Photos from Asia, part one

Who knew there were Green Tea Kit Kats? Vinegar Apple? Caramelized Potato? Chestnut?
Delicious Mochi: Chocolate, Caramel Pudding, Red Sweet Potato and Black Soybean Flour were just some of the available flavors.
You want absolutely any candy flavored like green tea? They have it.
Mmmm, strawberries and oreo.
I don't know if was ever real food, but it's now completely shellacked. And spendy. 90¥=1USD
And in case you wanted to look like you'd traveled further, you could buy Florida macadamia nuts, Las Vegas chocolate chip cookies, The Great America truffles or Mexican cashew cookies. Weird.

the KL tower

the KL Tower in Kuala Lumpur

The KL Tower is fourth tallest building in the world and features, much like the Space Needle in Seattle, a revolving restaurant and an observation deck. We, obviously, were there in the evening and couldn’t figure out how to get into the park where it’s located. Frustrated, but I’m still shaky with heights, so I didn’t mind too much.

KLCC in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is an incredibly modern city that bustles all day (and probably all night, though we always stayed in). People are always coming and going somewhere with tourists nearly always heading to the KLCC. It was the one place I definitely wanted to see–home of what was just a decade ago the tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers.

Behind the towers, as part of the KLCC, is an enormous children’s playground. Unfortunately, it’s patrolled by police officers who don’t allow big kids like Audrey play on it. We wandered around and managed to pretend to play just for a picture. It was a bit odd for Audrey to be chased off the play structure and additionally strange since there wasn’t another kid anywhere in sight.

Unscripted and sweet. They were discussing the cotton candy choices at a candy shop. I can’t remember if this was in KLCC Suria or the Pavillion shopping center.

Kuala Lumpur has definitely lost its ‘developing world’ look and could easily be mistaken for Los Angeles, except for the Islamic holiday sales and Malay-language signage. This is, for sure, at the Pavillion, a large shopping center with an impressive food court on the very bottom floor.

More than a quarter-mile tall, the Petronas Towers were pretty spectacular.
I wrote a short article about this place on Bella Online: Visiting the Petronas Towers

welcome to Bangkok

On the morning of the 12th, we flew via Asia Air to Bangkok where we were greeted by a city more cosmopolitan than any other I’ve seen. Could there be anything further from the streets of Hanoi than the streets of Bangkok? I think not.

So for the past three days, we’ve been checking out the shopping life of the city. We visited the Siam Paragon, an astoundingly large shopping center with Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Porsche and even Lamborghini stores. A bit mind-blowing to see the amount of money that people can and do spend.

Then there’s the shock of the sex industry here and just how overt it is. The foreigners who come here with their pasty white beer bellies and loads of cash make us all throw up just a bit when we see them fondling local women. Or are the women? It seems that for those dressed up in what I would deem clothes suitable for prostitutes (or ‘prostates’ as Audrey often misspeaks), out of them I’d venture to guess that a third or more are actually men. We’ve had to have conversations that I hoped would never happen, but the kids have become better world citizens and more understanding of the ways that the world works, including why it’s so abhorrently wrong.

Return to the Tam Ky Orphanage

Two years later, not much had changed. The rainbow on the wall still greeted us, just as it had every day for two months in 2007.
The bathrooms at the baby orphanage. Clearly, it's a storage area, too.
I can't tell you how happy it makes me to be here. Absolutely thrilled to be giving away all those clothes and shoes and toys.
Will it fit you? Who cares?! It's new clothes!!!
She wasn't so sure she liked me. It's a common predicament for me in Vietnam.
Chilling in the doorway; sitting on the pot. Literally.
Stuart with his little buddy, Tu, who was quite happy to see his 'big brother' again after so long. I don't think Tu had grown an inch.
Audrey with the woman who does all she can for these kids--Me Ba. Her vast love for the kiddos here awes me. She is a wonderful, wonderful woman.

Travel is for the Wealthy

And the definition of wealthy changes wherever you go. In Vietnam, I make enough money to afford us to spend our weekends in Ha Noi, traipsing around the city eating expensive Western food and taking taxis to museums. I come back to Thanh Hoa and gripe about the insanity of prices in the northern capitol, glad to be back in a small city with prices I’m more than happy to pay. Less than a dollar for three bowls of ice cream. Dinner for four costs less than four dollars. I am happy to drop a few thousand VND in the upturned cone hat of the beggar woman at the market; she clearly can use the help as she scoots across the wet fish market floor. I feel like I’m spending my money wisely; I’m thrifty like that.

Then a student tells me how if life had a do-over, she’d be a doctor. She could make a lot of money. She could be rich. She could make, she paused for effect, more than 5million VND a month. She’d be rich!

I made that much in the first few days of the month.

She imagines being so rich and I complain that it cost me 300,000VND for a pizza dinner in Ha Noi. Or that it will cost me more than 3million VND to get to Tam Ky so I can deliver these clothes for the orphanages, help Me Ba get a new ao dai, visit orphans who’ve no doubt forgotten us in the repeated comings-and-goings of volunteers.

But I can. If I want, I can spend those millions. And I will spend that and more, taking the kids down south…to Nha Trang, Da Lat, Hue? I don’t know, but our biggest constraint is time, not money.

In this life of juxtaposed wealth, I forget how lucky we truly are. And I’m afraid the kids will never know. In a month, we’ll be back in America, scraping by month to month on a salary that puts us a few grand below the poverty level. I’ll continue making rice dishes and eating little meat simply because I can’t afford it if I have to buy milk and fresh fruit, too.

It’s a strange place to be–this temporary wealth, where I look for hotels at the beach and far-away attractions knowing that I’ll be there before long. We’ll be off to Bangkok soon, then through Thailand and Malaysia before heading home. I’m researching budget hotels and how to buy train tickets online. Thrift is in my nature. But the realization that this life of extra is something that those I care for most here in Viet Nam can never have and it stings. It fights with my maternal drive. I want to show my kids all that I possibly can, yet in my rush to give my family a wider vantage of the world, we remain blind to so much.

Us versus Them

Living out in Thanh Hoa, we see the same pale faces over and over again–the three of us plus one of the Kaplan teachers. That’s it. We never run into other Westerners at the supermarket or walking the streets of Thanh Hoa. And even though we know we look vastly different, we have stopped feeling vastly different. Familiar faces wave hello. We know where to get banh mi, how to get to the shopping center, who has the best fruit drinks and more. Each of us have begun to feel like we fit in somehow, that this place is our home in a unique sort of way.

Which makes it truly shocking when we disembark from the train in Ha Noi to face Westerners seemingly everywhere. When we arrived last night, we saw more than a dozen pale-skinned people like ourselves just in the train station. Checking in with the hotel, Americans passed by talking about how nice it is that everyone speaks English and I wanted to yell at them: “Only because you’re in tourism central. You should check out the real Viet Nam!”

On our way to get the fruit drinks we love so much, we managed to merge into a group of Australians coming around the corner. Loud and beligerent and distinctly new to Viet Nam. “Nothing worse than a bunch of drunk Aussies,” Stuart muttered for only us to hear and we laughed loud enough to prove our own Western tendencies.

We’re glad to find a donuts and pizza in Ha Noi, yet find ourselves frustrated with other Westerners clamoring for KFC. We know only the smallest bits of the language, yet belittle others for distancing themselves from the culture. We each complain about all the tourists in the Old Quarter, but this, too, is where we come each visit.

It’s hypocritical, I know. But it’s true that we feel a connection to this country, these people, that cannot be explained easily or readily. Maybe what we really want is for others to appreciate the beauty, depth and culture that exists outside the hop-skip-jump travel that keeps our fellow Westerners isolated from the realities of Viet Nam.

Let the Paperwork Begin

Never having  traveled further abroad than Vancouver, British Columbia I haven’t had a reason to get a passport until now. So we took pictures yesterday and I manipulated them in Photoshop. I hope I got it right. I’ll take them in to Fred Meyer and get them printed out today. Then we’ll head to the Post Office to turn in the paperwork. I’m slightly concerned about the kids’ passports. Kids under age 14 are required to have both parents show up when they apply OR bring a notarized release from the absent parent OR provide proof that one parent has full legal/physical custody. Well, I do have full custody, but I still haven’t figured out how to prove it. I’ll take my divorce papers down there and see if that works. I’m hoping for the best, but half expecting to be turned away.