Thursday, July 11, 2019

We Call Them Melons In America

A few days ago, I was practicing my typical morning routine of sitting on the toilet with my phone catching up on the news. In the middle of reading the latest on Black Ariel and the Blue Bell Ice Cream Licker, I got a message from my wife.

I immediately knew who she was talking about. We've been dealing with this guy for the last few days. Right next door to us, a construction crew has been putting up a new building and we share a gate with that property. So, we cross paths with the workers daily. Every now and then, one of them comes to us to use our electricity or inform us of excess noise that day or the shutting off of our water. It is always a difficult conversation since we do not speak the local language and have to do everything through inadequate translation apps.

However, this particular guy is especially "friendly." He frequently wanders over to make small talk when he sees me outside. This usually involves lots of hand gestures and pointing at the construction site with a big smile. I never know what he is trying to convey, but it seems like it is not pertinent information. Just friendly banter. Until he stepped up his game a few days ago.

He sat on our porch one day, so I grabbed a Pepsi and my phone and went to join him. I like to be friendly most of the time. Through our translation apps, we tried to talk to each other. After a couple of minutes, he asked to borrow my motorcycle. I made an excuse about how we were about to leave so it wouldn't be available. So, he asked to use it at lunch the next day. As I was telling him no, I started closing up the house so Red and I could leave. He then asked me how I secure my doors when I leave.

What kind of creepy question is that?

This made me nervous because he basically lives right next to us until the house is built. They always know when we are coming and going. And now he wants to know how well I lock my doors.

Due to my inability to effectively communicate all we can really do is try to be aware.

Not being able to communicate has been a common theme in my life. When I lived in Puerto Rico twenty years ago, I saw a sign on a counter that said CUIDADO: CALIENTE.

This sign made no sense to me. CITY: HOT

I leaned closer to contemplate the meaning and it occurred to me as soon as my arms contacted the metal counter. Cuidado does not mean 'city.' It means 'CAUTION.'

The Spanish word for 'city' is ciudad. They may look similar, but the meaning is quite different.

As I rubbed the aloe on my forearms, I knew I would never forget those words again.

Living in Beijing, I almost did not get my work permit due to a communication error. I was asked to send off for my official Master's Degree for the paperwork that had to be filed. They told me that it must be sealed when we turn it into authorities. I did as they asked and it arrived two weeks later. I handed the envelope to my boss and she immediately ripped it open. I yelled, "NO! It has to still be sealed when we give it to them." She gave me a confused look as I sat and put my face in my hands. I had dropped a significant amount of money to get this and have it specially shipped. She had just ruined it.

She looked the degree over and asked, "Where is the seal?"

After a frustrating back-and-forth, I learned when they told me it must be sealed, what they meant was it must have the official State of Illinois International Authentication Seal. This seal is what proves to foreign governments that this is an official document.

She thought she had communicated clearly and I thought that I had understood. We were both wrong.

I have hundreds of stories like this, but let's come back to the present.

That 'creepy little dude' is now talking to my wife when I am not present and chooses to comment on her 'grapes.' If you have met my wife then you are probably aware that she is quite gifted in the area under her shirt. And in a culture that is known for not possessing those assets, it is even more apparent. But that does not mean he needs to be commenting on her grapes.

I head downstairs to confront this man and in my head I am running how I should play this. Should I be firm or gentle? Should I confront him in front of the other workers (to help keep him on their side of the wall) or take him to the side in private? I don't want to create too big of an incident. We do have to live among these people and we are the foreigners.

We may be the foreigners here but this cannot be allowed to happen?

I get downstairs to discover that is has escalated to the point that another worker is now involved and talking to my wife in the doorway. I start to step in to put an end to this harassment and I hear her telling the new man (who speaks a little English), he said: "Chau grapes are very big." Everyone (including my wife) laughed.

What is happening?

It turns out the 'creepy little dude' was wanting to plug into our electricity because the work site was having some work done and would be without power for a few hours. He wasn't being inappropriate at all. The Google Translate app just sucks when dealing with Vietnamese.

I even learned the reason he was asking about how I secured my doors a few days earlier was because our water pump was being replaced. When he discovered we were leaving for the evening, he was wondering how they were going to test the pressure once the new one was installed. There was no ill intent. We just don't have the ability to fully communicate. The extra speculation and guesswork about intent was misguided…again.

I have been putting off receiving official language instruction, but I believe it may be time to change my stance.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Hồ Chí Minh Heat

A little over a year ago, Red and I left China and moved to Vietnam. We have been in Hội An since August.

I've written several times about how much better life is here than Beijing. The cost of living is significantly lower. We have cleaner air, live on the coast, people are friendlier, food is fantastic, and (my favorite) it never gets cold.

The winters in Beijing are brutal and when you have to walk everywhere because you don't have a car you have to be very careful not to trip and scratch someone else's car with your nipples.

There is, however, a downside to living in a place where it never gets cold. The summers are on the extreme opposite of the spectrum.

It is so incredibly hot. All the time. Even the nighttime does not give much relief. Sitting in my living room at midnight watching Netflix requires several fans pointed right at me and I will still leave a sweat stain on the couch.

For ten months of the year, it is great to know that you can step outside 24 hours a day completely naked and be perfectly comfortable until the police show up. But in June and July, the sun will fry your dingus off before the police even get their first call.

The sun is the scariest part. It isn't just the heat. The sun is much stronger here. Being so close to the equator greatly increases not only the heat but exposure to the rays of the sun. Hội An, Vietnam is 1,570 miles further south than St. Louis, MO (close to where I grew up). I can feel the UV hit my bone marrow as soon as I step out of the shadows.

Plus, due to my arthritis, I am on a medication that makes me more susceptible to the sun. My doctor told me to avoid direct sunlight. And then I moved to the tropics. Yay, me.

To combat this, every morning I drink a liter of SPF 450-infused tea.

To avoid the heat and the sun in June and July (the worst months), we try to run any errands that need done (groceries, bills, etc) before 8 a.m. and spend the rest of the day at home. Under fans. Due to the architecture here, houses are not air-conditioned. A few individual rooms are, but the common areas are not. And can't be. The space is too open.  This means cooking a meal is quite a treat since we shed our clothes before we start. We just try not to sweat into the food.

We are now reaching the end of June, so we are about halfway through the hottest part of the year. One more month and the temperature will be under 100 again. Not by much, but those few degrees make a big difference.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Chinese Kidnapping

Red and I have stated many times that we are much happier in Vietnam than we ever were in China. But we have been gone long enough that we often forget how awful some of it was.

This morning, I stumbled upon on old Twitter thread where I live-tweeted the time I thought I was being kidnapped. It all came back to me. One of the most confusing moments I had while living in Beijing.

The school where I worked had put me in a van to be taken to the Entry-Exit Bureau to get my papers completed. Halfway there, I found myself in the middle of a road rage situation. Remember, I did not speak Chinese and couldn't even communicate with my driver.

As has been my experience in most of this part of the world, there is not much accommodation made for other drivers. People stop and sometimes even park right in the middle of busy roads. I didn't know why we had stopped but was very concerned that he had not pulled to the shoulder. We were fully blocking a lane of traffic.

Why? My driver was clearly in the wrong.

I was debating whether I would be safer staying in the vehicle or getting out and standing on the shoulder. However, the lack of ability to communicate often made me give people the benefit of the doubt and just go along with whatever was happening.

OK. I guess I am getting out.

They were both ushering me to the second car. "What is happening? Oh, how I wish I could ask some questions!"

I probably should have been texting my wife in case she never saw me again or texting my school to ask questions, but all I could think about was "This has the potential to become disastrous. I better keep tweeting so there is a record of the events."

 I just resigned myself to the fact that I was along for the ride now. Come what may.

Um…thank you. I guess.

I never did learn what that was all about.

Probably something could be learned here. But it's been over two years since this event and I haven't been kidnapped a second time. So, I think I'm good.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

My Mind Is Playing Twix On Me

Sometimes, when I sit down to write a blog post, it is not because I have a story that needs to be told. It is because I need to write something to continue my habit of writing every day. This often means that I don't really have anything to say. However, I still need to write something.

So, I use a writing prompt. Today, I am using this one.

This could be interesting because you just might find anything on Twitter. I'm going to pop over to Twitter, refresh my feed and write about whatever post is at the top. Be right back.

OK. Thanks for waiting. I got caught up in a thread about under-employed transgendered pugs. I had to follow that conversation. Anyway, here is what was at the top of my Twitter feed.

I was able to relate to this tweet immediately due to my current life situation. Living in Asia primarily means not having access to any good candy. The Vietnamese don't eat much chocolate.

To be honest, I am not really much of a sweets person. Growing up, I would happily wave aside the cake or ice cream dessert if it meant I could have more of the main course. A steak or baked potato is better than pie any day.

If I'm going to eat cake, this is my preference.

I am not saying I don't like sweets. I do. I'm just not as drawn to them as other foods. Although, I would grab the occasional candy bar at the grocery store. In the States, my default chocolate choice was usually either a Snickers or a Payday with the occasional Three Musketeers sneaking in now and then. I typically ate one or two candy bars each month. Not counting the candy-centric months surrounding Halloween, Easter or Christmas. Those months don't count. It's everywhere. A person just doesn't have much of a choice.

However, living in Vietnam, there is no choice when it comes to chocolate. If you come across some, you can buy it or don't buy. There is nothing to chose from. I ran down to the local market to take a picture of their sweets selection.

Most of the items on this table are fruit-based. They are sweetened by the natural sugar found in the fruit. But unlike even fruit candies in the States, there is no extra sugar added. So, to someone raised in America, the lack of sweetness is blaring.

The above picture is the closest thing to chocolate they have. It is a small cup with little pee-wee cookies and a goober's worth of white something in the bottom. It comes with a Lilliputian spoon to scoop it out. The 'cookies' have ZERO flavor. Think animal crackers but instead of being in the shape of animals, they are the shape of their droppings.

Little rabbit pellet cookies.

The white stuff is a gooey mess that definitely does not resemble chocolate. This little snack is basically a tiny shot of chunky jizz.

If I want to put in the time and effort to venture into the tourist part of town and spend the time looking for it, I may discover exactly three types of Western candy. I have seen Snickers and both plain and peanut M&Ms.

Though in this tropical heat, chocolate does not typically do very well and the mutilated gooey inside of the wrapper is pretty damning evidence of why chocolate hasn't really caught on here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Fiction: The Tree

I struggled to keep my voice from cracking as I peered through the branches to yell down to my father standing on the ground.

"I didn't mean to. It was an accident."

My father lowered his head and didn't say a word. That was never a good sign. He was not one of those parents who yelled. He never yelled. He always spoke in a calm voice but if he stopped talking I knew I was in a world of trouble.

I climbed higher to see over the house. The ashes from the pig barn were still smoking. Grandpa was raking out the nails and bits that wouldn't burn. My parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had all run out there when it was still blazing to keep it from spreading to any of the other buildings. My cousin Tony and I used that opportunity to scramble up into the tree. The danger to the barn and sheds was over, but that didn't mean I was safe.

Tony had found Uncle Jerry's Zippo lighter in the window sill on the back porch. Grandma wouldn't let him smoke in the house, so he always stepped out back to have a cigarette. My cousins and I usually followed him to see his lighter tricks. He could flick it open with one hand. He could snap his finger and make the fire start. Sometimes, he would hit it against his leg to start it. We loved those tricks and he had a hundred of them, but he would never let us try. He would say, "A lighter is not a toy" and put it back in his pocket. I never wanted to play with anything more than that lighter.

Earlier that day, Uncle Jerry set the Zippo in the window instead of back in his pocket. I didn't notice, but Tony did. He snatched it and showed it to me later. We didn't want to get caught with it, so we went to the old pig barn. Grandpa hadn't kept pigs for years, but he stored a few things in there. We crouched down behind the hay bales to try some of Jerry's tricks. When I dropped the lighter, it all happened very fast.

The hay on the floor caught immediately. Tony and I looked at each other in horror and ran out of the pig barn. My cousins Samantha and Emily saw the smoke and ran inside to tell the adults. We knew we were in trouble and shimmied up the tree on the other side of the house. When Jerry found his lighter in the ashes, they all knew what had happened. Tony and me cowering in the tree made us the prime suspects.

Our parents came to the tree and angrily demanded we come down. We started down despite knowing we were doomed. As soon as Tony swung his legs down, his dad grabbed him and spanked him all the way to the car. He threw him in the back seat and the family sped off. I could hear his mother screaming at him as they drove off.

I stopped my descent and retreated back to my original branch.

My dad narrowed his eyes and glared at me, "Get your butt down here now."

I knew what awaited me as soon as my feet touched the ground. Maybe even before then. "No. I'm never coming down."

Uncle Jerry showed up with a stepladder and my dad started up the tree. I climbed higher. I was younger and faster. He would not be able to catch me. Jerry called up to my dad, "You're just gonna have to wait him out." That was over three hours ago.

Every member of the family came out to coax me down, but I knew what would happen if I did. I didn't even come down for dinner.

By the time the sun set, everyone had gone home except for my family. My mother had begged me to come down and cried when I refused. Dad didn't even try to bargain. He just warned me to come down and take my punishment like a man. A punishment that was growing bigger and bigger the longer I chose to drag this out.

It had gotten very dark when Grandpa came out and set his hand on my dad's shoulder. "It's getting late. Take your little ones home to bed." My dad shook his head, "Tomorrow is Monday. He has school. I can't leave him here."

Grandpa reminded him of the stalemate we were in. My father agreed, but pointed out how happy it would make me to see him drive away. Grandpa said, "Don't worry about that." He pulled out his pocket knife and ambled over to the fence row. He cut off a long switch and whipped it through the air a few times so I could hear it swish. I have felt those switches before. This was not getting better.

Dad helped Grandpa pull a picnic table under the tree for Grandpa to sit at and he got comfortable with a Louis L'Amour western and a pitcher of lemonade. My dad gathered up my mom and sisters and they pulled out of the driveway.

With dad gone, I called down, "Grandpa, can Grandma bring me some of the chicken and biscuits. I haven't eaten since lunch."

Without looking up, he replied, "You grandmother is not talking to you or even coming outside. And you and I have nothing to discuss unless we are face to face." He poured himself another glass of lemonade and got back to his book.

I looked around for a thick branch to get comfortable on. This was going to be a long night.

This is NOT a true story. It was my first attempt at flash fiction. This story is a response to the prompt from the lovely Red at Doesn't Speak Klingon. The prompt was TREE.