Thursday, July 17, 2008


“You should teach people in the West the truth about Tibet.”

“Excuse me?” I replied.

“It’s up to people like you and I to bring cultures together and open them up to the truth. You should teach Westerners the truth about Tibet.”

I was standing in my favorite Hong Kong pub talking to Charlie - a plump, half Chinese, half Japanese man pushing his late forties. Charlie spent a good part of his teens and twenties in California before returning to Hong Kong again for work. I guess being of Asian descent with an understanding of Western views qualified Charlie as a mediator between the two nations. Apparently my vice-versified situation gave me the same credentials.

One night as I was exploring the back alleys of Causeway Bay, one of Hong Kong’s not-so-surprising surprise downpours drove me into the bar. As I stepped in the door the Modest Mouse playing over the speakers made me do a double take. “Am I still in Hong Kong?” I asked myself. A quick look around at the rice covered plates and Tsing Tao beer confirmed that I was. I grabbed a stool and engaged in some conversation with the locals while I waited for the storm to pass.

Being the only white guy speaking Chinese in a “locals” bar in Hong Kong I quickly made friends with all the workers. And if the definition of a regular is “everyone knowing you by name and the drink you like” then I think I reached that status by the time the two-hour downpour was over. As a regular, one acquires certain obligations; for example, occasional drop-ins to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. It was during one of these visits that I came to know Charlie.

“So what is the truth about Tibet?” I asked, curious to hear a new side of the story.

With his “I’m glad you asked” smile, lifted chin, heightened stance, and relaxed “I’m about to take you to school” demeanor, Charlie began to educate me on the “truth” about Tibet.

“Most of the people were slaves to the Dalai Lama and the other elites of the country,” he said. “The underlying idea of communism is equality; you know, equal portions for all, right? Well the Chinese communist party wasn’t happy with the way the Tibetans were running that part of China and that was one reason they went into Tibet, to rid them of slavery and establish equality in the society.”

Searching for a parallel to help me understand better I asked, “So you’re saying it is similar to what people say was the driving conflict of America’s Civil War?”

“MUCH worse!” Charlie replied with a bit of a chuckle, suggesting the ridiculous nature of my question. “The Tibetans would torture and severely abuse their slaves. It was a horrible situation. But all the rest of the world ever hears is about Tibet being devastated by attacks from the Chinese. That place was in a bad situation before the communist party ever moved in.”

I am intrigued by varying points of view. In a foreign country I have to remind myself that the environment in which one is raised is the breeding ground of opinions. Rather than criticizing the opinions of others and judging the validity of their opinions based on my own, I found it is important to take a step back and try to understand where they are coming from. I usually find that there is truth to what they have said. An open mind will open gates that lead to roads of wisdom and greater truths.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Pop quiz: which country has the most motorcycles, the largest number of guitar/ukulele players per capita, and the best fruit juices you will ever taste? Answer: Indonesia.

Since I started learning the Indonesian language 5 years ago Indonesia has always been at the top of my "places to visit" list. I got lucky enough this summer to get an internship that requires me to do a bit of traveling around Southeast Asia, finally taking me to Indonesia this past week. The stay was brief and the time was tight but I can say I have a better feel for Indonesian culture.

All Indonesians I have met in Hong Kong are very friendly people. When one of my Indonesian friends would talk to someone I could never tell if it was their first acquaintance or if they had grown up together. I thought maybe it was that way in Hong Kong because they are all far from home in the same situation so they were very open to each other. I thought wrong. It is the same in Indonesia. Everyone is very helpful and friendly with each other, it's a cool environment.

Another thing I noticed is that what many Americans, including myself, would probably look at as "just trying to get by," to them it is "just the way things are." Example: What would you think if you were sitting at a stop sign and a random guy walked out into the road to stop traffic and motioned for you to pull out? It definitely wouldn't cross my mind to give a tip to the guy. I'd probably be apologetic to the drivers he stopped and motion them to go ahead or something. In Indonesia there are people at every intersection helping direct traffic (traffic is crazy there by the way) and people give them tips for their services. And no, they are not hired by the city to do it. I asked. They just see a busy place and decide to help out for a few hours. So my point about "just trying to get by" as compared to "just the way things are," I look at bums begging for change in the street as "just trying to get by/survive" whereas directing traffic or similar services around the city is just what you do if you need some extra change. Maybe that doesn't make sense to you, it does to me. Just one example that might help you see the congeniality of Indonesians and gain a bit of understanding regarding their culture.

Also, from the little bit I saw, Indonesia is a beautiful place. I spent my time in Jakarta mostly with a one-day trip to Bandung, a mountainous region about 2 hours SE of Jakarta. The stairs of rice fields are just like you see in any Indonesian tourist book and it would seem that kite-flying is the favorite pastime of all kids. I'm excited to head back down and hopefully can have a bit more free time to visit some more places.

Kuala Lumpur - Chapter 2

In a hotel where it costs 1.15 USD to copy a single sheet of paper I would expect nothing less of the view from my window. The scenery outside room 2617 of the Kuala Lumpur Westin is magnificent. To the left is the “Menara,” Malaysia’s version of the space needle. I’m beginning to think it’s mandatory for each country to construct a similar edifice. To the right of that, and just a few blocks away, the twin towers stand erect – a phenomenon only Virginia Baker could bring about (Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character in Entrapment). Further to my right I see an extended sidewalk of rooftops leading to the base of the distant mountains. I plot out my course. If only I had taken up training that time I visited the Shoulin Temple traversing the rooftops might actually be a reality for me. Regrets. I’ll have to leave that one to my imagination.

As my eyes reach the end of the trail I notice clouds rolling in over the mountains. It must be 2:30. Each afternoon, like clockwork, a rainstorm waters the well-trodden ground of the Klang Valley – the most populous, urbanized region of Malaysia.

I turn away to continue my work only to return every few minutes and watch the show. Rainstorms are my escape to seclusion after a hard day’s work. The soothing rhythm of the rain beating down on the window is enough to calm the fiercest of beasts on their quest for blood. I am reminded of the times as a child when I would watch from the front porch as thunderstorms eased their way past my Virginia home. The gentle breeze would carry a soft, almost unnoticeable mist through the rails bringing a cool sensation to the humid atmosphere. Now, being stuck on the inside, my memory serves me well. I can still feel the same soothing breeze. The only difference is I am standing on a much larger "porch" in a foreign land.

An hour passes with me slipping in and out of nostalgia. The rain will soon be gone. If there is one rule of thumb I have picked up in Asia it is, “the wetter the cleaner.” This is not the kind of thing to be learned from browsing National Geographic’s “Introduction to Asian Culture” issue; rather it is something one comes to understand over time. You could imagine my worry the first time I forgot to check the toilet seat before sitting down. If wetter is in fact cleaner, then the Klang Valley is now a ’57 Chevy on the way to a car show.

I look forward to 2:30 tomorrow when the raindrops will be my soundtrack for another nostalgic journey.

Rain Walking in Macau

Right now I am huddled next to a building on a cobblestone street in Macau, China occupying one of the only dry spots around. I knew when I stepped out of the front door in Hong Kong this morning that I should grab an umbrella. Not wanting to inconvenience myself with a one minute delay, however, I made the much wiser choice and opted for damp clothes and bargaining with grouchy PohPohs (Chinese for Grandma) over umbrella prices.

It may seem that no skill is necessary in the sport of "rain walking." To the Chinese it only seems second nature. The skill involved is one that any person living in even mildly breathable surroundings would never think about. I'm talking about umbrella dodging. With the millions of people packed into pockets of China, any rainy day promises quality entertainment.

From above a crowded street it looks as if thousands of colorful balls are fighting their way through an assembly line at Toys R Us hoping to be the first to touch the desperate hands of a waiting child. On the ground the underside has a different view. Thousands of flustered faces make their ways through a maze of people, raising and lowering their lead hands so as not to collide their umbrellas with those of the passers-by. When the timing is occasionally off, however, and there is a *raise*raise* instead of a *raise*lower*, the collision is bound to bring a distasteful look and maybe a few snide remarks. With only a few seconds delay they are off again, finding their groove, hoping to be free of any more inconvenient encounters before reaching their final destinations.

Next time you're in China and it begins to rain, don't stay in. Grab an umbrella and join the game.

Kuala Lumpur - Diversity at its best

I never thought this would happen. I am thousands of feet above ground. A strange mist has left everyone in the cabin coughing and tearing up, making it impossible to witness our quick descent into Malaysia. For those "catching shut-eye" on the three hour flight from Hong Kong, waking up now would be a detrimental experience as it seems to be the oh-so-feared attempt of terrorism we post-9/11-ers sub-consciously worry about each time we step onto an airplane. However this was no act of terrorism. The Malaysian government requires a thorough sanitary spray-down on each plane entering the country.

This is my first trip to Kuala Lumpur. I will come to find out that the "terrorist scenario" is the first of many firsts I will experience during my week and a half long stay. Pet monkeys on leashes, a first. Small cat-sized rats in back alleys, a first. The tranny-diva show that would leave me in utter confusion, a first.

As the mist fades I can see the earth below. All that's there is a countless number of palm trees expanding miles in every direction...another first.

The last noteable "first" is something I will experience constantly throughout my stay in Malaysia. As I step off the plane I am surrounded by people whose realm of language capabilities envelopes my own (English, Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Indonesian) and more. I've never felt so fit for an environment...linguistically that is. The linguistic portfolio for a large number of Malaysians, however, is much more impressive than my own. Throw in a few more dialects of Chinese, maybe some passable Tamil, and bits and pieces of a few languages of your own choice - that will give you a better idea of the diversity of this place. Perhaps the variety of languages is a perfect resemblance of the Malaysian culture. A quick 5 minute walk in any direction brings you in contact with people from India, China, Africa, Australia, Europe, Indonesia, Philippines, and probably anywhere else you could think of. And if you want to know what food from any of these places tastes like, I guarantee you can find it at a restaurant close by.

Diversity is a great learning and growing experience. Sometimes I think about how a kid like myself from the hills of the Virginia could be so lucky and blessed to see the things I've seen, meet the people I've met, and experience the things I've been able to experience.