Update June 2016

I’ve been absent from social media for a while now.

To say “I’ve been busy” would be a watered-down, unscrupulously typical excuse as given by the majority of people who call themselves writers. I’ve come to loathe the phrase, both in part for that nasty connotation that writing communities assign to such a term, and the blaseity of such lazy, undescriptive vernacular for “I don’t want to tell you [why].”

The same goes for “free time.” What the hell is that?

entrep

Thus, this is an attempt at describing what’s been happening.

First and foremost, a little backstory to those new to my blog, my life, my story.

I live and work in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, where for the last two years I’ve been teaching English as a Foreign Language. While I’ve been technically teaching EFL for about six years total, it was in Viet Nam where I first started handling large classes – and where I both found the opportunity and personal wherewithal to strike out on my own.

I started off teaching classes in my living room. Then moved on to rent a classroom. Fast forward about a year, and here I am renting multiple rooms, with a small team of about seven people, most of them teachers, plus an intern.

Having had some freelancer experience as an editor and occasional English tutor in New York, the idea of being independent (as opposed to working in some corporation – been there, done that) is not all that new to me. I’ll write some sort of inspirational-yet-down-to-earth origin story some other time.

cubicle

So after enough time and enough confidence, capital and allies gathered, we launched Triangle Education in March of 2016.

It’s been an emotional and stressful roller coaster ever since, layered atop the preexisting roller coaster of stresses and emotions that come with living in a foreign country on the other side of the planet. And not for the typical reasons you’d expect to hear any entrepreneur talking about.

Anything you’ve heard about start-ups, any difficulties and issues from managing staff, providing a quality product, and advertising, double the magnitude that difficulty when factoring language barriers, cultural differences, and local, petty corruption – oh the corruption, I’m looking at you, All Of South East Asia – into account.

corruption-corruption-everywhere

And for all the stresses, annoyances, hurdles and other clever thesaurus-derived words for “shit that keeps this from being easy,” I’ve gradually watched a change come over myself.

As something of an amateur philosopher, I’d gone through an existential crisis during my first few weeks as a manager and company owner, small as the operation is nowadays (“By what right can I have people working for me? Is there an inherent hierarchy of worth, even among human beings?”). I’ve since come to accept that it’s not about human worth, which in and of itself can be a sticky topic, no, it’s simply about initiative and drive.

It’s also about stepping out of your comfort zone, coming across (or seeking) opportunity, and siezing it.

build your dreams

I’ve likened running a start-up in Sai Gon to babysitting. Managing staff is one thing; providing a good product (quality teaching and interesting material), while ensuring that the marketing efforts are not deceptive – all while teaching – has got my hands so full that it’s been one juggling act after another.

Sai Gon has something of a burgeoning start-up culture, the likes of which I often hear about but have almost never partaken in. Triangle Education was not founded after attending a meeting and convincing some other starry-eyed foreigners looking for “the next big thing.” It wasn’t founded after I conned some rich guy to fund my idea. I’ll write another article concerning my distaste for the word term “start-up.”

In any case, babysitting – I mean, leadership – comes as a result of a few very simple, yet crucial factors, not least of which the fact that I cannot trust anyone else to supervise the operation for an extended period of time. If I’m not there making sure something is being done correctly, something always goes wrong, whether it’s installing TV-stands into the walls (they drilled holes in the corner), getting vertical banners printed (the mobile stands for said banners don’t fit the prints and are missing pieces), to ordering floor mats and paper cups (local staff didn’t know where to buy them, so they bought plastic instead. I found them on my first stop).

What I’m describing is not limited to my own experience. It falls in line with what I’ve heard other expats express, or hear about, and the things listed keep a lot of other expats from even trying what I’m doing.

Now, I am thoroughly aware of the difference between being a control freak, giving people the opportunity to be responsible, and simply seeing the ineptitude and incompetence of those around you. Everything in Sai Gon is built with the attitude “Good enough for now,” as cheaply and as quickly as possible. Small wonder you see streets cracking and power-and-internet cables embroiled in tangled masses.

img_2418

Image from here, but I see this shit on most street corners.

If I had to describe what I’ve seen in Viet Nam in a single, all-encompassing word, it would be incompetence [ bất tài ], from the government to law-enforcement to construction to business management to corporate policy to restaurant service (let alone the food itself) down to layman’s tasks like ordering godsdamn paper cups.

But one must bear in mind the circumstances — most of the people I meet come from rural farms, or their parents did, and things westerners consider to be “polite” or within the sacred confines of “etiquette” are lost on them. Quality is as foreign a thing as blond hair and blue eyes, and as one student once phrased it: “A fish cannot feel the water.”

What he meant was that if one grows up in an environment filled with trash, you don’t notice the trash. This is both literal and figurative.

Yet, for all the griping of the last couple lines, this is not a gripe post. I love what I do, for all the frustration, and it is of my emotional investment that I care so much. I speak to people on the other side of the spectrum every day, those petty locals looking to make a fast buck, and the indifferent expats going about their life without caring much for the students.

It is because I care that I get so worked up sometimes. I ought not demand perfection, but I do have high standards. Trouble is, my idea of standards is so different from that of the people with whom I work that it is quite easy for there to be a miscommunication.

I think I finally understand what leadership is. It came in the form of a quote from Game of Thrones:

Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if he starts second guessing himself, that’s the end. For him, for the clever little twats, for everyone…”

Ser Aliser Thorne, S4

I’ll write more on leadership later.

Without listing numbers, I’m in the most financially stable position I’ve been my entire life; a year ago, I had a personal vision of myself, and these days I’ve surpassed my own hopes. For next year, I have a slightly augmented version envisioned, and only time will tell whether I meet that expectation. But the point is that, compared to many years of my sentient life spent lost and wandering (from profession to profession) and essentially hoping for the best (in terms of life), things are looking pretty good.

I do not believe in luck. I believe in chance – the chance that I happened to be born in the time and place, with the skin color I have and the language I speak and nationality printed on my passport, cannot be ignored. But, I’ve met loads of other people born in circumstances akin to my own back in the States, and many more who were born in measurably better circumstances, and they haven’t done a fraction of the things I’ve done.

All this is a long-winded excuse, I suppose, for why I haven’t been doing any (creative) writing. I still dream about my novel, and I’ve written in the past about how I may have falling in love with “writing” as opposed to “having written.” Likely I still stand guilty of this, as even the simple goal of setting aside a minimum of 15 minutes every day to devote to creative writing is still something of a challenge to me.

The layman’s excuse is that I’m too busy, that I’m too preoccupied. I think the harsh truth is that other priorities have arisen, and despite my struggle to maintain writing habits and keep in touch with my writing friends, I’m slowly reaching the conclusion that I really need to set it aside for now.

It’s painful, because I retain habits of the writer mantra, “How can I use this?” and, as a result, I still find a multitude of things utterly fascinating (and worthy of distracting research) at any given moment. I meet people, discover behind-the-scenes machinations of organizations, or simply observe day to day life and I want to write and tell stories based on everything I see.

So I can either write garbage on account of being unable to focus on it, or I’ll garner additional stress from the fact that the thought “I should be writing,” is constantly, constantly in the back of my mind.

frere time

I’ve had the underlying goal that part of the reason I’m growing a company – and have my sights on jumping into a new business venture, of which I’ll write in another article – is to free up my life so I can write. After all, being a businessman means you have everyone do work for you, right?

It means that you have loads of free time…right?

I would be a fool to believe that, but only in recent months have I gathered sufficient experience to come to that realization in full.

And yet, creating jobs for people in a developing country, and opening doors for what First-Worlders would call impoverished people, the hunt for opportunity and – more importantly – the ability to seize it when it presents itself, comes with thrills that are unexpectedly satisfying.

And this is just a fraction of my personal life. Meanwhile there are insane environmental scandals happening in Viet Nam that the state-run media is desperate to cover up, there are insane elections happening in my home country, and the current president happened to visit the country  and city (!) where I happen to reside not long ago.

Pictured, a comparison of normal traffic vs. Obama traffic at a prominent intersection near my home:

obama in saigon

I don’t want to brag or nothin’, but I was one of that large stream of people simply trying to get home through the traffic on the bottom-left.

Then, in a few days after this post, I’m off to see what Bali is like for a week.

I thoroughly look forward to this vacation.

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Writing Progress: Minotaurs and Rings

Anyone whose advice is remotely worth following will tell you that you can only benefit from meeting other people with similar interests and goals. Writing not least of which.

Get a group if you don’t have one already, and I don’t necessarily mean over-sized groups like the NaNoWriMo Facebook Group (though that certainly has its uses and I recommend joining anyway, with it’s near-22,000 members), I highly recommend more closely-knit group(s) of friends, a closed group that doesn’t accept just anyone.

For one of my online writing circles, known as the Sky Writers — small group comprised of a handful of members from around the world with varying degrees of publication success — we regularly hold Skype meetings to critique each other’s work. Turns out I’m one of the “tough love” types, a trait I carry from my desire for tough love to be shown to me, that has been developed over the course of my career as a freelance editor.

I’ll, from time to time, refer to this group as my Order, or if I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I’ll call it my Guild.

Anyway.

Someone came up with the idea of putting together a compilation piece. Each of us is to write a short story — nothing exceeding around 5,000 words or so, by the end of May 2015. A common theme was agreed upon early on: each story must have something to do with a ring.

What kind of ring? Naturally a band of precious metal to be adorn a finger might come to mind, but in truth there are many things from which to choose. Asking others both within and without the guild, I heard suggestions for cloud rings, criminal rings, planetary rings as might be viewed around Saturn. Then there are rings of light, as might be found in a certain cunningly entitled horror film I touched on in the past, but you’ll have no doubt heard of on your own.

 

As for me, went for at least three weeks of procrastinating and pining before settling upon an idea I liked enough to explore: a fighting ring, an arena.

A coliseum.

Slight Tangent: I’ve often held something of an affinity for cows and all things bovine. Having encountered minotaurs in countless fantasies — from Narnia to Azeroth to, of course, ye olde schoole Greek Mythology — I thought it was time to take up my proverbial pen (keyboard?) and make my own attempt at it.

After having devoted so many years to WoW, I, like any psuedo-ex-gamer, would be ashamed to admit any unfamiliarity with their take on the minotaur, the Tauren. As such it’s something of a challenge to clear one’s imaginative palette and endeavor to write up something new, especially when it comes to something taken from classic mythology.

In any case, my goal wasn’t to reinvent the minotaur, although I do favor a more classical take on the classical monster – that is, the hoof-less variety depicted in ancient Greek art.

Note how it’s essentially a man with a bull’s head. Such a thing I find more creepy, more frightening, than an otherwise “upright walking bull” we see as depicted by Blizzard or Wizards of the Coast. Whether they are Proud Warrior Race Guys or just your run-of-the-mill boss monster is actually irevelant to the story I have cooking up, the sharing of which is the purpose of this post.

Unlike my novel project, which I’ll mention from time to time in cryptic tones and coded messages for no reason other than an obsession with secrecy for projects that aren’t finished, I have significantly less inhibition when it comes to talking about and sharing my short stories. That was a long-ass sentence. Anywa, perhaps less is at stake – so here’re some details.

The setting takes place in a post-war area of an expanding human empire. Not long ago, a nation of minotaurs suffered overwhelming defeat, and refugees fled into northern mountains while those left behind were put into slavery. Minotaurs are given a rudimentary choice in life: live under the lash as a laborer, or under the lash as a gladiator. They call themselves taurfolk, though I’ll refer to them as minotaurs (or even just ‘minos’) in the prose.

Very few of them persist while under the reign of the human empire, as the gladiators are used until they’re killed off (except for the valuable ones), or the laborers are quite simply worked to death. It’s a systematic extinction as breeding is discouraged — in fact most minotaurs are rendered into oxen, many of whom live life with the knowledge that they are essentially the final generation of minos.

Alistar, from League of Legends. Copyright Riot Games. You can’t see it here, but he’s actually depicted with FEET, not hooves.

The story follows the perspective of one such minotaur, currently named “Gunn,” (I like monosyllabic names) a rather accomplished gladiator in the employ of a human owner named Master Soares. The “Ring Theme” is to be doubled — not only are gladiators put into a ring-shaped coliseum to square off against each other, but as a symbol of their slavery, every minotaur is fitted with a heavy nose-ring of bronze.

As of this writing, I haven’t arrived at a satisfying conclusion for the story, and the manuscript so far (about 3,800 words) awaits some critique, editing and trimming. Currently, I’m toying with elements of betrayal, escape, political intrigue, and no small amount of foreshadowing for a possible continuation, whether in the form of short stories or perhaps a full-length novel.

This is one of the first depictions of a minotaur I’ve ever seen. It’s from the Children’s Brittanica, World of Science and Mystery: Monsters. Notice the hooflessness of the guy.

I tend to have a habit of creating a fantasy story and in some way or another, making a connection to the Main Novel Project, usually in the form of referencing a country or event that happens in that story’s timeline. The Novel takes place in a universe of three relatively fleshed-out worlds, and simply transplanting this minotaur story into some remote corner of any of several maps I’ve already drawn up would not be difficult.

The question is, should this be a sort of supplemental reading for worlds already crafted, or should this be a stand-alone story?

We shall see.

~~~

Here’s a bit of music I’ve been listening to a lot lately. It’s a chiptune-styled piece that lasts for over 30 minutes. Made by none other than my all-time favorite VideoGame Music composer, Hiroki Kikuta. You’d know his name from an old school SNES classic JRPG known as the Secret of Mana.

 

Stranger In A Strange Land

In recent months, I’ve felt both mad inspiration and discouraging slumps. Last week I talked about an instance where I overcame a bout of Writer’s Block. I like to imagine every post on the matter – gathered from every writer, everywhere – as a crumpled piece of paper, all occupying a single place on the internet. A massive slosh to which every writer and blogger contributes.

Advice on how to get over writer’s block, memes making comedic light of it, how I overcame it, how you can too. Systems, apps, substances.

And I certainly don’t claim to be different. More than once I’ve written a blog post consisting of little more than a “Why I Can’t Write Anything,” topic. But the visual makes things a little more fun.

At any rate, today’s topic will actually concern my work-in-the-making, which I almost never talk about for a variety of reasons. Most of those reasons are variations of 1) being vainly and arrogantly afraid that someone’ll copy + paste my stuff [I’ll share everything in the future, when it’s finished] and 2) it takes so much backstory just to get the blog-reader up to speed on what the hell I’m talking about that I don’t bother.

I have, however, gone into some detail in the past.

It’s hard to celebrate the inspiration for a conspiracy surrounding an organization that spans over multiple worlds…

Or the excitement I feel when I make a connection between characters from different countries and cities…

And even the deep lore behind a weapon the likes of which I’d spent years sitting around thinking up the story behind…

…when next-to-no-one has read a page of your work.

I’m not complaining about that, though. I’m just into sharing a bit of inspiration through an experience, and how it will be directly affecting my work.

My novel would fall into the category of Fantasy (big surprise, considering the title of the blog), though precisely which type of fantasy is as much up to you people, when it’s released, as it is mine as I write it. Suffice it to say there’s magic, lots of myriad peoples and creatures, the worlds in which the stories take place are anything but shallow.

For the first novel, still in progress – but so close I can clicheically taste it — I have multiple character perspectives. This is nothing special on its own, most writers can (and should) be able to do this. I showed the rough scheme for my chapter layout some time ago, though it’s in fact changed a little since then.

The “Radh Arc,” that is, the string of chapters telling the story from the perspective of the character named Radh, closes on a peaceful note with an air of tension of tension that is at last ebbing (or is it?). The character is settling in a new environment, in a new town, surrounded by new people, and he is thoroughly out of place. A veteran war hero posing as a civilian in a small-but-busy quarry town several days away from the nearest city. People would look at him strangely, as there are aspects of his appearance that make him stand out. I’ll give you a hint as to why.

He isn’t human. Not technically.

The character is visibly different from the locals, which is something I had conceived and written about many years ago. Which means the idea was put to paper during a time when I had virtually no experience in what I was trying to convey.

Turns out the Flux Capacitor Effect happened again — the pieces to a puzzle were there, clear and in plain sight, and it took but a simple thought to arrange them in a certain order so as to be assembled into inspiration.

I think it hit me in the shower.

I’m currently living in a situation where people stare at me. All the time. My physical appearance is so different from that of the millions of locals around me that most of the time, I am regarded with a sort of distant trying-not-to-stare attitude (though pretty often a lot of folks here in the outskirts of Sai Gon don’t even try to hide it). I’m basically a freak for choosing to live here, though my favorite term is being viewed “as some sort of strange animal that has escaped from a zoo.”

Most of the time I’m the one without the camera.

It’s almost like some really weird, subconscious, self-fulfilling prophecy. I originally wrote about a character moving into a new environment more than ten years ago, and now that I’ve rewritten the scenes multiple times, my life has also somehow taken enough turns to lead me into a situation perfect for writing this section of the novel from experience. It also seems oddly coincidental that I’ve reached this exact point in the 3.0 revision around the time in my life where I find myself essentially transplanted into an alien environment.

So the mantra: As a writer, how can I use this?

Living here, I’ve come to realize that on a constant basis — and I do not mean daily, no, I truly mean constant for as long as I am seen in public — I am being judged and assumptions are being made.

Sure sure, we’re all being judged at any given moment by our family, our peers, and especially strangers, but has someone ever assumed you were rich because of the sound of your voice? That you’re ignorant because of the color of your eyes? Or the amount of hair on your arms is directly proportional to how masculine you are (true story)?

Hairy arms aside, I’ve found one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to deal with here was how utterly out of place I look.

Psychologically, I’m fine. People looking at me funny is nothing all that new, actually, though the reasons have changed, and this direct exposure to peoples’ assumptions about my attitude, hygiene, standards, personal wealth, religious beliefs, politeness and even how I dress, is all chalked up to me just being some foreigner.

In other words, while I endeavor to be as respectful as I can, for all practical purposes no matter what I do, the majority of people I interact with, or who at least see me, will assume I am the way I am simply because I’m not one of them.

Only a select few in my close circle know that I’m a weirdo back in America, too.

All this translates into the conclusion of the “Radh Arc” chapters, and while I’m happy to share and celebrate my little joy here (because if I don’t, who will?), but also send a bit of encouragement.

You’d be surprised what inspiration, or missing puzzle pieces (I tend to think those two concepts are interchangeable), are right under your nose, or right around the corner.

~~~

Today’s music piece comes from Diablo 2, a popular Blizzard game from a decade ago. More specifically, the track comes from its expansion, Lord of Destruction, and this “cold music” is the ambience for a mountainous barbarian town.

Whenever I listen to this track, I am not only taken back to days when I used to play the game, but also to a point in the novel that, I’ve always felt, this track expressed perfectly. One can almost hear the sound of snow falling as the calm of this track paints a picture of a stoic, isolated town, warm hearths within and cold darkness beyond the wall. There is a not-so-far-off tension in these instrumentals, setting the stage for some serious action in the near future of the people.

Overcoming That Pesky Block

This is as much a public self-accountability call to act as it is a blog post. Considering the length of previous posts, I’ll try to keep this one comparatively short.

The truth is, I’ve almost lost track of my passion. Almost.

But how is that possible, one might ask?

The answer is infuriatingly simple:

Distraction. And my productivity and sense of inspiration appears to run on a pendulum, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other at regular intervals, ranging from excitement so great I can barely contain it, to feeling so down that I can barely lift myself off my grubby couch.

Maybe I rid myself of the thing.

I’ve come to realize that it takes very little for me to get distracted from things. It is a character flaw that I have struggled with for some time, but only in recent years have I come to really recognize it as an issue. I know not whether I have some form of diagnosable Attention Deficit Disorder, but the idea has been suggested to me more than once.

I would not be anything special were I to confess that I have difficulty concentrating or focusing, least of all on my writing.  But what is worse, being bereft of the solution, or knowing the solution and then simply forgetting it?

The most effective thing I’ve ever done when I’ve wanted to be productive, whether it’s with fiction-writing or editing, is set aside time in a dedicated workspace. Jevon Knights outlines this most effectively in his blog post about the Criteria for the Perfect Writing Space, and not unlike my own tactic, his idea encourages finding a place away from home.

You should really check out his ebook, The Knights Scroll. It’s a collection of short stories, both Science Fiction and Fantasy, and you can download it for FREE. I’ve read it, I dig it, and anyone who reads my material or is remotely interested in the stuff I do and like will enjoy it.

Regarding writing spaces, though, there is seriously no shortage of cafes in Sài Gòn. I mean, you couldn’t throw a shuriken without it sticking into the sign of some cafe nearby.

Please do not try this, or at least if you do, don’t tell anyone I gave you the idea.

I have, however, settled in a is looking to be more of a permanent living situation (a new house), and only recently have I established a secure internet connection, as well as a room dedicated to office work.

The result has been phenomenal.

That and two cups of càphê sữa đá significantly uplifted my mood and filled me with much needed motivation.

I’ve always been averse to being dependent on any form of substance.

But is coffee a terrible thing to want to drink when one’s life purpose is to focus and write?

I think not.

The success of people around me has also been inspiring.  I have no excuse; yes, there are life distractions and responsibilities, but one always had time – even just one hour a day – to write. It’s mostly a matter of getting organized and forming a system.

In fact Lifehacker.com has here a great list of for How To Stick To A Writing Schedule.

Surprise surprise, one of their bullet points is setting aside a place to write.

For me, it’s more complicated than getting up earlier, or walking to a nearby cafe and ‘setting up shop’ every day, which are things I’ve tried and have worked. But now, with a home base and office that feels more secure and organized, I find my stresses and creative energies more easily managed.

It’s almost as though my home, wherever that may be, is a real-life metaphor for my brain. If my home is a mess, then my brain is distracted. If things are in order and my home is clean and organized — even if my workspace is in fact away from home — then I can focus. Perhaps that is, or at least part of, the code I can use to understand my inner-psychology to harness creativity.

And, of course, sweet coffee in the middle of the day helps.

Now to train myself to remember that.

 

 

 

A Month In

I’ve come to learn a dozen things about myself in this last month since landing in Viet Nam. Some things personal, some thing superficial, others intellectual and emotional, and even a few things practical.

 

Like turning coconuts into planters.

Like turning coconuts into planters. What you see here is dying aloe I found in my house, rescued and given another chance at life.

Writing-wise, I now publicly confess that for the majority of the time since landing (and even a week or two before, as the excitement for the flight grew) was not spent putting down prose. Quite a bit has been dedicated to travelogue’ing, sure, and as important as that is, my fiction has lacked.

I haven’t had a short story idea in months. And we’re approaching the Writers of the Future 4th Quarter of 2014!

My novel project has slowed as well, and I tell myself (and my writing peers) that it’s mostly on account of life simply being too damned interesting to fantasize. That is a falsehood, though. It’s been laziness as well.

But I found a solution.

As a creature of habit and routine – most humans are, in fact, whether they know it or not – a daily or weekly plan often helps with keeping organized. This is no secret, but still I’ve come to understand that my ideal working environment may, in fact, not be at home.

Viet Nam has, among other things, cafes in abundance. With sweet, potent iced coffee readily available for $1 a cup, one finds it difficult to refrain from drinking too much. Two is usually enough before I have to run to the bathroom squealing. But the cafes themselves make for excellent work environments.

One of my new offices.

One of my new offices.

For one thing, there’s the (iced) coffee, which is refreshing in the heat, tasty in the sweet, and caffiene is good for every writing feat.

But there is something uniquely special about going to a place away from home with the specific goal of working. It works just as well as dedicated writing time, except for me (and many other people, I’ve read), a change of environment is generally conducive to creativity anyway. I’ve known artists in New York City who rent out studios, no doubt because working at home is out of the question due to space issues, but I wager there’s something in common here. There’s a psychological script at play when coming to a dedicate workspace:

“I came here to work, so I better make use of the time.”

This, of course, is the mental dialog of the occasionally lazy yet anxious mind of yours truly.

Turning off the WiFi connection helps, and is recommended – I don’t have a VPN setup (yet), and it’s generally considered a less-than-safe-thing to connect your laptop to any public network anyway. Phones and tablets are usually more secure on account of them being built for said purpose, but one cannot used Scrivener on a phone or tablet. The willful lacking of an internet connection naturally eliminates – or at least reduces – distraction; at least the self-induced variety.

Having strangers approach me, the only Westerner to ever set foot in that cafe (probably ever), and engage me in conversation tends to happen from time to time.  It is a fun distraction, since through this method I’ve met a banker, a chemist, and a technical engineer. Combined, their English skills make for only the most basic of conversations feasible, and I recall one instance (with the engineer), where it took about an hour to express why he disliked the French and why he liked Americans. The short answer is because he reads history. But, after defacing my notebook with dozens of notes and sentence fragments from each of us to illustrate our points, I found myself being told of a history lesson regarding things I already knew.

Still, I admire folks whose practical ability of English is severely limited, yet they work up the courage to approach me anyway. Most simply don’t, or can’t.

Yet in spite of distractions such as this, one finds focus more thoroughly attained in a cafe than at home. Worse case scenario, I don my over-ear headphones and turn up the volume – headphones, I believe, are a universal cue for “Do not disturb.” Multiple soundtracks later I will have found thousands of words (of prose!) written.

Raw creative prose is among the most difficult things to write for me. Writing this blog post, for instance, is something quite different – it’s more a stream of consciousness, thoughts-put-on-paper kind of process. Weaving worlds and character interactions is something quite different, and I am overjoyed to find a small niche.

The outstanding coffee (caphe) is just delightful icing on the proverbial cake.

And, with cafes found every couple of shops apart – no really, they’re everywhere, my home is within walking distance of six or seven on one street alone – I have taken to taking my work with me to a variety of different places. It is as much an adventure exploring the stores and cafes as it is hopping on a motorbike and taking off in a random direction for an hour or two.

I’ve even found inspiration in the most unlikely of ways; in one cafe they had very low tables, and even lower chairs with simple cushions. I promptly fell in love with the furniture, and knowing the extent of my own skills, I paid thorough attention to their make, and decided I could make the chairs and tables myself. Perhaps there will be a post about that as well, as I have plans to construct (among other things) a garden, a bed frame, numerous shelves, and now, chairs and tables. With such ready access to cafés, and the reasons listed and unlisted for why I seem to be more productive in them than at home, one comes to question their prior aspirations of even bothering with home office furnishings.

Funny how this writing blog has (de?)evolved into ramblings about furniture.

Happy writing, dear readers.

~~~

Today’s track is a calm, nifty beat from an old favorite soundtrack of mine: K-Pax, by Edward Shearmur. It doesn’t take much for me to sit down and pay attention when the name Kevin Spacey is mentioned, but the movie itself I found to be strange and eccentric enough to keep in my memory well into a decade after first seeing it. The music, listened to countless times, has a very dreamy quality to it.

There very well could be my own personal attachment to it – i.e., enjoying the movie therefore hearing the tracks remind me of fun moments and good feelings – but on its own the soundtrack truly is unique. One could easily fall asleep to this and drift to another world.

 

A Profound Experience

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

– – – – –

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 standard term of endearment for a person (male or female) 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 to 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.

Em, 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 as someone whose practiced pretty strict 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, and in fact the local cuisine is considered some of the healthiest in the world. 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.

Speaking to my roommates about my experience, I learned they too were aware and compassionate. More on that later.

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 and the roar of motorbikes 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.

It’s people like her who truly have a Rich Life, not the business and money-minded folk in their tall buildings and luxurious apartments.

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 (by my standards, anyway) 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.

My roommates are among the better type. Kind and friendly and helpful, I related my experience to them, and they described my experience as being in shock. Perhaps so, but a secret dream of mine has been to live deep in an Asian community, and all the opportunities to do so are here, now. Furthermore, though, they understood my position, and my desire to change my living situation.

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

But as for my fantasy 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.

Tidings 06/20/2014

 

  • Announcements

I guess what pertains most to you all, dear readers, is the mere fact that I’m reducing my twice-a-week posts down to the classic once-a-week variety. The simple reason for this is that I want to provide higher quality posts, and more than once I feel that I wrote posts on topics that served little purpose other than “filler.” They felt that way to me, anyway.

That word leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s something I’m determined to not do again.

Also, though not particularly related to this blog, I’m expecting some big environmental changes soon. In other words, I’m moving. Like I said, this should not affect the blog all that much on account of the fact that none of you know where I live anyway. However, where I’m headed is a new and exotic place overseas, and the nature of a number of posts may reflect this for, as most of you know, I’m rather big on experience. I have no intentions of turning this into a travel blog or anything, but chances are I’ll come across something inspiring and related to writing and/or fantasy to share.

More on that in the future.

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  • Writing Progress

It’s June, which means we’re nearing the end of yet another quarter for the Writer’s of the Future contest. I have a story ready, and have allocated some valuable feedback from a number of trusted associates. Typically I wait until the last day of the deadline, just in case I have any last-minute thoughts regarding the story, but this time around I’m thinking I should just submit it a week early and be done with it.

My other writing, the ever-ongoing novel project, progresses at a slow grind. I’ve reached a point where there remain but three chapters of raw text to be written out. Ideally, that will come out to another 30,000 words, but word count does not matter so much as the actual telling of the story. I’m finding that certain character perspectives involve a lot more detail, a lot more things to write about, than others, and wonder to myself whether there is any detriment to having characters’ chapters at 10,000 words while others, from other characters, are as low as 6,000. It doesn’t concern me that much, but just enough to make me wonder. The last thing I want to do is fill shorter chapters with fluff.

Then of course there’s refinement and editing. I think I actually prefer that part, though. The raw creative energy is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but getting the thoughts in place and the words down seems to be the longest part for me. I’ve read how other writers hate editing their own stuff. I rather enjoy it – as far as I’m concerned, the hard part’s over at that point, and it’s just a matter of organizing, trimming, refining.

I’ve noticed those are activities I enjoy doing in life.

Regardless, nearing completion of this novel is really quite exciting. When I finish the first draft, I’ll share the story (and believe me, there is one) for its inception and how I came about writing it (a third time). For now, though, suffice it to say it’s still in the works, and my goal of completing it this year is still very easily in sight. After all, 30,000 words really isn’t that much. Those of you familiar with NaNoWriMo know this to be true.

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Today’s musical number is brought to you by a documentary I occasionally find myself returning to, called Wild China. As of this posting, it’s on Netflix, and Wild China is about exactly what it sounds; a National Geographic-styled production focusing on the wildlife and landscapes of China. It covers some of the peoples living out there, too, but mainly focuses on the natural science.

China is a big goddam place, with dozens of extremes in both animal life and environments; in terms of culture, what a lot of people don’t know is that China is more like Europe than a single unified country. Sure they’re under one flag at this moment in history, but they’ve 292 living languages today, including dialects spoken by 52 ethnic groups. Aside from some of the stunning imagery the documentary shows, we get to hear the narration of Bernard Hill (who us fantasy fans might recognize as King Théoden from the LotR movies.)

I couldn’t help but think of Théoden in his throne (post anti-aging), reading the script to this.