Thursday, December 17, 2009


Reading these pages over the past year, you may think that I’m particularly inept at navigating
Vietnamese culture. You’d be right; I was inept at navigating Vietnamese culture. I never had any idea what was going on, ever, and was in a constant state of confusion.

However, this is not solely because Vietnamese culture is so incredibly foreign. My bewilderment is constant, no matter where I am. As my father’s colleague commented when I was a vacant four-year-old, wandering around, bumping into things, and falling over – “Sam is completely unaware of his environment, isn’t he?”

Things confuse me. I'm back in North America, visiting people I met while studying in the hilariously-named Sackville, New Brunswick (pop: 5,000), and I find myself, on occasion, just as befuddled as I was in Vietnam. At times, I am substantially moreso.

I went to a party a couple weeks ago and was reminded of a university tradition that is seldom spoken of but deeply universal. The Grind. This is really a special piece of Western culture, and it has not received the analysis it deserves.

It takes place in a bar with the music at maximum and the lights at minimum. Girls, pack animals to the end, stand in a circle and dance, with heavy emphasis on hip movements. Guys stand on the periphery of this circle and wait until they somehow get some secret signal from one of them that indicates that she’s up for a grind. Without further ado, he moves in and grabs her hips and suddenly they’re a couple.

I’ve given it a shot from time to time, and, with the exception of one very enthusiastic girl who turned out to not be a girl (oops), I have always met with failure.

It just doesn’t make sense to me. When a girl is approached by a guy from behind, how does she immediately know that he is acceptable? She can’t see him, she can’t hear him – what is it about him, then? Does he tap out some secret code on her lower back? Can she smell him over the stale beer and sweat that invariably defines the kind of places grinding occurs?

Maybe it’s just bitterness at being so consistently excluded from this club, but I think it’s one of the last vestiges of our evolutionary past. The whole thing does not seem very human; it’s much more of an animalistic ritual, with the ovulating females gathering in search of an alpha male who can assist them in the nature-given task of passing on their DNA.

It’s not always rainbows and sunshine, though. Two of my friends have been dating off and on for a few years now, constantly breaking up and getting back together. One night, after one of these breakups, I met both of them at a bar that specialised in overpriced beers, sticky floors, and a dance floor with lots of space to get your grind on.

Tensions were running high, as they often will in a recurrinng breakup situation. Indeed, I was wondering why they were spending time together at all, but the subsequent events soon replaced my ponderings with entirely new ones.

Here’s how they interacted. They squared off and started making idle chitchat, as if they were spurious acquaintances. It very quickly disintegrated from “hi how are ya’s” into something far more sinister. Without any trigger or justification, they were soon taking strips off one another.

“You’ve gained a bit of weight.”

“You never were much of a student, were you?”

The odd thing was, though, that they’d deliver these lines as if they were banal pleasantries, with a smile and a nod of the head. Back and forth they would go, until it finally became too much and one of them lost the smile off his or her face.

But would a fight begin? Oddly, no. Whenever one of them got particularly offended, he or she would grab the other one, march him or her out to the dance floor, and furiously grind for ten minutes or so. Then they’d return and take it from the top. This happened again and again and again, with the awkwardness rising as I was left in the non-dancing portion of the bar, taking small, fifty-cent sips of my eight dollar beer and wearing a pained expression.

Like I said, I don't get it. In my youthful idealism, I like to think that we've left mating dances with shrieking and throwing feces, but being at a university again reminded me that we have not quite shrugged off our genetic past.

But I guess DNA has to be spread somehow, and in this regard grinding is nothing if not efficient.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Full-Cream Democrats

There’s something really annoying about the kind of person who does nothing but complain, offering problems without solutions. Not only is this person irritating, he or she is quite dull too.

Now, the last thing I want to be is irritating and dull, so I’m going to offer some solutions to the problem I recently explored: namely the profound lack of (metaphorical) testicles among Democrats.

In spite of my complaining, there are viable candidates still out there. Bemoaning the good old days is hardly a productive activity, as, good or bad, they’re old. More relevant to our current situation is the presence of real, living Democrats who – I think – wouldn’t chase poll numbers and cringe in the face of criticism like these last two winners have so predictably and painfully done for what promises to be a combined total of at least twelve years.

Dennis Kucinich

There’s nothing Lite about this guy. He’s an all-sugar, maximum caffeine, full-fibre Democrat. Of course, that’s why he hasn’t gotten anywhere in the mediocrity that is the Democratic party.

It’s not his Liberal-ness that impresses me, although he does have a healthy dose of it. No, as I’ve reiterated a thousand times now, a presidential candidate needs stones. And Kucinich has so many that I fear he may have a hard time walking without pain.

Let’s start in his private life. Look at his wife! She is a babe. In superficial physical terms, he is way out of his league. A man who resembles a gremlin who can attract a woman like that must have a profound amount of self-confidence, of which there has been a shortage lately amongst our Democrats.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Kucinich became mayor of Cleveland when he was 31 (a position also held by Jerry Springer a few years previous, but his career followed a slightly different trajectory). That’s a pretty impressive achievement at a relatively young age, but it gets better. When Municipal Light, the city-owned power company, went into default, the Mafia wanted it sold to (their) private hands. When Kucinich refused, they put a hit out on him.

Allow me to reiterate. They wanted him dead. His political decisions didn’t put his career, reputation, or power at stake – they put his life at stake.

This is the kind of toughness we need in the White House. If he’s not going to back away from the threat of death, there’s no way he’s going to compromise his positions for the sake of a few points in a poll or the disapproval of party hacks. This is a guy who knows what he wants, and who isn’t afraid to put himself at risk to get it.

Al Franken

My first acquaintance with Senator Franken was when I found a copy of his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot in my parents’ house when I was nine or ten. I read it, but didn’t understand any of the subject matter. I did, however, immensely enjoy the fact that it was full of swear words and dirty jokes. I could read it in full view of my parents who had no idea that their son was reading raunchy jokes far above his age level. They just though I had a mature interest in politics. Suckers.

But I digress. Al Franken ran for Senate after twenty years of writing edgey, inappropriate, and downright offensive material. Even though he must have known that it would be used against him, he ran anyway because he knew that ideas, intelligence, and integrity are far more important than the fact that you wrote an article for Playboy in 2000.

And what did his campaign do when his previous writing career was predictably used as ammunition against him? Did they apologise, say that it was taken out of context, say that he was different then? Hell no. I’m usually loath to put quotes in my blog as I don’t like anyone’s writing other than my own, but for the Franken campaign I’ll make an exception:

Al had a long career as a satirist. But he understands the difference between what you say as a satirist and what you do as a senator. And as a senator, Norm Coleman has disrespected the people of Minnesota by putting the Exxons and Halliburtons ahead of working families. And there’s nothing funny about that.
He went on to put amendment on a spending bill that made it okay for government contractor employees to sue their employers if they get raped, which he then stood by in the face of vocal Republican opposition. It wasn't a big-ticket issue, but it was an important one - and by tirelessly working at it, holding hearings and destroying corporate lawyers, he made it a big-ticket issue.

Put this man in the Oval Office.

Alan Grayson

Alan Grayson is the second Democrat Congressman in thirty-nine years to come out of his Florida district. One of his first moves was to attract the ire of the spineless sops that make up the vast majority of his party by calling a lobbyist a “K-street whore” when she publicly said that he – a Harvard economics grad who worked as an economist – didn’t understand economics.

Of course, the Democratic party went beserk. How dare he use language like that?! He “went too far” said a number of his pansy peers, many of whom, I can only assume, have spent enough time with to know the difference. This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy about Democrats. A lobbyist spouts some patently untrue drivel, is called on it with a swear word, and they attack the latter. And these guys wonder why they’re shut out of power for years on end.

He wasn’t discouraged, though. His next move was to weigh in on the healthcare debate, skewering the Republican’s (lack of) a plan as one that encouraged patients to die quickly if they get sick. He then went on to read out (on my birthday, thanks Congressman) the names of people who died as a result of a lack of insurance on the House floor.

Put him in the Oval Office. Put any of these guys in the Oval Office. These are just three people who don’t chew their fingernails, lunch with lobbyists and make half-assed speeches about “bipartisanship,” which, they seem to have forgotten, isn’t necessary when you won the election.

These are guys who have faith in their ideas and are prepared to fight for them. These are guys who don’t mind that, in politics, (and in the rest of life, for that matter), there are times that people will disagree with you, vilify you, call you names, even, god forbid, not like you.

These are guys are secure enough to know that that’s okay. So put them in the Oval Office and let them run the country right.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I don’t care.

That’s really it. I don’t care. That sums up my position on 99 percent of stories that are on the news, and today was no exception. Indeed, I possibly cared less about today’s developing human interest story than I’ve ever cared about any other news story.

You probably know the details, but I’m going to rehash them. A family was (naturally) building a giant balloon in their backyard; their six-year old (Falcon) got into the balloon when the dad was working on it; dad yelled Falcon; Falcon hid in the attic; balloon took off; everyone panicked when they mistakenly assumed that Falcon was in the balloon; he wasn’t. End of story.

But wait, there’s more. In a postgame interview with the family, Wolf Blitzer (who has always
weirded me out) asked Falcon why he hid. Falcon’s reply was “we did it for the show.”

Then someone in the family farted, which was funny.

The internet rage machine went crazy. Over the lie, not the fart. I swear, I could hear blood vessels rupture under the pressure and fingers develop massive callouses as enraged e-warriors hammered at their keyboards with every ounce of energy they had.

And it would be kind of outrageous if he actually put him in the balloon (which, by the way, would not have been able to take off with a 6-year old). But he didn’t. The whole thing was farce, and we ate it up. Even the outrage against him for lying is playing into his attention-whoring hands; even my typing of this blogpost is giving him what he wants.

The stunt in the first place didn’t surprise me. This shit happens all the time; everyone wants to be on TV (including me – do you think I post on this blog for my health?) The surprise, and irritation, was in the moral crusade against him afterwards by the internet for lying.

We’re so quick to judge people that we forget how inconsequential their actions are. So he lied about his kid being in a balloon. Call me overly forgiving, but I’m fairly sure there are worse things he could have done.

This whole thing has just emphasized how dumb we are. We are so furious over small lies by normal people that we conveniently forget about the bigger lies by the people who lead us, who spend our money, and whose honesty is far more important. We’ve somehow lost – or never had – our collective sense of perspective.

And yes, okay, he wasted some public money. But again he’s taking his cues from our politicians. He lives in the Western USA, near Iowa, where billions of dollars per year are given to farmers
to keep them in what are essentially make-work jobs. He lives in a country where military spending makes up a majority of the budget yet universal healthcare still doesn’t exist and investment banks are given public money to keep them in business. One rescue operation is chump change.

So more power to ye, balloon man. You told a lie and got caught. I don’t care. You told your son to hide in the attic and play with his toys for a few hours. I don’t care. Basically, you lived your life in a slightly bizarre way that ultimately doesn’t affect me at all. Please continue doing so, and I'll continue trying to focus what limited energy I have on liars whose lies actually matter.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Democrats Lite

Democrats are pansies. For years, they’ve rolled over and taken beating after beating from the less-civil, more ballsy Republicans. When they’re in the minority, they act as if they deserve it, and when they have some semblance of power, they act as if they don’t. They behave like a political placeholder between Republican regimes and they don’t want to leave their inevitable successors too much of a mess to clean up. Considerate, but ultimately not that impressive politically.

And I can hardly blame them. Look at who’s been keeping them at bay for the past thirty years – a dementia-ridden septuagenarian who seemed able to run the country in his sleep and two generations of the same straight-talkin, logic-lackin’ Texas oil family, the latter of whom convinced the nation to support a war with essentially no premise.

Of course, this was interspersed by Clinton, but he’s the exception that proves my rule – no Republican would let a bit of fellatio stand between him and the business of governing, and certainly wouldn’t do things like question the meaning of hard-to-define words like “sexual contact” and “is.”

So here’s a guide for the Democratic Party, so they can remember their roots, and maybe hark back to them. Because the profound lack of justification for Obama’s Nobel Peace prize and the self-destructive Democrat gutting of their own healthcare bill indicates that they’re in dire need of a breath of fresh air.

Jimmy Carter
I know, I know, he only had one term. But the deck was kind of stacked against him, what with a lack of Washington experience and an economy that stubbornly refused to grow.

What’s more, he had to deal with a public relations fiasco that involved him being attacked by a swamp rabbit. Life wasn’t easy.

But let’s not mention those things. Let’s talk about what became the defining issue of his presidency: Iran. What a nightmare – a President already viewed as feckless had this point underscored by the ongoing fact that there were Americans being held hostage inside their own embassy in Tehran.

He could have solved the problem and guaranteed himself re-election with a phone call, by raining hellfire and damnation all over Iran. He could have started dropping bombs and not stopped until the hostages (or their bodies) were safe and sound. Whether it worked or not, it would have guaranteed him a second term because the American Public positively loves war (at least for a little while).

But he didn’t. Instead, he sent a small Special Forces team who failed at the price of 8 of their lives when, among other problems, their helicopter got caught in a sandstorm.


But Carter understood – like no other president has since – that eight dead volunteer military men is preferable to hundreds or thousands of civilians, regardless of nationality. He also understood that there are more important things in this life than winning an election, and in the face of what must have been very persuasive arguments to the contrary, he still did the right thing. That takes stones that have not been seen in a Democrat since.

Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam
We often forget that the Democrats were the ones who invented the straight-talking Texas ranger. Lyondon Johnson was foul-mouthed, abrasive, and stubborn. By all accounts he was a thoroughly unpleasant individual to be around.

He was also a big fan of the war he inherited from Kennedy. These were days, remember when the Domino Effect seemed far more realistic than it does today, with Communist influence spreading all over the place. Of course, the American people were long-past their honeymoon stage that they tend to get with wars, and were demanding he pull the troops out.

Like Carter, he had a seemingly easy choice – he could stick with the war, in spite of its gutting his War on Poverty and likely costing him an election, or he could pull out to appease the protesters.

He stuck to his principles to the very end – he pulled himself out of the election race. Like I said, I’m no fan of war. But I have to admire someone who puts his ideals ahead of his political ambitions, and recognizes that, when you’re president, people are going to disagree with you, and sometimes the decision you think is best is going to negatively affect you.

Franklin Roosevelt
This guy is from a long line of toughness. His distant relation, Theodore Roosevelt, was shot in the chest while campaigning in a presidential race. Rather than do a Democrat move like go to the hospital, he crowed that “it takes more than that!” and delivered his speech as the blood seeped through his white shirt, until it became too much and he collapsed.

Of course, he was a Republican so that’s hardly unexpected.

But onto Frank. 1933 was possibly the worst year to be elected, with the economy far further in the toilet than it is now. People were losing their jobs right and left and Wall Street folks had developed a habit of shooting themselves or throwing themselves out windows. Not to mention the fact that Prohibition was still on. Things were, to put it simply, quite bleak.

So FDR spent money. Program after program after program was introduced by him and passed by his Congress, with the aim of putting people to work and getting the economy flowing again. Affectionately branded The New Deal, it didn’t work as well as World War II but even today most Americans won’t hear a word against him or it.

At any rate, after four years of this, the Supreme Court grew a tad wary of his developing power base, especially considering the political developments on the other side of the Atlantic, and struck down a few key parts of the Deal. Did Roosevelt back down, though? Hell no! He introduced a bill to Congress that would allow him to appoint an extra justice for every standing one over the age of 70 – essentially letting him play politics with a loaded court.

Luckily, it didn’t pass. But at least he tried. And that’s my point, if you’re still reading at word number 982. I didn't sign on for Democrats who answer questions about their illicit affairs and Islam backgrounds, and nor did I sign on for Democrats who gut their own healthcare bill in the face of opposition. I signed on for the men mentioned above, who played to win rather than just desperately tried to avoid losing, who were committed to their principles, not their 2nd term. As I approach my 23rd year, I long for some calories in my Democrats - because all I've seen thus far are Democrats Lite.

Monday, September 21, 2009


In New Zealand, I’m an American with an obnoxious, obtrusive accent (that's me on the left). In America, my voice blends but my inability to drive on the right side of the road and painfully inept grasp of pop culture sets me apart as a New Zealander. In Vietnam, of course, I’m white.

Not that I’m complaining. I like to think of myself as some kind of latter-day Han Solo, albeit lacking in furry friends and a modified spaceship. I’m young yet, though.

More relevantly, I feel like my Global Citizen status has given me carte blanche to criticize and mock all of these cultures I’ve lived in and around as combined insider and outsider. So without further ado, here are some generalizations I’ve formed over the past several years.

New Zealand
The prevailing conception of New Zealand is that it is filled with laid-back, relaxed, unflappable people, incapable of getting even a little bit bent out of shape because they’re so chill.

I’m here to tell you that this is a myth. It’s an understandable myth, at least (in contrast to “swine flu is dangerous” or “public money was intended for private interests”), but a myth nonetheless. New Zealanders aren’t laid-back and relaxed. They’re just too meek to say what’s on their mind.

Examples abound. Going out for a coffee is always a surprise because quality is so inconsistent. Not that New Zealanders prefer bad coffee; they just don’t ever complain, so baristas have no idea if they’re doing a good job or not.

More startling, though, is attending university in this country.

In New Zealand, a lecturer (always a foreigner, who doesn’t understand that he’s in a nation of extreme social anxiety) will occasionally put forth a question to his class. “What do you think of this?” he’ll say, all bright smiles and naivete.

Nothing. It’s a sea of silence as everyone – save the adult students sitting in the front row who are, for some reason, on the other end of the spectrum – look to their left, to their right, but
never directly at the lecturer for fear he’ll spot-call on them.

“Tough crowd,” I imagine him thinking, “I’ll give them an easy question to warm them up.” So he does that – asks for some information the class (should have) read about the night previous,
or even something he just said. And this is where it gets really painful. Even though everybody in the class knows the answer to what he asked, and everyone knows that everyone knows the answer the eye-shifting and seat-squirming persistes, with nary a hand in the air. Time after time, I saw this single thread run through a variety of classes in a variety of subjects at a variety of levels. In New Zealand, nobody wants to stand out.

I can’t help but notice that this nation of meek, awkward people also has a rambunctious, sometimes destructive drinking culture. I’ll leave the connections up to you.

Americans don’t to have any emotional middle ground. They’re either ecstatic with joy, black with rage, laughing loudly and obnoxiously, or crying their eyes out. I’m kind of glad my
upbringing has been a mix of this and New Zealand’s stark contrast because I’m not sure my delicate system could handle this constant fifth-to-reverse shifting before dropping my emotional transmission all over the road.

Americans don’t keep anything in, either. If an American likes you, you know it. If an American hates you, you’ll hear about it. If an American just took a shit and it was a abnormal consistency combined with a worse-than-usual smell, you will hear about it, in far more detail than you ever could have imagined or would have asked for.

Americans are also phenomenally ethnocentric. This isn’t really their fault; not only do they live in a nation whose population is in the hundreds of millions, it’s also the heart of the world’s cultural output. When you’re from the same country as the soda people everyone’s drinking, TV they’re watching, and music they’re listening to, there’s really not a huge impetus to learn about the outside world.

What’s more, they don’t really understand that the rest of the world isn’t as the same way. I plan on going to Colorado in December to work in whatever capacity they’ll give me in order to enjoy the fringe benefits of an apartment on the mountain and a free lift pass. I know. It’s going to be awesome.

On more than one occasion, I’ve told an American this plan and been asked, with wide-eyed incredulity, “how do you know about Colorado? You didn’t grow up in America!”

It’s so bizarre. They simply cannot understand how someone whose entire life wasn’t spent in the USA can know that this 100,000 square mile state exists. I’ll gently point out that not only did I live in the USA for my first fifteen years, I also have a host of extended family in – you guessed it – Colorado. Even after being given this information, heads are shaken and I can tell that they don’t quite accept it yet.

American waiters and waitresses, however, do their jobs incredibly well. They chat with you just enough that you feel welcomed but not too much that you feel like they’re intruding on your conversation. Your drink order is taken immediately, they check up on you just enough. Also, when the food gets to you, it’s generally pretty good. Americans know their hospitality.

The Vietnamese
The Vietnamese aren’t casually inefficient, nor are they inefficient enough that I could cleverly suggest that they may be allergic to efficiency. No, it’s worse than that. Efficiency is the Vietnamese Peoples’ Kryptonite.

Here’s a Western cultural practice that does not have its praises sung nearly enough: the line. There’s not much to it, just a bunch of people standing in a row and patiently waiting their turn.

It’s this simplicity that makes it so perfect, though. You might have to wait, but you can very
quickly and easily judge how long you’ll have to do so for. And if you’re not at the front of this line, maybe you’ll be in the front of the next one. Everyone gets served as fast as possible.

I never noticed how great this is when I lived in Western countries because the poor, unheralded line is in the same unfortunate situation as Jodi Mitchell’s paradise (you know, the one they replaced with a parking lot). You just don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

It’s gone now. Oh, is it ever gone. It just doesn’t exist here, in any capacity. No matter the situation, be it at the post office, supermarket, or anywhere else where the number of people to be served is greater than the number of people doing the serving, there will be an unruly mob, all pushing and shoving to get in.

At the kindergarten I currently teach at, I’m trying my best
to instill this Western value in their impressionable brains, but I fear that it is an uphill battle that will eventually be lost.

If the inability to line up was the only inefficiency in Vietnam, I would be hesitant to generalize the whole country as such. But no. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

On the theme of hospitality, eating out in Vietnam is always a mixed bag. If you’re with one or more other person, getting eighty percent of your order is doing well. And this isn’t a language thing – I’ve been out to dinner with Vietnamese people who (i assume, at least) ordered in perfect Vietnamese only to have great swathes of the meal never arrive. The novel concept of writing down orders has yet to arrive here; most places just have the waiter relay the order to the kitchen by shouting across the restaurant. Like I said, inefficient.

But the most maddening was when I was asked by my employer, in all seriousness, to take a CD
home and write down the lyrics to “wheels on the bus,” that popular children’s song we all know and some of us love.

The reasons behind it made sense. They wanted to be able to sing the song when a foreign teacher wasn’t around, and they had a hard time understanding the words, as speakers of English as a 2nd language. But the internet is available in Vietnam. Call me insensitive and precious (you wouldn’t be the first), but it strikes me as far easier (on everyone) to just plug “wheels on the bus” and “lyrics” into Google than the option they took.

And maybe they didn’t think of it. Lapse in judgement or something. So I told them! I explained how much easier it would be (especially on me, because man do I hate that song), but they would not hear a word of reason.

So the CD sits in my bag, untouched, until they figure out that Google isn’t just a more efficient option, it’s their only option.

Just doing my part, one frustrated employer at a time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Build This

Construction has started in my hometown of Dunedin, NZ. Under the catchy, if illogical, slogan of “just build it!” the Dunedin City Council (DCC) is using $85 million of money borrowed against the whole city’s credit to build a 30,000-person-capacity stadium with a retractable roof.

To put this in perspective, Dunedin is a city of not much over 100,000. What’s more, it already has a stadium that serves its purpose reasonably well. I’m all for thinking positively, but to assume that fully one half of the city will be in attendance at sports events is just a bit heavy on the optimism and light on the rationality.

But there’s been more than enough vitriole on both sides of this debate for years now, so I’m going to refrain. Rather, I think it’s time someone examined something that hasn’t been examined yet – the truly awesome other things Dunedin could do with that kind of money.

The Pool
Dunedin has a pretty nifty pool. It has a kids’ river, a wave ppool, a lap pool, two diving pools, and, the piece de resistance, the hydroslide. This is all nice, but in the spirit of the Awatere Stadium, we can do better.
Why do we have just one wave pool? We should have at least three, all with different levels of intensity. Actually, what we should really spring for is a Flowrider - a machine that makes a single, perpetual wave for surfing. Dunedin has a massive surfing subculture but it’s so cold that I fear that some people are missing out due to excessive sanity. Imagine how much more accessible this pastime would be if we changed it from an outdoor one to an indoor one!

These are fine ideas, but what I’d really like to do is throw the entire amount at the hydroslide. After all, this is the most visible part of the pool, the most prevalent symbol of the DCC's generosity, so we should make it better, stronger, and, most importantly, visible from further away.

I’m no slide engineer, but I feel like you could do a lot with the kind of money that’s being spent on the stadium. I’m thinking of something that starts ten blocks away, with an elevator to get to the top. To get there, you could either park in the enormous structure I plan to build, or simply float along the underground river (with breathing room and lights) that meanders from the slide’s exit to its entrance. I’m pretty sure you could do this for $85 million, and I would be a little more enthusiastic in my support than I am for the current use of the same amount.

Make Hills Less of a Problem
Dunedin is set up in such a way that the haves literally look down on the have-nots, with the ritzier neighbourhoods sitting on top of the ironically named Maori Hill. This is a big drag when you’re a teenager or adult who lives at home without a car (although by the time I became the latter I had upgraded to a bicycle, which didn’t help my hill troubles at all).

I want the next generation of upper-crust teenagers to be able to avoid this horror. Let’s bring back the cable car. Or, better yet, a moving sidewalk. Better than both: level the damn hill. All that dynamite and zoning would be expensive, but when you’ve got $85 million to kill the world’s your oyster.

M-16s for Everyone
Because you never know when you’re going to have to fight the power.

Dance Lessons for Everyone
Because there’s more than one way to fight the power.

The Final Frontier
I have a confession to make. When I started writing this, my mind was already made up. There’s no question as to what I think my $85 million should be spent on, and once you read this inspiration neither will there be in yours.

A space program. Dunedin’s own.

Now, I know this is revolutionary and controversial but the best ideas are. Who says space programs are strictly the purview of national governments? Just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. Let’s get a municipal spaceship.

The positive effects are innumerable. First of all, it’ll bring in all kinds of high-end jobs. For the first time ever, pokey little Dunedin will be the destination of choice for robotics engineers, high-tech designers, and, of course, rocket scientists. Also, the image is spectacular – a space shuttle, painted in Otago blue and gold, hurtling at thousands of miles per hour to infinity and beyond.

Of course, space programs cost more than $85 million but then so do huge-capacity stadiums with retractable roofs. So, just like with the stadium, I’ll get outside, private investors involved – there’s a real market for space tourism for millionaires, and I don’t know how they feel but I, for one, would rather my interstellar flight took off from lush New Zealand than the desolate wasteland that is the Russian Federation.

But I’m not the final authority on such things (like I am on medicine, beauty, biking, movies, and literature). So please, utilize my comments section. Tell me what you’d like to see $85 million of what is (at least partly) your money spent on.

And don't be shy - it's okay if your idea only benefits a select group of special interests.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ice Never Tasted So Good

If you ever get a cold in Vietnam, lock yourself in your room until it’s run its course. If you don’t, you risk compounding and extending your sniffles through sheer stress and frustration.

For one, there’s a myth that will haunt you. When you’re not raised in “don’t drink cold drinks when you have a cold,” it’s very easy to mock the irrationality behind it. But then, I can’t be too condescending, as it’s just as irrational as the Western “don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant in the first trimester.”

In any case, the no-ice myth is just as irritating as it sounds. I first experienced it when I was on a holiday with four local women I barely knew. They were incredibly nice but were, for a variety of reasons, excruciating to spend time with, so I tried to abandon the trip a day early by feigning a cold. It didn’t really work – by the time I had formulated my plan, the morning bus had already left, so I ended up leaving only marginally earlier than I was originally going to.

More importantly, my fake illness meant that for the entire day I was denied cold drinks. A round of refreshing iced teas would arrive at our table, but before I could get my hands on one, one of the women would say something in rapid-fire Vietnamese, immediately after which it would be snatched away and replaced with its piping hot evil twin. There are few things less pleasant than sweltering in the Vietnam heat while drinking something made from freshly-boiled water.

Like all myths, this one annoys me because of its profound lack of logic. When you have a cold, what you need most in the world is hydration. Water, orange juice, Gatorade- anything to keep your fluids up. It’s not easy to choke down hot tea in the tropics, and it’s impossible to drink a lot of it.

But I made it through this ice-free day and went on with my life. Four months later, I actually got a cold, and the whole process repeated itself, albeit with different people.

Usually, I let my immune system take care of my illnesses, as I figure the boys could use the real-world experience to supplement their grueling training regimens. But when a café I frequent literally refused to serve me iced tea – supposedly for my own good – I decided to make an exception because I didn’t want to cause unacceptable loss of face by screaming at a kindly waiter who was just trying to help me out.

So I went to the pharmacy and described my symptoms, expecting something like sudaphed. Instead, I was given a three-day course of ten pills a day and advice to spit phlegm out my mouth to avoid a chest infection. I took the former and knocked them back, thinking to myself “when in Vietnam…”

I’m retrospectively reminded of an interview I once saw with my hero, Seth Rogan, who talked about when he got a cold and, for some reason or another, drank bourbon to cure it. Like him, I definitely felt good after taking my “medicine,” but “good” is significantly different from “cured.”

I was loopy. First, I felt fantastic. Cloud nine fantastic. I was relaxed, with as light smile on my face, going about my business in a fog of medicated bliss. Sure, I was still stuffy, but I didn’t really care anymore.

Then I started to feel active. And not just in contrast to the tiredness brought on by my cold. I felt like I’d washed down a pile of amphetamines with fifty or sixty cups of coffee. My fingers positively flew across the keyboard as I sat in a café and facebooked the finer points of life with everyone who had the pleasure of being online at the same time as me.

Then I left the café, bought some lunch, and entered the next stage. All that energy had its price, and I was exhausted. More exhausted than, I think, I’ve been in my entire life. I collapsed on the couch, leaving my lunch half-finished, which is probably a first for me. Leaving my lunch, not sleeping on the couch.

I woke up in a fit of paranoia. Everyone was out to get me. I was jumping to conclusions about people I’d met that weren’t just unreasonable, they were absolute fantasy. I’ve never been a particularly paranoid guy, so this was a brand-new and wholly unpleasant experience.

I went to take another nap. This time, however, I was in a strange no-man’s land that wasn’t alert, wasn’t tired, but certainly wasn’t normal. I would close my eyes and lapse immediately into incredibly vivid dreams while still being aware of my body, pillow, and blankets. They were a cross between dreams and hallucinations, and were thoroughly unrefreshing.

All through this, by the way, my cold remained completely undiminished. And I’m not a doctor, or even anything approaching an expert in the sciences, but all these effects seem profoundly worse than some sneezes and coughs. In the medications’ defense, I was distracted from my cold for awhile as I turned my brain to these more pressing matters. Maybe that was its purpose.

I opted to avoid the cold medication in the evening, but still went to work, where I felt a bit bad over the fact that all the Vietnamese teachers were now coughing and sipping hot water. I couldn’t resist some smugness, though –those same teachers had been religiously wearing masks when I came in hacking and coughing the day before, not to protect themselves from me but to protect themselves from the dreaded H1N1. Suckers.

Over the next few days, I recovered with little fanfare. Now I’m a first class citizen again, being served the same drinks as everyone else. Ice never tasted so good.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Things I Don't Understand

There’s a lot I don’t understand. In fact, the amount of things I don’t understand outweighs the
amount of things I do by an enormous factor. When something is marked down 30 percent, why
do people buy three of them? Why do people drive to the gym? Why do people stretch their seatbelt over one shoulder so that passing police think it’s on but don’t go all the way and click it in properly?

This last one, which I witnessed in the USA, was a particular mindblower. While I support fighting the man as much as possible, this is a situation when the man’s going to have the last laugh – especially when you’re in an unsocialised, second-rate hospital with your credit being destroyed by the minute after you fly through your windshield.

Moving to Vietnam has done precisely nothing to improve this foible of mine. Indeed, it has compounded it. Where my own culture confounded me enough, a foreign one is, as I’ve said a million times before, a whole new world of weird happenings. So here is a summation of the irritating, the infuriating, and the inexplicable.

Fruit Prices
I know by now that a smoothie from a streetside vendor costs 7,000 dong (about $NZ0.70). I also know that if I go to a vendor I’m not a regular at that I will be charged 10 or even 15 thousand dong for the same smoothie. This used to put me into a rage at the principle of being overcharged based on my white skin, large body, and pointy nose, but I’ve become much more complacent about it. After all, it’s really only a token amount more, especially when the same smoothie would cost $5 in NZ.

But I draw the line at fruit. Rather than charge slightly more than or even double the going rate, fruitsellers love to try to charge me three to five times as much. And I just don’t understand it. Not only will they quote me a price that is at times higher than expensive, non-tropical New Zealand, they will also often refuse to budge from that price.

It’s not very logical, really. Rather than sell me fruit at a slightly-higher-than-average rate, the extortionate rate assures that they make precisely zero dong in profit as I walk away in a huff.

Of course, when I go to the next stand my energy is so sapped from the first one that I accept, with no argument whatsoever, a price that is only marginally lower (to the tune of three or four cents). Maybe it’s an elaborate scheme run by all the fruitsellers, or maybe I’m just paranoid.

Motorbike Parking

This makes sense in theory. You park your motorbike, a guy hands you a ticket, watches it while you’re shopping, working out, or drinking, and then when you’re done you give your ticket to the man, who gets your motorbike and sends you on your way.

They probably do this in the West too, but I’ve never been swanky enough to go to a place with valet parking; I’ve barely even owned a car.

At any rate, the parking guys are devoted to their jobs. If you’ve lost your ticket, it’s a big deal.

I was reminded of this at my gym a few days ago. Every day, I go there, exercise, and then as I leave the parking man sees me and gets my bike ready as I walk out. He knows it’s my bike, I know it’s my bike, and, as if to underscore the fact that the ticket’s a formality, he tears it up without looking at it when I give it to him.

So when my ticket either got dissolved by sweat or, more likely, fell out one of the several holes in my back pocket, I thought it would be no big deal. After all, the parking guy and I – we had a relationship.

No dice. Even though he knew exactly which motorbike was mine, he wasn’t having a bar of it. No ticket, no bike. So I stood there for ten minutes or so, looking distressed until, tired of hearing me talk to him in a foreign language, he relented.

As I mounted my bike, I apologized to him and tried to show him that I had a hole in my shorts by making a hole with my thumb and forefinger and pointing to it with the forefinger of another hand. It wasn’t until he recoiled in disgust that I realised that my gesture could be construed very differently.

Needless to say, I’ve been swimming for the past week or so.

But this is what I don’t understand: aren’t keys sufficient indicator of ownership? What’s more, if a thief were to go to the effort to steal your keys, wouldn’t he or she go ahead and steal your ticket as well? Simply locking your bike seems way more effective than participating in this weird charade.

Weird Lies
The most baffling thing I’ve encountered here, however, is a tendency of employers, landlords, and the like to tell me things that are not only untrue, they lack any grounding in reality.

For example. For my first six weeks here I lived in a hotel. It was a nice place, but a tad lonely. It also didn’t have a kitchen, which is a convenience I surprisingly missed, even though I literally never cook. So when I found a room in a house with some similar-aged teachers for $100 less per month, I jumped at the opportunity.

The conversation with my landlady then went like this. “Hi, I’ve found a new place, so I’m going to move out at the end of the week.”

“New place? How much?”

“$200 a month.”

“Oh, that very cheap.” (it isn’t really)

“Yes, that’s part of why I’m moving there”

“Does it have air conditioning?”


“I don’t think it does.”

I furrowed my brow. “Yes, it does, I looked at it yesterday.”

“No, there is no air conditioning.”

And this didn’t happen in isolation. It’s happened on loads of other less-noteworthy occasions, but one is forever seared in my memory.

The school I work for grew tired of paying me in envelopes of cash, so they opened a bank account for me. As part of the process, I brought in a photocopy of my passport and visa (the latter of which the woman looked at and said “ooh, single!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it meant single entry, but I had to wonder what she would have thought if I’d had a multiple-entry visa).

Two weeks later, I got a phone call saying my debit card for my new bank account was ready. I went in, and was handed a shiny, new card: with the name Sram Bartob Grnovern. I pointed out that, while I was sorry to cause trouble, that is not my name, and consequently it would probably be unwise to use a bank account opened in this near substitute.

“Oh, no!” the woman nearly had an anxiety attack, “but that is your name!”

Furrowing again. “I’m sorry, but it really isn’t.”

“No! That was the name on your passport!”

Again, I said, kindly I think, that no, it wasn’t the name on my passport, as it wasn’t my name. She argued for a few minutes, but I felt fairly confident on this point so I stood my ground.

I guess it would have been easier for them if I’d just admitted that no, I wasn’t Sam Barton Grover. But ever since then I’ve wondered what social protocol I’d (so clearly) violated. Was I supposed to simply say “oh, right, that is my name. Silly me,” and go on my way?
Like I said. Bewildering.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hiding Face

Even though I grew up in the antipodes, I’m not completely cut off from the world, so I wasn’t overly surprised when I arrived in March and saw a large amount of motorbike drivers clad in masks.

AlthoughI was skeptical, I'm told that they’re a godsend, especially if you find yourself behind a truck or a bus, something that, I can now attest, makes breathing a difficult and unpleasant exercise. So maybe there's something to the motorbike masks.

The fact that they’re primarily worn by women also suggests to me that they have something to do with the national obsession with light skin, but that is, as of yet, an unproven hypothesis.

But over the past few months a new phenomenon has emerged. No longer is the mask a cloth driving accessory but it has, with the swine flu epidemic, turned into a surgical life accessory.

I’m going to go ahead and check my cultural sensitivity at the door here and be honest: these masks are really stupid. They're ineffective, superficial, and, most importantly, an enormous pain in my ass.
For one, I’m pretty sure that these masks put the wearer more at risk than he or she would be without. This is especially true with small children, who idly chew on theirs. Before long, what was once a mask transforms into a soggy, disgusting mess. Pretty gross. Also, it completely negates the mask in the first place, as swine flu is a waterborn disease. It swims sperm-like through snot and spit droplets, and will think nothing of swan-diving into that mess and delivering you a hot, fresh case of H1N1.

Not to mention the fact that walking around with that sludge on your face all day creates a breeding ground for other germs.

They’re also a hassle. Not just a small hassle, but an enormous one. If you ever think your blood pressure is too low, do this: get a job as an English teacher for 10 five-year olds, all of whom are wearing surgical masks. Not only are their already-tiny voices muffled by their so-called “protection,” they’ve also been told by their parents not to take them off under any circumstances. I inadvertently made a child cry last week when, without thinking, I reached over and pulled his mask down because I wanted to – god forbid – hear his voice in a language class.

I’m prepared to put up with hassles if it’s in the name of safety. Indeed, I’m a big fan of safety: I always wear a bike helmet, never fail to put on my seatbelt, and after a really nasty foot infection two years ago, always clean my cuts with hydrogen peroxide and warm water. So if the masks were actually preventing swine flu, I’d applaud them. “Go ahead,” I’d enthusiastically crow, “wear a mask! I’m wearing two!”

But that’s why they’re so annoying. They’re not effective at all. It’s not like they’re a little bit effective, or sometimes effective. No. A surgical mask is not a valid way to protect yourself from swine flu, or anything else for that matter. Not leaving the house is a good way to avoid the flu, as is wearing an expensive, completely impractical respirator. Or, you know, washing your hands.

And here’s the final, crushing blow to this moronic cultural phenomenon. Swine flu isn’t a big deal. I don’t know why nobody’s really said this, but let’s face it: it’s not. With an estimated mortality rate of less than half a percent, and probably, in fact, less than that because so many cases never make it to a doctor or hospital, it’s really not anything to worry about.

So, face-hiders, please, I’m begging you. For the sake of your dignity and my sanity, stop playing into the hands of the pharmacists who have shrewdly doubled and even tripled the price of their surgical masks and think rationally. Because I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Biking in the Big City

When I first arrived here, I had no problem with walking everywhere I went. That changed after two months, though, when I moved into a house that was twice as far from my work as my hotel had been. Where a fifteen minute walk was tolerable, thirty minutes, two times a day, in the sweltering HCMC heat was just a bit much.

I had a bit of a dilemma – Vietnamese food and this daily regimen had delivered me a new, svelte figure that I’d grown attached to, and knew that a owning a motorbike would soon see the end of . So I compromised: I bought a bicycle.

I used to bike everywhere I went in Dunedin, a city that, while much sleepier than this one, is also far hillier. Because of this, I figured it’d be no problem here – I’d zip around much faster, save precious time, and generally be more mobile.

And it was a marked improvement. All of those things came true; no longer is a trip to the corner store for some ice cream a twenty-minute time investment and no longer am I accosted by endless streams of motorbike taxi drivers. I leave my neighbourhood more often, and generally enjoy all the perks that come from bigger range.

I do have a few complaints, though. For one, a good seventy percent of the people I pass collapse into laughter. This is for a myriad of reasons; for one, the bike I ride was designed for the Vietnamese frame. My 100 kilograms make me resemble the clichéd gorilla on a tricycle, which I can understand is quite mirth-worthy.

I also wear a helmet, which nobody in Vietnam does on a bicycle. This is not something I understand quite as well as the above reason; an impact at speed with a moving bus, truck, car, or motorbike is equally traumatic, no matter what you're riding. So to the people who laugh at my helmet, I say this: I’ll be laughing at you when you’re in a coma.

Finally, the fact that I’m even on a bicycle is hilarious. I think it has to do with the same mindset that finds dark skin so repugnant: biking, like a tan, is for peasants, and all people of means and with any self-respect avoid bicycles like the plague. Since the assumption is that all foreigners are filthy rich (which, to be honest, we are in relation to the cost of living), it is hilarious to see one on a bicycle.

That’s not the only negative aspect of biking. Even though it’s flat here, it’s also incredibly hot. Along with a raincoat, a second shirt is now high on the list of things I don’t leave home without: far too many times have I taught a class of 13 year olds who, in keeping with the theme of my life in Vietnam, were overcome with laughter at my sweat-soaked carcass. This particular laughter, however, soon turned to watering eyes and wrinkled noses as my sweat dried and began to emit a distinctive, thoroughly unpleasant aroma.

I also often fear for my life. The motorbike reigns supreme in Ho Chi Minh City, closely followed by buses who dominate with their size, followed by cars who usually push motorbikes out of their way but are swarmed in busy times, with bicycles bringing up the rear. With the speed of a car in traffic but without the power, I literally have no control. On countless occasions, I’ve made turns I didn’t need to make, gone down incorrect streets, and pulled over to wait because the inexorable flow of the traffic made going the correct way a life or death decision that would result in the latter.

But I still didn’t mind, because I was getting around faster than when I was walking. Then I got a dose of the last thing I needed: perspective. A Vietnamese friend, fed up with driving me around and dubious of her ability to steer with me on the back, insisted that I learn to drive her motorbike. The first ten or fifteen minutes were sweatier than all my bicycle rides put together as I gingerly accelerated, certain that I was going to propel my passenger, her bike, and myself into something or someone. But soon enough I was blasting through traffic like – in my eyes, at least – a pro.

It was fantastic. I wasn’t getting worn out, I was going way faster than a bike, and finally I could dictate my own destination rather than be at the mercy of everyone else’s. All the limitations of my bicycle were dealt with in one fell swoop.

Then my friend went home, and I had to go to work. Upgrading from walking to the bicycle was a dream come true – but downgrading from the motorbike was a living nightmare. I never felt so slow or sweaty in my life as I did that day.

But I’m holding out. I’m sticking with my bicycle, partly out of commitment to regular exercise, partly because I got incredibly ripped off when I bought it and want to make my overspending worth it, and partly because I enjoy bringing it up whenever someone starts talking to me about the evils of pollution (invariably a person who, in one of life's refreshing ironies, swears by their motorbike).

It’s anyone’s guess as to how long it’ll last.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


My father hates Dr. Seuss, and consequently his books were never a huge part of my upbringing.However, since I’ve worked in and around primary schools for a year and a half now, I’ve become familiar with a few of his stories.

I’m not a fan of classics like Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, as even as a child I was irritated by the self-indulgent rhyming taking precedence over the story. However, I do enjoy a handful of the Dr's other children's books. My favourite is one I recently discovered when a child at my school asked me to read it to him: The Sneetches.

Here’s a quick rundown: some of the sneetches have stars on their bellies; some don’t. The ones who do won’t let the ones without on the beaches (the self-indulgence is, of course, present, but I’m able to ignore it). Luckily, Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives, with an affordably-priced star-painting machine!

Of course, once he’s done that, he then goes to the other group and offers them the service – again for a low price – of star removal. And so on and so forth, until nobody knows who they are anymore and everyone can live in perfect harmony.

Dunedin’s Western location on a cultural scale combined with its (extreme) Southern location on a geographic scale has created an odd standard of fashionability for the lucrative 18-24 female demographic. On one hand, ever the pragmatists, they want to protect themselves from the city’s perpetual drizzle and winds that deliver icy chills straight from – seriously – Antarctica. On the other, Western standards of beauty demand that everyone’s skin be toasted to a luxurious golden brown.

Achieving this is made more difficult by the fact that most of Dunedin – and New Zealand’s – residents are descended from the British Isles, a genetic makeup that is not overly conducive to tanning. So they first slather themselves in fake tan, and then, with a complete lack of a sense of irony, climb into a puffer jacket and don a scarf to protect themselves - and their recently-applied coat of tan - from the elements.

Cut to Vietnam, where the exact opposite is true. Naturally, since a tan is easy to come by, people – especially women – wear hoodies in the 30+ degree weather, along with sunglasses, masks, sleeves, and socks with their sandals to prevent the slightest pigment change. If they should find themselves outside without their anti-tan gear, they’ll grab whatever is nearby, be it a book, piece of paper, or takeaway container, and hold it over their heads. Anything to avoid the sun’s brutal rays.

Vietnamese women definitely have a healthier goal, but I don’t think the motivations have anything to do with health. Rather, just like their Western counterparts, they’re trying to achieve something that is, much to my surprise (although it shouldn’t have been), completely arbitrary: beauty.

At first, I thought it was just a masochistic desire on both groups’ parts to fight an uphill battle, but recently someone spelled out the real reason for me when she said, in shocked response to my enquiry as to why she wanted such light skin “I don’t want to look like a farmer!”

Because that’s it. Even though we don’t say it in the West, it’s still at the forefront: nobody wants to look poor. It’s acceptable – indeed, even par for the course in the West – to actually be poor, with debts, loans, and overdrafts all over the place but looking poor is unacceptable.

In temperate North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, those with money can afford to go on holidays where they can work on their tan; they have the spare time to lounge on their roofs in bikinis; they have the extra few dollars a week to splurge on a tanning bed. Saving all of that, a bottle of L’Oreal fake tan is always just a short trip to the pharmacy or department store away: if you can’t be tan, you may as well look tan. "At least," you’re saying to the world, "I can afford this bottle."

So of course it’s the opposite here, in a country in a region where the well-off sit at desks and the poor toil the fields and sell trinkets on the streets. Here, light skin is a sign that you don’t have to work outside, that you can afford air conditioning, that you can stay inside during the hottest part of the day.

It’s all an effort to separate ourselves from the working classes. In the industrialized West, a working man or woman spends his or her days in an office, under a car, in a factory; here, the working people farm.

Of course, there are significantly more people who look middle class than actually are middle class. Thankfully, credit cards have yet to arrive here, so unskilled labourers with $20,000 cars, $2,000 televisions and assorted overly expensive clothing are not yet on the scene.

But the appearances of the middle class are available to those who have to work outside. It’s in every pharmacy and supermarket, prominently displayed and constantly being re-stocked. Made by L’Oreal, probably in the same factory as the tanning cream by pasty assembly line workers, it comes in a bottle of the same colour it promises to make your skin: milky, glowing white.