The Cyborg Manifesto

Last week, I contributed yet another iPod to the developing Vietnamese economy. I suppose this is what’s meant by foreign aid. What I thought was especially smart about this one-off relief program was that I cut out the middle-man altogether, bypassing official government channels and seeing to it that my $300 investment went straight into the hands of those who wanted it most — in this case a hunched, toothless seller of pirated books and pilferer of valuables in the Pham Ngu Lao area. Just moments before my iPod re-entered the local economy, I had bought a copy of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for M. from this cringing, groveling bookseller for the equivalent of about $2.50. (I figured if you’re going to buy a photocopied book, it might as well be one that’s subversive, frequently banned, and whose best known idiom is the use of the word “phony.”)

While I was introducing M. to the cynical delights of Holden Caulfield and his famous first sentence, this bookseller saw to it that my iPod, resting just inches from my knee on the cafe table, precisely where it should not have been, found its way into his (her? I have no idea) pocket, where it no doubt shared space with several other electronic foreign investments. It was the single most expensive book I’ve ever purchased, and probably the most that’s ever been paid by anyone  for an unsigned, badly-photocopied copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

In addition to now having to live with the bitter taste of my own stupidity, I’m out one of the most useful tools I’ve ever owned. At the risk of sounding like an Apple advertisement, that iPod had become a critical part of my everyday life. Naturally, I listened to music on it, as well as lectures and podcasts. I tracked my workout routines on it at the gym, and I used it, with a Nike sensor in one of my running shoes, to measure and record my runs. I took notes on it. It was my alarm clock. I used it as an e-Reader (the free Stanza app’s functionality is as good as anything I’ve seen in a Kindle, and the Vietnamese government’s propensity for shredding “objectionable” books brought into the country makes eBooks and pirated copies the only real options here for readers). It was my gamepad, my flashlight, my French language tutor, my universal remote control, and my reference desk. Losing it has been like losing a limb. I’m aware that I’m flirting here with personal technological determinism and that this all makes me more than a little cyborg, but I’m fully committed and I don’t care. It’s 2010. We were all supposed to be living on the moon and interacting with bionic playmates by this time anyway, so as far as I’m concerned I’m just trying to meet humanity’s own expectations for itself.

Obviously, I’ve been strategizing on how to replace this huge part of my life. My first thought was to upgrade — to bite the bullet and plunk down for an iPhone. Unfortunately, the only iPhones available in Vietnam for some time have been Chinese knockoffs, which tend to have the lifespans of mayflies. I had a look online at the prices for the new models in the U.S. and Australia, and once I’d picked myself up off the floor I reminded myself that shipping an iPod into Vietnam would, again, be the best conceivable way to help the local black market electronics trade. Besides, any new electronics brought into the country are subject to a crippling import tax. The only other option seemed to be to purchase a new unit in the U.S., have it shipped to a friend’s father who’ll be traveling to Vietnam in a month — a painful delay but, as M. reminded me several times, no less than what I deserved. She also reminded me that I’ll be just as likely to lose an iPhone as I was any of the three iPods I’ve had lifted from me, which I didn’t really want to hear, even though I know she’s right.

Yesterday, however, I learned that Apple has decided that the 87 million residents of Vietnam and the still-unpopular 3G network here need to be incentivized, as they say in the marketing department. What that means is that Vietnam’s three biggest cellular operators are going to be offering 3Gs iPhones starting this week — with contract or without — for prices a third lower than in the U.S. or Australia. In fact, as fate would have it, it looks like the three companies are about to start a bruising iPhone price war, with the primary benificiary being me. By this time next week, I may be whole again. But will I be satisfied?

As Holden would say, “Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”


Another Week in the Can


One of the strangest things about living as near to the equator as I do is that the length of the days never really changes. No matter whether it’s January, August, or December, the sun rises around 5:30am and sets around 6:30pm. Winter solstice, summer solstice, whatever, there’s no difference to speak of. That means that on Fridays, once I’ve finished my last class and have established that the mess on my desk can probably wait until Monday, when I’m finally ready to pack it in for the weekend, this is the scene I’m handed by the universe as I head out the third-floor north exit at RMIT and make for the motorcycle parking lot (which you can see down there, mostly empty at 6:30pm on a Friday). That’s not Saigon per se in the background — not downtown Saigon anyway — but the section of District 7 known as Phu My Hung. Otherwise known as home.

If you’ve seen one apocalyptic global pandemic, you’ve seen them all

I recently watched a TV documentary on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which I feel certain the cool heads at the History Channel programmed as a way of diffusing the overblown panic gripping the world over the H1N1 outbreak by depicting just how bad it’s not. See how tens of millions of people succumbed to a seemingly innocuous viral contagion that drowns its victims in their own bloody phlegm? That’s exactly what isn’t going on in your neighborhood. Yet.

I managed not to throw myself off my fifth-floor balcony to preempt the inevitable end. But on my return to work earlier this week, I discovered others have not been so calm about the looming threat of the near-certain eradication of the human species. Last week one of the 4,000 students at my university was diagnosed with swine flu. Shortly afterward, a faculty member, a friend of mine in fact, was also labeled one of the Infected. Both were quickly snatched out of the school, tossed into a van and carted off to the local quarantine hospital, which, if you’ve ever seen a hospital in Vietnam, resembles a cross between The Island of Dr. Moreau and a Bangalore slum, only less hygienic. On the advice of Vietnam government health officials, the school initially insisted that all students and faculty who’d had contact with the two pariahs confine themselves to their homes until seven days had passed or the world ended, whichever came first. But after some consultation with, one supposes, health officials who actually understand the germ theory of disease, university officials reversed themselves and allowed the Almost-Infected to return to school.

On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, therefore, the student population disappeared behind a deluge of cheap, completely useless surgical masks. Lecture rooms looked like casting calls for Scrubs. Hallways throbbed with youth who appeared to be en route to a late-era-Michael Jackson fan club convention. Faculty members awaited the inevitable call for all lecturers to don masks themselves, resigned to a week or more of dressing like a Halloween punchline.

Yet once again, logic, or at least a close substitute, prevailed. For reasons probably having more to do with public relations than modern medical enlightenment, RMIT International University has locked the doors and barricaded the entrance (literally) until the morning of Monday, August 3.* (Updated) It’s hard to complain about an extra-long weekend. But it’s also hard to imagine we won’t be here again in a week or two weeks or three. In the meantime, I see 28 Days Later is showing this evening. One good thing about global pandemics: they’re always entertaining.

RMIT Vietnam extends Saigon South closure to Monday 3 August


RMIT International University Vietnam has decided to extend the temporary closure of its operations at Saigon South until Monday 3 August.

RMIT Vietnam’s President, Professor Merilyn Liddell, announced the measure today following an initial decision yesterday to close the campus until at least Monday 27 July.

“We have consulted further with local health authorities over the past day, and the good news is that the number of people so far affected by H1N1 has remained very small.

“The total of students confirmed to have this influenza remain at only three, with one staff member also diagnosed. We expect that this number may still rise in coming days, but we believe the quick action we have taken to curtail the spread of the virus will give us every chance of keeping the total number small.”

Professor Liddell said the decision to extend the closure for a further full week, to Monday 3 August, was taken to allow time to consider assessing whether or not the small outbreak has been fully contained.

“We believe it is sensible to continue our precautionary approach for a longer period, and the local health authorities agree with this approach.

“The early action we have taken to minimise the spread of H1N1 appears to have worked to this point, so we believe it’s prudent to continue this approach for a further seven days to provide the maximum opportunity to ensure all sources of potential infection are fully cleared from the premises.”

Professor Liddell said the university placed the highest priority on the health and safety of its students and staff.

The Saigon South campus will maintain a skeleton staff of essential personnel only during the coming week, and senior management will continue to monitor developments and advise students and staff of developments as necessary. General telephone calls will be diverted to the Hanoi campus, which remains open as usual.

“We are encouraging all of our students and staff to keep checking their emails and the RMIT Vietnam website for regular updates through the week, prior to the resumption of all classes from the morning of Monday 3 August,” Professor Liddell said.

“We know there will need to be some rescheduling of examinations and other student activities. Those affected will be advised of what they need to know during the coming week.

“We will be working to ensure that no students are disadvantaged by this temporary closure.”

All the Prime Minister’s Men

While the western world bemoans the looming death of journalism and the printed word, I’m happy to report that here in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Fourth Estate is alive and flourishing. Proof, you ask? Consider the following news item from the ever-upbeat Viet Nam News: an announcement at last week’s meeting of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front of a new journalism prize. They’re giving awards away here to people for doing this stuff! What matter that they call it ‘information dissemination‘ rather than ‘reporting.’ (Which of those sounds sexier, I ask you?) Anyway, don’t bother us with semantics. We’re busy contributing to the country’s glorious cause of the great national solidarity.

Award for Journalists

HANOI – A prize for journalists who have contributed to the country’s cause of the great national solidarity was launched yesterday in Ha Noi.

The award was announced at a meeting of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front on its upcoming seventh congress.

To Huy Rua, Politburo member and head of the Commission for Popularisation and Education of the Party Central Committee, spoke highly of the contributions made by the media in improving the role of the Fatherland Front and promoting national solidarity.

However, he said that information dissemination still didn’t reach potential, and urged information and communication agencies to diversify forms of information dissemination to focus attention and participation on the Fatherland Front’s congress as well as deepen their understanding of the importance of the mass organisation and the great national solidarity.

If They Ask for the Password, I’m Screwed

It’s rather difficult to believe, but it’s been almost exactly one year since I left Japan and became an itinerant in Asia. That number, you may recall, has special significance for me.

It was 11 and a half months ago that the congenitally polite officials of Japan’s Immigration Office took offense at the length of my undocumented stay in their country (“incorrectly documented” is really more accurate) and invited me to take a one-year holiday somewhere – anywhere in the world, really, as long as it was outside the bit of squiggly lines on the map within which lies the word “Japan.” It was an invitation there was no declining. And so on June 5 of last year, I left my first Asian home with slightly less luggage than I’d arrived with, no plan to speak of, even less of an employment strategy, a well-worn-in pair of relatively new hiking boots, and a global recession to welcome me.

It’s been an interesting year. If you’d suggested at that time that in June 2009 I’d be living in Saigon and teaching communications theory at an Australian university to rich Vietnamese kids, I may not have laughed directly at you, but I’d have probably wondered why you were drunk at 8:15 in the morning.

My second semester as a slightly surprised university lecturer ends Friday. My third begins in roughly two and a half weeks. In-between lies the date on which my temporary banishment from the wealthiest, most industrialized, most stylishly eccentric and necessarily vain nation in all Asia ends. My persona non grata status will lose two Latinate suffixes. I will instantly transform from a prodigal son to a where-have-you-been-all-this-time one. The thuggish brutes at the entrance will lift the red velvet rope for me, intone to one another, “He’s on the list,” and usher me into the bright lights and blinking neon fantasy world of modern Japan.

If all goes as planned, I’ll arrive in Osaka International Airport via Malaysia Airlines on Saturday morning at 7:15am – exactly 365 days after leaving. To say I’m looking forward to returning is an understatement on the order of “Sex with that girl from Slumdog Millionaire might not be too bad.” Osaka’s not the prettiest city on earth, but compared to Saigon it’s Shangri La, Xanadu, Neverland and Utopia all rolled into one mouth-watering makizushi. And Kyoto is in point of fact the prettiest city on earth, or at least one of them. Plus, unlike Vietnam, Japan has the benefit of being home to a civilization that’s actually advanced beyond the Iron Age. That’s not necessarily a crack on the Vietnamese people (after all, men pee on the side of the road in both places). But it’ll be nice to spend a little time in a place where the tap water won’t poison you.

Something to Crow About

This morning The New York Times slobbers over what it pegs at the hottest new condiment of the moment, at least in remote parts of California. Sriracha Chili Sauce (Tuong Ot Sriracha) is manufactured in the good old US of A, but its roots, if sauce can be said to have roots, are Southeast Asian.

The lure of Asian authenticity is part of the appeal. Some American consumers believe sriracha (properly pronounced SIR-rotch-ah) to be a Thai sauce. Others think it is Vietnamese. The truth is that sriracha, as manufactured by Huy Fong Foods in Los Angeles, may be best understood as an American sauce, a polyglot purée with roots in different places and peoples.”

Be that as it may, Tuong Ot Sriracha is thoroughly Vietnamese, from its wasabi-green cap to its squeezable bottom. Huy Fong Foods (pronounced hwee fong) is owned and operated by an L.A.-based Vietnamese expat named David Tran. The purée of fresh red jalapeños, garlic powder, sugar, salt and vinegar is a southern Vietnamese staple, the perfect complement for everything from pho to roasted dog. I can say this with confidence not because I have had roasted dog (or not only because of that) but because I have some of this very sauce sitting on a shelf in my kitchen cupboard:


Yes, that’s a bag of grits behind it. Is there a problem with that?

Lies, Slanders and Smears

China gets ‘Ultra’ sensitive

Prime Minister complains about Japanese cartoon

BEIJING — Chinese viewers are boycotting Japanese toon “Ultraman” after their Prime Minister Wen Jiabao complained recently that his grandson spent too much time watching the superhero instead of homegrown cartoons.

“I sometimes take care of my grandson,” said Wen last month during a visit to Jiangtong Animation in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central south China. “But he always watches ‘Ultraman.’ He should watch more Chinese cartoons.”

He followed this up with a plea to animators to make interesting cartoons.

“Your work is meaningful. You should play a leading role in bringing Chinese culture to the world … let Chinese children watch more of their own history and its own country’s animation,” Wen said.

Keep talking your smack, Mr. Prime Minister. You just keep shooting off your mouth — and ask Terresdon, Kerronia or Mephilas what happens. An Ultra Chop to the forehead is what, combined with a Specium Ray blast that’ll leave your manhood a pair of charred raisinettes. So go ahead, bring it. You want the pain? You got it.

The Eager and the Damned

In exactly 28 hours, I will find myself on a stage in front of an audience for the first time in almost two years. This is a little unnerving for me, because the last time I did this I made a fool of myself.

True, the last time, that was rather the point. It was a goodbye party held for me at Theatre 99 in Charleston, where improv comedy is the specialty and foolishness is not just normal behavior but part of the house rules. Under ideal circumstances, foolishness of the improv comedy variety is accompanied by great loads of humor. Only in my case – a tongue-in-cheek interview by theatre owner and full-on comedy professional Greg Tavares – the comedy occurred all on one side of the stage (his) and the foolishness was pretty well confined to the other (mine). Also, it’s one thing making an idiot out of yourself on purpose, and quite another to do it unintentionally. People can tell the difference.

It’s not that I’ve got no experience on a stage in front of a live audience. I’ve performed hundreds of times in scores of theatrical roles – serious, comedic and everything in between. But being entertaining with the benefit of a director, lots of rehearsal, and someone else’s brilliant words in your mouth is altogether different from being entertaining on your own, on the fly. Whetever small gifts I may have as an actor pack their bags and vanish when I’m called upon to improvise. Give me a good script and a month, and I’ll make you pee your pants. But give me a microphone and a spotlight, and you will shortly wish you hadn’t.

In retrospect, I think the best I managed that evening at Theatre 99 was to come off as a slightly drunk, brainless buffoon to Greg’s straight act, which I achieved with surprising ease. Perhaps I had delusions of, at the very least, being laughed with rather than at. There was a lot of laughter, that much is sure. Fortunately, I was leaving Charleston the following week for what turned out to be a permanent relocation to Asia. This time, it won’t be so easy to walk away.

On Sunday evening at 6pm, I’ll step onto a stage at RMIT University and spend the next four hours as host and emcee of the school’s Couple of the Year Contest. Yes, go ahead, ask yourself what that is – what it possibly could be, what form a live love competition between Vietnamese students who are all members of the Business Club could take. And you will find yourself asking the same questions I did when I was invited to be the emcee.

How do you say no to an invitation like this? I’m not asking that rhetorically. Seriously, does anyone out there have any idea how I can squirm out of this thing? I’m starting to think about faking my own death.

It’s worse that the request came from my own students, who have somehow mistaken a comfortableness with classroom buffoonery in their lecturer for professional improvisational talent. I tried politely demurring – I had other plans, I had too much work, I had acute altitude sickness that prohibits me from standing on a stage, I have a phobia for phallic-shaped instruments that prevents me from using a microphone. I asked if they wanted a reference and gave them the number for Greg Tavares at Theatre 99. I intimated that a union contract required me to charge an impossible sum for my appearance. They promised me two free tickets.

There’s no getting out of it now. All week, students have been congratulating me on my yet-to-be-seen performance and telling me they’ll be in the front row. My name is on the poster (“Emceed by famous lecturer Mr. Patrick!”) It’s unlikely that I can count on the crowd being drunk and easily entertained; the only booze on hand will be what I bring in with me, and I’m going to need all of it.

No, the only thing that’s going to save me on this one is a miracle. Greg, are you out there? Can you catch a flight to Saigon in the next, say, 30 minutes? I’ve got the tab.