Ban khoiʹ không?

March 29, 2012

We’re visiting the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities at the National University of Vietnam, where some two dozen students and their professors have welcomed us.  One of the professors spoke to us about the 4000 years of strife and war that have been Vietnam’s history:  “eventually, we had no language of our own,” she said.  The many conflicts and occupations left lasting influences from China, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States and, from 1954 to 1975, the north promoted Russian as the major language while the south favored English and French.  Reunification in 1975 meant the growing dominance of Russian and a waning of English and French, but the open door policy instituted in 1986 that led to experiments with a semi-free market economy saw a reemergence of English, which, she said, is now the “major foreign language” in Vietnam.  At this university, 94% of the undergraduates and 92% of the graduate students are studying English, which is seen as the medium of international communication, personal development, and social “gate keeping” in Vietnamese society today.

            We met in a classroom, where we sat on very hard, very straight-backed benches attached to long tables, all facing the front of the room where a screen projected the professor’s slides; except for the projector and screen and one whiteboard, the room was barren:  clean but spare, with peeling paint and dim lights.  This setting stood in great contrast to the Vietnamese students, whose energy and smiles lit up the room and our afternoon as well.  After this introduction, they became our teachers as they practiced English and we tried to learn a little:

            Tôi tên là Andrea.

            Tôi dẽn tù California.

            Ban khoiʹ không?

My tutor, Mai Nguyen, coached me on this last phrase, “how are you?”  I pronounced the first two words fairly to her satisfaction, but not the third:  “you need to puff out your cheeks when you say the ‘kh’” she said. So I puffed out and tried again.  “Better. Very good student.”

            Mai and I later ate lunch together along with the rest of our group at a Vietnamese buffet.  Some dishes I recognized—spring rolls, what looked like pad thai, several curries.  All delicious, but I couldn’t read any of the names, nor could I read the sign posted on each table.  Mai translated for me:  “Please eat all of the food on your plate.  If you do not, we charge 100,000 D for each 100 grams of food left behind.”  I cleaned my plate and watched as students scrambled to do the same and thought of what an impact such signs might have in the U.S. where we waste so very much food.  Might help with obesity as well! 

            As we walked around the neighborhood, Mai said that the lunch was “just fine” but that a better treat would have been to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is “very good” but “very expensive” and a place that Vietnamese students can’t afford to go very often.  (In fact, we have seen Kentucky Fried Chicken stores in every single port we have visited—often as the very first thing we see.  Who knew of this world-wide KFC prowess??)

Mai explained to me that she lived at home and took a bus to the university every day, where she takes fifteen courses a year and participates in two extracurricular activities:  the “English speaking club” and the “music club.”  Mai is a singer in the music group and has practice later this afternoon.  Then she will go to the library to study and then home for dinner.  She asks if I am on Facebook and we exchange email addresses before she has to head back to the university.  I give—and get—a hug, and then she is off.  Twelve hours later, we have left the port of Saigon and I check email:  Mai has friended me.  Now to write back and, I hope, establish an ongoing correspondence.  “Cám oʹn” I write:  Thank you!


Reflections on Cu Chi, Vietnam

March 27, 2012

~~  Reflections on Cu Chi ~~

You hack everything down in battle. . .

God of War, with your fierce wings

you slice away the land and charge

disguised as a raging storm

growl as a roaring hurricane,

yell like a tempest yells,

thunder, rage, roar, and drum,

expel evil winds!

Your feet are filled with anxiety!

On your lyre of moans

I hear your loud dirge screams

                                                                  Like a fiery monster you fill the land with poison.

As thunder you growl over the earth,

trees and bushes collapse before you.

You are blood rushing down a mountain,

Spirit of hate, greed and anger,

dominator of heaven and earth!

Your fire wafts over our land,

riding on a beast,

with indomitable commands,

you decide all fate.

You triumph over all our rites.

Who can explain why you go on so?

–“The Exaltation of Inanna,” trans. Daniela Gioseffi


These words of Enheduanna, Sumerian high priestess who lived in the 24th century BCE, fill my mind as I look down at the door hidden beneath a layer of dry leaves.  I am in Cu Chi, Vietnam, where many kilometers of tunnels form a vast subterranean honeycomb.  I had heard about these tunnels, seen them represented in films about the Vietnam War, or the American War, as it is called here, but I had never truly seen them.  Now I do see them.  Along with others in my group, I take a try at lowering myself into the small rectangle:  surely I won’t fit.  But I do, and so I raise my arms over my head, holding the door with its leafy cover, and slowly pull it down after me, to cover the hole.  Darkness drops.  I can scarcely breathe.  I almost cry out.  Instead, I raise the small door and gasp while friends help me pull myself out.  And we go on, on to the entrance of a much longer tunnel, this one with the opening now exposed.  We file in, crouching, and begin the 100 meter crawl/walk.  Again, it is dark, dank, utterly stifling; the walls close in and the earth rises up.  I feel suddenly sick and breathless; I make it only about 20 meters to the first possible exit.

            These are the tunnels the Vietcong used so successfully to make surprise attacks, first on the French and then on Americans:  they would strike and then simply fade away, seemingly disappearing.  While I couldn’t stand it more than a minute or two, Vietnamese lived in these tunnels for months on end, caring for children and the wounded, trying to stay alive as the war raged above them. 

            Back above ground, we move along, seeing demonstrations of a number of traps laid for opposing forces.  Several involved large trap doors, set so that weight put on either end would open long enough for the person to fall, sometimes face forward, into tall spikes placed close together.  My knees buckle and I sit down where I stand, force myself to look again, and hear Enheduanna:

You are blood rushing down a mountain,

Spirit of hate, greed and anger,

dominator of heaven and earth!

            The rest of the visit passes in a blur as memories unreel in my mind:  burning draft cards; MLK leading protesters in New York; My Lai; the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1965; the assassinations:  JFK, MLK, RJK, Malcolm; Kent State, May 4, 1970; Jackson State, May 14, 1970; the fall of Saigon, 1975.  And so much more.

            Yet here we are:  600 students and assorted faculty and staff from 48 states and 18 countries visiting Vietnam, being welcomed with courtesy, though everywhere I sense a complex reserve:  so many paths crossing here—those who supported the Vietcong; those who supported the South; those who speak of the unification of the country with love—or loathing.  I have five and a half days.

            Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, bustling, teeming with motorscooters and street vendors—and with luxury hotels and stores—Cartier, Dior, Vuitton.  Full of the contradictions and complexities that are Vietnam today.  Later, I sit and talk with students who have been on field trips here:  Vietnam didn't evoke memories for them, only the phrase “the Vietnam War” that they have heard but know little about.  So we talk on into the night, and I listen to their experiences and their questions.  Most want to know more, are determined now to learn about this seemingly ancient conflict and about the relationship between their country and the one they are now visiting.  “What little we learned in school was pitiful,” said one young woman.  “I don’t know anything and I feel really bad about that.”  I feel inadequate to the task tonight, drained and still shaken. So  I read Enheduanna’s words and we talk some more. 

            Finally, I ask if anyone has read GB Tran’s Vietnamerica, a graphic memoir about his family’s flight from Saigon, settlement in the U.S., and his own very slow dawning recognition of what his parents had gone through.  Read this book, I say, and you’ll get at least one contemporary account of the scars left by this war that now seems so long ago.  For many in Vietnam, and for many, many Vietnamese Americans, it’s not all that long ago at all.  



Speak Singlish, Please!

March 22, 2012


Semester at Sea is in Singapore, and what an amazing sight:  sailing into the harbor with the cityscape coming into focus was magical indeed.  Two very thin, graceful, curving condominium towers looked like contemporary versions of the leaning Tower of Pisa; another building looked like a gigantic stainless steel and glass Indian burial mound, surrounded by 30-foot metal sculptures that looked to me like a cross between mushrooms and open umbrellas; still another (a huge hotel) had what looked like an ocean cruiser sculpture on top of it.  How I wished for more than one day in this remarkable city, just to get an architectural tour!


            Instead, I and my students visited the National Institute of Education, part of Nanyang Technological University, on the western side of the city.  Its huge campus lies alongside a lush, wild tropical forest, but the university’s grounds are manicured within an inch of their life and dotted with gardens of all kinds, including a lovely botanical garden oasis.  Though my students had complained a bit about having to go to a university on our one day in Singapore, they soon decided their complaints wer unjustified, big time. 


            We were welcomed to the University by Professor Warren Liew, a member of the Department of English who did his Ph.D. at Stanford and is a specialist on language.  He sent us two essays to read in advance of our visit, one a brief and very clearly written history of language in Singapore and the other an imaginary dialogue among people arguing on every possible side of contemporary language issues. So we had learned of the growth and development of Singlish, a vernacular language used widely throughout the island.  Singlish, we learned, follows the basic structure of Chinese in terms of syntax and also borrows vocabulary from Malay and Tamil as well as English and Mandarin.  Since Singapore has these four languages as “official,” it’s not surprising that such a mixture has developed.  But when Singlish started turning up on radio, television, and You Tube, the government had second thoughts.  Banning the use of Singlish in the public media, the government inaugurated a “Speak Proper English” campaign, which intends to eliminate Singlish in favor of Singapore Standard English. 


            Enter the language resistance of Singapore, those who feel strongly that Singlish is a major force in national identity and who, furthermore, love its direct, straightforward, no nonsense way of communicating.  So many continue to use Singlish on Facebook and You Tube and elsewhere, and a counter campaign to “Save our Singlish” is ongoing:  check out the satirical site


            The highlight of our visit, though, was a reading done by three grad students of a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream–in Singlish.  To my dismay, I had to go meet with the English Department during this part of our visit, so I only got to hear reports of this event, which fascinated and delighted my students.  They even learned to say a few things in Singlish and came back to the ship practicing them. 


            We decided that our half a day spent learning about Singlish was more than worth it:  we saw language being developed right in front of us, and we learned that systems of linguistic discrimination exist far beyond the boundaries of the U.S.  We also saw the ways in which contemporary technology can allow for resistance to governmental control to grow and for ordinary citizens to use their creativity in responding to such attempts at control with grace and humor and wit.  These are some very important lessons to learn.  As one of my students later said, “I’ve always been a real stickler for “proper” grammar.  Hearing Singaporeans talk in and about Singlish has made me see it more like a language of its own, almost like an art form that has developed over decades.”   Another remarked on the rich multicultural mix that Singlish represents and said that “I can’t help but feel that the government is trying to crush a new and viable language.”   Back on board, we had time for additional reflection, as students related what they’d learned about the struggle over Singlish to the Ebonics controversy in the United States and the efforts to establish Hawaiian pidgin in Hawaii.  These were moments for reflecting on our own linguistic biases and prejudices and for learning that languages are not better or worse:  they just ARE.  And they are powerful and beautiful, just like Singlish.




Food for Thought

March 17, 2012

Yesterday I went on a field trip called "Kerala Cuisine," to the home of a  well-known cookbook author here in Kerela—Nalina Verma (check out  She and her two assistants (one a young man, the other a middle aged woman) cooked a huge meal for 15 of us in her own home, using just a three-burner gas stove set up in front of us.    Her two daughters, in their twenties, were visiting (one with her daughter of about 18 months), and her mother was there too and her grandmother.  Five generations of Indian women.  They made a dish called Fish Mappas, a curry made with hot chili, black pepper, ginger, garlic, green chilis, mustard seed, fenugreek, curry leaves, dry red chilies, and two kinds of coconut milk.  Got that?!  She whipped it all up in a few minutes, but she did have the advantage of having the spices already ground up together or set aside in small dishes.  As she cooked, she said “and of course you have to add salt.  I know you Americans don’t think it’s a good idea, but these Indian dishes, they don’t taste nice without salt:  it brings out the flavor of the other spices.” 

             She also made a cabbage dish with grated fresh coconut that was to die for, a version of raita that had finely chopped onion, cucumber, and tomato in it along with about a billion spices, papadoms, a lentil dish, and some kind of rice pudding that was served in leaves shaped into cups. Each dish is heaped onto a big, flat banana leaf, and when we were finished we just folded it over and they put it in the compost! 

            Because we were a fairly small group, we got to talk with Nalini and her daughters for quite a while.  They spoke frankly of the many changes that have come to India, of the growing number of opportunities for women, and of their own “love marriages.”  Even the great grandmother had married “for love” rather than agreeing to an arranged marriage, a practice still very much a part of Indian culture.  (In fact, an Indian faculty member on our ship, now an officer at the World Bank, and his wife have an arranged marriage and a particularly happy one, they say!).   All of them were also educated, even the great grandmother—and the two daughters have finished college and are now living with their husbands in Mumbai (one had earlier lived in New York).  One was working for a computer company; the other is, she said, “a housewife.”  When pressed, they did say that perhaps their family is unusual in its level of education and in its attitudes toward marriage and family.  But, they said, “times are changing:  just look at us in our jeans and tee-shirts.”  Indeed, while the older women were traditionally dressed, the younger ones were all in western style.  The daughters even confessed to cooking some western dishes—and not to cooking as much as their mother has done.  They said this a bit ruefully though, reminiscing about their birthdays and the meals their mother would prepare for them:  “our friends always especially looked for our birthdays, when our Mom would cook for everyone.”  I can vouch for their friends:  that woman knows what she is doing in the kitchen! 

            If this makes you hungry, here’s Nalini’s recipe for Cabbage Thoran (a “thoran,” she told us, is a “dry dishes made with vegetables like beans, carrots, beets, okra, all cut very finely.” 

Finely chopped cabbage                                 6 cups

Grated coconut                                               ¾ cup

Green chilies                                                  3 diced

Cumin seed                                                     ½ tsp.

Mustard seed                                                  ½ tsp.

Irad dal (white lentils)                                                1 tsp.

Chana dal (yellow lentils)                              1 tsp.

Whole red chilies, diced                                1

Curry leaves                                                   1 T

Salt to taste

Coconut oil

Crush together coconut, cumin, green chilies, curry leaves.  Heat 1 T oil and add mustard seed, urad dal, chana dal, red chilies and sauté until soft.  Add crushed coconut and mix well.  Heat 10 minutes till mixture is dry.  Take off flame.  In another pan, heat more coconut oil.  Mix in chopped cabbage and sauté until just soft.  Mix the spice mixture into the cabbage.  It is ready to serve.

Bon appetite!


My five and a half days in the southwestern Kerala state of India have flown by in a flash:  one moment we were pulling into Cochin Harbor (now Kochi Habor, since the cities have changed names:  Madras to Chennai, Bombay to Mumbai, etc.) and the next minute we were boarding to leave. 

The harbor itself is quiet compared to Ghana and even Cape Town:  we were joined by one other cruise ship, an Indian-based one also traveling around the world, and several cargo freighters-and that was it.  But unlike other ports where we had to pass through a security zone and walk some ways (or be taken by shuttle) outside the port, here at the smaller, less busy port we just went down the 50-step gangway and walked right out.  A right turn took us to the water taxi site, where for 2 rupees (50 rupees to $1.00, so essentially free) we could get a ride to Old Cochin.  There I visited what they call “Jew Town,” a vibrant sector with the oldest synagogue in India in it.  It’s a small, pale blue building, with one large room filled with blown glass lamps of various shapes and colors and a pulpit-like box in the middle where the Sabbath readings take place.  I sat for quite a while on a bench just soaking up the atmosphere: it felt peaceful and serene in the soft blue light, and cool somehow, perhaps from very thick walls.  I learned that there are only 9 people left in the congregation (and no rabbi:  the oldest member of the group does the readings)—that once Israel was established most of the Jews left Kerala.  I expect that in another decade these nine will be gone as well; but I hope the beautiful synagogue will remain.  A museum maybe?

Nearby I also visited what’s called the Dutch Castle: though built by the Portuguese, once the Dutch took over they appropriated it to themselves.  It was not a “castle” by European standards, but a grand building nonetheless, whose main interest to me was its murals.  They covered all the walls we were allowed to visit and the mix of iconography from different cultures was fascinating.  I especially was looking for depictions of women and came on one spectacular mural showing women giving birth:  semi-clothed, they were squatting as if doing deep knee bends (or a Russian Cossack dance!) and babies were either being pulled out of them or they were holding tiny tiny infants in their hands.  One had given birth to twins!!   I and a few others rounded off this touring day by going to the Hill Palace Museum:  115 steps leading straight up in the broiling sun – and then we found out we had on 45 minutes before closing time.  It took me that long to cool down enough to look around!

As often as I could, I got out on the water, where the breeze mitigated the heat and humidity.  The “Alleppy Backwaters” are rivers and canals that surround this area of 18 islands and the mainland.  We cruised along, stopping at small villages and taking short walks before getting back on the launch. As we moved along, we saw many women beating clothes on rocks in the river—all the while others (men) were taking baths, kids peeing, etc., etc.  The river situation in India is dire:  those who went to the Ganges said it was beyond belief, with all the burials, washing, bathing, etc. all taking place among teeming mobs. In addition to the backwaters day, I took a harbor tour with about 10 other semester-at-sea folk.  From the water we could see the three parts of the city (old or Fort Cochin, New Town, and the large are in beween0 quite distinctly:  the medieval architecture of old Cochin giving way to the concrete and glass buildings and industries of New Town.  Along the way, we passed many thriving fish farms and saw people fishing in all manner of vessels, including something that looked like a six-feet in diameter saucer made of bamboo with two people inside, one paddling and one fishing.  Most spectacular are the Chinese fishing nets, brought here eight hundred years ago by the Mongols and still in use today.  Many homes, in fact, had one of these nets at the end of their docks:  apparently they lower the nets up to 200 times a day and catch as catch can.  Must work if they’ve been doing it for 800 years!  On this afternoon, we came back as the sun was beginning to set and seeing these large, graceful nets gleaming in the late day sun was a special gift.  I didn’t make the trip to the north to see the Ganges and the Taj Mahal, though I was sorely tempted.  But with only five and a half days, I decided to stay here and see everything I could.

That “everything” turned out to include an entire day spent at Chendamangalam Village, about 25 kilometers from here.  When we arrived, women escorted us to a courtyard enclosure where they had set up chairs for us to sit in while they danced (women) and played drums (men).  I took a video of the drumming group because their leader, the tiniest old man imaginable, was absolutely POSSESSED – he beat the drums as if there were no tomorrow. Beyond description, at least by me!  After learning about the village – and about the fact that women have taken over the cleaning and maintenance of the village (“Gandhi taught us that all work is good work and these women perform labor for the good of the whole community”), they prepared a meal for us of fish curry and other dishes served on banana leaves.  Following that came a (to me) very long walkabout of two miles or so in the scorching heat and 100% humidity.  We saw many homes and learned about every kind of tree (nutmeg and pepper, for example as well as banana and coffee) while winding our way past cows and goats.  Five or six little boys accompanied us and the women of the village.

That’s when I met Akhil, my companion for the rest of the day.  Twelve years old with earnest brown eyes and tousled black hair, he introduced himself very formally and shook my hand.  As we walked, he showed me all his favorite spots, including his own home where I met his mother, Gracie, and his own special climbing tree, which he shinnied up in expert fashion.  Learning to climb a coconut tree is apparently much harder and takes some equipment:  Akhil said he had “many years” to go to master that skill.  Fluent in English as well as Hindi and Malayalam (the regional language and, they said the longest palindrome!), he knew where California and San Francisco were and said he wanted to visit.  He also spoke of President Obama with deep approval.  (In fact, the name “Obama” – usually uttered with a two thumbs up gesture – greets us everywhere we go.  In the tiniest villages, that name comes up them moment they sense that Americans are present.  So I have living proof that Obama has made a difference in our world standing, no matter what the maniac Republicans say.)

When I asked about school, Akhil explained that they are on summer vacation right now and went on to say that he liked school though he wished they “had more books and things to learn from.”  We did not get to see the school, though the party line here is that in Kerala there is a lower elementary school within one kilometer of every child—and an upper elementary school within two kilometers.  When we spoke to people we met, like guides or the women of this village, they invariably praised the Indian public schools.  But we heard a different story from taxi drivers and from the local press, which condemned these schools and said that the standards for teachers are very low and the textbooks full of inaccurate and even false information. 

For his part, Akhil wants to go all the way through upper high school and to college.  But he is now, as he said, “the oldest in my family, with responsibility.”  When I raised an eyebrow he said, “Yes, my brother passed.  He was sixteen.”  Later he told me both that his brother had been bitten by a tick and that he had cancer, so I couldn’t figure out just what happened, but the loss, which occurred just a little over a year ago, was clearly weighing on Akhil, who asked me to take a photo of him and his mother and to send him a copy. 

Akhil and four other boys were given permission to ride on the bus with us as we went to see the “factory” where village women wove cotton to help support the community.  This effort was spoken of with pride, so I was unprepared for what we encountered:  a long rectangular building where women worked in rows at huge looms, moving the shuttles back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  If they worked without a break for eight hours, they could finish two long lengths of cloth, which meant they could earn 200 rupees ($4.00).  This sweatshop had no lights, which might have been just as well given the heat, and not a single fan.  I began to think again (and again) about what we had been told of Kerala—that it has a history of matriarchy and of women having some power.  Yet here are the women of this village taking on all the menial tasks of cleaning and working in this sweatshop.  Throughout the day, I kept asking where the little girls were.  I never did get a direct answer:  Akhil said his sister was “taking a lesson.”  Others said they were at home or learning to sew or something else domestic like that.  No one said they were not allowed to be outside playing like the boys, but by day’s end I had only seen two girls, both still in the arms of their mothers.  So much for woman power.

Akhil rode next to me on the bus and stayed by my side as we toured the building and then went to the “shop” (read small open-front stand) where they were selling the cloth woven by the women.  He showed me how to drape a sari and how to put on the loin cloth that many men wear.  On the way back to the bus, he held my hand and helped me up the steps, again sitting close to me.  As we rode along, he wrote out his address:  Akhil.  Thomas T-G [his father]. Thiparambill [his house]. Kerala. Ernakolum. Paravoor.  Vadakumpuroam. India.  68 2521.  I wanted to add . . . The World.

On our last day, another group went to the village, and I sent with them a package for Akhil:  some school supplies, including a leather-covered notebook and pens and pencils and pencil sharpener, three bars of scented soap for his mother, a packet of M&M’s and silly bands to share with his friends, and all the rupees I had left over.   Plus the picture of him and his mother and another of me with him and his three friends.  I hope to hear that they were delivered safe and sound.  And I hope to hear from Akhil again.  I will never forget his parting hug or his smiling face as he leapt up and down outside the bus waving and blowing kisses. 

How I treasure that sight and this young boy of India.

Four Hours in Mauritius

March 10, 2012

            Our passage from South Africa to Mauritius featured huge swells and high winds as we slowed down to let a cyclone get safely ahead of us and then crept along at a very slow pace to try to keep the ship as steady as possible (and doing so wasn’t all that possible!).  Three days out, the Captain announced that we would dock in Mauritius as planned, but only for refueling:  instead of the 12 hours we had been planning to be ashore, we would all remain on board while the crew gassed up.  I was disappointed only by the fact that we were scheduled to arrive at 10 p.m. and depart at 4 a.m., meaning I wouldn’t get to see the first thing about this island, reputed to be one of the most gorgeous one earth.  The students, on the other hand, were devastated and carried on loud and long about being deprived of this “once in a lifetime” visit.  Later, I found out more about where some of this disappointment was coming from.

            But the night we were to arrive in Mauritius, the Captain came on again to say that we had made a little better speed and that we would dock at Mauritius at 5 a.m., the passport folks would come on board and clear us, and we could then go ashore for a few hours.  As a matter of fact, we cleared the official hurdle very swiftly and the gangway went down at 7:30 a.m.  I had been standing out on deck for about half an hour, taking in the stunning setting:  this small island, volcanic in origin, rises up out of the ocean pretty abruptly, so that the seashore is lined with hotels, businesses, and houses and just behind this strip of buildings the green, green mountains jut up into the sky.  They are so majestic, so still, so striking that they almost look like a movie set – a backdrop for an old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie of some kind.  The sky was crystalline blue, with just a few wisps of white clouds, and the air was soft and warm in the early morning.  White sandy beaches stretch in all directions along the shore, though my eyes kept rising to the mountain tops and I wondered what lay on the other side.  How I wished we were staying at least overnight so I could explore!

Students, up early for once, swarmed off the ship in excited clumps, many in bathing suits and flip flops.  I and a few friends were more leisurely, leaving a little after 8 to take a water taxi to the shore.  Parting company, I walked about the downtown, checking out the post office (cards for Audrey and Lila!), going in a beautiful cathedral, strolling through a garden in full bloom, chatting with a couple of shopkeepers, and wandering through a huge, colorful, bustling open-air market.  I could have stayed there all morning admiring the heaps of fresh tomatoes and other vegetables (including some I didn’t recognize) as well as fruit:  one vendor was peeling pineapples and then putting them on a stick—not a popsicle but a pineapplsicle.  By 10:00, I was really feeling the heat (probably 97 or so, with 100 % humidity):  I who hardly sweat at all felt dripping with it; even in the shade, I could hardly breathe.  Determined not to be a complete wimp, I sought out a shady spot near the waterfront AND a dish of vanilla ice cream along with a bottle of ice water.  From there, I watched the people—most mixed-race and beautiful, speaking French, English, and the local Creole—and thought of the history of this place, which was apparently known to the Arab world as early as the 900s but was not “discovered” until the Portuguese landed in 1505 (I just had never realized how enterprising, aggressive, and relentless the Portuguese navigators were!) The Dutch were followed by the French for most of the 18th century, but they gave way to the Brits around 1815.  Not until 1968 did Mauritius become an independent Republic.  Centuries of colonial rule were everywhere apparent, though Mauritius seems to have fared better than many African countries: we learned that the average annual income on the island is $14,000, much higher than neighboring countries.

My musings came to an end when I realized that I should try to beat the mad scramble back to the ship for “on board” time.  The Captain is dead serious about this deadline:  even if we are in line to board at the “on board” time, we will still be counted as late and will have to pay “dock time,” that is, be grounded on the ship for so many hours at the next port.  No one wants to do dock time!  So I threaded my way back through the people and climbed down to the dock just in time to catch a water taxi back.  We were lucky and zipped right across, arriving at the ship with no waiting line at all; I was back on board and in my cabin by 11:10, well ahead of the on board noon deadline.

Thus I missed most of the action.  Some of those students I had seen rushing off the ship earlier that morning apparentlhy rushed right into liquor stores, buying quarts of rum, vodka, and whiskey along with some coca-colas – and headed straight for one of the beaches.  The goal seemed to be to get drunk as fast as possible and then to “have fun.”  I later learned that this “tradition” of Semester at Sea students partying way too hard in Mauritius had in fact led to the decision not to stay overnight on the island:  apparently earlier voyages have gained a pretty bad reputation with the locals.  I also learned that the student life people on board had gone to pretty great lengths to ask students to behave responsibly and maturely while onshore.  No such luck. 

The good news—a miracle of sorts, really—is that all the students made it back on the ship, though three or four of them had to be carried or dragged on board by friends.  The bad news is that they trashed beaches, threw up in taxi cabs, and generally made complete fools and spectacles of themselves—and tarred the rest of the voyagers with their bad behavior.  Some 25 or 30 had to be put in a kind of “drunk tank” for observation.  A friend who went down to the clinic to get a burn on her arm checked said it was not a pretty sight.    

As news spread through the ship, reactions were strong and feelings ran high, so much so that the following night we gathered in the largest room on board for “reflections” on Mauritius.  Students spoke out against the behavior of their peers and testified to feeling “collective shame.”  A young teenager (accompanying her parents on the voyage) got up to say she had been knocked to the ground by a drunken student lurching about:  “is that the kind of role model you want to be for us?” she asked.  Others reported being thrown up on or being stuck holding up someone too drunk to stand.  Eventually, one young man rose to say he had been among the offenders and to offer his apology, with feeling.  Another young woman followed suit.   Faculty member Margaret Bass spoke of “restorative justice” and the need for individual reparations. 

We’ll see what the outcome of this experience will be.  For now, I am still puzzling over the attraction, even for a minority, of pulling into one of the most beautiful harbors imaginable, knowing you have only four hours to explore and learn about this very special place, and instead heading for the nearest liquor store in order to get drunk.  A colleague, Armin,  spoke last night about the need to “quench our thirst” for knowledge and learning rather than alcohol.  We'll see if the students were listening.  My guess is that at least most of those who got wasted in Mauritius wish they'd heeded this advice.

International Women's Day March 8, 2012

         I am usually aware of International Women’s Day, which is recognized at Stanford every year with several special events (a new exhibit in the library this year, for example, or a luncheon and speaker event at the Women’s Center) but since I am in the middle of the Indian Ocean and without a clear sense of what day of the week it is, much less what date, I almost missed it this year.  To the rescue came several Chinese students on board, who organized a panel discussion for March 8 at 8 p.m.  One young woman welcomed us and introduced herself and her colleagues, asking us how many of us knew the history of this particular day’s celebration.  Shaking heads all around.  We learned, then, that International Women’s Day has been celebrated in some parts of the world since the early part of the twentieth century, and that it is most often associated with workers’ revolutions.  When we heard a list of countries that official honor this day, we were surprised:  not a single western country made the list, while some of the world’s most repressive regimes were on it.  One student rose to say that in her country, International Women’s Day is solemnly marked: “it’s like a cross between Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day,” she said.  All businesses shut down—except for florists, who make the bulk of their annual budgets on this one day.  The next day, she said, all is back to normal and women are oppressed, earning only 60 percent of men’s salaries. 

            We listened as panelists spoke about their personal experiences with feminism.  Linda Robb, wife of former Senator Chuck Robb and daughter of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, spoke of her days supporting her law school husband while agitating for women’s rights and particularly the Equal Rights Amendments.  She shared one indelible memory:  moving to Washington,D.C. when her husband was a law student and she was bread winner.  As such she went to a grocery store where she wanted to pay for her groceries with a check.  Nothing doing.  After some wrangling, the storekeeper asked her “What does your husband do?”  She tried explaining that he was in law school and she was supporting the family.  Incomprehension.  By this time, she said, she was “pretty irritated,” so she demanded to see the manager.   This personage appeared and, still not satisfied with the answer about her husband being a student said, “Well, do you have any male relative that can vouch for you.”  “Yes,” she replied evenly.  The President of the United States.”  Shaking her head at the memory, she said “And you know, they were not the least bit impressed.  I never did get to cash that check.”

            Margaret Bass spoke of being Black woman and experiencing, during those years,  very strong sense that she was “not being attacked” for her gender, but for her race.  She had nothing in common at the time with feminists, who were for the most part white and elite and had little interest in making common cause with African American women (or other women of color.)  Not until later, when she entered the academy and saw the gender discrimination up close and personal, did she find a way to embrace feminism and “own it.”  Today, she said, being a feminist felt like a "pretty good thing to be."

            The young people in the room (a good mix of women and men) listened intently, as if hearing about the “old days” for perhaps the first time.  When discussion opened, students asked questions and expressed both encouragement that things have changed and frustration that they haven’t changed enough.  As the session drew to an end, the young Chinese student who had opened the session stood again.  At the podium, she thanked everyone for being there and spoke of how important this particular day is to her.  Then, choking back tears, she said that when she first decided to study English seriously, she had been ridiculed by older men, one of whom completely dismissed her, saying “You will never be fluent in English.”  Then when she proved him wrong and came to the United States to work at a firm on Wall Street, she quickly learned about the double standard there:  “I have to be twice as good,” she said.  “I have to wear very special clothes and do everything more than correctly.  Women still aren’t treated with respect; women still don’t earn as much as men.  One day I wish we would not even have to celebrate International Women’s Day.”

            Until then, however, we do.  And we are.  Happy Women’s Day everyone!

My Global Studies Essay — March 10, 2012

          On this Semester at Sea voyage around the world, the students are required to take only one course:  Global Studies.  Taught by Alex Nalbach, who has written a dynamite book called Discover the World, the course takes the students on a post-1492 intellectual journey, tracing the exchange of goods and how that exchange relates to the development of numerous economic and political systems.  The lectures (there are 600 students and some 40 faculty sitting in on the classes) revolve around major questions that relate to our ports of call:  Why is Dominica so pristine?  Why is the Brazilian rainforest disappearing?  Why is West Africa so poor?  What factors shape race relations in South Africa?  Why is India so crowded?  How should we characterize East Asian modernity, and so on.  Alex has to lecture in the largest space on the ship, with columns and poles and a huge lectern getting in the way of the screens on which he projects fabulous visual reinforcements for the points he is making (complete with sound effects!), and with the ship rolling and often pitching under him.  He makes the best of a bad situation, however, with wonderfully paced and interactive lectures that keep us all on our mental toes.

            To his great credit, Alex is not content with multiple choice exams in this class, so every student will write one global studies essay, which will go through peer review and revision.  Here’s the prompt:

     First, choose one of the major themes from our course as the subject of your analysis.  These fall into six big categories:  A:  Development; B: The State; C: Social Relations: D: Religion; E: Connections; F: The Past.  [he gives descriptions of each of these which I am leaving out – and he also discussed them at length in class.] 

     Second, thoughtfully select two critical incidents as points of comparison or connection that relate to your theme.  A “critical incident” is something you personallhy experienced or observed first hand that illuminates how a location, culture, or political, social, or economic system operates.  Please don’t try to compare applies to applies:  don’t compare snails in one place with sky diving in another!  Please also remember you are writing an academic essay for university-level credit.  Finally, please remember that you are writing a contribution to a collection of hundreds of essays for our voyage; try to choose experiences that are significant.

     Third, narrate your own experience of one critical incident in one port.  Be a good anthropologist and aim for vivid, thick description.  Allow your readers to experience what you experienced: to see, hear touch, and taste what you did, as well as to feel (psychologically, intellectually, or viscerally) what you felt.

     Fourth, narrate a comparable critical incident in a different port.  Again, aim for direct and vivid description. 

     Then, drawing on what we have learned in class, analyze or explain what you have experienced, using something you have learned to illuminate these experiences.  How might key terms or certain historical background account for the connections between your two incidents?  Or did what you experienced confirm, challenge, or complicate the expectations or preconceptions you had based on what we learned in class?

These brief (3-page) essays are due about two weeks before the end of our voyage, and Alex and I and a couple of other colleagues will do all the grading, and we will organize the peer discussions and peer response sessions.  Should be fun!

            About a week ago, Alex introduced this assignment in class—and asked four faculty members if we would write our own Global Studies Essay to provide as examples for students.  Always a good idea to do what you are asking students to do, so I was very pleased to participate.  I chose the theme of Social Relations, and I sweated a little over which incidents to focus on since so much related to this theme has happened since we pulled out of the harbor in Fort Lauderdale on January 17.  Using my course notes and the journal I’ve been keeping–as you'll see–I came up with this, my very own Global Studies Essay:

Reflections on the Ubuntu Principle

     After a pretty tough Atlantic crossing, we made it to Ghana, to Tema Harbor, and to the shuttle buses that took us slowly, very slowly the sixteen miles from there to Accra.  For long minutes, the bus would scarcely move, then lurch forward a measly car length or two. As we at last came into Accra, I was amazed at the ability of our driver to turn very small corners in this very big bus.  On one such occasion, he swung wide and to the right but still entered the street on the “wrong” side of the road—and we came bumper to bumper with a car, two men inside.  Seeing what was happening, the car behind the one nose to nose with us immediately backed up, leaving a long space for the car in front of us to follow suit.  Our driver looked at the men and, gently, motioned “back up.”  Nothing doing. They sat, stolid, not making eye contact.  After some time, a fellow from a hotel came out, knocked on the car window, and calmly and courteously, motioned the driver of the car to move back.  Negative headshakes. No dice.  Not even a budge backward.  Used to the agonistic behavior of Americans and to stories of road rage, I half expected one of the men to pull out a gun and start blasting away or at the very least for the people in vehicles behind us to riot.  Neither happened.  Instead, six or seven people stepped off the sidewalk and approached the car.  No one raised a voice. No one pulled a weapon.  They all leaned in and spoke quietly, earnestly to the driver of the car.  And he backed up.

            Flash forward to Cape Town, and to the Amy Biehl Foundation.  Amy Biehl, the white 1989 Stanford graduate who, several years later, went to South Africa on a Fulbright to work against Apartheid, especially in the townships where she registered voters.   Then on the evening of August 25, 1993, she was taking two friends home to the township of Guguletu, where a peaceful demonstration had been in process.  But the police showed up and started shooting; the peaceful protest turned violent.   

          When Amy and her two friends drove in, a mob formed around them.  In spite of her friends’ frantic protests that she was “one of us,” they pulled Amy from the car.  She tried to run, but the crowd was faster:  a barrage of stones brought her down and knives did the rest.  As I listened to this story I kept thinking, what is the price of freedom?  What is the price of a human life? 

         The Amy Biehl Foundation, started by Amy’s parents in 1997, tries to answer these questions every day.  Dedicated to Amy’s goal of empowering young people in the townships through education, the Foundation supports a number of educational and arts-based programs, all of which aim to teach the value of freedom and the value of human life and to give young people hope that they can better their lives.  It can’t be easy.  The Guguletu schools we visited that day are clearly struggling; classes are large and teachers ill paid and overworked.  Equipment and materials–sparse or nonexistent.  Yet the children, most of whom live in tiny, dusty shacks crammed together in endless rows, seem overwhelmingly happy to be at school.  For one thing, they get a plentiful and healthy meal, and that alone is reason to attend.  In addition, the lessons of the day are augmented by the arts- and sports-based after-school programs the Foundation brings to them.  At one school, the children took turns performing—while we clapped and roared our appreciation.  Sitting in the dirt and entranced by the scene in front of me, I almost didn’t notice when a small hand worked its way into mine.  I looked down into the deep brown eyes of a girl about 6 and held on tight as she crowded in close to me.  What is the price of freedom?  Of a human life?

         Back at Foundation headquarters, Director Kevin Chaplin gave us a brief history of the organization and asked us to support their work however we could, perhaps by buying gifts in their small shop. We did go into the shop and we did buy:  cards and posters and bead bracelets with clasps bearing the emblem of the Foundation – a black hand and a white hand, fingers intertwined as mine had been with the little girl.  After making an additional contribution, I left the little shop and went back to our original meeting room, now empty. Then two men came in and introduced themselves: Ntobeko Peni, who works with the after school programs, and Easy Nofemela, an assistant who also coaches sports teams.  We shook hands, and as I looked into their eyes, just for a moment I thought they looked familiar.  Not until I got back on the bus did I remember those eyes, which I had seen on a video about the Foundation’s history.  Beginning with the story of Amy’s death, the video went on to speak of four men who were charged with her murder and sent to prison.  After five years, two of the men asked to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation process.  Those two men were Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemela.  I had watched them in court as they spoke of that night in 1993 and as they spoke later with Amy’s parents, who had flown to South Africa for the hearing.  Amy’s father summed up his feelings by saying that the truth and reconciliation process had worked—it had really worked—and that he and Amy’s mother felt that they could now live out Amy’s ambitions and hopes and dreams.  And they could do so accompanied in part by two of the men responsible for her death.  I don’t remember anything else about the ride home: just those two men’s eyes.  What is the price of freedom?  Of a human life?

          When Alex first introduced the South African principle of Ubuntu to us in Global Studies, I carefully wrote down “Ubuntu:  I am what I am because of who we all are.”  Later I heard Ubuntu referred to as “an African word for a universal principle,” a principle of human connectedness informed by deep respect, caring, and sharing.  As I reflect on these two very different experiences, I find that I have seen Ubuntu at work—in the everyday streets of Acraa as citizens cared enough for each other to persuade gently, respectfully.  And I had seen it at work in the South African political system, where black and white people cared enough about one another to embrace the truth and reconciliation process and to forgive.  So I have seen Ubuntu.  I have felt Ubuntu.  But I, a white westerner, don’t yet understand it.  That is work for the rest of the voyage, perhaps for the rest of my life.   

*                *                      *                      *                      *

I felt fairly pleased with my little essay and was grateful for an opportunity to reflect on my experiences and to try to make sense of them in some larger way.  I expect that the students will feel the same way when they tackle this assignment.  I also expect that a number of them will write more thoughtfully, more astutely, and more memorably than I have been able to do.  As Maxine Greene reminds all teachers, we can be certain that, in any class we teach, there are students there who are “infinitely your superior, in both heart and mind.”  That simple and humbling truth is one of the things that has kept me teaching—and loving it.

Kids Writing Club, Take Two – March 8, 2012

     Just back from a session with the Kids’ Writing Club, or I should say “clubs,” since it’s hard to work with a group that spans 5 to 15 years.  Today I had made up a “word search” game for them, featuring words we hear onboard—like ship, captain, explorer, bathing suit, port, wave, swim, and bridge along with words I hear the kids bring up all the time—like Batman, Joker, Jedi warriors, lumos, and a few other Harry Potterisms.  The kids worked in teams of three or four to find the words in the big block of text, and the fastest group (girls, of course!) found all 20 words in fifteen minutes.  Jelly Belly candies all around. 

     Then I had time to read a few of the “Silly Stories” they wrote last week.  The game:  make up a story that uses each of the following words:  trudge, second cousin, cream puffs, squirm, Chihuahua, King and Queen of the Seas, funky, labyrinth, pizazz, squid, monstrous, Batman (he does keep coming up!).  Here’s one of them, written by two six-year-old girls:

     One fine day my second cousin and I went to a park and we discovered a funky monstrous labyrinth.  It reminded us of a giant squid with many arms that looked like funny paths through the maze.  We trudged on our way, going up and down this way and that way and every way, trying to find our way out.  We looked up to the sky at the cream puff clouds, hoping to find a clue, but there was none to be found.  It made us squirm to think we would not find our way out.  We hoped the King and Queen of the Seas would find us or maybe whistle to us.  Then we wished that Batman would come to rescue us!  We were just about to scream for help when we made a left turn and—yeah!!  We found our way out.  And there at the end of the labyrinth was my Chihuahua dog, Pizzazz, waiting for us with a big doggy smile on his face.   THE END

     Here’s one more, this written by two boys, 7 and 8:

             The King and Queen of the Seas started a funky dance.  My second cousin was one of the judges.  A big monstrous cream puff came along and destroyed everything except for a Chihuahua.  We trudged along, looking for Batman, but we met a giant, pink, cuddly squid instead.  The squid squirmed with pizazz!  As he squirmed he formed a labyrinth and then he said, “Batman, the person you seek is in the center!”    

Later in the voyage I hope to organize a Kids’ Writing Club Reading so that they can show off their stories and haikus and art works.  If it works out, I will be sure to post some of them to this blog.  In the meantime, if anyone has an idea of fun writing games to play with kids from 5 to 15, please let me know!