Four City Impressions: Tokyo, Saigon, Columbus, San Francisco

It has been three and a half years since I first came to San Francisco to work on the career aspect of my life. Things have gone according to plan, I’ve settled into a routine and time has gone quickly. In fact, this is the most time I’ve spent in once city in the past decade.

This past month I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the cities in Asia and America I call home in rapid succession. My reason for doing so were simply to remember what life is like over in various cities and to think about the future. The one problem with moving from city to city is you always miss the ones you’ve left and there is always a sort of pull beckoning you to go back. It was this voice that I wanted to quiet a little as well as determine which world would be most suitable for the future.

When one is away from any city for a long time, the image of that city is continually built up in the mind and may make it seem better than it actually is. My mind especially reinforces the good aspects while negating the bad. I had to return to put it all in perspective.
Further, it is the experience one remembers and not the city as it actually is and not all experiences will be the same. However, I also believe that one has the power to physically change any experience simply by choosing how the mind will perceive it. This is why some will have negative experiences while others enjoy the time of their life even though they are experiencing the same city.

I went on my trip as one returning home and not as a tourist. I simply wanted to revisit the places and neighborhoods that were my home at one time.
Therefore, I thought it might be wise to write down my thoughts while they are still fresh and to share my experiences in these vastly different places.

1. Tokyo

– Tokyo is a city that could be described as a futuristic place in the present. It is clean, orderly and crime is almost non-existent. The technology is very advanced and returning to San Francisco, I can’t shake the feeling that it seems 10-15 years behind!

My neighborhood in Tokyo runs from Ikebukuro up to Kawagoe and westward along the Yamanote line to Shibuya. It was here that I ate at my favorite restaurants, had coffee in places where I used to study Japanese and had some beers at my favorite hangouts. It seemed as though time had not really changed things and I could easily slip back into that world.
Yet, it would not be the same world if I were to return. I was there as a student and English teacher and did not have to fight the crowded trains day in and day out. My Japanese is good enough to live in that world.

If I were to return I would be faced with the monumental task of improving my Japanese to native level which would take many years and dedicated nightly study. One part of me finds this to be difficult. Yet, whether something is difficult or not simply depends on the mindset when doing it. There will be peaks and valleys but with the right attitude there will be more peaks along the road.

The tougher aspect would be integrating into a mostly Japanese world. Before, I spent a lot of time with foreigners and achieved a very comfortable level of life. Going back I would have to integrate 100% which one can never really achieve since Japan is a homogeneous society and I would always be an outsider. However, with the right attitude one can get very close and become “accepted,” even if becoming completely “Japanese” is not possible.

In regards to integration one will have to become part of various groups. These groups are the people you work with, the neighborhood and even society at large. One must then abide by all the rules of these groups which inhibits individualism. Here in the USA we are individualistic and pursue our own goals in which we can sometimes bend rules. It reminds me a bit of the movie “The Matrix” in that Neo has the power to shape his environment as he wants it to be. In Japan there are no bending of rules and the Matrix is as it is with the individual having no power to change it. One must simply keep trying to accomplish what they will in a static fashion and various opportunities are spaced farther in between. One must pursue the aims of the group over the individual.

To put this in greater perspective, I left Japan Airlines (great company) due to my own aims and career goals. In Japan, this would not be a normal thing and much harder to do. In fact would almost seem like a betrayal and perhaps seen as a negative on the resume.

The positive aspect to moving back here is that my faculties would be awash in the culture and language. It would be like a child exploring an entirely new playground even if he knew how to navigate a select few of the obstacles. My Japanese would improve tremendously and I would have to keep myself more alert in order to advance.

Here in San Francisco it seems I rarely need to think at all and could sleepwalk through most days. It is as if the current of life has picked me up to carry me along the way and all I need to do is float. In Japan I would have to tread water pretty quickly at first and watch out for the boulders in the stream to keep advancing.

In short, Tokyo would be a great place to return to but life would take a lot of effort. But again, it is only as difficult as my mind tells me it is and if I regard it as simple and fun then so it would be.

2. Saigon

– The best part about Saigon are the people. I love the Vietnamese and regard them as very warm, kind and full of life. These people have been through so much yet it is very easy to find a smile in this city. Further, the expatriate crowd is extremely interesting as they come from all corners of the globe and usually have interesting stories to tell. I like the fact that I can walk into almost any restaurant/bar, converse in different languages and hear their story. The simple fact that they are in Saigon makes them adventurous and one can easily get a completely different viewpoint of any situation which simply doesn’t happen in the USA.

As for the Vietnamese, I don’t think I’ve every really met one that I didn’t like. Sure, sometimes there are struggles but I would be hard pressed to think of even one Vietnamese “sourpuss” if you’ll pardon the expression. When I encounter the service over there it puts a smile on my face and is very easy to be positive. Here in S.F. it can sometimes be a challenge to remain positive and keep that karma flowing.

Now, please don’t misunderstand, there are many great people here in San Francisco but there are also those that are not very happy with their life and it really drives the point home that money does not equal happiness. Even the street vendors offer a great smile in Vietnam where customer service here sometimes gives me the impression that I am bothering the vendor. I may be explaining this point poorly but my point is that it is very easy to be happy in Saigon where in S.F. it sometimes takes a bit of work (especially if you commute).

Yet, Saigon really no longer feels like home and that is due to the rapid changes in the city. Saigon has no recession, buildings are going up left and right and young people are finding plenty of nice office work. There is nothing that brings a bigger smile to my face then watching the young Vietnamese on a company outing with the same color hats and shirts on and their smiles simply beaming!! A beaming smile while working in S.F. is very scarce.

The Vietnamese are enjoying life at the moment and are definitely on the up and up. It is as if you can really see the people for who they are and nothing is hidden. And they are a wonderful people!! In Tokyo, the people are very polite but there is a distance between everyone. This lubricates the society but it takes a very long time to feel close or make good fr
iends. In Vietnam this could be accomplished in seconds.

I have gone astray and must digress a bit to Saigon not feeling like home. The reason is that before, it was still a pretty small city and it seemed as though all the expatriates new each other. We attended the same events, went to the same bars and could theoretically attend every event going on in the city! Further, there were quite a few Vietnamese who also attended these sort of foreigner events and I knew most of them too.

Now, there are foreigners everywhere, many more functions and associations and it is impossible to know everyone. I really became aware of this when I first arrived at the airport. In 2004, I could shoot through immigration in 30 seconds as there were no lines and only about 10 inspectors. Now there are around 40 inspectors and lines!! Further, I could not believe how many foreigners there were!

I was amused at the foreigners in front of me at immigration who were obviously new. The inspector rebuffed them due to some paperwork error and they seemed surprised that they were not being let in. Being haughty to the immigration inspector also does not get you in the country any faster and I was glad to bypass them and be let in immediately.

In town I also realized that a lot of my favorite hangouts were now gone and that there were many new hotspots in town. Dong Koi street is no longer the foreigner hangout it used to be and is now over behind the Sun Wah tower! Going into these places I only recognized between one and three people instead of the usual 10-15 as before. I did feel special as one of the bartenders gave me a free drink and called me “old meat” which meant that I was one of the old crowd returned instead of all the “new meat.” My friends which were still there also informed me that even they did not recognize most of the foreigners anymore since there were so many of them.

Finally, an enormous change has been the Viet Kieu which are the returning Vietnamese that left in various waves fleeing the country. They have also changed the face of Saigon and have brought money with them. I was fortunate enough to meet some really great Viet Kieu and none of the bad. The bad ones look upon foreigners as though they don’t belong there because it is THEIR country and can sometimes be rude. Fortunately, the ones I met were very outgoing and we had a lot of fun.

This social dynamic is really going to change things and it will be interesting to watch how the Vietnamese adapt to these new returnees especially when they have a lot of money. So many people left and so many are returning that it will have a very big impact. In Japan, there are few that venture outside the country but the ones that do might have trouble re-adapting since they might have a hit of “foreignerness” about them. I don’t really want to go into this and mention it just for comparison with Vietnam.

In conclusion for Saigon, I’m very excited that the young people are doing so well and the country is progressing. I do feel a little sad though that the Saigon I knew is gone but I am just one traveler whose time there has passed. This does not mean that I will not be back for visits however and I sincerely hope that I cross paths with Vietnam frequently. Yet, as for living there again it does not seem optimal unless a very large business opportunity were to present itself.

3. San Francisco

– Out of all the cities in the USA (that I have visited) San Francisco is my favorite. The people are not as warm as the Vietnamese and the city is not as advanced as Tokyo but San Francisco is magnificent! The natural beauty and the talent of this city are unsurpassed. The people are also more laid-back then those down in LA except of course during their commute.

I love this city due to it’s walkable nature and its compact size. San Francisco can be taken in in its entirety yet there is always something new to discover. Tokyo on the other hand is overwhelming and one can only take one small area at a time which even then can never be fully discovered. San Francisco though is able to be digested in each of its unique neighborhoods over the course of a year or so. Further, the variety is astounding in that one could be snowboarding (Lake Tahoe) in the morning and drinking wine outdoors in 80 degrees (Napa) in the evening.

In regards to entertainment, even the small venues draw extraordinary talent. I used to believe that quality entertainment costs about $100. Yet, I have recently learned that it can be had for $15 and even great wine can be bought for $20.

The downside is that this city costs money. It is an adult playground but in order to play one must pay the fee. Further, it is not very easy to make friends without a lot of effort. In Saigon one makes friends whether they desire to or not. In Tokyo, many people are curious about foreigners and even though it takes a lot of time, with a positive attitude friends will come. Yet, in S.F. it succumbs to the “big city” mentality in that even though people can be friendly, one can only get so close before it becomes uncomfortable. Friends can be made but they must actively be sought out.

This could also simply just be my mindset as there are plenty of young adults around. Yet, I no longer go out to meet people but instead have set plans be it a restaurant or simply staying home and watching Netflix.

San Francisco is a great place to live if one can afford it and does not tire of all the activity. After three and a half years here I still enjoy a modest amount of activity but it is far from the nightly scene of Saigon.

4. Columbus

– My first impression about Columbus was that the people are extraordinarily friendly. I had begun to think that Americans were modestly friendly in comparison to the Vietnamese but that was my mistake and I had become to accustomed to San Francisco.

The atmosphere is much more laid back and I felt very much at peace there compared with the noise and activity of San Francisco. The main activity was going to a Blue Jackets game and talking about Ohio State Football. The politics also seemed much more reasonable and easy going than in S.F. where everything is a constant battle.

It almost seemed as though life was a bit slower and that my town of Grandview was like the fictional town of “Pleasantville.” People get along and are friendly but unfortunately Ohio State Football is more of a discussion topic than international affairs. This is not a slam in any way as I love Ohio but I miss listening to viewpoints I had never even fathomed (Saigon) rather than the usual opinions.

In Columbus, it seems to me that one could have all (or most of) the material things they wanted since living expenses are much more reasonable. A decent sized house, two cars, large T.V. and maybe even a pool table. The people are much more welcoming and friendly which really endears me to the Midwestern life style.

Yet, I feel I would miss the excitement of the international scene and any material items would soon become boring. I have always much preferred experiences to material things and I think it is too late to turn back the clock now. Yet, in terms of livability Columbus is very hard to beat in terms of raising a family.

In conclusion, each city offers distinct advantages while others would have to be sacrificed. It is so easy to simply coast along in life and let the current take you where it may. It is quite another deciding to get up out of the stream and place yourself in a completely different one, swimming like crazy until one is coasting again yet trying not to think of the streams they had previously left and if they would lead to a more perfect lake.

My Experience in Vietnam: 2004 – 2006

This is a snapshot of my life and experience in Vietnam from 2004 – 2006.  Things have changed tremendously and I miss those years a lot.  I thought I would post this video and add some information for anyone thinking of exploring Vietnam.

1. We start off in the countryside.  I really have no idea where this place was, it was just very beautiful

:13 – This is in the Dalat highlands.  Foreigners are only allowed to visit here with an “official” guide if you get my drift.  The reason is that the CIA tried to recruit here during the war and therefore the government is very mistrustful of what foreigners do here.  As for me, I just wanted to enjoy the culture.
:18 – We met some very friendly shop keepers and their super cute baby.  If you look at the expression on the mothers face she frowns a bit.  This is because our “guide” tried to say a word in their native language (not Vietnamese) but messed up the pronunciation.
:34 – The young lady laughs because I wasn’t sure how to catch her.  I need lessons.
:43 – This is at Cao Dai.  They have their own religion which focuses around the all seeing eye.
:50 – We were invited to a festival and the young lady in blue is a member of the communist party.  She was very friendly and an excellent host.
:54 – The way to get around Saigon is by motorbike.  To get to the other side of the street you have to pass right through the traffic.  The best way to explain how is like a school of fish.  You honk your horn repeatedly and the mass will swarm past you just like a school of fish would.  It’s really not difficult to do.  People on foot cross the street this way and the trick is to just walk very slowly and steadily.  Don’t make any sudden movements!
1:30 – This is “round-a-bout”  Again, like a school of fish, if a larger group is coming you stop and let them go first.  I was the last to pass by before another mass of cars/motorbikes joined in and took a bit of a risk here.
1:35 – The bow is because I didn’t get us killed at the round-a-bout.  🙂
1:45 – I’m wearing a wig because was recently at a costume party.  I went as an “american from the 70s.”  I saw my friends that night and most didn’t even recognize me.  Some guys from the US consulate (who also were on my darts team) looked at me like I had three heads.  ROFL
1:59 – I give a kiss to Claudia.  She is a Viet Kieu which means a “returning Vietnamese.”  During the war so many left but now are returning for vacation or to live but all to discover a bit more about their home country.  It’s so amazing because these people relocated all over the world.  Some speak German, some French, some English, basically they are coming from everywhere.
2:11 – Back in Dalat and a really cute baby is loving the music.  It’s when you see like things like this that you really start to detest war.
2:17 – On the “party boat” in Nha Trang.  This ride is completely awesome.  We always drank beer, then snorkeled, then did jumps off the boat.  They also create a “floating bar,” in which a crew member goes out in an intertube with a lot of bottles of TERRIBLE wine from Dalat.  We didn’t care that the wine is awful because we were pretty drunk anyway.  I remember speaking with a Viet Kieu from France and it was her first time back to Vietnam since she left as a baby.  Just so amazing to meet those people.
2:21 – Notice my Vietnamese buddy unknowingly “flips me off” English style when trying to give the peace sign.  ROFL!!!!  🙂
2:31 – We were invited to the house of a gentleman who was an officer in the North Vietnamese army.  We drank and had fun communicating through our translators.  Again, war is stupid, people are people and everyone just wants to enjoy life, no matter what side you are on.
2:36 – In the jungle in a creek.  This is in Mui Ne, a very beautiful beach side resort with amazing sand dunes.
2:37 – We met a bunch of kids who were very interested in us.  We bought them all coke and played a few games with them.
2:45 – This is Octoberfest which is a HUGE party at one of the hotels.  Basically, you drink beer, eat German food and drink some more beer.
2:50 – The dancers are entertaining us at a fund raiser for a local orphanage.  Very important to donate to these causes.  All the dancers were orphans. (5th of May School)
2:55 – This was the British Ambassador to Vietnam.
2:57 – We were at the St. Andrews Ball.  They even cut the haggis !!  This ball is the most exclusive in Saigon and a ticket runs about $100 US Dollars.
3:08 – Myself in front of Ben Than market.  This is popular with the tourists but frankly, there are other markets further out with better prices.  They would always ask my wife “O’ne-san, O’ne-san, nani hoshi??”  — Big Sister, Big Sister, what are you looking for?
3:13 – Cu Chi Tunnels –  These are the famous tunnels which the American Army unsuspectingly build a military base right on top of.  Now, it is full of tourists.  In the past, you were allowed to shoot kalashnikov rifles for a dollar a bullet but it was discontinued because a Korean committed suicide there.  Not sure if they allow this now since it was quite a while ago.
3:36 – Darts!  Most bars in Saigon have their own darts team.  I was the captain of mine and the team members belonged to companies such as BP, Conoco-Philips, Canadian Consulate, American Consulate.  We also were at the top of the league for a while.
3:56 – A beautiful sunset.  I really love Vietnam and hope that one day I’ll be reconnected with that country.


Street Vendors

Being a student of languages, I found it very interesting during my recent travels to compare the English abilities of street vendors in both Cambodia and Vietnam. These are the people who continually summon you to check out their goods and really pressure you into buying something.

At times it can be very annoying, but one has to remember that there are no social services here and these people struggle day by day to just get by. But for the foreigner, it’s difficult to identify who the true needy are and who don’t need as much help. So this entry will serve as kind of a guide to help in discerning who you should give a bit of money to as well as how they will approach you.

The first thing I noticed is how from Cambodia and throughout Vietnam they are using new English phrases to get you to buy something.

1. The new phrase everyone is using after you have repeatedly told them no is “ok, later.”

The vendor will continually say “You buy me one, you buy me one.” They will be persistent but after telling them “no” continually they will say “OK Later” after which many foreigners say “OK.” Then the next time they see you they will say “You say you buy me one, why you not buy me one,” and look at you with a sad face. If you really don’t want to buy something you cannot say “OK” after they say “OK, later” because they will really pester you since you agreed to buy something after they said “ok, later.”

In the beginning, foreigners will usually buy something but their constant pleas will eventually wear anyone down. On the beach in Nha Trang we bought a few items at first but that created a swarm of people around us. To those that simply wouldn’t leave and looked needy, I offered to buy them a drink and gave their kids some gum. It costs next to nothing and will create good will.

Sometimes, they are grateful if you just sit and talk with them instead of shutting them out completely. I spoke with one woman on the beach for about an hour and learned so much about her life and how she makes a living. It made me laugh when she said she really didn’t like the French because they never bought anything. Again, it can get very annoying when you are continually asked to buy something but it’s important to remember that these are human beings as well and it’s good to drop a few coins now and then.

While in Hoi An, I ran into one kid who had a very unique approach to selling his newspapers. We had just gotten of the motorbikes when this kid with tears running down his face said to me “You buy me one.” Now in this case I could tell that it was a trick that many foreigners might fall for. So I asked him directly, “Why are you crying.” I don’t think he could understand but all his tears really did get to me and I offered him about 20 cents for nothing. He then pointed to the price of the paper which was 30,000 VND. It was then I could see in his face that he wasn’t really sad and it was all a ploy. The price of a newspaper is 5,000VND and somehow he figured out how to erase the price that is printed on the paper and reprint in strange font a much higher price. This was a sham and made me mad so I walked past him and into the restaurant. He tried to follow me in but the staff stopped him.

I began to observe him from the outside and saw other Vietnamese looking at him with amusement. It sounds cruel, but this kid was doing OK with his gig of ripping off foreigners. His tears also immediately stopped when no foreigners were nearby. He then saw me looking at him and started gesturing after which I asked again in Vietnamese “How much??” with a look that told him I was not going to pay that outrageous price. I really did want a newspaper but there was no way I was going to get ripped off that much.

He lowered the price a little after which I told him in Vietnamese “Too much!” He then came into the restaurant and the staff wanted to kick him out again, but I told them to let him come after which I negotiated the price down to 10,000VND which is twice the price, but then again this is how the kid makes his living and for me it’s not that much money.

The moral of the story I guess is that it’s a bad idea to let yourself get ripped off because it is not an honest way of doing business and will cause trouble for other foreigners but on the other hand it’s good to be generous from time to time and when the need is truly there. So I felt good about not paying too much but at the same time giving him a little extra.

After I finished my meal I spoke to him a bit but my Vietnamese wasn’t enough to understand what he was saying. I gave him a handshake and he returned a big smile.
Another story to illustrate the negative effects of giving money when one shouldn’t is to the very young bow legged girl who hangs out on Dong Khoi street. She is cute as buttons but if it’s her mother who makes her go out day after day when she should be in school. If we give money to her it will simply encourage this terrible practice. And, she really isn’t that needy which I found out by offering to buy her a coke and a hot dog after which she replied, “No,,,, Money!” The conversation usually goes like this.

Girl: You buy me one
Me: Cannot
Girl: yes,, you buy me one!
Me: Not today
Girl” ok later
Me: No not later, do you want a Coke?
Girl: No, Money!
Me: No, Coke!
Girl: You give me money!
With the young ones it’s easy to get them off their goal by asking simple questions.
Me: How old are you?
girl: 7
Me: What’s your name?
girl: hanh
Me: Hi Hanh, my name is Matt
girl: You buy me one!

Then I usually just smile and continue on.

This girl knows me since I’ve lived here for two years and the other night when we were hitting the bars she started to come up to me after which I looked at her with an over-animated expression of surprise and started to run away saying “Nooooooooooooo” I turned around and it was so cute to see those little bow legs running after me with a big smile on her face. I picked her up and carried her in my arms and said, “Why you always chase me!” She said “You buy me one?” I said “Already buy you one last month!”

She started to count her postcards “One, two, three, four….” and I responded in Spanish after which she looked at me with a quizzical look. It was cute and I couldn’t help but give her 2,000 dong which is about 15 cents. I really shouldn’t encourage that practice but I couldn’t help myself on that occasion.

Another good trick if you really don’t want to give money is to simply talk with them or offer funny answers to their questions.

They will say “You buy me one,” but then sometimes ask you questions to keep you attention. Most all of them after you initially refuse will ask “Where are you from?” To this I sometimes reply “Japan” and if they are quick they will think a minute and then smile and say “nooooooooooooo” Then you can smile and share a laugh with them. I then ask where they are from and they usually say “Ho Chi Minh City” and are pleased that you stopped to talk with them since most foreigners do not.

It’s also extremely important to always keep a smile on your face and be warm and friendly. Even if you don’t want to buy you can sympathize with them by the expressions on your face and they will begin to have a favorable opinion of foreigners even if they don’t buy.

Saigon Stories – Cambodia

Angor Wat 059
These last couple of weeks have been insane. I’ve been all over S.E. Asia and thought it was time for a blog entry but unfortunately had a big night out last night and can barely think straight today. But I’m tired of watching movies yet too lazy to get out of the house.

I don’t even know where to start, so I guess I’ll just give the run down of my adventure in Cambodia. I went with my girlfriend and buddy who came to visit me from France.  The civil war just ended five years ago and they still have a lot of weapons around and let you pick them up in the museum.

A visit to this place really puts things in perspective and makes you wonder how anyone could ever support a war. Our tour guide was a soldier in both the Khmer Rouge and then switched sides to the Vietnamese army or would have been executed when they invaded.
He had been shot by an AK-47 three times, his body was full of shrapnel metal and nails, he had a prosthetic leg and was 70% blind. His wife also stepped on a land mind and was killed two years ago. Some questions were asked that he could not answer because the current PM of Cambodia and some elements in Government were in the Khmer Rouge so he had to be extremely careful with his answers.

Most of the beggars in Cambodia have had limbs torn off by the thousands of landmines still strewn about the country and all I could think about was those religious zealot idiots in America who support the war in Iraq as they drive around in their SUV’s and believe God is on their side in promoting war. Damn.

On the positive side, Cambodians are wonderful and extremely resilient people. Our waitress in the restaurant was as cute as a box full of kittens who replied to our requests with “Thank you a moment please.” (Thank you and just a moment please). When she kept saying that it made us just want to give her a big hug.

Although there is a lot of misery in Cambodia, the people are warm and extremely friendly. It is also a very big tourist destination for Asians and the Ankor Wat temples are extraordinary. My girlfriend dragged Ryan and I to about 6 thousand temples in the blazing sun but on the second day we took a break at the Sofitel pool and their wonderful swim up bar.

Cambodia is not the only place we hit, but in the past month I’ve been to Thailand, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Danang, and Hanoi. I’m pooped! For those Vets who wonder what Danang is like now, there is nothing left of the American war machine and nothing mentioned about any war sights listed in Let’s Go which means they have all been built over by economic progress.

Hanoi was also quite the experience. It’s much more solemn than Saigon and the people much more reserved. I spoke to a university student and said that I didn’t find Hanoi people very friendly but she said they were just more quiet than people in Saigon. We visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh and saw him in his glass sarcophagi surrounded by four white uniformed guards with bayonets.

It was also extremely interesting hearing the North Vietnamese accent with their heavy use of the “z” sound. So many words are pronounced with the sound “zzzzz” that it makes me think that if bumble bees could talk they would speak with an accent from Hanoi. Zum zaa, zoi zzzunn! In the line to see Ho Chi Minh the guards pick out people who are not dressed respectfully enough and one stern faced 6 foot tall guard picked out a Vietnamese, said something strict and made the guy go to the clothing lending station to put on pants.
In other news, I checked to see how many hits my website was getting and it’s over 1000 a month!! It really makes me wonder who wants to read my ramblings and whatnot. Well, it’s about time for an afternoon nap so I’m gonna conclude this entry here.