Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sex Tourism: Defining Cultural Identity

Before coming to Vietnam I knew that sex tourism is a huge source of income for the country. This fact was actually the largest contributing factor for me to study abroad in Vietnam. At the age of thirteen I knew that for my eventual career that I would want to work towards reducing the amount of human trafficking in the world and help develop victim's rights. This spring will be ten years of working towards that goal. I specifically chose UCSB for their Global Studies program, because when I was in high school I Googled "types of majors to work for the UN". From my ten years of periodic research, I would say I know the defining signs of trafficked victims. Although I know what to look for, I feel as if I have been too mesmerized by Vietnam to give attention to some things I have seen. Our teacher would call this our "honeymoon period", and I feel as if this time has changed for me after today. A group of seven of us decided that it would be a fun idea to get massages in town. We have seen countless signs for massages near our neighborhood and so we were tempted to go and try one out. We met up with a local friend who knew a reliable place, so we gladly followed. The place that we were supposed to go to was too full to massage all seven of us at once and so we moved on to a different place down the street. From the outside it looked like all the shops. Our friend asked the male owners of the shop if they could accommodate six of us. They could, so we happily entered. Looking back now, I feel as if I should have known the warning signs. It's a difficult thing to stop a bad situation from happening when it's happening. We paid for the massages in the lobby (and I use that word sparingly) before entering the massage area. The women masseuses were behind curtains while the three men took care of the financial transactions. The men looked like what you would imagine massage brothel owners to look like. They were all wearing polos of various American designers, sporting silver chains and gold rings, and smoking during the entire transaction. Something didn't feel right, but the process was very fast and we were ushered into the massage rooms. By massage rooms, I mean we walked through a curtain into individual cubicals that were lit by a dim red light. Waiting for the female masseuse I began to get nervous and on edge. At the time I thought it was because this would be my first massage in a foreign country. Now I realize that the feeling was my body telling me to get the hell out of that place. The massage itself was extremely uncomfortable. A woman about my age entered the room wearing the tinniest dress. My Mom was a massage therapist for many years and I consider myself quite knowledgeable of various massage techniques. It was clear to the start that this woman was not a trained masseuse. I won't get into detail, but as a woman I felt as if the interaction was way too sexual and I was extremely uncomfortable by the end of it. After meeting up with the group, we came to the same consensus that the whole interaction was strange. Again, I won't get into detail, but I know that that place gives services other than massages. We tipped out our girls and the end total came to a little less than two dollars (an average price around town). I talked with my roommates for a long time about what happened. A part of me feels stupid for allowing what happened to happen. I feel as if I should have known better. I'm angry at myself for financially supporting that kind of place. The scholarly side appreciates the interaction. I want to help victims of human trafficking and I know that means becoming aware and getting involved. I think its important to bare witness to atrocities in order to be apart of the solution. As always, I see the good and bad in what happened today, but it has also lead me to questions. Like, did those girls get the tips we gave them? How did they get into that kind of work? Were they forced to work? Were they happy? Were they healthy? All of these questions I wish I could ask them.

This experience has lead me to reflect on the other forms of sex tourism I have seen since arriving two weeks ago. Sex tourism is not foreign to me. Growing up in the Bay Area I have seen my share of prostitutes and sketchy massage parlors. The difference between Vietnam and the Bay is that sex tourism is more hidden in the U.S.. Although I get frustrated at the insufficiency of U.S. policy on human trafficking, it is eons better than here. In 2012 Vietnam enacted strict laws and policies to combat human trafficking. The problem is that there are not enough resources to support the laws. I am starting to realize that this problem is a reoccurring theme. From the little time I have spent in Vietnam I have seen prostitutes soliciting johns, big bellied white men holding the hands of ten/twelve year old boys, escorts accompanying white businessmen at elite bars, and white men on holiday with their Thai/Vietnamese/Malaysian girl for the weekend. Before the trip to the massage brothel today, my mind seemed to push these experiences to the side. I know I could be wrong about what I've seen and I could be incorrectly judging people. Regardless of this, I am going to be paying attention from now on. There's a new fire in my belly and I want to learn about/recognize sex tourism while I'm here. I think these experiences are hard to see, but good for me to see, because they solidify my desire to spend my career combating human  trafficking. 
Spending two weeks in a country doesn't give you an accurate understanding of it's culture or people. Vietnam is a country filled with many ethnic groups. The people in the North are said to be different than the South. The youth population is huge and experiences a very different Vietnam than their parents. In our class we were asked to write about aspects that shape/help to define Vietnamese identity. I don't feel confident in answering that question, because I have seen so little of the country and have met a small portion of it's people. This week I spent time with some students from the university. I had a lot of fun, eating street food, going roller skating, drinking coffee at cafes. Earlier this week I went to the floating food market with my classmates and saw the sun rise on the Mekong. I learned about dating culture from an extremely limited article in my Cultural Vietnam course. Although I have done a lot and seen a lot this week, I do not feel as if I can confidently describe Vietnamese identity. I am starting to see some factors which contribute to the formation of identity here. From hanging out with the students from CTU, I see that friends have a huge influence in a person's life. Just like in the U.S., students at CTU are living away from their parents for the first time and their friends become their support system. As far as dating goes, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity all preach abstinence which influences the low rate of sex outside of marriage. However, the emergence of Western culture is beginning to change Vietnamese ideas about dating through movies, music, and magazines. From the short time I've spent in Vietnam, I can say that religion, family, peers, and established cultural norms help to construct youth identity. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The first days at CTU

I've been living in Can Tho for about 5 days now. The flow of CT is much slower than HCMC. The traffic moves a bit slower and crossing the street is not as terrifying as it was. We are living in the international dorms at the very back end of campus near a river. I've done a couple runs through the campus and it is very beautiful. There are many trees surrounded by tall grass with the occasional lily pad pond spread throughout campus. I've seen many dogs on campus, because there is a vet hospital at the front of campus. So far I have noticed 4 species of butterflies who I imagine are drawn to campus due to the many flowers that line the roads. At night the campus is electrified with the sound of fogs and crickets and it reminds me of home. Our second day in CT we did an amazing race challenge where we were split up into groups and had to collect pictures of various locations throughout the city. 2 groups were on bikes and 1 group had xe oms (scooter taxis). I was in the xe om group, because the bike I had purchased the previous day broke down within the first ride. We had about 15 items on our list and we made it through to about 12 of them before time was up.
View from cafe Ho Sen

Veggies at Cai Khe

The quad outside of my dorm

Chinese pagoda Chua Ong

Not many people speak English in CT so I have been lost in translation more than a few times this week. Whether it's being constantly stared at, having my bike break down, getting my key stuck in the wrong bike lock, ordering the wrong food, or getting lost...the communication between me and whoever is helping me has been unsuccessful most times. We have yet to start our Vietnamese language classes so all I know how to say is "my name is kaitlan", "how much", "where is", "the bathroom", "thank you". "no", and "egg". So as you can imagine, I don't get too far communicating on my own. Luckily when it comes to food I can just point at what I want. My stomach has been doing okay with the food...I've had some bad days, but that's to be expected. We found a really good pho shop that's not too far from campus. On campus the food options are banh mi, rice with meat/fish/tofu, or noodles, so I usually adventure outside for one of my meals. I found a really good coffee shop across from campus that has outside seating with a koi pond. I'm having difficulty ordering plain iced coffee with no sugar. The traditional coffee (cafe sua da) comes with a lot of sugar and condensed milk and that's what I've been mainly drinking. 
This cost about $1.75 
On Thursday night we went to Tiny Corner Cafe to meet with some English speaking Vietnamese students. Here is a link to their Facebook page They will probably be posting pictures of that night later this week. There are 12 of us in the program and when we arrived at the cafe there were roughly 40 Vietnamese students. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but all of the students were very nice and extremely outgoing. The girls that I talked to were very interested in my relationship status and my dog Babi. Hopefully I can see the girls again and invite them out. I'm going to try and teach a couple of them yoga! I tried to talk to the girls about the South China Sea conflict, because our blog post this week has to involve a conversation about the conflict. The girls didn't seem interested in talking about the issue. The only comment I was able to get out of the conversation was that Vietnam doesn't have good relations with China. Here's a little history of the conflict: The South China Sea is extremely rich in oil, natural gas, and fishing. China claims a large portion of these waters, including the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. The other countries involved, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, claim overlapping territory with China. The South China Sea has been a conflict for a long time. Originally, the other 6 countries involved were colonies of China and eventually gained their independence and sovereignty. Exclusive Economic Zones state that every country has the right to the natural resources found under the ocean 200 miles off shore. By this rule, China does not have claim to these regions. Tensions escalated in May of this year when a Chinese drilling operation banned the passage of boats in their drilling zone. By international law, all ships have the right to safely pass through these zones. On May 2nd Vietnamese coast guards and Chinese vessels had a stand off to protest the drilling operation. There were multiple collisions and one Vietnamese fishing ship was rammed by a Chinese vessel and sank. There were massive protest in HCMC where Chinese factories were burned. The protests resulted in the death of 4-6 Chinese people, hundreds of injuries, and the accidental (or maybe not) burning of Taiwanese and Korean shops. The U.S.'s position on the South China Sea conflict stated by Hilary Clinton is that if international agreements are broken and the movement of vessels are not free than the U.S. will intervene. So far the U.S. has been aiding Vietnam by building up its navy and increasing economic trading. The U.S. doesn't want China to have full control of the area, because that would give China huge economic advantage. The U.S. wants to create a buffer zone between itself and China by building up South East Asia. By the year 2020 60% of the U.S. navy will be in South East Asia. I personally think that the U.S. should not militarily intervene in the conflict. I think it's a good plan for the U.S. to create a buffer zone in South East Asia, because it will help SEA countries with their economic development and restrict China from having sole access to so many natural resources. Here is a map to explain the territorial boundaries claimed by each country.
Some of us are going out tonight to check out the town. Should be fun with some rice wine and Karaoke!

Love to all,

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Important sites and new tastes

We spent our first night in Can Tho last night! We are living in the international dorm at the edge of campus. Right now I'm rooming with three other girls, but that could change depending on when the new rooms are ready. We have a large common room where our beds are, individual lockers, a fridge, a desk (speckled with what seems to be dried bird poo), a toilet, shower, and sink. Our beds come with mosquito nets, although the rooms are pretty tightly sealed. I think I'm going to try and find a foam topper for my bed, because the beds are about an inch thick. The Hello Kitty bed sheets make up for the lack of mattress for now. I definitely see potential for this room. It just needs a little love and maybe a poster or two. At least we have Game of Thrones to keep us company!
Comfy Cozy

Before we got to Can Tho we had our last couple days in HCM. Friday night some of the girls went out to dinner after a short day of orientation. We went to Secret Garden which had a beautiful view of the city. The power flickered on and off with the occasional flash of lightning. There is a lot of lighting in Vietnam and the rain pours down in heavy sheets. Later that night I was really tired, but I rallied to join the group at SkyBar. SkyBar is a bar that sits atop a skyscraper in the HCM city center. Everything has been pretty cheap in the city, but SkyBar is close to matching American prices. It was definitely the most lavish/poppin bar I've ever been to. We got a HUGE bottle of Ciroc and danced for a few hours. The other guests at SkyBar pretty much kept to their own table, but our group moved around the bar dancing in any open space we could find. It was a late night, but totally worth it.
Dinner on a rooftop 
We spent all of Saturday doing touristy stuff. We went to Cu Chi to see the underground tunnels that the guerrilla fighters of Cu Chi built during the war. Cu Chi was a heavily bombed area during the war and is about an hour outside of HCM. The villagers of Cu Chi responded to the US invasion buy building an elaborate system of underground tunnels where they would live during the day and surface during the night. The guerrilla fighters set up traps, such as home made land mines and pits filled with spikes. The experience felt like an amusement park more than a historical tour. People would take pictures next to old tanks and the tour guide was making jokes throughout the tour. I've noticed that the tours we have been on so far (the palace and the tunnels) have glamorized war and definitely tell one side of the story. We crawled through the tunnels, which was quite frightening at first because the space was about 3ftx3ft and with very dim lighting. I couldn't imagine living down their, but some Vietnamese lived in the tunnels for ten years. The next portion of our day was spent at the American War Museum. The pictures captured during the war were incredible to see. What was most interesting and saddening were the pictures of people affected by agent orange. Still to this day their are kids being born with birth defects due to the poisonous gas that was dropped during the war.
Crawling around Cu Chi tunnels

A destroyed forest

The effects of agent orange

A trap at Cu Chi \tunnels

After the tours we had an AMAZING lunch at this restaurant that offers a variety of street food. Once we got back to the hotel I slept for at least 12 hours. The jet lad has been better now that I'm in Can Tho and I've been in Vietnam for a week. I've written this blog over the course of a few days, so I've actually been in Can Tho for about four days. I'll be sure to be posting about that soon. For our core class we have to keep a blog with a themed question every week, so my next blog is going to be a little different. 

Love to all,

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Land of a Thousand Scooters

I have arrived!
Yesterday I got into Ho Chi Minh City around 10am after a nineteen hour flight from SFO to Tapei to Vietnam. I had a lovely send off with my family and friends and headed to the airport to catch my 1am flight. Luckily at the check in counter I ran into two girls from my program who go to UCB. Pauline, Stephanie, and I flew with China Airlines, which had terrible food and cramped seats. The connecting flight with Vietnamese Airlines was much better with larger leg space and shrimp fried rice (my first meal in over fourteen hours). I met Jihoon and Hanh in Taipei, two other kids from the program. When we all arrived in Ho Chi Minh City Airport it was hot and humid (even at 10am). We met our program adviser, Hung, who took us to our hotel. Hung is an English major, twenty six years old, and is from Can Tho. Once at the hotel we met the majority of the other kids from the program. All of us range from ages 20-24. We spent the first day going out to lunch with our Professor, Cary, who has been living in Vietnam on and off for ten years. He studies developing agriculture and is a professor at UCD. For lunch we went to a Vietnamese style dim sum place. First thing I noticed about the food was the massive amount of shrimp and fish oil in all of the dishes. The first meal we broke all of the EAP health codes...eating raw veggies and drinking tea with ice. Cary said that we are all going to get bacteria in our system and we might as well start now. Surprisingly, I have been eating raw veggies and my system is fine.
The city center
The first thing I noticed about HCM is the traffic. This place has the most hectic and terrifying traffic I have ever seen. Thousands of scooters and cars all weaving among each other, barely avoiding contact. Crossing the street is not an easy feet here, as there are few traffic lights and cross walks. It seems as if traffic laws here are just a suggestion. After lunch we exchanged some money. The exchange rate here is crazy cheap. About 2100 Dong equals 1 USD. I hear prices in Can Tho will be even cheaper than the city. We had the rest of the day to explore the city so the nine of us decided to go to the Reunification Palace (the Southern Vietnamese President's palace during the war). It was interesting to see this run-down palace be glorified from the Communist Party's perspective, having grown-up with a Western perspective. The palace glorified its opulence, rather than talk about its involvement in the war. Below ground level in the bunkers were my favorite, because they had all of the old communication technology from the war. There were maps displaying how Vietnam used to be divided. Overall, the place had a kind of eerie vibe to it, because all I could think about was what it must have been like to be in the palace during the war. 



We spent the rest of the day walking around the city and drinking Vietnamese coffee, which is very strong and very sweet because of the condensed milk. That evening we went out to dinner with Hung, his friends, and some girls from Princeton working in Vietnam. The women are in HCM for a year working on traffic safety (which really needs work!). For dinner we went to an outdoor BBQ. I had my first Vietnamese beer there, Tiger, which slightly resembled beer but tasted more like water. Fun fact, the Vietnamese drink their beer with ice which dilutes it even more. Dinner was great. We had morning glory (my new favorite veggie), goat chest, frog, fried ginger, and a crab hot pot. My stomach seems to be doing pretty well with all the food here and I'm extremely thankful for that. What I found most surprising about HCM is that beggars come up to your table during all most every meal. And they aren't just adults. Little kids and old women come up to you and try to beg by selling you chocolate or peanuts....very different then anything I've experienced. Most of us were exhausted after dinner and so we crashed back at the hotel. My first day in Vietnam was spectacular and everyone in my program is very nice.
The largest Catholic Church in HCM

Our second day was very busy. We started off by meeting Cary at a school around the corner from our hotel for orientation. We talked about our program a bit more in depth. I found out we have a vacation coming up at the beginning of September for independence day. We have options to go anywhere in the south so we'll probably go to a beach resort or an excited! We had lunch and returned to orientation, this time with some girls from a local agricultural school. The girls had done a project with Cary a few months back. All of the girls spoke really good English and they were around our age. We learned a bit about Vietnamese culture from Cary. Some of it was accurate and some of it the girls had to correct. For example. children's birthdays are marked by the lunar calendar rather than the roman calendar. So a child who is born is automatically 1. I met this girl who was born in 1993, and she told me she was 23 years-old. Other different traditions are that pictures of people of three are unlucky and the average age for marriage is between 18-22. None of the girls we met were married and none of them believed in the unlucky 3 photo. The girls and our group went out for coffee before dinner and got a chance to get to know each other. We went out to dinner at this grill place on top of a building in the city center. Apparently Brad and Angelina ate there when they were picking up another child for their army of orphans. It was really beautiful at the restaurant because we could see a lot of the city center. We got bowls of various uncooked meat, fish, and vegetables and grilled it ourselves. I don't think I like goat chest very much, because it is very chewy. My favorite dish was the shrimp. They were skewered whole and live so when we put them on the grill they squirmed around for a little. They were delicious though! My roommate Pauline and I stayed at the hotel while everyone went out to get a good night's rest for the next day. We'll go out tonight for sure!
Much love,