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A Profound Experience

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This post will be bereft of distracting pictures. Words alone can only express the magnitude of what I have to share.

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I had a profoundly emotional experience on July 25th, 2014, but it did not sink in until the end, after I got home.

As per the arranged plan, I met up with a local friend — let us call her Em, a term of endearment for a person younger than you — one who has been a better friend than many I’ve had back in the States. She took a bus to me, rather than her motorbike, and I met her not far from my current residence. Shortly after, we took another bus to the Saigon Zoo – which in and of itself is a great place, for I’ve seen worse zoos and this one was pretty good. There we wandered about, talking or pointing at and taking pictures of the various animals. Sometimes we sat, continued to talk about all manner of topics, or even teach each other a little of our languages.

Eventually, Em’s friends arrived, as is the Vietnamese way. I had met one of them, Jane, a few nights prior, but the other lady was a new face. Everyone is quick to laugh and smile, and though I sat among the girls unable to understand 98% of what was being said to each other, I thoroughly enjoyed their company. Much could be gathered from their body language and gestures. Hanging around people speaking a language I didn’t understand is something I’ve not only gotten used to over the years, but have come to enjoy.

The friends left early to attend to a task, and we would see them again later that evening. My friend and I continued about the zoo for a while, until came the time we had to leave on account of needing to catch two consecutive buses to get back to her home. From central Saigon we went out to District 9, and while I do not know whether it is the poorest district, it’s along the outskirts and is certainly a poor place. Few foreigners go there.

Our bus careened down the busy streets, honking in the Vietnamese fashion of alerting everyone ahead of its approach, swerving around corners and barely stopping to take on more passengers. I remember thinking that it felt like a bus ride from hell, with that powerful horn blaring and lingering as people on the road calmly stepped aside to make way. Eventually our stop came, and much like getting aboard, the vehicle practically took off again before my feet even left the bottom step.

As Em led me to her home, along narrow streets and steel-sheet roofed shanties, I saw her neighborhood for the first time in daylight. I had been here one night, but only up to the front gate. In her home, her brother awaited, and we seated ourselves upon a bamboo mat on the floor. Angling their only electric fan towards me, cups of clean water were poured, and we sat talking for a short while. Eventually the call from the two friends from earlier would come and we would meet somewhere.

But as I sat in their single-room living space, I could not help but marvel at its simplicity. The ceiling stretched high, the walls mostly barren of décor, and what passed for a kitchen was made up mostly of a portable cooking stove and a mini-fridge. On a wall nearby there hung pots and pans and knives and cutting boards, but little in the manner of furniture or knick knacks found in a home as might be owned by frivolous Americans.

In the loft above us I guessed was their bedroom, a place the brother and sister no doubt shared, and down by the bathroom on ground level near the kitchen a spigot protruded from the wall. I wondered whether that was the shower, or at least their primary source of non-drinking water. All these things I observed without comment or judgment; merely curiosity.

This type of setting is not unusual for the area.

I wasted no time in expressing that it was an honor to be brought into their home, and in as best English as Em could muster, she translated small sentences between her brother and me. It took about three minutes for me to understand he was asking me my favorite soccer team (and no doubt everyone’s chagrin, I apparently had none).

Thoroughly cooled by the fan, I found myself comfortable in their abode. The amenities were few, and it occurred to me that not only did the brother and sister share a motorbike – a staple thing for anyone, Vietnamese or otherwise, living in Saigon – but everything else as well. Things that Americans take for granted – like private living space and their own computer – were nowhere to be seen.

Lan, positive and bubbly as ever, showed keen shyness in the appearance of her living space, and my own interest in their home did not go unnoticed. I, rather than feel anything along the lines of disgust or pity or whatever she might have been afraid a visitor might think, instead found myself filled with joy and pride.

I would express to Em in days to come.

As I sat, I felt a sense of respect well up inside me. One always hears about leaving the countryside to go the city to find a job, make a new life for themselves, but these people were really doing it. This brother and sister had left behind a farm in central Viet Nam, where an entirely different dialect of the language is spoken, to work and form a better life, here in the big city. Every night they returned home to a place that, like so many other things I’ve seen since coming to Viet Nam, bore the appearance of the practical.

I was reminded of clubhouses and sheds, the types of places children would have built in their backyards out of scrap materials. Fun places to play, but nowhere a privileged American would dare lay their head to rest.

From the inner city Expat area bustle to the outskirts of Saigon, the buildings, power lines, roads – everything was put together to be practical, and I derive comfort from that practicality, having always eschewed frivolity and extravagance. But seeing it all in such a short span was a lot to take in at once.

Once the other friends arrived, Em and I took off once more, bidding ‘tam biet’ to the brother and speeding away on motorbikes. The four of us had dinner at another street-side eatery not far off, and I consumed a bowl of noodles that, near as I can tell, is very similar to the other, differently-named noodle-soup dishes I’ve been having. It’s all delicious, and I retain my vegetarian inclinations whenever I can, but it’s impossible to turn down meals as a guest.

Strangely, eating as they eat is not difficult, even someone whose practiced vegetarianism for pretty much their entire life. I would not be the first to announce that the Vietnamese take pride in the quality of their food, so taste is certainly not an issue, but somehow…it’s different eating meat here then back in the States. In America, it felt wrong, guilt-ridden. Here, it seems…practical. Natural.

There’s nothing quite like eating at a restaurant, having the owner approach, and being asked to have your picture taken. Whether the man cherished the moment or sought to use my face for advertising, I couldn’t know for certain, but I was soon informed that I was the very first foreigner to ever eat in that place. When I agreed, many occupants of the restaurant rose up in cheers, followed by laughter as I blinked away the flash of the camera. Looking around, I found myself beset by dozens of eyes.

My friends remarked that I was a star there.

The night went on most enjoyably. As a group we moved to a nearby juice vendor on the sidewalk, the four of us talking, laughing, joking. The girls all acted like sisters. This would not be the first time I witnessed strong-bonded people sharing a good night with good food, big smiles and everything else that comes with being good friends. These are beautiful, smart and positive people, and they’re all working to build a better future.

They work hard, and know how to enjoy life. I could not say this applies to all Vietnamese, but it certainly doesn’t apply to a lot of Americans I’ve known. This small group of people I’ve come to befriend know what life is really about. Working hard, having a good time, and enjoying each other’s company.

Too many of us lose sight of that too easily in the West. It’s something that I’ve always felt was missing during my time in the States. American life almost never made sense to me, especially the corporate life. I had good friends and good times, but here, I’m meeting people who enjoy life, and aren’t seeking ways to avoid it. They face it, they laugh, and I find the enthusiasm infectious.

Here in Viet Nam, life has more of a purpose than I’ve ever known.

After being driven home, as I didn’t (yet) own a motorbike, I felt shame wash over me. Ahead of us loomed the immense apartment complex in which I lived, a landmark building stretching upward from a sea of slums. It looked as out of place as I did in the restaurant, and whenever I looked upon that building, I felt revulsion.

I truly enjoyed the company of these people, more than I could have ever expected. Even if they chatted among themselves in their native language, I took part in the evening’s events, and generally just relaxed and enjoyed listening to them speak.

What right did I have to live in a place like mine when my friends, who deserve so much more than me, remained in a place that Americans would call a slum?

I reached my 23rd floor room, glad to kick off my shoes and shed my backpack, and sought out the shower. My head swam with images of what I saw, the taste of the meal still in my mouth, the sound of their voices still in my ears. But most profoundly came this sensation that I struggle so hard to describe.

Where Em lived did not inspire pity, but it did put things into sharp perspective. This girl left her farmstead town at age eighteen to live in Saigon, by herself, went through several years of university, and continues to work six or seven days a week throughout most of the year. She told me for those first few years, scared and alone in the city, she spent many nights crying by herself in the night. Em now lives in such a home as would inspire the most devout of minimalists, and she makes it work.

Gods, she’s lead a life the likes of which I can only bow before.

I would later learn that while Em initially wanted to get a nicer place nearer to her job in the city center, she decided to stay put on account of her friends being nearby. Moving is within her means, I realized, it’s just that she’s happy where she is, near her vivacious, life-loving friends. Her job is but a short commute.

“Life is for laughing,” Em and I had agreed.

I found myself moved, inspired.

Questioning myself and my purpose here.

For one, I felt that had no right to live where I did. I cannot continue living in a fancy 23rd floor apartment when there are slums and shanty homes surrounding it, literally across the street. I had already decided I wanted to downgrade, as I was uncomfortable as it was, but now… more than ever I feel like some kind of imposter. I did not come to Viet Nam “to live the good life.” I did not come here to be pampered and be served and entertained like so many expats come to experience.

There are wonderful expats here also, though. I’ve come to bond with a few more closely in so short a time than with friends I’ve left behind back in the States. Several have come to do good things and give back to the community. I recall a young German man who worked with disabled people in District 12, or the delightful Austrian lady who started Saigon’s skateboarding fever. But the majority of foreigners, whether expats or visitors, come to Viet Nam to entertain fantasies of living a “rich life.” And I don’t necessarily hate or judge them for that. It’s just that it’s not for me.

I came to mingle with the people, to discover romance and adventure in a far off land, and to write my stories.

But my writing…

In America, I wrote Fantasy because I always daydreamed about being somewhere else. I invented cultures and worlds and peoples, stories and adventures about people that never existed, no small part of me wishing that I was there, elsewhere in some fantasy realm. Since arriving in Viet Nam, I have questioned my goals, my plans, for I felt a shift within me; not only in perspective and self-understanding, but in purpose.

“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”― Lloyd Alexander

I don’t feel the need to write fantasy like I used to. I don’t feel the urge to write of other worlds, of exotic places and peoples.

I’m living it.

Furthermore, if I write of my experience here, if I turn away from Fantasy and write about the people and culture of this fascinating place I’m in now, then I might make more of a difference. I might feel more fulfilled, knowing that my words are reaching the outside world and bringing awareness of this exotic, fascinating country.

But regardless of whether I’m writing or teaching…if I’m living in a high apartment, paying with money worth more simply because I was born somewhere else, it doesn’t feel right. Others do it; they come here to pay comparatively cheap rent and have a maid and indulge themselves, to ‘live the good life.’

But it’s not for me.

There, in my 23rd floor apartment shower, I honest-to-Zeus broke down in tears, overwhelmed by it all, and in part laughing at how movie-esque I must have looked. But it was not sadness; it was that same sense of pride I felt when visiting Em’s home. I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of joy for her. She was working so hard to not only improve her situation, but to show foreigners like me the wonders and joys of her culture. And she did not let things that I, as a privileged westerner, might have had irritate, depress, discourage or anger me. She manages to remain positive, strong, prideful and driven.

I am awed by this type of person.

I had grown up in a privileged country, and while my family was by no means affluent, we were not impoverished either. We Americans are always told stories, hearing them as children, that there are people starving elsewhere in the world. But it’s so very easy to forget.

What I saw firsthand that day left a lasting impact on me, and even more so than back home, I actually felt ashamed to be American. To have known what, compared to the people here, is a life of complete luxury. Hearing stories is one thing. Seeing, feeling, is quite another.

There are kind, strong, smart people here who deserve so much better.

Even if everything were to change, if something terrible were to happen or I otherwise was forced to go back to the States, there’s no way I could return to my old life in America.

I considered myself a politically and economically aware individual. I tried my hardest to buy shoes that did not come from sweat shops, or fair-trade foods not covered in pesticides. I always tried to keep eco-friendly, cost-attentive and health-conscious.

Not to say those efforts are meaningless, but gods damn, they pale in comparison to someone who’s left their home to live by themselves in an environment where others barely (or simply don’t) even speak the same language, like when Em came to the South from Central Viet Nam. The dialects between North, South and Central are so different that folks can hardly understand one another.

In an unexpected way, though, I could relate.

As it stands, I realized I can no longer leave this country behind if I wanted to. A few days before drafting this essay, leaving was always an option, whether to another country or back to America. It remained as an option that I could do if I wanted.

But I can’t live here unless I make a difference, either. I can’t live a luxurious life guilt-free, and am in the process of downgrading to a much humbler living situation. I will live among the Vietnamese, not above them.

Perhaps I haven’t yet found the best venue, but I now know that I want to help. It’s not a matter of pity, it’s not a matter of seeing and thinking, “Hey, you know what they need? Some ‘rich’ white American to appear and save them.”

No, it’s that I see that I can make a difference, and that I can help. So, therefore, I must. Before, I saw an open road.

Now I see only one path.

First Few Days in Saigon

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If you haven’t read about why I went to Vietnam, you really ought to see my initial reasons here.

~

(Excerpts from the flight)

The thing about being the first of anything is that, by definition, it’s a pretty lonely endeavor.

I embark now upon a great metal bird, movies playing on the mini-screen in the seat before me. The flight is expected to last just under 16 hours, and we’ll apparently be flying over the north pole on the way to Hong Kong.

I will be the first Rebock to do any of these things.

~~

7.5 hours left to go. I struggle to remain awake. Food arriving seconds after writing that helps. It’s technically almost midnight. Lots of movies…

~~~

Transferring through Hong Kong was a breeze compared to Singapore. It’s 6:00am of what, I think, is July 18th, and though the boarding of the final plane is in 15min, my watch, eerily accurate with the time of day, still seems to think that it’s the 16th.

Changi Airport, Singapore, 12:30am.
Changi Airport, Singapore, 12:30am.

Here in Changi Airport, Singapore, the last six hours have been arduous, increasingly spaced by long bouts of simple inactivity. I can’t really do anything, and can’t really sleep yet either. The process has been simply waiting, from one thing to the next; I should be at the hostel within four hours from now, where I expect to finally get some rest.

When checking in my luggage for the final flight, a fellow named Ozzy remarked that my carry-on baggage exceeded their weight limit by about double (this had not been a problem in the other airports). Seeing my U.S. residence though, he recognized Woodstock, but since he asked I informed him I was actually born in Connecticut. This, apparently, delighted him, as he had spent some time working in Bristol – a place I knew nothing about, but I played it up as though I did – and he henceforth decided we shared some form of comraderie. Ozzy then gave me leave to go around the crowd and didn’t charge extra for the carry-on.

Thanks to him, my otherwise problem-less transfers – regarding luggage anyway; at some point in Hong Kong they took a nail file that I forgot I even packed – remained hassle-free.

I’ll see if I can sleep on the final plane. I sit here in Singapore, surrounded by dark windows after 6:00am, with tired eyes, greasy hair, and with the makings of a beard. I sure must look the part of a weary traveler.

~~~~

Day 1

The day I finally disembarked the plane and took in my first breath of Vietnamese air, I became thoroughly aware of the humidity. And the fact that with each transfer, there were fewer and fewer westerners aboard the plane. I might have been one of four on the plane.

Jet-lagged and exhausted, I took the first taxi I saw to the hostel. The first driver did not know English very well, so he brought me to some place a bit further from the airport and handed me over to a more fluent individual – who then proceeded to take me to my hostel. Showing them the address with my tablet, getting there turned out to be easy, and as we drove through the streets, I witnessed first-hand the legendary motorbike frenzy.

Traffic in Saigon is like a living, breathing organism. It’s taken several days for me to put together the words to describe it, as it took me about that long to fully comprehend what, at first, seems like a dangerous, chaotic mess of vehicles and people.

The best way to describe the difference is that in America, and presumably in most other (Western?) countries, there are strict traffic laws in place. Most exist because there is a basic common human understanding that everyone else is unreliable. I can attest to this, having lived in New Jersey, and having passed through New York City more often than any country boy has a right to do. In those areas, I feel there’s this basic understanding that everyone on the road is an idiot, and will hit you if you cross the street. Everyone assumes you’re unaware, whether you’re a driver or a pedestrian, and in truth, most people aren’t; hence the lights, laws, crosswalks, turn signals and all that. It’s much easier to get complacent behind the wheel of an automobile.

In Saigon, it’s sort of the opposite. Horns honk constantly, alerting people around you where you are. Sometimes people use turn signals, and even if they do, the flashing light does not indicate which direction you’ll be turning anyway. Motorbikes weave around each other, around pedestrians, around four-wheeled vehicles who are otherwise locked in traffic or held back by street lights. There appears to be a general acceptance that everyone around you is aware. If you as a driver are not, then it’s your fault for not hearing the cacophony of horns honking, and you will suffer for it.

For the most part, one can cross a road of speeding motorbikes as long as you follow the golden rule: Don’t stop moving, and move predictably. Everyone will simply weave around you so long as you don’t jump in front of them.

Much to my relief, the front looked exactly as the photo advertised.
Much to my relief, the front looked exactly as the photo advertised.

 

With the beginnings of those thoughts just beginning to simmer in my brain, my taxi arrived at the hostel without incident, and after dragging my luggage through a miniscule alley and inside the building I found myself greeted by a Vietnamese girl who I can best and most respectfully describe as “travel size.” I booked a room, lugged my bags upstairs — the Little Hostess doing her best to carry one of my bags — and on the 3rd floor discovered the dorm-like room to contain a few other sleeping people. 10am, probably jet-lagged as well.

 

The AC blew on full blast, so after resting a while in that veritable meat-locker of a room, I decided I ought to not fall asleep so early in the day and ventured downstairs to the ground floor. Conversation with the Little Hostess turned out to be no difficult feat; she seemed as eager to speak as I was to ask questions, and her English was passable. I quickly learned that she was quick to teach me some of her language, and so I darted upstairs to retrieve a notebook. In a few hours, various bits of Vietnamese were demystified – having a live teacher works better than any book or recording.

I’ll write about the Vietnamese language in a separate post sometime. It’s a fascinating topic all its own.

Most of that day is a jet-lagged blur. I honestly cannot remember much except that I was there. Apparently I arrived early enough to partake in some of the breakfast food provided by the hostel – baguettes, bananas and sweet coffee. I decided to go out and explore a block or two radius, and it wasn’t long before I was hailed by a motorbike driver. A xe ôm, a motorbike taxi. I decided why the hell not, was given a helmet, and hopped on the back. It took about 10 minutes for me to become comfortable enough to ride without clinging to Old Nine Fingers for dear life.

Word from the wise: Never get on the back of those things without establishing a price first.

Old Nine-Fingers here tried to hustle $200 out of me. Yeah, okay.
Old Nine-Fingers here tried to hustle $200 out of me. Yeah, okay.

When I got back, I described my experience riding, much to the laughter of those working at the hostel (re-enacting the feeling of holding onto a tiny old man for safety has a way of making anyone smile). The remainder of the day was spent drinking tea and forcing myself to stay awake. I don’t remember the exact order in which I met people in the beginning, but over the course of my days at the hostel, other travelers came and went, including a German, two Aussies, a Swede, and a lady from China. Americans are comparatively rare here.

 

Day 2

I woke up ridiculously early on account of the jet lag, lay in bed waiting for 8am, the time when breakfast was made available for us. When I got down, I found the same fare available, and gladly drank the sweet coffee prepared. Chatting up the Little Hostess, I soon discovered that she had prepared some rudimentary Vietnamese lessons for me on a sheet of paper, and we practiced numbers, some basic phrases, and a few other things. The first things taught were Bao nhiêu? (How much does it cost?) and Mắc quá! (Too expensive!), as foreigners are routinely overcharged for everything. It’s pretty much normal, and the Little Hostess informed me that while yes, there are in fact many good Vietnamese people, there’re a lot of bad ones too, and most of them are right here in this neighborhood.

I asked her more than once if what we were doing was a bother, whether I would get her in trouble for apparently not working at the desk an arm’s length away. Turns out no, as far as I know. Pretty awesome job.

Having befriended a Toothache Aussie the previous day, the two of us went around the block to get something for lunch. Whatever it was I ate, it tasted delightful – some spicy vegetarian noodle thing with a couple of vegetables the likes of which I could not identify (except for the bitter melon. That one’s hard to forget).

Later, having gotten in touch with potential roommates, I decided I would attempt to go and hail a motorbike taxi on my own terms and make the trek to go and see the place. The day waned, though, and as I stood at the edge of the street, I felt suddenly timid and hesitant. I knew nothing of where I was really going except an address and a general idea on Google Maps, though that helped little. The place was far, across the Saigon River in District 2, and I had no idea how I’d be getting back. As the sky darkened, I figured it better to try the following day.

Having exchanged numbers sometime earlier, I texted the Little Hostess, who had expressed I could reach her any time if I needed help with something. Asking how, exactly, to hail a cab/xe ôm, she instead volunteered to take me the place herself the next day, after she finished her shift at the hostel. Overwhelmed, I could not argue – a free ride to somewhere I did not know with someone I could trust?

Count me in.

 

Day 3

Early the next morning, while watching some silly Youtube videos before heading downstairs to breakfast, a new traveler appeared. Dropping off her bags, she descended back downstairs again, and not long after it neared 8:00am, so I soon headed down for breakfast.

There I met the Chatty Swede who, like most of the other travelers, had made their way to Vietnam from Thailand and Cambodia, and would continue their way north toward the city of Hanoi, and then west again to Laos. Hitting it off with her, she invited me to come along to Bến Thành Market, a major tourist destination.

Getting there was not difficult. The Chatty Swede knew the rough direction, yet confessed after we got started that she had a terrible sense of direction. Having partially traveled the way we went just the previous day in order to acquire a local phone, I at least helped with getting back, but not until after we came upon the legendary market itself.

To understand Bến Thành, one must imagine the tight quarters of a warehouse, organized in such a way as that each vender has about 10-15 cubic feet of space – or much less – and they pack as much of their wares in there as you can possibly imagine. It is a labyrinthine cloister of madness, filled with people intent on getting your attention and selling you something.

Basically a nightmare for someone like me, who despises radio ads and television commercials with a vehemence such as you have never seen. I had a strong bout of sensory overload in that place, between the lights, the sounds, the crowds, and colors, the enclosed space.

But it was bloody fascinating. I had seen its like in South Korea, once.

On the way back to the hostel, the Chatty Swede and I only got moderately lost. Fortunately, we made it back without incident and in good time, as we needed to get back before 5:00pm so I could catch my ride. We arrived at four, and I spent the remaining hour trying to rest. At the appointed time, I descended the stairs again to meet with the Little Hostess.

Sitting behind her comfortably and respectfully, the two of us sped off on her motorbike, weaving through traffic and around all manner of obstacles on the road. Women drive motorbikes just as much as men in Saigon, as it’s essentially the way to get around, though one never sees a man riding behind a woman. Though she was not bothered by it, the Little Hostess pointed it out earlier, to which I replied “If you’re okay, I’m okay.” So on we went. I get the feeling it was more about protecting me from embarrassment than anything else. After all, I looked out of place no matter where I went, so why not on the back of a bike?

She understood the area and direction to which we were headed, but on the way we had to ask for directions two or three times. Eventually we found the apartment complex, and I found myself smitten by the view from the balcony. Everything else seemed in order, so I agreed to move in the next day.

The Little Hostess then, as per her earlier suggestion, brought me to a small eatery near where she lived, as apparently the apartment complex stands only about 20 minutes away from her neighborhood. At the little restaurant, she would introduce me to one of her favorite foods – a spicy noodle soup; not phở, but something different. I remember insisting that I pay for the meal out of simple courtesy, and that plan went all well and good until I realized, when we got there, that there would be no chance this little place would accept credit cards or American cash. She paid – which she tried to do in the first place – and the food was very delicious (ngon quá!). Some of the spices in there would have me tossing a little in bed later that evening, though, but it was worth it.

Afterward, the Little Hostess brought me to a cafe, where I met her younger brother and another friend, and they fed me some sugared coffee. Eventually she brought me back to the hostel again, sometime after 8:30-9:00pm.

Night-driving in Saigon is nothing short of spectacular. The Little Hostess proved to be a safe and reliable driver, not that I had any doubt, but even at night she, like the other six million drivers, took to the streets like a seasoned verteran. Motorbikes here are like horses to Mongolians and kayaks to the Inuit. They’re just part of life.

After laying down in my cot, I was soon accosted by the Chatty Swede beside me, and we caught each other up on our day since the market adventure.

 

Day 4

We left moderately early, catching a local bus to Đầm Sen Park. The Chattey Swede, who was much more travel-seasoned than myself, had no idea where to go after we got on the bus, and so the adventure began.

A pleasant ride later, we made it, and for the equivalent of $9.00, we paid entry and began exploring.

Đầm Sen deserves an essay all its own. As an amusement park, there were dozens of things to see and do, and the experience was most memorable, but more on account of the company than the rides. Between getting caught in the rain by the crocodile pen, seeing arapaima in some ponds, and taking part in a number of rides, the place kept us occupied for the first half of the day.

For the first time, I experienced bumper cars, a seatless toilet, and strangers asking for a picture. Turns out they meant not that I hold the camera and take a picture of them, but rather that we, the Chatty Swede and I with our fair skin and blond hair, pose beside them and have pictures taken of us.

I have no doubt that the Chatty Swede and I were perceived as a couple in their eyes, and apparently westerners are as much a tourist attraction as the rides. I think I saw one other there at the park.

Not to mention while riding the mechanical bulls – first time riding one of those, too – the Chatty Swede and I outlasted everyone else. We both sensed that the operator had turned up the intensity in an attempt to throw us off. But we were determined, and held on for longer than I could know. For days to follow, my arms remained stiff from the exertion, and so bent on staying atop those things were we that spectators whipped out their phones and cameras to record our triumph. Eventually the operator powered down the machines, and the Chatty Swede and I continued around the park with sore arms and legs.

Sore, but utterly victorious.

We got stares wherever we went, and in one park “ride,” a large warehouse kept cold and filled with ice sculptures, the effect of sticking out in the crowd was emphasized. A hooked conveyer belt dispensed warm coats for people as they pass into the giant ice box, and with the weather being hot and humid outside (having already rained a few times), I looked forward to the relief. And, once inside, I found the temperature to be quite agreeable. To my surprise, the Chatty Swede shivered and felt the cold right away. I walked feeling no need to put up the hood or button up the jacket.

SAM_0522

It felt like a normal spring day in my home country. Surrounded by shivering south-east Asians, many of whom probably have never seen snow in their entire lives, I felt like some frost-hardened northern viking. People stared at me like I was a superhero/villain.

Unlike in Korea or Japan, where often you’ll find rides, train stations, signs, etc. written in the local tongue as well as English, or at least another nearby country’s language, here they don’t bother. Everything’s in Vietnamese except for “toilet,” “entrance” and “exit.” Not to mention a lot of the symbols on the map were just plain misleading and inaccurate. Navigating the place alone made quite an adventure out of the trip.

Throughout the park, as well as Bến Thành Market, the Chatty Swede forced me to make rapid exchange calculations from the local Vietnamese Dong to U.S. Dollars for whatever things that might need to be bought or rented. It turned out to be excellent practice, and I’ve almost got the numbers down.

After a bus ride home, we parted ways on the street just outside the hostel, she with a task she wanted to do, and I to pack my bags. That night, I found myself within the confines of a new apartment, and while the situation is not quite permanent, not yet, it makes for a decent home-base as I make the transition into a more permanent location.

 

 

Review: Sword Art Online (Anime)

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It was the final week before my big move. The majority of my time during this time was concerned with tying up loose ends and seeing various persons “for the last time.”

On one of these days, a day was devoted to spending time with an old buddy of mine, and in true geek fashion, we sought out a new anime to watch on Netflix.

“Hmm,” said my friend, sitting at the dining table with a laptop in front of him. “What’s this? Sword Art Online, have you seen that one?”

“No,” I replied, an arm’s length away in the kitchen, fumbling with what would amount to our meal of the day. “Saw the title and cover but haven’t tried it yet.”

“It’s got four stars. Want to check it out?”

http://www.dubbednetwork.net/static/sao.jpg

“Four stars, eh?” I said, doubtful. “Fine, why not?”

We watched the first episode, found ourselves hesitantly intrigued by the premise. We established that we would give the second episode a chance, and then the third. My buddy and I looked at one another, mutual understanding passing between us.

“I have an idea,” said he.

We promptly left the apartment to run out and acquire a monstrous bottle of cheap sake, returning to eagerly resume an anime series that, to both of our surprise and delight, turned out to be pretty damn good.

There are some spoilers to be had here, but mostly for the sake of sharing impressions.

A little backstory on my experience with anime. I’m no otaku, so I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on this subject. I consumed a lot of anime and JRPGs in my younger days, but when it came to it, I’ve had people look at me and say, “You’re not an otaku, Jesse. You’re just a nerd.”

Just thought I’d share.

Anyway, I haven’t had the patience to really sit and watch an anime series in some time. Most anime I come across follows the same tropy storylines filled with recognizeably cookie-cutter archetypal characters – and I won’t say that Sword Art Online is bereft of this. Let’s just say that it takes something particular to really catch my attention. SAO did so, mostly on account of the Gaming and Fantasy theme they have going on, but we found ourselves surprisingly engaged by some of the subplots and ideas explored.

If you’re yet unfamiliar with Sword Art Online, the story begins with with the official launch of a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (VRMMORPG). Think World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic – the difference being a piece of hardware simply called NerveGear, which echoes of the Occulis Rift. It’s essentially the kind of game that people like me used to dream about existing. No doubt millions of other gamers as well, no doubt the target audience for this series.

http://img1.ak.crunchyroll.com/i/spire2/958d4ae953c9f023ed22a882689b2eae1347517864_full.jpg

Then there’s that plot element where users (about 10,000 on that first launch day) discover that if they die in game, the NerveGear will fry their brains, killing them in reality. The only way out of the game is beat it, so the race is on. At which point my comrade and I exchanged glances once again, coming to an agreement that getting stuck in such a fantasy realm probably wouldn’t be so bad.

There was, in fact, a large body of players who became so accustomed to living in the game world – after the first 2,200 or so deaths in the first month – that they resigned themselves to never escaping. It became the new normal, while their bodies remained hooked up to NerveGear and IVs in (presumably) hospital beds. For the first half of the series, no one has gotten out and no external messages have penetrated the server.

Now, normally I’d be hesitant to invest in an anime like this, simply on account of the main character being a 14-year-old, which in writer speech means the target demographic is a younger audience. This series is undeniably shōnen, a term for manga/anime that can be best summarized by wikipedia:

…a popular demographic of Japanese comics, and often features a teenage cast as well as a combat based plot while exploring themes of protecting those you care about, understanding each other and developing friendship/comradery.

Sword Art Online does not fall short on any of these terms, and while I find nothing inherently wrong with these things, I’m just generally not attracted to such stories. Yet there were surprisingly dark moments scattered throughout the series – suicides, characters you find yourself liking getting killed off early, and a pretty damn despicable villain.

Bottom line is that if you aren’t, or weren’t, a gamer, much of this anime will likely be uninteresting. I’ve heard how the premise is really not all that different from another series known as .hack, so originality goes out the window. On the other hand, it’s often easy to forget the characters interacting with each other are all avatars, and maybe it was the sake talking, but the touching moments hit me right in the feels.

That and I am a self-confessed sap and hopeless romantic, so that factors in too.

This is not a story about the mind-bending exploration of A.I. or the realm of the digital, as seen in Ghost In The Shell or Lain, nor is this about epic adventures in a fantasy realm a la Record of Lodoss War.

They do, however, explore a number of interesting online-gaming themes. Falling perfectly in line with the shōnen genre, we are faced with the question of: “Are the feelings I develop for someone online real?”

The idea of what kind of person you play in an online game reflects your true colors is revisited several times. I found one of the most interesting mini-plots to be a murder mystery. There’s this real-world married couple, and the wife is killed in-game — meaning of course her real-world body died as a result. It’s eventually revealed that the husband had her killed because, outside the game, she was “…the perfect wife. Pretty. Submissive.” But in-game, unbound by the restrictions of conventional life, she was able to blossom. She was strong, brave, independent. The husband hated it, seeing it as though the woman he had loved had died, replaced by something else.

Well done, series. The fact that this opinion was pretty much regarded with disgust by the other characters is pretty progressive, especially for Japan.

We watched the entirety of the series in two days, which is something I ordinarily wouldn’t do, let alone mention in public, except that the experience, shared with an old comrade, made it worthwhile. The idea of binge-watching anything is strange to me still, since it screams “consumer.” I rather prefer get into binge writing or binge editing.

Sword Art Online isn’t mind-blowing, isn’t amazing, isn’t the best anime ever — in fact I’ve read that it’s rather overrated. Perhaps so. But I liked it, and I found myself amazed, at myself, for the range of emotions the story provoked out of me.

That, says I, is what makes a good story.

…And then the second half of the series rolled around, and the experience started going downhill.

http://gpo.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/GPO_Arrow-Chart.jpg

Basically, it felt like the series (25 episodes) was actually two separate seasons. Halfway through, the hero defeats the game, and SAO users are set free. But there’s a new VRMMORPG out there in which the love interest is still trapped, so it falls to the hero to dive back in and get her out for reasons. This time around, the new world is fairy-based; players can fly, they still use NerveGear, but there`s no stakes this time around. In-game death doesn’t mean real-world death anymore; the only thing keeping us in the audience rooting for the main character is so he can Save The Imprisoned Girl and defeat the Big Bad holding her there.

I suppose the most interesting stuff coming out of the second half was actually the real-world ramifications of Sword Art Online. The world (as in, mostly Japan) found itself beset by a small population of peculiar people whose bodies and minds were shaped by their 2.5 year long period trapped in a digital fantasy realm. Some users were small children, and a few years could mean 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives. Formative years.

Adjustment, or readjustment, to the real world would be akin to PTSD in many people. This would have made a more interesting story, but no — instead the second half of the series focuses mainly on the awkward one-sided romantic feelings that the hero’s adopted sister (who is his cousin) develops for him. Thankfully the developers did not take this in an even more uncomfortable direction, if one were to take that factor out, then there’s suddenly almost nothing left to half or a quarter of a series.

A shame.

http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140611114049/swordartonline/images/d/da/Worldtree.png
Some pretty sick art, though. This here is a tree.

The ending left a sour taste of disappointment in my mouth, especially since things started off so great. Apparently there’s a Season 2, but I think I’ll be skipping that. The music wasn’t half bad, either; I confess having had the first 15 seconds of the opening theme as an earworm.

All in all, though, I feel a familiar feeling when something I enjoy ends. At the end of a great book, or game, or movie or show, there lingers a sense of emptiness. That sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is, but personally I hate unfinal endings.

The most satisfying endings to an anime, you ask? Not counting Studio Ghibli or other standalone anime: Samurai Champloo, Evangelion (as in, The End of Evangelion), and Death Note (though it took forever for it to end) left me happy.

If you’re into games, fantasy, teenagers going berserk with oversized weapons and the all-too-frequent awkwardness that comes with over-animated young adults, then you’ll likely dig this series. I was really invested for awhile, and despite my willingness to set aside my usual causes for hesitation, the series fell through.

Two out of Five stars. Overrated.

 

Why I’m Moving to Vietnam

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http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/83510854.jpg
This almost looks like it fell out of a head full of fantasy.

A week ago today, the magnitude of the events I had set in motion really began to sink in.

Almost a month ago today, the ticket to Vietnam was booked. A week later, I got my visa.

At the time of this post, I’ll be in the final stages of leaving behind the closest thing to home that I’ve felt in few years.

Today’s post is about my big move, from the Catskills of Upstate New York (about 2-2.5 hours north of New York City), to Saigon, Vietnam, clear on the other side of the planet. Many have asked me why I’m doing this, and I’ve provided a multitude of answers. Today we’ll see a compilation of reasons that have me uprooting myself and, quite possibly, living for an extended period of time in a country the likes of which no Rebock has ever set foot.

To more business oriented people, my answer to “why” is for the opportunity to be found there. My skillsets as a writer, freelance editor, and teacher of English as a Second Language have given me tools that have ultimately primed me to become something I didn’t know I really wanted until recent years: to be location independent. To be mobile. Saigon has a low cost-of-living, and is a place frequented by many other people like me. Entrepreneurs, writers, people whose livelihood does not depend on a cubicle and a boss, but on their laptop.

To the more creative and open-minded peers of mine, my answer is that my heart is in Asia. No, I’m not moving for a girl, and while I do romanticize the entire ordeal, it’s not that kind of romance. What I mean by this is that I have always felt an affinity for Asian thought and cultures, having been drawn in that direction since an early age by art and music. To say “Asian,” of course, is a vast generalization, and to narrow it down, I mean South/East-Asia (which I hope comes as no surprise to anyone that that, in fact, is where you’ll find Vietnam). Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City (I prefer Saigon) is a place where I can surround myself with things that I love.

It is a place of digital nomads, one of several such places, where men and women go to chase their dreams.

http://westfaliadigitalnomads.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Digital-Nomads-As-Meme.png

My dream, as a creative, is to write.

The idea of having a home base is something special, but the freedom to uproot and go somewhere else is a unique thing few people really possess. It’s not really encouraged by our culture. I grew up in the general area where I’m in now, as of this writing. The Catskills of New York have their charms, and in many ways they were my home for most of my life, but being comparatively itinerant for the last few years embedded seeds of curiosity, wonder, and confidence.

Who’s to say whether I will find a permanent home anywhere, ever, but I have reached a point in my life where I essentially know that wherever that home is, it’s nowhere near where I grew up. Vietnam is about as far away as you can possibly get from New York, and while I am open to the possibility of staying there for an extended time, the distance from my childhood home did not factor into the decision.

If cheap cost-of-living were to be found on the moon, I’d probably jump on that next.

I had a conversation with the Firebeard (you know who you are) before leaving, about the concept of uprooting and planting one’s self in another place. In ancient days, tribes would wander the plains and, sometimes, settle in places to form villages. But others would keep going – over mountains, across seas, through forests. To this day it astounds me to think of our ancestors, after leaving Africa, spending hundreds of generations to spread across the globe. Villages established, nations sprouted, languages formed; everywhere.

And then after these places are formed, there were travelers between them. The Silk Road comes to mind, a long and arduous path rife with danger.

What in the hell possessed people to strike out into the unknown, to risk life and limb to find someplace new, or maintain trade between distant places? Such a journey would likely be the worst experience in one’s life.

http://journojuno.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/up.jpg?w=705

During this conversation, the idea of colonizing new worlds came up. For the sake of argument, we devised a simple thought experiment. Imagine a fully habitable planet were discovered, and a project were set in place to send colonists there. Insert your own reason here. However, it would be such a tremendous draw on the global economy that one ship could be launched from Earth, at maximum, once every 100 years or so. In other words, it’s a one-way ticket, and you as a potential colonist would never have a chance to return to good old Terra.

Yes, on this new world the air is breathable, the plants are edible, and there would be ample other people going with you. Details such as animal life, nasty diseases/parasites, or even tribal races already being there only complicate the thought experiment. So, the basic question is, all this considered: Would you go?

Firebeard decided he would not, and I regard him as one the most adventurous people I’ve ever known. Yet, he feels drawn back to the area where he grew up, and as of this post, to this day he lives there, having traveled various parts of the world but always returning, and is in the process of setting his roots in place.

I said that I would go.

It isn’t so much disdain for what I am leaving behind. It isn’t disappointment with family, friends, job opportunities. It isn’t an inability to “make it” in America or in this culture, whatever American culture is. No, I would go on this one-way ship to another world because if I did not, I would spend the rest of my life wondering, wishing, what it would be like if I did.

http://singlemindedwomen.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/missed-flight.jpg

That is why I am going to Asia.

Perhaps I am over-romanticizing it. I’ve no doubt that after I land and adapt, getting over that “honeymoon phase” of moving somewhere new, there will be a couple of reality checks that I’ll have to face. Likely I’ll encounter bouts of loneliness, depression, those dreaded “oh shit, what am I doing?” moments. But there are two benefits to this.

One is that exposing yourself to the possibility of failure is how you grow.

The other is that, as a writer, the key question will not be “What am I doing?” but “How can I use this?”

I’ll be leaving behind family and friends, and am open to the very real possibility of not coming back except to visit. We’ve seen this narrative before in stories, some of the best. The Hero’s Journey, in fact, often begins with the character leaving his/her place of comfort, their home. I wouldn’t dare consider myself a hero, but in terms of the Monomyth/Story Circle narrative, it wasn’t until Firebeard pointed it out that I realized there’s something in common here.

So, in a nutshell, we have:

  • Low cost of living
  • Proximity to like-minded people (entrepreneurs etc.)
  • Job opportunities (Teaching ESL, while continuing my freelance editing)
  • Can continue creative ventures
  • Fascinating culture. This includes a new language to learn, food to taste, music to hear, places to see, and of course, people to meet.

~~~

Today’s music choice comes from Princess Mononoke, a Studio Gibli animated film. Somehow, calling this an “anime” doesn’t sound right to me, though that is in fact what it is. The track comes from the beginning of the movie, after the Introduction of the Problem, and right as the hero leaves his home and family forever. It’s a symphonic suite of the track, as opposed to the original soundtrack.

I feel very strongly about this piece, as I feel the tune and mood it evokes fits strongly with the narrative of my life at this time. Granted, I haven’t fought off any cursed monster boars, nor am I riding a red elk, nor do I expect to set off a chain of events that will change the course of a region. Just this moment, this “traveling between places” moment, is perhaps my favorite part of the entire movie.

 

 

Cilantro

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Apparently there is a growing body of research regarding the apparent nastiness of cilantro in certain people. To a number of folk – and I have no means of providing numbers here, except that the number is growing – cilantro tastes like soap. Or, at least, has a nasty bitterness to it. It’s apparently a genetic thing.

Perhaps the research is over, and as usual, I’m late to the party in discovering this, but I first learned about this whole concept while listening to the Stuff You Should Know podcast many months ago. I can’t remember which episode, but you ought to check them out if you dig trivia.

But this aversion to cilantro got me thinking. You know, about food, about life, about changes, and heck, yes, even about writing.

Cilantro is the Spanish name for coriander, also known as Chinese parsley or dhania – and no doubt you’ve encountered it at some point in your life. It’s nearly indistinguishable from regular parsley – especially when it’s a little wilted, or cooked in a dish – and can be found in a variety of Hispanic and Asian dishes.

http://blogs.mydevstaging.com/blogs/daily-dish/files/2013/04/parsley-vs-cilantro-final.jpg
Courtesy of BetterRecipes.com

Normally I wouldn’t care for this sort of thing. I’m not what people would call a foodie, though I do love my guacamole, but still, this blog doesn’t really concern itself with food.

Except when it does. As typical as human behavior as it gets, I went and did some reading on cilantro only after having experienced this phenomena myself. I was at a friend’s house in Brooklyn, and she brought a variety of groceries home from a local market, among them a huge bundle of cilantro. Seeing this, I was seized with the memory of the above-mentioned podcast, and decided to put myself to the test. After all, I’d seen these things in grocery stores all the time, but herbalism is so off my personal radar that I confess I never really had the opportunity – or drive – to experiment. Having expressed my current goal to those present, I went about chewing a few freshly washed leaves.

They tasted awful.

And not only awful, but familiar – I remember tasting this, in the past, in what I considered to be the worst guacamole made. There could be something to this.

So it was that I found myself quite possibly in yet another minority category. But what has this experience to do with writing?

The question all writers must face: How can I use this?

Well, the way I see it, food is one of the most distinct cultural traits to be found. I think it’s a safe bet that there’re two major factors that go into identifying a culture: the language they speak and the food they eat. Sure, things like music, art, customs, how they treat their women, economy … all those are distinguishing things, but on a foundational level, you can really tell a lot about a person – a culture – by the food they eat and how their language works.

Cilantro is positively adored by millions of people around the world. Some cultures use it often and frequently. But what if there existed cultures that utterly despised the stuff? Traditional cultures, as might be applicable to a fantasy setting, I mean. I’m aware there exist modern communities (arguably a ‘culture’) of cilantro haters, such as might be found at imaginatively-named websites like this.

I’m not talking about something like in the movies Signs or The War of the Worlds, where extraterrestrial creatures are found to be susceptible to things we as humans count as commonplace. I’m not talking about a race of dog-people that will die if they eat a bit of chocolate, as might be readily consumed by any human culture.

I’m thinking more for the sake of variety. There’re plenty of foods on this planet that an American might find disgusting, and visa versa, but most of that food is still edible. It’s for cultural reasons, the way you were raised. It’s all in your head. You may not like the taste of cornsilk tea because it’s weird and different, but you can still at least drink the stuff.

http://koreanslate.com/wp-content/gallery/bottled-drinks/korean_corn_silk_tea.jpg
Those couple of weeks in South Korea had me tasting some of the most unusual things I’ve ever had in my life, but corn silk tea was among the most memorable.

I think description of food and flavor is an excellent opportunity for enriching your world when writing, whether it’s Fantasy, Science Fiction, or what-have-you. Creating your own exotic spices and dishes is one thing, but consider also the reactions that “normal” characters would have to these things, or how “others” would react to the so-called normal stuff. Cilantro is just one herb – imagine what else we might discover in our own world that is scientifically repulsive to certain people?

Imagine what certain groups of people, or even non-human races, might find physically incapable of considering edible? Genetic predispositions toward certain foods is in fact nothing unusual; we consume sweets because our brain, through the tongue, tells us that it’s a source of easily gathered energy. Fatty stuff is so satisfying because our brains tell us that fats are great sources of long-term energy.

Similarly, repulsion towards smells, such as that of decaying flesh, are like ringing dinner bells to animals like vultures and flies. To us humans, that stench is repulsive for a reason: dead things love company, so steer clear.

If you don’t know already, go ahead and do yourself a favor and try eating some cilantro. See if you’re among the majority of people who love the stuff, or like me, find it to be pretty much abhorrent. Whether there’s a genetic reason for this remains to be seen, but taking this idea and expanding it to one’s writing could serve to enrich your worlds. Give it a shot!

~~~

Today’s track is from a recently discovered OST, and packaged with it you’ll get a quick impression of the movie Gravity (2013).

In short, I dug it. I did not have the opportunity to see it in the big theaters, as it was reputedly made to be seen, but even while watching it at home I found myself engaged and interested – despite hearing some sort of spoiler long ago. In terms of scientific accuracy, well, okay, I’m aware there were some flaws. Niel Degrasse Tyson is quoted as saying the movie should have been called Angular Momentum and not Gravity, heh. But he confesses to enjoying the movie; and so did I.

When you consume a story, there is a need for characters to grow and change. This is especially noticed in its absence, such as the book Ready Player One, in which the protagonist hardly changes at all. In Gravity, the protagonist goes through growth, and coupled with the action – and not to mention the delightful and appropriate soundtrack – I rate the movie as most definitely worth seeing.

 

 

 

A Night With Orcs

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There’s this certain group of people with whom a close associate of mine is part of their circle. Friends of a friend, to be specific, the likes of whom we have taken to affectionately calling “a bunch of orcs.”

In my Fantasy Brain, comparing living people in my life to orcs is more a thing about demeanor and attitude (say, in comparison to calling someone a hobbit or a harpy…) and much less about physical appearance. It is not a form of disparagement or dehumanization, just a simple lens through which my mind observes the world.

Orcs are not known for their warmth in popular fantasy, characterized most commonly by jutting, boar-like teeth, green/gray/brown or even red skin, and, in some cases, upturned pig-like noses (early incarnations showed them in fact to basically be men with pig heads). They’re often depicted as primitive, savage, brutishly strong and generally unpleasant to be around. They’re common enemies in many settings, supplying players and protagonists with fodder for spells and weapons. But dig a little, and sometimes the lore of a given orc tribe will reveal a deep sense of loyalty, honor code, tradition and rich shamanistic and/or animistic culture.

Whether they’re categorized as resembling Tolkienien Orcs or Blizzard Orcs, they make for convenient enemies and obstacles. Personally I find their use in fiction to be tacky and lazy; they feel over done in most fantasy.

BlizzOrcTolkOrc
One might even be hard-pressed to even call these things by the same name.

In describing people I’ve met as “orcish,” what I mean is that they seem to follow the beat of their own drum, shirking what might otherwise be considered the norms of society and are generally unafraid to embrace the concept of “the human animal.” The true concept of orcs (if such a thing were ever to be considered true) is of course lost with the borderline-insulting parallels my brain makes between living people and fantasy tropes. When speaking of the specific group of people I met, I lean closer towards the Blizzard orcs, with their sense of honor and tradition.

Among the orcs I met were the equivalent of the shamans; philosophizers, theists, politically aware and well-read people whose conversation is more than worth the time to sit down and listen. I had the pleasure of observing one such individual, let’s imaginatively call him the Shaman, tell stories and weave his debates with the alacrity of a seasoned elder. The guy seemed to be one of those ‘integral players’ of the tribe; not that the party would be lacking in his absence, not exactly, but his presence is the type that helps determine what kind of night it will turn out to be. I felt an enriching aura exuded from the man.

Another individual, let’s call him the Chieftain, radiated a calm confidence that marked him, in my eyes,  as the leader of this band of orcs, though not in an authoritative, commanding sort of way. He was the outdoorsman, the one who just as naturally cut wood for the fire with his hand ax as some host of a dinner party might fetch wine for his guests from the cellar. His mate, also present, complemented him as a lady of the woods, taking it upon herself to routinely stoke the fire and ever lay more fuel to our night’s source of heat and light and comfort. I in fact helped with each of these tasks, able to exchange a few words with the orc Chieftain and his mate, and both (having met the Chieftain on one other occasion) were positively charming, welcoming people.

Granted, I would never have found myself in their presence were it not for being brought by another associate of mine – who I do not identify as an orc himself, but certainly a fire-bearded wildman capable of easily blending among them – and in chopping wood or stoking the fire they most certainly did not need my help. But seeing things like this in play reminded me of my younger days, having my own group of friends visiting – most of them not knowing the first thing about making and tending to fires in the woods – and it was my duty and pleasure to keep the fire going. The orcs obviously had everything well in hand, but it evoked old muscles and memories to partake in the ritual, triggering old woodsman instincts that had long since laid mostly dormant.

Perhaps most interesting of my observations of the Chieftain was the care and effort he had put into preparing the evening meal. Most folks had brought beer, and I, with my own dietary restrictions, had managed to brew up and share a meager portion of spicy vegetarian ramen soup. Most unOrcish. But more than the meal itself, the Chieftain prepared a couple of cornish hens (or something) in a large aluminum pan, and after hours of delicate patience and attentative cooking, he cut the pan in half, setting one portion aside for the tribe. The other half he took with him a safe distance away, where he and his mate enjoyed the delicacy. Those orcs who did not hear the designation were reminded.

“This one is ours,” he had said. The message was clear, and bereft of any negative inflection; the Chieftain had simply prepared a meal and by his generosity, had offered some of it up for the tribe, but this portion was designated for only himself and his mate. It was law, it was clear, and it was respected without the slightest hint of chagrin.

No one in their right minds (and many of the orcs were drunk, by the way), would question him – as might be seen in otherwise “normal” society – but it was entirely out of respect, rather than fear of embarrassment or reproach. It simply was, just as the orcs simply were.

I found watching that tiny exchange, the gesture of respect not only towards the Chieftain, but the respect the Chieftain showed towards his mate, to be a fascinating and overwhelmingly romantic thing to observe.

You won’t be finding bankers and CEO’s around this campfire. And while some of these “orcish” traits might be akin to “dwarvish” tendencies, the difference, I find, is attitude:

  • People who I’d recognize as “dwarven,” while just as capable of being wild and unpredictable and unconcerned with laying on bare earth, I see them as having much less of a propensity to go out and drink in the woods. People with classical dwarven tendencies would, in my mind, much prefer being rowdy and drunk in a tavern or a home, somewhere close to civilization and society.
  • Orcs, on the other hand, do it wherever the hell they want – but they prefer the company of trees and campfires simply because it’s more convenient for them to avoid otherwise less-than-cooperative authorities. There is more freedom the further away from other people you set foot. There is much more of a collective, tribal sense of “us” and “the rest of the world out there.”

Gatherings like this are things you may not recognize as common in your area, wherever you are, dear reader, but where I am as of this writing, it’s really not that unusual. The group I sat amongst consisted of around ten people, but I’ve been told the tribe has reached numbers as high as thirty-five closely connected individuals. You won’t find kindred folk like this in an office.

But what I’ve really come to recognize, and respect, is the simple genuineness of these people. These were folk with whom I confess I may not be able to mesh easily, but I easily get along with. I witnessed a group of friends who simply were who they were; I witnessed a complete absence of obeying typical societal polite discourse – they spoke their minds (did not dance around topics), they did not inhibit their flatulence, they lost their tempers in debates and quickly made amends over a drink not long after, and (I suspect) their dating/mating rituals probably don’t follow the same rules as set by society either. For all the rowdiness and self-indulgence I witnessed (and this event was comparatively tame), absolutely no one was phony. They were themselves, and whether by circumstance or mutual influence, they became who they were, and gathered, and shared stories, liquor, and laughs atop that mountain.

They also did not seem to give a damn that an outsider, some quietly observing bard such as myself, sat among them, partaking in the laughter, the jokes, the comfort.

Sure, this image seems about accurate. ((Art by Manzanedo @ http://manzanedo.deviantart.com/ ))

I’ll tell this: these people seemed, as far as I could tell, largely unconcerned, and thus unconstrained, by ideas such as putting on a show in order to “fit in.” With ideas of being politically correct for fear of offending someone (or, as was the topic of that particular night, perhaps they were simply venting suppressed un-PC things out into the night and to the stars). Even ideas of appearance, of society-deemed ‘style’ and ‘cool.’ People wore what they wanted, whether it was practical and worn or looked good and well-kept, and it’s not so much that I’m surprised by any of these traits – I’m simply impressed.

These are the kinds of people who will survive if society collapses, and not only because of their practical skills and familiarity with the wilds, but for their sense of community – cliche as that might sound.

There isn’t much room for orcs in the cities; there are too many laws and constraints. One of my closest friends growing up could best be described this way; when last I saw him, years ago (after perhaps half a decade of not seeing him before that), he had become significantly more orcish. It was a lifestyle that diverged our paths back in the day, his on his, mine on mine; and while I don’t consider myself one of them – I’m not nearly physically strong enough and far too preoccupied with keeping my hat clean – I do feel a kinship with them. Common roots, perhaps, sprouting into different trees.

There are much worse things than considering one’s self a friend of orcs.

~~~

Today’s track is brought to you by the Elder Scrolls VI: Skyrim – “02 – Awake.” This bit isn’t so much meant to pertain to the orcs with whom I shared company, per say, but rather the gorgeous sunrise we witnessed at 4:30am the following morning from the cliff near which we camped. Yes, you could play as an orc in that game (kudos to them), but this short track makes for an excellent start to many things – the start of a game, yes, or the start of a novel, a day, or a new chapter in one’s life.

Why I Hate Elves

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The only reason to see the movie Elf was to watch Will Ferrel get drop kicked by Peter Dinklage.

So this is not so much a post designated to convince you of why you should hate elves as it is a simple rant. Let’s start with the basics.

At the very least, I despise the word ‘elf.’ Variations of long-eared humanoids are nifty, but for the most part they all follow the same Tolkienien tropes that are so overdone that I, personally, tend to lose interest very quickly. Along with Orcs and Dwarves, Elves are not what make a fantasy story a fantasy, yet all too often they make an appearance, as though there’s some recipe out there that says the formula is incomplete without a healthy dose of elf powder.

Fantasy is about imagination, about exploring worlds new and arguably familiar. To have your own world populated with carbon copies of what we’ve already seen in Faerun, Azeroth, Dominaria, Thedas, and countless bloody others doesn’t say much. They always have long lifespans, possess superior proportions, are almost unerringly attractive (so I hear), and are always better than you at everything. I get it, that’s what modern society seems to think elves are.

And it’s boring. I find hyper-sexualized characters to be irritating, however pleasant they are to look at and imagine.

Elves are more often used for fanservice than anything else, I’ve seen. They appear to have been fetishized, with effeminate men and blindingly attractive women. Practical armor optional (though, to the credit of some sources, they at least depict the men this way as well, so, yay for equal rights. I guess). Not that I have any particular problem with “effeminate men” or “scantily clad woman warriors,” rather, it’s just how those tropes appear to be what the world ‘elf’ means.

I get it. Fantasy. Exploring and/or depicting things we fantasize about. But since when does fantasy mean more of the same? I like looking at the shapely charms of well-defined female as much as the next guy, but what I don’t dig is when the woman’s body is essentially her primary (only?) asset as a character. Like, at the full expense of my willing suspension of disbelief.

Think Legolas would be as well-loved if he wasn’t some Aryan wet dream?

Maybe I should just accept that elves are just too nimble to actually get injured.

Originally, the word ‘elf’ was associated with something quite different. There’s quite the body of research behind the etymology and folklore of the old Germanic meaning – which has sorta been distilled from over a thousand years of folklore into a generalized understanding these days – and while I understand that language is a living, evolving thing, especially English, there’s something about the word elf that just bugs me.

Whether it’s the tiny little bell ringers at the north pole or archer princes sliding down the trunks of oliphants, I find myself over-saturated with the generalized and yet highly varied umbrella term of ‘elf.’

They come most often in three primary forms: we have the High Elves, the Wood Elves, and the Dark Elves (the most famous of these being the Drow. Don’t get me fucking started on Drizzt). They’re all essentially the same though, much like humans are all basically the same, with just a few tweaks of color and secondary physical features like ear length or height. I’ve always felt like usage of these, without distinguishing them in some form OTHER than slapping a different name on them, is just plain lazy.

And I know this because I used to be a much lazier writer.

Maybe certain writers love elves the way they are – and the market has told us what people like, so these depictions of elves aren’t going anywhere. I used to dig Blizzard Night Elves for awhile, because at the time they were new, and at the time I had my head stuck in the world of Azeroth. Once I actually began reading other sources and learning more, they lost their charm, becoming tropy as the rest of them – however I still dig their dress of quilts + feathers + antlers.

Honestly the most interesting elf variations that I’ve come across were the “City Elves” of Dragon Age (who were, in a drastic twist of events, depicted as petty and subhuman, rather than superior in every way possible), the elves of Lorwyn (which were cool because the creators A) hyper-expanded the trope by making their culture obsessed with superficial perfection and beauty – to the point of seeing themselves as natural “hunters of all things ugly,” and B) They actually possessed physical traits that made them unique – very satyrlike, with goat-legs and horns), and the Wood Elves from the 1977 Ranklin/Bass animated depiction of the Hobbit.

Get a load of these fair-haired bastards. Very fae-like, long before the explosion of D&D elves, followed by Blizzardian elves.

Now, with all that said, there are stories in which the common elf tropes have appeared that I have, in fact, very much adored. There have been numerous occasions where I totally dug the elves or elven characters of various mythos encountered. But as I grow older, I keep encountering the same things over and over. It gets kinda stale.

So what does this mean? It means that one must adopt the philosophy of “Writing What You Wish You Could Read.” After reading Dune, among other works, this is the story-writing philosophy that I’ve decided to adopt. I confess that I’ve fallen into the same pitfalls of writing elves the way everyone else does, which meant that for some bodies of work previously written, I had to rework quite a bit of the worldbuilding and lore. But it all came out for the better. What resulted (and admittedly, is still resulting, as more changes must be implemented) are cultures, creations, settings, and story elements that are mine.

That, I think, is more valuable than writing the same stuff you already see on the shelf.

What of you, dear readers? Tropes you see again and again that you’d rather have changed? Shaken up? Do you like elves the way we keep seeing them, or do you disagree with any of my point? Would love to hear it.

Today’s music is brought to you by Terraria, the track played when entering a Jungle zone. It hasn’t much to do with elves, exactly, but if you equate the usage of the word elf with anything lush or foresty, then there might be a connection in there somewhere.