My international-life inspiration, ten years gone

Ten years ago, I had just moved to Accra, Ghana’s coastal capital in West Africa, when I learned from a Yahoo news story that Glen was dead. A headline about an attack in Afghanistan caught my eye. I clicked. And my life has never been the same.

Glen was my cousin, and – after an epic three-month, 5,000-mile bike ride across the U.S. that he led me into in late 2002 – my best friend. He was a gentle, quietly confident soul who learned languages quickly, made friends easily, excelled at any sport he could get someone to try with him, and loved to travel.

He trekked extensively in the US, Chile and Nepal; lived for awhile in Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon; climbed Mt. Rainier. After a long career as a nurse in different cities around the U.S. and a short career as a realtor in his native Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he volunteered with a Christian medical organization in Afghanistan. He wanted to see even more of the world and, true to the ethic of service to God and community instilled in him by his Amish-Mennonite upbringing, be of use to others.

Glen and I both grew up with a family heritage that emphasized service, pacifism, and cross-cultural outreach. Because of this, we shared a belief that the wrongs of the world would be made better not through coercion, force, or military might, but by personal bridges built between people and cultures over time. He died putting that belief into action.

This was the life that was cut short on August 5, 2010, along with nine other companions as they returned from a medical mission to one of Afghanistan’s remotest valleys. Though the news article I opened that day in Ghana didn’t name Glen or any of the others killed, from the description of the trek I knew there was no way he would have stayed home in Kabul with such an adventure on offer.

My brain stopped. The words on my screen turned to gibberish. My wife and I scoured the web for updates. I called Glen’s brother, Jerry, who confirmed the news story as he rocketed home toward his parents and his older brother, Ernie, in Pennsylvania – a summer trip with the kids cut short.

Though we had just flown to Ghana from the United States, my wife and I flew back. I said some words at the funeral. As the son of an Amish-Mennonite preacher who grew up religiously wearing dress pants and long sleeve button-downs to church, it felt a little scandalous to stand behind that church pulpit sporting sandals and a pair of shorts. But this, we all agreed, was the way Glen would have wanted it. He was never big on ceremony and was famous for wearing shorts even in the dead of Northeast winters.

There was no body at the funeral. It arrived days later, transported home – somewhat ironically, I thought – by the U.S. military. Glen’s body was grey, shriveled by death, by the bullets that killed him, by days of lying in the open. His mom noted the unique crook of a finger, a birthmark she recognized.

Afterward, my wife drove down Route 23, a two-lane road dotted by semi-rural towns and sub developments that used to be farms. I hung my head out the window like a dog and pulled in the sweet, living air. I was so happy to be alive, I felt guilty, and sick to my stomach that Glen wasn’t.

Ten years later, and my wife and I are moving to yet another new country. I wrote the beginning of this essay on a UN-chartered airplane as it carried us to Timor Leste, a small island nation between Indonesia and Australia. My wife works in international humanitarian development, and tends to get jobs in places that many would consider off the beaten track.

As the best man at my wedding in 2008, Glen’s toast talked about his admiration at how quickly I had adapted to life in Pakistan, where I had moved a couple years before to join the woman I was marrying as she expanded her international career. Before meeting my wife, I had left North America only once, to explore the relative comforts and cultural familiarity of Europe.

But it was in large part because of Glen’s world-traveling example and open-minded input that I had been able to find the courage to date and marry a woman who likes to change countries every few years, the flexibility to adapt to international life. I still remember him schooling me on what it was like to travel in areas of the world where I probably wouldn’t want to drink water from the water fountain, if there even was one – an implausibility that shocked me then.

When I said goodbye to Glen at the end my wedding days, I said goodbye to him forever. He left for Afghanistan shortly after. We ended up living not that far apart – he in Kabul and I in western Pakistan. I dreamed sometimes of riding my bike to Kabul to visit him, but such a journey through Taliban-held country was of course impossible. Improbably, the instability of the region caught up with him in a way no one wanted to imagine.

Ten years later, and the world is a different place than when Glen left us. I wish he were here for this moment. His skills to care for others would be put to good use during a pandemic. His quiet, gentle encouragement would lift us all. And I’m pretty sure he would have found a way to make positive change in the Black Lives Matter era – he once told me about a long back and forth he had on social media nudging a less progressive friend forward, a patient exchange few others try.

Ten years later, I still miss him.

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Here’s Glen in 2002, pleased as punch to be packing his bike trailer for an epic ride across the United States.

Because people like sunflowers

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.)

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Me and the Police

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.

Wedding photo, by water

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.

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Moon festival memories

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.

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There were masks for sale.

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Stuffed animals.

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Joke glasses.

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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.

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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…

Shaky stance

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.

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Now that’s courageous! Or perhaps a touch foolhardy? It certainly ain’t no sure foundation. He’d probably make a great mountain climber!

 

Bia hoi, Hanoi oi!

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This is a bia hoi.

It’s a place to get fresh beer. (Bia means beer in Vietnamese.)

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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.

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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.

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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…)

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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.

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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.

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You throw your trash under the table, in or somewhere near the trash can.

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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.

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Come to Hanoi and find your bia hoi.

And now for something completely different…

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…

http://whiteboyinthesmallcity.blogspot.com/

While you’re there please sign up to follow that blog, too, which I’m hoping to post on more regularly.

A busy day in the lake

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…

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