Weirder Than Bangkok

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Guns at the school Christmas party – my new normal

“This is weirder than Bangkok,”  Rick mumbled and looked at me in disbelief as we stood in the middle of  Fred Meyer wondering where our full-to-the-brim shopping cart had gone.    We had just finished a grueling, grocery marathon of Christmas dinner stuff – two days before Christmas.  Rib Roast, fancy IPA beer and local wines.  While all are available back in Thailand, these speciality items cost about a million Baht.  So, this was going to be an epic American meal.  

And then,  “Let’s just get a few pairs of socks”, I say.  “Let’s just leave the cart over here for a minute”, I say.  Gone.  Someone took our full cart.  The weirdest thing is, we hadn’t yet purchased anything. I hadn’t even left my purse in the basket.   Why in the world would someone take our cart?  Our first thought was someone accidentally took it  instead of their own.  Customer service helped us search the store for an abandoned buggy.  Nothing.  Finally, our frustration got the best of us and we just left.  But, as we walked out of the store, it occurred to me that it was entirely possible that someone just took our food and ran.  It would have been easy given the hordes of shoppers and nothing in the cart that would set off an alarm.  A person with a cart-load of food would have just blended into the maddening crowd.

My heart softened a bit.  My inconvenience, yes.  But someone else’s desperation to provide a lovely – and I mean lovely – holiday meal.  Just the day before, we had been watching the news.  There was a feature about  all kinds of alarms and cameras and gadgets that are available to ward off Christmas Gift  thieves.  The heightened and overwhelming expectations of the holidays.  Both material… and emotional.   My own included.

Coming home for the holidays.  I didn’t think I had “heightened” expectations, until I got here.  I read up on “reverse culture shock” and similar to when we arrived in Thailand, I thought I “knew.”  Well, not so much.

I have had a few dashed hopes and expectations.  For example, do you know how dark it is in the Pacific Northwest?  I’ve only lived here for well, my whole life, and had no idea just how dark it gets.  Even on a “sunny” day the sun never gets higher than about  a 45 degree angle from the earth.  Amazing.  And dark.

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Pacific Northwest at 4:00pm. Bring your flashlight!

Donald Trump won the election.  Wow.  And, while some people are happy about this, others’ want to have the PNW secede from the U.S. to become Cascadia.   I had no idea.  My question.  What will the flag look like?  

Everyone is super casual here.  A bank teller in jeans, flannel and fleece?  Really?  This isn’t necessarily bad  but, where’s the perfectly tailored uniform with snappy hat?  I kinda miss that.

Boy, it’s expensive!!  Are you kidding me?  $80.00 for a room at the  Motor Inn (Thai equivalent – $30.00) ; $10.00 for  lunch (Thai equivalent – $2.00);  $1.50 for bottled water (Thai equivalent – $.30); $60.00 for a one hour massage (Thai equivalent – $6.00).  Good thing for the boys that I did my Christmas shopping in Bangkok!

Traffic is crazy!!  It makes no sense!!  People drive on the other side of the road, stay in their lanes and wait for an opening of at least two car lengths before merging.  Then, they get mad and honk their horns at you when you simply pass on the right.  Plus, you are expected to look before you change lanes.  Whatever.

You can drink water straight out of the tap!   O.K., this is NOT a dashed hope.   Actually, I’ve been going hog-wild on this one. (See “cost of bottled water” above.)   

Seriously, who would have thought that Thailand would ever start to feel normal.  I have actually stopped doing “double-takes” when scooters with five passengers go by; I feel constrained when I wear my bike helmet; I arrive to work after my morning market ride and can’t remember the exotic details of my journey; I get cold in an air-conditioned room and turn the temperature up; I eat soup for breakfast and add more chili to my curry.

And, because it feels normal, I realize that the trajectory of my life has changed ever so slightly.  

Recently, a friend  told me she has decided to leave Thailand and go back to Canada at the end of this year.  We talked of our shared  fear of returning to our home countries.  Mundane fears about the cost of living, the weather and driving on the other side of the road.  And our deeply raw fears:  fear of the negative results of untended relationships and long forgotten family obligations; the fear that our most treasured friends and family will not understand our experience.  The fear of not belonging.

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Tending important relationships – friends for 45 years.

The fact is, this international life changes you.  And the change isn’t like this great epiphany or some sort of enlightenment.   It’s like gradually stepping outside of everything and not being able to – and perhaps not wanting to –  step back in. Yet it’s not a rejection.  It’s just a fact.  And when you think about it, not all that weird, really.

 

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War & Peace

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Saigon

My earliest memory of the Vietnam war remains starkly vivid. I was at my best friend Murphy’s house eating luke warm Campbell’s Tomato Soup for lunch.  We spent the morning playing Mystery Date and arguing whether the Prom date or the Beach date was better.  Typical day in the late 60’s for a couple of young kids. As we sat eating, Murphy’s mom looked out the window and suddenly starting screaming. She slumped onto the floor shaking and crying.  I was completely confused and ran to Murphy’s older sister who was now also crying.  “Why are you crying?  What’s wrong?”  She silently pointed out the window.  Two young Marine officers in formal uniform were walking up the driveway.  Bill, Murphy’s older brother, was dead.

Almost 50 years later, I’m thinking of Bill as I step off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon.

donut-headEleven million people.  Seven million scooters. Skyscrapers mixed with traditional vendors selling bahn mi sandwiches wearing iconic Vietnamese nón lá or leaf hats.  Rich and poor.  New and old. A city that is prospering from an evolving form of Communism which allows for some private business along side government operated entities. While only an hour flight from Bangkok, it feels quite different.  More English.  Less hierarchy.  More assertive and straight forward.  More serious.   Scratch just a little and you will find a complex people who have lived a history of sacrifice and resiliency.  

Take Tiger.  A tour operator for the last 16 years, he is our guide as we cycle 25 miles on rural roads outside of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels (tunnels used and expanded by the  Northern-allied Viet Cong) toward the Cambodian border. He explains to us that while the Americans called it the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese called it the American Invasion, and the South Vietnamese called it the Civil War.  His family was a “black” family – sympathetic to the South. His mother had been a Catholic nun, but left the nunnery to become a lawyer. When Saigon fell in 1975, theIr family home had been raided and they were forced to flee into central Vietnam.  All of his extended family decided to leave Vietnam and became “boat people”. The lucky ones ended up in the US and Canada – the rest died en route.  For a fleeting moment, his eyes harden as he tells the story.

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Tim with Vietnamese family

We park our bikes in front of a random war memorial – pad locked shut and overgrown with weeds.  We cross the street for a sugarcane drink called nước mía.   Sitting down to rest and visit,  a bunch of kids crowd around to stare and smile at us.  Our friend Tim who is especially out-going, starts “talking” with the kids and taking goofy pictures. Tiger talks and laughs and points out the family members running the business.  Mom and Dad  are cooking.  Children are playing while Grandma is casually keeping an eye on things.  We are the event on this lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon. Returning to our bikes, Tiger points to the memorial and says “Many Viet Cong were killed in this spot. The families that still live here, they lost their fathers and mothers.”  I glance back at the family we just met.  

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Michelin Forest

We cycle into a huge Rubber Tree  forest.  Tiger motions for us to park and shows us how rubber is drained from the trees much like Maple syrup.  We learn that the rubber trade with China has tailed off because of the recent land dispute over islands in the Vietnam Sea – or South China Sea depending on who you talk to.  As he peddles ahead, he calls back, “Ask your American soldier friends if they remember the Michelin Forest”.  In the quiet darkness of the forest, it’s hard to imagine a battle here.  

We stop at the Viet Cong War cemetery.  Like all war cemeteries it’s laid out with perfect symmetry and identical headstones.  Unlike others I have been to,  it not only includes men, but woman and children.  Tiger talks about other groups he has led.  American Veterans that come back to Vietnam with a personal history.  Before each tour, he finds out the story of each man.  He says, “sometimes you must be quiet and let them remember.  I always tell them that the woman and children were part of the Viet Cong Army.  That in the game of war that the leaders created, they were the pawns that had to choose to kill or be killed.  They need to know this.”

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Cu Chi Tunnel entry.

We arrive at the tunnels.  Tiger reminds us that this is a memorial for the Viet Cong.  We are going to see history from the perspective of the North. Our tunnel guide’s grandfather had been a VC soldier.  He and his family had lived in these tunnels. It was the only safe place to be in the midst of a war, where agent orange had defoliated the landscape in an attempt to uncover the hideouts. But these were scrappy people.  Men, women and children participated in the war.  The tunnels, no wider than 2 feet in some spots, are a network that spans for miles.  Offices, hospitals and living quarters were hidden under the earth and protected by bombs and boobie traps on the surface. Our guide maneuvered through the network of tunnels  like an agile cat.  Our Western bodies struggled to simply fit.  But down we went.  Hands and knees.   Cleaned up for tourists, we didn’t have to endure mud, snakes, rats, human waste or tear gas.  The story here of survival is raw and real.  Old tires made into shoes.  Traps made from bamboo.  Landmines made from undetonated US bombshells. These people were survivors.  They were able to endure the impossible.  

We crawl out of the tunnels – three points of a triangle.  The North, the South, the West.  We laugh and talk, enjoying the walk back to our bikes along a lush and green jungle path.  The moment is lovely and pure.  The memory of war woven into the history of each of our lives.  Forgiveness and healing.  The moment is peace.