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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Americans abroad: Sydney

A journey to Australia inevitably begins or ends or circles back to Sydney. At least, ours do. Sydney is the largest city in the country. When I was a kid and barely knew where Australia was, I remember that list of largest cities from publication pages in books: New York, London, Toronto…and Sydney. So I knew it was a place I would someday go.


And my cousins' apartment in Sydney was the first place I ever stopped in Australia, when we visited four years ago. But before catching up with them, I need to catch up on The Discreet Traveler. Faithful readers may recall my visit to the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Built in 1965, it was the “new” mosque when my aunt Janet visited two years later. It is thanks to her that I made a point of going there and being photographed in front of the very 1960s wall where she was pictured in this very ’60s miniskirt.

Photo courtesy of Janet Knowles Haisman
No robes being handed out when she visited! It’s a great picture, and it just goes to show that there are fashions in religion, as in anything else. Covering women in this part of the Islamic world was not a thing in 1967, and it may not be a thing in the future. 


It is probably thanks to my aunt that I’ve done all this traveling in my life, not just to the National Mosque.


So we continued the family theme by visiting our American cousins. They've been in Sydney for a while now and are pretty well ensconced here. It helps that they get to travel a lot, and visit the U.S. frequently. It also helps that this is the view from their balcony.
Sydney Harbour Bridge

They're an easy train ride from the airport, and we settled in for a stress-free weekend enjoying Sydney. Only slight issue was that over the weekend, the train system was doing what it does on so many weekends back in the U.K.: Track repairs. Instead of the easy train ride across the river into town, we had a bus replacement to content with. Still pretty much of a cinch after some of the public transit we used in Africa and Asia. Or Budapest!
Queen Victoria Building

If you stay on the train long enough, you can get out of town to Cronulla. There's a beach there which we were fortunate enough to visit with our friends. We last saw these friends when they hosted us in Bakio in the Basque Country. But half the year they spend here. Back in June in Spain, their little daughter was quite shy with us and didn't warm to having company. What a difference eight months make in the life of a two-year-old.

We started Sunday afternoon at Luna Park, another slice of history that became decrepit in the 1970s and was luckily saved from the wreckers. Luna Park is a loony replica of a classic 1930s American theme park. Its funhouse, named after Coney Island, remains basically unchanged, and it's fun to watch 21st-century kids playing on giant slides, pinball machines, and other wonderfully analog things that I remember from my own childhood.


From Luna Park, we took another integrated part of Sydney's public transit--the ferry--across to Circular Quay.

I never knew this until I was a young adult, but there's a famous building in Sydney. It's the Opera House and, like the Eiffel Tower, it's an icon of the city that was hated at first. The Sydney Opera House's construction went on throughout the 1960s and it finally opened in 1973.



The area around Circular Quay is called The Rocks. There's a lot of shopping and dining there now, but The Rocks were almost destroyed in Sydney's building boom during the 1960s. Are we sensing a pattern here? Fortunately, a group of neighborhood activists at the time were successful in preserving this part of history, and today it's a really interesting place to hang around. 

In one afternoon I saw a Muslim mom watching her kids in a 1935 funhouse, a Sikh family waiting for the ferry, and a butch-femme female couple having their portrait painted in the Rocks. Even if it weren't for the skyline, Sydney would be a pretty cool city.

Our last night in Sydney we had an unexpected opportunity. Social media being what it is, one of our friends had shared a post from a musician she's a fan of, and tagged us because she knew where we were traveling. The musician, Erin McKeown, was the opening act at the Sydney Opera House, and needed a couple of volunteers to help her at the merchandise table before and after the show. Were we interested?


T. said sure! We'd been backpacking through Asia for months and freely admitted we weren't up to speed on the music, but by the time the audience started to arrive, T. was hawking CDs (and, by gum, a vinyl record) with authority. Yes, you should buy this one, this is the new one. Of course Erin is a fantastic guitar player! You'd better buy now, you'll be kicking yourself after the show when we run out of albums.


Well, we did run out of albums and there was a customer to whom T. said "What did I tell you?" In between, we thoroughly enjoyed Erin's music, and were amused by the podcast that was the main act. All the rest of the audience seemed to be millennial cult followers of Night Vale. The loudest cheer for these U.S. artists was for the recollection that in 2014, the president of the United States had not been a national embarrassment. That, and Erin's use of the term "queer." She had said there would be a mad rush after the show, and there was.


Erin McKeown. Check it out. We loved the songs, and we got to sing along in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House. What will these travels bring next?


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The devil inside: Tasmania

“It’s like sailing into Venice!” T. enthused. Well, maybe not. As the Spirit of Tasmania sailed into Devonport, I saw a movie theatre and a McDonald’s. But crossing the Bass Strait from mainland Australia had not been as uncomfortable as I’d expected.

Tasmania is the island off the southeast coast of the continent of Australia. It’s often left off of maps and ignored by mainland Australians, but it is a state. The fast way to get there is to fly, as we did last time. This time we were relocating a camper van and took it on the ferry. For five Australian dollars a day, it was not a bad deal.

T. was the main driver so I had to pay for my own seat on the ferry. By “seat,” I mean a reclining seat, which I was told would be something like a plane seat. Not in the class we fly! It was so comfortable I was actually awakened by the announcement that we would dock in 45 minutes. It was a promising start to several nights’ sleeping in the back of the camper van, as we camped along the coast at Bicheno.

“Did you see that enchilada?” T. asked excitedly as we drove along. She meant echidna. This is a prickly native beast that looks a bit like a large hedgehog, and it was waddling along the side of the road in the sunlight. Most refreshingly, this enchilada was alive.
Echidna
There are a lot of things to like about Tasmania but there’s one big drawback, and it’s to do with Tasmanian roads, like roads in many other parts of Australia, having no street lights. Most of the native Tasmanian wildlife is nocturnal, and this makes for a distressing number of dead animals squashed every morning. I grew up in the country so I know about roadkill, but this you wouldn’t believe. Even driving slowly and carefully at night is no guarantee you won’t hit something, and based on how people drive during the day, I don’t think they’re trying very hard.

The unique Tasmanian devil, a cleanup species like the catfish, used to play its part in clearing the roadkill. But its leading cause of death is now a facial tumor, spread too easily because of the Tasmanian devil’s limited gene pool. This inbreeding, in turn, is the result of the species being decimated repeatedly and having to bounce back from limited numbers. The devil is so called because it chews through everything—bones and all—and because of its screeching noise, but it doesn't deserve the bad press that nearly led to its extinction. 


You’re supposed to get used to all this death and destruction if you live in Tasmania, but it's not something I want to get used to. That’s the way the human brain works—if you’re repeatedly exposed to something, say a repressive government or news of yet another shooting at a school, the brain dials down the volume simply to protect you. But when something is distressing, I don’t want it to start to seem normal. 
At East Coast Natureworld
This is a baby wombat. The keeper first showed us a “teenaged” wombat, walking around the enclosure and even letting it bite his legs, to demonstrate how inappropriate a pet a wombat makes. I thought he was going to great lengths to show that we should give wild animals their space. Yet no sooner had he turned his back than one of the men in the group leaned into the enclosure and was petting the wombat, and encouraging his kids to do so. Next to a big sign saying “don’t lean into enclosures or touch any animals in them.” The guy wasn’t bitten, but he deserved to be. 

Sometimes I wonder why evolution has not yet weeded out the gene for stupidity.
Kangaroos roam free in the Natureworld sanctuary. It's OK to feed them.
Another thing that’s distressed me is the number of white people who, even today, repeat what they’ve heard about indigenous people. That they’ve been given too much, when in actual fact, nothing could ever make up for what was taken from the indigenous people: their own country. It boggles my mind that there are still so many people who believe that they, or their ancestors, had the right to immigrate to a country, better than the right of its original inhabitants to live there in the first place.

I’m not just picking on white Australians. Henry Knox, George Washington’s secretary of war, said that to dispossess the American Indians would be “a stain on the character of the nation.” He was right—it is a great stain—but Knox is also evidence that even back in the eighteenth century, there were people who knew better. The principle of not just taking what doesn’t belong to you was as well known hundreds of years ago as it is today.

The only way not to get used to something you shouldn’t get used to, is to get away from it. So we got out of the city of Hobart and explored the state as much as possible. We started at nearby Mount Wellington, where, driving up to the summit, we were surprised by a cloud of snow flurries! In wintertime it’s common for Mount Wellington to be capped by snow, but the end of January is midsummer in this hemisphere. Fifteen minutes later, you’d never have known there was snow there. But I saw it.

Our stay outside Hobart coincided with a once-in-150-years lunar event. There was a blue moon (the second full moon in a single month) combined with a supermoon, and a total lunar eclipse. I confess to not seeing the “super” aspect of a particularly large moon, but luckily the clouds did clear around 11:00 at night, and we saw the totality. As the blue moon reddened, it occurred to me that the eclipse darkening the moon was the shadow of the entire earth. This whole planet, with its billions of people and conflicting concerns, was only big enough to cast this shadow on the moon.
Photo courtesy of T.
My camera isn’t up to capturing constellations, but T’s sister-in-law pointed out the Southern Cross, which is represented on the Australian flag. It felt like I was seeing the entire galaxy. The darker the moon got, in a country sky without light pollution, the more stars appeared.

Another day we hiked on the Tasman peninsula to Cape Hauy. The views along the cape were stunning, reminding me a bit of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, but warmer and not nearly as windy. Unfortunately, in order to make the hike doable steps have been built up and down almost the entire way. It’s an impressive undertaking by the parks system, but not my favorite way to hike. 

Maybe my legs were worn out from the previous night’s dancing. Friday nights see Hobart’s finest, including a Bear Bryant lookalike and someone who reminds us of cousin Tony, dancing to a blues band behind a rock wall. Our hosts for all these adventures were T’s brother and sister-in-law, plus assorted nieces. On this occasion we were also joined by a young friend who’d stayed with T. and me during her own sojourn in Britain a few years back. We’re cashing in on all this hospitality now as we make our way back round the world.

Another night the fire pit was lit, and I had a go on my brother-in-law’s guitar. It felt good to be picking at a guitar again, but mostly it reminded me how out of practice I am. My fingertips no longer have the worn pads that a guitarist should, and I couldn’t play very long before having to set the thing down!

We had some other good walks, on Seven Mile Beach and in Mount Field National Park. Something that has started happening is that my day pack, with its flags of all the nations we’ve visited, has become a conversation piece. A Malaysian standing in line behind me, or a European couple on the trail, will ask about all the patches and the places we have visited. One of them even asked if he could take a picture—not of me, but of the pack! It made a change from the selfies with Asian people. “Wild lady,” he called me.
T. also called the carabiners on my backpack "carbonara." Clearly she has food on the brain.
Mount Field is the site of the Three Falls hike. One of the falls is called Horseshoe, which is pretty funny to me as that’s also the name of the most impressive Niagara Falls (on the Canadian side). Horseshoe Falls in Tasmania are the least of the three. But the Tall Trees walk offered us the chance to see eucalyptus (“gum”) trees that are more than 400 years old. In other words, they were already standing there before any European set foot on the island. Around Lake Dobson, we saw some pine trees that are more than a thousand years old.

All these experiences of nature were quite humbling. So it seemed only fitting to balance that out by watching the Super Bowl. It wasn’t easy: home televisions now are too complicated for us to turn on, let alone tune in, without special training. Instead, we found a cafe in Richmond that was showing the big American football game on TV. I got a curried scallop pie (a Tasmanian specialty) and the cashier offered a plate of free cupcakes. Given that it was Monday morning here, I felt I participated in the excess adequately. 

Before leaving Tassie, we visited yet another UNESCO World Heritage site: Port Arthur.

The remains of the British prison at Port Arthur are the world’s best surviving example of a modern prison. Sounds surprising, as the history of Britain transporting convicts to what was then called Van Diemen’s Land is not often thought of as modern. But in the nineteenth century, as our excellent guide told us, the maximum security prison built at Port Arthur was an attempt to rehabilitate the most serious offenders—not flog them or keep them in horrible conditions. The most serious punishment they endured, in an era when the sole responsibility for old people’s care rested with their families, was that these criminals could never see their families again.

The fact is that solitary confinement at Port Arthur was probably no more inhumane than solitary confinement today, and the prisoners may have had a higher standard of living than where they'd come from. Crime, after all, doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, and the slums of 1840s England were some of the worst places to live in the history of humankind. The average life expectancy in Manchester’s slums was 17, reflecting extremely high infant and child mortality as well as the early age at which adults grew old.

Britain in the nineteenth century was the first country ever to industrialize. The longterm result of industrialization, for good or ill, is our modern life, unimagined in any previous century. But the first decades of the Industrial Revolution were, in the word of our Port Arthur guide, “horrific.” No wonder the Communist Manifesto originated in London.

Port Arthur is [in]famous for another reason. In 1996 a lone white man opened fire on the historic site, killing 35 people and injuring 23 others. It was the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history, and it shocked the country, as any massacre should. Australia’s government, which at the time comprised center-right parties, decided to make it harder for Australians to reach for a gun. Despite being hanged in effigy by the Australian gun lobby, these politicians did it. Not only was Port Arthur’s the last such shooting in Australia, but there have since been far fewer of the deaths that make up most of gunfire’s toll: suicide and domestic murder.

There have been other acts of terror in contemporary Australia. No one claims that it is possible to eliminate evil. But that didn’t stop Australians from doing something that saved lives.


Monday, February 5, 2018

Melbourne

Victoria, Australia. Where you can drink the tap water; where there is T.P. in abundance, and you can even flush it. After months in Asia, I felt like I’d arrived in a wonderland.

We’ve enjoyed watching episodes of Border Security: Australia’s Front Line. So we know what happens when people declare they have no food with them, and then get caught with a suitcase full of meat, for instance. I was, therefore, hardly prepared for how laid-back an entry we had at Melbourne airport. The only question the immigration official asked was why we hadn't used the automatic kiosks! “Never mind, you’re always welcome to visit us up here.” 

“Welcome”? To a First World country? We’d declared our intention to stay for three months, and were prepared to give our itinerary and our onward flight, but we might as well not have booked one. All she said was, “Enjoy your stay”!

I wish I could speak as highly of Scoot, the discount Singapore airline we’d flown to Australia. Do not be tempted by the lower fares. Not that there was anything cheap about the plane itself, except that if you touched the armrest with your elbow, the overhead light went on. We paid to check our bags and for a meal, but we were lucky to get the former. Nothing, not even water, was included on this flight, and heaven help you if you didn’t bring your own entertainment. Anyway, by the time we got to T’s sister’s place, nothing could have been more welcome than family, and little luxuries like fresh salad.

Continent #4 is a change of pace for us. While we’re exploring some places that we’ve never been before, it’s mainly about visiting family and friends. Australia means not only developed-world prices, but fish and chips (you can get this in Asian countries, but we never did). The British influence here also means familiar bread, Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes, and Coronation Street. We lapped up everything.

Of course, you don’t have to be in Australia long to remember that Britain is very far away. One morning, we got up early to take a walk down by the Yarra River. We shared the first part with a number of Eastern Grey kangaroos.

There’s also the fact that it is summer here. Which means swimming, and desperately needing shorter hair. I’m not sure the Australian hairdresser did any better on mine than the barber in Hanoi, but at least it cost many times more!

Did I mention T’s sister and brother-in-law spoiled us? A pool, watching American football and even basketball on TV, a guest room that made me feel I was floating away on a feathery cloud. We may have been far away from family at the holidays, but they certainly made up for it in the New Year.

We were close enough to Melbourne to get in via public transit, but far enough out to feel like we were in a small town. The first day we stopped by a local information center, and the woman there offered us information on more walks than we could possibly do during our stay. She also advised us on how to buy the elusive transit card (like some other public transit systems nowadays, Melbourne’s no longer takes cash). As we walked down the road to where we thought we could buy one, here came this woman’s car, and she jumped out to tell us actually we could buy it on the bus, and then gave us a ride to the bus stop! As it happened, the buses we tried did not have any cards for sale. But that was okay because the bus drivers were happy to give us a ride anyway!

By the time a workman by the side of the road actually doffed his hat to us and said, “G’day to you fine ladies,” I thought I was on a TV show myself.

Since we were visiting during the Australian Open, it made sense to go into Melbourne itself and spend a day at the tennis.
Not the one you're thinking of
The day before, the weather was so hot I don’t know how players could be expected to stay on court. We, however, spent it in a neighborhood of west Melbourne where T. had found a better value-for-money hotel than could be found in the Central Business District. The Plough Hotel has been there for many years, and its surrounding neighborhood, Footscray, turned out to be a fascinating place to stay.
Wish I'd gone to Tina's.
Walking by the Footscray Market, we felt like we were back in Vietnam. Waves of immigrants from Italy, Southeast Asia, and Ethiopia have made this neighborhood home, and it’s reflected in the variety of restaurants. You can just tell that these are family places that have been there for decades—it’s not a place that dresses up for tourists.

 From Footscray it’s easy to get into the C.B.D., where we met up with a friend I knew in London. Being a Melbourne resident herself now, she showed us a succession of cool places, including one of those elusive rooftop bars. In Melbourne, you only have to go a couple stories up to have a view.
Because of the sad phenomenon of terrorists driving vehicles into people, many cities have implemented new security measures. Melbourne is no different--there are now big blocks along Federation Square to prevent this from happening. Artists have put their own interpretation on the blocks, only to find that the city has rented them--might not get its deposit back!
A common sentiment
The next day, when we went to the Australian Open, was fortunately much more moderate in temperature. We didn’t see any famous stars, except a “Legends” match between John and Patrick McEnroe and two Swedes, Tomas Johansson and Mats Wilander. 
John McEnroe serves
But we saw some women’s and mixed doubles matches, including an upset by some young Australians and a winning team that included a Canadian, Gabriela Dabrowski. It was fun to see the Aussies, Sanders and Polmans, win. Not only because the crowd was into it but because afterwards, they just came out carrying their rackets, and were happy to pose for pictures with some local kids. They were little older than kids themselves, clearly just happy to be playing tennis.

On Sunday morning we checked out of our hotel, diagonally opposite the Footscray Community Uniting Church. The service had just started as we came in. It wasn't a big congregation, but it was very diverse.

The minister is a woman with the wonderful name of the Reverend Lavingi Fine Tupou. She said in her sermon that she was originally from Tonga and that back home, she used to think the Methodists were the only church, so she wouldn’t open her door when Mormon missionaries or others came calling. But, she said, she had learned to open the door, because if she listened to what they had to say, she could then share what she believed. It seemed like a lesson we could apply in many situations.

Rev. Lavingi concluded her sermon with a tribute to a member of the congregation called John, who had just died. Her voice broke as she spoke of how John was always taking care of the church building, how the church would never be the same without him. By the time she finished, both of us were choked up too. “I didn’t even know John!” T. protested.

The Footscray church, with its telltale flame of the Methodists, has services in four different languages during the week. At the coffee hour (to which we were warmly invited by a woman who said “No one visits Footscray!”) we spoke to several people who had immigrated to Australia at different times. One was a woman who moved here from Sicily 56 years ago. Another was originally from Singapore and, though in her seventies now, had recently discovered through Facebook that she had family in Canada. So she’d just gotten back from a three-week trip to see them in Toronto, as well as Ottawa, MontrĂ©al, and a frozen Niagara Falls!

The woman who had invited us to stay also mentioned that down the street, the neighborhood was celebrating the lunar new year. So we had to stop by and check out the foods of various Asian countries, just for old time’s sake. There was also a sober reminder that some immigrants had been on the losing side of the war in Vietnam.

Given the summer weather, we were happy to have a day at the beach with family. Anglesea is some way along the Great Ocean Road, and as lovely as it sounds. We even got to borrow body boards. Though we didn’t get spectacular rides on them, at least we weren’t hammered into the sand, like the last time we tried body boarding.

Our last day in Melbourne was 26 January—Australia Day. Having listened to talk radio during the week, we couldn’t fail to notice that this holiday isn’t popular with everyone. The main sticking point seems to be the date, which was originally the day in 1788 that the first fleet of British ships arrived in New South Wales. Since the indigenous people of Australia were, at best, totally ignored from that time, many Australians today (Aboriginal and not) regard 26 January as “Invasion Day.”

Others, including some Aboriginal leaders, feel that although the date has that history, today Australia Day is about all Australians celebrating what is great about the country. This is not a controversy that can be neatly settled. So when our family invited us to their Australian citizenship ceremony on that day, I appreciated the fact that the local council didn’t try to gloss over the different points of view. There was more than one Aboriginal speaker, and they didn’t see eye to eye. There was a didgeridoo performance by Uncle Gnarrayarrahe while the official flags of Australia were raised—both of them.

The Australian and Aboriginal flags
 There was a veteran of Afghanistan who wheeled up and talked about “the spirit of Anzac,” originally named for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
War memorial. Australians fought in both World Wars as well as Malaya, Korea, and Vietnam.
And, most moving from our point of view, there was the part where immigrants to Australia became full citizens of their new country.

I’ve been to these ceremonies in a few countries now, and they make a deep impression. In these days when “immigration” seems to be spoken of only as a problem, it’s moving to remember how big a deal it is for someone, even a privileged First Worlder like me, to jump through all the hoops of moving to another country legally. To get that far, and to identify with the new land strongly enough to become a citizen, is a huge commitment. I could see that it meant a lot to our newly Australian relatives.

The only weird moment was when a couple of girls got up and sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Not that they didn’t do a good job, but “Imagine there’s no country…” struck us as a strange choice for a citizenship ceremony! At least we moved on to the national anthem, followed by a song called “I Am Australian.” We all had little Australian flags to wave while singing. The Wurundjeri Elder was waving one, too. 

Back at the house, we enjoyed a barbecue (naturally), along with a very fine Australian wine out of Waterford crystal glasses. Given the value of the glasses and my penchant for spilling red wine, I drank with much trepidation. We talked about identifying with the country we were born in, or were naturalized in, or where our parents or grandparents were born. Maybe all three.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Book review: The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam

"For it was not American arms and American bravery or even American determination that failed in Vietnam, it was American political estimates, both of this country and of the enemy."

First published in 1972, Halberstam's wonderful book unpacks the mistaken political estimates over many years that led the U.S. into the Vietnam quagmire. His approach is to follow the men of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, dubbed "the best and the brightest" of their generation, and try to figure out what combination of blind spots, outdated assumptions, arrogance, and stubbornness caused so many bad decisions to accumulate for so long. As we know, it is a tragic story, yet Halberstam tells it so well and with such a feel for the characters that it's an enjoyable, as well as angry, book.

From the perspective of today, a couple of things stand out. One is the total absence of women from any of the decision making in previous decades, and their almost total absence from the book. Occasionally a female writer or a wife appears, but the only American woman mentioned as having a political impact in her own right is Eleanor Roosevelt, unique among First Ladies. This is not a fault of the book, rather a striking fact about how the U.S. has changed in my generation. For that matter, the talent pool from which "the best and the brightest" were chosen was limited in other ways: by race and, for the most part, class background, as well as sex. So right away today's reader can sense that America then had one hand tied behind its back.

Halberstam chooses not to focus on the loss of life and increasing savagery of the war, but on the points at which the U.S. took the wrong course. Going back and forth in time, he effectively shows how one mistake built on another and American involvement took on a life of its own, becoming harder to de-escalate or stop. One of the main points is how much the Joseph McCarthy era, ostensibly over before John Kennedy came on the scene, still affected politicians and especially Democrats in the 1960s. The fear of being "soft on communism" was so strong that it caused a generation of men in power to continue to focus on communism and anti-communism as the sole polarity in the world. ("Softness" in general comes up so often as a fear driving men to make bad decisions that at one point, it feels like the entire story is one of an exclusive boys' club, each man determined to prove that he is more manly than the bureaucrat--or in Lyndon Johnson's case, the president--before him.)

Because of the legitimate concern about Soviet communism, the experts in the government feared that Vietnamese communism would soon spread to one country after another in Asia--the "domino effect." The problem was that they failed to perceive any nuances in communism, any reason why it might mean something different to Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese nationalists than it did to Khruschchev. Something as obvious as the Sino-Soviet split failed to impress upon these experts that communism was not one global monolith. In fact, running all through the period was the determination not to recognize the People's Republic of China because it was communist.

The "Who lost China?" debate was behind much of this irrationality. Having "lost" China to communism in 1949 meant that a country, like China, was ours, and that therefore we could lose it. This determination not to lose Vietnam was behind much of the disaster, but the China policy had other tragic consequences. The "loss" of China upset Washington so much at the time that the government was purged of its Asia experts, since they had warned of the strength of the communists (and were therefore soft on them). As a result, time after time when decisions were made that had crucial impact in Southeast Asia, no one who knew anything about Asia was actually present. So the Europe specialists, those with expertise in a part of the world thought more important than others, based their decisions on the threat of Soviet expansion in Europe. They failed to see that Vietnamese communists might be different, not least that China, Vietnam's invader and enemy for more than a thousand years, was not the threatening ally of North Vietnam that U.S. policy assumed it was.

Having recently traveled in Vietnam and seen the way the American war is portrayed from a Vietnamese communist perspective, I was eager to read Halberstam's account from the U.S. side. It turns out the perspectives are not that different. Franklin Roosevelt was the last president to perceive anti-colonialism as America's historic role; by the time the Truman administration was making decisions, anti-communism was more important. And so, first Truman and then Eisenhower made fateful decisions that favored France in Indochina. Rather than supporting Ho's anti-colonial war, or being neutral (France was after all our oldest ally), the U.S. reluctantly took over the funding of the First Indochina war, and came dangerously close to intervening militarily at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It stayed out because of the honest assessment of General Matthew Ridgway: that American bombing would not turn the tide of the war, that the cost in ground troops would be larger than in the Korean war, and that in fact comparisons with Korea were very unhelpful. The Southeast Asian terrain was very different from Korea's, and the Vietnamese insurgency was closer to a civil war than a "North invades South" scenario. The more the U.S. attacked, Ridgway warned, the more political gain Ho's side would have; the population would turn to it, unlike Korea where the South had been an asset.

Unfortunately, by 1965 the U.S. was not served by a General Ridgway. So it went into and escalated the Vietnam war in spite of everything he'd written in 1954 being right. Halberstam points out that the domino theory proved to be truer of Americans than of Asian countries: officials looked around to see which way things were going in Vietnam decision making, no one wanting to be different or to stand against the tide. 

As tragic as the Vietnam story is, there are further lessons from it on how America went wrong in transforming from underdog to superpower. The evolving view in the government that covert operations were okay for a democracy. The consistent lying by the executive branch, not only to the public but to the Congress and ultimately to itself. Most damaging of all, the pattern of behavior by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and their men that cut the American people out of the loop entirely, when it was their war and they who would die in it. A war was fought for more than a decade without ever being declared, without even being acknowledged honestly. It is no wonder that, in these circumstances, "the best and the brightest" of the military could not stomach it, and behavior by the military ceased to be on the higher plane that democracies were said to be.

Halberstam is devastating on this point. The U.S. did not go into Vietnam with the intention of ruling it imperially, like France, and so couldn't understand that the Vietnamese would see it that way. Democracies were different, and so we had to prop up what passed for democracy in South Vietnam. Only it wasn't democratic--just not communist. Over time, the men in the U.S. government had decided that we could do anything because the communists had done it first. So there was nothing restraining Americans from covert operations or even atrocities. The #1 justification for our being there--that democracies were better--failed.

I came away from this book with a deep sense that by the 1960s, it was already too late to ask the right question. That is, Why was it any of America's business what kind of government Vietnam had? Of course this was too radical a question for the time. South Vietnam was an ally and we had to prop it up. We couldn't "let" Vietnam go communist. Except South Vietnam didn't care as much as America did, and it wasn't up to America. You'd think we might have learned this lesson in Vietnam, but we did not. For years afterwards, the U.S. continued to interfere in other countries, backing a government or an insurgency in turn, as long as it was not communist. It could be as violent and totalitarian a movement as you like in other ways.

Finally, although Halberstam doesn't call it racism, there was an element of condescension in all the assumptions about the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. They couldn't possibly beat Americans, because they were a small, underdeveloped country; moreover they were small people, and Asian. Our overwhelming technological superiority was bound to win. Not in guerrilla warfare in a jungle, though. It was their land and they knew it. The war in Vietnam exposed the lie that the U.S. Defense Department was actually about defending our own land.

In 1965 National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy was discussing Vietnam plans with a member of his staff, whom, like other sources Halberstam was protecting in the early '70s, he does not name. Bundy's aide was impressed by the plans for the escalation and bombing, how detailed it all was. He did, however, express a less technical concern: "The thing that bothers me is that no matter what we do to them, they live there and we don't, and they know that someday we'll have to go away and thus they know they can outlast us."

"That's a good point," Bundy said. And then he, and the rest of "the best and the brightest," went right back to what they were doing, as if this critical point had never been made at all.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Same same, but different: Singapore

“Same same.” It’s an expression we heard everywhere in Southeast Asia. T. even got a T-shirt that says “Same same” on the front and “But different” on the back. I’m still not sure what people mean by this, but it suits Singapore. It was the first place I ever went in Asia and people said it’s not that Asian, and now I know what they meant. It’s an island, and yet part of the Malay peninsula. It used to be part of Malaysia but its culture is different. It’s in Southeast Asia, but coming back here, I felt as far from the rest of the region as I’d felt since Hong Kong.

It’s embarrassing how I luxuriated in this most modern city-state. An industrial-sized roll of tissue, so generous that we could blow our noses and not have to go down to the reception desk for a refill. Drinking the tap water. To be sure, the water’s perfectly safe to drink in Malaysia as well. To me, this stands out most about the more vs. less developed countries in the world: Most people on earth can’t count on drinking their water. For those who can afford it, that means bottled water, which in turn adds exponentially to the pollution problem. Now that I can refill bottles again, I hope never to buy more plastic waste.

Malaysia’s population is majority Malay; Singapore’s is majority Chinese. That is how people refer to themselves, though they are born Singaporeans. Clearly Chinese (or Indian) is an ethnic term; it doesn’t necessarily mean someone was born in China or India. And the #1 official language of Singapore is English. The man and family who have dominated Singapore for fifty years were determined to build it into a First World center, and they have. You can fly from Singapore airport to every corner of the globe. The airport itself is a glory, knocking every North American airport I can think of into a proverbial cocked hat.

To be sure, there are tradeoffs. Harsh penalties for things like spitting out gum mean you simply don’t see it. Death for drug traffickers. Caning—beating with a stick—for lesser offenses. I’m sure the strongman of the Philippines, not to mention his sidekick across the Atlantic, would love it. But from the traveler’s point of view, it’s a nice place to visit, and you don’t have any problems.

Unless you accidentally run afoul of the law. We arrived at the border on a luxurious bus from Kuala Lumpur, seats reclining almost completely, the nicest transportation we’d had. The immigration official insisted on the number of the bus, which we didn’t have; and just as I, the last passenger, was finally going to get through, her computer went down. Another official yelled at me to come into a different line, the opposite of where the first one was indicating. Given that this was Singapore, what might have happened had I followed the wrong one?

We left our fellow passengers at customs where one of them had been detained. Our guess is that he’d failed to declare two packs of cigarettes. I hadn’t seen any signs requiring all cigarettes to be declared, but then I wasn’t looking for them. Read up before you cross any border—they all have different laws!

Singapore means wide streets, traffic lights, rules that drivers obey. I crossed the street and could hardly believe that a car would wait before turning, not just shoot across in front of me because it could. I hadn’t seen that in all our time in Asia. 

I thought of all the things I’d gotten used to in Asia that now, with the exception of a shower that shot all over the bathroom, we would no longer experience: Squat toilets. The Asian hose version of a bidet. Dodging motorbikes to cross the road. Having to buy a separate token for every trip on public transit, if there was public transit at all. The only thing I’d gotten used to that I might miss was the tuk-tuks, a version of which plies the roads of every other Southeast Asian country. After that, a metered taxi just seems so boringly modern.

Merlion (half fish half lion)--symbol of Singapore
We had a sunny day so we spent it on Sentosa Island. The last time we were in Singapore, we had brunch up on Mt. Faber with views of the South China Sea, and T. said the cable car we could see operating went over to the island, where the Merlion is.

This time we went to the island. It’s basically a big theme park, but there are beaches, and we saw people ziplining over one of them. This gave T. an idea.

I was happy to take pictures, as ziplining has never been on my “bucket list” (if I had such a thing). I just don’t like plummeting sensations, whether roller coasters or severe turbulence. Fortunately, I can usually avoid these.

Then we walked up one of the nature trails to Imbiah Lookout. It wasn’t much, but at least it wasn’t closed, like the trails on Penang Hill.

There is a suspension bridge that joins Sentosa Island to a southern islet. Since Sentosa and Singapore Islands are in turn joined by causeways, this islet is claimed to be part of, indeed the southernmost point of, Southeast Asia.

A wet view from the cable car
On our way there the heavens opened. We managed to stay out of the worst of the rains, but thought we’d better get back before they stopped running the cable car. Not a moment too soon! I’m not sure the cars ever stopped running, but they should have. By the time we reached Faber Peak and the restaurant we’d eaten at four years ago, such a terrific thunderstorm was under way as I’d never seen before in my life. We could hardly see for the rain, and yet lightning didn’t deter these people from anything, even continuing their dinner. T. said it was more exciting than ziplining.

After the rain--sunset from Faber Peak
Another must-do we remembered from visiting Singapore was the Raffles Hotel. It’s closed for renovation, though, so our taxi driver—“a bit cheeky”—suggested we try something more authentic for lunch. The place he took us was in Chinatown and called, in English, simply “Eating House.” They served Hainanese chicken rice with wonton soup. That was it, and it was delicious.

In between the rain that plagued the rest of our time in Singapore, we walked around the Padang, the colonial-era square flanked by St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Victoria Concert Hall and Theatre.

Norman Foster’s new Supreme Court building looms like a flying saucer over the old Supreme Court and City Hall. Those two buildings have now been turned into the National Gallery of Singapore. It was the right kind of weather to spend some time in a museum.

National Gallery, with Marina Bay Sands in the background
 The government of Singapore exhorts its people constantly through posters, etc. It’s definitely a society with strong government guidance, but a casual observer can't discern whether this bothers Singaporeans or not. Similarly, it was hard to tell whether the average Vietnamese is bothered by lack of political freedom; getting more money is the name of the game in both places. I’m not saying that is right.
One of many subway signs telling Singaporeans to do the right thing
Singapore was our last stop before leaving for Australia, and because of our night flight, we had some time between checking out and spending the evening at the airport. So we spent the afternoon in that rarest of places, for us and for Southeast Asia: shopping malls. Orchard Road, once home to orchards, is full of them. We even bought things, because we could. And, having spent money, we were entitled to a free ride up to the 56th floor, where we finally got in that “rooftop bar” that had been evading us since we arrived in Bangkok. Dress codes, you know.
No one cares about shorts or sandals here.
Singapore was once known as a place for bargain shopping, but that isn’t the case now. It’s an affluent and expensive society compared with its neighbors. The one good deal, though, is the hawker centers—street food. Being Singapore, all the food vendors cluster in official and orderly places, but the food (and beer) are cheap, which is not true of anything else. I couldn’t get enough of char kway teow.


If you have to wait in an airport for some hours, Changi Airport is not a bad choice. It’s directly accessible by subway, and once you’re there, there’s nothing you can’t eat or drink or buy. It will cost you, of course, but you don't go through security till you actually get to the gate; so until then, you’d hardly know you were in an airport. I understand they even have a gym and swimming pool. We made it as far as the garden.

There were three monks hanging out in the garden taking selfies on their mobile phones. Then they pushed their luggage cart into a duty-free shop, where one of them whipped out his credit card. “What kind of monks are these?” T. wondered. Singaporean, of course.

And so, farewell to Continent #3. I know we only scratched the surface of a few countries, as in Africa; but I would happily go back. I enjoyed Asia more than I thought I would—it was a vast unknown quantity to me. Even Vietnam, which I probably wouldn’t visit again, is paying dividends in terms of understanding. Now that I’ve left and am reading more of the history of America’s involvement there, I appreciate more how different a place Southeast Asia is, and how devastating were the consequences of not having knowledge of that place. (It turns out that most of the decisions that led the U.S. into war in Vietnam, from the 1940s onward, were made without any Asia experts in the room.*)

See you in Australia. 



*David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) details the various reasons for this, and for many other fateful occurrences that, together, led the U.S.A. into calamity and folly.