Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

CNN recently had a QUICKVOTE on to the question: Do you agree with the Taiwanese Opposition leader Lien's visit to China?

The results indicated that 61% of respondents responded in favor and 39% responded against.

In brief, my interpretation of the results is that most of the people who responded, though perhaps generally well-informed on current events, are probably not well acquainted with the specifics of Taiwan's situation. It's really not easy to understand all of the repercussions Lien's visit might have for Taiwan, nor is it easy to understand the history of Taiwan, and the "relationships" between the political parties or between the "mainlanders" and localized Taiwanese. The conflict between these groups has been simmering since the beginning of the oppressive rule of the Chinese Nationalist party (KMT, current opposition party), which began not long after the KMT fled to Taiwan from China in the late 1940’s.

So, I think in a broad sense, many of the respondents glossed over the details thinking or assuming that Lien's trip could only be a good thing for Taiwan. In other words,"a journey of peace" or a chance to open the lines of communication and opportunities for negotiation- all of these things "seem" to be good for Taiwan on the surface. It "seems" to give Taiwan visibility. But most people don't understand what Lien's ulterior motives are, they don't understand the historical power struggle between the ROC (Republic of China- Taiwan's now official name) and PRC (People's Republic of China- mainland China), they don't understand how the PRC is systematically sabotaging and infiltrating Taiwan, they don't understand that Lien's visit is not legitimate (he does not represent the government of Taiwan), that it has heightened social tensions in Taiwan and that Lien can't speak for the majority of Taiwanese who don't want to unify with China. Recent polls in Taiwan have indicated that 93% of the people in Taiwan oppose China’s “anti-secession” law. Though people here are split 50-50 on the issue of independence for Taiwan, more than 50% do not want to unify with China.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

I recently gave my introductory writing class the assignment of writing about what they would do if they won the lottery. Of course I set some ground rules for their compositions, namely, that they could not simply write that they'd go shopping every day or write about all things they would buy. I wanted them to think a little deeper, perhaps with a charitable heart, and to dream a little.

So I offered some fodder to my flock, to help them express themselves and get to thinking. Here are some of the questions I asked them to think about and answer. Actually, some of these questions are pretty huge questions, but they offer some concrete structure for students at the introductory level:

If you won the lottery who would you tell first?

Would you give some of your money to someone else? Who? Why?

Would you still go to school or would you study abroad in a different country?

Would you still work or have a job?

Would you like to start your own company or business? Describe the company or business.

Would you buy a new house? Describe your house. Where would your house be?

Would you move to a different country? Which one? Why?

Would you use your money to help other people? Who? Why? How would you help them?

I don't know why, but I always find if particularly endearing when many of my students write that they'd like to study or travel abroad, but that they could never imagine moving to another country because Taiwan is their home, it's where their friends and family are, it's where they've had so many childhood memories.

I've given this writing assignment in the past, but this semester I noticed a disturbing recurring theme in my students compositions. 99.99% of the students wrote that if they won the lottery, they would only tell their close relatives. Otherwise, they would keep it a secret because they would be afraid if someone knew that they were wealthy, that they'd be kidnapped!

How ever outlandish my students concerns may seem, unfortunately, they aren't completely unfounded. Yes, the media here, as in other countries, seems to constantly report on crimes and kidnappings are up there with purse snatchers and ATM card theft. It used to be that children of wealthy families were at risk of being kidnapped for a ransom of hundreds of thousands of NT$ (New Taiwan Dollars). But now there has been an alarming trend in which petty kidnappers kidnap young children to make a quick buck, ransoming a child for NT$30,000-50,000. In these cases the families usually just cut their losses, pay the ransom, collect their child and the kidnapping goes unreported.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

How do you explain why the Taiwanese (or Taishang aka Taiwanese businessmen) continue to invest in China- their enemy number one with 700 balistic missiles aimed at them?

Here are some thoughts on this complex question today. First read the excerpt from article about President Chen Shui-bian's recent praise of the Taishang:

'Taishang' reflect Taiwan's power, president declares
Excerpt from: Central News Agency (Taiwan)
April 23, 2005

Taiwan businessmen operating in China and elsewhere around the world-- better known as "taishang"-- represent an extension of the power of Taiwan, President Chen Shui-bian said yesterday.

Taishang's growth and expansion overseas, including China, also mark the accumulation of Taiwan's economic and trade strenghth, according to Chen.

And now my thoughts on this:

More Reasons for President Chen Shui-bian to Praise “Taishang”

On April 22, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the development of a Tainan LCD television and optoelectronic industrial park, President Chen Shui-bian referred to Taishang (or Taiwanese businessmen) as “an extension of the power of Taiwan.” And it’s not hard to see why he’s said that because there’s certainly an abundance of reasons to assign such importance to Taishang. After all, although Taishang make up only a small percentage of the population of Taiwan, they are indeed quite powerful. They have money to contribute to political parties, and to lobby elected representatives to speak on their behalf- in favor of loosening restrictions on investing in China.

They have actively pressured the government to hasten the establishment of three direct links with China, which is a decision not to be taken lightly. As a result, earlier this year the “three small links” of direct trade and transport links between the Kinmen and Xiamen City were established for Taiwanese businessmen based in Fujian.

The effects of the “China fever” that has caught on are palpable. In 2004, Taiwan’s investment in China accounted for 86% of Taiwan’s total foreign investment, and Taiwan’s accumulated investment in China exceeded US$200 billion, which accounts for 65% of Taiwan’s 2004 GNP.

The Taishang are the ones responsible for the mass exodus of jobs and factories that moved to China and the capital that has flowed out of Taiwan and into China. Taiwan-based companies get “special” treatment in China. Unlike foreign owned companies, any revenues made by Taiwan-based companies are not allowed to leave China, so their revenues don’t get reinvested in Taiwan. Furthermore, Taishang pay taxes to the Chinese government, not to Taiwan; they help China create jobs and develop its economy. In return, Taiwan gets heavy bad debt left behind by some Taishang, lack of domestic investment in Taiwan, a sluggish stock market and high unemployment. It may be true that some Taishang have made money in China, but it has been at the expense of the interest and security of 23 million Taiwanese people. Is this what President Chen is referring to when he declares that the Taishang have contributed to the accumulation of Taiwan’s economic and trade strength?

At the mercy of the People’s Republic of China’s bullying, the Taishang have succumb by distancing themselves from the ruling party, and from expressing support of Taiwan in any way shape or form. The Taishang have long ago sold themselves off to China when they decided to do business there, implicitly agreeing to play by China’s rules. Is this the extent of Taiwan’s power?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

From my 2003 South East Asia travel diary

The Killing Fields
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

August 20, 2003 (continued)

I'm not exactly sure when I first learned of this horrifying chapter in Cambodia’s history. It was some time in the mid to late 90's. I remember reading with disbelief about the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide masterminded by Pol Pot. I suppose I was too young to notice when the film “The Killing Fields” was released. I was shocked, horrified and disgusted by the brutality and scale of the murders- a quarter of the population of Cambodia had been slaughtered. Even more disturbing was that these mass murders been inflicted on the Cambodian people by their fellow countrymen and children. No one (adult, child, man or woman) was exempt from the Khmer Rouge’s desensitizing programming of turning humans into killing machines. Pol Pot masterminded the mass murders with the delusional intent to create a utopian Marxist society. Later, when I read about Pol Pot’s death in 1998, I couldn’t believe that I had only just learned about these atrocities, when it was over, and now the twisted dictator responsible for all that suffering had died and could not be brought to justice.

I’m not sure what I expected to see at the Killing Fields, certainly not what I ended up seeing.

To the uninformed eye it was a green grassy field with a few old trees. As I walked around with my guide, I saw several crater-like holes, formerly mass graves, in which grass and growth had started to push through the dirt.

My guide explained that the recent rains and the passage of time had caused the growth of lush grass in this area, and that the Cambodian government didn’t have the manpower or money to properly preserve these areas for further excavation. He told me of how innocent people’s throats were slit with the razor sharp edges of the palm tree leaves, how babies were bashed to death against tree trunks.

Images of blood stains and bone fragments lodged into the trunk of a tree brought heartache, heaviness and waves of sorrow.

The stark contrast of the lush, green surroundings with the reality of death and destruction that had made this field a massive burial site, was heightened by my guide’s poignant comments.

The difference between my perception and the reality of the situation taunted me.

Cambodian children wide-eyed and innocent, followed us and around and then playfully peeked out from behind a tree, posing for a photo. As soon as I shot the photo, out from behind the tree with arms outstretched, the children approached and looked at me expectantly. I didn’t realize that it was all a ruse (to collect for the pose) until my guide said something to them in Khmer; they ran off and he apologized.

My guide told me how he felt that it was so important for Cambodia and Cambodians to know their history, to learn from it and to share their history with the world. He told me that he believed that the people of Cambodia didn’t want to seek revenge or call for the executions of Khmer Rouge soldiers or killers. They simply wanted justice, acknowledgment, and life sentences to be served. He had high hopes for tourism and what it could mean for Cambodia’s economy. We talked about the power of the internet, and how it provided unprecedented opportunities for communication and information sharing. He was obviously excited about the possibilities and how this could benefit Cambodia.

I felt a glimmer of hope as I looked at the green grass pushing through dirt patches, and saw a chance for healing and rebirth.

Just before leaving, I bought a book titled, “First They Killed My Father.” It is the true story of a Cambodian woman’s horrifying ordeal of growing up and suffering in the labor camps at hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. The compelling story begins, from a child’s point of view, unfolding into a harsh understanding of the horrors to come, interspersed with dreams of hope and documentation of physical deterioration (which is tragically juxtaposed with what are supposed to be a child’s formative years of growth); there are also vivid details, and ultimately the triumph of human strength and courage.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Everything happens for a reason...

Whether you’ve just been through a bad break up, lost your favorite pair of earrings, just been robbed of every cent, been diagnosed with a terminal illness, learned of the death of a loved one, had a computer crash right before backing up ten years of research, been physically injured, held up at gunpoint, or even had all of the aforementioned happen to you...

There’s bound to be someone who’ll say, “Everything happens for a reason.” And at these times, when we are at the lowest of lows, feeling like we are going in a downward spiral out of control, these words hardly offer any comfort at all, however well-intentioned the source.

It doesn’t make things any easier to swallow. Perhaps some of us have even offered these words ourselves in trying to comfort others. We don’t know what to say; if there’s an explanation then the person could just get over it. And that’s what’s easier to say, “Just get over it.” That’s what “Everything happens for a reason” amounts to for the injured party.

Saying this is easier than saying that maybe there is no reason for why things happen. Saying this is easier than dealing with the other person’s sorrows, listening to them and feeling just as hopeless and helpless as them. It’s easier to say “Everything happens for a reason” because we don’t know how to be there for someone, we can’t be there for someone (being burdened by our own problems, struggling to understand our own emotional dilemmas). Dealing with another person’s despair is not an easy thing to do. You want to help, but you don’t know how. There’s no clear solution. The process of grieving, healing and rebuilding is a process that takes time and it’s different for each person and situation.

When someone hears, “Everything happens for a reason,” the last thing that he/she would want to consider is that he/she could have seen it coming and therefore somehow might have been responsible for their plight.

I don’t know if everything happens for a reason, or if we can ever really know if there is a reason, what that reason really was. But in the grand scheme of things, looking back on life one might be able to say, now I see why this happened in my life, or one might be able to assign meaning to things that have happened, to learn from it and understand how it’s shaped them as a person.

Then, years later a person who was swindled out of every last penny, survived a near death experience, and was left by his wife, could say, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Friday, April 15, 2005

From my 2003 South East Asia travel diary

Edging Towards The Killing Fields
August 20, 2003

I decided to hire a driver for the day to take me to the major sites that every tourist hits in Phnom Penh. There really isn’t any tourism infrastructure or mass transportation system in Phnom Penh; tourists simply “do it themselves” by hiring a driver or hopping on the back of motorbikes from place to place to get around town. Instead of taxis, there are motorbike drivers for hire all around town, waiting on busy street corners and in front of major buildings and sights, there at every turn. There’s no need to hail them, they know how to single the tourists out and solicit them for business. They offer a cheaper alternative to hiring a car for a day. They’ll take you anywhere on the back of their motorbike for a few bucks a ride. Since I was traveling on my own, I opted for the luxury of having a driver for the day at the cost of $20, which was more than the cost of one night’s stay in the guesthouse! I only had one day, a specific list of things to see and I didn’t want to be hassled or stranded somewhere.

The sky had been overcast when I arrived this morning, but now the sun was out. I stepped out of the guesthouse wide-eyed and momentarily distracted by a group of drivers who stood directly in front of the guesthouse entrance all lined up with their vehicles. One of them motioned me over to his car and I began to walk over, but out of the corner of my eye I spotted Mr. Ni who I realized was motioning me towards his jeep.

My list of sights to see included the Killing Fields, the National Palace Museum, the Tonle Sap riverfront, a temple, an open market, the silver tiled pagoda, and the S-21 prison. Mr. Ni assured me that one day would be sufficient to see all Phnom Penh’s major sights.

Not knowing where to start, he suggested that I head for the Killing Fields first since it was located outside of Phnom Penh. He said that it was quite far and that it could take close to an hour to get there.

“How far away is it?”

“Twenty kilometers.”

Twenty kilometers! I had already noticed that everyone drove around 30 to 40 km/hr, but this didn’t seem to add up.

As we drove out of Phnom Penh, buildings shrank from view and the changes in the landscape were barely noticeable, since what civilization Phnom Penh has is laid out like a suburb with buildings and local businesses concentrated in clusters or miniature communities, spread far apart. There were subtle changes as the paved road became dirt, then a rough dirt path that didn’t seem to have been yet made amenable for the use of motorized vehicles. It was like a path that gets worn into existence over time, by repeated, following footsteps that carve a path through a grassy field. I imagined the tracks made by toiling masses of people, animals and primitive vehicles- the masses relocated and murdered during Cambodia’s unfathomable genocide masterminded by Pol Pot and carried out by the Khmer Rouge.

We went through fields and into the outskirts and what looked like slums to me, but where I suspect most Cambodians live rather than in the city of Phnom Penh. Soon there were few motorized vehicles of any form in sight. Then I realized that we were the only automobile on the road. I probably saw two other cars during the rest of our drive. Otherwise there were a few cattle and carts and people on bikes and motorcycles. The “road” had become an elevated strip of red earth and our surroundings had transformed into scenes of green hillsides in the distance and vast green rice fields.

We drove into shanty communities. On both sides of the road were shacks and simple, beaten down Mom and Pop businesses weathered by time and use. There was a beverage stand, a local barber, food stalls, and makeshift stands which consisted of foldable tables displaying trinkets, fruit or clothing for sale in yard sale fashion. As I looked around, I noticed that many foreigners had opted to ride on the back of motorbikes or to rent bicycles to get around. I had the sense that the people who lived in these communities were entrenched in their lives, more than just miles away, worlds away from Phnom Penh. I wondered how frequently, or if ever some of them ventured into Phnom Penh. I didn’t see many automobiles around these parts. Even when I was in Phonm Penh it didn’t seem as though many people owned cars. Most of the locals seemed to get around on motorbikes.

The one hour of travel time that Mr. Ni had estimated, apparently wasn’t due to traffic jams. Soon the “road” became an obstacle course, the previous day’s rain had washed away much of the “road” leaving puddles and potholes, Mr. Ni told me. The road was barely wide enough to accommodate two automobiles; Mr. Ni used the entire width to weave around the puddles and potholes.

He drove in a stop and crawl fashion, ebbing towards our destination. When my driver dropped his speed to 10km/hr and fastened his seatbelt, I mentally prepared myself for the bumpier and longer than anticipated ride ahead. It was quite rocky ride; it was as though we were constantly going over speed bumps, all the while, I was trying to record my observations my diary and my notes are an almost completely in coherent mass of scribbles.

“Now I see why you drive a jeep.” I quipped. I was glad that I had decided to hire a car for the day.

Along the way, I made Mr. Ni stop a few times so that I could snap shots of the pristine farmlands, hillsides and farm animals. Each time I exited the jeep, Mr. Ni promptly came round to open the door for me. It embarrassed me and I felt like a spectacle. It was so plainly obvious that I was a lone foreigner being chauffeured around town. More than a few times I noticed curious onlookers- a family or group of locals huddled a few feet away catching a glimpse of the person being chauffeured around in the black jeep. I felt the weight of stares and saw the cocked heads of locals on motorbikes as they drove by rubbernecking for a glimpse. And I wonder what they made of me- an Asian woman who looked much like them, but so clearly a tourist.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

From my 2003 South East Asia travel diary

Picking up from where I left off

August 20, 2003- Arrival in Phnom Penh

I usually like to know where I’ll be staying (at the very least) after arriving at a destination when I travel. Even when I go to New York, on my bi-annual visits- where I lived for over 7 years and have friends who live in practically every neighborhood- it makes me feel rather unsettled to not know where I’m headed once off the airplane, or where I’ll be staying for the duration of my visit.

When I traveled throughout South-East Asia I had a general itinerary, but no confirmed reservations for accommodations or pre-arranged flights/transportation between the various countries that I had planned to visit. I liked having the flexibility to adjust my schedule to account for any unplanned detours, unforeseen mishaps or last minute changes.

I arrived at the second destination on my itinerary, Phnom Penh, Cambodia without having made any reservations at a guesthouse in town and I knew that I might be in for a little bit of an adventure. I remember backpacking through parts of Western Europe, making our plans day by day and how, without fail, we were hassled by local drivers and hotel owners each time we stepped off the Eurorail at a new destination.

After two days in Bangkok, I took a 7:50am flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Having slept less than 5 hours left me feeling rather sleep deprived, and knowing that I had a full day ahead didn’t get me off to a good start but I was prepared to wing it.

The night before I excitedly thought about the first leg of my trip, the beginning of my adventure. I had tried to contact a few guesthouses in Phnom Penh to make reservations and arrangements to be picked up at the airport without success. I had mulled over my options.

Initially I thought I’d just choose one of the recommended guesthouses listed in my guidebook and just take a taxi straight there from the airport, but then I started thinking of what could go wrong… What if the taxi driver tried to take me for a ride? What if once I got there, the guesthouse didn’t have any vacancies? What if I couldn’t find it? What if it had closed down? I imagined myself going on a wild goose chase, running around lost and frustrated. I realized that I shouldn’t make things too complicated for myself. After all, I only had one day in Phnom Penh and couldn’t afford to waste any time. Any unexpected delays would cut into the amount of time I had for sight seeing. So instead I thought of a better plan- I’d call a few guesthouses from the airport first, book a room with one of them and ask them to send someone to pick me up.

Even with “plan B” in mind, I mentally prepared myself for the possibility of other less favorable scenarios.

After getting my landing visa, clearing customs and claiming my luggage I went looking for a pay phone and currency exchange. As I stepped out of the airport, I scanned the area for payphones. I spotted a row of telephones, and as I dragged myself and my luggage over to the phones I heard what seemed like heckles, but I soon realized that they were just friendly bids for business from several cab divers who called after me:

“Miss?! Lady?! Lady?! Hello Ma’am? Need a ride? Where are you going?”

But the public phones didn’t have any coin slots. I tried to pick up the phone and dial, but wasn’t able to. One of the cab drivers, who had trailed me from the arrivals exit told me that I couldn’t use those phones to call out. He pointed to the other end of the arrivals exit and I saw long windowed counter- like you’d see at a theater box office- it was labeled Post Office. Then I remembered reading in my Cambodia guidebook that phone calls at the airport must be placed through the post office. Too lazy and tired carry my backpack, I dragged myself, hunched dragging my backpack along the ground, expending minimal energy behind me, over to the post office. I asked the clerk to ring the first guesthouse on my list but there was no answer. Good thing I thought of a “plan B”, but there’s no “plan C.” Someone at the second guesthouse answered so I was handed the phone receiver through the window. When I asked if the guesthouse had any rooms, the person on the line paused, momentarily confused.

“Do you have a single room?” I clarified.

“Yes” he piped in when it clicked in and he said that he’d send someone to pick me up and take me to the guesthouse. I told him my name so that the driver would be able to find me. I figured that they’d make a sign with my name on it to find me at the airport or at least be able to ask for me by name.

For making this phone call I was charged a grand total of US$1.

As I was making my way towards a bench in full view of where the cabs seemed to be making pick ups and drop offs, a well dressed woman with garish makeup called after me telling me that my “friend” was on the phone. Confused at first, I followed her guessing that it must have been the guesthouse calling. Back at the post office window, the woman handed me the phone; it was the guesthouse manager. He had called to give me the name of his driver, Mr. Ni and his cell phone number just in case. I jotted it down and hung up. As I turned to leave, the woman called after me and I realized that she was asking me to pay for the call. I almost reached in to my pocket for another dollar, wondering why I had to pay for the call but instead I said,

“Why do I have to pay for this call? I didn’t make the phone call. They called me.” The look on her face changed from indignant to sheepish and I knew that I was right.

Feeling a little more relieved I paced around eyeing the cabs for what seemed like at least 10 minutes. Several of the cabs had been idling about and I wondered if one of them was from the guesthouse. I wondered how they’d find me and how I’d find them.

I walked over the taxi stand area asking if any of the drivers were named Mr. Ni. One of the drivers piped up saying,

“Yes, yes I take you to my car.” Another man who was with him promptly took my luggage and I followed them to a taxi parked in the lot nearby.

Though he had acknowledged himself to be Mr. Ni, I still felt uncertain. I don’t know what it was, but I just had a feeling, besides, I was on a mission; I was determined not to get side tracked or delayed. I knew that I’d be punishing myself later with frustration and self-blame if my one day in Phnom Penh turned out to be a bust. When I travel, I have a tendency to pack in as much as I can in what little time I have. When I went to Europe I visited 9 cities/4 countries in just 2 weeks. I’ve been a little more realistic this time around about planning my trip to South-East Asia, though initially, I had considered trying to visit 5 countries in 3 weeks (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia), but eventually I cut it down to 3 countries (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia). I suppose I’m always on a dizzying nonstop pace, since I’ve never taken the luxury of traveling for more than a few weeks at a time. If I had a few months to travel, that would be an entirely different matter and I could linger a little more. Nothing was going to throw me off schedule. I had this one day in Phnom Penh before heading to Siem Reap tomorrow. I pressed him for details to allay my suspicions,

“Are you Mr. Ni? How long were you looking for me? How long were you waiting for me?”

He didn’t answer and I wasn’t sure if it was the language gap or something else. Once I was in the car, I had this unsettling feeling as he drove towards the exit of the parking lot. Again I pressed him,

“Do you know what my name is?”

“I take you to hotel… tell me…”

“Do you know where I am going? Someone from the guesthouse is supposed to come pick me up. If you are the person who is supposed to pick me up you’d know where I’m going. Do you know which guesthouse I’m going to?”

No answer. We were nearing the parking toll booth at the exit of the airport.

“What hotel am I going to?”

He hesitated, “Angkor?”

We were now at the parking tollbooth at the exit of the airport about to exit onto the main road into Phnom Penh.

“No!” I shouted and opened the door. I stood outside of the car holding the door open. “You don’t know where I’m going. I’m waiting for someone from a guesthouse to pick me up. You are not the person who is supposed to take me to the guesthouse.”

He was pleading with me to get back in the car saying he’d drive me to what ever hotel or place I wanted to go.

“No!” I knew as long as I kept the door open he wouldn’t try to drive away or do anything. What would be the point of driving off with my luggage or physically harming me unless he went psycho. “Open the trunk now! Open the trunk now!”

“I take you to hotel. Where you want to go? It’s ok, ok….”

I wasn’t going anywhere. “Open the trunk now!”

Finally he realized that I wasn’t going to relent. The trunk popped open and I quickly grabbed my backpack out of the trunk and stormed back to the arrivals exit, the front of the airport, where everyone had a clear view of what had happened. I was fuming, who knows where he would have taken me or how much he would have charged me. One thing that I was pretty certain of was that he probably meant no physical harm to me- judging by his reaction. He could have tried to pull me into the car or just drive off. He was just trying to make a fare.

During this whole ordeal, I didn’t really feel as though I was in any kind of major physical danger since I was still in the airport and in broad daylight, but I was still at a disadvantage, being a single foreign woman in a foreign land, not able to speak the local language, with no map, no contacts or means of communication to call for help. If I had let my imagination run wild with scams and the lengths that people would go to in order to a buck, then I might not have been so cool-headed.

All I know was that something in my gut told me not to trust him and to get more assurance of what I was getting myself into. I didn’t want to risk getting into an uncertain situation, which may or may not have led to being put into a physically dangerous or unfamiliar situation. I instinctively knew that I needed to keep myself in a situation in which I had more control over my personal safety and options- i.e. at the airport.

Apparently I had caused quite a scene. Back the arrivals gate, the cab divers swarmed around me buzzing with questions,

“What happened? Are you ok? Where you going? You need help? What’s wrong?”

I found myself surrounded by 10 strange men huddling around me, a situation that might normally have made me feel threatened, but this was not an aggressive attack; they were simply curious.

“I’m going to a guesthouse. They are sending a driver to pick me up. I’m waiting for him. I showed them the address and name of the guesthouse listed in my guidebook. That guy is not from the guesthouse. He is not Mr. Ni.”

“Who? Which guesthouse? You have number? You want to call?”

Another opportunity to make a buck.

“I have cell phone. $1 for 1 minute,” chimed one of the drivers.

What?! I had just pulled myself out of a strange man’s car to who knows where, and I was exhausted, furious and my patience was running thin. It was all very tiring- I already felt worn out from having to argue with everyone, everyone wanted to “help”, but it was always at a price, a dollar, a dollar everyone wants a dollar and who knows what that would get you? Or where that would get you? After what had just happened I was ready to fight.

“Yeah right. No thanks.” Back to the post office I thought.

“Ok, $1 for 3 minutes.”

“No I’ll give you $1 for 5 minutes,” I argued in my futile attempt to maintain some sort of control over the situation. I later realized how ridiculous it was arguing over giving the guy a dollar to use his cell phone but it was not just a matter of arguing over a dollar. I was upset and didn’t want to be taken advantage of in any way shape or form.

This whole thing was about not relinquishing any control over my personal safety. I think that somehow I knew that if I were at the airport at least I’d have some measure of control over my safety- like having access to some form of communication and local police authorities. Once away from the airport, if anything unpredictable happened, I wouldn’t know where I was, or have any means of contacting anyone for help.

Meanwhile the false “Mr. Ni” had returned was I assume, pleading his case to the other drivers- he was rattling on something in Khmer about me yelling Mr. Ni, Mr. Ni, needing a ride, probably that how there was a misunderstanding…

“Ok. Ok. What number?”

I showed the guy Mr. Ni’s cell number, he dialed and handed the cell phone over to me. As I listened to the phone ring and waited for an answer, a young man clad in black approached saying he was from Asean hotel and asked if I was staying there. At this point I was at wits end, exasperated and aggravated I looked at his sign and snapped,

“No.” That was not the name of the guesthouse I had called.

“Yes, yes this is your guesthouse,” a few of the cab divers chimed.

Not trusting anyone or wanting to go through another ordeal I said,

“I’m calling the guesthouse driver.”

Just as soon as I finished saying this, the young man’s cell phone began ringing and I knew it was him. I hung up the phone and returned it to its owner.

“Oh you are Mr. Ni?” I asked. The drivers were excitedly talking to young man in black. I assume that they were reporting on what I’d just been though.

After this exchange between Mr. Ni and the drivers, he finally said,

“I’m sorry you were waiting. You were waiting long time?”

“The name of your guesthouse has changed.”

“Yes new name. It’s different.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and without further questions I followed the young man, as he carried my bag to his jeep. He could have passed for about twenty-something years old but perhaps he was younger as I later judged by his demeanor.

There was a gentleness about him. He was clad in black from head to toe, had short wavy black hair and shy, averting eyes. I somehow felt that I could trust him. It was still odd- a stranger taking me to who knows where, but I knew that I could feel relatively safe- it would have to be some sort of seriously twisted operation if this “guesthouse” was picking up foreigners and running some kind of a scam.

The driver was timid and soft spoken as he continued to apologize and politely converse with me.

“Where are you from?”

I gave him the abridged version. “I’m from Canada. I grew up in Canada.”

“How did you know my boss’s number?”

“I had this tour book,” I held up for him to see, “with phone numbers and names of guesthouses in Phnom Penh.”

“Why do you want to stay in guesthouse not a hotel?”

“I am only here for one day. Staying in a guesthouse is ok with me. A hotel would be more expensive.”

As we drove I watched the cars, bicycles, and motorbikes go by in what seemed like slow motion. In Phnom Penh every motorized vehicle drove at about 40 km/hr. There was no need to rush, no reason to rush, I had the feeling that people where just going about their daily routines free from the sense of urgency that afflicts most major cities of the modern world… then it hit me, an urgency, for what? Urgency- imposed by the demands of others, external constraints of time and space, a sense of over self-importance or self-imposed priorities..

Even though my driver was driving a jeep, we plodded along just like everyone else into town. I noticed that the jeep and other automobiles had right-handed steering wheels, but curiously, all motorists drove on the right side of the road. Much of the landscape was coated in a thin red dust that floated about in the air. Phnom Penh has somewhat of a “wild west” feeling, with wide spaces between the buildings; it’s as if it’s been frozen in time. The roads were wide, unmarked and dusty. Most of the buildings were less than five stories high. They were of uniform height and size, lined up side by side like neatly placed cereal boxes on a grocery store shelf- as we drove by the buildings and storefronts, the visual effect was reminiscent of two-dimensional structures, much like those you’d see on the set of a movie or television show lot. It was as though these buildings were only facades lined up neatly beside each other, much like you’d see in a western. Phnom Penh definitely has a small town feeling with its buildings clustered in a town square-like fashion. The buildings lined both sides of street or a few blocks in suburban arrangement. Phnom Penh was more like a quaint town than a capital city.

Where were we going? How long would it take to get there? I wondered what the guesthouse would be like. How much longer now? Why does it always seem longer on the way there than on the way back? It’s the same distance there and back, but on the way there, our perception of time is skewed as we focus on the search and anticipation. It took a long 15 minutes to arrive at the guesthouse. When we arrived at the guesthouse, I was comforted to see that it was a simple but efficiently run outfit. In the lobby there were rows of computers set up for internet use at the rate of $1/hr. I quickly checked in.

When I returned to the lobby to plan my day, it was 10:00am and several more foreign backpackers had arrived.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Somewhere between warmth and swelter
The penetrating, thick air moistens my skin and brow
My breath feels shallow
Shedding away layers
Shifting into summer

Now a dense haze has descended bringing
Tentative mist in the air
The sun has forgotten us
Time lapses

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Today there was series of things that made me reflect on a piece of advice that a wise friend of mine told me recently.

He said something to the effect that- when you make decisions, you need to not only protect your own interests first, but to think of how those around you will be affected by your decisions and choices.

This may seem like a pretty straightforward piece of advice, but it's the context in which he said it. The "people around me" that he was referring to, were those closest to me- a confidant, someone who has my best interests in mind, someone who would be emotionally burdened by my bad decision simply because they care so much about me or would want to protect me.

It made me realize that if I were faced with a decision that might or might not lead to a potentially "toxic" situation, I'd have to consider more than just how I'd deal with the consequences of my decision, but that I'd have to consider how this would impact the people closest to me- who are around and there for me day in and day out. Seeing me having to deal with a "toxic situation", might leave them feeling frustrated and powerless over my plight.

In the midst of what was happening today and having to involve someone very dear to me in a certain situation, I was reminded of this piece of advice and why it was to regrettable that this person had to be involved at all. I tried to protect them as best I could from the entirety of the situation.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Try as I might to forget some things, I just can't. I couldn't forget even if I tried. A part of me will never forget. A part of me doesn't want to forget.

The details may fade but the memory remains, recreated, and re-lived; the context of our memories and the meaning we draw from them are never the same twice.

Our minds were not made to forget. They were made to remember.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Today I had a student show up in one of my classes for the first time this entire semester. This the 6th week of classes. There are 18 weeks in a semester at the school. So if you do the math...

He sat way in the back corner of the room trying to be as invisible as possible- like that would have helped his situation.

Denial is a just form of desperate, delusional hope.
On Sunday, in an uncharacteristically civil gesture, China, which does not recognize the Pope, offered condolences for his death on April 2.

Only days before, China had arrested two elderly Roman Catholic priests- Bishop Yao Liang from the Xiwanzi area of Hebei province (arrested on Thursday) and Father Wang Jinling of Zhangjiakou, Hebei was arrested on the Friday before Pope John Paul died. No reasons were given for their arrests.
It really bothers me when I see someone sitting like a lame duck waiting for something to happen, pitting all hopes on attaining one single goal. Then putting the least amount of effort to otherwise just to keep his or her head above water... doing just enough to stay afloat in the meantime, until that one saving event happens.

How can people put their lives (or the lives of others) on hold like this? Some complain about their current misery while doing nothing to change or accept their present situation. Others just wait things out, apathetically...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Some thoughts today on relationships and trust

When one person a relationship cheats on or betrays the other, would the person wronged be able to forgive them? Can people learn from these sorts of transgressions by understanding and accepting what happened when they stay decide together? Will the relationship ever the same? Or could the relationship be saved or brought to a newer level?

For some reason these questions seemed have surfaced in quite a few conversations that I've had with close friends recently. Today I got into it again with one of my friends over IM. My friend's rule is that once there's a betrayal or breakup, you never go back. More than one person has told me that he believes that once the trust has been broken it's something that is never regained.

I don't know if I can really accept what this friend and other friends have said- that people never really forgive or that such a weathered relationship is not salvageable. I'd like to think that a person could learn from another's weakness. I'd like to think that two people in a relationship can make the choice to understand what and why it happened and then mindfully work on their relationship every day of their lives.

Then again it's such a simple rule- to just be truthful and honest, to not betray someone's trust, but sometimes the simplest of requests are so hard to honor.

I wonder.

There are just so many things that you could wonder about in a relationship- how do you really trust someone, how do people ever make relationships work, why do people get into relationships at all?

I know there's no answer to this question... but I do know that some of us foolish, some of us brave, some of us wise, some of us desperate, some of us lonely, some of us in denial, some of us pure of heart decide to take that blind leap of faith.

And that's the beauty of it- I want to believe that there are still some of us pure of heart and strong still around.
Today two things happened to make this day a momentus one. Both were unexpected. One involved taking a step towards something bigger, in anticipation of things to come. I've finally allowed myself to dream and imagine the possibilities. The other being an unexpected little bit inspiration and appreciation from an unknown source- which goes a long way especially when someone is blogging along without any feedback, not knowing who's reading, or if anyone's reading at all.