to the shop where we bought mine to have the guy fix it. I rode on ahead and was going to meet him there, except I was angry and stressed and it was rush hour (but then, what hour isn’t rush hour in Hanoi?) and I got lost in the labyrinthine streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. One way streets, stop lights everyone ignores, and oh the honking! I was so tense by the time I finally reached our hotel and found out that Ricky had already left the shop with his repaired bike.

We pretty much just gave up on Hanoi then. Luckily we were leaving the next day.

So today we got packed up and Ricky went to pay, and the guy at reception kept saying we owed him 3 nights’ money, not 2, when in fact we had already paid for all but the last 2 nights. He demanded a receipt, because apparently they don’t keep any records there. Fortunately, we hadn’t thrown it away, but he still didn’t believe us. Ricky just handed him the money we owed and walked out.

Then we realized that they still had our keys for locking up our bikes (they bring the bikes inside at night), so I had to go in and ask for them. A woman looked for them while the man berated me for us being “bad people! You are not good people! I never see bad people like you! First time!” I just said ok and left. As we were tying our bags on the bikes he came out and loitered around, swearing at us and telling us he hopes we die on the road today, because, you know, professionalism.

We didn’t die on the road today, but we did get blatantly overcharged for two meals. But the drive is a different story.

So, I guess our opinion of Vietnam is up in the air right now. Our initial impression was that it was a fun and interesting place, but now all we see are the dollar signs lighting up in everyone’s eyes as we pass, even more so than in other places we’ve been.  We’re fairly committed, with the bikes and visa and all, so we’ll just have to see how things go.

The Next Stage of my 2-Wheel Evolution: Hanoi

I was a kid when I learned how to ride a bicycle. It was a normal kid thing to do. My family would go on bike rides together through the neighborhood, and my sister and I rode to school in the mornings. When I was in college I got a bike and loved riding around the beautiful Hawaii scenery.

When I moved to China last year, one of my first moves was to buy a bike, which was pretty scary because the traffic was more intense than I had ever experienced. But I learned pretty quickly and rode all around town. When winter came on, Ricky and I bought a used electric scooter. I had never ridden anything other than a bicycle and was pretty freaked out. Yes, I know. Scared of an electric scooter than never got over 35 km/h. But I was.

So Ricky took me to an area of our apartment complex and showed me how to do it. I was wobbly and slow, and I got off as soon as I could.

The next day, however, I decided that I needed to do it without the pressure of someone watching me go around a tight space with cars parked everywhere. I took it on the road, and it was absolutely no problem at all. I maxed out at 25 kmph and felt like I was riding the wind. (The 35 km/h only happens when you are going down a steep hill with the wind at your back. I did it once.)

After a couple weeks I felt like a pro, and after a few months I was brave enough to carry passengers. I know, my progress is slow, but it is there.

Ricky and I had talked about doing motorbike tours on our trip, but I didn't know if it would really happen. So when we arrived in Laos and decided here would be a good place to start, I got pretty nervous. I knew there was no way to take a dinky electric scooter, so it was the real thing we needed. Well, I was half right.

We ended up getting a couple of semi-automatic bikes. There were gears but no clutch. And when Ricky taught me to ride it, well, it was rough going. It was getting dark, and we were in a rural area in the hills. My practice road was muddy and hiding tree roots. I practiced for about half an hour, and felt like I got the hang of it, having succeeded in not falling.

A few days later we bought our brand new bikes, and I was immersed in a trial by fire as we drove through the traffic from the shop to our guesthouse. It was pretty stressful, and I accidentally downshifted when I meant to shift up, but I made it.

As most of you faithful readers know, our Laos trip went swimmingly.  You can check out here, here, and here for the good. For the not so good, check out this post. It was the scariest moment of my life.

And don't forget the moto-montage that swept the nation! (Or at least this blog!)

When we had to get rid of the bikes, it was a very sad day indeed, and once we started back up with public transportation in Cambodia and Laos we knew we needed to get back on the wheels ASAP.

So here we are in Hanoi, Vietnam, and I'm ready to start the latest stage in my 2-wheel evolution. See, we went bike shopping today and ended up putting deposits down for two used Honda Win100s. That's right. A real bike. With a clutch. When we were shopping, we took advantage of the near-empty street at the garage and Ricky taught me how to drive, for the third time. It was really hard at first, with neutral being impossible to find, and my short legs having a hard time holding the bike up and using the kick-start. I killed it a few times and was shot straight back to my teenager-hood, learning to drive and stalling the car at every red light.

Because I learned to drive on a manual shift car, the idea of the clutch wasn't foreign to me at least. I got the hang of it quick enough, but I'm still nervous for when I get into real traffic with all the stop-and-go that entails.

But here's the thing. I've learned before (several times) and I will learn again. I feel like I've made good progress in my 2-wheeled vehicle driving. We'll see what the next three months holds for me! It could be a disaster, but I've got a feeling it will just be a blast.

I'll have pictures later when we pick up the bikes!

Coping with Unexploded Ordinance, Part 2: The Good

Yesterday Ricky wrote about the secret tragedy in Laos, about how hundreds of people a year are killed or injured by UXOs dropped by the America military during the Vietnam War.

However, as is common when a tragedy strikes a community, a sense of togetherness prevails. People reach out to other people, to help them, to ease their suffering, to mourn with them.

I am speaking specifically of an organization called COPE, headquartered in Vientiane.  COPE is the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and is a non-profit organization that provides artificial limbs and other help to those affected by the UXOs.

A couple nights ago, we heard about a charity concert taking place at the center to celebrate its 15th birthday, so we took the free shuttle and headed there. There were tons of foreigners and locals alike, dancing along to Lao hip-hip group Cell-T club and pop singer Aluna. 

Aluna serenading the audience.

One of the most amazing things about the concert was that it was held at the center of the complex of buildings that comprises an area that caters to the physically disabled. To our left was a school for the deaf, and those kids were the first ones dancing when a new song started.  

These kids know how to rock.

When the birthday cake was brought out, it wasn’t long before Ricky and I had frosting all over our faces, much to the enjoyment of the deaf kids. Soon enough, they too had frosting on their faces, courtesy of me.

The event was amazing, and all the proceeds from food, beverages, t-shirts, etc. went directly to COPE.  The next day we decided we’d take a trip to the visitor’s center and see what it was all about.

We arrived at the visitors center and began an enlightening/heartbreaking/angering/touching tour. Along the walls were descriptions of the types of bombs used, and what kind of damage they were capable of. Next we learned about how villagers used metal remnants of the bombs to make everything from buckets to ladders to doors for their homes.  There was a display home set up, where we could walk through and see how much these people relied on something so dangerous.

Pots, pans, cups, and other things made from bomb pieces.

At one point I stopped to ask a staff member some questions. He was a young guy, missing both hands and was blind. His name was Peter, and he was a good-humored guy, asking me why my name didn’t sound American if I was from the States.  We chatted about the center and Lao architecture with easy smiles and friendly tones.

After that, we watched a short 8 minute video of an interview of a set of parents that lost their 9 year old child to a bombie. His two friends died immediately but he was taken to a hospital a few hours away. There was no oxygen or blood to help him, so they took him home and let him die.  The mother cried. The father was indignant. Their pain was real.  

We then read stories of people who had been injured by the bombs, losing arms, legs, eyes. Their entire lives were changed. Most of them lived in very rural villages where working in the fields was a necessity. There was no workman’s comp, no light duty. They simply had to carry on. Many of them made artificial legs from wood or bamboo.  Others simply had no other choice than to remain at home. Injured children had to stay home from school, and could barely move around without assistance.

Enter COPE. 

COPE is with the victim from day one of their recovery. They pay for travel, accommodation, and food for those that live in villages outside of the city. Once at the center they are measured for prosthetics and given ample physical therapy.  They are instructed and aided in making their homes more accessible to them.  They are refitted for new prosthetics when old ones are damaged or outgrown, all free of charge.  But most of all, they are given hope. Victims are taught that they can have a normal life, that they can carry on as before, with minor adjustments.

Furthermore, COPE offers help to those who suffer not only from UXOs, but also children born with clubfoot and people who have lost limbs in car accidents or suffer from other physically disabilities. 

Through COPE, families and communities are strengthened and brought together. There is more education on what to do if you come upon a UXO and trained people voluntarily trek through the jungle searching for UXOs to be detonated.  There is hope that the Lao people will overcome this trial.

The red poles mark UXOs found. They will be detonated by trained professionals.

After leaving the center, I felt so moved and wondered if there was anything I could do. I remembered the mother in the video saying there was no blood in the hospital, so they could not help her son. I remembered passing a Red Cross Blood Transfusion Center a couple days before, so Ricky and I headed there so I could donate.  Sadly, my iron was too low and I was unable, but if the opportunity ever arises, I would like to try again.

In the meantime, I’ll encourage you to visit COPE’s website. Learn more about it. Donate if you can. 

Laos is an amazing place. It is a country of survivors. They are some of the happiest, most cheerful people I’ve ever met, despite everything they have gone through and are still suffering today. They are hard-workers; they care for their neighbors and their community. They are determined to thrive. Their pain and tragedy is real, but they are full of hope and love.

I think that’s something we can all strive to be. 

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