Saturday, February 26, 2011

its a mad mad mad mad world

when i left the philippines, i had one more stopover in hawaii before i headed back to seattle. so while i was there, i got with some friends and made Lao food. they'd gotten a ride into town, and i'd given them a list of stuff to buy. and i didn't have a cookbook or nothing with me, so i stuck to stuff that was easy that i could make from memory. so we'd decided to make laap, red curry, and some vegetables. emerson had some sticky rice at his friend, heather neilson's house, and she graciously invited us to come eat there - besides, her landlord had lived in thailand before, had owned a thai restaurant, and thus had several ingredients on hand (such as fish sauce, msg, etc.) so we wouldn't have to buy everything.

so i was kinda in my groove - i had my ingredients all laid out, was starting to cook the curry paste a bit - and then the landlord comes home, and then things got kinda weird...

first off, she was white. i guess i'd just assumed that she'd be chinese or something. i figured she wasn't thai, or they would've said that, right? but when you say, "the landlord used to live in thailand, and she owned a thai restaurant," why would anybody guess she was white? (not that being white is a problem - i mean, i like white people; three of my best friends are white. seriously.) and second, i didn't know she actually lived at the house. (she was old, and it was her house...) and so i already felt uncomfortable that i am cooking food in this woman's kitchen - cause she kinda gave me crazy eye when she walked in the door tugging large bags of groceries with her too-old-to-be-living-with-mom adult son following behind.

"what are you making?" she asked me.
"oh, just some Lao food." I felt rather awkward when she came over to get a closer look.
"looks like curry to me - and that's not Lao food, that's thai food." she responded and then turned away to put stuff in the refrigerator. and she had a hefty helping of smugness in her voice.
i didn't know how to respond, but i felt myself getting the slightest bit defensive and irritated. her son came into the kitchen as well, toting bags of his own, a constant stream of words coming out of his mouth... (apparently he's one of those people whose brain and mouth have only the slightest barrier of gauze separating them.) i mumbled something about "sticky rice" and "padek," but i really couldn't think of something coherent to say - mostly because she kinda caught me... i mean, what i was cooking really wasn't Lao food...and i wish i had a big bottle of padek to pour into the pan. (i don't think it's wrong to say that if you add padek to any dish, it immediately becomes Lao food. at least it seems to work with my rice chex.)

well i didn't have to think long on some retort because the landlord lady picked up where she left off: "Lao people really didn't know how to cook anyway until the thai came in and taught 'em."

my anger really flared up at this one - and i looked around at emerson and his friends for some sort of validation that this lady was crazy. my face must have contorted because they all started to smile, or maybe it was because my fist was tightening around the knife i was using to cut the vegetables. but i really couldn't say anything. i mean, if i'd spoken at this point, i mighta said something real ugly. and my friends kept staring at me with varying degrees of silent laughter on their faces, waiting to see if i had some response to volley back at her, but i just had to back away from the counter and put down the knife.

"ok!" (i think i said... who really knows... i just remember what she said next...)

she started on some nonsense about Lao people and then ended with this declaration: "yeah, the Lao language is really just a dialect of thai, y'know."
and all i could answer was, "actually, it's not." i was so angry at this point. i mean, this was ridiculous. what so is wrong in the world that two white people are in a kitchen somewhere on the north shore of ohau acting out the centuries-long battles and resentments between Lao and thai people? and was she really that unaware of this history that she felt it was okay to make her comment?

i couldn't even think after this. (and maybe i am revealing too much of my personality here,) but i was so mad, the food had no chance of tasting good. i couldn't remember when and what and how much to put in the pan to make the curry. and the laap... i couldn't get it to taste right either. if only i'd had padek. i swear i woulda poured it all over that laap, held it up to that crazy lady's face and proclaimed it Lao food.

i couldn't collect my thoughts for real; she wouldn't even leave the kitchen!

and then, to make things weirder and to put me even more off kilter, my brother's nephew, alan, randomly strolls into the kitchen with a cookie sheet with little balls of cookie dough on them.
"alan, what are you doing here?" I asked him.
"i live here." he responds, and then the old crazy lady snuggles up to the side of him and declares, "this is my son!"

now i was really confused. did she mean that alan had married her daughter??? (he recently married and i had yet to meet his wife.) but thankfully i found out that wasn't the case - it just so happened that alan lived in her house too, alongside heather, the crazy old lady, her son, and an assortment of other people who were clearly paying too much for rent for a living situation that just aint worth it.

i did finally find my own way to insult her... i asked her about bangkok (where she used to live) and told her that she must've loved living in such a beautiful city. and then went on to praise bangkok for all its splendor and wonder.

i did eventually settle down and pretend that the food tasted okay...but danno's salsa tasted way better.

well, the old lady ended it evening with one final insult. after dinner was over, i was sitting at the table, and she comes in wearing her nightgown and pushes my chair so she can get to the fridge.
"oh, sorry!" i say, "i'm in your way!"
"that's okay. you've only been in my way for the past four hours." she replied, smiled at me, and then walked out the room.

well, thanks emerson, bethany, connie, francisco, danno, felix, and of course heather, for putting up with my volatility that evening...

and i won't name the crazy woman... in order to protect her tenants.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

biggest elvis & some final thoughts

manila really did light up big and bright for new years. it was like nothing i have ever experienced. if i was in a war zone, would it have been any different?

well, now for some final thoughts on the philippines and i will lay this trip to rest. well, first i will say that i am glad that i waited till the end of my stay in the philippines to begin reading “biggest elvis,” one of the books i brought on the trip. the book is told from the perspective of numerous different (and mostly cynical) characters, and each of them have something to say about the philipphines.

for example, one embittered american says this about the traffic: “this wasn’t a traffic jam, that would be like calling a lump of coal a dead plant. this was hell and we were all going to die here in the poisoned air because everything was burning coffee grounds and the visibility went as far as the side of the road, where i saw a line of stores, places with pots of food on tables, stacks of retread tires, wicker furniture, signs advertising bed spacer to rent and go-go dancer wanted and goats for sale. and there were people along the road, kids and dogs just watching us not moving, like they were fishermen on a riverbank, casting a line out into the traffic, pulling in an aerial or a rusted muffler…”

and then this: “i saw high-rise buildings with cranes on top only you couldn’t tell if the buildings were going up or coming down. on the beach side, on low swampy land that stuck out into the bay, there was a bunch of shacks that were worse than anything i'd ever seen, acres of shacks, laundry, mud, and babies.”

unlike the guy in the book, i actually really like a bustling city where the rigidity of sterile american customs do not apply. and maybe it's somewhat ethnocentric on my part to stare at the other and just say “wow,” but it’s maybe it's a step in the right direction, especially when you are sharing space with others that see the country like albert lane (the character i quoted above.) so thus was my trip altered somewhat. but as much as i enjoy drowning in the differences of another country, i can also sit back and appreciate the clashes of culture that i feel within myself and that i observe in the people around me.

for example: i needed a pair of socks – so i went to sm market (this big department store chain found all over manila). i figured i’d find my socks in the underwear department, at least it made sense to me. so i approached the section and about 2-3 sales reps approached me, “hello, sir? do you wear boxers or briefs?”
“uh… where are the socks?”
“oh… socks! they are over in the middle of the store.” i left the section (but not before another woman asked me the boxers/briefs question while holding a package of underwear up for me to look at.)
well, I found the sock section – and it really was just that: a section with just socks. i approached cautiously, noticing the abnormally large crowd of sales people in the section. i was swarmed. i had 3-4 sales reps in front of me and equally as many to the back and sides. they were all holding up different types of socks: dress socks, crew socks, sports socks, and what-have-you.
“hello sir! these socks here are very beautiful.”
“may i help you, sir?”
“what are you looking for, sir?”
i actually started laughing… “uh… socks?” i tried to move into the sock display racks so i could find what i was looking for (ankle socks to wear with my slip-on crocs, even though that may be a bad fashion decision to some of yall) and the crowd moved with me, still asking their questions, and holding up socks to my face with some intensity, finally blocking my path so i couldn’t move.
finally I had to plead: “can i just get some socks, please?”
one of the sales reps took the lead: “oh, okay! shhh everyone! be quiet and let him look!” the crowd fell silent and moved back to form a path into the inner-sanctum of the sock section. i walked in, immediately found what i was looking for while the reps looked on in silence. when i moved to leave, the clamoring started up again: “sir! sir! what about this one?”
i know i shouldn’t feel the need to say this, but i really am not exaggerating. after my escape, i stood about 30 feet removed so i could count the number of sales reps: 19. i was so completely disbelieving of my own count that i counted again: 22. i don’t know which count is most accurate. was somebody hiding behind a sock display the first time i counted or did i just happen to count the same person twice?
but this is illustrative of every store: there always seems to be more people working than what the business needs. (but considering the unemployment rate is high, it can’t be a bad thing, right?)

so spending time in the philippines with other americans, i tried to allow myself to absorb the culture of the foreigner in a place that doesn’t quite agree with them. and the opinions people have are amazing… maybe something like this, (to quote albert lane from the biggest elvis again):
“the country was a dump, let’s face it... what ever happened here since world war ii that mattered? …when was the last time anybody said, hey, let’s all go to a filipino restaurant? what's your favorite filipino movie?”

and so this is part of the experience as well… I can look at traffic in new dehli, or chickens on a bus in Laos, or a guinea pig on my plate in peru and just say “wow.” well, observing the observations of americans in a strange land aint no different. i can just sit back, say wow, and see the world through their eyes for a bit…

but in the end, i need to give my own description of manila: it is a truly amazing city. crowded, polluted, gray – yes, it is all that. but when i sit in a taxi weaving in and out of traffic – i still get that feeling of awe. the cityscape is really something to look at; this may sound weird, but it’s the billboards! they are so huge – skyscraper size, i swear – and they line both sides of the streets, so that when driving through the traffic they tower over the car, growing and changing shapes as they pass by, like some crazy illustration in a dr. sues book. and especially at night: they’re lit so brightly that i really could believe in all the capitalist dreams they promised me: if I drink that soda, or if I buy that watch or that pair of pants, i will be happy, smiling, and attractive, and I will too get that skeezy-looking blonde girl to stand next to me for a photo shoot.

Friday, February 11, 2011

hostage stand off

and so it continues; more threats of violence against my hat:

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

rest in peace

i've been meaning to make note of this for sometime: r.i.p. vang pao; his funeral was held this week in fresno, california. regardless of your feelings about the war and the cia's illegal incursion into Laos, the man was truly "bigger than life," to quote gayle morrison, a hmong historian.

vang pao (vaj pov); December 25, 1929 – January 6, 2011

see the article on

see wiki to learn more about him:
thanks wl.

Monday, February 07, 2011

held hostage

this hat was a gift to me. and i am a forgetful person. i left it at a friend's house. now it is being held hostage. what else can i think when the hostage taker sends me a picture of it on a platter. i wonder if he will salt it before he eats it (or dip it in jeo padek.)

i have some final thoughts on the philippines that i'll post in the next few days, then i'll put my trip to rest.