Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Melancholia awaiting intervention

melancholic drips of
mingle with sea tears of

salt, sweet, spice, sour

a bowl of pho
a slice of lime
and the healing heat
of too-mild chilies

cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, cloves


crunchy oiliness of banh xeo
wrapped in the nosy spice
of mustard leaves
pungent with the aniseed of
holy basil

no spice without sweet
no salt without sour

home is where the contrasts
burn holes in my heart
the better to allow fateful winds
to blow me apart
with ecstasy, doldrums and easy pleasure

So long Sài Gòn.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ghettos and calling the kettle black

I’m sitting in the backpacker ghetto in Sài Gòn, trying to tempt my sore tummy back into the realm of the well by tenderly offering it ‘comfort food’. I’ve tried countless fruit shakes and lassies, pumpkin wontons in coconut soup, and goat’s cheese salad so far, plus a number of plain baguettes, all to no avail. I cannot face any noodle dishes (except pho), spring rolls, grilled meats or anything I devoured in the lead up to my belly’s demise. Is this irritating? Supremely. Do I think I can fight it? Not even going to try. I accept my need for cultural succor in the midst of an otherworldy month in Southeast Asia. Here I am studying the foodways of Viêt Nam, incapable of consuming any more of them, at least for the time being. Yet this has led to what I am finding a very interesting reflection.

Normally when we travel, Stuart and I are slight food fascists – not only do we try not to eat Western food during our travels (except a selection of breakfast foods, which we indulge), we scorn the idea of traveling in a country and not wanting to eat their food. Among the many reasons for our stance on this is the idea I am working on in my thesis about food being an avenue to understanding and belonging to a culture. So we try to eat our way to understanding, so to speak. Some would say we are ‘consuming culture’, though I am increasingly at odds with that concept. Culture is not a consumable, it is an interaction. And food offers a rich opportunity for this interaction – that is, over the table.

In fact, another brief reflection on my own life that I’ve had this trip is how I don’t eat nearly as much or as well when I’m alone (which is common to many people), and I have often subsequently wondered about the legitimacy of my food interests given my propensity not to eat or to eat very simple foods when alone. I have realized that my interest in food is as much about an interest in community as it is food (though I do, of course, adore good food), and so when there is no community, no table to share with friends and family, food is no longer a primary concern.

But back to the main topic here, about me sitting in a backpacker ghetto eating Western food in Sài Gòn. What am I doing? Why am I not out there, eating more banh xeo and chatting with locals? Well, aside from being sick, I think many of us are gathered here because we need some cultural succor as well. We need linguistic and cultural familiarity, and sometimes just food we recognize. It’s all very exciting and wonderful to be challenged hourly by new foods, drinks and the environments in which they are prepared and consumed. It is also a constant de-centring – it’s destabilizing. Those who have heard me on the topic of de-centring before will know that I am in favour of this experience, and find it worthwhile in the same way that learning to write in the margins enriches any reading of our lives. But such de-centring is also unsettling, and therefore eventually quite tiring. I think then that people need a recharge, and I am trying to come to terms with my own need for this supplement. And so here I am, in the ghetto.

Now, what I want to do next is talk about other ghettos. Migrant ghettos, socioeconomic ghettos, racial ghettos – the word has been used, mostly in a derogatory fashion, for some hundreds of years. The original ghettos were the Venetian Ghettos, where Jews were forced to live from about the 14th century. The term continues to apply to minority groups who either willingly choose to live amongst ‘their own’ or who are forced to by a majority group, usually through violent means. But even when the minority group that is willingly choosing to collocate with others of their group is relatively affluent, the term ghetto carries negative connotations. We need only read some of the more racist journalists or politicians to know that they ‘don’t approve’ of these ghettos or, as we often read in Australia, ‘ethnic enclaves’. Yet these same people typically also ‘don’t approve’ of new migrants moving into ‘their’ neighbourhoods. Catch 22. I’d like to focus on migrant ghettos, and I’d like it to be clear that I’m not using that term derogatorily, just descriptively.

Melbourne has a number of migrant ghettos, including Carlton as the original Italian area (which, interestingly, is no longer ever referred to as a ghetto as far as I know, though it maintains a very high population of Italian migrants – in fact, none of the Italian neighbourhoods are called this anymore, which makes me wonder ever more about the shifting notions of race in the geopolitical sphere, where Italians are now ‘white’ though that was not always the case). Some of the better known ghettos these days include Footscray and Richmond, where the Vietnamese have settled for the last 30+ years. Footscray’s ethnic diversity is broadening as many more African migrants settle there, but Richmond’s Vietnamese character is threatened by inner-urban gentrification as the wealthy buy in to its proximity and vibrant scene (which, ironically, will disappear like the other vibrant scenes that exist wherever migrants, artists, musicians and academics cluster when they are driven out by increasing prices). But for years, Victoria Street has been “Little Saigon”, a place for the Vietnamese outside of Viêt Nam and for the non-Vietnamese who want a taste of it (often literally, when they go there entirely for the fabulous range of restaurants).

For the migrants who choose to live together then – what motivates them? Obviously, everyone is different, but I think we can draw some generalities as I did for the backpackers above. Migrants seek comfort and familiarity in a place where every time they leave their own home they are in a linguistic and cultural mist. In fact, their own home may be of such different construction and layout, the occupants a very different, often smaller constituency, the sounds outside and inside so foreign, that even to be at home is not to be entirely ‘at home’. If you don’t speak the language of your adopted country, when do you get to relax? Is it any wonder that groups that are culturally and linguistically distinct seek to live amongst ‘their own’? Interestingly, we never talk about the migrants in Melbourne as ‘expats’, do we? But let’s talk about expats.

Hm, where do expats live when they go overseas? In ‘expat communities’, you say? Right, so… ghettos. Aha. Why do they live in these ghettos? Why don’t they assimilate? Why don’t they learn the language? (English-speaking expats are particularly well known for their failure to even attempt to learn the language of their adopted countries.) Why do they insist on eating all their own foods?

So. Ghettos. They make sense. They allow people to make sense of their worlds, and to be at ease while they do so. Of course it seems best if they come out of the ghettos and interact and learn about their adopted countries, and contribute some of their own cultural knowledge to the host countries. All of this is also assuming that coming out is an option. With no language, and particularly in the case of refugee migrants, where the support services for them to have access to language classes might be very limited, it can clearly be very difficult to leave the ghetto. For women, there is another set of concerns, whether it’s a Western woman in an Islamic country or a Muslim woman in a Western country, or some other configuration where the ways of the home and host countries are directly at odds. But where these particular hurdles don’t exist or can be overcome, surely we will all be better off if we make forays out of the ghettos until it becomes comfortable.

I think I’m feeling well enough for a short wander to the Ben Thanh Market, where I can practice some language and have a bowl of pho for lunch.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Even holidays need a weekend...

Our first tour, and hopefully our last, ends tonight. It has been amazingly full - of people, activities, learning and a sense of being overly protected. We have been spoiled, delighted, irritated and stimulated, usually all at the same time. So, a few highlights...

Cambodia (actually Kampuchea) is a remarkable country of friendly, resilient people who have endured a great deal yet still carry on with broad smiles and a proud sense of their long history. The Champa kingdom that extended so many kilometres south of Angkor was a marvel of ingenuity and creativity, yet only remains as the minority Cham people in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta region of Viet Nam. They're the only followers of Islam in the area, as far as we have worked out. The Cham reign ended as the Vietnamese just kept pushing south from their original homeland in the north until they had their current long skinny dragon-shaped country to themselves ('they' being some 90% Viet and 10% another 53 ethnic groups). Of course, they also endured 1,000 years of Chinese occupation and carry a strong sense of that influence even now, particularly in the north, and the final purge of the Chinese took place in 1978 in Hanoi, when the Communists forced them out. There's still a sizable population of ethnic Chinese (Hoa) in Saigon, though that city boasts a stronger Khmer influence culturally.

Back to travel banalities, though, a highlight of the cruise on the Mekong Pandaw was the morning they took us to the floating market at Cai Be (in Viet Nam) and then conceded to let the intrepid amongst the group (ie six of us out of some 40-odd) actually stay ashore for a couple of hours to wander around the market onshore. The floating market serves as a sort of wholesale market, whilst retail takes place ashore. And what a glorious early morning marketing scene it was! The abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables (think cassava, coriander and Chinese cabbages flanked by bananas, betel nuts and bitter melon) was matched only by the extensive selection of fish (eels escaping their oversized containers next to skinned frogs still hopping limply next to unskinned wide-eyed fellow prisoners of circumstance) - the fish section, by the way, that didn't smell at all because all the fish were still alive. Of course, the cages of rats for somebody's dinner were less of a highlight, but interesting in that exotically appalling sort of way. A divine breakfast of pho at one of the stalls-cum-cafes followed by our first Vietnamese coffee (ca phe - and excuse the utter lack of diacritics here as I am too lazy a the moment to cut and paste) topped off our idea of the perfect morning. And then it was back to travelling in the 'safety and comfort' of a horde of lovely people who made up for the stifling environment of this style of travel by sharing their fascinating, long and adventurous oral histories with us as we all wiled away the heat of the afternoon up on the sundeck.

Along with all the fascinating tidbits learned about these glorious ancient cultures by wandering amongst their foodstuffs and basking in their collective warmth has been the dark side we've witnessed in places like Tuol Sleng (otherwise known as S-21) in Phnom Penh, the high school converted to a place of torture for opponents of the Khmer Rouge. Whether it was intellectuals or their own party cadre they were torturing, the place is a scene of horror that reminds one of how dangerous people can be when power and fear intermingle in large doses. The nearby killing fields at Cheung Ek were peaceful in comparison, even with the tower of skulls imposing its intensely physical memorial in the centre. Approximately 2 million people died in the mere four years the Khmer Rouge were in power, in a country that only had about 7.5 million at the time, by execution, starvation and disease. How how how does the world stand by while these atrocities take place in our midst? How can we learn from our horrible mistakes of apathy and save future victims all around the globe from similar acts of genocide? I only wish I could begin to answer the questions of which so many of us are full.

The Cu Chi tunnels north of Saigon hold their own horror, as we confronted the reality that living in tiny airless spaces deep underground was actually more appealing than attempting to survive the defoliated landscape above. While our American comrades have struggled to come to terms with their presence in this beautiful country that was so deeply damaged by their government’s actions (and ours, and both of mine, and who are ‘they’ and ‘we’… ?), the Vietnamese we’ve encountered have continually reiterated what a vibrant and dynamic country they are, and how no animosity lingers to hold them back in their drive towards peace and prosperity. Uncle Ho reigns supreme and I can easily accept him as the hero to lead us all out of the darkness of colonialism, imperialism and violence, even if only as a symbolic figurehead of idealism.

Sitting now in the sublimely colonial surrounds of the divine Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, one can understand the appeal of being the ruling class. Conversely, in such luxury lurks a cold divide from everything local, and sheltering in the cold divide is power’s old friend, fear. In the not knowing, in the protective gestures, and in the home-away-from-home creature comforts is where I sense that which seems most destructive – the fear to engage. If you strip back all this protection, these buffers and masks, people will quickly discover that there is nothing to fear, and that there is much to be learned. Tomorrow, when the others depart, I look forward to slipping out of the silk robes and into something a little more comfortable.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Angkor Hot!

Oh, my, the days of travel without children! We do so much! The last three days have been very full, fulfilling and diverse…

Wednesday we did the cooking class in Bangkok at Baipai – what a delectable experience that was. We learned the relative merits of tapioca over corn flour, how to make our own fresh coconut milk, and a particular favourite, how to make tom kah gai, the world’s best soup. We were taught to slap your mashed fish mix to make puffy fish cakes (Stuart, oddly, apparently didn’t do enough slapping…), that the predominant flavour to emphasise in tom kah gai (chicken galangal soup) is sour (the others being sweet, salty & spicy) and you don’t even have to cook the chilies, just bash them a little and pop them in at the end, and that the best way to check if your oil is hot enough for deep frying in the wok is to put a wooden skewer in and wait for bubbles. Oh, and we ate… mmmmm.

A classic Bangkok Bladerunner-esque cab ride along the raised tollways back to the Novotel Suvarnabhumi landed us in style on the biggest bed we have ever had the pleasure to enjoy. I think it was nearly twice as big as our king back home, and we slept like angels in the so-called city of.

Yesterday was the surreal meeting with our fellow tourists of the National Geographic Expedition which we are now enjoying, with an early flight to Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat. Siem Reap itself is a bizarre American outpost with an army of smiling Cambodians providing for our every need. The Grand Hotel D’Angkor, built by the French in 1929 and refurbished and upgraded in 1998, is a palatial and gracious remnant of the recent colonial past, overlayed with the intense consumerism (and associated prices) of the current predominance of American clientele. But as is always the case with Americans (and I can say whatever I want about this, since I am/have been one), they are all so nice. And as for those on our tour, they are well-travelled, mostly quite socially conscious and very interesting people. Mind you, most of them are also well over 65, and I’m pretty sure some are pushing 85. Stuart, Jodi and I are the novelties on the trip, but as usual, everyone is delighted to see us traveling with Ma and Dad, and indeed it is a pleasure and a privilege to all be together (we just miss Rhett & Shari!).

We’ve visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, the Bayon and today, a silk farm and artisan’s collective, and it has all been predictably gorgeous and inspiring, except for the crowds. We are not only traveling in a serious horde ourselves, everywhere we turn, we encounter ourselves exponentially. This does, unfortunately, have the effect of dampening our meditative capacity at these ancient ruins, but the temples are sufficiently incredible to sustain us. We do look forward to embarking on the boat tomorrow, in hopes of a bit more reflective space…

As for Cambodian (or Khmer) food, we finally had a beautiful meal of it today at Viloth’s in town. The green papaya salad was a perfect balance of sour and salty that we so adore (though it could have used more spice, as everything here is devoid of chili to please the westerners), the Amok fish (in coconut milk, lemon grass, basil and coriander) was an amazingly creamy yet delicate flavour sensation, and the Laab (minced pork, lemon grass, lemon, peanuts and coriander) was just completely out of this world – heaven. Tonight who knows how the food will be, but it is meant to be Khmer, whilst being enchanted by a performance of the celestial apsara dancers. I hope I find myself in about an hour exclaiming “nih ch’ngain nah” (this is delicious!).

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bangkok Chinois

One night in Bangkok makes the... Mama and Daddy relax!! Missing the kids at the moment is not so pathological as the anticipatory dread I experienced pre-departure (anybody suprised by this?). Phew. So, on to the blogging...

Bangkok is pretty fabulous, with the heat, the smells, the crowds and the ultra-delicious food everywhere. With the time difference, we were up at 6am for a bit of reading before brekky (how utterly luxurious in itself) and out onto Yaowarat Rd by 9am. A short stroll through lane after lane of markets led us to the Chao Praya River, where we hopped on a boat up to the Grand Palace. Of course, we had no intention of visiting said palace, but it was a lovely stroll through countless stalls and markets just behind the palace. After some glorious produce markets, we passed through the colourful flower market, before finding ourselves in retail central. When that grew tedious, we started to graze, landing eventually back in Chinatown for some pork buns, dumplings and wontons. Mmmm.

Fish, fried, dried or fermented, is definitely a local favourite, and the smell of naam plaa (fish sauce) is growing on us by the minute. Of course, although we've resisted most of the retail therapy, we have weakened over one or two irresistible items for the much-missed brood...

We're currently sheltering from the 45% humidity in the heat of the afternoon before venturing out for a Singha, som tam & gaeng kiaow on the River later this afternoon/evening... Tomorrow we're booked in for a half-day cooking class before joining the National Geographic folks at the Novotel Suvarnabhumi by the new airport of the same name. It's pretty rough, I tell ya'. And we're just the people to appreciate it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

SE Asia or bust

It's been nine years, three kids, one vasectomy, two degrees, countless hairstyles, two overseas moves and a couple of breakdowns since our last extended childless adventure o/s, and it's time. We've been looking forward to this since Dad offered it a few months back, maybe even since around 2001? But now that it's upon us, I can't believe how hard it actually is to go. The kids are despondent, our friends and auntie & uncle are all set for support, and we really need a holiday, but ouch, this is hard. I just really wish we were taking the kids. I'm sure I'll change my mind?

So the trip is 3 weeks for Stuart, 4 for me. Two weeks from Angkor to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) then Hanoi with my generous Ma and Pa and sister Jodes, then hopefully to Hoi An for about 5 days on our own (if it's flooded, we'll reroute...), finally to Saigon again, where Stuart will head home to lovely chaotic kiddles and I'll stay on for a week for research. I do have the best research ever, being forced to hang out with people while they shop and/or eat and talk about food, family, memory and imagination. Tough gig.

One glitch though - Stuart was told on Friday that he has to go to Singapore for a meeting on his way to Bangkok, meaning he's leaving in about an hour, whereas I leave at 1pm tomorrow, so we're hooking up in the Bangkok airport. Not only is this unfortunate for the whole 'first exciting/scary long trip away from wee ones' bonding on the plane, it means I have to be the one to drop kids off at school in the morning without him, whilst they dissolve (and I... ?) and I march valiantly away to get a cab to the airport alone. I know that some folks will be thinking, "yeah, but at least you're going overseas together(ish)", but the physical act of leaving the creatures I grew is the single thing I am dreading most, and now, I'm on my own.

Okay, off to a jaw-clenching sleep before the dreaded separation, followed by, I'm sure, an amazing holiday. Hopefully the next post will be a bit more exciting...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Social rhymes with show-all (at least assonantly)...

I'm thinking a lot at the moment about stitching my identities together, some of which have frayed edges and others which sport bias(ed) bindings. In this cyber-real unreality of the uber-E, where 'e' is for 'eccentric' and 'eclectic', my careful stitches sometimes appear as pure pastiche. And isn't it fascinating that when one finally mends the online schisms, puts that personality that used to make so much sense back into one eager little portal, how schisms show up as schizoid - we aren't meant to put all our selves back together again. Identities are so fractured, so multiple, that to force them back into one mould simply breaks it. So what the hell am I talking about? Well, it's this:

I really like having a blog for my musings, a wiki for food reviewing with friends, RSS feeds for journal alerts and blog updates (especially food blogs), email for the banal dailies, websites for designing online curricula, social bookmarking for online convenience and bibliographic trails, online data storage to tame my version-control issues, and social networking for making links (both academic and otherwise).

I have to go to a meeting. I'll be back. x

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Flag F(l)ag Football

It's hard to remember how annoyed I felt about that restless legs thing - I've been far too occupied and amused to bother thinking about foolish people lately. Picture this:

Boston, Chandler Inn, South End. Not the Hilton (where we stayed in DC), but clean and safe. Pop in at the bar downstairs for a drink after the Radcliffe conference on Thursday evening. Stop at the door. Ask doorman, "Are women allowed in here?" as my mind swam in some sort of anachronistic sense that in Boston they don't let the women drink in public. "Sure," he says, "more might come later." Weird, but okay. Sit awkwardly at bar amongst sports fans and wonder what tenacity I possess to keep this up. Order a local beer (boring - Samuel Adams). Pull out shield of notebook and begin to take notes on travels thus far. Men ordering drinks next to me mostly don't look at me, unless with a slight frown. Take note of stereotypical intonation patterns and abundance of white wines, light beers and martinis. Ooooooh, I get it (duh - bit slow). Confirm understanding that I'm in a gay bar with a nice young man, Anthony. He's very warm and invites me to join them - I say I will in a moment after finishing a bit of writing. End up having a drink there with Anthony and other lovely guy, who then take pity on me and take me to a straight bar a block away, where we share quesadillas, Australian slang and many laughs before I climb into bed around 10:30pm. Noice.

Next night after the conference: in search of a light dinner and a drink. Revisit straight bar from night before, but too crowded to sit down, so move on. Head for Butcher Shop, recommended by random man on train earlier. No seats. Cross the street to Oysters, recommended by couple in first overcrowded bar as good venue next to the Butcher Shop. Get the only single seat at the bar. The menu has 40 regional choices of oysters. Ask for advice from obvious local next to me. Obvious local turns out to be Charlie, the owner of the restaurant as well as of the Butcher Shop across the street, as well as a fine dining establishment in Beacon Hill. Charlie and his friends graciously keep me company, ply me with expensive wine, insist on buying my dinner (beautiful oysters, calamari, buffalo shrimp, soft-shell crab, etc amen), and then whisk me off to meet his wife the fab chef in Beacon Hill over a Laphroaig. What a gentleman!! What a gorgeous way to spend my last night in Boston! I love Boston!! Thank you, Charlie!

Now in New York with my beloved and Graham and Janine having a lovely time in spite of the wet, chilly nor'easter. Bought a fleece, gloves and hat in Boston - lifesaving devices all. It's real rain here too - like you really need an umbrella and everything. Crazy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Restless Legs

Watching tv for the first time on this American dream, there was an ad. The ad was about "Restless Legs Syndrome", but it was actually about selling a drug for this unpleasant new syndrome. Hm, since when are restless legs a problem? Don't you just get up and go walkabout to sort that out? Aren't restless legs something people have talked about forever, the long skinny things that take people places, take people away, make us wander, encourage us to wonder, get us going, grooving, living, loving... ?

What is it about this place that makes people want to medicate restlessness, rather than interrogate it and fulfill it? Why drugs rather than the proverbial hugs, or drugs rather than simply getting off your non-proverbial arse and WALKING, which is probably all those poor little legs want? Of course, that's hard to do in ridiculous shoes, so maybe what we really need is a SENSIBLE SHOE REVOLUTION. I'm in. In fact, I'm already a card-carrying member of that movement.

So, Restless Legs. In America, you can take drugs to get over that. Me, I travel. Or I just walk or ride my bike at home. I don't keep sitting and wondering what's wrong. I suspect far too many people have forgotten about the natural world. The one in which it is OBVIOUS that if you sit and sit and sit allllll the time, you might (probably will) get RESTLESS LEGS.

So GET UP. Go for a WALK. Check out the WORLD around you. Use your body for what it was intended. Have more SEX. LIVE a little. Save drugs for plain fun (or not at all), but not to solve obvious problems. Duh. F*@#in' Restless Legs. S E T T H E M F R E E. pax.