Thanks


Thank you, from the bottom of my heart that my parents gave me.
Thank you, from the innermost part of my core and from my instincts that my teachers told me follow.

Thank you, brother, from my spine and skeleton and bones.
Thank you, sister, from my running legs that you showed me how to use.
Thank you, friend, from my hands and arms.

Thank you, from my breathing lungs.
Thank you, from my joints and many injuries, from my sensitive nerves, from my ears and my cloud eyes.
Thank you. So much.


Pieces

I could listen to you endlessly as long as you’re willing to keep speaking it out.
I could be one who’s there while you’re there.

.

Afterward, I could reflect on what you told me: “that’s just one piece of your gratitude.”
And I could feel the way in which you were right.
And hold it in my palm — the piece you so delicately placed there.
And then hide it, away from the light, until the next time.

For Vientiane, history, and Moutern Village


It wasn’t too long ago that Vientiane laid down its silken fabrics along the Riverbank.

Later, folks would sell these and other wares under moon- and floodlight. Real and fake sandalwood prayer beads would be presented alongside the pa-biang/ຜ້າບ່ຽງ scarves, laid out from left to right, overlapping, like a textiled rainbow.

Continue reading “For Vientiane, history, and Moutern Village”

Lunch (Thoughts of Shanghai)


Late lunch was xiaolongbao from the original spot on Wudong Lu.

Still didn’t take a picture — ate them all with dark rice vinegar (the Zhenjiang variety of legendary origin) before I could even pull out my smartphone.

Later that day I would take a taxi to Pudong with several large bags and check in for a red-eye flight direct to LAX. First, I’d eat these eight dumplings — minced pork mixed with spring onion and aspic set inside circular unleavened dough wrappers then folded and pinched shut — directly from the bamboo steamer. These were the same ones I tried after arriving in Shanghai last year: the ones with vinegar poured in the same saucers, red chili sauce served with the same tiny spoons.

Exactly eight dumplings; no more, no less.

Continue reading “Lunch (Thoughts of Shanghai)”

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia in Parcels


I bought 8 pairs of chopsticks for like 3 bucks at the market kinda near the Temple and kinda far from the Mosque. Stored them loosely in my back pocket and thought for a second that, while I had my back turned when paying for my entrance ticket, the beggars would swipe them from me if I didn’t placate them with cash.

This thought was foolish, I admit. Here in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the rules had changed on me, and I was taken off-guard. People spoke dialects that I didn’t understand, and Mongolian was on signs and in the streets. People consumed dairy products here?

In a land of jade, Inner Mongolia was crystallized amber.

Continue reading “Hohhot, Inner Mongolia in Parcels”

The Rice, Rivers, and Rocks of Guilin


The Rice Terraces near Guilin are one of China’s most famous landmarks.

And for good reason: they’re stunning. Picture miles and miles of rolling hills terraced in green and gold. If you visit during the right season, you’ll find the curved basins filled with water, shimmering in the sunset and reflecting the thousands upon thousands of rice plants jutting up from the muddy deep.

Guilin, in the northeast of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, is very much a travel hipster’s mecca. Hostels cost $5 a night on average, there are copious rock formations, hikes, and rivers, as well as seedy karaoke clubs and meals that involve horse meat

But that’s not why you came.

It was the rice terraces. You left the Nanjing Earthen Buildings too soon for this — left the tobacco-growing hills of Fujian and the flash-flood, tea-leafed, guest-accommodating 土楼 to come here.

And you’ve never seen anything like it. It’s as if you’re hiking across giant dragon’s scales made of clayey soil and silver irrigation water.

You’ll need to take at least three buses to get there. Head to Guilin’s all-traveler bus station (桂林汽车客运总店), book your tickets to the 龙胜梯田//long2sheng4ti2tian2, also known as the 龙脊梯田//long2ji2ti2tian2.

Guilin City itself is the seat of the prefecture of the same name. It administers 17 smaller political divisions, two of which are termed “autonomous counties” and are home to the 瑶族/yao2zu2 (Yao ethnic minority) and 苗族/miao2zu2 (Miao/Hmong ethnic minority) peoples.

The majority of the Yao people in China, also known as the Mien people, live in the hills of southeast China (Hunan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan), Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. They are famous in China for their bright headscarves, intricate needlework in dress, and, of course, their ingenuous terraced agriculture.

[trigger warning: offensive terminology]

The Miao (Hmong) people have a storied history, beginning in the southern Chinese area, but marked by cultural and linguistic division, relocation, and refusal to be subjugated by the majority-Han Ming and Qing empires. The term “Miao” itself was used officially by the Chinese government in the middle of the 20th century in its attempts to identify, classify, and administer the ethnic minorities of southern China. The term has a history of being applied inconsistently in China and the West to refer to several different non-Han peoples. The term is accepted and used autonymically in China but is derogatory in Southeast Asia and the West, where “Hmong” is preferred.

Be awed. This place is awesome: hillsides costumed in rice terraces while foals nibble on grass and flower and just revel, satisfied.

The next day you’ll wade through the large puddle/small pond outside your hostel on the way to the long-distance bus station.

You’ll want to grab a ticket to either Yangdi (yang2di1//杨堤) or Yangshuo (yang2shuo4//阳朔) via Yangdi. This is where you’ll get on a bamboo raft and speed down the 美丽漓江//mei3li4li2jiang1.

And incredibly 美丽 is the 漓江. With its karst stonescapes and hazy backdrop, the Li River is like a scene out of a Chinese watercolor painting. That’s no exaggeration — tap in “Li River watercolor” to any search engine for proof.

Get your guide to let you disembark somewhere before Xingping Village (兴坪村//xing1ping2cun1) so you can trek the rest of the way.

Take a detour through the citrus orchards. Stop for a lunch of cold rice noodles with cha shao, chili, onion, chives, and pickled beans in broth.

Go slow: the famous “back of the 20 yuan note” scene will still be there when you arrive.

Spend the entire next day eating mangos, loquats, and rambutans in the city. Guilin City proper is home to some incredible scenes of the Li River and craggy granite towers sprouting up between urbanite.

The Seven Star Park (七星公园//qi1xing1gong1yuan2) is pricey (75 kuai) but worth it for the views, and if you visit while it’s raining, you’ll have the place to yourself. Artists, believers, historians, and tourists all have something for them: caves with historical inscriptions and Buddhist statuettes with incense at their feet, residence studios, vistas that let hikers peek out through the misty green at the city and mountains…

Look back before you leave. Take a picture of where you were at the top of the mountain from where you are now at the bottom of the mountain.

Turn around, hail a taxi to the train station, head home to Shanghai.

SONY DSC

Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue


Very unique. Not like being above ground in other places.

DAY ONE: Took the metro to the far corner of Shanghai to fly SHA>>XMN. Just the journey to the airport itself took nearly two hours. Shangers is ridiculously large. Man sitting opposite me clipped his fingernails directly onto the floor as one does on the subway.

Flight was comfortable, minimal amounts of stares directed at the tall white boy sitting 24C.

Continue reading “Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue”

The One Indispensible Thing I Carried in Hong Kong


I brought it with me on the Star Ferry, in Kowloon, to Tai O Village and Victoria Peak…

I brought it with me when the weather was mutable and when it wasn’t. Half the time, I had it tucked away in my backpack and didn’t reach for it at all. The other half of the time, I had it above my head, fighting against the rain.

When it wasn’t pleasant outside, some had it brandished and waving, shielding their eyes and skin from the misty spray.

Continue reading “The One Indispensible Thing I Carried in Hong Kong”

How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World


I complained about the weather, walked the backstreets, and ate cheap.

This time the bus was a large, cyan blue thing with leather sleeping berths and cotton blankets. Upbeat folk music and the neon lights mounted above every bed gave the whole thing a strange feeling — as if I had somehow fallen asleep in a gaudy Lao nightclub. But none of this is to say that the overnight journey to Vientiane was uncomfortable. It wasn’t. It was like sleeping on a very peculiar southbound cloud.

Continue reading “How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World”

Phonsavan, Laos


Phonsavan, Laos — capital of Xiengkouang Province with residents who own hotels, restaurants, and businesses. Some residents are farmers, teachers, and apprentices. The town’s central road is lined with auto parts stores and repair shops servicing the big rigs, trucks, and vans bound for the dusty distance. Cheap and delicious bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) made with fresh baked bread is available near the long-distance bus station.

Plain of Jars — where enigmatic past meets ever-changing present. Thousands of Iron Age stone jars dot the landscape just as bomb craters and trenches mar it. If it was a community of giants that made the jars or if the jars were fired in a nearby cave (kiln) or both, scholars haven’t yet decided.¹ The Plain is surreal in its beauty: an endless parade of dreamlike clouds float above the thin dirt paths and hazy hills. Sparse, knotted trees and goldenrod low-brush complete the scene.

UXO — unexploded ordnance. That is: bombs, cluster munitions, shells/artillery projectiles, grenades, missiles, etc. that “did not explode when they were fired or dropped and still pose a risk of detonation, even many decades after they were used or discarded.”² Countless of these deadly weapons still linger in the towns and fields where they fell, discarded like garbage, left to rot in someone else’s backyard and maim innocent people when they’re unearthed. Unexploded ordnance is one part of the traumatizing legacy of American bombing raids during the CIA’s Secret War in Laos almost 50 years ago.

Amputated limbs and mangled bodies and literally millions of bombs indelibly and profoundly scarring the landscape might not be the first thing one thinks of when visiting this place. After all, Phonsavan is surrounded by slow hills and plains that hyper-contrast the pastel blue sky. The plains are captivating.

But clouds as thick as memory pass overhead; many farmers in Laos continue to work in the same fields where these leftover bombs crippled them and blinded their children, scarring them with a bloody legacy for the rest of their lives.

The Lao government has made it a priority to address this lingering issue. In 2016, they made it a national Sustainable Development Goal to save lives from unexploded ordnance (SDG18: Lives Safe from UXO).

The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Lao) and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) work to achieve that goal by clearing UXOs, making it possible for locals to live on their land safely. As of 2016, UXO Lao has removed over 1.8 million UXOs throughout the country, and in 2017, MAG cleared 4.7 million square meters of land contaminated by cluster munitions and other ordnance from US bombing during the Secret War.

The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (more commonly known by its acronym, COPE) and its medical partners do incredible work custom-making prosthetic limbs for victims of unexploded ordnance. The COPE Visitor Center in Vientiane is a worthwhile visit with thoughtful exhibits and excellent informational videos about the ongoing UXO problem in Laos. The Center also hosted President Obama during his visit to the country in September 2016.

The United State’s Secret War has remained shamefully secret even after the former President’s visit. While the US Congress recently allocated $30million to fund clearance efforts in Laos during the 2018 fiscal year, it’s not nearly enough money to stop the violent horrors that we continue to inflict on our neighbors. Legacies of War, an American education and advocacy group, calculates that, over the last decade and a half, the United States has contributed around $5million per year cleaning up UXOs in Laos — a mere fraction of the $13.3million it spent per day bombing a country that never even declared war against it. In other words, the United States spent more money in just ten days of bombing Laos ($130million, in 2013 dollars) than it has in UXO clearance over the past 24 years ($118million).

So another 30 mil isn’t gonna cut it.

But we’ll take it anyway and keep on. Because the advocacy that led to that increase in appropriations eventually translates into opportunities for organizations working on the ground to actually help. The Vientiane-based branch of World Education, for example, recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Lao Ministry of Education and Sport to implement a US-funded project on mine risk education in ten provinces affected by UXOs.

Across the Pacific in the US, efforts to formally include Lao/Laotian, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Cambodian history into educational curriculums have become more energized. Bills in California and Wisconsin have been introduced to state legislatures and are pending action. These are supported by community events like the Between Two Worlds exhibition, which shares the stories of refugees from Laos in the US. In this way, our frustrating culture of ignorance might be slowly changing.

In a country characterized by its confluence of lowlands, hills, and rivers, the Plain of Jars is particularly striking. Parts of legend persist in these monolith vessels. Despite the place’s undeniable beauty, however, I wish I had been more cognizant of the UXO issue when I visited. Laos has the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country per capita in history,³ but I was too enraptured by the dream of being there that I forgot about the nightmare that so clearly lingers.

Ignorance has the same effect as negligence. I’m sorry for that.

I intend to be more purposeful in my actions as a traveler. For me, that starts with helping to return the things that were unfairly taken away from my neighbors. If you have the means, please join me in honoring the victims of war by acting with intention, continuing to learn and listen, and making a donation to UXO Lao, MAG America, COPE, or Legacies of War.

Thank you for your support.