Archive for the ‘foreign poiicy’ Category

Planning a Trip to Africa for Winter 2016

August 7, 2015
a colorized version of G.P. Murdock's ethnic map of Africa

a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

My first trip to Africa was Tanzania,  in 1985.  I found a guy who  booked camping safaris, and he suggested  Tanzania because (he said) “Nobody goes there.”  One reason  people didn’t go was because infrastructure was so bad…and I am told, 30 years later, it still is.  And I’ve learned there are many places in Africa where nobody goes.  I wanted to see the last Eden, which I was told would be gone by now…and it is.  It’s gone because of war, drought, poaching, and rapid population growth.

We Americans  think we know it all, and we think Africa has not developed because of tribalism.  That’s not the reason. The reason  Africa stays without infrastructure is elitism that is fostered by western donors.

There  has never been much material culture in Africa except for the coasts, where land was rich enough to support agriculture and social stratification, and trade was easy.  Go inland, and people are so poor due to  non-arable land, it’s all they can do to eek out a living.   Not much time  is left to pursue the arts.  On the coasts, you’ll find metal working (particularly West Africa), carving, even  bark cloth.  More inland, there is more performance and dancing.

What Americans tend to not understand is that women are the farmers in Africa, but the aid has gone to the men:  men who’ve frittered it away, gambled, drank and  wasted it….  with our help.  Women  do the framing, house keeping, and child rearing.  Men sit around and bullshit.

My 2nd  trip to Africa, to volunteer in Kajiado, Kenya, in Maasailand.  We were at a school run by the African Inland Church (Scottish Protestants), and in our enclave, there was a school for blind boys, a school for  physically disabled girls,and our boarding school for girls.  We went into town  to get some provisions.  I was waiting with a government official (an educated Maasai guy), and we were sitting in a restaurant drinking Fantas.  An older Maasai woman weaved over to the table and started talking to me.  Of course, I couldn’t understand her, and my friend said, “She’s quite drunk, actually.”  It wasn’t even 11 in the morning.  She couldn’t have been older  than 40, but it’s hard to tell.  In her younger days, she might have been the  mtoto sweeping out her boma or tending a fire, but she has kids…maybe even grandkids…to do that now. She had nothing to do but drink.  Where did these pastoralists get money to drink? Selling jewelry to tourists.

After graduate school, I joined Peace Corps, and was assigned to be a town planner in Malawi. At first, it looked like I was going to be sent to Mzuzu in the north, but when I got to training, I was told I was going to Blantyre.  BT was the industrial capital of the country.  It was a relatively old city, with a population  of  about 400,000 at the time, and it was essentially ‘planned out’ by the  Scottish/British. Due to a racist dynamic,  there were areas zoned where Indians could not  buy land.  However, they were clever, and due to their political organization, they ended up with the best infrastructure.  I had just gotten my masters degree in urban planning, and what a great place to see how things actually turn out.

AIDS was a huge problem in the  early 1990s. Due to government policy, less than 35% of the population of Malawi was literate, and fewer than 15% of households had  radios.  All information was via rumor. There was a 25 to 90% incidence of HIV, depending on how close you lived to a paved road.  There were many factors  causing this, but the main one was poverty.  It wasn’t like the USA and Europeans were not sending  development aid.  It was  just not  monitored and it was mis spent.

I was able to make a brief visit about  two years after my Peace Corps service, after there had been a multi-party election.  It looked like the economy had improved.  Many more women were having their hair relaxed (a large expense in households making under $4000 a year), and more people were wearing shoes.  However, the U N had moved in Somali refugees, and they walked around with rifles.

I have not been back in  over 20 years.  I have been supporting Malawi Children’s Village, the Zambian Children’s Fund (in Lusaka, Zambia), and there were  things I never got to see while I lived in Malawi.

I plan to fly into Lusaka, take a bus to Lilongwe (visit the Lilongwe  SPCA while there), get transport to Mua Mission to see their pottery works, get transport to Dedza to see Dedza pottery…then get transport  down to Mangochi to visit the Malawi Children’s Village.  From Mangochi, I hope to  spend a day in Blantyre & see what the Chinese are doing, Then catch a bus —I hope to Lusaka….but I may have to  go back up to Lilongwe and  go back around.  Then, back in Lusaka, I plan to make it down to Victoria Falls.

The roundtrip airfare with taxes is in the $1500 range.  $100 per day should be more than enough for expenses.  I am not going on a safari, but if anyone wants to join me, there will be an opportunity in Zambia.

Understanding the Greek Economic Crisis…or is it Chicago?

July 24, 2015

Don’t gloat.   Coming to a town hear YOU! You think malfeasance  isn’t happening where YOU live? This is about Vernon California. apparently, their neighbors saw these guys getting away with  this, so:  This is about Bell, California, where the town rulers, elected officials, bankrupted the town before the feds could save it.  You have to remember that lots of  actions are legal if they are not illegal. While we  are supportive of laws chasing drug dealers and addicts around,prosecuting welfare and food stamp fraud…. keeping lawyers employed—we are ignoring the important stuff …because it is boring until WE  get pummeled.

I was listening to an economics professor on the radio talk about what the problem is in Greece.  He said the Greek people aren’t lazy, but their  socio/political system is so inefficient, most Greeks work  2 jobs. He also  claimed that it wasn’t because  Greeks didn’t pay taxes—as the wealthy in all countries get away with not paying taxes.  However, in the USA & much of Europe, there has been a huge middle class that pays property taxes.  This is not the case in Greece, or many countries (it was not the case in Malawi when I was an urban planner in Blantyre in  the early 1990s, nor was it in Egypt—where  people were allowed to occupy unfinished buildings and not apply for  occupancy permits…so not be on the tax rolls).

The economics professor claimed Greece was in trouble because the European (etc) investors continued to  prop up banks making bad loans.  Bingo!

Sound familiar?  Did any bankers go to jail when they did that to  the USA in  2008 at the end of Dubyas years?  Charles Ferguson’s  2010 documentary reminds us that—no—we Americans footed the bill.  Puerto Rico is going through the same thing (albeit partly because of being overly generous to her citizens)., but I live in Chicago, where our aldermen and state senators ‘borrowed’ from public employees  pension funds ( for fripparies:  rodeos,  chandeliers, offices, statues, junkets….and never paid it back— or never put the $$$ in in the first place—taxes we paid!!! & we  stupid citizens not only have to pay AGAIN—but the assholes who did this are now receiving pensions themselves!  Here is the  right  wing take on our situation:  It’s not just the patronage army, it’s our politicians.

In the past…before the internet…when things got so dire…there were revolutions.  This is how the socialists came to power in many places.  This may seem far afield, but Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren  keep calling for reforms.  The only way to  fight the  malfeasance is un-elect the  rascals and get ourselves a new set of rascals…and as citizens…support the government watchdog agencies and cut politicians pensions.

Book Reviews: Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWosken, and Kosher Chinese, by Michael Levy

November 27, 2014

When you travel, do you want to really learn about a place, or experience a place you fantasized about?  Do you want to meet the locals and learn what they think about the world, or do you  want photos of places you’ve seen photos of?  Do you want the people you meet in that place you’ve traveled to, to  know YOU?  As a person, or as an American?

To be a Jew in the world it to always be an ‘other’.  I think a lot of non-Jews  think of  us as an oddity.  There are the stereotypes that  we are either  Hasidic in culture/nature, or comedians, or  odd people with Asperger’s (guilty), or lurking as  gentiles/goyem. In reality, most of us are secular humanists  trying to find a place for ourselves.

As a Jew, and anthropology major, I am intensely interested in the   experiences of  Americans  attempting to make a way for themselves in a foreign culture.  I guess I did ok as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Both books came to me, by coincidence, at about the same time:  1 was at a free book swap.  The other was given to me by a friend who sell s books.  Both of these books happen to be by Jews who worked in China.  Both had unique experiences, and ways of describing their experiences and interactions with  Chinese nationals.  That’s where the similarity ends.

DeWosken had a very unique experience.  Her father was an academic sinologist, and  she had lived in China as a child.  When she graduated  college (with degrees in English and poetry), she decided to go back and live her life as an adventure. This was in the  mid 1990s, and she was able to get a job at a public relations firm in Beijing…which she hated.  Via a chance meeting at a party, she agreed to be cast as a character in the soap opera which is the title of the book.  Unique  experience hardly addresses Dewosken’s adventurous life, negotiating for  living space and learning  the subtleties of Chinese (Mandarin) as she  bumped along.  But she managed.  She also recognizes the absurdity of the character she plays,  and how this gave her a bit of an edge in meeting Chinese  artists as well as people who would become her friends.

Levy’s book is much different, and much  funnier.  He became a Peace Corps Volunteer after from returning from a trip to Israel, where he studied in a Yeshiva and planned to make a life until  bus bombings too close to home.  He returned to New York City, and not two weeks later, the  9/11 World Trade Center attacks occurred.  He thought of joining the marines, but  his mother  persuaded him that  Peace Corps might be  more to his ‘lifestyle’ taste.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer goes through that period of adjustment where you  just marvel at how little sense anything makes, and just feeling that even if it appears to be working, it probably isn’t.  Levy makes do, learns the language, goes with the flow, and does an excellent  job of telling us how he managed.

I enjoyed both books, and would recommend then to anyone thinking of either  Peace Corps service, or  expatriating themselves  to China.

Book Review:Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen

November 7, 2014
This ophot has nothing to do with the book. It is a rainbow over  Izmir, Turkey. However, is our knowledge of history based on  pretty images?

This photo has nothing to do with the book. It is a rainbow over Izmir, Turkey. However, is our knowledge of history based on pretty images?

I found this book. published in 1995, and subtitled Everything Your American  History Textbook Got Wrong, and I had to check it out.    I am naturally cynical and skeptical. I was in high school when the Viet Nam war was raging. There were rumors—which turned out to be facts well documented, that  Diem, a Catholic, with ties via Cardinal Spellman to President Kennedy (another Catholic—no coincidence) wanted American assistance not only to control the majority Buddhist population, but  to sell drugs–heroin, marijuana, mostly.  We delivered  a waiting populace for those drugs in the form of soldiers who  could not get  real jobs, who were patriotic, but had no clue what they were fighting for—but were told they were fighting against communism.  Recently, as I write this, the movie, Kill the Messenger, about CIA involvement in the  ‘covert’  war in Nicaragua in the 1980s      ( many don’t recall—Reagan did not send soldiers, he sent a boatload of money and weapons to a bunch of right wingers the CIA put together—the CONTRAS—to fight the Sandanistas, whose basic platform (making them socialist) was UNIVERSAL PRIMARY EDUCATION!  There is evidence that to finance this, the CIA  covertly was involved in the distribution of crack cocaine (for the CONTRAS)  in American black communities.  The movie wasn’t around for long, but you  can get it on Netflix.  Also, now in release, CITZENFOUR, a documentary thatEdward Snowden wisely  participated in, with the help of journalists,  regarding  the National Security  Agency (NSA—the CIA and the FBI  are not the only spy agencies spying on citizens) collecting communications data from private companies.  Will any of this ever be in American history textbooks?

One reason all this  interests me is because, when I was in high school, I used to sit in the library before school and read the  hardcover magazine, American Heritage.   It was published  four times a year. There  was an article about the Yoruba of West Africa,and their drama  culture.  This was about 1970, and  while I don’t remember  much about the article, what I DO remember is  that it was about African Culture.  It had been several years since  I had learned about slavery, but  my teachers had always taught that the Africans had no language, no culture.  They were savages living in trees, and white people had done them a favor by enslaving them and civilizing them!  Of course, this  was not true…but there was no internet, you had to go out and search for books, and few were available at that time to primary and high school  students.  It just opened up a world to me, but my parents would have none of it.  It being going to college and studying African Studies. So, I didn’t go to college at all (well, not for  about 12 years).  I learned to groom dogs.

That is neither hear nor there.  Loewen starts out with  Columbus and how  brutal he was  to the native Americans he met in the West Indies.  I knew they had been terrorized, but I did not know most died of disease and even suicide.

He goes on to  early settlements, and the myth of Thanksgiving (and how European diseases wiped out many native American communities  along the Eastern Seaboard), social stratification, labor history, the civil rights movement, and all the  myths we believe as facts.  I knewe Helen Keller was a socialist.  In fact, she was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. I did not know that Woodrow Wilson was an extreme racist and anti-semite, and that he was the one who segregated the armed forces by race.

I don’t have  children…but  think about this:  we have teachers teaching a history that is a bunch of lies:  stuff that really never happened, while ignoring what did happen because our government policy is controlled by elites.  On the one hand,  this is why  we have public education:  we all  should know the same stuff as ‘true and factual’…but instead of learning math or real history, it’s a system  of teaching how to remember ‘facts’ and act on those ‘facts’, and make decisions based on those ‘facts’.

I urge you to look for this book at used bookstores (ans support local small businesses), but if you can’t you will probably be able to find it on Amazon—and it is worth the read.

2014: the Year of Ebola

October 17, 2014
a colorized version of G.P. Murdock's ethnic map of Africa

a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

Right off, I am posting a link to Richard Preston’s online conversation:

He wrote his book, The Hot Zone, in 1992.    Just coincidentally, I recently came across a New Yorker (Dec.20 & 27, 2010) with Michael Spector’s article, “Letter From Cameroon:  The Doomsday Strain, viral hunting in Central Africa”—about the work of virologist Nathan Wolfe.  He attributes diseases jumping from  other species to humans due to  humans living too close to animals, and the prevalence of bushmeat (wild game) eating.

It’s not that simple, but yet it is. Ebola is a hemorrhagic  disease.  It’s ‘titre’ is very high and can penetrate membranes and wounds easily.  It then makes blood cell walls ‘pop’.  It is believed that the current  epidemic in West Africa  can be attributed to  fruit bats.  They are carriers of Ebola.
We need bats to pollinate fruit and sugar cane. They are not sickened by Ebola, but humans are.  Partly due to population density, partly due to poverty and the desire for protein, and  the complications of  lack of education, modern sanitation, and  way too few health car workers…we are now in a global crisis. It’s not just there.  It’s all over. The earth is one big place.
As Preston pointed out in his book, when something this devastating occurred  in Africa, traditionally, the disease victims would be abandoned and their housing burned after they died.  We are too  modern and enlightened to do that, and it might be the end of life as we know it.

“Entertainer” (notice the quotes) Chris Brown  bluntly put it as a form of birth control. Well, although his terminology is crude, it is definitely population crash.  The  environment can only hold so many  sentient beings.  But now  we’re in trouble.  The intelligent thing to do would be to  stop  transport—including human travel, not just from West Africa to anywhere (except for those  actively addressing the crisis), but ALL TRAVEL.  That would be the fair thing.  That won’t happen, as there are too many vested interests:  follow the money.  Look at what is happening:  although the  decision makers tell us it is a difficult disease to get, in the USA, 2 nurses who treated Thomas Eric Duncan, who ultimately died,  who were following a protocol—got the disease.  We learned that in Spain, a health care worker’s dog was ‘euthanized’. We don’t know if the dog was tested…but it is very possible  pets can  be carriers of the disease. We don’t have enough information  as of October 2014.

This is worse than sad.  It’s devastating for so many reasons.  I know I am not the only Returned Peace Corps Volunteer  who is hearing about what a lost cause Africa is.  I asked a friend who had been teaching in Liberia over the summer what his take was on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Nobel Prize winner and president of Liberia.  He told me there is no electricity and no  plumbing in Monrovia, the capital. If you don’t have a generator, you don’t have electricity.  As for plumbing—can you imagine a city with no  running water or toilets?  You have to wonder, after all this time, how can this be?  How is it the UN, or the European community  hasn’t jumped right in?    How can a Nobel prize winner have no ‘pull’ to fix this? Liberia is clearly a failed state for the second time, and the result is an epidemic of Ebola, which could easily become global.

It does us no good to stop  travelers from West Africa, because Africans have always traveled overland.  In fact,  travel WAS  blocked from West Africa  to East and Southern Africa, by airlines in August…but Africans get around, and they can  get to  North Africa and take a ferry from Morocco to  Spain, or fly to South Africa and then fly on where ever…& this is why we have to bring travel to a halt for about a month or so.

We Americans will not be fooled by science.  We didn’t like the term ‘global warming’, so we changed it to ‘climate change’ and we still yawn. We are losing species every minute, but  we are jumping on the ‘single serving’ packaging revolution.   Let’s waste  in the name of convenience.

Because we  won’t do what needs to be done, it will be a matter of luck  who will die, or where the disease will spread next.  & this will give more fodder to those who  don’t think we should  do anything to limit population growth.  Mo information for women—no access to  contraception.  We have to ‘replace’ the ones who have died…when the  problem became a problem because too many are living too close together, and have such a desperate time getting protein.  Will we, who have access to information and technology, ever learn?

Book Review: The Spirit Catches you and you Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman

August 21, 2014


I graduated high school in 1971, as  the ‘Viet Nam War’ was winding down.  It had been a good part of my life since my earliest memories of watching news on TV.  My uncle was in the navy then,  serving just off the coast.  Everyone knew someone either serving or who had been killed.  We were fighting communism, or so we were told.  We were fighting there so it didn’t spread to here.  What did we know of communism except the Soviet Communist bloc—which of course was very repressive…and China?

We didn’t really know  how much racial discrimination affected  non-white people in the USA.   At that time, we still believed everything our government told us.  Our government would never lie to us, because we had the best government in the world.

That mindset is relevant because we also believe that  our educational system is the best on the world, too (in spite of evidence that it is not).  We believed  things were black and white, and whether you went to a private or a public school, you were shaped to be a good American.  My country right or wrong.

Of course, developing my adult self, I became a more cynical and skeptical teenager. I heard Rennie Davis speak about the Viet Nam war, and was a follower of the Conspiracy 7 trial—held right here in Chicago.  In the underground press, we were getting reports of soldiers in Viet Nam not knowing who the enemy was, and finding the South Viet Namese arrogant  and prissy.

We knew nothing of covert operations in Cambodia and Laos until we exited the war, and it wasn’t really until the 1980’s that we found that we were  fighting all over southeast Asia.  After the war, Viet Nam and Southeast Asia faded from our collective interests.

There were rumors that turned out to be true:   that the CIA was  helping the south Viet Namese sell heroin to our own American soldiers.   Yes, we were and remained on the wrong side of history.

I was mentally ill for years, and plodded through my own life….marrying for the wrong reasons and later divorcing.  I took a break from grooming dogs  to coordinate a project to provide free English classes to immigrants and refugees.  It was then that I started learning about different ‘world views’.  I went to Africa, and everything changed for me because  traveling broadens you so much. I returned to college to study anthropology.    I learned more about myself and how to know  other people.  I became less sure of what the truth was , and, if possible, even more cynical.

My geographic concentration was always Africa, but but I realized I knew nothing about India or Southeast Asia. This book was suggested by a tour guide when  I visited Viet Nam (as a tourist) in early 2014.

Heart breaking.  That is my gut reaction.  This story involves a little girl, her family and  community, and medical anthropology, and  our our history manipulating a society not really for freedom, but for capitalists markets. Embarrassing.

Fadiman does an outstanding job of not just narrating what happened to Lia Lee, but the context.  Misunderstanding after misunderstanding, but also horribly cruel exploitation of a whole society, in the name of fighting communism..

We are all so sure of what we know, what is true.  What is real.    We resent immigrants who don’t learn English, or who refuse to mix. They don’t learn to be Americans.  You read what this family has to say about how their lives got turned upside down, and how they had to adjust, and you just have to cringe.  Could YOU handle all this if it happened to YOU?  I don’t think I could.

This book should be required reading for every high school student born and raised in America, and every ‘medical pr9ofessional’, and anyone who  may need care for a chronic illness.   It’s a well written and edited history.

Uproar Over immigration

July 25, 2014

Three of my  four grandparents were immigrants.  When they immigrated, there  weren’t so many regulations or controls, If you could get transport into the USA…you were IN.  That’s how it went.  In fact, my father’s grandfather came over before  WWI, looking for work…leaving behind (in Germany) a wife with 6 kids, He said he’d send for her.  I’m not sure how long the interval was, but she ended up coming to the USA with 6 kids, to find her husband, and  later had twins.

Over 20 years ago, I dated an African man who was in the  USA to  get his Ph. D.  His government was paying for it.  He was ABD (all but dissertation).  he told me he was working on it (he was defending single party systems, saying that they had factions, and that was like having a multi-party system in government..), but  some time just before i met him, his country devalued  their currency, and his  scholarship was cut.  He was floundering.  he  wouldn’t prepare to defend his dissertation because  nobody would hear it.  his tuition wasn’t paid, and he didn’t have the money to pay it. He was  really opposed to  taking  short term employment until his African friends made it clear to him he had no choice.

I knew there was a program to repatriate Africans who wished to return to their home countries.  I tried calling the Immigration and Naturalization office in Chicago, and  the line was busy constantly—like the phone was off the hook. After weeks of this, I gave up.

I don’t know how many Americans are aware of this, but around WWII, when many Jewish refugees from Europe were attempting to get into the USA, Congress started tinkering with the rules. There are arbitrary  quotas  for virtually every country:  if you are a political refugee, you get special consideration. Same for economic refugees, people fleeing violence…but also, if you want to come and invest money in the economy here, you can JUMP THE QUEUE.  That’s how many  Europeans manage to  do this. Same with Indians.  This is true  for most countries:  they have rules that state you are investing (so you are not a drain on their economies), and you can get permanent residency status.

Some countries pay lobbyists to lobby our congressmen  on behalf of well  connected individuals.  This is how the bin Ladin  family had so many people living in the USA at the time of 911—and why they were protected by the Bush administration.  This is not hearsay.


So this year, 2014,  due to a rumor (when you are illiterate, or don’t have access to news media—or your GOVERNMENT CONTROLS THE NEWS), we’re having an influx of CHILDREN coming from Central America.  Not Mexico—but Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, fleeing violence.

The way this is being reported, it seems as though their parents are sending them…to find relatives and have a better  shot at life.   Unfortunately, this is only  about 10% true.  How do I know?  I have friends who have supported   development in  central American countries for over  40 years.  How many governments  have we meddled in or over thrown?     How many dictators have we supported so  United Fruit could sell us cheap bananas?  I know…’we’ didn’t know.  We didn’t have a clue.  We don’t read newspapers, and  if we looked at a world map, we could not even find these countries.

You might notice no kids are coming from Nicaragua or Costa Rica.  Their governments are more stable.  That is not to say we  didn’t meddle. It is to say that we meddled more in the other governments and  the result  is that there is no confidence in the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador to  invest in infrastructure or to protect citizens from violence.   Heck, we have the same problems here in many inner city neighborhoods:  the plan  is really to contain violence to  neighborhoods we ‘disinvest’. so the developers can get cheap land and start over.

I am  sort of  shocked by the  many pro-lifers (people who believe in the philosophy of when life begins) who are protesting  the kids.  In most cases, a parent did NOT send them here.  A mother might have kicked the kid out or not been feeding the kid—but the daddy is long gone, In fact, many countries do not let a mother bring a child over a border unless she has permission  from the father—a guy she hasn’t seen since the kid  was conceived.  Remember—many of the mommies are barely literate.  These are also ‘Catholic’ countries.  Even if you could afford  birth control—there is none to be bought.  They all have informal sector economies.  For most of the kids—some as young as  four years old…who followed older kids— they just kept walking.

Interesting…nobody in Mexico  notices.  They were just ignored. Not their problem.  They were heading for us.  We are  protesting that we can’t afford them.  Somebody tell me what we got for the trillions of dollars we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?  That money could have gone for schools and media infrastructure  in the USA and other places.  But Dick Cheney and Haliburton  knew who  to  impress.

I am not sure what the answer is  since we gambled  our future revenues away on Republican idiocy…with the tacit  approval of the Democrats…but we caused the problem.

So—here’s the REAL problem:  we are running out of clean water. Due to fracking, and pulling water out of aquifers without replacing it, we are in a crisis.  We know the solution is not just to be more conservative, but to quit breeding ourselves!  Yet, how many people in the USA have taken a high school biology or ecology class?  How many of us know  what population crash is?  Yet the media seems to glorify and honor  parents who choose to bear  over a dozen children!   18 kids and counting! What a miracle!  & they home school!  How many of those  future citizens are learning  actual  science?  Biology?  Ecology?   Physics?  That’s where our problem is—- not a bunch of desperate little kids!

On the Wrong Side of History: My recent trip to Viet Nam

June 6, 2014

Food sculture, Halong Bay, VN  Food Sculpture, North Viet Nam


I visited Viet Nam a few months ago.  It’s  taken me  some time to wrap my head around what I  experienced.

I  bet most people under the age of 50 don’t know anything about the “Viet Nam War” (what the Viet Names call “the American War”) which occured in the 1960’s and why we  fought there.  We never actually declared war on Viet Nam, but  we sent about a half million  people to fight, and we instituted a draft around 1969 to  compel young men to  join the military—to fight in Viet Nam.  Remember?  I do, I’m 60.  I remember coming home from school and seeing news of the war on TV every night.  We allowed our government to tell us a bunch of lies.  We allowed our government—& the pandering news media—to tell us we were fighting communism, and if we didn’t stop communism in Viet Nam, the whole of southeast Asia would fall (the domino theory).  The Viet Namese  ‘won.’  After all our fire power and expertise, they gained control of their own  country.  Not all Viet Namese were happy about that. Same as any country in the world.

So, when people ask why I went to Viet Nam on ‘vacation’, I  responded, “Well, we fought a war there.  I want to see what we were fighting over.”

Others  are curious because  they might want to retire there, or are interested in history.

There are very few traffic signals (what the British call  robots and zebra crossings) in urban Viet Nam.  Most people who have vehicles get around on  motor scooters.  You really take your life in your hands crossing the street. Best to do so in groups.  You also notice everyone wearing surgical masks.  Is it because they don’t want bugs flying into their mouths, or they want to avoid disease?  Not sure.  I was told a combination of both.  but enough with amusing first impressions.

Our guide, Tran,  had lived the history and was  very good at explaining it (Gate One Travel, which, by the way, I would highly recommend–particularly if your travel time is limited), but there is no getting around it. As Tran told us, Viet Nam has been at war for about 3000 years.  If it wasn’t the Chinese, it was the French, and then the Americans.  Why  did (or do) larger powers pick on Viet Nam?  Great location,  lots of arable land.  Why the link? It’s an interesting place to get some perspective.  Search Wikipedia,and you will get some jumping off points.  Lots of people don’t know that Indochina was a French colony.  Land was appropriated for rubber, fruit, and rice plantations.  Yes–appropriated.  There are about 30 ethnic groups in Viet Nam, and you have to give Ho Chi Minh his props—that he organized all these disparate, rural ethnic groups to work together and think of themselves as VIET NAMESE.  Remember, he did this without the internet.  He did this  by persuasion, as most people at that time (1950s and ’60s) were illiterate. They were also feeling oppressed by the French.  the French just barged in and took whatever land they could.

It’s important to understand the dynamic, and  what we  westerners  didn’t know( or understand).  The  biggest priority for Ho Chi Minh and his followers (really—mostly young people under 30) was land reform.  Between the French and the Chinese, there wasn’t much left for the native Viet Namese to even grow food for their families.  This is 1 reason it was so easy  to get  people to fight. They were desperate, and had nothing left to lose.  But more:  the west had divided  Viet Nam into north and south in the 1950’s.  The reason is still not totally clear ( side digression:  do we know why we fought in Afghanistan, if Karzai, who took our money, didn’t want us?  Are we sure we are  on the right side in Syria? Iraq? Ukraine?   Really?)  We told ourselves that the north was to be communist, and the south, with no clear leader, would be free.  Uh—free like democratic—compared to the north?  Free like capitalism—so the colonialists could come back and take what was not theirs?

I had so many questions. We started the tour in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon) in the south.  One of the first places we visited was the Cu Cin tunnels.We also visited an organic farm.  We asked how  most people made  a living in Viet Nam, and Tran told us that if they weren’t farmers, they were entrepreneurs.  Indeed.  We  visited fishing  villages, wood carvers, marble carvers, clothing and embroidery workshops (stull, hard to know how many were actually owned by the Chinese…).  So many self employed people in all the urban areas!  This is an irony, really.  This is a socialist country, but there are  probably more self employed  people in Viet Nam—per centage wise, than in the USA!

HCMC from Hotel, VN  In  historic Hoi An, Hue, and  Hanoi, many small shop owners.  While there are  large shopping plazas with  what we would call grocery stores,  they are sort of a blend of  a large ‘anchor’ ans many small vendors. It is amazing how many people  have small stalls selling  spices,  tchokes, hair ornaments and other junk jewelry, toys, tools, medicinal or first aid stuff, fruit, and clothing.  So…what is socialist about the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam?   Good question.  It seems to be the ownership of improved land.    Hoi An is  a world heritage site not far from DaNang.  It’s a beautiful, quaint old town.  Many expats, particularly from Australia,  now make their livings there.  I was able to visit with Cat Besch, who runs the Viet Nam Animal Welfare Association.  They have a small animal shelter,  and are trying to promote the idea of humane treatment of animals—and not eating your pet dog after you grow bored with it.  Seems that the Chinese, who have always been in Viet Nam, have brought the idea of eating  dogs to this mostly Buddhist country.  People will steal dogs, and sell them by the pound to restaurants.

In Da  Nang, a city along the China Sea, there are miles and miles of upscale housing developments. Huge high rise buildings with luxury interiors and amenities. We asked Tran who was buying all these condos.  He told us,’Rock Stars’, but there couldn’t be that many.  It has to be…the Chinese elites who can not buy  such luxury housing on the oceanfront in China.  As the British buy in the south of Spain and France, the Chinese are buying Viet Nam, and there is a lot of animosity.

Also in visiting the historic sites, we  learned a little more about how the  US became  so involved in Viet Nam.  Diem was, apparently a reluctant president.  He was a businessman who wanted to  expand his drug selling (cocaine, heroin) empire. His  sister-in-law was the power behind the ‘throne’.  Very integral to  understanding this was knowing that the elites in the south were Catholics, and they wanted to govern and exploit the  rural Buddhists peasants.  Diem was encouraged to  contact Cardinal Spellman  in Boston who, of course, had ties to the Kennedy family. With little more than connections, we got ourselves on the wrong side of history (more recently, when the CIA paid Achmed Chalabi $238,000 a week for intelligence, which turned out to be bullshit…in Iraq…everyone involved is off the hook for that war, except the American citizens who now have to support a bunch of war maimed soldiers…same in Afghanistan…).

Tran encouraged us to get Le Ly Hyslip’s book, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places”, her view of how the war  affected her life as a child  growing up in Viet Nam.  Obviously, it was a vacation which caused me to do a lot of thinking,  There is a lot to see and experience in Viet Nam.  It’s not just  the jungle.  You can easily have a beach vacation and  not see  any of the rest of the country.  However, you’d miss so much.

Book Review: A Singular Woman, by Janny Scott (the biography or Barack Obama’s mother)

September 20, 2013

I think everyone wants to make the world a better place.   I didn’t go to college until I was in my early 30’s.   I count as my major accomplishment the founding, with others, of one of the first community based recycling centers in the USA. In fact, it was after my first trip to Africa that I decided to  attend college.  I  knew then what I wanted to study.  I  didn’t  go to college right out of high school, because I had learned to groom dogs, and I was happy enough doing that, and my high school grades were only fair.  I also  was tired of ‘academia’.  I  was curious, I enjoyed learning, but  it was time to concentrate on making a living, and my next goal for myself was getting a show dog, and breeding her.  That really didn’t work out, but  I lived and lived.  My  boyfriend (later fiance  and husband ) was in school.  Getting divorced was the catalyst for me to  explore more of the world and be a ,little adventurous.  Then, after I had returned from a safari to Tanzania, my  world opened up…and being an American, I wanted to ‘help’. So it started like that.  I knew that , in order to help, I had to study  anthropology to understand how people made  decisions about their lives.  I was lucky that   my  university had a program of international/intercultural studies, and I learned a lot about development issues.  I became a Peace Corps Volunteer to have an impact, to  give back, to make a difference. Also, because there  were no jobs.
Stanley Ann Dunham started a different way, but  being very open to the people she met, and really caring about them, one thing led to another and she led an extraordinary life, nicely documented by Scott.

I think  many people now know that Obama’s parents met as students in Hawaii.  What they may not know is that  his father did not tell his mother that he already had a family in Kenya until after they were married, and he  pretty much abandoned her & young Barack when he got accepted into Harvard.  He might have been charming, but he really was a typical African man.  Stanley Ann, with the help of her parents (particularly HER mother) managed to  return to school, and later met her  2nd husband and  went to live in Indonesia with him.  She picked up the language readily, and (although this is not really addressed in the book) used her academic background in anthropology to learn about the craft industries of Indonesia.  One thing led to another and she  started looking at  how the crafts people  made their livings, and the barriers to economic success, which led to her  interest in mirco finance, and  assisting  poor women.

Scott really explains  well  how  Ann Soetoro negotiated a role for herself and a life in Indonesia.  She  divorced  Soetoro due to  a difference in  values, but wanted her daughter to  know her father.  She sent Barack to live with her parents and gain  an American education, because she felt his chances of future success would  be furthered  by this, and that the Indonesian schools at the time could not provide what he needed.  She  became what we call an expatriate, and  maintained the life  for many years.
She  delayed completing her Ph.D. in favor of taking on  challenging  assignments that  would ultimately improve the lives of the poor and make a difference.  She worked for USAID and the Ford Foundation.  There is no doubt that  because of her work, many  people were able to create better lives for their children.  She was only 52 when she died, apparently of  uterine cancer.  So very sad, but she lived her life on her own terms.

Many of my friends are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and many went on, after their  Peace Corps service, to  become internationalists and development workers. We see the  ‘less developed world’ as our  ‘constituency,  and people we must advocate  for.

I’d suggest this book to anyone who  is interested in  anthropology, development issues,  women’s issues, President Obama, travel, or Peace Corps.

Book Review: Leap of Faith, by Queen Noor

August 23, 2013

Queen Noor  (the former Lisa Halaby) is my ‘agemate’.  I remember seeing photos of her  and King Hussein in the newspaper when their  engagement was announced.  I was fascinated that such a young girl ( she was 26 at the time) was choosing to marry such an ‘old’ man  (he was in his 40’s), even if he was a king.  I  also wondered if her father married her off.

Several years ago, I became interested in T. E. Lawrence.  He is  pretty much responsible for the modern Middle East.  So, when I got the opportunity to  read what  the queen had to say, and had the time, I decided to read her memoir.

She is a fascinating woman.  It was not merely chance that she met the king.  Her father was an aviation executive, and of Jordanian descent.  He was friendly with the King.    Lisa had gotten a degree in urban planning and architecture, and was working around the world consulting on airport design.  The king was an avid aviator, it so happened.  She was working for her father  and as a consultant in Amman when the king started pursuing her, but it was a love match.

Although Queen Noor grew up in the United States,  she was a global citizen.  She  took to her new role as wife and stepmother easily, or so she writes.  She  did much to  improve the welfare  of women and children in Jordan, but she was still a royal, and she writes easily of having homes in  England and the USA, as well as multiple residences in Jordan.  So, although she professes concern for the citizenry, she apparently had no problem  jetting around.

The important message from this book—and there is a message, is that  the king wanted peace, but he was saddled with Palestinian refugees and  a difficult Yassir Aarafat.  Also, A neighbor to the west, Israel, that kept encroaching on disputed land.

For those who did not know,  there were no countries here  until after World War I.  It was ‘Palestine’ with no geographic boundaries, because it was Ottoman Empire.  It was T.E. Lawrence, who had  worked on archeological digs  in the years before the war, who learned Arabic, who  worked with  King Hussein’s great grandfather so the
Arabs could rule themselves. One of the  compromises the  old King (or Sheikh) had made was to give a live of land along the Mediterranean to the Jews as long as  the Arabs had a port, thinking this would be Syria and Lebanon.  When Lawrence worked this out, with the  approval of higher ups in the British government (they wanted the cooperation of the Arabs to  get control of the Ottoman lands), he did not know the British had  already agreed to Sykes-Pikot, and were also selling him and the Arabs out to the French.

Were that not bad enough, because the Palestinians were not  the same ‘tribe’ (I hesitate to use the word–ethnic group would  be better) as the Jordanians, they wanted  control  of the land ‘deeded’ to them  between World Wars I  and II.  Many do not know this, but  in some cases, ‘Israelis’ bought land from the  Palestinians, , and in some cases they terrorized the Palestinians off their land.  It is hard for me —as a Jew—to say this—but it is fact.  And, after the 1967 war, they took  control of the disputed  land that was under Palestinian Control.

Ideally, Jerusalem should be a city/state, like the  Vatican, Republic of Srbska in Bosnia, or Lichtenstein, under control of neither Israel, Palestinians, or Jordanians, but  the King of Jordan, as the head of Hashemites, has historical  stewardship of the Mosque in Jerusalem.

Due to  ultra orthodox Jews and right wing hardliners having so much influence in  Israel, and their lobby in the USA, there is  slim chance of this happening, or  of dismantling settlements on the occupied lands—so there will be no peace. And, while many of the old Palestinians are now dead, they instilled in their children remembrance of what they lost.  It would also be ideal to allow the Palestinians to govern themselves. While there are many  educated Palestinians, they  got their educations  as exiles, & the  local population is not educated enough to manage without the help of the  rest of the Arab/Moslem world (that said, when many Palestinians are Orthodox Christians). However,  Israel would be in a terrible way, much less developed, were it not for the very active Jewish lobby in the USA, who are also philanthropists.

This tension was a constant  throughout Queen Noor’s life.  She really concentrates a lot on  her devotion to her husband, and  working for  women’s rights and economic development in Jordan, but says very little about her children.  The book is well-edited and  explains a lot about a  country most of us know little about.    It’s a good, captivating read, and I recommend it.