Notes from the North; the final frontier.

Ma Pi Leng pass, Vietnam, Ha Giang,

International borders are strange places. Scale mountains, cross rivers, and then you arrive at an apparently arbitrary line drawn in the sand which announces the beginning of a new territory, completely incongruous with the identical geographical landscape on both sides of this invisible division.

Ma Pi Leng pass, Ha Giang, Vietnam
Mã Pí Lèng Pass, 馬鼻梁/ mǎbíliáng (5000 ft above sea level). The name means “bridge of a horse’s nose” in Mandarin, referring to its narrowness, and the collapse of many horses en-route the treacherous road. 

To be fair, the journey from Hà Giang city to Mèo Vạc had given us a taste of what to expect. This was a local bus service, in which the vehicle was loaded up with produce to be sold at the market the next day. This produce included livestock comprising of no less than four crates of live ducklings, strapped to the roof, and chirping all the way. They were eventually delivered to a primary school in the middle of a foggy valley, some hours later.

When the bus began to slide around in the muddy slopes (which formed the main road) I was horrified when the busboys began motioning that half of the bus would have to get off and walk for a while. Well, at least I wasn’t expected to help push the bus…and the locals enjoyed the show of watching me (half-asleep with only my phone in my hand) trudge along embattled bus as it struggled onwards. It was 8am, and I hadn’t sleep properly the previous night (blame the sleeper bus from Hanoi with its non-stop karaoke and neon lights). After the shock wore off, and I woke up properly, I started to really appreciate what I was seeing, and realised I’m Not In Hanoi Anymore.

Dong Van market, Ha Giang, Vietnam

Modernity exists somewhat uneasily in Đồng Văn in my opinion.

I’ve already spoken about how strangely time seems to move in Hanoi, and even in Europe, when I was listing reasons to visit Latvia last year, I was struck by the juxtaposition of old and new (concerning transportation and beyond). This was truly something else though, women carried wicker baskets of goods, whilst men sat on their brick-like mobile phones. There were no clocks, no mechanical noises, but there was something strange about a lot of the ethnic minority clothes that were for sale…

Now it just so happens that I briefly worked for an online e-commerce business dealing with ethnic minority handicrafts (I know, I know, it’s been an odd sort of life so far). As a result, I do actually know my Black Hmong from Flower Hmong, Tay, Dzai etc. That’s when I realised. The shades of these garments were far too neon to have been produced by natural dyes. the fabric looked more like Lycra or something similarly synthetic.

Then I remember a post on a blog that I read about six months ago. It was about how ethnic minority peoples in Sapa had started to do business with factories in China in order to produce ready-made “ethnic minority style” garments. In her post, Pau mentions the Hmong children that she saw wearing these garments, which were originally made for Vietnamese and other tourists to “dress up” in for photo shoots (the idea of cultural appropriation isn’t widespread in Vietnam or China, from what I’ve seen).

Hence the uneasy relationship between modern tourism innovation, and cultural heritage preservation cross the border regions of northern Vietnam. We also came across “ethnic minority tourist villages”, under construction, in which properties are being built in ethnic minority styles, and then go into business as “traditional home-stays” for tourists (despite the fact that they are both new, and not actually “home” to any minority peoples).

Hmong King's palace, Ha Giang,
Palace of the Hmong Kings, 19th century. 

One things was clear, compared to the city, a life of hardship was what awaited many ethnic minority peoples. We saw children as young as five or six working in the fields, carrying loads on their backs, and many unaccompanied children wandering along the side of busy roads, collecting discarded plastic bottles and other waste. It was a national holiday (Labour Day) whilst we were in Ha Giang, but that meant little to the people who were working on the land.

Dong Van market

We met several extraordinary women (and an owl).

The woman in the photo above had caught this owl in the mountains, and trained it as something of a pet. Although I might disagree with the ethics of keeping a wild animal as a pet, she was clearly very affectionate towards it, and it slept by her side as she sold things on her stall. I couldn’t help but wondering if the owl was something of a symbol of the place where she’d come from, too, and that when she came into the city to make a living, perhaps it felt a bit less lonely to have something else beside yet which looked slightly incongruous in an urban environment.

Dong Van market pho seller

 This woman was a phở (noodle soup) seller, and she sold pork phở – unusual fare for the cities, but apparently the norm in Hà Giang. What was amazing about this woman was how she demonstrated the utter fragility of western notions of “intelligence”. For starters, she was illiterate, and secondly, was selling food so cheaply that she couldn’t be turning a very good profit.

However, after some more customers arrived at her stand we noticed that they were speaking a language which was neither Mandarin nor Vietnamese. This happened several times, with more customers appearing. After a quick conversation (in Vietnamese) it transpired that this lady does indeed know how to speak five different languages, of which there are no printed dictionaries or direct translations of into English. Not only that, but she revealed that the common language between ethnic minority groups is actually Mandarin Chinese, meaning that the vast majority of ethnic minority people are at least bi- or tri-lingual from childhood.

Notice the faded black-and-white photograph of a man in the background, on the wall.

The bus from Hà Giang broke down on our return journey. Halfway in between village life and the roaring city bustle, this time I knew just what to do. With a glass of sugarcane juice, I sat by the side of the road, and waited for time to resume.

Advertisements

Hanoi, and the beauty in small things

Tran Quoc pagoda, Hanoi

It’s time to talk about Hanoi.

About a life lived in fragments, about the fragments of planes, and even of planes which left lives in fragments.

Hanoi might genuinely be one of the few cities I’ve lived in where the sum of the parts is truly greater than the whole. Generally, Hanoi gets quite a bad press from a lot of western tourists; it’s too polluted (comparable to Jinan and Beijing), the weather is temperamental and goes from one extreme to another, and most of all, the nightlife is incomparable to that of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, but my supervisor says it’s not respectful to put Ho Chi Minh’s name in the same sentence as “nightlife”).

On the whole, those critics are right. The traffic is awful, the weather seems unstable, and there’s definitely a more conservative, traditional mindset here than there appears to be in HCMC, from what I’ve heard.

Hanoi street art

Yet there are scenes here which cannot be forgotten, and it is to these small details which I now draw your attention to.

  • Classical music streams from the partially-opened shuttered windows of an ochre-coloured mansion, its fading colonial grandeur illuminated by a pollution-red sun.
  • Elderly women sit and sip tea together, on stools which are just centimetres from the floor.
  • Men of a similar age gather around a traditional chessboard nearby and argue jovially about the legitimacy of different manoeuvres in a tense game of Chinese-chess.
Hanoi B52 Museum deities
Small deities reside in a plant pot in front of military wreckage. There’s an overwhelming sense of forgiveness, and generosity of spirit here. The small bonsai tree signifies eternal life, in a place of death.
  • Small deities grace a plant pot besides the burnt-out remains of a large, Soviet-made, American-deployed tank.
  • A woman and young child stare out into the middle of their neighbourhood lake, opposite a primary school, which happens to contain the wreckage of a downed B52 fighter plane.
A Vietnamese woman and child look out onto a lake with the wreckage of an American B52 plane.
A Vietnamese woman and child look out onto a lake with the wreckage of an American B52 plane.

It is these things and more which give Hanoi its charm. Something about the way in which the caged birds by the lake sing tells me that time has a way of moving more slowly here. To quote Bram Stoker’s Dracula; “the old centuries had, and have, powers mere modernity cannot kill“. There are few public clocks here. Time moves of its own accord.

Caged birds Hanoi
Caged birds which sing regardless.

Please don’t mistake my referencing of classic Victorian literature. This is not meant to be a colonial-esque romanticism of Vietnam’s capital, though it is often described as such. Hanoi to me suggests defiance in the face of a turbulent past, not a whimsical longing for a bygone era, but that’s just my impression. It’s hard not to be impressed by a place which is able to turn history to its own advantage, to triumph in such a way as to build a themed cafe based on the site of a plane crash, for example.

Huu Tiep lake, plane wreckage, Hanoi
Close-up of wreckage. Note the small tree growing out of the plane’s remains, seen by locals as a symbol of life’s resilience. 55 Hoàng Hoa Thám, Huu Tiep Lake.

I’ll leave you with this, and you can make up your own mind. Hanoi will continue to stand, as it always has done, regardless of the attempts of others to remake it in their image.

Rivers and mountains (are not the same thing). 山和水不一样的.

The following post may appeal to you if…

  • Your LinkedIn profile still reads “looking for opportunities” (well, at least you learned how to turn on that setting, that’s not a bad thing).
  • Your CV shows more ad hoc, overlapping work than most of your graduating class (you still keep the formal photo of your year group in your room, neither of these things are a weakness).
  • You’re still living at home, attempting to save money and re-evaluate your options (this too, is not failure, failing to plan is true failure).
  • You like Chinese philosophy and/or scenery.

 

Your friends who are the same age as you are a bit like mountains. Stable, steady, constant. You can’t help but be in awe of them. They hit milestones (a house! A fiance! A master’s degree!) and reach new heights (a PhD! Getting married next year!).

Meanwhile, you’re the river, and it feels like you’re running down, away from the summit, an unpredictable course. It’s fair to say that the river isn’t always fast-flowing, it doesn’t always look majestic. Yet, it adapts to change remarkably well, and it is capable of existing in a variety of states. Most importantly, it sustains the lives of those that drink from it.

Mountains are admired, but best glimpsed from a distance, whereas rivers often meander out of sight. Remember this though; rivers are always sought after. You cannot compare the mountains to the river, and would we really want a landscape without either?

Image result for shan shui

The inspiration for this post actually came from a Chinese concept, the idea that a landscape is essentially composed of two unique (but united) elements, rivers and mountains. The Mandarin word for “landscape” is literally “mountain/water” (山水). Ever since studying Mandarin Chinese in Jinan, Shandong province, two years ago, I’ve endeavoured to keep learning and keep practicing my 普通话 !

The perception of things as different but equal is central to Chinese thought as a whole, as well as ancient painting and aesthetics. If you think about it, the two opposing features of any landscape work in harmony, as they “balance” each other. The sheer stability of a mountain is the opposite to the flowing, sometimes unpredictable course of the river. Rivers have their source at mountains, but they also shape them.

In my review of Bangladesh, flooded by change, I mentioned the book The Water KingdomA Secret History of China (2016) by Philip Ball. Well, I’ve been reading more of it, and learning a great deal. In an intriguing passage which I found incredibly relevant to this post, Philip Ball describes the contrast between shan and shui as “a particularly beautiful aspect of the yin/yang dialectic”. Following Ball’s interpretation, “the (male) mountains are permanent, symbolizing space; (female) water is changeable, a symbol of time” (pg. 75).

The idea of the shui and shan therefore, as representing the balance of the cosmos, fits fantastically with the idea that some people may seem to be going along one path in life, whilst others are running a seemingly incongruous course. After graduating from higher education, peoples’ lives often take divergent courses. None of them are wrong, and as far back as the time of Confucius’ Analects (c. 475 -221 BC), the merits of both approaches to life have been discussed using life’s great metaphor of rivers and mountains. Thus, once again on this blog, I find myself discussing how the smallest of phrases can open a window into an apparently “alien” culture.

山和水不一样的.

我们都是<山水相连>, 对吧?

Translation:

Mountains and rivers are not the same.

We are all “linked by common mountains and rivers” (Chinese idiom), right?

Book Review – Bangladesh, flooded by change (2016) Bosse Kramsjö

Bangladesh flooded by change book

Reading has always helped me get back into writing. I often leave pages bookmarked for months, meaning to get back to commenting on them, to write a post or even just copy a couple of notable quotes down. It rarely happens. Yet some of my most popular posts on here are book reviews, for example Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse or Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Now I’d like to discuss a lesser-known book.

This book will always have special significance for me as it was brought as a present by a Bangladeshi colleague as I was leaving Bangladesh. This colleague is an avid reader herself, and so I knew that I could trust her judgement on this being a really engaging read. I really enjoy reading books about some of the places that I’ve lived in abroad, and this was no exception.

At the moment I’m reading Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom, A Secret History of China, which is fascinating so far, but hasn’t yet reconnected me to my memories of studying in China, in the same way that this book did with Bangladesh. Perhaps it’s because Bangladesh was a more recent experience, but I actually think that the distinctly personal and at some points idiosyncratic narration style of Bangladesh, flooded by change has something to do with it.

It’s a book which makes no attempt at pure professionalism, or polished narration, but the bitter irony in some of the statements, and the startling juxtapositions that are brought to realisation within the text are pulled off with profound effect. Even as a bidēśhī/ foreigner (বিদেশী) it’s clear that the author, as my colleague reassured me, has successfully penetrated some of the most complicated nuances at the heart of Bangladeshi culture.

Where this book really triumphs is as a moving polemic against modern capitalism and globalisation. The effects of mass consumerism and embedded corruption are explored first as a microcosm (in a village, affecting a particular farmer’s family) and are only afterwards exposed as part of a societal evil, much like a landscape painting with an accompanying miniature.

There’s cynicism in every comment, and each comment is literally presented as such; a small commentary on a universal theme. The common thread here is simply Bangladesh, from a lament about the loss of fireflies “due to modern chemical agriculture” (pg. 55) to an impassioned account of a group of rural villagers who are outraged to discover that Sweden throws away almost 1/3rd of all food purchased (pg. 94)

Excerpts from the dialogue about food wastage read “It can’t be true! […] but weren’t people in your country supposed to be well-educated?”, “They do not understand” concludes the sarcastic narration for this segment, “and cannot accept, such behavior. But then they [the villagers] are not very well educated”.

There are many more passages like this; a rickshaw driver in Dhaka who jokes about how Bangladesh and Bill Gates are similar because “both earned the same amount of money last year” (pg. 116).

Then there’s the extract named “Knowing for a Better Life” concerning “an advert in a daily newspaper” which advises manual workers on how to avoid muscle strain. The joke here? The vast majority of this 40 million strong group of people are illiterate. Moreover, there is no way that they can even hope to follow the advice given in this advert, and avoid strenuous exercise (pg. 97). The absurdity is as obvious as the author’s sharp eye for the extraordinary details which ordain everyday life.

The smallest of comments in this book unlocked a world, a way of living in a developing country which is being literally and metaphorically “flooded by change”. The retreat of the fireflies, for example, brings to mind one particular Bangla lesson with our tutor in the apartment. She mentioned that she hadn’t seen fireflies since she was a child, and that the word for firefly, Jōnāki (জোনাকি) was once a popular name for village girls. Now the name has vanished with those small orbs of light. I remember noting down the name, and the idea, in my specially designated red Bangla notebook.

Our Bangla tutor is moving to Canada next month, and though I left Bangladesh some weeks ago now, I’m sure that my memories of the country (which harbours few remaining jōnāki) will not be as quick to fade.

 

A Letter to My Graduating Self (2015), based on Neil Gaiman’s Instructions (2010) and Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go (2003 edn.).

Watercolour mandala painting, Watercolour mandala, watercolours, painting, mandala, design, asian, artwork, art,

Most people write letters to their future selves. Perhaps I’m less optimistic, or more nostalgic than most. Usually people write their goals, but right now, I want to take stock.

Two and a half years might not seem like long, but to be honest, if you add up my undergraduate term time then two and a half years is actually around the equivalent amount of time to that which I spent physically at university.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between what we expect to happen, and what actually occurs, as well as the gulf between our expectations when we leave one stage of life (e.g, school, university etc.) and what we go on to do next.

—-

To you,

I’ve read your diaries. I know your dreams and fears. You want adventure, and you’ll get it. You don’t have a direction, and believe me, even now you’re still re-orientating yourself, a spinning astrolabe.

Some graduates chart their courses with the precision of cartographers, navigating obstacles. You use a Cross Staff, and trace the constellations overhead instead; a true historian.

Mandala basic pencil sketch

For you, life usually means taking the road “never heard of it”, rather than the famous “one less travelled by”.

It’s not all romantic Renaissance analogies though. You’re working temporary, part-time, zero-hours, with none of the trimmings. You’re bored at work  – but at least it’s quiet – and you’re able to write this!

Mandala basic watercolour painting

There’s no car, no house, or more realistically, there’s no rented flat. There’s no dog (not that you ever wanted one), or even a cat (yes, you’re still allergic).

 

There was an operation that went wrong. There were jobs you didn’t get. Opportunities missed. Whole continents you’ve yet to visit. New friends, and those that remain pretty much the same.

Half-completed watercolour mandala painting

You’ve left places (and contracts) and you’re living at home. None of these things heralded the end of the world, as you previously predicted.

You’re braver than you know, and better at “handling risk and change” than your school reports will ever show.

 

Watercolour mandala painting

Most of all though, you’re a still dreamer… and you’ve still got so far to go.  

Childhood spaces revisited; The Natural History Museum, London

Natural History Museum, London, parrots, sunny, tourist, attraction,

I’ve already covered a very visual aspect of my trip to London last week, but I didn’t just visit the Victoria & Albert Museum. On this blog I’ve covered other educational institutions in London which are open to the public, but this one is different, it is a building steeped in history and learning, designed purely for the purpose of public education, at a time when access to state education was inconsistent.

20170731_154257-EFFECTS

It’s also a place that I have fond memories of as a child, in the form of school trips and family days out, mainly during the school holidays. I think that this is probably true for a lot of British people, and many more tourists and visitors.

20170731_154946
Does this staircase remind anyone else of Hogwarts?

When visiting purely for the purpose of seeing the exhibits however, much is neglected. The facade of the building is often admired (and featured in the background of many a group photo), but what about the extraordinary details of the interior? What about the colonial background of some of the objects collected? And the personal mission of the men behind the museum?

20170731_155518

This is a record of some of my own thoughts and observations, walking around the polished halls of the museum again, as an adult, re-visiting childhood memories in this space.

Previous posts have discussed the activities of Americans in Vietnam, of Portugal’s colonial activities in the New World, and even of Europeans in north Africa. But I’m ignoring my own blind spot. What about the literal elephant in the colonial room? People tend to forget that the British Empire affected everything in Britain, from the motives of individuals, to the motifs on individual buildings. It’s not just across Africa and Asia that “colonial” architecture can be seen, designed to intimidate, to project an image of benevolence and grandeur, majestic, and oddly paternal, an enduring influence. Built to last, and to “educate” the masses, to give a lasting impression.

20170731_164334

(main hall, with new blue whale display!) I remember having to collect my sister from this information point about 15 years ago when she got lost, separated from our grandparents, and was returned here…

 

Intricate, life-like cravings on pillars stemming from the main hall. All of the animals are found at an “appropriate” level, e.g, snakes at the bottom, ram at knee-waist level (depending on your height!) and apes at the very top, towards the roof.

Note the detail on the roof tiles. The scientific, Latin names of plants are recorded alongside their painted pictures. No aesthetics without educational value in this building!

20170731_154659
Memorial to Frederick Selous, “Hunter – Explorer & Naturalist”. Military captain, British hero in “German East Africa”, acquaintance of Theodore Roosevelt and inspiration for the Indiana Jones character Allan Quartermain.

How have I never noticed the Frederick Selous memorial before? It’s an incredible testament not just to the man, but to the zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age” that was Victorian Britain. Of course Selous’ skills as a hunter provided the Natural History Museum with much of the stock for its mammal collection. I should add, the plaque was actually unveiled in 1920, some decades after Selous’ death, but clearly his reputation was cemented, his fame grew into something of a literary legend. Selous was a  young “ivory hunter” who had been inspired by the writings of Dr. Livingstone and others since his public schoolboy days, who grew into the embodiment of Empire. His physical appearance was evidence of his strength, and his fighting alongside Robert Baden-Powell ensured his military fame. Last but not least, Selous had strong connections to the man who (even to this day) is seen as the personification of “Empire” in Britain – Cecil Rhodes.

For further reading on “beasts, Burma and British imperialism”, including the apparently contradictory colonial wildlife legislation can be found on the intriguing blog Colonizing Animals.

It’s not just in the stuffed animal collections that a post-colonial legacy is evident. I noticed some really fascinating details on the labels of the NHM’s mineral collections;

20170731_160544
Notice the detailed locations of the specimens brought back from British-administrated Burma, vs. the vague “Canada” location of another mineral. Considering the landmass of Canada compared to “Burma”. Also note the “Ceylon” name tag. “Ceylon” is modern day Sri lanka. Should museums update their displays to include contemporary place names, or reflect the reality of the world that they were collected in?
20170731_161518
Again, very precise location for the German crystals (any link to Prince Albert/ his connections?) yet such a vague label for the sublimed crust! Is it a coincidence that China was never part of the British Empire, hence “China” is seen as a sufficient category; the Other?

My visit was a great reminder that museums are far from “neutral” spaces. Though we may have personal memories of them, they belong to a collective identity, not just the society which they currently exist in, but that which they were founded in. There are some objects which reach museums by dubious means, and some aspects of museum ethnography which raise moral issues which didn’t exist in previous centuries. The future of all Victorian institutions however, is a double-edged sword; on one hand they continue to educate and provide enjoyment for the general public, on the other, they are a haunting reminder of a colonial past, whose spirit lingers in them to this day.