Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mekong Delta Fish Sauce -- The Elixir of Life

Like forest fires and volcano eruptions, the devastating floods that have killed more than 1000 in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are also the life forces of the Mekong RiverAsia’s seventh-longest and the world's tenth-longest river, respectively.

The floods’ rich silt deposits fertilize the soils of Thailand and Vietnam, turning them into the world’s number one and number two rice exporters, respectively. The floods also stock and feed the fishes of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, the world’s richest freshwater fishery.

Growing up in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, the floods were not only the source of endless fun, but also a great time for fishing. One particular fish was the humble minnow, or cá linh in Vietnamese, which was used to make a very special fish sauce. Fish sauce, like olive oil to an Italian family, was king in the kitchen, then garlic, MSG, sugar, black pepper and, lastly, salt. Herbs and spices were pretty much whatever that grew in the garden or the back of the house.

For as long as I could remember, we never had to purchase fish sauce. We made our own. Every family did  unique to the Cambodians living around the Tonle Sap area and the Vietnamese in the An Giang and Dong Thap provinces. The minnows were plentiful during the monsoonal flooding season, which runs from July to November.

Fully-grown Mekong River Minnows
The humble two-inch minnows, spawned and hatched in the Tonle Sap or Great Lake, the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia, began to move out of the lake in June and followed the flood water into the paddy fields around the lake and downstream in Vietnam, where they fattened up, before heading back up into the Tonle Sap to spawn. Most were caught, but enough made it back up the river to begin the life cycle all over again.

The fish was so plentiful that one could literally catch them by placing a net anywhere in the water. Making fish sauce was the primary use, but the minnows, being that small and with tiny bones, were also great for drying, frying, stewing, as well as in the traditional sweet and sour soup. My favorite was battered and deep fried – the Mekong Delta sardines. Eating whole, of course.

Small families could make do with about 40 kilos of fish – good for one year  but large families would need up to 150 kilos.

The process began with the fish being washed thoroughly but with the guts, scales and fins fully intact. For 40 kilos of fish, about 12 kilos of salt would be used. Fish and salt were roughly mixed together, but with about 3 - 5 kilos of salt was left to top the fish off, packing them down.

Kimchee Pickling Jars
Typically large glazed earthen jars were used, ones that are similar to those used for pickling kimchee. Some folks swore by their own secret ingredients, which was nothing more than either one or two pineapples, cut up but unpeeled or a couple of kilos of the rice paddy mud crabs, or both.

The jars then would be left out in the sun, and the mixture would be stirred with large wooden ladles or chopsticks every few days. Pretty soon a pungent aroma began to waft through every town and village in the region. Since everyone was making their own fish sauce, nobody was bothered by the overpowering aroma.

The mash was left out in the sun for about a month or two depending on the size of the fish. The two-inchers typically took about a month to break down. By now what had sunk to the bottom of the jars was essentially highly salted decomposed fish, taken on a grayish-green color.

The big pots or cauldrons would be set out on improvised stoves, outdoors, of course, for the smoke and the pungent aroma would be too much for indoors. Then the mash was transferred into the pots. The cooking process could take up to three or four hours or until all the bones and other secret ingredients completely broken down into tiny bits.

Cooking and Filtering the Mash
The pots, and the fire, had to be constantly tended to, especially to scoop out the heads or impurities that floated to the top. This was key because what rose to the top could essentially ruin the finished product if not scooped out.

Next, fine cheese cloth would be placed on top of pots, pans, jars or whatever type of holding container available. Slowly the cooked mash would be scooped out of the pots and poured over the cloth. The elixir of life slowly squeezed its way through the fine mesh, dripping into the containers below. This slow, painstaking process yielded a crystal clear golden brown liquid, nothing but pure fish sauce. Each 40 kilos of fish yielded about 30 liters of fish sauce.

This fish sauce, called nước mắm cá linh, if done right, was rather fragrant, devoid of any fishy smell. It was salty, but had a pleasant after taste, not a burning sensation. Another way to tell if it was artisanal was to drop in a grain of cooked rice at room temperature. The rice should float to the top. 
And folks, that is the Mekong Delta minnow fish sauce, the Vietnamese elixir of life.

(Nước means water or liquidMắm means pickledCá linh is the Vietnamese name for the minnows.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

American Foreign Policy: Bomb First, Talk Later

The let's-bomb-Iran drum beat gets louder as we get closer to November. For the chicken hawks on the right, this seems to be the only way they know how to talk foreign policy, not necessarily having to go fight or enlist their sons and/or daughters, as is the case with Mitt Romney's five able-bodied sons. 

Just in case war-drum beating is not enough, Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan even boasted “I voted to send people to war” as if that proved he has some sort of foreign policy and/or military decision-making experience. 

Mitt Romney and Sons -- Fit to Fight
Bragging about one's wanton desire to bomb other countries whose policies or leaders one doesn't agree with seems to have become the mindset of modern American politicians, left and right. The ability to drop bombs from 30,000 feet without a care as to the destruction on the ground has furthered desensitized politicians, and their supporters, from the consequence of war or the loss of lives. 

America's air supremacy may have begun with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the scale of America's war machine was put on full display during the Viet Nam War, where one bombing run after another became routine.

It’s Just Another Operation
Though “shock and awe” was a phrase uttered by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the invasion of Iraq, its doctrine was put into good use during the Viet Nam War. The American military even came up with great names for the various bombing campaigns, the most infamous of which was Operation Rolling Thunder. It was designed as “a method of strategic persuasion” to get the North Vietnamese to stop fighting. That went really well there, didn’t it? The bombing began on March 2, 1965 and did not end until November 11, 1968. This was the grand-daddy of the “shock and awe.”

File:Bombing in Vietnam.jpg
American F-105s "Operation Rolling Thunder"
By the end of “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a total of “more than a million sorties were flown and three-quarters of a million tons of bombs were dropped” on Viet Nam.

There were also Operation Barrel Roll, Operation Steel Tiger and Operation Commando Hunt, all took place in Viet Nam. Even our Judeo-Christian tradition could not stop us from bombing Viet Nam “back to the Stone Age,” because there was the Operation Linebacker and, in the best of Hollywood tradition, Operation Linebacker II, otherwise known as the Christmas bombing. It was so named because the US Air Force kept on bombing during and past the Christmas holidays.

The Christmas bombing, which lasted for 12 days, from December 18 to December 29, 1972, was notable for many things. The B-52 Stratofortress bombers, the backbone of the main attraction of the Viet Nam War, were modified to carry up to 60,000 pounds (27,215 kg) or 108 bombs. By the end of the 12 days, 15,237 tons of bombs were dropped on North Viet Nam, mainly  Hanoi and Haiphong.

B-52 Stratofortress Bomber
And you are not going to believe this? the so-called “carpet bombing” of Cambodia began with Operation Breakfast, which was decided by President Richard Nixon and his staff in the Oval Office, right after church service on Sunday, March 16, 1969. Church service!?!?

During the first war with Iraq we had Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and when that did not stop Saddam Hussein’s desire to “take over the world,” we moved on to Operation Desert Fox eight years later. Then we got serious with Hussein with Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, but we have now settled in in Iraq with Operation New Dawn as of September 1, 2011.

Over in Afghanistan we began with Operation Enduring Freedom, which has proven to be long-lasting because we are still there. And because of its enduring quality, we have used it again and again in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and other places in between.

Commenting on what goes through the mind of the fighter pilots and whether they want to acknowledge what their bombs do to people and things on the ground, Giora Rom, a retired Major General and himself a fighter pilot in the Israeli Defense Forces wrote this in the Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, in April of 2009.

“Pilots drop bombs. Pilots kill people. Pilots destroy things that took great effort to build. Pilots do all of this without seeing the results of their actions up close.”

And now with the drones, at the press of a button, we can level towns and villages and destroy everything within, all from the comfort of an ergonomic chair in an air-conditioned room, within easy reach of Coca-Cola and pizzas. The drones have furthered eroded our humanity, our innate sense of responsibility and compassion for others. How can we when those we kill are nothing but blips and dots on a computer monitor, zeros and ones, not flesh and blood?

Unexploded bombs dropped on Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam 35 years ago still kill and maim hundreds of innocent people every year, mostly farmers and their children. Viet Nam has estimated that it takes up to 300 years to clear all the unexploded  mines and bombs.

This Laotian man lost both of his arms and right eye to an unexplored 
cluster bomblet while fishing (Photo: Cluster Munitions Coalition)
Death and Destruction Sensitization
Peace and security should not be achieved through death and destruction, as in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan. Diplomacy should not only be employed after a war or threat of an imminent war.

For the United States, the victims and survivors of every imaginable war and conflict it has ever been involved in since 1940 can be found right here in the good ole’ U.S. of A. Their stories we should know. Their experiences we should learn. Their pain and suffering we should feel. Too often those who are responsible for the policies that take our nation to war do so without empathy and a sense of who the people whose lives we are about to change forever are.

Faces of the very people who have been affected by our government’s foreign policies are reflected in those we see every day at our local gas stations, hospitals, schools and universities, neighborhood restaurants, churches, dry cleaners, banks, shopping malls and convenience stores.

Every effort for peace and every policy designed to achieve security, at home and abroad, should have the voices of these victims and survivors of our past wars and conflicts. Maybe, just then maybe, it will help with our effort to achieve peace and security around the world without the loss of lives and treasury, not to mention our own humanity.

Therefore, it should be a national concern whenever our political leaders beat the war drums, especially the candidates for the White House.

Monday, April 30, 2012

My Long Road to America

Reposting: April 30, 1975 the long, brutal war had finally come to an end. Viet Nam's two-halves reunited, peace at last. Yet, for millions, the painful journey had just begun. Below is my journey.

My life in America began on a frigid Thanksgiving’s eve 30 years ago. Not unlike tens of thousands of other Vietnamese escaping Viet Nam at the time, my journey to America began on May 12, 1980 and ended in Oakland, California, on November 25, 1981.

It was a cold and rainy night as I and some two hundred other refugees stepped off the chartered Transamerica Airlines’ flight, which took off from Singapore 19 hours earlier and with one refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska. The cold was not like anything I had felt before. It was something that seemed to penetrate my whole body, right through the bones – a DNA-changing sensation.

Refugees arriving at Hamilton Air Force Base, 1981
(Photo: Mitchell Bonner, UC Irvine Southeast Asian Archives)

The plane was parked away from the passenger terminal where we stepped right onto big coaches that took us to our temporary housing at Refugee Transit Center on the now-closed Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, Marin County, north of San Francisco. Because we had arrived on Thanksgiving’s eve, when the immigrant-receiving staff had gone on a four-day weekend, we had to stay on the base until the following Monday, four days later.

All I could see of America, from the window of the bus, was that of an endless stream of cars on the highway without sight of humans out and about, unlike where I came from. We arrived at Hamilton quite late, couldn't make out the surrounding landscape until the next day.

Thursday, November 26, 1981 – Thanksgiving’s Day – my first day in America. There were perhaps several hundred refugees staying in the barracks at Hamilton on this weekend, in addition to those who arrived on our flight. Later in the afternoon we were served our first Thanksgiving turkey dinner, complete with all the fixings. I didn’t like the taste of turkey then and still don’t like it today.

The lasting impression on that day came from the volunteers and staff of several immigrant and refugee service providing agencies, including some former refugees. The warmth, generosity, attentiveness and welcoming spirit that they exuded were unforgettable. They were the first group of ordinary Americans I met.
Escape from Viet Nam
It was a 19-month journey to hell and back, and through two refugee camps, 25 Hawkins Road, Singapore and Pulau Galang II, Indonesia. It also put me in touch with my Chinese half, taught me the ethics of hard work and how to live off the kindness and compassion of strangers, and completely turned me off from sleeping outdoors for fun and pleasure.

(A former refugee resident of Singapore, Lam-Khanh Nguyen, who has resettled in Germany, has created a wonderful Facebook site dedicated to 25 Hawkins Road.)
The victorious North Viet Nam may have won the war and reunified the country, but governing the former two estranged halves proved to be above and beyond the skills and experience of former soldiers and generals. By 1980 Viet Nam was crippled by the US-led economic blockade and boycott, the 1978’s epic floods, failing in its effort to integrate the former North and South Viet Nam into one country and post-war reconstruction, all the while fighting two wars – one in the north against the Chinese border incursion and one in the south again the Khmer Rouge rampaging massacres along the border.
In the mean time, political persecution and purges against those associated with the old regime, combined with a campaign to wipe out capitalism by shutting down ethnic Chinese-owned businesses, the backbone of Viet Nam’s economy, had left southern Vietnamese living in fear, paranoia and on the verge of starvation. People were whispering among themselves that “if street lamps had legs, they would have tried to escape as well.”
From the archive of the Office of United Nations High Commissioner 
for Refugees (UNHCR), which operated the refugee camps 
in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
All kinds of boats, from canoes with outboard motors to coastal fishing boats, from river-going passenger boats to cargo haulers, were used in the desperate attempts to escape Viet Nam by sea. Others chose to cross into Thailand on foot, hacking their ways through the jungles of Cambodia, often fell victim to the Khmer Rouge en route.

The sea routes were not much better. The majority, if not all, of those who were escaping by sea had no idea where we were headed. The boats were not sea-worthy. There was neither the fuel nor expertise and experience to get us to the other side of the South China Sea. We just aimed for the open water. It was a mad dash for survival.

Thai, Filipino and Malaysian pirates preyed upon us like a pride of lions stalking an injured gazelle on the African savannah. If not fallen into the hands of the pirates, the mighty but deadly Pacific would swallow us whole with waves as tall as ten-story buildings. Others would die from dehydration and starvation adrift at sea days on end. It has been estimated that as many as 1 in 4, and possibly higher, escapees never made it.
Going Through Hell Seeking Life
My voyage began in early May, 1980, in the small Mekong Delta town of Tan Chau, a stone-throw away from the Cambodian border. My father, his two younger brothers and some business associates had been running a people-smuggling ring, selling passage to those who wanted to escape Viet Nam.

Since the exodus was in full swing, both the United Nations and Viet Nam’s Southeast Asian neighbors protested with Viet Nam, demanding that it must stop the waves of boat people that had begun to overwhelm their capacity to house for the arriving stateless refugees. In response, Viet Nam banned all fishing boats from going out to sea and impounded the remaining ones that could be used to smuggle people. If it had not been for the corrupt and disorganized new government, hundreds of thousands would not have been able to escape.

My father and his associates had modified river cargo carriers, masqueraded as long-distance passenger boats, hundreds of miles away from outlets to the South China Sea to escape the authority’s watchful eye. Three boats were used in the operation. One had left in 1978. Next up was the boat I was on and another was planned for 1982.

My boat looked somewhat like this one, perhaps smaller.
The boat had been plying its supposed passenger route for months. Late January, 1980, my father sent for me. I was 16, turning 17, approaching drafting age. The stealth operation was known to only a few, so I was oblivious, assuming that he simply wanted me to join him, working on the boat as a helping hand with my two cousins of about the same age and two other teenagers, one of whom was a gifted marine engine mechanic.

During dinner one evening, my father brought out beer and handed each of us a can to toast. The meal ended with a cigarette break where I was also invited to join in. It was a shocking, but a pleasant surprise, because until that night I was never allowed to drink and smoke with my dad and uncles, at least not in front of them.

That evening, the first event of many more to come that changed my life forever, my father and I had our first father-son adult conversation on the boat deck. He gave me my life manual with a few parting homilies thrown in for good measure. Needless to say, no sleep was to be had the rest of the night. Because of the secretive nature of the operation, there was no goodbye with my mother, my younger brother and two sisters, whom I had not seen for almost five months and not again twelve years later.

The most devasting news of all was that I would be escaping Viet Nam alone. My father promised that the rest of our family would go later on the 1982 boat, which ended in failure.

We left Tan Chau on Monday, May 12, plying our usual route that would take us past a major outlet to the South China Sea. To escape detection, the scheduled stops were meticulously planned where small groups of passengers would be embarking and disembarking.

Three days later, the last group of passengers came aboard in a small coastal town of Binh Thoi, about an hour away from the open water of the South China Sea. Three hundred and four people had crammed into a boat about 20 feet by 70 feet, three deeps. More than standing out like a sore thumb, raising suspicion among the locals, was the overwhelming number of Chinese-Vietnamese passengers and families that seemed to carry no luggage.

All along the route at each stop, there were so many tell-tale signs that this boat could not have been anything else but about to escape. However, silence had been bought with the local police and authorities and the coastal marine police along the route.

We left Binh Thoi around 10 pm, timed to coincide with the receding tide and a moonless night. When we arrived at the opening to the sea, instead of crossing the channel and up another river to the final destination of Bien Hoa, another 5 hours away, we aimed for the sea full throttle, all lights off.

With the exception of the crew, which I was a member, the passengers were told to stay down close to the floor and be quiet. Though there had been many trial runs in the river waterways, nobody knew how the engine or the boat would perform in open water at full capacity and maximum speed. The oversized engine sounded as if it was tearing the boat apart; the nuts and bolts seemed to have been rattled loose.

Soon we were sighted by a coastal patrol boat, which gave chase and ordered us to stop over the roaring engine. Shots were fired, hitting the top cabin. The ensuing chaos in pitch black condition outside and with no lighted markers, our boat ran into and became entangled with fishing nets planted in the open channel; cables strung between wooden poles to hold the nets down ripped the steering house off of the boat, injuring a few, including the skipper and almost pulling those of us inside with it.

We ran over some of the poles. Smaller boats would have been broken up and sunk. Not knowing if the coastal police were still chasing us, we kept on going at full speed until morning. Without charts and a proper working compass, we had no idea where we were in the vast open ocean.  

Surveying the damage the next morning, we discovered that the hull, which stored fresh drinking water had been cracked, rendering the water undrinkable. Furthermore, the damage to the engine, which was pushed beyond its limits the night before, was beyond repair.

As a son of one of the owners, I was made aware of the situation, but the majority of the 304 people on board were not aware of our impending doom. Furthermore, sea sickness had immobilized most of the passengers. Unable to get up and move, most relieved themselves in-situ.   

By the end of our first full day at sea, the sense of hopelessness had begun to set in, partly due to the lack of drinking water and food, with which we could have cooked rice. We soon settled in for our first night in the open water. Being that far out with no land in sight, our boat was like a grain of sand on a beach. The water, with its deep clear blue color, reflected off the lights from our boat, was sparkling and shimmering. When a coin was dropped overboard, its descent was visible for a long time.

By the second day, some had either recovered or gotten used to the motion of the sea, but most had already become lifeless. Making matters worse, the shear humanity – 304 unwashed individuals confined to a space the size of a Boeing 737 – combining with the baking sun, which had heated up the cabin to an intolerable condition. The few hundred pounds of jicama, a root vegetable that is mostly water, which had been on board as part of the charade-cargo, the only source of drinking water, were now being rationed with children and the elderly having priority.

Though the sea was quite calm, the rolling, undulating waves could have destroyed the boat in an instance if the weather had turned for the worse.

The vast empty ocean with no sights of land and ships, which we had been told there would be numerous about now, began to wreack havoc on our mental state. Furthermore, a few of us spotted what looked like bodies and boat debris, floating in the water. We surmised they probably belonged to the unlucky boat or boats that had run into a storm few days prior. We did not want to think about the unthinkable. Maintaining calm and optimism, however, had become an impossible task.

Things began to unravel the second night. People could be heard crying and wailing in the dark corners of the boat. Small children began to suffer – diarrhea and vomiting – crying uncontrollably.

The third day seemed to have spelled the end. The stench from the vomit and human waste had become unbearable. More and more adults now demanded water or slices of jicama. Gold bars and hundred-US-dollar bills seemed to spill out from everywhere; unfortunately they could not quench our thirst or stave off our hunger, nor could they guarantee our safe passage. Death seemed inevitable.

The first casualty occurred when a two-year-old boy stopped moving, unable to be woken up from his sleep. His mother became distraught and began to wail. The child’s father, though not crying, became crazed. Sometime later in the afternoon, he made his way to the top deck and jumped into the ocean. We were now down to 302 lifeless bodies nearing the gates of hell.

We stumbled upon a busy shipping lane on the third night, which we later learned was the main sea route between Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, We began to see very large ships passing by. We screamed. We banged on pots and pans. We flashed our lights. None stopped. Each passing ship caused panic because our tiny boat nearly capsized in its wake.

A large pot that was used for cooking rice was brought onto the top deck. We started burning the rags off of our bodies and anything we could find in the hopes of attracting attention from the passing ships.

Sometime after midnight, a night that had our hopes dashed again and again with each passing ship, suddenly a hulking ship stopped and appeared to go in reverse towards our boat. All those who still had voice began to scream more loudly. More people took off their shirts and pants and threw them into the rice cooker to stoke up the fire again.

The ship stopped. We kept on screaming and burning more of our clothes. We did not know what was going. It may not have been very long, but it seemed to have lasted an eternity. The ship began to move closer to our boat, which nearly rolled over in its wake.

Blinding floodlights were shone on our boat and a ladder was dropped down. We began to cry with happiness, knowing that we had just escaped death. It took another 3 hours before all 302 of us tired, hungry, sea-sickened, lifeless Vietnamese to come onboard what turned out to be an oil tanker named George F Getty II. The sea unworthy boat that had miraculously carried us across the South China Sea was filled up with water and sunk.

About to be rescued by the US Navy. Photo courtesy of the US Navy.
By morning most of us were huddled together in an open area on the top deck of the tanker. Some were able to get washed and a few even managed to learn about who our saviors were. It was an oil tanker en route to Hong Kong. She was Liberian-registered with an Italian captain and a Filipino crew. She belonged to the Getty Oil company of California.

I had my first Italian meal of spaghetti and meatballs on May 18, 1980 aboard the George F Getty II, somewhere on the South China Sea.

Before we settled in for another night on the behemoth oil tanker, a familiar Vietnamese voice came on the loudspeaker announcing the good news that the ship had turned around, heading back to Singapore, but the somewhat bad news was that we weren’t sure if the island-state would allow us to come ashore and granted us temporary housing while waiting for resettlement in a third country.

Amidst cry of joy and silent sobbing, though still not quite comprehending what it all meant, we all knew that our ordeal, for the time being, had ended. We now had been fed, washed and no longer adrift on the South China Sea, but the uncertainty was palpable because we still had no idea where our home would eventually be.

25 Hawkins Road
We arrived in Singapore on the night of May 19, 1980, anchoring among hundreds of ships and oil tankers in the busy Port of Singapore. Gleaming highrises could be seen in the distance. A truly modern world most of us had never seen coming from war-ravaged Viet Nam.

As night fell, this island-state lit up like a sparkling jewel, surrounded by twinkling lights that were the ships in the harbor. Looking back, it was like the Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, an out-of-this-world experience for someone who came from a country where old combustible-engine automobiles had been converted to run on coal and city and street lamps had become a dreamy distant past.

As day light broke, allowing us to see an even more amazing Singapore’s cityscape, the good news came over the loudspeaker that we would be coming ashore sometime before lunch. More crying of joy broke out. Amidst smiles we also learned that somehow one of us had gone missing, may have fallen off the ship. We were now down to 301, from the original 304 leaving Viet Nam.

One by one we boarded ferry boats that took us into Singapore harbor, then each was given a bag lunch of sandwich, soft drink and an apple.

From boarding the ferry to waiting in the harbor to boarding the busses that eventually took us to 25 Hawkins Road, Sembawang, in the northern suburbs of Singapore, we were all in a daze, marveling at everything we saw. How clean. How modern. How orderly everything was. And to top it all off, almost everyone around us was Chinese with whom some of us were able to communicate. It was a revelation.

Your truly, at 16, taken 2 or 3 days after arriving at 25 Hawkins Road,
still with the shirt, on my shoulder, that I left Viet Nam with.
We arrived at 25 Hawkins Road about an hour or so later. It was quite a sight to see hundred of Vietnamese lining the road welcoming our arrival. At this point boat people rescued from 2 to 4 boats were brought into the camp every day, averaging anywhere between 40 and 500 people. Our group was among the largest rescued from a single boat. It was May 20, 1980.

32 years later -- the shirt -- the only thing I came to America with.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Freedom From Fear: Burma's Baby Step Towards Democracy

I got misty-eyed looking at pictures of Burmese people waiting in lines to cast their votes on Sunday. Their faces and eyes conveyed a sense of hope for something better. To be in those lines, they had already managed to overcome their fear, fear of once again having their voices and aspirations squashed by a brutal and paranoid military regime, which has lorded over them since 1962.

Myanmar villagers walking to polling stations on Sunday, April 1, 2012.
(Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP)

As the outspoken Burmese democracy activist Maung Zarni has noted, it was a "psycho-social" victory for the people of Burma, a resource-rich Southeast Asian nation of 60 million.

In America the term democracy is often thrown around like a chess piece in a match between two political parties that essentially vie for the largess and approval from the ruling class. For the people of Burma, it’s the fundamental and existential necessity of life. Ordinary people, whether Burmese or Vietnamese or Americans, just want to have a dignified life, to be left alone to earn a living in order to feed and clothe their families and, if possible, a nominal amount of freedom to express their hopes and fulfill their aspirations. They want to be able to vent their grievances without fear of being detained, tortured or disappeared.

I Love Democracy. Burma's By-Election, Sunday, April 1, 2012
(Photo: European Press Photo/DailyMailUK)
So to know that something akin to a "free and fair" election did actually take place in Burma, a country that not long ago was considered as closed as that of North Korea, makes one feel hopeful about the world. Whether it's long-lasting remains to be seen and regardless of the behind-the-scene machinations, the people of Burma have set an example for their Asian neighbors, especially Vietnamese and Chinese.

I hope the world media won’t just take up and leave right after election for it was a very wobbly baby-step and the people of Burma, now more than ever, need the world’s help in holding the military regime accountable while they chart the next course of adventure called democracy.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Hip Hop: Americans Don't Own It Anymore

Transcending cultures and languages, when combined with social media, hip hop is a potent catalyst for social and political changes in emerging democracies, especially for young women. In this special edition, I feature a few female voices from Kenya, Brazil, Vietnam, Mongolia and Mexico.

Mongolia's thriving hip hop scene is much more socially and politically conscious than elsewhere in Asia. Gennie is a rare female voice among an almost all-male club.

It's fair to say that Ana Tijoux is the Manu Chao of hip hop. Tijoux was born to Chilean parents who were exiled in France during the Pinochet military dictatorship. Shock is a tribute to Chilean student protests against education budget cuts that began in May 2011, lasting to the present. 

Brazil has a HUGE hip hop scene, 2nd only to the US. Best-known among female rappers is Flora Matos, who is considered a pioneer among many that have emerged from Brasília, the Manchester of Brazil's hip hop. Mundo Pequeno is one of Matos' big hits.

Like rock'n'roll and psychedelic music of the 60s and 70s, hip hop is the musical language that drives youth social and political activism in the digital age.

I really like the cumbia sound, a Colombian and Panamanian dance music in origin, of this hip hop track from Niña Dioz, the blond Mexican MC from Monterrey, Mexico. La Cumbia Prohibida, with Li Saumet. Dioz is the one in glasses.

Here's the queen of Vietnam's hip hop, Suboi Rapper, who was recently featured in Vietnam's 1st hip hop and break dancing film, Saigon Electric. She's got the swagger down.

Below is Muthoni The Drummer Queen, the multi-talented & multi-lingual MC from Kenya. She's known for both her performances and social and political messaging with her music.

Female hip hop artists outside the US, especially in emerging democracies, have to overcome not only the male-dominated industry, but also conservative cultural norms and mores.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Water Spinach – The Revolutionary Vegetable

I knew this lowly vegetable had arrived a few years back when a white gentleman, who shared a table with me at a San Francisco Thai noodle shop, commented how much he liked the crunchy “cilantro” in his beef stew noodle soup.
“What cilantro?” I asked.
“This,” as he held them up with his chopsticks.
“Oh, you mean water spinach.”
“Water what?”
Milder & Crunchier White Stem Variety 
Water spinach – a member of the Morning Glory family – is also known as swamp cabbage in the Philippines, trokuon in Cambodia, phak bung in Thailand or pak bong in Laos, respectively, kangkong to all the Malays of Southeast Asia, kolmi in South Asia, especially Bangladesh, ung tsoi or ong choi to Chinese speakers and, finally rau muống to this Vietnamese's ears.  

As the name implies, it grows in freshwater lakes, ponds and on river banks everywhere throughout Southeast Asia and Southern China. It earns the name cabbage because it is the leafy green that is good for you, as good as cabbage, but cheaper or free. Even though there are now two different cultivars – white and green stem – that are widely grown on dry land, because of its humble beginning in stagnant water, some people still look down on this heroic herbaceous perennial aquatic plant as peasant food worthy only for the pigs and ducks, which it is often used as feed. The wild variety, which is much darker in color, has a somewhat harsher flavor and tougher bite. 

Harvesting wild water spinach in the Mekong Delta.
(Photo: Tuoi Tre Online)

A heroic plant? You ask. Yes, this lowly vegetable played a very important role in Viet Nam’s fight for independence beginning in 1935.
At Viet Nam’s very first Communist Party Congress, known as the Indochinese Communist Party at the time, which was held in Macau in 1935, as delegates settled in and began their assembly, it was discovered that the man in charge of food and lodging had disappeared with the cash.
The resources required to bring delegates to Macao, especially for a group that was operating in clandestine, did not leave much for lodging and food. So, as the story goes, water spinach soup and dried fish were served at the first Indochinese Communist Party Congress.
Fast forward 30 years later, once again the lowly swamp cabbage played its part in many war stories and memoirs by north Viet Nam’s soldiers, as well as their southern comrades. The most often told stories related to the famous Ho Chi Minh trail.
Ho Chi Minh Trail 
(Photo: Viet Nam National Military History Museum)
The trail, the unofficial north-south thoroughfare, which was not much more than a footpath in some areas, served as THE logistical and supply line for North Viet Nam as its troops pushed southward. It was heavily bombed by the U.S. Air Force, day and night. In fact, during the Viet Nam War, many of the cutely-named bombing runs were targeting the trail, hoping to disrupt the north’s southward march. 

The bombs left their marks all along the trail in the form of craters. It did not take long for mother nature to reclaim her now defiled body. Rainwater soon filled the craters.

Bomb Craters
(Photo: Viet Nam National Military History Museum)
The soldiers began to put fish in there and, you got it, dropped in a few stalks of water spinach for good measure. There were no PXes or mess halls along the Ho Chi Minh trail, but plenty of fish and water spinach that did not require shipping or refrigeration. They also developed a self-regulating system, taking turns to stock and restock these craters so that there was always a ready supply when needed for the next group of soldiers – market fresh. Where-ever the trail left the jungle and the soldiers had no access to nearby craters, both the fish and water spinach were dried for the road.

Uncle Ho tending his water spinach patch.
(Photo: Ho Chi Minh Museum)
So as you can see, the lowly water spinach did indeed play a heroic role in Viet Nam’s struggle for liberation and independence.
Here in Northern California, until a few years ago, water spinach was a luxury item, available only in the summer months. Like many other Asian vegetables, due to the explosive demands from the rapidly-growing Asian immigrant populations, it now can be found year-round, albeit a bit more expensive during the winter months.

Many farmers in California’s Central Valley now grow Asian vegetables in green houses year-round and the Mexican state of Baja California, which borders California, of course, has become the major grower and supplier for almost all of the Asian supermarkets in California, from Orange County to San Jose.

On a recent drive down to Ensenada along Highway 1, I couldn’t help but noticing the familiar vegetable farms dotting the landscape.
Green stem variety, which is now available year round
in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The best way to eat water spinach is a quick stir-fry, with nothing but vegetable or canola oil, garlic, coarse black pepper and a few dashes of fish sauce, of course. Like its name-sake cousin, 2 minutes in a hot wok or frying pan is all it needs. It loses its crunchiness if overcooked. Since it is a utilitarian vegetable of peasant roots, it can be cooked and served in many different ways: salad, soup or just quick-steamed.
For fancy get-ups, my favorites are ones prepared in Malaysian style, especially the one with dried shrimp paste and chili pepper (Serrano is fine) -- kangkung belacan.
Kangkung Belecan
I’ve ordered a few packets of seeds, both white and green stem, from an online seed store and plan to grow them in my little plot since I eat so much it. I can hardly wait for the night-time temperatures to rise a bit more so I can begin the planting.