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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

Seven Days On A Vietnamese Farm

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit a friend’s hometown in rural Viet Nam, near the central regions. Three of us traveled; a university student from Tazmania who I’d come to befriend, the girl whose hometown to which we were headed (also a dear friend), and myself.

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The following is a brief recounting of what happened, and how it has – in ways both surprising and unsurprising – it has influenced my writing.

And, it should be noted, that this marked the first time an American or an Australian (or any foreigners for that matter) had ever visited this part of Viet Nam and, furthermore, weren’t just passing through. I heard that once, and only once, since the War, had there ever been a foreigner – a Chinese person – visiting this area, and he had been denied any lodging and sent on his way.

So, to state it more clearly, my friend and I were the first Westerners to ever come to this part of Quang Tri Province since the Vietnam/American War.

We took a 1-hour flight from Sai Gon to Hue, the historical capital of the country, then took a taxi to the bus station. From there we boarded what they called a bus, though in truth it was a van that served the same purpose. For a the equivalent of a few dollars each, we traveled as far as it was from my old hometown in Upstate New York to New York City (a fair I fondly recall costing as much as $25.00, one-way) — 3ish hours of bumpy under-construction highway and, after turning off the main route, we came upon dusty, sometimes-paved roads.

We passed through the narrowest part of Viet Nam, where I could practically see the border on one side and the coastline on the other. I could look out the right-side window, to the east, where rice fields stretched across flats that seemed to end at the horizon, where an unseen ocean acted as a border. Looking out the left window, to the west, I could see the mountains of Laos.

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After finally arriving, our host-family treated us with royal hospitality, and any translation responsibility was left entirely to my trusted friend. My and the Tazmanian’s Vietnamese is limited (and furthermore, the pronunciation of the local dialect varies greatly from south to central regions), and the English skills of the family hosting us was virtually nonexistent. To our great enjoyment, the Tazmanian and I learned a host of new words in a very short time.

Vegetarianism is not common in the region, though to my relief they did have some concept of what that meant. Word was sent before our arrival that I don’t eat meat, and as such local-made tofu was prepared for me every day. Legit, local tofu – đậu phụ (dow-foo) – I even visited the neighbor’s house in which the stuff was boiled, churned, and pressed.

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Also they had a buffalo. Those were around.

The woman there made it every day, and appeared to produce it for the village. Bricks of it cost us quarters, and the first time they wouldn’t even accept payment, happy as the lady was to provide me with something to eat.

The area was populated almost solely by farmers, and Communism has destroyed any sense of spirituality (except for the worship of Ho Chi Minh, of course), such that Buddhism is pretty much nonexistent – thus few if anyone practiced vegetarianism by extension. In any case, the host-family was more than willing to accommodate me, the tofu eaten being hands-down the best I’ve had in my entire time spent in Asia.

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The vegetarianism was much easier to understand than my lack of fondness for drinking.

They drink beer every night, and loudly, and proudly, proclaim that they “drink the most beer in all Viet Nam.” I’ve heard this rhetoric in other regions, leaving me no choice but to conclude that the Vietnamese people to derive a sense of honor/pride from what privileged foreigners might label as widespread alcoholism. Recognizing that everyone says this, usually with a beer bottle in their hand at any given time of day, I merely shake my head at why this is something to be proud about in the first place.

I’m not fan of beer, and this is something many Vietnamese have great difficulty understanding.

“You’re a man. Therefore, you drink beer.”

There really isn’t room for argument as far as they’re concerned, since it is such an embedded ritual at this point that beer is drunk with most meals (and often in between). To have a visitor – particularly one of a rare and unusual-looking breed such as myself and the Tazmanian – inevitably called for drinking beer from one house to the next much in the same manner as people go bar-hopping.

As such, I am repeatedly thrust into the situation of “Hey, you’re a foreigner, drink beer with us.” And after repeatedly making it clear that I don’t like to drink (I am especially sensitive to when someone forces it on me, something that happens frequently here), there is at least half a chance that they’ll disregard my odd and clearly unmasculine behavior as some oddity among foreigners.

My Tazmanian comrade, on the other hand, drank more often than me, which mostly placated their incessant desire to fill me with cheap, disgusting alcohol. I knew, of course, that nearly every gesture of this sort was made in an act of welcome and hospitality, but the concept of “No thanks,” to drinking beer is about as clearly understood as “No thanks, I’m full,” is understood when at the dinner table visiting your grandmother’s house.

It takes anywhere between hours and days for this concept to sink into the heads of people I meet.

Many roads between each villagers houses were connected by dusty roads like this, with trees lining space between plots.

Many roads between each villagers houses were connected by dusty roads like this, with trees lining space between plots.

The house in which we stayed was a mere fifteen minute walk from the beach, where we went almost every day for a swim in warm, bathtub-temperature saltwater. The beaches were far from pristine, and more than once I witnessed local farmers’ children playing with hunks of styrofoam in the water as makeshift toys; garbage washed ashore from the sea or cast aside by locals.

You could erect massive statues made of the all the empty bottles we stepped over, and the thought crossed my mind, and seeing as this was even remotely a tourist area, there could only be one source left from which the trash accumulated. Sun-bleached propaganda posters looked to do little in preventing locals from littering or cleaning up the beaches.

The dunes were quite unmolested, though.

The dunes were quite unmolested, though.

In spite of these unignorable details, I loved going to the beach, and as I said we went almost every day – once even late at night, where I discovered to my initial horror the bioluminescent plankton. It was mode rad.

We were awakened by roosters nearly every morning, and my Tazmanian buddy had the presence of mind to bring several sets of ear-plugs with him, and only on such mornings as I employed the little foam wonders was I able to sleep later than 6:00am. But not before developing a distinct lack-of-fondness for a particular rooster, however, that sounded like nothing short of a dinosaur.

That one godsdamn chicken sounded – no joke – just like this fellow here, an orc from Lord of the Rings. (1:42 – 1:44)

This in fact inspired a section of prose for my novel-in-progress, where a character is rudely awakened by an intrusive chicken. It served to fill a hole that otherwise had me stumped for months, and after inadvertently being accosted by the crowing of proud chickens, I managed to get through another of my frequent Blocks.

No building in the entire village was made of wood. In what I have learned to be the typical Vietnamese fashion, every structure is built of rebar-enforced concrete. I even came across “picket fences” along the road that were designed to look like your typical wooden fence as seen on T.V., but made out of slabs of painted cement bolted together.

No doubt the better to withstand the yearly typhoons I’ve heard stories about.

One of the plots behind the house in which we stayed.

One of the plots behind the house in which we stayed. They do biodiverse farming, with various fruit trees having pepper-plants crawling up each trunk.

Days before being assured that no rain would come to the region during our stay, a perpetual downpour came upon us that lasted for half a week. During this time I found myself largely confined to the house, which was much to my enjoyment as the air got significantly cooler and I, at last, had some time to simply do what I hoped to do on this excursion: spend some time writing.

I did manage to churn out about 2,000 words of prose, which is pretty good compared to the last few months, and some, like I said, was in part inspired by that godsdamn chicken. But nary a moment passed when I went unbothered, whether by the family summoning me to play cards games like Blackjack, eat a meal, play with local children or just to accompany someone on an errand.

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Some errands were more scenic than others.

I met the Town Drunk, a man who spoke slurred gibberish that was “Not Vietnamese.” But much to my own amazement, another individual, a boy of fourteen who, from a clear though unidentified mental handicap (he was taken out of school on account of his inability to learn), fit the trope, cliche, whatever, of the Village Idiot. I found myself wondering whether this was something uncool to ponder, because regardless of the boy’s condition, there was only one like him, and the setting seemed apropos for the stereotype. He, also, was described to “talk a lot but he doesn’t actually say anything.”

As someone thoroughly familiar with mental handicaps (which has instilled in me a deeper-than-average sensitivity to the word “retard”), I found him interesting, but there were more barriers between us than culture and language.

I ate tamarind on the roof of their house, saw a seaside sunrise, played with kids (both that of villagers and goats), walked along dry riverbeds and drying rice paddy fields, and traversed massive sand dunes. We even delved into what remained of an old Viet Cong tunnel, dug under a hill and still quite stable, a place where sound and light did not travel more than ten paces, and using nothing more than the lights of our smartphones, we plumbed its depths before having to turn around and come back out.

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The experience was about as Freudian as it gets.

Through it all, us foreigners were met with warm greetings and frequent invitations to eat, drink, and play. I had very little time to myself, which was expected and oddly appreciated.

From this experience I derived a small pile of inspiration, as well as simple “down to earth” concepts of how things are made and how people live in a less-than-urban setting. These aspects of life readily and easily translate to writing fantasy, which more often than not takes place in a medieval-esque world devoid of plumping, laundry machines, and freezers.

Even just going somewhere, like the dunes or the tunnel, brought more reality to how I might later describe such scenes. Sand squeezing between my toes or damp air pressing against my lungs, a spike of seething, genuine hatred towards an unevolved fowl.

Like Minds

Let’s start things off with a good old-fashioned apology.

I’ve been writing less. Not only in the blog department, but the fiction department as well. As the old adage goes, when you’re a writer, you’re either writing or your constantly thinking that you should be writing. I remain guilty of this, sure, but what I won’t do is list off reasons I’ve neglected to pursue what I claim to be the namesake of my  supposed passion.

I will, though, take a moment to inform you that things are expected to pick up soon. These last two months have been rife with stress, obstacles and distractions, and while more are on the horizon (the good kind, as in planned travel adventures), I feel very strongly about what will happen in the near future. Good things a’coming, as far as writing is concerned.

Lately I’ve been spending more time teaching English than I’ve been doing other things. I’ve been doing it in a variety of situations; teaching groups of adults in my home, individuals in their homes, meeting in cafes and even wrangling a small group of young kids. But none of that compares to teaching in a public school, the most recent gig I managed to acquire. Being held responsible for teaching a group of 20-25 screaming children brought to mind imagery of Kindergarten Cop.

Minus the whole cop thing.

But perhaps more interesting is the chance meeting of like minds. Here in Sài Gòn, there are activity groups for things I did not know existed – such as a square dancing group. And geek/nerd boardgame groups. There, in a delightfully secluded and comfortable café known as Cliche Coffee, over in Downtown Sài Gòn, we meet to play fantasy and science-fiction themed boardgames – some of which took me by surprise on how awesome they are.

This game is so rad I might have to devote a blog post to it.

 

Just as much for the games themselves are, of course, the joy of having like company. For those just tuning in, yes I live in Sài Gòn, but more the point, as of the writing of this post, I’m living in the outskirts of the city, far from other foreigners and surrounded by millions of Vietnamese. I chose this for a number of reasons, but in recent months have come to learn a number of things — not only about the culture, but about myself.

For one thing: turns out I’m not quite as antisocial as I may have thought I was. Turns out I rather enjoy the company of other people, and while I’ve made some great (local) friends, there really is something special about hanging out with people who’ve read the same books, played the same games, and seen the same movies as you. I’ve come to learn I need to interact other geeks; it helps pull my head out of the dust and poverty of outskirts Sài Gòn, helps me remember there’s a wide world out there, and that — yes, as a matter of fact — there’re people around who have an interest in fantasy and science fiction.

I’ve been told by a number of folks that they couldn’t live the way I do. I see why and was able to carry on. Surrounded by nearly everyone who cannot speak your language, that’s tough enough as it is. Sài Gòn is an industrial town; everyone is studying to work in accounting, or construction, or engineering. There are very few creatives to be found, and even if there were, they’re hard to find.

People have seen some of my doodles laying around and haven’t remarked things like “Hey, neat,” or “Oh cool, a dragon,” or even “You call that art?” Nah, the reaction I mostly get is: “Gee, you have a lot of free time, don’t you?”

That is, of course, not to come as any surprise in a developing country. Creative projects such as writing novels or making sculptures and paintings seems to be relegated to privileged people. As with so many things, it’s one thing to live a comparatively cushy life in America and read this stuff in books; it’s quite another to see it first-hand.

But back to the idea of like minds — not only have there been discoveries of fellow geeks in Sai Gon, a possibility I did not even entertain in the past, but some friends from my hometown will actually be headed over to this side of the planet. Serving as an anchor, the “point man,” if you will, I’ve essentially opened a door for others to follow and see this mad, wondrous country in which I currently live and work.

I’ll get into more details in a future post, but suffice it to say the idea of having four friends — one of whom being none other than the Firebeard, the Thorneater himself — fly to meet me here has me most excited. Việt Nam is a veritable fantasy realm, as I’ve said in the past, rife with strange culture, food, people and landscapes.

Being able to provide the first few steps into this place is something I’ve learned I’ve thoroughly come to enjoy.

Concept: Those People

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You know what people I mean. Those people.

I’ve always found it interesting human behavior to highlight differences between us.

And, being human, I’ve been there, done that. C’mon, I went to high school.

But just as interesting to me is finding commonalities, similarities, between folks. Particularly from different cultures. I’ll never forget a line I picked up from Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series, some dialog (which I will now butcher) spoken between two people from different worlds, and after being subject to the haggling of a peddler:

“It does not matter what world you’re from; merchants’ children always seem to be starving.”

My time in Việt Nam, short as it really has been thus far, has been nothing short of a tremendous contingency of experiences. But today, I’m not even going to talk about the local culture, no – I’m going to talk about a very specific breed of human the likes of whom I have encountered here quite often.

I’m talking about the traveler, of which there seem to be two species that frequent Việt Nam: the backpacker and the expatriate. Lets start off with but some basic definitions.

A Backpacker, usually someone of college/university age (either before or during attending, or even after graduating), is someone who lives out of their backpack. It’s a common thing in Europe and increasingly common in SouthEast Asia, and you can easily identify a backpacker by – you guessed it – the massive backpack they’re hauling around.

An Expatriate (or Expat, for short) is someone who has simply moved from their home country to work in another. Backpackers might become expats, and expats might do a little backpacking. The difference is that, usually, expats are semi/permanent, whereas backpackers are usually just passing through; an expat may or may not have a long-term plan to return to their home country, whereas a backpacker usually does.

You’ll just as likely see an expat in a business suit and tie as you’ll see a backpacker with dreadlocks and an unkempt beard.

But for all things that might set them visually apart, they have a strong trait in common.

I’ve come to learn that it takes a very special breed of human

to just up and leave your home behind.

Some folks might leave on these adventures simply seeking adventure; many folk I’ve met go about their days without much of a plan in mind, and as most of these travelers are level-headed people with social skills and open minds (usually), things work out. You’d be surprised how universal a smile and a kind gesture is, and how many things in common you have with someone who was raised on a farm in a country that only recently opened up to the outside world.

Others might leave their homes behind permanently; whether because they have no home to abandon or, perhaps, as is the narrative of many adventure stories, because “home” is a less-than-preferable place.  Harry Potter and Princess Mononoke come to mind for some reason.

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But there has been a recurring conversation that I have with a lot of these people. The above quote at the head of this post was given to me by a French former-roommate whom I’ve come to hold in high respect. This was a guy younger than me, but with essentially the same education (a two-year degree in a major that did not open doors), who came from a small town, and came to Sài Gòn in search of something new and different.

The conversation entailed thinking back on our home towns. Thinking back on the people behind us, our friends and family. I remember at the time I was vocalizing and orchestrating my thoughts, and he helped me organize them in a manner that became coherent. Here is, essentially, the common understanding that I’ve not only come to adopt, but come to realize many other travelers – especially expats – have.

Travel broadens the mind. Seeing other cultures, interacting with people different from you, tasting foods you never knew existed, and living in conditions that would otherwise be called “sub-standard” build character. And I’m not saying that as a writer pun, no, I mean these are things that are really good for the mind and body. We can throw spirit in there too, if you care about that sort of thing. I am not a religious person, but it can be said thatk there is something spiritual about being itinerant.

Traveling changes you. Or, more accurately, it helps reveal your inner self.

We think back on the people we’ve left behind, and we wonder what it would be like if we had never left. In the case of the French former-room mate, he actually had visited home and come back to Việt Nam a few times, and his story sounded exactly as I might have predicted. The people back home were the same. The home town had not changed. His old friends still worked the same jobs, had the same monotonous days, and despite the praise and encouragement offered, showed no interest in breaking free of their simple, closed lives.

There is no dishonor in this, not really… but it is most certainly not the life for me, or him, or many other a traveler. Having kept in touch with a handful of friends from back home (none of whom read this blog, I’m sure), it came as a two-sided coin of shock to me when I learned my own loved ones have pretty much zero interest in what I do – at least not in that actionable sort of way. Friends and family will always be “interested” when you talk to them, and I am surprised, actually, at how many people outside my circle of close-friends-from-back-home have emerged from the wood-work to remark on how encouraged, interested, and in some cases inspired, by reading about my adventures.

This was something of a surprise.

I tend to share the interesting parts of my life in snippets on Facebook, so in the off-chance you’re reading this before having met me there, friend or follow me should you be so inclined.

At any rate, we came to the conclusion that we do not pity or look down on folks who decide not to travel. It’s all a matter of comfort, of standards, whatever you want to call it. But then, Firebeard once told me, when I expressed mixed encouragement from my family about coming to Sài Gòn, that one really ought to watch out when someone actually voices the opinion: “Don’t travel.”

People who say this are the kind whose opinion that backpackers and expats simply, by definition, cannot abide.

Those people.

I know that when or if I return to my old home, I will not be the same. And locals will look upon me, probably with a sneer as I struggle to contain myself from sharing and comparing cultural moments and experiences, and assume I think myself better.

Nah. Not better.

Just different.

Experience: Mũi Né and Red Sands

Those of you following me already already know that I’m not only based in Viet Nam, but have a tendency to get up on the proverbial soapbox, roll up a paper cone, and squawk about the benefits of travel and experience every chance I get.

This won’t be all that different.

After nearing the three-month mark of time spent here in this country, most of that being within the confines of Sài Gòn , I’ve had a variety of adventures. Such things primarily involved experiencing culture and meeting new people. On one occasion, we left the outer-rim of Sài Gòn  to visit a most excellent temple atop a mountain. The place was crowded beyond belief, and since no one was hurt at the end of the day, it’s easy to say I had a great time.

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Buddhist temple known as Chùa Châu Thới. I’m still not %100 certain how to pronounce that.

What made that day awesome was not only the location, but the company. In fact, the fun I have where I go is multiplied by the quality of people with whom I go; this ought to come as no surprise to even the most socially inept of us, but is worth mentioning anyway.

I once took a day-trip to the Mekong Delta, though not for tourist reasons and certainly not to any of the famous sights to be seen; rather, I went for the express purpose of keeping a friend company as she sought out the expertise of a famous practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Having taken a 3-hour bus ride east and out of Sài Gòn, and being nowhere near popular tourist destinations (closer to the coast), I found myself – not for the first and certainly not for the last time – stared at by locals as though I were from another planet.

That has been an oft-repeated phrase in my mind. From another planet, and it was not I who first suggested this, but how apt the phrase has become. Because of the choices I make and the life I have chosen to lead, more often than not I find myself in the company of people who not only cannot speak English, but have never even met a foreigner/westerner. To many Vietnamese outside Sài Gòn, or any of the tourist hotspots as found in the Mekong Delta, or the port city of Vũng Tàu, or the beach resort of Mũi Né, I may as well have been a settler disembarking from an explorer’s ship weighing anchor off the coast four hundred years ago.

The simple experience of setting foot into the Chinese Medicine place – I’m not sure what else to call it – was, alone, quite the experience. I watched my friend have her pulse checked, describe their symptoms, then be prescribed a giant bag of (assuredly plant-based) white powder to be consumed over the course of a month. My companion was also advised to avoid “hot foods,” (in other words, foods with too much Yang energy), such as chicken and seafood.

To this day I don’t know what lay within the dozens of shelves that lined the wall there, but I saw dried vegetables, fruits, and (presumably) animal parts that may or may not be illegal. I recognized a sack of goji berries, though, and the ‘doctor’ (I don’t know what else to call the lady), allowed us each to eat a handful of the things.

Random, safe, and usually fun experiences like this happen in my life from time to time, but recently I got back from a planned trip.

Aboard the “sleep bus,” I went with a friend to the aforementioned resort town of Mũi Né about five-hours east of Sài Gòn and along the coast.

On the Sleep Bus.

On the Sleep Bus.

We arrived after dark, and being the Low Season in terms of tourists, we found ourselves to mostly be the only people there.

[[Linguistic note:

I can best describe how to pronounce Mũi Né like this: “Moo-ooie [nay?].” 

There’s a glottal stop at the hyphen [like what happens when you say “Uh-oh!”)

and the “nay” is pronounced with a rising inflection, like a question.]]

It was awesome having noone else around.

But, interestingly, the relative quietude and silence of the town rang of a familiar tune; I grew up in small, rural, depressingly poor community, and the small towns nearby (though they were technically hamlets, as they were too small to be considered towns) often relied on tourism – or simply had no economy at all. There was a strange sense of familiarity as I was reminded of hot summers in the sparsely populated towns of my childhood, or working with my father tending to the summer homes of rich people who visited the Catskills once or twice a year. That peculiar sense of hot, desolate, dry air, where people really had no business being around except to cater to visitors.

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Outside my hotel window.

Arriving at night, Mũi Né main street had dozens of hotels, hostels, guesthouses and restaurants, and dozens more shops (most of which were closed), it was easy to see that the town was mostly not happening, but there were a few other folks walking about. The following day was spent mostly atop a rented motorbike, which allowed us to get to see some of the local sights.

Mũi Né, at the risk of repeating myself too often, is a beach city. Catering to tourists, the place is of course a bit ritzy by Vietnamese standards, with prices akin to Bui Vien street in inner Sài Gòn , and as we traveled closer toward the sights, things appeared more busy a few kilometers away from the hotel. The beaches of Mũi Né are long, white and gorgeous, though it is difficult to find a wide patch of sand bereft of plastic bottles or Styrofoam cups.

There's actually the moon a few inches from my nose.

Me looking heroic for absolutely no reason.

As a former local of upstate New York, my notion of a “beach” is that along the likes of North Lake (that is to say, about an arrow’s flight across). My notions of “warm water” are that of what is felt only in a bathtub or a cup of hot cocoa. I’d been to beaches along the ocean in the past, but often at an age too young to really appreciate what I was seeing, and even then the water was freaking cold.

There is something existential about watching the waves continually crash on the sand. When war erupted following the death of Franz Ferdinand, the waves were rolling. When Matthew Perry blew open the gates of Japan, the waves were rolling. When the Roman Empire fell, the waves were rolling. When people penned the first draft of the Torah, the waves rolled. When our ancestors fell out of the trees and learned to eat mushrooms in the wake of wildebeest herds, the waves still rolled. When thunder lizards breathed the same (though different) air of our planet, the waves had been rolling for quite a while already.

I started to realize why some people are in fact drawn to the sea.

Or crawling out of it.

Or driven to crawl the hell out of it.

And yet, the most profound experience I felt in Mũi Né was when we discovered the famed Red Sand Dunes. Oh yes.

Dunes.

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Among the last things I expected to discover in this tropical country were environs that I could, in my head full of fantasy, best describe as something to emerge from the brain of Frank Herbert. It was a veritable desert, and felt as though I had in fact set foot into my favorite novel.

Burning off my feet, one layer of skin at a time.

Burning off my feet, one layer of skin at a time.

Walking along the red sand (okay fine, it’s orange, whatever), I felt the need for a stillsuit. My feet sizzled beneath me, and climbing a hill we made our way to the cover of a lone pine tree. I ventured on upward alone, discovering the dunes to stretch further than I previously expected.

My surroundings here in Viet Nam, on a daily basis, feel surreal as it is, but up there atop a dune of red sand, I felt as a man walking on Mars. Or Arrakis. I wanted to walk to the other side of the expanse, but having left my companion behind in the safety of the pine tree, and having not possessed a bottle of water on my person, I was pretty convinced, in that moment, that I would’ve died in the attempt.

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A handful of melange…

Frank Herbert’s descriptions of the deserts of Dune were, I believe, very good descriptions (the man was an ecologist before he was an author of one of the greatest Science Fiction stories of all time). I can remember being made extremely thirsty while first reading it. But standing out there in the hot sand, with a hot sun beating down on my back, and hot air bereft of moisture or wind, well, I feel as though I can truly begin to appreciate what not only Herbert was trying to replicate in his writing, but what real people in the real world deal with when crossing, living in, or otherwise understand. Stuff I had no experience with was laid bare to me, and I caught a glimpse of life — on another planet or otherwise  — that is vastly superior to books or television in terms of sensory input.

I’ve always been interested in deserts, and this experience was the closest thing besides the wide abandoned shale pits and bluestone quarries of upstate New York that I had known. The ocean has always been something of an enigma to me as well, for both of these types of environments remain a stark contrast to the evergreen mountaintops and sprawling deciduous forests of my homeland.

I will be feeding off these memories for years, and have no doubt the things I see, hear and even smell will translate to enriching my writing.

That is why travel is good for the writer.

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.

 

Inspiration From Unexpected Places

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In my time here in Viet Nam, I have been exposed to countless things applicable to writing a fantasy world. Between foods, animals, and just the simple alternative way of thinking and doing things, there is a wealth of inspiration to be found in any place far from home.

Let’s cut to the chase. Agent Orange; otherwise called Dioxin by locals here, was a chemical herbicide used during the American War. The history and lore behind dioxin is long, complicated, and disgusting. I will do my best to not get political here, as it’s very easy for a man to get passionate about this sort of thing.

Though the politics alone set the stage for a wealth of stories.

Suffice it to say that the use of this stuff is among the coldest, most inhumane and irresponsible things done by the U.S. government. And there’s quite a long list of inhumane and irresponsible things for which America is responsible; I say this as an American who reads.

Not an American-hating foreigner.

Originally used as a defoliant during Operating Ranch Hand (1962-1971), Agent Orange was intended to keep Viet Cong and local farmers alike from using the land, whether reduction of cover for guerrilla fighters or simply obliterating everyone’s food supply. The use of Agent Orange had devastating effects, leaving behind a residue, a legacy, that persists to this day.

Because of Agent Orange, and other chemicals used in that black mark of history known distantly to many Americans as the Vietnam War – an event that has been largely reduced among us to jokes about “Charlie in the trees,” or “digging an elaborate series of interconnected tunnels like the Viet Cong” (Fuck you, Mike Myers.) – people today still suffer.

A lot of them.

Drinkable water comes only in bottles, presumably imported from less toxic parts of the world. While my experience so far stretches only within Sai Gon, I think it is a safe assumption that one simply does not drink the water anywhere in this country.

Yet the Vietnamese are resilient. They carry on, they rebuild, and they make the best of what they have, which is more than I can say for what I and many people I’ve known have done.

Agent Orange succeeded in defoliating the land. It also succeeded in depopulating villages, not only from starvation and outright poisoning, but other, sinister long-term effects. Plants in sprayed areas no longer grew, and people in affected areas gave birth to stillborn or disfigured children – or simply could not have children anymore at all. I won’t share images of the physical effects had on people here. If you want to know, they are readily available.

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This is truly a sad, sadistic thing.

And we as writers can derive inspiration from the darkest places.

In my mainline novel setting, there exists a substance that, to keep it simple, allows magic to be used in an otherwise magic-less environment. I call the stuff sujhurite, a word derived from the Korean word for crystal, and this substance in its rawest form is hazardous to handle. Close proximity to a sujhurite formation causes madness in some folks and, in a rare few, can cause the thoughts of an individual to take form in reality. Whatever they think of becomes true, manifesting before them; in other words, magic.

Usually it doesn’t go well for anyone involved, since the effects are unstable and most people lack the capacity to grasp what’s going on, and how to control it.

Think Akira + Sphere.

So sujhurite is dangerous enough as it is, but when refined and fashioned into idols, or ink (written on scrolls), it becomes much more controllable. Scrolls being more common; write a word in sujhurite ink and that word manifests from the reader’s mind. Example:

Don’t think of a pink elephant.

Once read, the scroll is consumed, it’s charge spent. Anyone familiar with games would recognize this mechanic in play. Sujhurite idols or statuettes, though, contain multiple charges, and are considered less stable than scrolls. Objects created with sujhurite with this purpose are known as dhirunes, and dhirunes have been weaponized to varying effect.

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I would not be the first to admit that the Japanese have a fascination with big explosions, and perhaps deservedly so.

The use of a single dhirune on an otherwise magic-less world altered the course of history, a pinnacle moment in the novel.

But I am not satisfied with the risk of a dhirune simply being “Be careful, it could blow you out of your fucking boots if you drop it.” No, combustion or otherwise immediate effects are a risk, but that’s not the kind of thing I’m going for.

Enter Agent Orange. Sure, a dhirune blast will kill anyone in the immediate vicinity, but now there’re unforeseen aftereffects to their use. Those exposed to dhirunes suffer later in life, and within the blast zone there lingers a long-term effect on the environment.

Plants no longer grow. Nearby villages find their birthrate slowed or halted, and something’s wrong with those children who survive. Living creatures avoid these dead zones at all costs, and stumbling into one is nothing short of hazardous. A number of dhirune blast marks dot the landscape, and it is not until decades later that connections are made between the blasts themselves and long-term effects on the population.

I will essentially be adding traits of Agent Orange to a pre-existing situation in my work, in part to add depth, but also to spread awareness. After all, Viet Nam is not the only place effected by dioxin.

This concept solves a few setting/plot holes as well, some major some minor, and I shan’t get into them here. That’d be tedious. Suffice it to say that dioxin, and its effects, is but one of the multitude of inspiring (albeit dark, angering and depressing) things I’ve come to discover her in Viet Nam.

There are other things. Sexuality and marriage, language, customs and architecture based off the climate, even the mentality and attitude towards foreigners – or other Vietnamese – I find all of it fascinating.

But those will be for another time.

~~~

Today’s music selection is, as they tend to be, completely different.

Among a small pile of movies watched on the plane from Newark, NJ to Hong Kong, I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. I believe this is a movie everyone should see, and I rather enjoyed the soundtrack. Hard to describe it in words other than great or good, but this one would vote that the movie is worth your time, and it was surprisingly applicable at the time of watching it.