Settle in, have a look around. There’s blog posts below, from Hanoi and elsewhere. Some photos and art and such to gawk at. And of course a bit of my writing, especially old stuff about my neighborhood of Kenilworth in Washington, DC, where I go often in my mind though I haven’t lived there for over a decade. Enjoy…
Sunflowers. They’re yellow, bright and beautiful. And since it’s summertime in Davis, California, they’re blooming in the fields all around this college town.
Since people like sunflowers (and I do too — hey, I stopped my bike ride several times to take these), I’m posting some photos I took last weekend. Enjoy, y’all.
(Sunflower overload, scrolling down.)
After some time living in Hanoi, Vietnam, I’ve been back in the United States for over a year. But nothing has motivated me to do any personal writing, until the recent protests over the death of George Floyd. Or, I should say, “following” the death of Mr. Floyd, for these protests are about much more than his death. It’s a ‘speak up’ moment and, since I’m a writer, I write…
I’ve been put on the hood of a car, for the color of my skin, by a police officer when I had done nothing wrong. I was walking down an alley in my Black neighborhood in Washington DC, late at night, getting from the subway station home after a catering gig. The officer pulled up and blocked my way, told me to lean onto his car with my hands spread apart. Demanded ID. Peppered me with questions while people looked on.
This sudden drama was unexpected and nerve-wracking, scary, and humiliating.
But I am white. I knew I was going to come out ok. I was in my own neighborhood, where my light-skinned self stuck out like a Christmas tree in July but where I thoroughly belonged. And I knew I would be able to eventually convince the officer that this stop was a mistake. I had talked to his supervisor at a community meeting a few weeks before, for goodness sake.
No gun was drawn. No arrest was made. I don’t think the officer even touched me, and he certainly didn’t use his knee to press my neck into the dirt and concrete of that dark alley.
And yet, I was scared. I felt humiliated at being singled out. Kids I knew from the neighborhood were watching, and though I knew I was in the right here, I felt keenly a need to save face in front of them. And I felt a strong urge to defend myself, to in some way fight back against the perceived injustice of being interrogated while innocent.
Because, while the officer — who, incidentally, was black — told me explicitly that he was stopping me because of my behavior and not because I was white, I sure felt like my skin had something to do with it. I was pretty sure, if my white skin hadn’t made me so conspicuous in those alleys where white people rarely walked — and especially not at night — he would have never paid any attention to me.
And so, I confess, I obfuscated a little with my answers to this officer’s questions. I cracked a wry jest or two. I made a point of asking how a couple of his fellow officers, whom I had met tangentially, were doing: These are things you should generally not do when talking to a police officer who is questioning you while your hands are spread on the hood of his car. These are things that no Black male would dare to do without fear of escalation of the encounter, possible arrest, or worse.
Eventually, I convinced the officer that I was completely innocent of any wrongdoing. I explained that I had grown up in this neighborhood, and that he had simply seen me chatting with some of the guys I knew as I walked through the alleys. Some of those men were, indeed, drug dealers — so I had to give the officer that. But eventually he believed me when I insisted that I had no interest in their product. And I walked home, slightly rattled and a bit aggrieved, but with an interesting story to tell about life in my ‘hood.
This is my only story about being stopped by police for being white.
By contrast, many Black Americans have story after story of being stopped while black, for pretty much no reason, or at least for so little reason that if they were a white person no wrong would have been assumed.
And I believe these stories. White people, if after watching the George Floyd video you don’t already, it’s time to believe the stories. If there’s no other outcome from these protests — and I do literally pray to God that more change than this will come — it should be that every person in this country believes Black accounts of mistreatment at the hands of the police, and at the hands of others with power over them.
Because it isn’t just officers of the law who have held their knees, literally or figuratively, on the necks of Black Americans. It’s also been supervisors, teachers, preachers, doctors, store managers, waiters and waitresses, taxi and Uber drivers, families of girlfriends and boyfriends, government officials, dissertation directors, fellow executives and board members — anyone who can in any way hold power over their heads, whether for a brief moment or for a lifetime.
You should be able to deduce, by now, white America, that what happened to George Floyd has happened over and over and over before — and a thousand million slights less physically injurious, but harmful nonetheless. It just mostly hasn’t been caught on camera before in quite that clear, excruciating, break-your-heart, cold-and-inhumane, everyone-can-see-and-understand kind of way.
The history of Black people in this country is a long tale of violence, mistreatment, and the denial of basic human rights through the dark years of slavery and enforced segregation. I know many white people don’t like to ponder this history, for it does not show us or our country in the best light.
We have been propagandized into an America where, surely, everyone’s lives and rights are protected well enough at present by our fine institutions of government and law. Didn’t we fix all those race issues during the civil rights era? Or at least by having recently elected a Black president?
But no, now we are forced, by video and by protest, by marches and by the phone cameras of ordinary citizens, to see that racism continues, inside and around us. And it’s not just the personal slights that are still endured by people of color in this country. No, Black people in this country face a host of systemic injustices as they seek our supposedly shared American dream under the shadow of societal institutions that disproportionately prevent their successes and censure their missteps.
Because that is my — and your, if you are white and reading this — white privilege: You walk, and drive, and eat, and jog, and sit on your couch in your own skin, and you don’t even think about it. You get pulled over and you’re worried about getting a ticket, not about whether the officer who is walking up to your window has his hand on his gun. You don’t have to think about your skin, and how its color might put you in jeopardy.
It’s time to think about it, then demand change for those in our country who are still suffering for no other reason than the color of the skin in which they live.
Hanoians seem to love to take ‘glamor shots’ all around town: in front of flowers and flowering trees, by chic little restaurants, beside bodies of water. And no body of water is more popular for glamor shots and selfies than Hoan Kiem lake. Here’s a couple in wedding wear taking a moment to get their portrait done right.
There’s a magical street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter called Hang Ma. It sells toys, birthday party supplies, and things to help the young at heart celebrate whatever holiday is coming up.
Last month was Tet Trung Thu, Vietnam’s mid-autumn moon festival. This festival is focused especially on children, so Hang Ma was bursting with goods and buyers.
There were masks for sale.
There were handmade, mass-produced festival emblems made out of colored paper, like this star. Others take the shape of animals – fish shapes are everywhere – and are made to hold a candle or other small light and be a lantern. Nighttime kids’ parades with these lanterns are apparently a traditional feature of the moon festival.
The one above features the face of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s hero.
In addition to the handmade traditional stuff, there was tons of tacky modern toys, too.
A wander on Hang Ma is a must for the fall season. Can’t wait to see what’s coming there for Christmas…
Hanoi’s construction techniques continue to amaze me. And, while watching a building going up — or in this case coming down — I’m not sure whether to admire or shudder. Perhaps both.
This guy is four stories up, one-hand, no shoes, jack-hammering away the brick-and-cement wall on which he stands.
Now that’s courageous! Or perhaps a touch foolhardy? It certainly ain’t no sure foundation. He’d probably make a great mountain climber!
This is a bia hoi.
It’s a place to get fresh beer. (Bia means beer in Vietnamese.)
Yes, you read correctly: fresh beer. Not bottled. Not canned. Not kegged. Fresh. Basically, they bring it from the brewery in buckets and serve it out of a big vat. At busy times, waiters scurry ‘tween vat and tables carrying round trays crowded with freshly poured, sudsy glasses, barely able to keep up with demand.
I’ve come here to relax and get some work done. And drink some fresh beer, of course; I like the stuff. I’m about the only person you’ll ever see typing on a laptop at a bia hoi, though. Bia hoi’s are the dominion of groups of men, mainly at night but sometimes in the afternoons, who congregate to drink and smoke and eat and pass the time.
I choose to sit at table number 13. Surely it will bring me luck. Though that bottle opener is a sacrilege. Who would drink bottled beer at a bia hoi?!
(Incidentally, there was an incident that meant table 13 was unlucky for me. I spilled fresh beer on my laptop. Oi! In the end, though, all I needed was a new keyboard, which didn’t cost much. And my keyboard had been malfunctioning so much that I was about to buy an external one anyway. Probably saved me money. So maybe it was lucky…)
Across the street from me is a public park, and beyond that the quiet waters of the Westlake. In the park, young and old exercise their right to exercise on blue-and-beige exercise machines provided by the local municipality. My favorite is the old lady doing hip thrusts as she stares inscrutably into the gathering dusk.
If you want to enjoy a bia hoi, you sit down and holler for some beer. “Em oi! Mot bia!” Hey you! One beer!
You quaff. You eat the complementary peanuts. You chopstick some morning glory with garlic, some crusty fried tofu topped with a hunk of uncooked bitter greens, and some grilled buffalo meat with rice out of little white bowls.
You throw your trash under the table, in or somewhere near the trash can.
You admire the every-glass-is-different, made-of-recycled-glass glasses. And you never drink alone. (I’m breaking the rules.)
Bia hoi’s dot Hanoi. It’s hard to go far without seeing one. If you went on a walk and had two beers at every bia hoi you came across, you’d be drunk by kilometer one. Even though the beer doesn’t pack that much punch.
Come to Hanoi and find your bia hoi.
I’m reviving my race and culture blog, Whiteboy in the (small) City, with a post that includes an opinion essay I published about how my parents made change with love, not politics. Don’t know the backstory of how my parents did this with a cross-cultural move from rural American Amish country to Washington, DC? Click through and find out…
While you’re there please sign up to follow that blog, too, which I’m hoping to post on more regularly.
After a week of 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures early in June, the summer has settled down to intermittent heat, humidity, and thunderstorms. Thankfully, the near-constant cloud cover has kept the temperatures down, mostly around or below 90.
But the big Ho Tay lake still attracts local swimmers who wade in to cool off, especially on a weekend afternoon. I applaud the water-time recreation! Though, frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to get in myself. Maybe I’ll get to go on the lake in a boat sometime…
Are you really angry but unsure about resorting to violence to solve your problems? Need an alternative to punching the daylights out of the person who is driving you mad? Strap on these seed knuckles and plant a non-invasive species instead!
These fully organic, fast growing grass seeds are harvested sustainably in the paradise that is California. And unlike buying brass knuckles, springing for seed knuckles means you won’t support extractive industries with your hard-earned cash.
So, next time you need to get out some aggression toward that person who really riles you up, avoid court fees and possible jail time — sock it to Mother Earth as an alternative! Simply put on your seed knuckles and punch the ground.
Instead of an enemy, you’ll make a plant!
Brought to you by Swords Into Plowshares Pacifists Inc.