Month: March 2015

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Korea Through the Eyes of Foreigners (through the Eyes of Koreans)

By John Bocskay

I came across in my news readings today a story about this survey by a group called the Corea Image Communication Institute, and the results are interesting for the little bit of light they shed on the gap that still exists between what Koreans think will interest foreigners and what foreigners actually find interesting about Korea. The survey “asked 308 Koreans what aspects of Korea they felt most pride in and 232 foreigners what they enjoyed most while visiting.”

This bit caught my eye:

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Personally I think this kicks the shit out of Skinfood and Tony Moly.

“For shopping spots, 45.8 percent of Koreans said they would introduce tourists to traditional marketplaces, while 42.67 percent of foreigners said they would prefer the more contemporary road shops and shopping streets, possibly due to the fact that English communication is easier in downtown areas.” 

It’s possible that English is more widely spoken in downtown areas, though the old folks at Kukjae Shijang or Dongdaemun Market seldom fail to get their point across with whatever level of English they have at their command. I couldn’t help but wonder whether one reason for the discrepancy is simply that many people are just more interested in contemporary Korea than they are in the traditional stuff.

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Yeah, that’s great, but I don’t see anything that looks like a Pina Colada.

This finding also jibes with something I’ve often noted in the classroom. Over the years, I’ve had adult students plan an imaginary 2-day itinerary for a foreign friend who is visiting Korea for the first time. Some suggestions, like mask dances, temple tours, and palaces are common. You might be surprised at how many of them have included conference centers, shipyards, and automobile assembly plants on the must-see list. Who knows what our hypothetical tourist thinks about all that, but those are not really the things that leap to mind when I’m doing the 2-day tourist thing.

It’s natural to want to showcase great achievements and traditional heritage, but tourism planners do well to acknowledge things that travelers actually want to do (sauna, anyone?), as opposed to what the bigwigs would like them to experience. Surveys like this are certainly a step in the right direction, because as anyone who lives here knows, there are many features of modern Korea that are pretty cool.

Case in point: food. Regarding the popularity of fast food delivery service (over 50%), the article had this to say:

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No thanks.

The fact that the singer Psy portrayed Korea’s delivery food culture in his internationally-watched music videos may have contributed to its popularity,” said the CICI in a press release.

Thanks Psy! And here I thought that was just because late-night food delivery is just utterly brilliant.

Actually, I do think it’s brilliant, which is why I like it. When I read things like this, I catch a faint whiff of the old insecurity that makes it hard for some Koreans to believe that without a spokesman or an aggressive (and occasionally hokey) ad campaign the world will be unaware that there’s a lot about modern Korea that’s not only cool but speaks for itself.

Maybe that’s reading too much into this (I’m sure you will correct me in the comments section), but I also note that Koreans are sometimes caught by surprise when something of theirs catches on. Psy’s viral hit was itself an example of Korean pop culture taking off in ways that no one could have anticipated, let alone packaged and pimped for global consumption. Watching this quirky Korean crooner skyrocket to global fame, it was hard to tell who was more surprised, the world or Korea.

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Full disclosure: I purposely chose the least flattering photo of ddeokbokki I could find.

Not everything in the survey was unexpected: it showed strong agreement about food, with Korean restaurants being far and away the most popular food option among both Koreans and foreigners (76% and 77% percent respectively). However, a discrepancy in the second-place option shed light on another tendency: Korea’s chronic overestimation of foreigners’ enthusiasm for ddeok. For those of you who have somehow escaped it, Wikipedia describes ddeok as a rice cake made from rice flour and which has zero taste whatsoever until it is filled, sprinkled, drizzled or slathered with something that has some actual goddamn flavor (I’m paraphrasing). Anyway, survey said:

While 12.50 percent of Koreans guessed that tourists would seek out street food such as tteokbokki, 10.43 percent of foreigners replied that they prefer cuisine from other Asian regions such as pho noodles and sushi.

Glad I was sitting down for that. Your thoughts?

Red-Four-Leaf-Clover

Bloody Monday

by Chris Tharp

I blame it on Valium. I had popped one the night before to put me down, to guarantee a full night’s rest before a busy work week, and it performed with aplomb. I was lowered into the depths of a gelatinous envelope of sleep. This was a soothing black slumber, embracing me softly while massaging the hardened flesh of my inner brain. The Valium plied its magic with chemical tendrils that, while delivering on the sleep front, stubbornly fought release come morning time. That’s right, that magic little pill will knock you the hell out, but with that comes a price: your bones become leaden, your eyes balls of cotton, and your head a cloud of steam. A proper Valium hangover can drag on for hours and hours. It’s a tough thing to shake.

Even though I am now solidly trudging down the trail of middle age, I’m still not really a morning person. I don’t suppose I ever will be. I’ve gotten better, but it just seems, at a genetic level, that I’m designed to work best at night. So, that morning, Monday, March 17th, 2014–St. Patrick’s Day–I stumble out of bed near-blind from both my natural aversion to early hours and the fog of the pill. I have gotten my sleep, but am now positively zombified. Still, I have work to do. Carpe diem and all of that shit.  My phone buzzes. It’s the station. Are you coming now?  Yes, I clumsily type back. Coming now. I slide into my black Levis, throw on my green sweater and black jacket, grab my helmet and shoot out the door to do my weekly morning radio gig. I jump onto my motorcycle–a Hyosung Troy 125– turn the key and give the engine a couple of revs before zipping off to make my first fifty bucks of the day.

The station is located in Centum City–just a ten minute ride away in the sparse early-morning traffic. Centum is a spanky new part of town featuring glass and aluminum rises which jut from the bank of the Suyeong River. City PR pimps tried to christen it “The Manhattan of Busan,” to some eye-rolls and snickers among the Westerner set; such labeling may be a bit much, but that morning the place lives up to its hype: the sun sparkles off the surface of the river and lights up the side of the gleaming buildings, creating a brilliant scene. For a moment all seems right in the world

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I arrive at the station at 7:10, ride the elevator to the 4th floor, scan my fingerprint, enter the studio, greet the producer and host, slither behind the mic and sleepwalk through the bit (a ten minute weekly sports round up). Afterwards I fly out the door, stumble down the stairs, and mount my bike once again to head back home where I plan to shower, eat, change into my work clothes, and most importantly, take down multiple cups of inky coffee to help blast me out of my haze. My first class is at 9 am at my school, again just a couple minutes’ ride from my front door.

I cruise through the nearly-empty streets of Centum, eager to get home as soon as I can. The air is still frigid from the night and slices through my coat, causing me to shiver beneath my sweater. This helps to keep me awake as I press on. I turn left onto a larger road that that spans the slow moving river as a bridge. To my right is the massive sewage treatment plant. The dank sweet smell of human waste mixed with soil radiates from the huge concrete fertilizer silo, on which is painted an unfinished marine-themed mural featuring the phantom silhouettes of fish. I then come to a much bigger intersection and stop. The light is red. Across the way I observe the slow lurch of a construction crane putting up an apartment block. It’s now around 7:40 and traffic is just beginning to pick up. It’s no longer a ghost town out here, but things are still empty enough. I sigh and fight the urge to close my heavy lids. I need to get home and caffeinate, now. The light is still red. I see a car blasting down the right lane. After him, I think. This is Korea, after all, where traffic lights are merely suggestions. I wait for the car to pass. I then figure the way is now clear, twist the throttle and go…

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Honnnnnnnnnnnnk!

It’s coming from the left. My left side. The direction where somehow, inexplicably, I had neglected to look. The scream of braking rubber on asphalt. Oh shit. My veins turn to ice. My stomach opens into sick black pit as I realize that I have just pulled out directly into the path of a speeding car.

CRACK!

I come to on the ground. It’s rough and ice cold. I feel cars whizzing by. A man stands over me bellowing in Korean: “Are you okay? Why didn’t you see me? Why didn’t you look???” My shoulder is on fire. My left leg screams. I try to move. Agony. Nausea.

“Don’t! Stay still!”

I look down and see that my left leg, about halfway down below the knee, is sticking out at a 90 degree angle. The jagged end of the shin bone sticks out through black denim. There is blood. “My leg… my leg,” I manage in Korean. A siren in the distance. Then I pass out.

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There are now several men around me. Uniforms. They crouch down and take hold: “One, two, three.” A supernova of pain explodes up my leg while I’m shifted onto a stretcher. I lift into the air and am loaded in the back of the ambulance. The door slams shut and the paramedic speaks to me in English: “You are going to be okay.” Decent English. The vehicle engages into gear and we’re off, siren crying outside. “This will help with the pain.” A pinprick as he finds a vein. Again, I pass out.

I come to in the hospital. I’m on a gurney. I see white walls, the lurid lights of the E.R. I’m afraid to look at my leg because I’m sure it looks like I stepped on a land mine. The pain has largely vanished, though. Hooray for drugs! There are three doctors milling about, consulting. One of them hands me my phone and tells me to call someone close. I try Minhee. She doesn’t pick up. It’s early. Still asleep. I hand it back to the doctor, so smart in his lab coat. He looks like a kid. I’m surely his hyung. In a restaurant he’d be pouring my drinks. He starts working down the list of  people on my call log. I begin to fade out until he hands me the phone once again.

“Hello, Chris? What’s happening?” It’s my co-worker Cheryl.

A while later the doctors wheel me into another room under brighter lights. “We will now set your fracture,” the young one says in well-pronounced English. “You will feel…” he searches for the word, “…intense pain.”

Just then my boss, Professor Park, appears. She’s a tall, refugee-skinny woman of about sixty. She greets the doctors with an “Annyeonghaseo?” followed by a tiny bow. They return the greeting and and have a short exchange. She takes one look at my leg and the color drains from her face. “Uh, Chris… you’re classes are covered… it is okay. Don’t worry. No problem.”

She looks again to the carnage.

“Fighting!” she says for encouragement, making a bony fist to emphasize the point. She smiles a nervous smile then disappears. The doctors grab my leg. I can feel the bones freely floating as they begin to wrestle with it in an attempt at a set. I scream through the veil of painkiller coursing through my veins until the manhandling stops. They apply a splint and wheel me back out to the E.R., and inform me that I’ll require surgery right away.

In the meantime I’m wheeled into several other rooms for X-rays and a scan to make sure my head is okay. Thankfully my helmet did its job and everything is fine upstairs. Also, there is no neck/spinal injury. It seems my mangled leg is the worst of it, which at this point doesn’t seem so bad, since I now know that, even though I have a long road to recovery, I’ll be okay. A warm wave of relief mixes with the drugs as I am wheeled back into the E.R.

As I sit in the E.R., afloat on the gurney, Minhee finally arrives, rushing in in a panic. She is crying. She tells me that her battery was dead and she missed the flood of phone calls that deluged her device for three hours after the wreck. She describes her exchange with my boss, Professor Park, how when she finally reached her, Professor Park (a constantly proselytizing born-again Christian) only told Minhee that she “must pray.”

“But how is he?” Minhee pleaded. “Will he be okay?”

“Do you know how to pray?” Professor Park continued, oblivious to Minhee’s desperate query. “I will teach to you pray.” Unable to get a straight answer out of the woman, Minhee hung up the phone and jumped a taxi, fearing the worst.

When she finally kisses me I am on my phone, letting the Facebook universe know what has happened, that I’ve suffered a motorcycle wreck and broken my leg, but that I’ve avoided the worst and will likely come out largely unscathed in the end.

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In the late afternoon I’m taken into surgery. They inject me with a spinal anaesthetic which not only numbs, but paralyzes the bottom half of my body. I can’t move a thing. Freaky. They then give me something to put me out, which doesn’t entirely do the job. I keep coming to, listening to them bang and clang around my leg. It sounds like a construction zone. I notice that throughout the procedure several doctors and nurses repeatedly check their smart phones. Even they’re addicted to the things. I hope it’s just Kakao and Facebook. Part of me dreads that the main surgeon is getting his instructions from the Korean version of Wikipedia.

The surgery goes by without any hitches, and I come out the proud owner of a metal rod and pins holding together my fractured tibia. The fibula, which was also broken, is a bone which bears no weight, and will be left alone. This, evidently, is very common among orthopedic surgeries these days. I choose to take the doctor’s word on it.

IntramedullaryRod

I spend the next two nights in a group room: Five patients stuffed into a small space. But it’s not just five people: In Korea, you are expected to bring your own caretaker. The nurses change your IV’s and take your blood pressure, but the nuts and bolts of looking after someone–emptying your pee pitcher, getting you water, basic cleaning, assisting with eating–this all rests on the shoulders of your personal caregiver, which, in most cases, is a family member. Each big bed has a mini-bed that rolls underneath it for storage, so five people in the room becomes ten. Add the fact that several of the “patients” don’t seem to be really hurt at all (staying in the hospital for insurance claims, I’m told), and all day the room becomes a coffee-klatch for middle aged Korean ajummas and ajeoshis to sit and yap at crazy volumes. I’m in severe pain with a painkiller that isn’t even coming CLOSE to dealing with the discomfort I got going on, and all I can do between bouts of moaning is to fantasize about defenestrating my roommates from the 9th story window.

The next day Minhee has me moved into a private room, where I am given peace and quiet, along with a big bag of self-dosing fentanyl that finally allows me to recoup with a modicum of serenity. I stay in that hospital for a week and a half before transferring to a cheaper and more convenient location, where I pass the remainder of my stay. My Facebook and email is abuzz with messages from both Korea and around the world. A steady stream of friends and well-wishers visits me daily. At times my room resembles a small party. I’m presented with plates of food, envelopes of cash to help offset the expense and books. Books are delivered en mass and I chew through them, particularly charmed by an account of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition and the hilarious/bleak graphic novels of Daniel Clowes. I am well rested, happy, and above all, thankful. I feel calmer and more positive than I have in years. I’m released on the 18th day and start back at work the following Monday.

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Today is the one year anniversary of that nasty wreck, that day where, if the dice would have come up a bit differently, I may not even be here typing today. The whole time I was laid up I kept telling myself: It could be worse. And it could have. I could have ended up dead or eating jello for a living. I got fucked up. I got hurt but bounced back quickly, and trip around the sun later I’m back in action. My leg is 95% there. I walk miles daily and hike several times a week. When hobbling around last spring, unable to partake of any of the physical joys that we associate with warming weather, I promised myself that once my leg was healed I was use it with a vengeance, that I would make walking even more of a priority in my life and so far I have delivered on that. This summer I’ll go on a massive hike either here in Asia or that States (haven’t decided yet), and I’m planning to do an epic jaunt here in Korea in the future, one that could take me up the entire spine of the country on foot.

My motorcycle was destroyed in the wreck and sold off for parts to a garage. I haven’t been on a bike since, though I haven’t forsworn riding again in the future. I rode for nearly ten  years without a serious incident, and may have hit eleven had I been a bit more awake that morning. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking. I had gotten absolutely placid on a route that I had ridden a hundred times before, and it nearly cost me my life. I broke the first rule of crossing the road, taught to us all by our mothers when we’re just beginning to totter along on our feet:

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I believe I will ride again, but only for open-road travel. I won’t ride a motorcycle for my daily transportation in a city such as Busan where so many people drive like crackheads. Sure, this crash was my fault, but next time it may be someone else asleep at the wheel, and they may not even brake.

Of course it was my wife Minhee who really carried the weight while I was hurt. She dealt with the doctors, the insurance, the police, our home, our animals, the bills, my work, and most importantly, me. At one point she literally wiped my butt. This actually happened, and no, I’m not proud. She was hoping to avoid such a chore until well into our elderly years, but we don’t always get to choose the whens and where’s, now do we?  I am thankful to have married such a terrific woman. It took getting maimed to really appreciate tying the knot. In sickness and in health…

Korea proved its mettle, at least as far as its health system goes. I was delivered to a state-of-the-art hospital within thirty minutes of my wreck and patched up by doctors who knew what the hell they were doing, even if they felt the need to chat on their phones in the operating room. Sure, they do a few things different than the west, but in the end I was taken care of and not left with staggering debt, even given the fact that the national insurance made me reimburse them since the crash was my fault. This was something that I was ignorant of going in: Korean national health insurance doesn’t cover some things deemed too risky or negligent on behalf of the claimant. They’ll pay the bill but come to collect it later. Luckily, my friends in Busan passed the hat and raised a lot of money to help take the sting out of that, but all said and done a full surgery and two and a half week stay in a private hospital room clocked in less than eight thousand dollars. Add another zero to those digits and we just may be approaching the bill in America, sans insurance.

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So here I am, scarred but alive. I’m not able to sprint yet and my shoulder is a bit sore at times, but I can’t complain. As I lay there in that hospital bed with my leg jacked up, I often thought, I wonder how I’ll feel in a year’s time? Well today I got the answer: pretty damned good, and if you want to know, I’ve now switched to Xanax. It’s much easier on the system the next day.

 DCF 1.0

George of the Jungle

 

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by Steve K. Feldman

If you travel around Southeast Asia these days, it’s hard to avoid the souvenir peddlers hawking bootleg copies of famous literary works about whatever country you happen to be in. In Ho Chi Minh City, every five minutes somebody is sticking Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in your face. In Cambodia, eight-year-old kids walk around with backpacks full of Khmer Rouge horror for sale:  A Cambodian Prison Portrait, First They Killed My Father, Cambodia Year Zero, Voices from S-21, and other books that make for fine beach reading in Sihanoukville. And in Myanmar, where I just spent a (mostly terrific) month, one book dominates this suddenly trendy section of the Banana Pancake Trail—George Orwell’s 1934 debut novel Burmese Days.

I downloaded Burmese Days on my Kindle back in Korea before I left, before I realized it was a certifiable “thing you’re supposed to do” as a tourist in Myanmar. I was actually rather excited about doing a bit of Orwell-related sight-seeing. Orwell served for five years as a policeman in various locales around colonial Burma from 1922 to 1927 (he was known then as Eric Blair—Orwell was his later pen-name). The novel, of course, drew heavily on his own experiences there, as did the seminal, much anthologized essays “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging.” Like most Orwell fans, I got into his work as a teenager by reading his two bleak yet compelling primers on totalitarianism, Animal Farm and 1984, books it’s still hard to escape an American high school without reading. Later, as an AP English teacher in both American and Korea, I grew to appreciate Orwell for his beautifully flowing, descriptive, yet tightly controlled prose and the razor-sharp moral clarity of his politics—two things that beautifully come together in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”

burmese-days-nice-cover Our Myanmar itinerary didn’t include ground-zero for the Orwell freaks,  Katha, a small town located a punishing twelve hours by train north of  Mandalay. Katha was the real-life counterpart to the fictional Kyauktada,  the town on the Irawaddy River that serves as the setting to Burmese Days.  Apparently several buildings described in the novel still stand, including the  British Club, scene of endless gin-and-tonics, card games and racist  banter. However, I would get to see Mawlamyine—colonial Moulmein–the  town where Orwell, as police chief, actually shot that elephant in the famous  essay. I would also see Yangon–old Rangoon, the colonial capital–where  Orwell probably spent a lot of time whoring.

Beyond that, I was hoping Orwell’s general descriptions of the landscape,  the flora and fauna, and the Burmese people still bore some resemblance to  what I would be seeing almost 100 years after he was there. I wanted to feel  some kind of connection with the man’s mind and pen here in modern-day  Myanmar. This wasn’t as ridiculous a notion as it might seem. Those of us  who have lived in Korea for 10+ years often see the passage of a decade  render a neighborhood almost unrecognizable with all the balli-balli development. Then, how could anything in 2015 Myanmar resemble Orwell’s 1920s Burma? Ah, but you’re underestimating the power of a socialist military junta to retard progress! In Balkan Ghosts, historian / travel writer Robert Kaplan wryly called communism “the Great Preserver” of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. So too did General Ne Win and his band of vampiric cronies freeze their country in perpetual third-world misery, reviled by and isolated from the rest of the world from 1962 until just a few years ago.

But now, with the democratic reforms in 2011, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi ‘s release from twelve years of house arrest, it was suddenly PC to visit Myanmar. Foreign investment and tourist cash were pouring in, and “the canvas was growing dull,” to borrow another phrase of Kaplan’s. Myanmar was marching proudly into modernity, for good (free elections! freedom of speech! economic development!) and ill (deforestation! Chinese casinos!). Feburary 2015 seemed somehow almost like a last chance to see some bits of this place as George Orwell saw it.

Little bursts of recognition from the novel popped up the entire trip. Of course, there was the betel leaf and nut chewing, and spitting. I saw, in Orwell’s words, “lips stained redder than blood by betel juice” and Burmese bending to “spit out scarlet mouthfuls of betel,” and the floors, paths, roads and sidewalks “much splashed by lime and betel juice.” Chewing betel leaves is alive and well in modern Myanmar, I can attebetelst to. My travel companion David, who had sampled betel-chewing last year in Bangladesh, gave the Myanmar version a try, and pronounced it sweeter and overall more pleasant than the Bengalis’ concoction. Expect him to start a “Betel Afficianado” blog soon! After booking a domestic Air Bagan flight from a betel-chewing travel agent, my other travel-mate, fellow Sweet Pickles & Corn scribe Eli Toast, remarked, “For fuck’s sake, how do you expect to be taken seriously as an adult when it looks like you’ve got a whole pack of Twizzlers in your mouth?”

As for the local wildlife, David and Eli were both passionate bird-watchers, and made several sightings of these small, almost flourescent green-breasted birds with long, thin beaks. David promptly ID’d them as “bee-eaters.” Lo and behold, a few days later, on the bumpy train down to Yangon, I read the following lovely passage in Burmese Days:

Flory went outside and loitered down the compound, poking weeds into the ground with his stick. At that hour there were beautiful faint colours in everything—tender green of leaves, pinkish brown of earth and tree-trunks—like aquarelle washes that would vanish in the later glare. Down on the maidan flights of small, low-flying brown doves chased one another to and fro, and bee-eaters, emerald green, curvetted like slow swallows. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti)And speaking of that bumpy train ride, the novel describes a train journey from Yangon up to Katha as follows:

The train, fuelled with wood, crawled at twelve miles an hour across a vast, parched plain, bounded at its remote edges of blue rings of hills. White egrets stood poised, motionless, like herons, and piles of drying chilis gleamed crimson in the sun. Sometimes a white pagoda rose from the plain like the breast of supine giantess. The early tropic night settled down , and the train jolted on, slowly, stopping at little stations where barbaric yells sounded from the darkness. . . The train plunged into forest, and unseen branches brushed against the windows.

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Eli Toast on the train to Yangon.

We must have been on those exact same tracks, taking the trip in reverse, from Bagan down to Yangon. And when I say “exact same tracks,” I mean that 100% literally—I don’t  think they’ve done 100 kyat worth of maintenance on the  tracks since Orwell wrote that passage. I think some of my dental fillings came loose on some of the roughest stretches. The only thing that made sleep possible in those 17 hours of shake-rattle- and-roll were double-doses of Xanax, purchased from a shady street vendor in Bangkok. Ah, sweet, sweet, Bangkok street-Xanax!

Mawlamyine—Orwell’s elephant-shooting locale— was a lovely little city hugging the Thanlwin River right before it emptied into the Bay of Bengal. It didn’t offer up much in terms of Orwell lore. When we got to our hotel, a quick check of the famous essay on the internet revealed that he had actually done the deed in some village outside of town. Some historians allege that it never even happened (at least not with Orwell as its central character). What—did I expect a big bronze statue in the central square, with Police Chief Blair sticking the wide-bore muzzle of his .585 rifle in the ear of the almost dead, bullet-riddled elephant, about to turn the poor creature’s brains into a prismatic spray? Well, kind of, yeah. A plaque, a marker, anything. Yes, he was your colonial oppressor, but at least he knew he was, and wrote as much years later. But no. No Orwell statue or memorial plaque. There probably should have been one for the elephant, which would have been a nice little “fuck you” to the British.

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My pic of present-day Mawlamyine from almost the same spot

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Colonial Moulmein in Orwell’s day

 

The biggest zap of recognition came during our two-day jungle trek outside of Kalaw. It involved Myanmese women. Now, before I continue, let me say that trying to describe the women of a particular country or ethnic group is difficult, if not impossible. The nature of the task requires a delicate tip-toe through the minefield of generalization. You risk vagueness, cliché and inaccuracy at best, sexism and racism at worst. Even attempting it, a writer, especially a male writer, can easily fall into the trap of lookism—defining women only by their appearance, not by intelligence, personality, ability, or talent. The political correctness refs are calling a tight game these days, which on balance is a good thing. By all means we should judge women, to paraphrase MLK, by the content of their character, not by the smoothness of their skin or the perfection of their “S” line. Also, in Myanmar, I was nothing more than a tourist for a little over three weeks. I looked, I watched, I observed. I did meet and have some very pleasant conversations with some Burmese. However,I didn’t come close to digging deep enough to attempt writerly insight into the hearts and souls of the women (or men) of Myanmar. My impressions here are strictly that of a tourist, someone just passing through with a backpack and a Lonely Planet, probably equally interested in finding the next cold Myanmar Lager on a hot, dusty afternoon as he was in experiencing Burmese culure. So, with that said, here, from my lofty, privileged perch, are my observations.

Well, I thought Burmese women were beautiful. Tiny—probably the shortest and most petite of any Asian country I’ve visited. The men, too.  A function of average GDP and therefore nutrition? Perhaps, yet unlike what I’ve heard about North Korea, people didn’t look underfed or malnourished or stunted at all. They looked healthy, by and large, just really small. Delicate, yet not weak-looking.  Actually, your average leggy, gorgeous 5’8” Gangnam K-pop trainee seems more fragile than a 5’0” 85-pound young village woman in Myanmar. The skin—coffee-colored? Mocha? A creamy light brown? Here, I’ll defer to Orwell, who describes the face of Ma Hla May, John Flory’s 22 year-old mistress in Burmese Days as “the color of new copper .” In fact, I’ll just give you Orwell’s full description from the first appearance of Hla May:

Ma Hla May was a woman of twenty-two or –three, and perhaps five feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale blue embroidered Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin ingyi on which several gold lockets hung. Her hair was coiled in a tight black cylinder like ebony, and decorated with jasmine flowers. Her tiny, straight, slender body was as contourless as a bas-relief carved upon a tree. She was like a doll, with her oval, still face the colour of new copper, and her narrow eyes; and outlandish doll and yet a grotesquely beautiful one. A scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil came into the room with her

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The most common cover of the novel I saw on sale in Myanmar.

Strangely, Orwell never mentions the ubiquitous Thanaka wood paste that most women from big cities to tiny villages smear on their cheeks and forehead as a cosmetic / sun cream. This is probably the first thing that strikes tourists about Burmese women. It’s a centuries-old custom, yet it never pops up in Orwell’s writings on Burma.

As I said, my sharpest memory involving women came during our trek outside of Kalaw, an old British hill station near Inle Lake. Our guide was Montay, a thin, wiry, tough-as-shoe-leather Nepalese whose grandfather had been a Royal Gurkha soldier in World War II. On the first day, we tromped about 25 km, up and down two mountains, and at about 5 pm we staggered into the village where we were to spend the night. We were dog-tired, our legs a few notches beyond sore. The village was like a movie set of a perfect little jungle or mountain tribal village. There was a small cluster of bamboo huts raised on wooded stilts; pigs, chickens and water buffaloes wandering up and down the packed mud paths, wood smoke from cooking fires, women and men coming in the from neighboring hills and valleys where they grew tea, yams, corn, lentils, chilis, mangoes, and collected mushrooms. (No opium poppies anymore, Montay informed us. The government had stamped that out in this area about ten years ago, which was too bad, Montay added, because he liked to skim a little raw opium from the scored bulbs and get high.)

The Di-nou / Thong-yo village where we stayed overnight on our trek.

The Di-nou / Thong-yo village where we stayed overnight on our trek.

Despite the eradication of the crazy-lucrative opium, this seemed like a prosperous village. It had about 25 families, maybe about 120 people. We saw lots of small children (who mostly stared at us, dumbstruck). There were lots of livestock. People seemed well-fed and well-clothed. The hut we were staying in was rather spacious. It had two large communal rooms a third room as a kitchen. They had rigged up solar panels that were connected to a TV with a satellite dish. (This wasn’t such a surprise—the Lonely Planet mentioned TV was fairly common in many of these tiny villages.) After drinking a few cups of revivifying tea and rubbing our aching quads and calves, we were bidden to go wash up for dinner. We went over to the well, where large wooden troughs of water were stored for all the washing and cleaning needs of the village. There was a small group of maybe five or six villagers washing as well, the men stripped down to skivvies, the women wearing a bosom-to-knee wrap as they soaped up, scrubbed, and washed themselves off with bowls of water. We surely got some odd looks and giggles, but the three of us coming upon the evening wash-up didn’t seem such a big deal. While our trek wasn’t as popular as the daily Kalaw-to-Inle Lake mob-scene trek, Montay said he brought about one or two groups through here every month. The villagers seemed fairly used to big, tall whities on the premises, even if the kids still seemed a little freaked out.

As we awkwardly washed our faces and hands, we couldn’t help but noticing one of the women washing herself among us. She was young and beautiful, probably in her early twenties. Her long hair was tied up in loose bun, and the soaked brown cloth wrap clung to her body, revealing her curves. We were only 20 minutes or so from sunset, and the sun’s long red rays picked through the dense forestry, illuminating the whole scene with a soft, magical glow. Her wet, smooth, perfect light- brown skin glistened in the dusk—just like new copper, as Orwell wrote. I can’t use any other word here: she was glistening. A glistening, exotic native beauty washing herself at sunset. We tried not to stare. There were other villagers there, including men. An older married woman with large breasts wobbling beneath her wrap playfully splashed water at us, laughing at our awkwardness and shyness, but we kept sneaking glances at the young bathing beauty. It was magnetic, a gravitational force dragging our eyes towards her. I can’t say it was erotic–that word somehow cheapens the memory. A better word is sensual: an epitome of female sensuality and beauty coupled with an epitome of exoticism. Later on the trip, at the touristy trinket shops in Bagan, we notes lots of cheap oil paintings and watercolors for sale, many of the depicting typical scenes of village life—including the scene that we were now witnessing: young women bathing themselves. Yeah, somebody else had noticed. Or at least somebody had noticed people like us noticing.bathing2How many times had a scene like this taken place over the previous centuries, and in how many different countries, how many different continents? How many white men gazed, gawked, and ogled a young brown or black-skin woman, finding something basic, elemental and profound , an object (because of course it was, is, and always will be objectification) of perfect grace, beauty, exoticism, and eroticism? I thought of Orwell witnessing a similar sight. But I also thought of Gaughin and his Tahitian paintings, Joseph Conrad’s “Wild Woman” from Heart of Darkness, Charles Marion Russell’s “Keeoma” paintings of Native American women, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Doing a little research, I came upon the term “Orientalism” which described art, music and literature mostly from 19th century Europe that focused on idealized Asian and Middle-Eastern subjects and themes. And boy, there was a lot of it. Were we “perving out” with that young woman bathing herself? Call it that if you must, but at that moment I felt firmly placed within hundreds–thousands of years even–of pervy tradition.

However, while I could feel that connection stretching back through the centuries, I knew, of course, there was a huge difference between being here as visiting guests and Orwell being here as a representative of imperialism. Orwell knew he was an agent of domination, subjugation, and exploitation—“despotism with theft as its final object” as John Flory, clearly a cipher for Orwell himself, thinks. That Orwell could perceive and understood the contradictions of colonialism with such clear-sightedness while standing in its midst is still startling today. In “Shooting and Elephant” he writes (not filtered through any fictional mouthpiece this time): “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better . . . the British Raj [was] an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down . . .upon the will of prostrate peoples.”  Orwell, by virture of being British, was a pukka sahib—a most honorable, first-class gentleman, though he knew he was anything but. In the novel, Flory purchased Ma Hla May for 300 rupees from a dirt-poor Burmese family. When he falls in love with a young visiting Englishwoman, he gives Hla May 50 more rupees and tells her to scram. She was disposable to him, nothing more than a long-time whore. The scenes with her are among the book’s most powerful and excruciating.

Yes, David, Eli and I were not imperialists “fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets.” However, were we just imperialists of a different sort? I can’t blithely dismiss the staggering disparity in wealth between the people in that village and the three of us. Sure, it would have been absurd, insane even, for one of us to even think of “buying” a young native woman from this village to be a “mistress.” And yet, we began and ended our trip in Bangkok, a city where plenty of flesh gets purchased pretty much 24/7/365, quite a lot of it by white Westerners. Even back in Korea, I know a few ex-pats who have brought back, er, companionship from Thailand or the Philippines on a long-term basis.

I mentioned that it seemed like a prosperous village. The house we stayed at had solar-cell electricity that they used mostly for lighting up the disco-style lights that adorned their Hindu mini-shrine, and for TV. After we ate dinner, the whole extended family, about 10 people, from babies to grandmothers, came in and fired up the ol’ boob tube, watching some modern Burmese drama clearly set in the big city of Yangon or Mandalay. We watched with them for awhile until the grotesque sight of our starched white, bearded faces in the TV glow made a baby cry, and we retired to the next room, where we dropped off to sleep like dropping off a cliff, zonked by about 9 p.m.

trek

Day two of our trek, leaving the village at daybreak.

 

I would like to spout the cliché that these simple people seemed content in their simple lives, but reality is more complex than that. I wish I’d asked Montay if, or how often, a young person left this village behind to try to forge a life in Kalaw with its 10,000 people about 25 km away, or perhaps Taungyi, the Shan State capital with a population of about 350,000. It more than likely happened. After all, they were not some primitive “uncontacted” Amazon tribe. Our guide Montay was a connection to Kalaw. Some from this village probably made trips there now and again for supplies they couldn’t make or grow themselves. Of course, the trekkers coming through here every month, with their hiking boots and backpacks costing unimaginable sums, were totems of the rich Western world. And then there was TV. I saw how transfixed they were by the images of middle-class or wealthy Burmese from Yangon or Mandalay. As they were flipping through channels (yes, these villagers were channel surfing), we saw snippets of . . . Korean dramas! Good lord, what they must have thought of all those sculpted (literally) faces, expensive clothes, furniture, and cars? Could it be that that young beautiful woman, bathing in the twilight, saw those flickering images on the screen, or saw those European or American or Australian trekkers passing through her village, and never wondered what life would be like in Kalaw, Taungyi or Mandalay, or Paris, Geneva, San Francisco or London? Did she ever look at one of us and think, Take me with you?

Back in 2009, I did a 3-day trek in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province in far-Southern China, along the Laos / Myanmar border. Our tour guide, the very young and pretty Sing-la, was from a Be-lan mountain village. She had learned English down in the city of Jinghong, and married a young, handsome French guy whom we met after our trek. She was now probably the chief earner (at least in terms of hard currency) for her village. (You can read more about Sing-la in The Worst Motorcycle in Laos, the latest book by Mr. Motgol!) Could that same relationship happen in the Myanmar village David, Eli and I trekked through? Who knows? Why not? Like any marriage, there’s no guarantee it would work out, but at least there were no longer any John Florys to buy that beautiful young village woman for a pittance from her parents, only to throw her out like an old newspaper when he saw a proper Englishwoman to chase.

Orwell despised what colonialism was doing to its subjects and what it was doing to his own soul. However, he was under no illusions that what would come next would be any better. In a much-quoted line from “Shooting an Elephant,” he admits that the British Empire was “a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.” Looking back at the staggering misrule by Burma’s own rulers after independence, once again Orwell seems to have had his finger firmly on the throbbing pulse of history. Myanmar is still being economically exploited by her own rulers, and by her larger, richer, more populous and powerful neighbors. Of that, there’s no doubt. However, in our quick look about the place in 2015, with the tourists beginning to stream in en masse, with free elections coming later this year, there’s also no doubt it’s getting better. At last, I can imagine Orwell thinking. At last.  

george_orwell_by_dvlart-d6952f7

long road

The Long Road to Kratie

by Chris Tharp

(The following is an excerpt from my recently-published book, The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia, available now via Amazon and other fine booksellers. Enjoy.)

I shouldn’t have eaten the curry. I should have just let it be. It was nasty stuff—putrid, watery, and unnaturally green—like some sort of chunky algae bloom. The chicken was undercooked, and shards of stringy bamboo floated in the swamp of a sauce. I should have taken the whole thing out back, behind the fetid shack containing the joint’s kitchen, and poured it onto the ground for the village’s free-roaming pigs to slop up. I should have just gone to bed unfed and hungry. After all, the human body can go weeks without any food at all. What was one night? I’d be fine. Despite some lean times in the past, my pampered American ass had never known real, prolonged hunger—yet ten hours without a bite and my body was in panic mood. I was ravenous and that was that, so I sucked down every last oily drop.

It was now two days later and my intestinal tract was in a state of civil war. I was nauseous and fevered and the spigot had opened wide. Hot blasts—explosive, violent, and unpredictable—rumbled forth in unstoppable volleys from deep within my bowels. I was sweaty, weak, unshaven, and filthy. I had been wearing the same pair of olive shorts and faded green Seattle Supersonics T-shirt for over a week now, ever since my backpack—containing the rest of my clothes, along with three hundred dollars cash —had disappeared from the belly of a long-distance bus. My one pair of underwear had since been abandoned in a guesthouse trash bin. I was in a state. For all of her tropical emerald splendors, Laos—Southeast Asia’s sleepiest country—had treated me roughly. It was time to get the hell out, so I boarded a white minibus that trundled across the border and into the realm of her tough little sister, Cambodia.

The road south was a moonscape of craters and potholes, punctuated by large, loose stones. The going was slow and bumpy, constantly rocking and jostling the poor bus’s chassis, not to mention its unfortunate cargo of passengers. I settled into the seat and gripped tightly, shuddering with each groan of the vehicle’s frame. Every crevasse in the road sent shockwaves through my ravaged body and agitated the liquids within. I then felt the furnace ignite: Old Faithful was ready to blow, but alas, there was no toilet, no bucket—nothing on this dwarf of a bus. I’d have to ride it out. So I locked my jaw and endured each bump in grim silence, focusing my thoughts into one mantra that echoed throughout my being over the next two hours of rutted road hell:

Keep it clenched. Keep it clenched. Keep it clenched.

The need to release came in waves, which prompted all the muscles in my body—not just those at the gate—to flex and tighten as I staved off the overwhelming pressure. The old bus shook and shuddered as it groaned down the calamity of a road, while I just concentrated on breathing and keeping the gasket sealed. It took every reserve of willpower and discipline, but I eventually managed to gain control. I only hoped—not just for my sake, but also that of my fellow passengers—that I could maintain this upper hand. The alternative would be catastrophic.

We rolled down the dusty track through desiccated rice fields. It was the middle of dry season, and the lush Cambodian countryside was now painted shades of brown. The air was grey and hazy from the farmers slash-burning their fields. Buffalo stood in the dusty paddies, some tied to posts, stupidly staring as we passed by. At one point we reached a small settlement; the bus pulled off to the side, stopped, and the driver opened the door.

Salvation.

I grabbed my small green bag containing my valuables—the only thing that hadn’t walked away during that fateful journey in Laos—and made my way off the vehicle. We had stopped in front of an open-air wooden shack selling some bottled water, canned drinks, cigarettes, bags of chips and cookies, as well as other snacks. I guessed this was what passed for a truck stop in Cambodia. We were suddenly set upon by four teenage girls carrying baskets of white boiled eggs on their heads, which they quickly brought down for our perusal.

“You buy-eee? You-buy-eee? You buy-eee?” they pleaded in a singsong chorus. I ducked away, weighed down by more immediate and pressing thoughts. I looked to the man sitting behind the drinks table. He wore shorts and sandals and puffed away on a cigarette. He stared back with bloodshot indifference.

“Toilet? Toilet?” I pleaded.

He pointed to a cardboard sign tacked on a support beam near his head. It read, WC, followed by a crudely drawn arrow pointing to the left.

“Thanks,” I nodded, and headed off.

“NO! NO! NO!” The man was on his feet as I turned back. He held out his palm and slapped it with his other hand.

Of course. There is no such thing as a free shit in Southeast Asia: pay to spray.

“Okay okay. How much?” I hissed.

He jerked his finger back toward the sign. I had missed the fine print, scrawled tiny underneath: 1,000 RIEL.

I took out my wallet and peered inside. I had a small wad of Lao kip and some US dollars, but no Cambodian riel. I had neglected to convert any cash at the border.

His eyes bulged from his sockets as he growled again for money.

“Lao kip? Lao kip okay?” I asked.

“No no no no.” He waved the bills away.

“Uh… dollars? American dollars?”

“Dollars yes!” His hand became possessed with renewed vigor.

I fingered through my greenbacks, looking for a dollar bill. Twenty, twenty, ten—no! Shit! Twenty… please—okay—one dollar!

I handed him the wrinkled note and he made change, returning a crumpled fistful of nearly worthless riel.

I fled without a “thanks” and headed toward the toilet, feeling a steamy gurgling inside. It was on. Another sign directed me around the side of the building, where things got very muddy. I slogged toward the rickety out structure on which a WC sign had been nailed, taking care not to step in the most treacherous bits. Scrawny chickens clucked, scratched, and pecked at the edge of the muck, while their terrorized offspring scurried and screeched at the sight of me. A fat black pig grunted just feet away. Clumps of its dark shit punctuated the even darker mud.

When I finally reached the haven of the lone toilet stall, I grabbed the crude wooden handle and gave the door a yank. It moved a half inch then stopped. It was latched from inside.

“For fuck’s sake.” I mumbled, squeezing my ass cheeks together with the strength of an Olympic wrestler.

I shuffled my weight and looked to the smoky sky. “Please please please please please.”

My eyes went back to the door in a search for movement. Nothing. Okay, okay. No problem. I figured that another one of the bus’s passengers must be inside, so it couldn’t take too long. I drummed on my thighs and rocked in place as I waited for him to emerge.

“Come on come on come on come on come on.”

No one emerged.

My patience exhausted, I knocked on the door. “Hello? Hello?”

I could hear some shuffling inside, followed by an audible but unintelligible response.

“Hello?”

Movement.

“Please. It’s an emergency!”

More movement.

I knocked again. This was met with a garbled yell, causing me to step away.

I stood in agony for three more minutes. I sighed and grabbed at my hair. I growled deep in my throat. I moaned and spit. I looked to the static door and imagined laser beams shooting forth from my eyes, turning the thing to ash in a matter of seconds.

“Jesus cunting Christ.”

I approached once more and slammed with an open palm.

“HEY! HEY!”

Again, I was met with human voice, but again, I couldn’t make out what it was saying. Was it even language? It sounded like some sort of groaning. Whoever was in there was my only hope.

I banged again, harder.

“OPEN THE FUCK UP!!!”

Nothing.

I waited for another minute, or two. The situation was now untenable: it simply could not go on any longer. I looked down at my feet, at the wet earth. Surely I could just squat, right there, and release the boiling contents of my bowels onto this already filthy mud. It must have been done many times before.

Fuck it.

I thumbed the loop of my belt and began to yank it out of the buckle, only to be startled by a prolonged, loud—

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!

It was the minibus. I looked over to the road. The little white bus had begun to pull out. The driver—along with most all of the passengers—was looking my way.

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!

He angrily waved for me to come back on board. I was holding them all up.

“NO NO NO NO NO NO!”

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!                               

I slunk back onto the bus, defeated, demoralized, and ready to murder. I had yet to unleash the volcano simmering in the tubes of my ass, and it was another two hours’ rugged ride to our destination. I gingerly sat back down in my seat and cursed our animal state. Why is so much of life dictated by base physical needs? Eating, breathing, fucking, itching, hurting, pissing, and shitting? All of these things form a kind of tyranny that none of us can escape, and I was now locked away in its harshest gulag.

As the bus began to pull onto the road, I threw my gaze one last time toward the rickety outhouse. The door suddenly burst open and out staggered a man—a wretched, ugly man—steeping in obscene amounts of booze, or worse. He was heinously dirty and clothed in greasy, stained rags. His hair was long, matted, and wild, and a wispy beard sprung haphazardly from his chin. His eyes were empty black holes, and he swayed from side to side in a half-assed attempt to stay upright. The guy probably didn’t even know what country he was in, let alone village or toilet, and he had the appearance of someone in the wicked throes of a six-day gas-huffing binge. Who knows? Maybe that’s what he was doing in outhouse. Whatever the case, I was shit out of luck.

kratie_colonial_french_building

The town of Kratie—appropriately pronounced “Crotchy”—is a rotting and neglected burg built up on the muddy banks of the Mekong River. After several hours of enduring a slow grind over one of Asia’s worst-maintained roads, we had made it—or, more importantly—I had made it. The village was saved! The dike managed to hold back the sea! A catastrophe was indeed averted, and as soon as the bus pulled into that sad little station, I jumped out and broke into a near-sprint (as much as could be allowed), looking for any sign reading “Hotel.” I frantically stumbled along the town’s crumbling sidewalks, scanning the streetscape for any hint of shelter, and lucky for me it, didn’t take long before my wish came to fruition. There it was, like a golden palace in the clouds, above which sang a host of harmonizing angels:

KRATIE HOTEL

I shot through the front door and slapped my passport on the counter.

“How much for your best room?”

“Fifteen dollars, sir.”

“Done.”

I grabbed the key and limped up the stairs to my fourth-floor room—this hotel’s version of a presidential suite. Upon opening the door I was greeted with a cavernous cell—high ceilings, two beds, and a couple of paintings depicting glacial mountain scenes—so Khmer! The artwork in Southeast Asian hotels is always a random mish-mash: shots of Norwegian fjords, sultry African women, and glossy photographs of soccer players or Italian sports cars. It’s actually rare to see a painting that actually reflects the local scenery, say, of a boat floating down a palm-tree lined river, elephants frolicking in a jungle pool, or renditions of tuk-tuks making their way down steamy, crowded side streets.

I tossed my small green bag onto one of the beds and made straight for the bathroom. My shorts were off before I even got to the door and I was on the toilet like the finalist of a high-stakes game of musical chairs. As soon as I felt the first trace of the cool seat on my cheeks, I let loose, blasting the white ceramic bowl with the strength and velocity of a fire hose. This was a pure, concentrated cascade that reverberated around the room with sonic intensity. It sounded like TV static followed by bursts from a large-caliber machine gun. I was astounded: never had I heard fluids leaving the body with such total ferocity. When nature wants to expel, she does it something fierce. I was a human pressure washer, and was glad that I shelled out those extra bucks for the extra-strength, triple-engineered toilet. This was the first in what would be many unholy volleys that night, so I was putting it to the test.

The relief I felt after that session went straight to the center of my soul. I was still weak and pukey, but for the first time all day I could relax my muscles, which ached from spending hours in a constant state of tension. I took the opportunity to take a quick meander around central Kratie, which was a crowded town. I felt eyes upon me as I strolled through the streets looking for a pharmacy. Tuk-tuks and motorbikes slowed down to take me in. Across from the hotel was the town’s central market; the ancient black roof looked like it would cave in at any minute. An army of small motorbikes was parked outside in uneven lines and jagged clusters. Rain-stained streaks wept down the sides of buildings and huge patches of black mildew bloomed like cancer. The whole place reeked of provincial decay.

After buying some much-needed water, I found a small pharmacy that consisted of one counter underneath a flickering fluorescent light. A short, chubby woman sat on a stool and addressed me in Khmer. I looked at her, pointed to my asshole, rubbed my stomach, shook my head and said, “No. No.”

She knew the gig right off, got up, and handed me a packet of six stupidly huge white pills.

Sorted.