Road Warrior

Ho Chi Minh City Bus Kills 3 on Motorbike

A public bus ran over a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 8 Thursday morning, killing a man, his daughter and his nephew on the bike.

Hoang Binh Duong, 44, was driving his daughter Hoang Truc Phuong and his nephew Pham Hoang Sang to school.

The bus, which had sped down the Nhi Thien Duong Bridge, crashed into the motorbike, dragged the driver and his two passengers for 20 meters and the motorbike for a further 50 meters before stopping.”

About three months ago, I bought a bicycle in Saigon. Until then, I’d been renting a dinky 125cc Honda motorbike from one of the cafes in the District 1 backpacker ghetto known as Pham Ngu Lau, for which I paid about $65 a month. The day after I bought the bicycle, I returned the motorbike to the cafe and walked away without looking back.

This I did for a variety of reasons. I’d recently moved beyond the tourist-choked streets of District 1 across the river to a newer neighborhood in the trendy part of District 7 known as Saigon South. (Please understand that when I say “trendy,” I mean only that the Vietnamese men urinating on the side of the road here make a token effort to hide their peckers, and being stopped by the police and getting shaken down for a bribe is marginally less common.) Out here, the streets are wider, the traffic less menacing, the chances of death by moving vehicle exponentially less immediate. I even found a cozy two-bedroom loft apartment just 2km from the university where I work.

I’d also noticed a worrisome trend in my waist size since leaving Japan. I reckoned this was due partly to recent changes in my diet – fried spring rolls and buttery baguettes instead of sushi every day. But mostly I thought it was because my motorbike was turning me into a walking twinkie.

In Japan, there was nowhere to which I couldn’t either a) walk, b) ride my bicycle, or c) catch a train. Sometimes I did all three; the bicycle I owned there was a smart little three-geared folding number that I often took on the train with me, doubled over on itself like a Hindi contortionist. If I got tired of riding, I could flip down the kickstand and leave it anywhere I liked, unlocked even, and return later secure in the knowledge that it would remain untouched, safe as a sleeping cow in a Mumbai market.

Trains in Vietnam do exist, but they run only between the bigger cities, and riding on one is like sawing off your own leg: slow, uncomfortable, and usually traumatic. Walking to your destination is similarly pointless. The interesting things are just too far apart here, and the hazards to life and limb too great. People look at you with a mixture of pity, perplexity, and amusement; even the locals know not to walk anywhere. Why should they, when they can hop on one of 100,000 or so idling Xe Oms and catch a harrrowing motorbike ride across the city for less than $2? Nor is there any tranquility to be had in walking anyway; traffic is an assault on the senses, and you can’t move ten meters without being propositioned by one of those 100,000 Xe Om drivers, who take the idea of a person walking – particularly a foreigner – as a personal slap in the face.

In Saigon, the only public transportation options are rust-rotten buses that run on no schedule whatsoever, and taxis. Taxis take at least triple the time to get where you’re going as driving a motorbike does, because cars are limited to driving in the leftmost of two lanes. Cars are also outnumbered by motorbikes by about 20 to 1, and the motorcyclists feel no compunction at all about driving in whichever lane suits them at that split second – or on the sidewalk, or down the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic, if its convenient, which it often is. A precise description is elusive, but imagine if you beat an anthill into dust with a shovel, then sent a remotely controlled toy car through the teeming ruins – and tried to do so without running over any ants. The result would look a lot like your typical Saigon street.

Motorbike riders here also have a breathtaking sense of entitlement to the road. Not just as a group, but individually, too. For example, there’s nothing a Vietnamese motorbike driver hates more than having to apply his brakes. It’s a psychological admission of defeat, a yielding of space and primacy that’s to be avoided at all costs. Case in point: riders emerging from a side street onto a busy highway never, ever stop and look into oncoming traffic before plowing into the stream. Instead they make a very specific point of neither pausing nor looking. It look me a long time to understand this seemingly suicidal behavior. Entire families of four would suddenly appear out of nowhere on a rattling pile of scrap metal atop two wheels, emerging from a parking lot or alleyway without so much as a glance to see who, or what, might be about to run them over – me, in this case. I’d swerve at the last instant, avoiding four counts of manslaughter by mere centimeters, cursing and gasping at the driver’s stupidity.

Only after some months did I realize this is not stupidity (or not stupidity alone) but strategy. Think about it. If, as a driver, you refuse to look at and acknowledge oncoming traffic, then the oncoming drivers will notice this, as they can’t help seeing what’s in front of them. This places the responsibility for avoiding a collision upon the only party who sees that a collision is iminent, and lets the wilfully blind driver scoot into traffic while the traffic flows around and absorbes him. It’s still insane, of course. But there’s a demented sort of logic behind it that can’t be argued with. If only a few individuals drove this way, fatalities would be through the roof. But it’s a system-wide strategy that everyone understands and uses. (This epiphany also helped me to understand one other thing about Vietnam driving codes: The reason the tumult of horns here never ceases is because horns are what Vietnamese people use instead of brakes. Suddenly it all made perfect sense.)

In other countries, parents teach their children to stop and look both ways before crossing. Here, parents teach their children that they mustn’t stop or look under any circumstances. Because then you’ll never get across.

What with all this, I found myself feeling nostalgic for the old days of bicycling to work every day. I pictured myself gliding into the parking area, the wind ruffling what remains of my hair, calves bulging beneath my work slacks, attractive female colleagues turning their heads to watch in slow motion.

What I failed to take into account was that a) it’s a lot easier to justify bicycling to work when it’s the only option, and b) it’s a hell of a lot hotter in Vietnam than it is in Japan.

I bought my bicycle at a little corner shop in District 1. My girlfriend Malo and I have a sneaky strategy we use when I need to buy anything significant in Vietnam. Knowing that, as a foreigner, the price I’ll be quoted is anywhere from twice to five times what a Vietnamese person will pay for the same item, we let her do the bargaining. But just letting her do the talking isn’t enough; the seller will see that she’s with a foreigner, and the price will be just as outrageous as if I’d asked myself. Bargaining under these circumstances is pointless, as Malo will be told it’s her duty as a patroit and a human being to help the seller ensure that I part with as much of my money as can be managed. For a local to try and lowball a fellow Vietnamese person on behalf of a foreigner is the lowest form of treachery.

Fortunately, Malo doesn’t buy into this notion. (Partly this is because she’s from Hanoi, where contempt for South Vietnam is about the same as you’d find among New Yorkers for residents of Mississippi.) So what we do is first identify an item of the sort I want to buy. Then she moves off to find a seller who hasn’t seen us together. Sometimes, after she’s asked for a price and gotten a reply that’s in the Vietnamese ballpark, I’ll sidle up to see how things are going. This usually results in a very pissed off merchant – doubly so if Malo has managed to haggle him or her down from the original asking price, which every sale involves. Sometimes, in order to avoid being cursed and accused of betraying the spirit of Uncle Ho and the entire communist way, Malo will complete the whole transaction without me. I prefer to avoid this, because too many times I’ve been burned by discovering afterward that my idea of what I wanted and her understanding of it were not as close as I thought they were.

My bicycle cost me a little more than it might have, because of this – about $175. But a bicycle is something you want to be sure you’re comfortable with. (Still, I paid a lot less than the Australian guy who bought the same bike while we were there.) It’s got 21 gears, which is about 18 more than I need here, the flattest country this side of Ohio.

It’s just a ten-minute ride from my apartment into work. I arrive with the breeze in my exhaust-fumigated hair, calves bulging invisibly under chain-grease-stained slacks, dripping sweat through my work shirt. My female colleagues all turn their heads to watch, and it is with a mixture of pity, perplexity, and amusement.

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Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

If you ever start to feel as though life is no longer the challenge it’s billed as being, that you’re drifting through your days like a celebrity poodle, coddled and catered to by an endless parade of attentive sales clerks, obsequious cashiers, too-helpful bathroom attendants and timely pizza delivery service – if you find yourself being accommodated, assisted and indulged into a drowsy, zombified kind of emotionless stupefaction by the ease of living in a hyperdeveloped world superpower, well then: Vietnam is the place for you.

This is a country where the customer is not always always right. Quite the opposite, in fact. The customer in Vietnam is generally considered wrong or at least mistaken, especially if the customer is a foreigner. The words “fast,” “friendly,” and “customer service” rarely appear in the same sentence here, and promptness is seen as a personal vice.

The Vietnamese people seem to pride themselves on erecting obstacles to getting any job done. In a communist nation, it’s a political imperative that every person must have a job, no matter how menial or trivial. Popular thinking follows the logic that if one person can do a job well, then five people must be able to do that single job five times as well. A corollary principle maintains that no job should be done by a machine which could be done by a person (or five). Roads and highways, for example, are kept clean by street-sweepers – not the truck-sized kind but the people-sized kind, an army of elderly men and women who’ve been handed crooked straw brooms and can be seen every morning cleaning streets that (one can’t help noticing) are mostly composed of dirt to begin with.

Another result of this arrangement is that every person becomes far more committed to justifying his or her job than to actually doing it, which usually means spending ten times as long undertaking it as necessary and making it appear much more complicated than it needs to be. Layers of bureaucracy pile up atop each other here like breakfast at a Waffle House. Each person in this bloated machine is dedicated to wringing as much relevance as he can out of his little niche, and also to wringing as much under-the-table lucre as he can out of any poor slob over whom he has the slightest leverage.

Case in point: I recently spent close to a month trying to lay hands on a DHL package that my old flatmate in Osaka, Will, had sent to me here. DHL does not deliver to your actual shipping address in Vietnam, nor does any postal carrier. That would be too easy. Rather, knowing how much foreigners here must enjoy a challenge, the government sees to it that all packages are delivered instead to a remote warehouse way out near the airport, where they are opened, rifled through, their contents appraised and often liberated. If you’re expecting a package, the onus is on you to get to it before its contents have disappeared forever.

As to what are they looking for, who knows. Electronic items raise flags, because if they are not pilfered outright, then they can they be taxed to kingdom come when you pick up the parcel. What’s more, while you are spending weeks wading through the red tape piled up between you and your package, they can replace all the inner components with cheap Chinese facsimiles. So you end up paying an exorbitant additional fee to pick up a package whose shipping cost to Vietnam was already preposterous, and then the electronic geegaw inside breaks within a day of getting it home. No wonder the locals tell you not to bother having anything shipped here.

But in my case I had no choice. My parcel contained old clothes, a pair of iPod speakers, three books (carefully vetted to avoid confiscation by the sticky-fingered censors at Customs) and some mail that had been delivered to me in Japan after I left, including an envelope with 5,000 yen ($45) from Will as payment for my bicycle. To claim this bounty, I had to write and fax four letters in Vietnamese (I had help from my girlfriend, Malo), make two trips to the airport warehouse, and navigate a legion of shuffling bureaucrats whose only job seemed to be telling me, in Vietnamese, that they could help me with just one small part of this process before directing me to another godforsaken, unairconditioned office in the bowels of this vast building. I also had to produce not only my passport but the Customs declaration stub I’d received on my first entry to Vietnam six months previous.

Do you know what I’m talking about, this document? It’s an insignificant little piece of paper they give you on the airplane just before you arrive in a foreign country. It’s covered in rows of square boxes the color of anti-nausea medicine. On it, you write your name – one letter per box, I always run out of boxes – your flight number, how much gold you’re carrying on your person, whether or not you’re entering with live animals or uncooked vegetables, that sort of thing. You fill it out in about 60 seconds flat, hand it over to the guy at the Customs counter when you land, he tears a piece off and hands you back the rest with your passport, and that’s that.

Who on earth thinks to keep such a thing? It doesn’t have value even as a memento, because the cheap paper it’s made of biodegrades almost instantly in the festering reaches of your unwashed pants pocket or in your carry-on or wherever you’ve stuffed it once you’ve cleared Customs and have your mind set on retrieving your luggage and finding one of the few honest cab drivers with a meter that actually works rather than the demonic spinning slot machines most have attached to the dash.

I, for one, do not keep items like this. That piece of paper had no sentimental value for me, and I have never, ever been asked for it anywhere, at any time. Who knew what I’d done with it on landing in Hanoi in June 2008? It’s probably still on the floor of the cab I took from the airport into Hanoi, just another layer of history in a rancid pile that was six inches deep back then. But that little piece of paper was exactly what the DHL goons wanted. After the faxing of the letters and the passport, after the first futile visit to the giant airport warehouse, where I was treated to the sight of scores of Vietnamese men and women gleefully tearing open hundreds of foreign parcels and pawing through their contents like a sick satire of a Norman Rockwell Christmas morning – after all this, I was asked for my Customs declaration form.

Of what possible use could this thing have been to them? Even my girlfriend, who is Vietnamese and no stranger to the byzantine protocols required to get anything done in this country, was flabbergasted. I half suspected these two men had merely invented this step out of thin air as a prelude to shaking me down for a bribe. Nothing of substance is accomplished here without palms getting greased – at every level of organization, from the lowliest street cleaner to the loftiest Party member. The more official their position, the more money they rake in. No task is completed, no form filed, no ticket issued, no stamp stamped, without somebody getting a little something to ease the process along. This I was prepared for, even having already spent close to $400 to have DHL deliver a battered piece of luggage full of old clothes, books, out-of-date mail, and an iPod speaker set.

But no, they didn’t want money. Well, more accurate to say money was not the fix to this problem. They wanted – needed – that Customs declaration, and there was no way around it. Without it, my suitcase was going back to Osaka. Struggling against the rising need to throw a raging apeshit fit, I looked over at Malo for help, only to find her quietly sobbing in frustration. You know you’ve encountered an epic achievement in organizational ineffectiveness when it can make a lifelong Vietnamese resident weep openly.

Frantic, I claimed suddenly to remember all the information I’d written on the form six months before. Was that good enough? Wary, the two men in the cramped, sweltering office said it might be. What was the date I’d flown in? I tossed off a date that sounded likely, then fabricated an airline and flight number from the clear blue. One of the men wrote this information down on a pad. How much gold had I been carrying? Definitely less than an ounce, I replied, in the same breath disavowing live animals and vegetables in general. The man nodded, said something in Vietnamese to Malo, and left the office.

Malo had stopped crying, spent. We sat, not having anything else to do. We talked about this and that, trying to turn the subject to something less overtly Kafka-esque for a few moments. After about 15 minutes, I wondered aloud where the other man had gone.

“He went to find the paper,” she said.

“What paper?”

“Your paper, the one you told him.”

I stared at her, waiting for her to tell me she was joking. She looked back. “The other part, that they tore off,” she said. “He’s finding it.”

“Where?!”

“Up there,” she waved at the floors above us. “Somewhere. They have them in boxes, he said.”

I pictured a vast room the size of a football field, filled floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes containing every torn off stub of every Customs declaration of every passenger who’d ever flown into the Ho Chi Minh City airport. And I pictured this man, ant-sized, peering into box after cardboard box for a useless stub of paper that didn’t even exist. I saw into the very depths of the Vietnamese mind in that instant, and I quailed.

“I made all that stuff up!” I whispered at the top of the whisper register. “I don’t have the slightest idea what my flight number was! I don’t even remember what airline I was on! I just said that so we wouldn’t have to go through all this again with somebody else in another week!”

“They knew you were lying,” she smiled.

I gaped. “So what’s he doing up there?!”

“The date was correct?”

“I don’t know, maybe. I think so.”

“He thinks he can find it.”

“But I didn’t arrive in Ho Chi Minh City. I arrived in Hanoi.”

“Oh,” she said. She thought for a minute. “He might not find it, then.”

I did get my package, eventually. The Customs stub was apparently not as all-critical as I’d been led to believe. A week later the parcel was delivered to another office, where I handed over a “tax” of about $30 and left with a battered suitcase filled with old clothes, some six-month-old mail (missing the 5,000 yen, naturally), and three carefully vetted novels. But no iPod speakers.

It’s just as well. They’d have broken within a week anyway.

A Winter’s Tale, or Welcome to the Jungle

For an American living in southern Vietnam, there’s no end to the strange, the incongruous, and the bizarre. Most of it, you learn to deal with, sometimes even embrace. And some of it, no matter how commonplace, you do not.

Road rules, for example. They’re quite literally a foreign concept here – as, often, are roads. Or, forget dog meat, how about a nice bowl of fried cockroaches? Finding a pair of men’s shoes in a 12M can be vexing beyond all reason in a land of miniature people, where four-and-a-half foot women are commonplace, and the typical man’s waist-size clocks in around 28 inches. And what is one to make of a country without a single Starbucks or McDonald’s (let alone an Apple Store)?

But the slipperiest concept by far – more than the food or the culture or seeing a pirated, lushly boxed “Official Acandemy Awards Winners Picture Slumdog Millonaire” for sale by street vendors the morning after the Academy Awards – is living in a place where winter never comes. It sounds like the title of sad children’s book, doesn’t it? The Place Where Winter Never Comes. But it’s all too true. While most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is freezing its ass off, I’m dealing with temperatures in the mid-90s. In March 2008 I rode a bicycle to work in Japan through a foot of snow. A year later, I’m riding a bicycle to the office wearing shorts and a T-shirt so I don’t arrive in my work clothes drenched in sweat.

Of these two less-than-perfect scenarios, you might think a South Carolina native might be more comfortable with the second one, the one I’m presently living. That may be true for other other spawn of the South, I don’t know. For my part, I’ll take a foot of snow over sweltering heat just about any day of the year. But especially in March.

It’s not just that spring, such as it is here, lies just around the corner. The temperature in Ho Chi Minh City has been as steady as a crack gunslinger’s shooting hand since, well, this time last year, setting up a nice little home for itself between the 89 and 94 lines. The only difference between winter here and, say, high summer, is that summer is wetter. The same is true of spring, only more so. There are two seasons in this part of Southeast Asia: wet season and dry season, corresponding roughly to the seasons known in other parts of the world as spring and summer, fall and winter. “Hot” is applicable 365 days a year.

Unfortunately, I’m not a hot-weather person. Other people I know here – Canadians and Swedes, for example – claim to be living a life of climatic bliss. No winter at all? Ever? Sign me up, they said, and never looked back. But I’m a perspirer. If there were an honest living to be made in perspiring, I’d have my life’s work cut out for me. I’d have gone pro straight out of high school. The pleasantest winter I ever spent was last year’s, trundling to work every day through snow above my ankles, freezing my way into sleep every night in a house with a single space heater, watching my breath curl into frost above my head as I drifted off into single-digit dreams.

As Ho Chi Minh City staggers from dry season into wet season, the rest of the known world – including you, probably, wherever you are – will be emerging from the refrigerated depths of winter into the vivid, unrestrained exuberance of spring. There, you’ll exult in the rebirth of the world, awash in color and the symphony of life new and reawoken. Here, I will still be hot. But I will be hot and wet. As Adrian Cronauer said, that’s great if you’re with a lady, but it’s no good if you’re in the jungle.

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A very brief history of Chinese-Vietnamese relations

Let’s not dwell on the fact that I haven’t posted here for, oh, four months, shall we? You’re not in the mood for excuses, and I’m in no mood to revisit my many deficiencies and failings on that account.

Moving on. You may or may not know that since last October I’ve been impersonating a college professor at a local institute of higher learning, where I  teach, among other things, a course in their new professional communications program called Visual Language. How I’ve gotten away with this for as long as I have is a mystery to me, but to date, RMIT International University remains unaware that there’s an imposter among its faculty, and my students have so far tacitly agreed to go along with the ruse.  Some of them, in fact, go above and beyond the call to help me maintain my disguise. Today we started a new semester, and a student from last semester’s course brought the following by my office. (I couldn’t fit the apple in here, but you get the drift.)

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Shucks. Those Vietnamese kids really know how to get you right where you live. Also, the postscript is one for the ages.

Election Unleashes a Flood of Hope Worldwide

Election Unleashes a Flood of Hope Worldwide

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Employees of the Arabic-language news channel Al Arabiya prepared for a program on the American elections on Tuesday. Senior editors had expected a victory by Senator John McCain.
Published: November 5, 2008

PARIS — From the front lines of Iraq to more genteel spots like Harry’s Bar in Paris, the election of Barack Obama unlocked a floodgate of hope that a new American leader will redeem promises of change, rewrite the political script and, perhaps as important as anything else, provide a kind of leadership that will erase the bitterness of the Bush years.

Whether it was because of Mr. Obama’s youth, his race, his message or his manner, some European leaders abandoned diplomatic niceties to compete for extravagance in their praise, while others outside the United States — fascinated by an election that had been scrutinized around the globe — reached for their most telling comparisons.

“There is the feeling that for the first time since Kennedy, America has a different kind of leader,” said Alejandro Saks, an Argentine script writer in Buenos Aires. Or, as Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of political science in Istanbul, put it, “The U.S. needs a facelift and he’s the one who can give it.”

There were some glaring departures from the feel-good mood. One in particular illustrated the challenges that will test the president-elect: President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia chose the day to lambaste the United States and threaten new missile deployments.

The final moments of the election were covered in obsessive detail far from America. In Australia, radio stations interrupted their shows to broadcast the Obama acceptance speech. In Berlin, newspapers printed special editions.

Perhaps one of the most poignant accolades came from Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s former president, who said in a letter to Mr. Obama: “Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place.”

Significantly, though, among American troops in Iraq, the hope seemed tinged with skepticism that change in the White House would not automatically mean change in American doctrines that have meant deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s not like even if Obama is elected we’ll up and leave,” said Specialist James Real, 31, of Butte, Montana, as soldiers watched the returns on television at Forward Operating Base Falcon in Iraq.

Indeed, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Iraq itself did not “expect that much change in the American policies toward Iraq. Any changes won’t be made in one night.”

In Afghanistan, where American troops are also deployed in an increasingly bitter war, the election brought a rebuke .

“Our demand is to have no civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The fight against terrorism cannot be won by the bombardment of our villages,” said President Hamid Karzai, referring to a string of coalition airstrikes that have caused civilian casualties.

For many outsiders, Mr. Obama’s victory raised expectations that a new administration would seek new relationships across the globe.

“I think he can restore the image of America around the world, especially after Bush got us into two wars,” said David Charlot, 28, a lawyer with French and American citizenship who was among a throng of expatriate revelers outside Harry’s Bar in Paris.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said something on similar lines. “Your election raises in France, in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, an immense hope,” he said in a message that called Mr. Obama’s victory “brilliant” and his campaign “exceptional.” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called his victory “historic” and invited Mr. Obama to return to Berlin, where he addressed a huge rally during his campaign.

Even in lands whose leaders are no friends of Washington — such as Venezuela and Iran — the election outcome cut through official propaganda to touch some people.

“It’s kind of nice to feel good about the United States again,” said Armando Díaz, 24, a bookkeeper in Caracas, Venezuela, where Enrique Cisneros, a storekeeper summed it up like this: “A few hours ago, the world felt like a different place.” In Iran, too, some said the American example should persuade politicians closer to home to adopt similar political ways.

‘’His election can be a lesson for the dictators of the Middle East,” said Badr-al-sadat Mofidi, the deputy editor of the daily Kargozaran newspaper. Some in Iran focused on their hopes for a change in American attitudes towards their country. ‘’The nightmare of war with the United States will fade with Obama’s election,” said Nehmat Ahmadi, a lawyer.

Indeed, for many who had watched this campaign from afar, there was a sense that the election was not just an American affair but something that touched people around the world, whatever their origin. “I want Obama to win with 99 percent, like Saddam Hussein,” said Hanin Abu Ayash, who works at a television station in Dubai and monitored early returns on his computer. “I swear if he doesn’t win, I’m going to take it personally.”

In Berlin, Anna Lemme, a 29-year-old architect, said she did not usually hurry to catch the news first thing in the morning. ‘’But this morning I jumped to the radio first thing at 5 a.m.,” she said.

There was little doubt that for some, Mr. Obama’s skin color made his victory all the more exhilarating.

“The United States is choosing a black man as its president. Maybe we can share a bit in this happiness,” Mr. Cisneros said in Caracas.

The Afghan president, Mr. Karzai, said the election had shown the American people overcoming distinctions “of race and color while electing their president” and thereby helping to bring “the same values to the rest of the world sooner or later.”

For many in Africa — and in Kenya in particular — his election evoked a deepening of pride. As President Mwai Kibaki said in a message to Mr. Obama, “your victory is not only an inspiration to millions of people all over the world, but it has special resonance with us here in Kenya” — the birthplace of Mr. Obama’s father and paternal grandparents.

That sense of association may also encourage some to believe that Mr. Obama will give Africa special attention. “We express the hope that poverty and underdevelopment in Africa, which remains a challenge for humanity, will indeed continue to receive a greater attention of the focus of the new administration,” said Kgalema Motlanthe, the South African president.

Many outside Africa competed for his attention, too.

In a statement, the 27-nation European Union said it saw “the promise of a reinforced trans-Atlantic relationship” in Mr. Obama’s election. Even big business joined in.

“From a business perspective, I’m very happy that the economic issue was at the top of the agenda in the campaign,” said Lakshmi Mittal, the head of the world’s biggest steel-maker, “and we’re very positive that we’ll see more measures to address the economic crisis with his election.”

On momentous occasions, politicians reach for big words. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, for instance, said that “American democracy has just lived through a marvelous moment, one of those major turning points that periodically demonstrates its vitality, its belief in the future and its trust in the values on which it was founded over two centuries.”

In Parliament in London on Wednesday, members of Britain’s three major political parties lavished praise on Mr. Obama. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that Mr. Obama had run “an inspirational campaign, energizing politics with progressive values and his vision for the future.”

Mr. Brown mentioned several times that he planned to work closely with the new administration, said he had spoken to Mr. Obama “on many occasions,” called him a “true friend of Britain” and said: “I know Barack Obama and we share many values.”

But politicians also peer through the prism of self-interest.

In South Korea, some pondered the destiny of a free-trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration and criticized by Mr. Obama. Lee Hae-min, South Korea’s top trade negotiator, warned that any change in the deal could undermine South Korea’s support for the deal and “open a Pandora’s box”.

In the Middle East, the focus of much tension that has drawn in successive American administrations, Saeb Erakat, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, urged Mr. Obama to transform the proposal for a two-state solution in the Palestine-Israel conflict “to a realistic track immediately.”

At the Vatican, a statement urged Mr. Obama to show “respect of human life” and expressed the hope that “God should illuminate the way” for him in his “great responsibility.”

Some saw a chance to patch up old feuds.

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who displeased Washington when he withdrew Spain’s troops from Iraq in 2004, said Mr. Obama’s victory “demonstrated the vitality of this great country, and of democracy and the unstoppable force of the ballot to bring about change.”

“I am confident this opens a horizon of promise for relations between the United States and Spain,” he told a press conference in Madrid.

But even in the moment of triumph, some in Europe questioned whether Mr. Obama would really make a break with his George W. Bush, the least popular American president among Europeans in recent history.

“When Obama takes office on January 20,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said in an editorial, “we will see whether the Europeans — and especially the Germans — really just had a problem with Bush’s presidency or with America itself.”

Others were less cynical. “The margin of victory was emphatic and, whatever else follows, today the world changed,” said an editorial in The Times of London, and The Guardian newspaper proclaimed: “They did it. They really did it. So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in they eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world.”

That was not a universal view in Moscow where one analyst, Mikhail Delyagin, compared Mr. Obama to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who is often blamed in Russia for destroying the Soviet Union.

“Not having large-scale management experience, he has greater chances to disorganize America, to destabilize America, out of the very best intentions, as Gorbachev once did.”

But the supporters generally outnumbered the skeptics.. “We were all hoping that he would win,” said Carla Saggioro, a retired architect in Rome. “And the fact that he did with such a large margin is a sign of real change _ at least let’s hope so.”

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called Mr. Obama’s election a “historic opportunity” for a stronger working relationship with the United States.

“He values highly the resolution of all the conflict issues through dialogue,” Mr. Ban said. “He has expressed publicly that he is willing to meet anybody, any country, so that will provide good opportunity not only for the United States, but also the United Nations as a whole to resolve all issues through dialogue.”

Mr. Ban said he had met Mr. Obama by chance last year on a plane flight. “He was very engaging and he knew a lot about the United Nations,” Mr. Ban said, “and I was very much encouraged.”

Finally, It’s a Great Day To Be an American

The Promise

For Many Abroad, an Ideal Renewed

Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press

Local residents celebrated as they learned of Sen. Barack Obama’s apparent victory in western Japan on Wednesday.

Published in The New York Times, November 5, 2008

GAZA — From far away, this is how it looks: There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth — call it America — where such a thing happens.

Even where the United States is held in special contempt, like here in this benighted Palestinian coastal strip, the “glorious epic of Barack Obama,” as the leftist French editor Jean Daniel calls it, makes America — the idea as much as the actual place — stand again, perhaps only fleetingly, for limitless possibility.

“It allows us all to dream a little,” said Oswaldo Calvo, 58, a Venezuelan political activist in Caracas, in a comment echoed to correspondents of The New York Times on four continents in the days leading up to the election.

Tristram Hunt, a British historian, put it this way: Mr. Obama “brings the narrative that everyone wants to return to — that America is the land of extraordinary opportunity and possibility, where miracles happen.”

But wonder is almost overwhelmed by relief. Mr. Obama’s election offers most non-Americans a sense that the imperial power capable of doing such good and such harm — a country that, they complain, preached justice but tortured its captives, launched a disastrous war in Iraq, turned its back on the environment and greedily dragged the world into economic chaos — saw the errors of its ways over the past eight years and shifted course.

They say the country that weakened democratic forces abroad through a tireless but often ineffective campaign for democracy — dismissing results it found unsavory, cutting deals with dictators it needed as allies in its other battles — was now shining a transformative beacon with its own democratic exercise.

It would be hard to overstate how fervently vast stretches of the globe wanted the election to turn out as it did to repudiate the Bush administration and its policies. Poll after poll in country after country showed only a few — Israel, Georgia, the Philippines — favoring a victory for Senator John McCain.

“Since Bush came to power it’s all bam, bam, bam on the Arabs,” asserted Fathi Abdel Hamid, 40, as he sat in a Cairo coffee house.

The world’s view of an Obama presidency presents a paradox. His election embodies what many consider unique about the United States — yet America’s sense of its own specialness, of its destiny and mission, has driven it astray, they say. They want Mr. Obama, the beneficiary and exemplar of American exceptionalism, to act like everyone else, only better, to shift American policy and somehow to project both humility and leadership.

And there are others who fear that Mr. Obama will be soft in a hard-edged world where what is required is a clear line in the sand to fanatics, aggressors and bullies. Israelis worry that he will talk to Iran rather than stop it from developing nuclear weapons; Georgians worry that he will not grasp how to handle Russia.

An Obama presidency, they say, risks appeasement. It will “reassure Europeans of their defects,” lamented Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the Italian right-wing daily Il Foglio.

Such contradictory demands and expectations may reflect, in part, the unusual makeup of a man of mixed race and origin whose life and upbringing have touched several continents.

“People feel he is a part of them because he has this multiracial, multiethnic and multinational dimension,” said Philippe Sands, a British international lawyer and author who travels frequently, adding that people find some thread of their own hopes and ideals in Mr. Obama. “He represents, for people in so many different communities and cultures, a personal connection. There is an immigrant component and a minority component.”

Francis Nyamnjoh, a Cameroonian novelist and social scientist, said he saw Mr. Obama less as a black man than “as a successful negotiator of identity margins.”

His ability to inhabit so many categories mirrors the African experience. Mr. Nyamnjoh said that for America to choose as its citizen in chief such a skillful straddler of global identities could not help but transform the nation’s image, making it once again the screen upon which the hopes and ambitions of the world are projected.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at the People’s University of China, said Mr. Obama’s background, particularly his upbringing in Indonesia, made him suited to understanding the problems facing the world’s poorer nations.

He and others say they hope the next American president will see their place more firmly within the community of nations, engaging in what Jairam Ramesh, junior commerce minister in the Indian government, called “genuine multilateralism and not in muscular unilateralism.”

Assuming Mr. Obama does play by international rules more fully, as he has promised, can his government live up to all the expectations?

“We have so many hopes and wishes that he will never be able to fulfill them,” said Susanne Grieshaber, 40, an art adviser in Berlin who was one of 200,000 Germans to attend a speech by Mr. Obama there in July. She cited action to protect the environment, reducing the use of force and helping the less fortunate. In essence, she wants Mr. Obama to make his country more like hers. But she is sober. “I’m preparing myself for the fact that peace and happiness are not going to suddenly break out,” she said.

Many in less developed countries — especially in the Arab world — agree that Mr. Obama will not carry out their wishes regarding American policy toward Israel and much else, and so they shrug off the results as ultimately making little difference.

“We will be optimistic for two months but that’s it,” predicted Huda Naim, 38, a member of the Hamas parliament here who said her 15-year-old son had watched Mr. Obama’s rise with rapt attention.

But some remain darkly suspicious of the election itself. They doubted that Mr. Obama could be nominated or elected. Now they doubt that he will govern. The skeptics say they believe that American policy is deeply institutionalized and that if Mr. Obama tries to shift it, “they” — the media, the corporate robber barons, the hidden powers — will box him in or even kill him.

“I am afraid for him,” said Alberto Müller Rojas, a retired Venezuelan Army general and the vice president of President Hugo Chávez’s Unified Socialist Party. “The pressures he will face from certain sectors of society, especially from white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, will be enormous.”

Part of that fear stems from genuine if distant affection.

“He has charisma, he’s good-looking, he’s very smart, he’s young and he knows how to make people like him, to the point that when he went to bow down to the Israelis, people here still made excuses for him,” said Nawara Negm, an Egyptian writer and blogger.

There is another paradox about the world’s view of the election of Mr. Obama: many who are quick to condemn the United States for its racist past and now congratulate it for a milestone fail to acknowledge the same problem in their own societies, and so do not see how this election could offer them any lessons about themselves.

In Russia, for example, where Soviet leaders used to respond to any American criticism of human rights violation with “But you hang Negroes,” analysts note that the election of Mr. Obama removes a stain. But they speak of it without reference to their own treatment of ethnic minorities.

“Definitely, this will improve America’s image in Russia,” said Sergey M. Rogov, director of the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies in Moscow. “There was this perception before of widespread racism in America, deeply rooted racism.”

In Nigeria, a vast, populous and diverse collection of states, Reuben Abati, an influential columnist, has written, “Nigerians love good things in other lands, even if they are not making any effort to reproduce the same at home,” adding, “If Obama had been a Nigerian, his race, color and age would have been an intractable problem.”

So foreigners are watching closely, hoping that despite what they consider the hypocrisies and inconsistencies, the nation they once imagined would stand as a model for the future will, with greater sensitivity and less force, help solve the world’s problems.

There is a risk, however, to all the extraordinary international attention paid to this most international of American politicians: Mr. Obama’s focus will almost certainly be on the reeling domestic economy, housing and health care. Will he be able even to lift his head and gaze abroad to all those with such high expectations?

Cultivating a Nation of Idiots

Sometimes I hate Christopher Hitchens and his ever-brilliant, never less than electrically witty, drillbit-sharp take on culture and politics, and sometimes I love him. This article, from Slate magazine, is exactly why sometimes I love him. Thanks, Mr. Hitchens, for saying what has needed to be said for a long, long time.

Sarah Palin’s War on Science

The GOP ticket’s appalling contempt for knowledge and learning.

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.In an election that has been fought on an astoundingly low cultural and intellectual level, with both candidates pretending that tax cuts can go like peaches and cream with the staggering new levels of federal deficit, and paltry charges being traded in petty ways, and with Joe the Plumber becoming the emblematic stupidity of the campaign, it didn’t seem possible that things could go any lower or get any dumber. But they did last Friday, when, at a speech in Pittsburgh, Gov. Sarah Palin denounced wasteful expenditure on fruit-fly research, adding for good xenophobic and anti-elitist measure that some of this research took place “in Paris, France” and winding up with a folksy “I kid you not.”

It was in 1933 that Thomas Hunt Morgan won a Nobel Prize for showing that genes are passed on by way of chromosomes. The experimental creature that he employed in the making of this great discovery was the Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit fly. Scientists of various sorts continue to find it a very useful resource, since it can be easily and plentifully “cultured” in a laboratory, has a very short generation time, and displays a great variety of mutation. This makes it useful in studying disease, and since Gov. Palin was in Pittsburgh to talk about her signature “issue” of disability and special needs, she might even have had some researcher tell her that there is a Drosophila-based center for research into autism at the University of North Carolina. The fruit fly can also be a menace to American agriculture, so any financing of research into its habits and mutations is money well-spent. It’s especially ridiculous and unfortunate that the governor chose to make such a fool of herself in Pittsburgh, a great city that remade itself after the decline of coal and steel into a center of high-tech medical research.

In this case, it could be argued, Palin was not just being a fool in her own right but was following a demagogic lead set by the man who appointed her as his running mate. Sen. John McCain has made repeated use of an anti-waste and anti-pork ad (several times repeated and elaborated in his increasingly witless speeches) in which the expenditure of $3 million to study the DNA of grizzly bears in Montana was derided as “unbelievable.” As an excellent article in the Feb. 8, 2008, Scientific American pointed out, there is no way to enforce the Endangered Species Act without getting some sort of estimate of numbers, and the best way of tracking and tracing the elusive grizzly is by setting up barbed-wire hair-snagging stations that painlessly take samples from the bears as they lumber by and then running the DNA samples through a laboratory. The cost is almost trivial compared with the importance of understanding this species, and I dare say the project will yield results in the measurement of other animal populations as well, but all McCain could do was be flippant and say that he wondered whether it was a “paternity” or “criminal” issue that the Fish and Wildlife Service was investigating. (Perhaps those really are the only things that he associates in his mind with DNA.)

With Palin, however, the contempt for science may be something a little more sinister than the bluff, empty-headed plain-man’s philistinism of McCain. We never get a chance to ask her in detail about these things, but she is known to favor the teaching of creationism in schools (smuggling this crazy idea through customs in the innocent disguise of “teaching the argument,” as if there was an argument), and so it is at least probable that she believes all creatures from humans to fruit flies were created just as they are now. This would make DNA or any other kind of research pointless, whether conducted in Paris or not. Projects such as sequencing the DNA of the flu virus, the better to inoculate against it, would not need to be funded. We could all expire happily in the name of God. Gov. Palin also says that she doesn’t think humans are responsible for global warming; again, one would like to ask her whether, like some of her co-religionists, she is a “premillenial dispensationalist”—in other words, someone who believes that there is no point in protecting and preserving the natural world, since the end of days will soon be upon us.

Videos taken in the Assembly of God church in Wasilla, Alaska, which she used to attend, show her nodding as a preacher says that Alaska will be “one of the refuge states in the Last Days.” For the uninitiated, this is a reference to a crackpot belief, widely held among those who brood on the “End Times,” that some parts of the world will end at different times from others, and Alaska will be a big draw as the heavens darken on account of its wide open spaces. An article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times gives further gruesome details of the extreme Pentecostalism with which Palin has been associated in the past (perhaps moderating herself, at least in public, as a political career became more attractive). High points, also available on YouTube, show her being “anointed” by an African bishop who claims to cast out witches. The term used in the trade for this hysterical superstitious nonsense is “spiritual warfare,” in which true Christian soldiers are trained to fight demons. Palin has spoken at “spiritual warfare” events as recently as June. And only last week the chiller from Wasilla spoke of “prayer warriors” in a radio interview with James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who said that he and his lovely wife, Shirley, had convened a prayer meeting to beseech that “God’s perfect will be done on Nov. 4.”

This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just “people of faith” but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity.

Bloody Shakespearean

I know, I know: I seem to have fallen off the map lately; my star has plunged from whatever very modest heights of the blogosphere it had previously achieved. For a week now, visitors to this space have been greeted with only a photo of a winking, leering Bible-thumping, bile-spewing, oil-drunk right-wing demagogue (for which I deeply apologize). But it’s been an especially busy week.

As some of you may know, I’ve recently returned to the ranks of the full-time gainfully employed. As of October 6, I am a Professor of Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Vietnam. Better known here and in Australia as RMIT (not to be confused with plain old MIT), it’s sort of a training ground for the new breed of Vietnamese: an English-only campus of a Melbourne-based university offering degrees in business and accounting, multimedia and graphic design, IT, commerce, and – with the new term beginning Monday – in Professional Communication.

Enter yours truly, who has been tasked with teaching a course called “Visual Language” to fresh-faced hopeful future communicators. It’s a basic course in visual literacy, offering an overview of the way people use images and non-verbal visual narrative to convey meaning in art, film, graphic design, consumer messages, and marketing. Basically, it’s an entire class dedicated to the premise that a picture is worth a thousand words.

How the very smart head of the department got the idea I was qualified to teach this class is somewhat mystifying. Desperation comes to mind. I may also have had some part in it during our interviews. But teaching it I am, and I’ve been submerged up to my eyebrows for the past two weeks in terribly academic-sounding subjects like sight and visual processing, symbolism and semiotics, narrative and expression, spacial organization, aesthetics, propaganda theory, and phenomenology.

It’s also been a crash course in learning how to read and write in British English, in which organisation and utilise are spelled with an S, not a Z (that’s a “zed,” by the way), and colour, flavour, and centre are all words whose relation to modern life appears tenuous, as they all seem to have been lifted directly from The Canterbury Tales or Love’s Labors Lost.

Until last week, my days in Saigon were mainly occupied with drooling onto my new laptop (which has now been stolen, but more on that miserable tragedy later), drinking coffee, and tutoring English three hours each evening at a small private school.

A week and a half ago, however, I was chucked headfirst into the boot-camp-style orientation for new instructors here known as “induction,” a word that can only derive from the way it “induces” ulcers and paroxisms of anxiety about being unprepared to teach your course because of all the time you spend in it. From 9am until 4pm each day, I’m subjected to a barrage of workshops and seminars on HR policy and procedures, IT training, library database searching, work permits, health insurance (Oh, Joy), counseling services, lesson planning, building Powerpoint presentations, measuring student learning, and time management.

It’s a long way from journalism. Though I have found one common area of overlap: the preoccupation with plagiarism in the academic world is at least as obsessive as it is in the world of publishing. (Did you know they have software that can spot plagiarized material? I’m assuming for the moment that those students whose beer money comes from a busy schedule of report writing on commission, as mine did in college, remain safe.)

It’s also a different life from the one I’ve been leading for the past 15 months. I’m now working roughly 12 hours a day. I have an office, a salary, a boss, a passel of health benefits, a legion of wildly international colleagues, and a purpose.

Colour me satisfied.