Sunday, January 24, 2010

oh my godlessness

how can i help people to understand that my atheism is as beautiful, mysterious, inspiring, and heartfelt as any form or practice of any religion could be.  the complex wonder that is nature, the universe, human existence is so rich, that i feel my heart will just about burst with the love of it all.  the fact that on out of all the planets in all the galaxies, evolution led to my two parents combining their dna to make me, little old ordinary me, is just amazing.  the drake eqaution works out how rare it is that intelligent life would exist on any given planet (and there is a hilarious use of the drake equation used to calculate one nerdy guys likelihood of finding a girlfriend here), but that doesnt take into account the chance of my parents meeting, and their parents.  the comedienne julia sweeney goes further, talking about the likelihood of even the one egg out of hundreds, and the one sperm out of millions coming together to make exactly this one person. she quotes richard dawkins, saying certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than keats, scientists greater than newton, but in the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and i in our ordinariness that are here.  it really does boggle the mind when thinking about it, and makes me want to take advantage of every minute all the more.  i have been given the most rare and wondrous gift imaginable, and although i may be full of ordinariness, i am determined to appreciate it as much as any person possibly could.

i never find disappointment in my atheism, like my dad does when he wishes so much that he could believe in another life after this one.  when facing his mortality, it is very difficult for him, and he never believes me when i tell him that i truly do not wish for life after death.  its like twain says, i do not fear death.  i had been dead for billions and billions of years before i was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.  of course i am one of the lucky ones.  i can be contented with the years i have spent on this earth, because i have had more opportunities than most just by the chance of being born in america.  i have lived more experiences because i have had options, choices that so few ever get to make.  the children that die without yet living, those that suffer at the hands of others, it does not seem fair that their one chance has been so spoiled.  but of course nature is not about fairness, and i can only appreciate my life and do my best to help others have the opportunities that i have had.

but there is one instance where my atheism does make me feel sad.  again, julia sweeney presents it so perfectly in her program letting go of god.  she talks about how when she finally came to terms with the fact that there is no god, she had to go through the deaths of those loved ones that had passed all over again.  it was especially heartbreaking to hear her talk about her brother, who died a painful death from cancer, and whom she always thought she would see again in heaven.  but she had to admit that his suffering was nothing more than a fact of being a human animal, and that it was not a part of a grand plan, and she would never see him again, he is dead.  just dead.  so its really not for myself that i feel heartsick, but for those that deserve a heaven where they can make up for time lost on earth.  in a more trivial way, its like a really tragic scene in a book or movie where a character dies in their lovers arms, and the only way you can keep from blubbering is to tell yourself that they will be together again in heaven.  without that caveat, it is depressing sometimes.  but at least the bittersweetness means that the life was well lived, because the person was well loved.  and i do consider myself fortunate here as well, because i have never believed in heaven, and i imagine it would be very difficult to let go of the idea that your loved ones are waiting for you, if you had been banking on that your whole life.  the regrets will be stronger, the pains more hurtful, because there is no taking anything back, never a second chance.  of course its impossible to always be loving and kind and just and free from all judgement of others (at least it is for me), but it is so important to give it your best shot, because there will never be another opportunity like this one.

i could write all night about my love for my atheism (and i truly do love it, if i may be anthropomorphic), but for now i'll sign off with a video from one of my favorite atheist explainers(?), qualiasoup on youtube.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

oh the pain, the beauty!

so i had gone to this massage place a couple of times, nothing all that special, but it has a friendly atmosphere and it is never too busy.  last week i happened to get the girl that speaks the most english, and she was admiring my tattoos during the massage.  afterwards, she introduced me to one of the other girls downstairs that had 3 tattoos, and if i understood correctly, had been done in a tample famous for tattooing.  here tattoos are relatively common on men of a certain economic class, but can be seen on women, and rarely on the wealthy.  these specific tattoos are called sak yant, and they are only done by buddhist monks.  the one seen most often is the hah taew, which means five lines.  it is slightly different depending on which monk applies it, it is his own prayer.  it usually includes wishes for good fortune,  protection against evil spirits, or to show loving kindness.  the mantra commonly associated with it is :

Namo Putta Ya Na Metti
Mo Putta Ya Na Na Metti
Putta Ya Namo Na Metti
Ta Ya Namo Put Na Metti
Ya Namo Putta Na Metti

anyway, the woman asked me if i wanted to go with her to the temple.  of course i was up for it, it sounded pretty darned cool.  then she told be to make sure to bring enough money for the tattoo.  i was a little like, eh, what?  i told them okay, but i might just watch the first time.  i had planned on getting some work done here, but i am super hard line on always planning the tattoo out, discussing it with the artist, going over the artwork a few times.  but hey, when was i going to have another chance to get tatted up by a monk in a temple?  well, maybe id have a lot of chances, seeing as how it only took me a month to stumble upon someone willing to take me, but hey, make the most out of every opportunity, it might not come along again.

so we drove a couple of hours to get to the temple.  it turned out it was like a group outing, because its kind hard to get out there and get an appointment, so there were actually 4 of us getting tattooed that day.  the people i went with were super cool, way chill and fun.  the sister of the woman i had met was the driver, and she spoke great english, and was very cool, way nice and helpful, and a very interesting person to meet in her own right.  so we showed up and had to buy an offering of an orchid and cigarettes, and then headed up to the monks room to get started.  a man was just getting finished up when we showed up, and i got to see what i was in for.  now this is the seriously traditional style of tattooing.  no tat gun here, just 2 foot long metal rods with a giant fucking tip on the end.  the needle has little notch on the end for the inkwell, and he basically just dips it in ink and starts stabbing it into your skin.  way cool.   

so of course, as the guest, they let me go first.  lucky me.  so you put the offering on a golden platter and hand it to the monk.  he doesnt take it right away, he holds onto the other side and prays over you first.  my only hesitation here was my staunch atheism, i was wondering if i should be supporting this outdated mumbo jumbo  that obviously has no hold in the real world.  i mean, should i really be getting a prayer tat when i am so against religion of any kind?  but you know, i cant be so friggin judgmental all of the time!  this is part of a rich history and culture of a people, and i am lucky to be able to have the experience as part of it.  so i viewed this tattoo as a mark of the experience, instead of a perfectly designed piece of art as i had before.  so after he prayed over me, he put on a rubber glove (which i later learned was not for the hygiene.  he tattoos men without any glove, but monks are not allowed to touch a womans skin, so this is how they get around that.  this monk mentioned that when he started to get popular as a tattooist, he got a lot of flak for tattooing women) and got started.  i dont know if it is more painful than getting tatted with a gun, because every time you get a tattoo it hurts more than you remeber.  but yeah, it hurt.  like a bitch.  but it was only about 30 minutes.  i was a bit nervous, cause i had no say in how it would look, or where it was placed.  there wasnt even a mirror in the room to check it out, it was all up to him.  but i just kept telling myself, its for the experience, it may not be perfect but the enrichment of my life is worth it.  after he was done he rubbed it for a few minutes and prayed over me again.  he didnt really speak english, but once during the procedure he said are you okay? and everyone laughed.  so for every customer that day he asked, are you okay?, and people cracked up.  it was a pretty fun experience, like 6 of us just chatting (the sister translating for me).  it wasnt this austere feeling or anything, just lighthearted and enjoyable.  

afterwards this random guy got to cut in line and get his next, so we ended up being there almost all day.  i walked around the grounds and saw all of the shrines. at one point i could hear someone saying, hello, hello!  it took me a while to figure out, but this older man was hailing me from across the courtyard area.  he kind of jogged over and looked at my back.  he said five lines, five lines!  i nodded, acknowledging that i had just gotten the tattoo.  in english he said, thank you, thank you, five lines!  [this country] is so good, five lines is so good.  thank you, thank you!  the whole time he was enthusiastically shaking my hand.  i had been a bit worried about the locals giving me the side-eye for getting a traditional tattoo as a foreigner, but after this im pretty sure i wont have to worry about that too much.  after that i walked over to the lovely river the temple was on (thankfully like 5-10 degrees cooler than where i live) and had a nice bowl of noodles while watching all of the fish.  

eventually i walked back up and watched the others get their work finished.  it was a really long day, but new, interesting, and beautiful.  we drove home with everyone exhausted, and i hopped out when the traffic got heavy and grabbed public transport home.  but not before exchanging numbers, promising to hang with these folks again soon.  i think i made a really good friend out of the sister, we are planning to cook dinner together at her place so she can show me some recipes.  when i got home she texted me asking if it would be okay if she considered me a sister.  never having had one, i thought it was a very sweet sentiment.  

oh, and of course the tat looks amazing.  delicate, beautiful, and full of lovely memories of that day.  and one bonus (although i never quibble about tattoo prices, its an art and should be treated as such) it only cost like seven bucks.  win!

oh my traveling heart

my favorite miyazaki anime is mimi wo sumaseba (us title: whispers of the heart).  it is so simple and sweet and lovely.  a young girl who finally challenges herself when a young boy who wants to become a master violin maker falls for her.  the animation and story are both much more simple than the fantasy-type anime, but it is perfect and moving and just plain heartwarming.  in it, the girl translates the john denver song country roads.  but her translation is sooo much better than the original song.  and i feel the emotion of it in my on heart every time i hear it.  so i wrote it out, and even though the given translation is not spot on, and the japanese lyrics are a bit off at the end (i just couldnt make them out), little is lost of the loveliness.  so here it is.

Country Road

Hitoribochi, hosore tu ni             No one is with me, going fearlessly
Hiki yo to yume miteta                 That’s the way I live in the dream I see
Samishi sa hoshi kometa              I must put my loneliness away
Tsuyoi jibum mo ma mo ikeko     Protect myself and learn to be strong

Country road, komo machi          Country road
Tsuyuta tsukeba                           It will take me back to my home
Ano machi ni tsizu iteru                I can feel it now, if I just keep
Kinasuru, Country road               to this far off way, Country road 

Donna samishii bokidatte            It wont matter how lonely the times get          
Keshite namina wa misenaide       You’ll never see me cry
Kokoro nashi kahojo ya hayaku  I know I must take heart, andthat hurrying
Natteiku omoide kesutane           Is all I can do to forget

Country road, komo michi           Country road, it may take me
Furusatoei buiteba                       back to my hometown, but even so
Boku wa ikanai sa                         I cant go, I wont go
Ikanai, Country road                    Country Road

Country road, hoshitaba             Country road, Steeling my heart
Hitsumono boku sa                      I will not go now,
Bayunetai Nayarenai                   Not while I’m free
Sayonara, Country Road          So its farewell, Country road

Thursday, January 14, 2010

oh yeah, so what am i doing here anyway?

it seems that a few of the people reading this blog (okay, my mom) are not totally sure what it is that i actualy do here out adrift, tethered to hq in america by the flimsiest of threads.  one reason i had been kind of hesitant to go into it is because i had the choice of running a blog that talked about where i am but not what i do, or the inverse; what i do but not where i am.  ive finally worked it out that it is much more interesting to talk about the challenges ahead, the experiences that are so rich and so meaningful, without actually having to go into the specifics of a pinpointed geographical location.  so here goes:

ive been working for a human rights non-profit for the last 7-ish months.  i am now running a shelter that assists in the placement of north korean refugees in the united states, a part of a larger network that helps these heartbreakingly oppressed people to find a chance at a "normal" life.  a chance to do the things that so many of us take for granted, like accessing the internet, speaking our minds, and maybe the simplest thing (but most important) of all, just filling our bellies.  i had been aware of this issue for years, i was lucky enough to have a father that, although a business conservative, is a social liberal.  he taught me a lot about the different situations that people are facing around the world.  however, it was presented in a very matter-of-fact manner, and not really in a way that made it seem that anything could possibly be done by an outsider.  so as i grew up, entered college, then grad school, i got behind a lot of causes.  environmentalism, gay rights, things that were important to me and impacted my life daily.  but most of the time it was as a side dish to the eentrĂ©e of my life, like academics or travel.  but spending a year in a hospital bed changed all that.  now i dont want it to sound like this epic sob story, like, i have to re-learn to walk, and laying there in the hospital bed i read a book that opens my eyes to the way i can devote myself to something bigger, and i swear i will no longer live selfishly traveling around the world but will give myself to the cause!  okay, this is actually kinda how it happened, but i just didnt know it at the time.  anyway, i was lying in a hospital bed for months, and months, and picked up mike kims book escaping north korea after being charmed by him on the daily show.  the thing that really got to me, was how a pretty normal person can decide to go all crazy spy-like and start crossing borders and smuggling refugees.  i was just thinking a person must need mad awesome contacts, or tons of cash or something.  i knew that kind of lifestyle would work for me, and i feel devoted enough to this specific cause that i would be more than willing.  and my wide range of experiences has prepared me with a certain skill set that many people do not have.  but hey, there's no way a tiny white girl with not one contact in any north korean human rights group could just expect to walk in and be like, hey, where do i sign up to like, smuggle refugees and stuff? right?  turns out, i could.

so, im not sure if i am allowed to name the group i work for, although two seconds of internet research could give you the answer.  but after returning to america from two years in japan (and a year in the hospital), i looked around for a group that was involved with this issue.  it turned out to be harder than i thought, because there are so few people that even know these atrocities in north korea are even going on, and the groups that do work in this field are all religious.  i am a staunch athiest, and there was no way i could become involved in an organization that was saving people to save their souls, instead of for the wonderful and amazing and deserving human beings that they are.  luckily enough i finally found a fantastic organization headed by people barely out of their teens, determined to practically carry these people out on their fucking backs if need be.  sometimes the money isnt there, and things are still getting sorted, but its a group of individuals who are determined to give every ounce of themselves to not only bringing awareness about the cause, but doing something epic, helping to rebuild the lives that have been almost destroyed by the most oppressive regime that exists on earth today.  i knew i wanted in.

so i spent my fall touring around the country (the us), living out of a van, teaching, discussing, and hopefully inspiring.  getting people to admit that this problem can be solved if enough like minded people take action, and getting them to pledge some sort of action, to not forget it as soon as finals get to stressful or the job hunt becomes more important.  i met some phenomenal people on the road, people that were so rich in character, i felt fortunate just to spend a few hours with them.  and honestly, i loved it.  i loved getting up and talking to people about something i truly believe in, and discussing ways to bring change.  i loved studying the issue everyday, and being ready to give thoughtful, accurate, and succinct answers to any question thrown at me.  i considered it a great challenge, to not give people any reason to doubt the severity of this issue, but also not to doubt the fact that something could be done.  and it has, this organization, the work of these few young people, has already resulted in bringing 27 people out of nk/china and into safety.

so after this tour, i was back at the office wondering what would come next.  i had already mentioned half-jokingly to the staff that i was interested in becoming a protection officer, someone who works at one of the shelters and is responsible for every aspect of the refugees lives, from border to border.  but i knew it would never work.  im white, i dont speak korean, and im inexperienced.  well.  so im white, big deal, im not in nk or china, so it doesnt matter, there are while people everywhere in se asia.  and for experience, i have tons in many fields.  it might not be in this specifically, but i have done enough strange things in my life that it seems to fit perfectly.  the language was the killer though.  so i didnt really think about it.

two days after getting back from tour, i got called into the office about the protection officer position.  i figured it was the requisite, sorry, wont work, thanks for playing.  so wrong.  it was more like, pack your bags, you leave in 5 days.  so much for the first christmas at home in 4 years.  they decided that sending a korean speaker with me that could train me would work, and though not ideal, still better than any alternatives.  and mostly i think it was my drive.  okay, i know this sounds vain, but i can do anything.  i know i can.  i have no special skills, am not particularly talented at anything, but if given enough time, ive got the will to do whatever it takes.  so bring it!

now, things havent worked out as planned.  the girl that came out with me totally pussed out, like hardcore.  left me high and dry.  but already working on a contingency.  i rustled up an korean teacher (a korean ex-pat that normally teaches piano, but what of it).  and im taking the time while where we have a lull in refugees to learn everything i can.  korean, the local language, local cooking.  also writing an english curriculum for the lessons we give here.  and quite a few other projects that will hopefully help how this organization runs the field program in the future.  so im living it, loving it, and cant wait until these efforts start bearing fruit.

so i will start updating this blog with the trials of all of these efforts, what works and what doesnt, what drives me to the brink and what pulls me back.  and maybe the occasional flashback to my past (hawaii, japan, etc). so i hope you stick round for the ride, i know i will.

Monday, January 11, 2010

oh that wild and wacky weather (oh the alliteration)

wow!! i have seen a few pretty cool water-related events in my time. an incalculable amount of waterfalls, torrential canyon floods, and one especially memorable storm at Lake Powell, where thousands of gallons of water burst from an overhead cliff after the windiest, rainiest, wildest storm i had ever seen. the flood we had here last week was much more tame, but that was what made it so interesting.

i had been up in my second floor room reading for a few hours. the rain broke very quickly, going from the first few hesitant drops to a full blown tropical storm in minutes. but ive lived in the sub tropics before, and didnt really think too much of it, even though i couldnt help but flinch at the loudest of the thunderclaps. a couple of times it seemed that the rain would let up, but it came in pretty full force for about 4 hours. when it finally reached no more than a trickle, i decided to take a quick peek outside to see what the damage was. as i stepped of the last stair onto the first floor landing, my foot splashed into about 3 inches of water. sigh. immediately i flashed back to the past P.O. telling me about the first floor getting a bit wet during the rainy season. funny how that completely slipped my mind. hopefully i can be forgiven, as my week of intense training left me saying "yup, uh-huh, i understand" and then at least 60% of whatever was said flying directly out of my head.

anyway, i ventured out a bit further; luckily only the living room floor and hallway are lower than ground level, so there wast too much to worry about it the house. i grabbed my wallet to head to the convenience store for a coke zero (my one western habit i just cant seem to break), and to check out the neighborhood. i tentatively opened the front gate, as there was quite a bit of water sloshing under the crack. i was pretty unprepared for the amount of water that had collected in such a short time. at least 2.5 feet of water had turned our residential street into a creeping river. perched on the top rail of the gate, i quickly drew my foot back before it could be suckered on from some creature of the deep. i leaned out as far as i could to see the main street that runs perpendicular, about 200 feet away. there i could see cars bumper to bumper, with the requisite scooters moving in between. a truck turned down my street, and by the time he passed my house, he was throwing up a pretty good-sized wake, enough to try to shake me off of the gate. after he passed i decided to give it a go, it looked lively and inviting down the street, i could hear people laughing from their stoops, getting a good view of the chaos in the streets.

as i stepped into the murky water, or course the first thing that came to mind was the one and only rat i had seen living here. i was sure i would be attacked my a mob of rats trying to get out of the water, like in indiana jones or something. they would try to climb up my legs like tree trunks (not improper grammar, i mean both they would climb them like tree trunks and they would climb up my tree-trunk like legs). or i would at least have to look away as i saw swollen, bloated bodies of dead..what...rats, roaches? i dont know, needless to say i didnt see anything gross or dead, just some dirty water. hiking my skirt up i walked down the street, a normally 3 minute walk now a 15 minute trudge. the neighboors waved and laughed from their balconies, and i waved back, by now very used to being the silly foreigner wherever i live.

the main street was indeed chaos, cars lining the street as far as i could see in either direction. the scooter taxis were making good time though, weaving in and out, the girls on the back trying to keep their heels out of the water. some people were trying to build little barriers to keep the water out of their shops, but most of the shops are raised enough to stay tolerably dry. i shook my feet off as best as i could, and hopped in the 7-11. the floors were lined with cardboard, but it was a challenge to stay upright when my shoes did find some linoleum. still a novice in the language, i just kinda pointed out the door and laughed to the clerk as i was checking out, and he did the same. some people looked annoyed, but most were just enjoying the breakup of routine. as i sloshed my way back to the house i collected our trash bin that had floated down the street, and in the house i tried to put anything important on a high self. today i finally got around to sweeping and mopping the house out. random garbage, some rugs went into the garbage, but the killer is the big tub of kitty litter that had been sitting out (which i hadnt even been aware of, we dont have a cat). it is now a giant tub of inflated muck covered by 2 inched of water. i havent touched it, it is still sitting there. maybe i'll get lucky and the next flood will carry it away...

now this was a pretty fun event for me, but as these tropical locations are built up, and the groundwater from these torrential rainstorms can no longer seep into the soil, it does cause major problems. read about current issues in this area here:
urbanization without sustainable design will not only destroy the surrounding ecosystems, it puts the very people living in them in serious jeopardy. so please keep that in mind when deciding where to vacation. love to all in this wonderful new year!!!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

oh the food!!

people who know me at all know that a major love of my life is food. i think it falls second only to books. and the food in se asia falls second only to afghani food for me, so im pretty much in a constant state of bliss here. the mixture of flavors is what really makes the cuisine here something to relish. sweet, spicy, sour, salty, all in one dish. it seems overwhelming, but when done right is a miraculous event for the tastebuds. and what a change coming from japan, where the flavors are so subtle, so muted, that it takes a ...oh lets say, serene palate to really enjoy them. and not that one is really better than the other, i more than anyone appreciate a good zaru tofu. having worked in an organic tofu shop, it made me something of a tofu snob, and where most people not only couldnt tell the difference, but most likely wouldnt care, i will go into a near faint when presented with fresh, rich, tofu, or - soy be praised - yuba (the oily skin skimmed from the top of cooling soymilk). sigh...

ok, reminiscing aside, the food here is enjoyed in a whole other part of the brain it seems, or at least a different part of the tongue. panang curry (fav by far), pho, som tam, spring rolls, mango with sticky rice (uuuuhhhhh, so good). the potency of the herbs is amazing, basil, cliantro, garlic, ginger, chillies, in quantities that feel will bust out your sinuses. and the drinks! all different kinds of teas, boba drinks, smoothies. wow, they sure like things sweet over here. now i'm not complaining, cause i have a sweet tooth like no other, but boy howdy do i exceed a healthy sugar intake most days. in the above photo i am having the most AMAZING drink i have ever had. i stopped by many of the food carts out on new years eve , and besides the mango salad and a bamboo stalk filled with sticky rice and azuki, i had a syrupy beverage that was filled with yellow beans, lychee, black jelly, a bunch of other stuff i couldnt identify (all of it sweetened), and wouldnt you know it was topped off with my favorite of root vegetables, rankon (sweetened of course). it was such an amazing mix of flavors and textures, it was the most i have ever enjoyed a drink, bar none. i would have gotten a second, but there was no way i could fit another one in my already distended belly. now, you didnt have to add all of the ingredients if you didnt want them, but i just had the vendor add a little of everything. and thats what makes the food so great here, there's a bit for every taste. when you get a noodle dish, there is usually a tray nearby with crushed red chillies, sugar, fish or oyster sauce, and some other random seasoning. i of course love my dishes spicy and sweet, so im usually applying liberal amounts of the chillies and sugar. i have only been here a month and i am happy to say that i can ask the vendors to add more chillies, even in this region known for serving the food already quite spicy. but its not like i think i can handle more spice than the locals, its that im pretty sure they tone down the spice for the foreigner, and i need to get them to boost it to an adequate level. and by adequate i mean nose slightly running but not quite sweating. and one big plus is there are plenty of places that serve gluten and such as a meat substitute (although i dont really consider it a substitute, its well deserved as being an edible in its own right), so i can get noodle dishes with lots of tofu and meaty gluten as a hearty meal. im sure i have eaten oyster sauce or something a few times, but overall the vegan experience has been a good one, i certainly dont feel like i am missing out on anything. if i do decide to try a meat dish (something i allow myself once in other countries as a "cultural experience"), it would have to be something with shrimp, as that is by far the most common "meat" addition, and admittedly i do loves me some shrimp. or did at one point in my life.

so if i come back to the states a few pounds heavier, you will all know why. luckily most of the food is pretty healthy, but im a bit of a glutton, and have a hard time understanding the concept of moderation. and luckily the food is cheap, but even so i am well prepared to spend a good percentage of my money on what is going into my gut. although i have been putting in a good effort into recreating these dishes in the kitchen, and am doing okay so far with drunken noodles and green mango salads. id like to take some cooking classes, but i think an exercise class might be a bit more necessary if i dont want to be rolled home like violet beauregarde.

...hunger is the best spice...