Living Without Reeses, Corn Chex, and Swedish Fish (no more)

When I lived in Vietnam, back in the meager years after the U.S. lifted its embargo in 1994, I would, on occasion, have my neck snap while doing a double-take as I noticed an orange-colored package at a small shop. It was the Halloween orange, possibly better known as the Reeses’ orange, the type of orange that makes one’s mouth water with chocolate and peanut butter forlorn dreams for the luscious treats I missed so much. Every time, I mean every time, the turn of my neck meant nothing. It was a pumpkin-colored red herring – nothing more than a local treat which included no chocolate and no peanut butter.

I lived in Vietnam for ten years and NEVER once saw a Reeses product, forced to stock up on summer break.

And it wasn’t confined to Reeses. When I arrived in Vietnam is was still B.C. — before Coke. When we had our mid-year trip to Thailand, we would gorge on all the treats we couldn’t get there — McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, and the like of which my insides will never forgive me.

When we moved to Malaysia, it all felt so easy. All the fast food that wasn’t in Vietnam was readily available. The amount of available western products rose exponentially, except for those particular items like Reeses, Corn Chex, and Swedish Fish.

In the last couple years of my time in Malaysia, Reeses started showing up in stores on occasion. I remember seeing the orange package one day but scoffed at the idea, not willing to be fooled into believing the impossible. But as I came closer, sure enough, Reeses Peanut Butter cups. I inconspicuously swatted the entire stack into my cart. I had them all! And that became the problem. I think other expats would buy out the stack every time a small shipment would arrive. Of course, the store wouldn’t buy more. Who are they to want to make a bigger profit.

But in all my years in Malaysia, they still never had Corn Chex or Swedish Fish.

Well, now I live in Saudia Arabia, among the Reeses, Corn Chex, and Swedish Fish. All the simple pleasures. All the forgotten delicacies are forgotten no longer. I’m living in the land of milk and honey. The land of plenty. The land of too much. Long gone are the days of scrounging the shelves for any special treats from my childhood.

Now that I can have them, anytime I want, I find that I don’t buy them.  I find the old wisdom to be true: the less you have of something, the more you will appreciate it.

Ohhhh, the good old days, when Reeses, Corn Chex, and Swedish fish guarded the lore-ridden gate of the mythical Xanadu. Now they live on my grocer’s shelves. How mundane!

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Are you prepared to go unexpected places?

You know how it goes: “If someone told me 10 years ago that I would be such and such, I wouldn’t have believed them in a million years.”

I know the feeling. Very well. This notion of unexpected outcomes came to the forefront of my mind this week because I found myself saying that above line nearly verbatim. Mine goes like this:

“In 2002, if someone told me that in fifteen years that I would be a drama teacher in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t have believed them in a million years. I would have thought they were experiencing severe mental delusions.”

You see, in 2002, I was living in Vietnam, teaching English at the college level to Vietnamese students studying to be English teachers. I was a frustrated, wannabee, writer who never wrote. I was immersed in Vietnamese culture and language, and I had even contemplated (for a few seconds) going on for a PHD in Vietnamese history. I had never acted in my life. I had never been involved in any drama productions. The extent of my dramatic experiences involved writing a play which I read to my mother when I was twelve, and writing a couple small skits which were performed in some low-key settings. Oh, I did act as Forrest Gump in a skit, so I take that acting bit back.

But I had nothing in my background that would have indicated that I was destined to be a drama teacher.

And I had nothing in my background that indicated that I would ever end up in Saudi Arabia.

So therefore, the combination of those two–teaching drama in Saudi Arabia–would have seemed too implausible to even ponder.

However, as I sit in Jeddah on the heels of my first week of teaching theatre at the American school, I am quite taken back at the loops and rabbit-chasing trails my life has gone down in the past fifteen years in order to arrive at this point. And to think it all happened because that frustrated writer sitting in Vietnam became inspired by a group of students in Malaysia.

I’ve told this story before, but I still like it. I moved to Malaysia in 2006 to teach history. (Yes, that’s a whole different story of how I suddenly switched from English to history!) As the drama director at the school was leaving, I volunteered to start a drama-writing group where I would collaborate with a group of students and we would write and produce a play for the next school year.

That was the genesis of it all. The interesting point in my mind is this: what was the impetus for me wanting to write and produce a drama with students? I don’t actually know the answer to this. It’s something that just popped in my mind, and instead of dismissing it, which I can’t believe I didn’t, I embraced and proposed it to the school. That was the crucial moment. For some reason, I stepped in to try something that I had never tried before. If I had not jumped in at that moment, I am fairly certain I wouldn’t be teaching drama in Saudi Arabia. If I had not jumped in, someone else would have eventually filled the drama void at our school and I would have sat in the audience enjoying the shows, never fully understanding how much I loved theatre.

I know now that I wasn’t meant to observe theatre. I was meant to create it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The only advice I have as I look back on my journey is that if you get an itch or an urge that you should jump in and try something, don’t delay. You never know where it might lead you. It could make you change careers in mid-stream and send you to far off lands to do things you never would have imagined but now couldn’t ever live without.

Where might you be in 15 years? I hope the answer surprises you.

Great Hanoi (& Haiphong) Rat Massacre

I ran across this fascinating article a while back which I wanted to share. It’s about the great Hanoi rat massacre during the time of French colonialism. I don’t want to spoil the entire article because it’s a great read, but the crux of it gets to the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. The French colonial administration wanted to address the growing rat population within the underground sewer systems of Hanoi. The modern sewer system was meant to civilize things in the capital of Tonkin, their crown jewel of a colony. But the idea of increasing sanitation backfired when the rats soon discovered that the drains and sewers were perfect places to live, thrive, and have baby rats. The rat infestation became unbearable until the French administration came up with a brilliant idea: pay Hanoi residents for dead rats. This sent a rash of rat hunters into the sewers in search of the critters. They only had to turn in the rat tails. The French had no desire to have to deal with actual rat bodies. So each tail turned in would yield a monetary reward. But the clever Vietnamese saw an opportunity. Killing the rats would actually diminish their ability to make money off of killing rats. So what was the solution? Simple and brilliant. Cut off the tails, turn them in, but don’t kill the rats. Soon the city was infested with tail-less rats who could still reproduce to have more rats. This was French planning at its worse. Read the entire article at the link:

Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

I can’t think about rats in Vietnam without remembering what our team-teaching colleague did for us during our third year teaching in Haiphong in 1997. My second daughter was just born in a hospital in Thailand. We spent six weeks there preparing for the baby’s arrival. We lived in a small shared apartment at the Maritime University with our teammate, Joe. The living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Actually, they were not very nice in accordance with western standards, but we did our best to make it a home for us. Joe also had been in Thailand for a conference, and he headed home first before our return with our newborn child. When he arrived and entered the kitchen, it was as if a war zone had manifested itself in our living space. Trash and chewed-up food stuff was scattered all over. Tupperware and storage containers had been chewed through. Rat poop was all over the place. The citadel had fallen. The rats had taken over.

But Joe, being the incredible guy that he was, wasn’t going to allow the place to be infested with rodents with our newborn baby on the way. He got to work. He set traps. He laid down poison. He physically beat rats, chasing them with a stick. All in all, he killed nine of them in our kitchen, if my memory serves me correctly. He threw out all infested items and bleached and cleaned the dingy tile until it was about as clean as it was ever going to get. We arrived home to a spic-n-span apartment. A sterile and safe place for our child. When he told the tale of what had happened, we knew that the great rat massacre of 1997 had occurred, and we were blessed to have such a caring teammate to live with.

Thank you, Joe. And thanks also for not saving the tails for me.

What’s the Future of Complication Like?

I’ve been thinking about my recent blog post The Good Old Less Complicated Days and started wondering about my kids: will they look back upon the 2010s as the “Good Old Less Complicated Days?”

The premise of my post was this: our modern world has become so complicated that I sometimes wonder if life before gadgets and computers was actually better. At the very least, I wish we could visit the past every once in a while, but honestly, I’m too addicted to my technology. Grrrr. At least I admit it.

What prompted such nostalgia was a weekend of doing taxes, college admission documents, Obamacare health issues, and documents for my new job. It was all overwhelmingly complicated and I started to think if this is the kind of society we really wanted to create.

But what really got my noggin exploding was the possible thought that my kids, some thirty years in the future, might look back at the 2010s and wish for “The Good Old Less Complicated Days?”

Will they wish for the tax code of 2017?  Will they long for the student loan and FAFSA processes of today?  Will they wax fondling about Obamacare’s easy navigation compared to what President 2047 institutes?  Will they harbor longings of love and fond feelings for the bureaucratic red tape of the Obama and Trump years?

Seriously. Computers and gadgets are supposed to make our lives easier, but I’m not sure it’s working out so well.

My solace is that my kids have actually experienced simple life at its finest. They all grew up for a good part of their childhood in Vietnam.  This is the Vietnam before shopping malls and cell phones and Internet. My kids road bikes, played rubber band games with their neighbor friends, played Vietnamese hopscotch, and walked out into the evening street to eat snails with their classmates. They didn’t once post a snail picture for Instagram. The Vietnam they grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s was indeed analogous to my own childhood. Not that anything between the two were remotely alike, but they were simple. And my kids are better for it. I’m sure of it.

But one day I might have grand kids. Oh my, those poor people.

I’ll leave you with a couple photos of my kids in Vietnam. And yes, I get the irony of this post.

neighborhood-kids

My kids with their adorable friends. Life was simpler then.

our-street-with-cows

Need further proof? Our street had water buffalo!  Yes, actual water buffalo! Life was simple. (That was our house on the left.)

My Life is Marked by Lychee Season

It strikes me every year. And I’m always surprised at how fast it comes and how it doesn’t feel like another year has passed. Without warning, one day, I see this.

lychee

Lychees are in season once a year, starting in mid-May and running through early June. They are grown in sub-tropical climates. I became accustomed to lychees when living in Northern Vietnam. Hai Duong, halfway between Hanoi and the coastal city of Haiphong, if famous for their lychee orchards. Each late spring, on our trips to Hanoi, we would stop in Hai Duong and buy the delectable fruit.

They have a hard outer, colorful shell that pops off with a little prying with the fingernail. The white fleshy inside is sweet and wonderful, with a large pit in the middle. We used to play the game of who can find the lychee with the smallest pit. We would eat huge quantities sometimes finding very tiny pits. A special variety of the lychee, highly sought after, are known for their small pits. That means more wonderfully sweet fruit flesh to enjoy.

Fresh lychee is up pretty high on my list of favorite fruits. But I only get them once a year, so they are special, and they mark the year in pronounced ways.

Lychees mean the school year is closing and summer is around the corner. It’s also a sobering reminder of how fast one year really goes.

Lychees, thanks for the reminders and the good eats. I’ll miss you when I’m no longer in Asia.

You have nothing to lose except yourself in a good book!

Free on NoiseTrade – my debut novel “Beauty Rising.”

Click the link below to download it for free in either ePub or Mobi formats so you can read it on any of your Android, Apple, or Kindle devices.

Did I mention that it’s free?

As I said in the title, you have nothing to lose except you might lose yourself in a good book. But I heard that that’s a good thing. So head on over and enjoy the story that got me interested in telling stories.

You’ll like Martin Kinney. I promise. And it will surprise you, I also promise you that.

And it’s free. Did I say that yet?  Thanks for your support.

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Beauty Rising Mark W Sasse

Another Example of Symbolism Over Substance

I’ve lived in Asian for most of the last twenty years in both Vietnam and Malaysia. And while their cultures and histories are varied to say the least, there are some common themes which are obvious to me in many ways. One of these cultural themes which I have experienced on countless occasions in both countries is something I call symbolism over substance.

I ran into it again today as I was taking my son to register for his motorbike license.

Now before I give away the clear example, let me clarify what I mean by symbolism over substance. There are times (many in fact) when an outward gesture or a symbolic overture or a acknowledgement of a procedure is much more important than the actual substance of what we we are talking about. One has to show deference to authority. You don’t have to believe it in your heart. One has to put on an outward show regardless of what you might really think. One has to make symbolic attempts to make it look like something is actually getting done, when it actually isn’t. (Such as the 100 meter bike line symbolically put outside our school which will never be extended, is not used, and regularly used for parking spots for cars. There was a great ceremony when it was put in, however.)

Symbolic gestures is simply more important than having a substantive, and quantitative measurement behind it. And please, don’t get me wrong. This is not a judgment against Asian culture. Not at all. It’s an acknowledgment that east-west have very different cultural orientations. I’ve had to learn how to live with these differences as I’m sure an Asian living in America will have to learn the flip side of the coin.

In today’s episode, we learned that my son will need to attend a lecture on driving theory. It’s six hours long, and it covers all the basics he’ll need to know. Sounds fine and logical. Kind of like a driver’s ed course. Makes sense. Except for one thing: it’s in Bahasa Malaya and not English. My son doesn’t speak Bahasa. They don’t translate. They don’t provide English material. He just has to sit there. The lady at the driver’s school said, “Yes, these six hours mean nothing. You just have to do it to get the certificate.” Others have told me to “make sure your son bring’s his phone or ipad. He’ll get very bored.” It doesn’t matter what he does during that time. He doesn’t have to pay attention, nor is he expected to. He just has to be there to get the certificate.

It reminds me of my friend in Vietnam and one day I asked what she was doing this weekend. She said that she had to take an English test. I said, “What test?”

“Oh,” she replied. “It’s not my test. I need to take it for my cousin. Her English is terrible, but she needs the certificate so she can get a better job. So I’m taking the test for her.”

All right then. Symbolism over substance strikes again.