The broken porcelain spoon

I was washing the dishes, a task I regularly do whenever my friend or her mom can’t do the washing and I am not working or not hurrying to go to school. This Saturday afternoon was one of them. I soaked the sponge to absorb enough dishwashing liquid, held the porcelain spoon when all of a sudden, the little, white, fragile spoon slipped from my hands and fell on to the concrete floor tile. The image of the broken porcelain spoon kept on haunting me in a surreal fashion that it was all that I could think of for the whole time this afternoon.

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I hid the evidence of my crime by throwing the handle and the remains of what used to be the part which carried the food to the mouth into the trash bag inside my room. Breaking a thing, even as insignificant as that porcelain spoon, has never felt this gnawing before, but this time it seemed like I committed a crime beyond forgiveness.

Indeed I felt I have. When the mother of my friend was preparing dinner a while ago, she discovered a part of the spoon which I failed to conceal. She then called me and asked me in Vietnamese about the broken part. I never understood everything she said, but I just told her I am sorry. She has this way of saying a sentence that causes fear in me. I just cannot imagine my mother saying the same thing to me that can lead to such magnitude of fear. I probably might not have fully understood the concept of a mother in Vietnam. The way I tried to explain in vain and let her understand how sorry I am for the broken porcelain spoon caused something inside me to rise and to make me feel unwell.

It’s the same feeling when my grade two teacher would catch me fighting with a classmate, I, being taller and bigger, and of course always won which caused that thin but pugnacious classmate crying for his mother’s presence. I didn’t remember a time I asked for my mother’s presence to alleviate my fever, rid me of the pain, or help me heal my broken heart. This spirit of independence could have been a result of growing in a family of six children when we understood an unspoken given that our mother will not be able to provide enough time for each of us, although we know she has nothing but overflowing love for all of us, an intensity of love that is more than what we can imagine.

When I was six years old, since my mother has to go to school to teach, I was left to fend for myself. I fixed my own chocolate drink placed inside a Tupperware tumbler just so my classmates will think, as well as their peering mothers, that I had a drink which my mother lovingly prepared for me. I didn’t want them to think that my mother was irresponsible that she allowed her son to go to school without anything.

I had to find my way to school and study my lessons alone because my mother only has one body which is impossible for her to do several tasks all at the same time. I didn’t take her absence against her. An image of me in shorts, incorrectly paired socks, unpolished shoes, and my kindergarten uniform reminded me not of my mother’s absence but the hard work she has to do with my father just to provide our basic needs. I’ve never taken that against them.

Although I’ve never cried out loud for my mother’s name whenever I am scared, hurt, or have failed, deep inside I am dying for her presence because I’m still her son after all.

I’ll go to Ho Hoan Kiem tomorrow and find a porcelain spoon that looks exactly like the one I accidentally broke.

Terrorist attack in Mumbai: looking at the fundamentals of tourist-native dialectic

I wrote a short article about tourists-natives dialectic several months ago that caused both agreement and vehement no-I-don’t-think-so replies from my readers. (Click here to read that article.) For somebody who grew up in a third world country like the Philippines, it is hard for me to grasp the rationale of spending 10,000 USD or roughly the average annual income of an employee working in the Makati Central Business District, the Philippines’s center of finance and commerce, one year of toil and dog-eats-dog working condition while competing in a rat race, for a two-week holiday in a foreign land. But for people in the West, Europe and America, and some upper one per cent of the population of third world countries, a vacation in the Maldives, Seychelles, Palawan, Ha Long Bay, Bhutan, or Nepal is not that hard to imagine.

This morning, waking up in the early winter month in Hanoi, I was dumbfounded when after I watched breaking news by BBC and an Indian TV station in Hindi about the seizing of Taj Mahal Hotel, the adjoining high-end restaurants for tourists, two hospitals and a subway station. The a line in the supporting articles of the video was written – “The terrorists randomly sprayed bullets to the train commuters” – as if spraying bullets is as light, as ordinary as the word spraying.

It was not the usual terrorist actions because British and American tourists were singled out. In one restaurant, an Italian man, after having answered the question of a man in bonnet that his nationality is Italian was left unharmed. As of press time, 101 people were reported dead; this number is expected to increase since the situation has not been contained after 24 hours since it started early morning of November 27.

mumbai-attack2 Photo courtesy of bbc.new.uk.co

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According to analysts, this is a result of extremist Muslim separatists/fundamentalists movements in a predominantly Hindu Indian population.

Basically, events like this are manifestations of deeper and more fundamental conflict that exists between people of differing background. Although India prides itself for its pluralistic, multicultural society that exists in a symbiosis and tolerance, this event proves contrary to claim. However, I will focus on the more basic cause of this problem that is often ignored by political scientists because of its apparent simplicity.

I remember a week ago, a group of Australians who are on their way to Poland stayed in my friend’s house in Hanoi where I also stay. During the first night, as we were introducing ourselves to each other, a girl related that her grandfather used to live in Iloilo City in the Philippines and that she has visited the place and “like it a lot” especially Boracay for its white sand, sun, cool water; and I added a lot of tourists, which suddenly changed the tone of the conversation. Although it was not my intention to ruin her description of my place, but from that moment on, we both knew that the tourist-native dialectic existed between us.

Whenever I go to a new place or a foreign country, I try my best not to be conspicuous. Nonetheless, being brown and Asian mean not being seen at all. The way I speak and carry myself often betray my identity. Nevertheless, I try to avoid places often frequented by tourist, and I haggle just like any other natives of the place. But for most Caucasians, this is often not the case. I am not sure if they are aware of it but their actions orchestrated by the travel books they hold or in their backpacks and the forced ignorance and coyness which may appear ranging from cute to ridiculous. The natives on the other hand are left to compare their state to that of the well-off westerners who find excitement in their repetitive and trite lives.

In my early months here in Vietnam, we visited Tuyen Quang, a province in the north. We were with a Belgian friend who had with him the ubiquitous tourist camera. While visiting a small village of ethnic people, a scene almost hit me on how pervasive this dialectic is.

A girl, around fifteen was asked by her father, who is the leader of the village, to pose for pictures. The girl, probably tired of this routine she has to undergo every time a white man visits their place, disobeyed her father’s request. She was called by her father inside the house and after a moment she came out looking blank and posed almost subserviently in front of the camera. But I saw in her eyes the fury, if not hatred, of a human being used as a spectacle to behold and to be photographed by fellow human beings who happen to have whiter skin, an expensive camera, and can afford a trip that took half of the globe to travel.

I’ll clarify, however, that this is not an attack against Caucasian tourists. After all they also have to work hard to be able to afford a vacation in some impoverished and exotic countries. This trip allows them to escape from their own realities and to softly pat their egos and make them discover that lives are not as miserable as the lives of these dark, short, poor people who will do anything for their money.

ban-rongA woman resting, behind her is her ban rong

One time, I was eating in Hoan Kiem District, a popular tourist area in Hanoi because of the famed Ho Guom. Outside the restaurant is a panorama of hushed battle existing between the tourist and the natives. Both parties do not want to fire the first bullet to the battle continues quietly. Three Caucasians passed by a woman carrying a ban rong, this is a pair of big baskets carried on the shoulder of a Veitnamese who which contain things for sale. One of them asked the woman if she could carry the baskets for pictures. The small Vietnamese woman agreed and smiled while she saw the girl who is almost twice her size unable to lift from the ground ban rong. The girl offered to pay the woman, she declined, carried her two baskets and left leaving the three taken aback probably because the woman did not accept the payment, as if everything should be paid for, as if the all natives want to milk them dry with their hard earned money.

Somebody is just waiting for the first bullet. And this morning, bullets were fired.

Rice porridge and fear of (or fascination with) the unknown

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porridge

In between my three-hour class in Tay Son this evening, I went to a quan hang, or a small kiosk selling rice porridge. I asked the old woman to give me a bowl of the thick mixture and to add egg into it. The steamy porridge alleviated my hunger for the next two hours before I had my full dinner back in my house. The soothing aroma of the herbs carried by the rising steam reminded me of the arroz caldo in my high school canteen back then and the comforting taste of a bowl of it as well as the memories of the past now impossible to revisit.

Chao, as Vietnamese call this rice porridge is a food devoid of any pretensions. It is as simple as the lives of most of Vietnam’s people. Only the necessary are mixed and cooked together, offered in plastic bowls and eaten while being seated on kiddie-size monobloc chairs beside the passing traffic of motorists and pedestrian.

I think that the unique flavor of chao is brought about by an amalgam of fresh ingredients, herbs, gossips, family affairs, early evening conversations, and other cacophonies that make up the Vietnamese society.

Co oi, cho chau mot bat chao voi trung. (Aunty, can I have a bowl of chao with egg?), I asked. She smiled at me, and suggested if I wanted to have mien (a kind of rice vermicelli) instead, since she might have noticed that I often eat at her place. I said, Chau muon chao thoi co a (I just want to have chao auntie). Which she responded with, Khong noi co, chau goi ba (Don’t call me auntie, call me grandmother). I pretended not to hear her. With my thirty-minute break, lengthening the conversation with her would not be a good idea; notwithstanding, I was already on the verge of starvation.

I am already accustomed to the simple life here in Vietnam. Everyday, I face almost similar concerns: cycling from my house to the university, translating from Vietnamese to English or vice versa, writing in Vietnamese, battling with heat or cold (although dusty roads are already a staple),  working out, attending my part-time classes, and other miscellanies such as going to coffee shops, writing literary attempts, or just to reading books by Maxim Gorky, or an anthology of O. Henry’s works.

I’ve never lived a life simpler than this one, and it scares me a bit because in three months time, I’m going back to the Philippines and face real concerns of an adult like me. I’ll be turning 23 in the next few months, although sometimes I try to brush off the thoughts of being older than I am old; however, there’s a part of me that says: “Hey, John have a time of your life; you’ve never had a good rest before. Enjoy what you have now.” And another part saying: “Shocks! You’ve wasted a good nine months of your life running after something you’re not even certain what it constitutes of. John, grow up. Give up your fascination for the unknown, the what ifs, the other side of the mountain, the dark side of the moon.”

I’ve reflected on these things while eating my rice porridge which almost made me forget the perfection of the aromatic blend of herbs, sticky rice, boiled chicken, and native egg in my porcelain bowl. It almost made me forget to have a taste of my present and to enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve tried to behold the future knowing that it’s futile to grasp it.

Ba oi. Chau tra tien. Bao nhieu tien? (Ba, I’m paying. How much is it?

Muoi lam nghin. (Fifteen thousand.)

Satisfactions doesn’t have to be expensive.

Buwan at ang bisekletang pula

Kung kailan laway na laway na akong sumulat, saka naman ako sinumpong ng tinatawag nila sa Ingles na writer’s block. Sa mga makababasa nito at nakaiintindi ng Filipino, mahihinuha sa bahaging ito pa lang ang lantarang kontradiksyon ng aking isinulat. Subalit kailanman’y di nawalan ng kontradiksyon ang aking pagkatao. Ako’y mukhang bobo na matalino. Mukhang demonyo pero santo. Lungkot na lungkot subalit sa loob ay nagdiriwang dahil sa kaligayahang bunga ng pamilya, taong minamahal ko, at mga pagkakataong dumarating upang tuparin ang mga pangarap na parehong maliliit at umaabot sa buwan. Mga kontradiksyong kabahagi na ng kung sino man ako.

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Inabot ako ng sampung minuto bago ko nailabas mula sa looban ang aking bisekleta, nagsuot ng panlamig at inilubid ko sa akong leeg ang itim na scarf (natatawa ako habang isinusulat ko ito spagkat hindi ko pala alam kung ano sa Filipino ang salitang scarf). Makailang pedal lang, nakipagkarerahan na ako sa maingay na lansangan ng Hanoi. Para akong lumilipad; ang sarap ng pakiramdam ng dumadamping malamig na hangin sa pisngi ko. Sa ganitong mga pagkakataon nabubuo sa isipan ko ang mga magagandang bagay na nais kong isulat, dati noong bata pa ako sa piraso ng papel, ngayon sa keyboard na ng aking kompyuter.

Kita mo nga naman.

Kung ang mundo sana’y palaging singganda ng mga ilaw sa labas. Para sa isang laking probinsyang tulad ko, ang mga alaala ng aking kabataan ay alaala ng mga ilaw sa Dadiangas sa tuwing Pasko at pinapasyal kami ng aming mga magulang sa lungsod. Ngayong madalang na akong umuwi sa amin at ang buhay ko’y nakasentro na sa lungsod, hindi pa rin nawawala ang hiwaga ng mga ilaw. Naaakit pa rin ako sa iba’t iba nilang kulay na ni minsan ay hindi nabigong pasayahin ang puso ko.

Kung tutuusin, alam ko namang kakaunti lang ang kailangan ko upang maging masaya. Subalit kagaya ng mga kontradiksyong kinakaharap ko, hindi pa rin ako tumitigil sa paghahanap sa sukdulang kaligayahan. Sukdulan. Tulad ng mga maiikling kwentong binabasa ko, hindi ibig sabihin na bigo ang kwento kung wala itong sukdulan. Maaaring mapaligaya ako ng simpleng buhay na masaya, pero alam kong walang masama kung maglakbay ako at tantuhin kung ako talaga ang sukdulan.

Ito’y gaya ng pagpedal gamit ang bisekleta. Masayang maglakbay at lumipad habang dinadama ang malamig na ihip ng hangin. Ngunit mas buo ang kaligayan kung totohanang lumipad gamit ang bisekleta, lumipad hanggang umabot sa buwan at panoorin ang mundong lumulubog. At gamit ang bisekleta ay umikot-ikot sa mga maliliit na burol at gulod ng buwan habang sa abot tanaw ay ang mg bituing patay-sinding kumikindat sa di kalayuan.

Kita mo nga naman. Marahil ay dala lang ito ng antok at masidhing pagnanais na matulog, magpahinga sandali upang muling maglakbay bukas patungo sa kung saan man ako kayang dalhin ng aking pulang bisekleta.

The world’s best cuisine

Dong (pronounced as zong with a hard, downward tone) is a vegetable that is rather popular in Vietnam during winter. My friend this lunchtime boiled some, and it didn’t surprise me that the translucent-looking vegetable doesn’t taste anything, though my friend promised me it is packed with fiber (I translated to her as “roughage”) which I believe is true.

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Foods in Vietnam, like in all Southeast Asian countries, are predominantly rice-based. Pho ga and pho bo, both popular traditional Vietnamese noodles are made of rice, so are ban coun pictured below and xoi which are my staple breakfast. They’re the country’s version of a fast food because indeed they can be bought “to-go” and can be eaten conveniently while walking.

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But as somebody who grew up in the Philippines and became accustomed with dishes having both western and oriental flair, Vietnamese cuisine’s novelty is not enough make me forget about adobo, sweet-and-sour spaghetti, palabok, and other sweets. We seldom consume sweet delicacies in my place, so my sweet tooth has been half-starved all this time.

This afternoon, after my class, my craving for pasta brought me to Kim Ma Street, several meters from Daewoo hotel. I ordered carbonara and a concoction of local beer and soda which tasted not bad. I reasoned it’s the Vietnamese version of shandy. The pasta was well-done and the sauce just right. The restaurant, simply named Pepperoni, is a good value for my money, although I think that a small plate of pasta and beer for 75,000 dong is rather ludicrous for locals (and a student like me).

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A friend of mine who is the managing director of a multinational company in Singapore made a declaration that the best food in Southeast Asia can be found in Vietnam. I’m yet to confirm that, though. For food, as all other commodities are political in nature. This apparent superiority of taste is not dependent on the country of origin of the cuisine but on the class of people who consume the food. Take for example a Pho ga (chicken rice noodle) served along the side walks of Tran hung Dao which could cost between 15,000 to 25,000 dongs will taste different once it is sold inside the air-conditioned halls of Hanoi Metropole or in the Intercon with an ambiance of luxury. These taste ratings which are usually adjudged by tourists are not a reflection of the unique quality of a nation’s cuisine. In fact it mirrors the quality of a country’s tourism bureaus that aim to attract as many tourists as possible.

So the Philippine cuisine not making any mark in the international scene does not say anything about the culinary tradition of the country but the ineptitude of the Tourism Department to allow these tourists have a taste of Filipino food.

I will not make a comparison here because I’ll just turn out being biased for food in the Philippines. In fact I cannot anymore wait to eat in Jollibee and have a helping of my favorite Jolli-Spaghetti and Chicken Joy, or a bowl of La Paz batchoy in the market of Iloilo. Filipino cuisine is after all the best in the world.

You’re a twenty-something if…

This is one of those flop days. A flopped day is when I can’t think of anything sensible and cerebral. However, I am not saying that most of my days are inspired and I can always think as intellectually as I would want. The weather this time just adds to the gloom. The temperature outside makes someone like me who is used to the Philippines’ tropical climate of humid and hot days to be sluggish and sleepy.

So here I am writing about something that in a way is the reason why this blog exists – to celebrate life as a twenty-something. For most of us, it’s nice to go back to the past and remember the thing’s we’ve been through, laughing at the atrocious piece of clothing we wore before, being nostalgic about the better days that had been, or simply reminiscing the simple pleasures of life then.

I’m listing them down here for my readers who grew up during the same time as I did in the Philippines. Please feel free to add.

You’re a twenty-something if…

You were born between 1988-1979

20

You know the melody of this chocolate commercial:
Wanna see what happens to a bag of Nips?
What goes on before they touch my lips?
A Choco Rainbow, Chocolate Nips.
Nips, Nips.

You know what these acronyms stood for: WOW, SIGA. These were policies in the early 90s of Department of Education, Culture, and Sports (then DECS now DepEd) on school beautification and food sustainability.

It was possible to go to school with a 5 to 20 pesos baon.

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You collected stickers of Lion King from Maggi Rich Mami Noodles and pasted them on the door of your fridge, to your mother’s horror.

You know Julio at Julia, Kambal ng Tadhana, enjoyed watching this mid-morning program, you can even sing the theme song of this anime.

You know who Pong Pagong was.

You memorized the lyrics of Sineskwela. Sa daigdig ng agham, tuklasin ang kaalaman, halina’t lumipad sa daigdig ng isipan…

You either watched Gimik or T.G.I.S. on lazy Saturday afternoons.

Your elementary school teacher was the first to have an analog mobile phone which was as big as an uncut bar of laundry detergent.

You saw on television Erap’s (Joseph Estrada) ouster or you were at EDSA that time.

Your notebooks had pictures of local stars on their covers.

You know who Judiel was. You were fascinated by the “dancing sun”, and your entire class had to go out to stare at the sky to witness the apparition of the Virgin.

You still had to go through the CAT (Citizen’s Army Training) and had to march under the sun every Thursday or Friday afternoons.

You watched TV Patrol with Noli de Castro, Mel Tiangco, and Ka Kiko as anchors, and Ernie Baron as weatherman.

You know who comprised the Apo Hiking Society and that they had a noon time show Sa Linggo na’APO sila.

You know who the main characters of Villa Quintana were.

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Kapamilya and Kapuso didn’t exist yet. They were the Sarimanok Network and the Rainbow Channel respectively.

You had to suffer blackouts that lasted for 12 hours or for as long as two days.

You played Chinese garter, sipa, sungka, snakes and ladders etc.

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You know how a five-peso and ten-peso bills looked like. You even used the big one peso coins and the octagonal two-peso coins.

You had a Nintendo Family Computer in your house with the huge cartridges you insert into it to play Super Mario, Pacman, or Bomber.

And the list goes on.

A stint as a teacher in Vietnam

“You teach well.”

The sentence that made my night. It came from Duc, a 28 year old student who wants to go to Australia for a master’s degree in Architecture. Although it was my first time to meet their class in To Hien Thanh, the thirty-two students mostly my age and some even older behaved animatedly as I talked about the pictures I am showing from my laptop.

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Today is the National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam. It’s rather different from the same celebration in the Philippines because here people take it seriously. By seriously I mean students and their parents observe the tradition by going to the teachers’ house and give them flowers. Yesterday, in my class in Xuan Thuy in Cau Giay district, a 32 year-old student gave me a bouquet of yellow roses. I was stunned and was unable to speak coherently for five minutes because aside from the fact that it was my first time to receive flowers, I also didn’t expect that my students take me as a teacher in a Vietnamese sense. I think I do not qualify.

This afternoon, while on my way to my class, I decided to buy a red Zara shirt for my teacher. I approximated her size and hoped that it will be just right for her. I thought of giving her flowers, but since I knew she will have received flowers from her other two Korean students, I opted to buy something she can wear. She only smiled when I gave her the plastic bag containing the blouse and said her subdued “Cam on em”.

During the break, I went inside the faculty room and had a chat with the other teachers in the Khoa Tieng Viet (Vietnamese Department). They spoke to me in Vietnamese which seemed to me a test in listening and speaking. The director of the department related our experience yesterday when he accompanied me and my teacher, Co Thu, to a fashion exhibit in Tran Hung Dao but was postponed for some unknown reason.

I noticed during my study in the Department that I am the only student who stays in the faculty room. During break time, I am often invited by the director to drink coffee in the room. Not that we talked about so many things, my Vietnamese is too academic to be conversational. But being with the teachers in the department allows me to observe first hand Vietnamese sensibilities and mind-set, make generalizations, and subject them to the readings on Vietnamese psychology that I encountered.

Being a teacher in Vietnam is being underpaid, stressed, and not given enough recognition the job (or vocation as my mother calls it. She is also a teacher) deserves. So occasions like this allow the Vietnamese society to recognize their teachers who have been toiling to not only pass on the knowledge but also inspire the students to dream.

Receiving flowers is already too much for me. Being told I teach well is already beyond my expectation. Just seeing them getting thirstier for knowledge the more I share to them what I know, that thing fulfills me as a teacher.