Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Dinner: Deodorant, Toothpaste and Cheeseburgers

First of all, happy Thanksgiving to everyone back in the USA. It's been two years now since I've started this blog 'Leaving Amerika', which from the very beginning was occasionally called unpatriotic. For one thing, I was leaving. Second, I spelled America with a 'k'. Even in these times of unrest amidst prosperity back home, I still frequently miss my home country. On holidays like this, that longing for family, friends and familiarity looms large.

I've been here in Myanmar almost nine months. Today was one of those amazing days which I don't get enough of. Any day could be like today; it's just a matter of having the time, getting out there, investing in the mindset of exploration and opening my eyes. All those things came together today.

Mind you, there's one more factor: the weather. It's getting to be beautiful here right now. The Monsoon season has passed. Although we're tropical, it's still the Northern Hemisphere, and so it's getting to be 'winter'. Yeah, in the middle of the day, it's still 89F and humid, but the afternoons and evenings are paradisiacal, and as it gets even cooler, it's going to get even better.

I woke up groggily. Last night was Beau's bachelor party. A friend and fellow teacher here is getting married next week to a wonderful Myanmar woman, and last night... well... suffice to say I saw sides of Yangon I never knew even existed. I probably shouldn't become too familiar with them. That could be dangerous.

As I've mentioned before, I love the product quest as a means to explore this foreign country. This morning, I needed to go find something! Something I couldn't buy at the local market. Speed Stick deodorant from America. I was out and I've used it for decades. Bought my last stick here in Yangon, so I knew it was out there, but only in specialty stores. I noticed a place about a mile or so from home recently called 'USA Mart', where
they sell just American made products. Just the kind of specialty store I needed!

Jumped on the bus, got there and found no Speed Stick. Actually, they had Lady Speed Stick, but no Guy Speed Stick. Oh well. They did have Crest 3D toothpaste, the most effective toothpaste ever and something I've missed since coming to SE Asia, so the trip wasn't a total loss.

I really should seek out a product placement endorsement here on my blog to earn some money for my hard-earned readership of tens and tens.

I leisurely walked home, stopping for an avocado smoothie (they're delicious) and then about a quarter mile from home, I realized something: I had to be at work in half an hour! Oh..huh? Right! Thursday is my day for being the placement testing evaluator. Easy to forget about these kinds of little things. An extra day off (my one corporate class today was canceled by the clients) turned into a work day. Quick change into work clothes and off to Edulink.

Four hours later, it was I was back on the streets of Yangon, once again in search of deodorant. It was late afternoon. The weather was perfect. I jumped on another bus that I thought was going to take me to the Taw Win Center, the place I'd bought my last Speed Stick. I'd asked the bus steward if it would get me there, and he'd said yes, but as I got further and further away from where I wanted to go, I got to think maybe he'd just misunderstood my question.

I know a lot of Myanmar language vocabulary; my pronunciation is still rough.

Got off the bus. Walked for a while though an unfamiliar neighborhood. Grabbed a taxi to take me the rest of the way. Bought my deodorant. In the setting sun of an oh-so-pleasant tropical dusk, I set off towards my Thanksgiving dinner destination: Harley's, the only California (In-N-Out) style burgers I've run into in Yangon. Fortunately, it was just a mile or so from the deodorant source, and so again, I hoofed it.

Even after nine months, I still get such a sense of novelty from this place. I try not to gawk at everything. As foreigners were extremely rare here just a few years ago, people still gawk at me, but they too try to limit it.

I saw lots of cool things on that one mile walk through another unfamiliar neighborhood to the Thanksgiving burger.

I miss America, but I'm really happy I'm here. If experiencing new things keeps you young, I'm like 12 year old.

Your obligatory ukulele video...

Friday, November 14, 2014

One Take on President Obama's Speech in Yangon

My president visited Yangon today. I knew it was happening. I had no idea what his itinerary was, but since I had plans today that involved riding way out to the outskirts of town, my biggest concern was that the various motorcades (the Chinese and Japanese heads of state are also here today, and traffic on any normal afternoon is horrible enough on it its) might get in the way of the important thing I was planning. Now, I'm wiping small tears from eyes as I've finished watching Barack Obama deliver a speech to and answer questions from a group of young people here in Yangon.

Was Obama's speech particularly
moving? Well, no, not really. His message was more about the challenges facing the region of Southeast Asia as a whole and how the USA was hoping to help with that rather than anything specific to Myanmar.

During the speech, Obama seemed tired. Of course he was. It was 4 AM Washington DC time. He'd woke up this morning in Beijing, and had already had an earlier meeting today and long talk with the Nobel lauraete Aung Sang Suu Kyii. I called him 'my president'; I voted for him twice. Six years is a long time on his job, and I could see the weariness in his eyes. He didn't look like that when I left America in 2013. Travel, the mid-terms and just the grind of the being the 'leader of the free world' takes a toll on a guy.

There was an extensive question and answer session following his speech at this ASEAN Youth Summit, and the crowd really loved having him there. They do love Obama here. Today was his second visit to Myanmar. His first, just two years ago, was the first time any American president had visited this country.

I knew I'd be able to catch the coverage of the visit as I rolled home via taxi from the aforementioned important thing I had to do today. See, even though it was just before 4 in the afternoon, there were already large crowds at the ubiqutous Yangon roadside teashops, all watching the TV screens just as they do when an important soccer match is being shown. I wondered what they were watching and craned my neck to get a view. I saw pictures of Air Force One landing. I stopped at one of my regular Mom & Pop shops on my way home. The shopkeeper asked me if I had joined the crowds on the nearby central road which had been the path the Obama motorcade. I hadn't, but if I had known... All these clues added up to me knowing I could see more on my TV when I got home, and perhaps witness my president during his visit to my current town.

This country faces some extremely difficult and long-lasting issues. Myanmar has had 65 years of non-stop civil war. It's the longest ongoing armed conflict in the world, and the struggle these last few years is to get a lasting cease-fire, much less any actual true peace settlement. In brief, Myanmar is country of dozens of ethnicities; if you're on one side of the dispute, you'd call them 'nationalities'. For decades, armies of the ethnic groups have resisted and fought the central power, mostly comprised of people of the dominant Bamar (from which Burma gets its name) people. Not only has their been civil war, there's also devastating poverty (Myanmar is Asia's second-poorest country), natural disasters, corruption, oppression of civil rights and freedom of speech. Yeah, Myanmar is a real maelstrom of issues.

You can't expect the president of the USA to be an expert on everything, and the young people at the Q&A session were asking really tough questions on specific issues would have been difficult for a Myanmar expert to answer. Still, he asked for it, and I guess he is probably used to answering questions internationally on domestic issues that really have nothing to do with USA . So, I suppose I can excuse my president for not answering the crowd's questions as eloquently and completely as I was answering for him in my head.

For example, the first question asked of him was from a young man from Rakhine State who asked how he could foster greater tolerance from his fellow (Buddhist) Myanmar youth. He wanted advice as to how to influence his friends and neighborrs. The subtext here has to do with the almost institutional hatred some Rakhine people (and the state gov't) have for a certain minority there who call themselves the Rohingya people. The gov't here won't even acknowledge the name Rohingya, instead insisting on calling them Bengali, and insisting they are illegal immigrants. This minority has been the object of infamous discrimination and oppression. That they are Muslims makes this easier to accept for the Myanmar, 90% of whom are Buddhist. Obama's answer started well. He mentioned that no country can ever be successful if it is divided against itself. I thought he was going to advise appealing to these folk's own nationalism and self-interest; tell your friends Myanmar will never join the ranks of developed nations if they can't accept and tolerate marginally external ethnicities. Instead, he obfuscated for a while, and then told the guy that anytime one of his friends said something racist, he shouldn't just sit back and listen. He should step up and say that no, racist hate speech is wrong.

Umm, okay, sort of a passive anti-intolerance approach. Wait for it happen, then react. I've heard this same tactic for promoting pluralism advocated by other diversity 'experts' in the USA. It may even be the right approach for the USA. But on Myanmar's west coast, where thousands of Rohingya live on eggshells in fear of pogroms and the majority's hatred, I think a more proactive approach to promoting religious and ethnic tolerance is called for. For example, just today, the governor of Rakhine attacked the SecGen of the United Nations for even using the word 'Rohingya' in comments the SecGen had made earlier week. Oh, c'mon. The situation in Rakhine State is more serious than perhaps Obama is aware (or was made aware of by his aides), and his advice was stupid and inadequate.

My next criticism of Obama is really a matter of basic 'cultural awareness 101'. Perhaps, on a more meta level, even just 'being nice 101'. A young lady in the crowd stood up to ask her question, and reading from her notes held in trembling, nervous hands, started to ask my president, “Good morning, Mister President, my question today is...”

At which point Obama interrupted her with ”WELL, IT'S AFTERNOON...”. The young lady immediately lost face and was made to look stupid for not having perfect command of greetings in the English language. Yes, it was 4:30 PM, and Obama's quip immediately got a little round of guffaws from the crowd, most of whom were probably feeling what I was feeling and certainly anyone from Asia was squirming in discomfort. Why did he humiliate that poor young woman so? Why did he point out her little error when he didn't need to? Um, English isn't the first language of Myanmar. People here on this entire continent have a much greater sense of public humiliation; even as an English teacher, you have to excuse little mistakes in speech and not jump on them like that, particularly when the whole world is watching. I was more embarrassed for my president for acting so uncouth than I felt embarrassed for the young lady.

C'mon, Obama. Asian discourse 101. That said, that young woman will probably remember that moment as both her proudest (being able to ask the POTUS a question), and most humiliating moment of her life.

When the Q&A's were over (you can see the whole thing on YouTube here), Obama, tired and worn out after crossing the Pacific and participating in innumerable summits and talks, and getting ready for this evening's flight to Australia, spent a good 20 minutes wandering around the crowd shaking hands and conversing individually. I only know this because Myanmar TV captured every second of every minute Obama was to be seen. Now, if this were a campaign event and Obama was out to court votes and enthusiasm, I'd understand it, but this wasn't. He was in Burma, fer crissakes. Still, he shook everyone's hands. He let himself be part of dozens of selfies with significant background.

No, my president wasn't perfect on his visit to Myanmar, but he was who he was. I still like the guy. 

Now, what about that important thing I was doing today?  That'll have to wait until the next blog.  

Instead, as usual, I'm gonna conclude with a video of me playing the ukulele.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Second Week of November

In a couple weeks, it will be the eight year anniversary of me buying my first digital video camera and uploading my first video onto YouTube. Since then, so much has happened, and although little of the really significant stuff got put video, there's enough out there that if ever I wanted to create a personal memoir, it wouldn't be written, it would be a movie.

This is the second week of November. This week doesn't hold any personal significance for me, but for some reason, I felt compelled to look back into my archives and see what I had been doing this week throughout my 7+ year vlogging career. I found some interesting stuff.

We'll start seven years ago. 2007. I had just moved to Seattle, Washington; a place which had created music I had admired for 20 years. 'Hunger Strike' by Temple of the Dog, circa 1991, was an amazing piece of music with two of the best singers on the planet, which had a low budget video centered in Seattle's Discovery Park. In this first vid from this week 7 years ago, I aim to recreate that video.

This week in 2008, I had recently adopted a little black kitten. It was also this week in 2008 that we elected a new president. So, I named my kitten Barack Insane Kitteh (RIP).

In 2009, Jolly Judd wrote a poem without anticipating that someone would later put it to ukulele. My most hardcore uke song is five years old this week.

By 2010, I was a regular at the Friday Night Open Mic in Snohomish, WA. I met lots of cool fellow musicians up there, and I think has been one of my favorite collobaration vids I've done. The harmonica player and I had never rehearsed together. I just asked him to come up and jam with me, and he graciously agreed.

In 2011, just like now, I got on some kind of nostalgia streak, and I took you on a tour of a bunch of my November vids from what at that time was 5 years of archives. If you're reading this, you may be in this one.

 In 2012, I took you up into the Cascades for a bit of Geology with Joko.

Come 2013, I was in Thailand, and this week a year ago, I was bringing you reports from random places. Samut Prakan.

As for this week in 2014, well, you'll have to check out my last blog.

Gonna have to bookmark this blog, because I know now that I'm going to be making videos like these for the next 10..15.. 20 years... until I die. The second week of November may have meant nothing at the start of this blog, but it might mean something going forward.

Monday, November 3, 2014

What to Do About the Back

About three months back, I wrote a blog praising my Myanmar doctor for his straightforwardness and no-nonsense approach towards the problems of my aching back.  Turned out I had a herniated disc, not the first my doc had seen in his career.  A few days ago, after a half dozen previous visits, including a surgical procedure wherein he gave me an epidural, I went in to ask for advice for whether or not to proceed with the final (and expensive) step of the treatment, off-shore surgery to shave off the part of my spinal cord that has exploded out of my verterbrae. 

I explained about how I had re-aggravated my injury. I told him that there was now a complete numbness in my left leg and feet (the left edge of my left foot has felt like it's been frostbitten since I hurt myself in Sumatra).  He nodded his head and explained that numbness in the extremities was in fact a symptom of worse injury due to ruptured disc than the pain of sciatica.

Kind of weird that the a numbness to pain is worse than pain. Then again, my worst pain has been in my buttocks and thigh when the actually source of it was a little point in my lower back.

So what to do?  My insurance deductible for the surgery is about a month's pay, but after a couple weeks after Indonesia, yeah, I ached, my back hurt, but it wasn't unbearable.  I got through my day and although I was uncomfortable, I've been able to handle it okay.  Then again, at 1 AM, when trying to go to sleep, and the pain in my left leg prevented that, I'd pay anything to get rid of it.

I wanted my doctor to tell me what to do.  I wanted him to hear about my symptoms and tell me what to do next.  Instead, he listened to me, and said I had three options.  Surgery, not having surgery, or, just do another session of drug therapy and see how I feel.

So, once again, I'm getting my cortizone shots.  He's given me new meds. I looked them up online and they're actually weaker than what he's given me before (basically, the weakest NSAIDs and muscle relaxants out there).

Guess what? I'm without pain.  I can walk down the street or sit at my computer and not feel any uncomfortableness. A few weeks back, I was preparing for a trip to Singapore or Bangkok for surgery; now, I think I may not need it.

I think I know what's going on.  The cortisone has shrunk the swelling in my spinal cord. After the cortisone wears off, if I can avoid doing those things that might re-aggravate the ruptured disc, I can get through this without surgery.   Problem is, this whole problem started by stepping off a curb, so forget playing basketball or climbing mountains, what do I do? Stop walking?

This pharmaceutical treatment is essentially just putting off a decision I'm going to have to make.

Still, I think without these mild drugs, I wouldn't have been able to make this video made today.  It's hard to be creative when you're suffering chronic pain.


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...