• People Talk and My Ear Bleeds


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    Tuesday, February 28, 2006

    I'm looking for a new blog

    I like blogging, in fact, I love it.  It allows me to pontificate when the urge hits, and save my poor, loving wife the earaches of listening to me rant.  Because of that, she loves it too.  However, she thinks I spend too much time doing it (she lumps reading the news in with blogging).

    But I am dissatisfied.  I use blogger.  I like blogger.  But I do not LOVE blogger.  I am tired of my template, and desperately wish I could organize my posts into categories, not to mention blogger is blocked in some parts of Vietnam (more on that later).  So what am I to do??

    The other day I started a mirror blog at wordpress.com.  In fact, you can go to my mirror blog here.  It has not been updated since I imported my posts from blogger.  I like the purity of template designs offered by wordpress.  I love it's search function and categories.  I almost switched.  However, I didn't.  Wordpress doesn't allow me to edit my template. 

    I know HTML and I want my freedom!!!!

    So, if you are unlearned in the realm of programming, I say, go ahead, use wordpress.  I find it's dashboard interface incredibly easy to use and the categories are great.  However, if you know what you're doing, you face a dillemma....

    To spend or not to spend...that is the question.  Whether tis nobler in the mind's eye to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune of not editing your template....

    ...or do you upgrade??  If you download the actual wordpress program, you can have POWER, at a cost.  You have to pay someone to host your blog.

    So I went to typepad.com, and found a similar conundrum.  The dashboard interface looks very logical and easy to use.  It also allows you some degree of playing with overall layouts. You can have calendars, and pictures, and recent comments in your side bars.  All nice.  But, (there's always a but) you must pay $5 a month for the basic service, and that still doesn't allow full html editing.  I WANT CONTROL OVER MY DOMAIN!!  Is that too much to ask?  Full control is $15/mo, and I am a poor college student, counting pennies and food stamps so I can make it through medical school.  Sorry, no can do.

    Where to turn next??  MSN Spaces??  Whatever.  I've read those blogs, and if I wanted nothing more than a string of thoughts, I'd be fine where I'm at anyway.

    Which brings me back to blogger....Maybe I'll just have to be happy with what I have.  It's free anyway.

    The Face at the Restaurant

    [After talking with a reader of my blog, I feel I must make an addendum. This story is a memory. It happened awhile ago. As such, the details may not be totally accurate. I wrote it ambiguous on purpose because time didn't matter in the story, AND because I can't remember it all. Most importantly, the purpose of relating the story is to highlight life's many fork-in-the-road situations. How many times have you chosen one path, but wonder what would have happened if you had chosen the other? That does not mean you are unhappy or dissatisfied with the path chosen and outcome received--no, merely that you are cognizant of God's gift of free agency to individuals, to chose their actions, and as such, the numberless possibilities of human interactions in a world populated by over 6 billion of His children. For a Deity that knows "every time a sparrow falls" (if you read the Bible), that is an awe inspiring omniscience. I just muse over one instance in a long life of choices.]

    I'm in a reminiscing mood...here's another memory. This is one of many memories I have of people who are in my life for a short time, but the impression lasts so much longer.


    It was noon, and I was hungry. Not much to do, nowhere to go, so I stepped inside a restaurant I found on the side of the street for a quick bite to eat.

    It was a random restaurant...that's where everything memorable happens.

    I looked down at the menu, ordered, and looked up into the eyes of a beautiful girl. She looked up from her bowl, our eyes met, and then they darted downwards again in that "oops, I got caught" look that you get after realizing you're staring at someone.

    She was young, probably my age, with long dark hair, beautiful dark eyes, light blue blouse and black skirt. Again her eyes lifted from the bowl and met my newly returning gaze. Sometimes eyes can talk. Girls do this all the time--it drove me crazy in high school. Two girls look at each other, a second passes, and then giggles start. All the guys would look at each other and shrug.

    Yet this time I understood. With a slight smile and blushing cheeks she asked "So you're here alone too, huh?"

    "Yes," I replied, "what's a girl as pretty as you doing eating lunch alone?"

    "I don't think I'm that pretty...thanks. But life is what it is and I'm still waiting around for Mr. Right."

    "Well, I think you're being humble. I feel like I've known you before. What's your name?"

    "Me too. What's your name?"

    With that, the gaze broke, as she finished her meal and paid the waiter. Another quick glance, to extend the moment a while longer, and she stood up to leave. How come, no matter all the talking that goes on between eyes, you tell someone your name?

    I finished my food as she walked past me and called for the waiter. Paying quickly, I rose, and slipped out the door, causing the waiter to run out to me the bags I left under the table. Down the street, I saw her pause and look at something being sold on the curb. For a moment she turned back, and her fleeting gaze caught mine once more.

    "If this were a perfect world, you'd follow me, but it's not and I must go."

    With that she turned and faded into the sea of anonymous faces milling about the sidewalk. The valet brought my vehicle, and with a sigh, I drove off in the other direction...the face of a nameless girl forever etched in my mind.

    Sunday, February 26, 2006

    Sunday, 26 February 2006.

    Today is one of the best days in my life, and I think, time will show it to be one of the most important days in the history of Vietnam. Only time will tell. However, if you knew me in Cali, when I lived at the Dog House...if you were my brother-in-arms then...then you will understand my reaction when I say that after 31 years, I have seen 28 new silver threads finally sewn into the tapestry.

    For those of you who have no clue what this post means, do not feel bad. Everyone has times in life shared by a select, close few. Times remembered and shared by a simple nod, smile, or "Do you remember (insert name/date/place here)?" Then proceeds forth tears of joy and sorrow, feelings of warmth, comraderie, and missing those who are far away or have passed on before.

    Today was the establishment of one of those days and the fulfillment of many others.

    Sunday, 26 February 2006 was a beautiful day.

    Saturday, February 25, 2006

    Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll in Vietnam

    While responding to Virtual Doug's post on teaching ESL in Vietnam, I started ruminating my recent encounter with marriage in Saigon and the "MTV culture."

    First, westernization has taken Vietnam haphazardly.  Because the communist government regulates everything from song lyrics to automobiles, yet is somehow trying to open its economic doors, some things are let in and others are not.  Picture it as a two-headed monster looking forwards and backwards, but having no neck to swing sideways.  Anything not directly in the line of sight makes it through easily.

    So it is with Americanization.  I use that word because America is the strongest western nation today, politically, economically, and culturally.  It is our culture that is exported to Asia.

    Because Americanization comes to Vietnam in the form of MTV, pirated movies, and WWE Smackdown, Vietnamese youth get a lot of explosions, shooting, sex, money, and lies.  They get very little hard work, family values, religious mores, or intellectual debate.  Hey, that's what Hollywood produces--the fault lies with LA.

    Even so, I was mildly surprised on Monday.  I was introduced by a nun to some ladies working at an orphanage and the nun mentioned that I had a wife.  After the nun left, I talked with one of the therapists.  She said, "So, you have a wife.  Are you married yet?"

    At first I was taken aback.  My response was, "Yes, I'm married," to which she asked, "Do you have any children yet?"

    "Not yet," I replied.

    The conversation moved away from the topic at that point, but it stuck with me because it was the third time in three days by three different people where I was asked the same question.

    "Oh, you have a wife.  Are you married yet?"

    Now, it comes with the territory, that anyone who grew up in America, speaks fluent Vietnamese and English, and is between 20-35, will get constant complements of "dep trai" (handsome) and flirtations, especially teaching ESL, where most students are college age girls.  I fall into this very ego-inflating category. 

    So I came home and talked to my wife.  I rationalized that all the flirtations, and now this line of questioning, stemmed from the loosening of morals in Ho Chi Minh City.  After all, the abortion clinic at Yeu Tre or Pasteur St. does how many abortions a day?  300, I think I heard from my wife.  Anyway, sexual liberation has hit "the city" quite hard.

    "Hey, why not?" I thought.  "People must assume that when I say vo (wife) they mean a girlfriend I live with, because that's how it's done in Vietnam nowadays."

    It made perfect sense to me until my wife talked about it with some of her coworkers (who are moderately sexually liberal for Saigoners today).  My wife came home with a new conclusion:

    "All anyone sees on MTV and American movies is sexual promiscuity, money, etc.  Therefore, they assume that if you grew up in the USA, you are part of a culture that is OK with sexual promiscuity, even after marriage.  Those who are OK with it here, are the vocal ones, and are attracted to you because you represent fun, spontaneous physical pleasure, money, and possibly a ticket to America, where the streets are made of gold."

    So Vietnam is liberalizing, but not as much as I thought, and they think America's more liberal than it is.  It makes sense to me...what do you think??

    Thursday, February 23, 2006

    Why are Asians so skinny?

    Actually, they aren't.  Ok, so the stereotype in America holds a lot of truth, but as this article from CNN points out, obesity rates in Japan are climbing disturbingly higher (over 24% of the total population).

    "concern is growing over eating patterns like Sayaka's. Instead of the fish, rice and miso soup of their grandparents' generation, younger Japanese are increasingly wolfing down fast food like burgers, fried chicken and instant noodles."

    This is increasingly true in Vietnam.  When I first came to Vietnam in 2004, I was surprised to find a large number of fat people in Saigon.  In fact, having spent most of my time in Hanoi, I noticed it immediately upon entering Ho Chi Minh City.  There weren't fat people in the north, but there were a whole lot of them in the south. 

    Why??  Well, first, 70% of Vietnam's GDP comes from the province of Ho Chi Minh City (the city and outlying areas).  That means people have more money to spend.  One expat remarked that fatness stemmed from living through the hard years of the 80s and 90s.  He's lived here over ten years, and saw Vietnam before it opened up trading with America, and consequently, modernized. 

    "Food is a sign of wealth," he said.  "When you have money, you can show it by feeding your children.  The fatter the child, the more money you have."

    This is invariably true.  As the wealth of Vietnamese families increases, they are buying more ice cream, more Kentucky Fried Chicken, more Lotteria (bad korean hamburgers).  What better way for a loving parent to show his/her love than to make sure his/her kids have everything they want to eat, especially since he/she did not while growing up right after the war?

    Unfortunately, culture is slow to change.  The CNN article reports that,

    "Bad diets and less exercise create what psychologists say is a vicious cycle: Fat kids are increasingly picked on at school, get depressed and find solace in eating even more."

    I know in my wife's family, the youngest child gets a healthy drubbing often of fat jokes, when in America, she would be considered healthy, but not remotely fat.  Even my wife, all 5'0" and 90 pounds of her, complains that she is fat because her stomach is not the most flat, toned stomach.

    In my english classes I hear fat jokes constantly, and have to reprimand students often for misbehaving (in teenage classes).  As Vietnam gets larger, it's teenagers do not get nicer.  I hope that Vietnam's culture of morning exercise will rally under this onslaught and counterattack strong enough to keep people healthy and not made fun of.  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Saigon is winning this one.

    Wednesday, February 22, 2006

    Can humanity speak too much English??

    No, it can't.  In fact, it needs to speak a lot more.  English has become the international language (not the universal language...that's love).  Today, Reuters reports that over 500 million people in China study English in schools ... more than "the total number of mother-tongue English speakers elsewhere in the world."

    It also goes on to say that,

    "The report commissioned by the British Council says monolingual English graduates "face a bleak economic future" as multilingual competitors flood into the workforce from all corners of the globe.

    A massive increase in the number of people learning English is under way and likely to peak at around 2 billion in the next decade, according to the report entitled "English Next."

    Some parts of this are true.  This world's economy is increasingly global.  It is that way because America forces it to be that way.  As long as Americans are in power who want cheap toys from China or customer service in India, trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA will continue to be conceived and born.  Only if the new, increasing vocal protectionist/isolationist minority is successful in taking control of Washington D.C. will economic globalization hit the brakes--and by then it might be too late anyway.

    Therefore, yes, if you know only one language, you are at a disadvantage.  Welcome to the club, English speakers!!  I'm sure you have much less to worry about than the Vietnamese people I interact with on a daily basis.  Ask Miss Thao, selling cherries on the side of the road from the back of her bicycle if she knows English.  Nope, not a chance.  What are her employment opportunities?  Local farming and produce selling.  If the cherry season is bad, Thao goes a little hungry and tries to switch to selling something else.  Vietnamese is a limiting language...not English.

    That being said, those who speak English and have no desire to learn another language or culture will increasingly find themselves earmarked for local markets just like Thao--true.  But just as likely is that someone who truly knows his or her stuff, and speaks English, has a better chance of moving up and around in the corporate world because everyone else will speak English too, so he or she doesn't NEED to speak another language.

    I love teaching English in Vietnam.  Most of the students are fun, happy, outgoing, and genuinely want to learn English.  I receive a sense of pride when I see a student say something correctly, because I know I am helping to open a myriad of doors later in life for the student--opportunities he or she previously could not have experienced.  However, find me the Vietnamese person, having never lived in England, Australia, or America, who can speak English fluently, without accent, and understand all hidden nuances in a sentence, and I will show you a needle in a haystack.

    Learning English from funny expats and native teachers a couple hours a day, a couple days a week, provides enough fluency to be competitive on the global market, but will never be a replacement for someone who truly lives and understands the language.  English is too nuanced a language. 

    Also, stopping at 2 billion of 6 billion people sounds ludicrous to me.  Unlike Chinese, spoken by about 1 billion people but all stuck in one part of the world, English is truly global.  Now that English has hit the saturation point of a truly international language, the ball will roll downhill until everyone speaks it.  It only makes logical sense for people to learn it. 

    In the end, companies may soon be able to choose between "generic" English speakers (ESL) and "name brand' ones (natives), but neither speaker should ever worry about being phased off the market. 

    Tuesday, February 21, 2006

    Chinese Independence

    The rumbles of social change now sound like the crack of a tennis ball rebounding off a racket. When you have skill, you want control over it.

    Sunday, February 19, 2006

    Ruminations: War

    What will our children think when they open their textbooks and read about "The Cartoon Wars."  Will it be one line?  Will it be a whole college course?  Will it spawn six movies based in outerspace involving "rebels" and an "empire"?  And if so, which side does Luke fight on this time?

    I have a bad feeling about these wars.  Why?  Because I think my children will read about them in textbooks like we read about Archduke Ferdinand--the prelude to something huge.  Niall Ferguson, in his 2003 book, "Colosus, the Rise and Fall of the American Empire," equates Israel to the Balkans of our generation.  It's more than Israel.  It's the whole Middle East.  We've been worried about it since the 1950s, and now things are really blowing up.

    We have seen, how one assassination can lead to a world war--arguably two (some people, like myself, see the two world wars as really one war with a forced armistice in the middle).  Millions of people gassed, maimed, and dead because of a little spark.

    Now comes the cartoons.  Cartoons printed way back in September in a Danish Newspaper.  The Danes, for crying out loud.  Their country is smaller than the incorporated area from Houston to Galveston (probably) but definitely smaller than every state in the Union with the exception of maybe Rhode Island.  And when did the rioting start?  No, not right away when they were first printed.  Not even by Muslims in Denmark.  No, they start months later after the inciting of violence by muslim clerics using what might even be faked cartoons.

    I fear my children will read about the Cartoon Wars as the inciting incident of a world war.  Europe and the USA have shown an amazing ineptitude to quench the lies and temper the anger.  Public relations bust.  When people are willing to force their belief systems on others, or kill them because they have the belief system of someone who pissed them off, they forfeit their right to be respected and tolerated also. 

    Ultimately, the culture of tolerance (West) will either have to separate itself from the Middle east and it's culture of superiority, or say "that's enough." 

    I fear it will be the latter.  Who will win and be printing the textbooks my children read from?

    Tuesday, February 14, 2006

    Ruminations: Driving in Vietnam

    "82 million people trying to get nowhere important as fast as they possibly can in the most inconsiderate and inefficient manner."

    Driving in Vietnam is like walking down a crowded hallway in highschool. Everyone just kinda mills around, slipping in and out of the crowd as they move down the hall like a mindless herd of cattle. The fast stay either to the middle or skirt dangerously close to the wall on the outside. Those trying to go contraflow must wait for breaks in the students to get across to their lane or also skirt against the lockers.

    Ultimately, people in Vietnam jut their front tire in front of others to get one more place forward at the light. They inch into the intersection with the light still red causing drivers going perpendicular to honk and swerve. They burn fast at a green light and only slow down at the last second. Where are they going? Usually home for lunch, or out to shop, but they fight for position as if it's the Indy 500.

    Today I saw a woman at an intersection shielding the head of her 6 year old child from the son. Everyone here bundles up in long sleeves and pants in the summer because they are afraid of getting tan or skin cancer. Yet, this woman inches out until she is in the middle of the intersection. Cars and motorbikes are wizzing all around her, as she sits there, waiting for some small opening to inch to the other side. Eventually, the light changed. She almost hit someone. I made it to the other side of the intersection before she did.

    I wonder if she realizes that her child has a better chance of dying from a motorbike accident than skin cancer? Maybe if she did, driving (and fashion) in Vietnam would be a little different.

    Sunday, February 12, 2006

    My First Video Post -- Fireworks in Saigon 2006

    Here it is--the culmination of blood, sweat, and tears. Well, actually, just tears of frustration having to sign up for everything under the planet. I now know why more people do not video blog, or have "vlogs" as they are now called. You'd rather give away your first born child than jump through all the hoops to put a simple video on the internet.

    That caveat aside, this marks the dawn of a new age, a moving picture age, in the life of The Bleeding Ear. Let me just say that if I started a new blog, or vlog, I should call it The Bleeding Eye because of the hours I have spent staring at these ubiquitously boring webpages. However, for your viewing pleasure, I have "wade[d] through the slaughter for the crown" (St. Thomas Aquinas).

    Lunar New Year's Eve was a great night. It's like New Year's Eve in America, except it is the sign of four days or partying instead of one. It's a mixture of Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve--that's the only way I can describe it to a westerner.

    Almost the whole city (Saigon, 8 million people) turned out downtown for partying. The city closed off a whole street, decorated it with flowers, dressed it up like an old Vietnamese village, and let people walk up and down taking pictures. It also closed another street by the Hotel Continental and set up a stage in front of the opera house. On stage, various pop stars sang traditional vietnamese new year music. Great fun.

    Afterwards, the whole city drove to the Mekong river to watch the fireworks. You couldn't have gone home if you wanted to. A terrorist attack would have been easier and killed far more people than the 9/11 attacks, because we were packed in like sardines. A whole street (four lanes--which is a very large street in Saigon) packed impromptu to a standstill, people sitting with their significant others on motorbikes in the middle of the road, laughing, eating dried squid, and waiting for the fireworks to begin.

    When it happened it was great. Americans see fireworks alot, so we like them, ooh and ah a little, but don't go crazy. Vietnam outlaws fireworks, so the enthusiasm for them was catching.

    After the fireworks were over, I spent an hour trying to get off the street I was on. Yes, it was that packed.

    And now, without further ado, here's the video (Quicktime required):

    Click on the picture or download the video here.

    Saturday, February 11, 2006

    Video blogging

    Cracking the vlog scene isn't all it's cracked up to be. I've been on the internet at some cafe for an hour and a half setting up account after account on pages such as blip.tv and internet archive and ourmedia to finally get in the position to post a video. Gee wiz!

    Anyway, all this means is that hopefully, by tomorrow, I will have my first video posted, and things will get better from there. Please remember that I am working out the kinks on this vlog thing, since I am trying to do it for free. Any comments and suggestions on how to do it more efficiently and user-friendly are much appreciated.

    On that note, this is one more straw on the back of free blogging. I'm not even a big blogger, but I'm seriously thinking of putting money into it. For $25, I can get a pro flickr account--something seriously awesome, and for $5 a month I can get an audioblog.com account--making all this videoblogging thing easy.

    I dunno...a med student's life is poor as it is, but some things are just necessary...

    hey, they'd make good birthday presents (hint hint).

    Wednesday, February 08, 2006

    More Muslim Cartoon Thoughts

    As I was laying in bed last night, I was thinking about the status of the world today, particularly the middle east situation, and a few thoughts gelled into reality.

    First, I feel vindicated.  No, I was never wrong--just upheld.  Yes, I feel upheld.  Today Pres. Bush and the white house said exactly what I (and common sense) said the other day: We need to stop the fighting and stop the running of the cartoons.  Both sides have done wrong.

    In fact, Syria and Iran have gone so far as to purposely fan the flames of anger, the story says, which is definitely NOT what Mohammed taught.

    The pride issue is also outlined in today's International Herald Tribune.  It says

    "...calming statements seemed to have no effect. 

    ...President Jacques Chirac of France condemned "all manifest provocation that might dangerously fan passions."

    But none of that was my thought last night.  It was again, how absurd this all should be.  Look at the west.  The west is a culture based predominantly on Christianity, although not everyone is Christian nor every Christian a practicing one.  Christianity believes not in a democracy, but that Christ will come again and establish a 1000 year long Theocracy with Him as the head.  So, any believing Christian should identify with the IDEAL government being not a democracy but a theocracy.

    On the other hand, Muslims believe also in the ideal of a theocracy, and the middle east lives, more or less, under these theocracies today.  Although many countries have monarchs, dictators, or "presidents" elected by only one party, they have laws based on Islam and fatwahs issued by clerics are extremely important in shaping and directing people's actions in politics as well as other aspects of life.  However, Muslims in the middle east need to realize that such a government is IDEAL only when the leaders are unwaveringly, 100% charitable, loving, and humble--which obviously is not the case.  In the event of an imperfect theocracy, then democracy provides the best way to stem corruption and insure human rights.

    Yet neither side looks at the whole picture.  They just pout about the toy they lost on the playground--the toy neither of them really own in the first place.  My question then is, If the west and the middle east are two children on a playground who are fighting over a toy they don't really own, then who is the parent that steps in to restore order and teach proper values of love and sharing??

    Tuesday, February 07, 2006

    Videos and Cartoons

    I posted this in Chatterbox on the right, but I will say it here.

    I have decided to post videos on this blog. I hope my videos will be an enjoyable and enlightening extension of the discussions precipitated here. Until further notice, videos will be third party, or not containing anybody I know, in order to help preserve anonymity. Hey, you already know my name, right?
    Now, that being said, onto the cartoons.

    I have sat on the sidelines and watched the issue of Islam and cartoons for a long time now. It's hard to know what to think. Much has been made about the gulf between the current culture in the middle east, and western society.

    At work on monday, a coworker brought up his opinion that it stemmed from the uneducated masses. Education, he argued, breeds understanding and tolerance and logic. Without education, the masses are prone to following inflammatory rhetoric and feelings.

    In general, I feel this is true. Without education, one cannot sort between lies and truth.

    However, much more is made of this being the difference between Islam and a free press. People say that Islam bars caricatures of muhammed, but a free press should print anything, even if it offends.

    Again, I feel that in general this is true. A free press in a western society will never fit with radical/extremely orthodox Islam. One or the other must change. Either the press goes, or Islam becomes moderated.

    However, the crux of the argument, is spiritual not secular, internal not political. My father got me thinking about it all. PRIDE. People are burning buildings and killing people because they are prideful. If they were truly humble followers of God, they would acknowledge what they disliked, and use love and service to change the west's attitudes towards it. The west, if they were truly humble, would use love and service to change the middle east's attitude towards free press. Instead, each side pouts "Mommy, Johnny took my doll!" and cries, and nothing constructive happens.

    People die, more people get angry and hurt, more people die, and a self-destructive spiral starts spinning out of control.

    I'm reminded of a quote...

    "Can't we all just get along?"

    Sunday, February 05, 2006

    Super Steelers

    Awesome. My first superbowl outside America. What did I get? No cool superbowl commercials. All commercials were old replays of Wimbledon--serious. I saw Stefan Edberg play Bjorn Borg, and Mcenroe, Pat Cash, wow, all the old players. Short shorts and small rackets.

    The game? Poorly played. Honestly, I thought going into the game that the Steelers were not the better team. Watchig the game today, I still feel that way. The difference is that they didn't play as bad as the Seahawks. Both teams were shades of their usual selves. The 21-10 score doesn't show the true close game it was, but it also doesn't show the horrid nature of the game. Smith (receiver for Seahawks) dropped nearly as many balls as I do in a typical pickup game. The Seahawks' kicker missed two field goals by mere feet. Two of their touchdowns were called back--one by a very iffy pass interference call, and another because the receive went out of bounds (yet hit the pylon?).

    The steelers, having a chance to ice the game, see Roethlisberger's lame duck picked off and returned 76 yards. Ugliest pass I've ever seen. Luckily, the steelers secretly have a second quarterback on the field at all times, to throw beautiful touchdown passes to Hines Ward when Roethlisberger becomes mortal (which isn't all that often, but was today).

    So, I am elated that the Steelers won, that Bettis got a ring, that Cowher gets vindicated, but I am disappointed in the play by all. Well, except for Bjorn Borg. Man, that guy could play...

    Thursday, February 02, 2006

    How to Make Banh Chung

    [Disclaimer: I wrote this about five days ago, but have not been able to post it with pictures until now. However, since Tet is still going on, I feel it is relevant. Enjoy!]

    Happy New Year!!! Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!!

    Well, today is Lunar New Year's Day. Tet mong 1, and the festivities have begun. Actually, as of today, I have been off work for a week, but have blogged only sparsely because of the enormous amount of stuff to do to get ready for this holiday.

    How can I best decribe it for those readers not Vietnamese.... it's like the Christmas holiday in America (six weeks of pagentry for one day) but crammed into two weeks of pagentry for four days. So, all total, the "feeling" of christmas is stronger for longer, but the four days of Tet are pretty unimaginable--and so are the days leading up to them.

    Every family does a few things before Tet (which is the Vietnamese word for the Lunar New Year). First, they must buy flowers. Everyone buys flowers. They have HUGE flower fairs all over the city so people can by flowers to decorate their houses and give to friends. The two special flowers are Hoa Dao and Hoa Mai, but I will describe them later.

    Second, everyone must go visit close friends and extended family, wishing them a good new year. You do this before Tet, and then during Tet also. During Tet, the tradition states that your luck for the coming year will be tied to the first person/family to visit your house, so typically a family will spend the first day with just immediate family and very close relatives. The second day will be for close relatives, and then gradually you visit people less closely related to you.

    Third, everyone eats Banh Chung and Banh Tet. Both are eaten in north and south, but Banh Chung is associated with the north and Banh Tet with the south. A couple days ago, I went over to a cousin's place and helped make Banh Chung -- around 86 of them (43 pairs, give or take a few). This is how you make the tasty treat:

    Here's the sight when I first got there about 10am. The whole family had been working since about 6 in the morning. Grandma and Grandpa watched as all the cousins worked together to make the banh chung in the front room while watching the Australian Open (Tennis rocks).

    Banh Chung is wrapped in large la dong (Phrynium leaves...don't ask me what that is) and so one person (a neice) is assigned to take the very large leaves and clip the tops to make them more square.

    Leaves are folded into a pretty ingenious wrapper--like origami with leaves.

    Leaves are pretty expensive. You buy about 100 leaves for 75,000 VND. Each "wrapping" takes 8 leaves, plus some little scraps at the end. So, 86 pieces use almost 700 leaves. In this case we bought 1000 leaves for about 750,000 VND.

    The first thing that goes into the "box" is nep. That is translated as sticky rice. When it is boiled, it becomes very sticky, like a paste, unlike gao, which becomes the regular rice westerners know after boiling. The rice is soaked a couple times in large vats before being thrown into the leaf-pouch.

    The "cook" will take about a bowl and a half of rice (using the small asian ricebowls that they typically eat out of every meal) and pack it down tightly into the bottom of the leaf-wrapper.

    Nep is pretty cheap, usually about 10,000 VND per kilo.

    Next is added a block of dau xanh voi thit heo (mung bean with pork). It is created in a long process. First, the mung bean, bought from the store, is boiled for about an hour in a pot that looks like this:

    Then, the mung beans are transferred to a pot where they are mashed over and over again.
    Once they are mashed into a good, dry paste, they are rolled into fist-sized balls for easy use out in the front room.
    Out in the front room they sit in a bowl. One is picked up and mashed into a wooden frame with Saran wrap lining it (one of those quirky old meets new things ubiquitous to Vietnam). The Pork is then added (about two pieces) in a layer on top of the mung bean, and more mung bean is pressed down on top to form the brick shown earlier.

    Mung beans are actually more expensive than pork right now. Enough mung bean for all our cakes cost about 550,000 VND. The pork was far less than that. Even with the leaves at 750,000 VND and the mung bean at 550,000 VND, those two ingredients plus the pork and rice came out to only about 2,000,000 VND total for about 100 cakes. That's only 20,000 VND a cake (about $1.30 USD), and far less than the 70,000 VND they sell for in the stores.

    Once the mungbean/pork mixture is pounded into a brick, it is flipped into the leaf-wrapper on top of the rice. Then another bowl of rice is thrown on top and pressed down firmly--especially into the corners and sides around the mungbean brick--on top. That is the final layer of banh chung.

    To seal the cake, the outstretched leaves from the original leaf wrapper are clipped at the tops and folded over just as if you were wrapping a christmas present. Carefully, the cake-maker holds the seams firmly while taking a piece of reed (basically free--thrown into the price of the leaves) and wraps it around the cake. After two reeds are tied, the cake is passed to a designated "wrapping-person" who ties three reeds in each direction to achieve ....

    ...the finished product!

    Yet all is not done. Now comes the cooking. Here's a pic of most of our cakes. The cakes are taken outside and loaded into a large drum. The drum is raised on bricks to allow a fire underneath and the bottom of the drum is filled with the scraps from the leaves. Slowly, each pair of cakes is set inside the drum in concentric circles until all 43 pairs are sitting snuggly in their cooking-place. Then the water is turned on until the drum is filled over the banh chung.

    A fire is lit underneath the drum and once the water starts to simmer the lid is put on top and the banh chung starts to cook. Thirteen hours of boiling later the fire will be extinguished, the top taken off carefully with a long pole (because the steam will burn anyone in a two foot vicinity) and the banh chung extracted and given to people to eat.

    Here's what my banh chung look like when finished.
    So, this Tet or next, if you have the ability to eat some banh chung, go for it! It's often eaten with leeks or hot sauce. Happy eating!

    Wednesday, February 01, 2006

    Well, I matched

    This is one of those very weird feelings...the ones you get when you face a fork in a road, but instead of "taking the road less traveled" because you don't know the ending, you know full well where each one leads, and more than one outcome is good.

    I matched with the University of Texas - Houston.  My list, if it matters, was

    1. UTH
    2. UTMB - Galveston
    3. UTSW

    One of the hardest picks I ever had to make.  Everyone, throughout the whole application and interview process, said to go to the medical school that I felt the most comfortable with.  They said one would jump out as the medical school for me.  It never happened.  I felt great at a lot of medical schools, and they were all so different from each other.

    Honestly, I probably felt the best at UTMB.  However, my wife is thinking of getting a MPH or JD, and refuses to live on an island (her only experience with Texas is the hurricanes this year).  UTSW impressed me with great faculty, but I felt the students were not as friendly.

    I ultimately chose UTH because the students seemed friendly, the medical center is huge (so I should get some good experience my 3rd and 4th years), and Houston should be able to offer my wife many opportunities for work or getting a MPH or JD.

    Nevertheless, it's not without regret that I put the other schools down on my list.  I know I could have gone to any of the three, been happy and successful, if it was just me.  However, this is my lot in life, and I am excited about the direction it is moving.  Houston, home, medical center, tropical diseases, family, doctor -- all our things I hope to experience within four years. 

    So, I want to publicly thank everyone for all the support they have given me (especially over the last year as I took the MCAT and applied to schools).  From my coworkers and professors in the lab who kept me laughing and intellectually stimulated to my family and friends back in Houston who kept my head from getting too large and kept me grounded spiritually, I thank you all

    ...and to DJ, if you still want to post my schools for me, they are (so far ... still waiting on 2), in order of acceptance,

    1. St. Louis University
    2. Medical College of Wisconsin
    3. Boston University
    4. University of Texas at Houston