From the remastered series, Oh! Seet Nothin’ first appeared on the old version of Tales From the Hood on Tuesday, 3 March, 2009:
Now mid-way through the journey home from Haiti, a number of vague and amorphous thoughts about Haiti and about aid are solidifying and mellowing in the back of my head. Some light-hearted, others not. In the meantime, this post from almost exactly one year ago pretty much says where I am right now. From another earthquake response on another continent…
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For a long time I never really understood the “Punk Rock” thing. I’ve always been a hard rock and heavy metal kind of guy. Well, with the exception of a brief and ill-advised foray into country music that I don’t often discuss…
I have a colleague who is among the most well-versed people in popular culture that I’ve ever met. At my request she compiled a playlist of “must listen” music in and related to the Punk sub-genre. While it’s not music that I tend to gravitate towards, I can understand the unpolished, sometimes raw, sometimes visceral appeal of Punk. That playlist put together by my colleague has some great tracks in it: The Violent Femmes; the New York Dolls…
But the song that really stuck in my head was “Oh! Sweet Nothin’” by the Velvet Underground. And along with “Slow Cheetah”, “Oh! Sweet Nothin’” helped form the soundtrack for this trip to China.
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One of my pet peeves, since back when I was young and crazy, backpacking around Southeast Asia on a shoestring, is fellow travelers who constantly compare whatever country we’re in to whatever country they’ve just come from. For example, for some reason in the mid-1990s, Indonesia was the platinum standard of rigorous adventure travel to which everything else was compared: A 20-something hippie-wannabe chick from California with too little body fat and too many facial piercings in the bungalow next to mine on Palawan insisted, over a shared breakfast of banana pancakes and yoghurt, that Indonesia was the only place left with any “original culture” left in the eastern hemisphere (‘cause, like, she of all people would, y’know, be able to recognize ‘original culture’ if it slapped her in the arse…); A couple of British backpackers that I shared a coffee with in Can Tho, were quite convinced that they’d have no problem getting themselves to Phu Quoc, because, like, they’d, you know, taken overnight busses in Indonesia, ‘n’ stuff, and so southern Vietnam should be a piece of cake. (For the record and as a point of reference, the run from Can Tho to Phu Quoc in 1993 ranks among the most difficult and mind-numbingly uncomfortable journeys that I’ve taken… ever.)
But you get the point.
I think we all contextualize our current experience on the basis of previous experience. And this trip to China, for me, was no different. I’m sure I drove my Chinese friends a little crazy with constant references to Vietnam (sorry, Meimei, Suen and Chan. Many thanks for your patience). But beyond some of the obvious similarities with Vietnam, I couldn’t help but channel a few other places as well.
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Some days it feels like I’ve spent (maybe “wasted”?) my professional life in the worst places on this planet. I achieve “Premier Executive” frequent flyer status most every year without any real effort, but it’s not because I’m going to the Bahamas or Tahiti or even Switzerland. I have spent the last decade or so either living in or schlepping through some of the poorest, most depressed, most depressing, and most unstable places of the current era. Places that few have heard of and that fewer really care about: Cambodia in the mid-1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh in the late 1990s, El Salvador and Nicaragua just after Hurricane Mitch, Banda Aceh just after the tsunamis of 2004… Herat, Huambo, Khartoum, Port-au-Prince, Jaffna, Ha Giang, Mannerplaw, Zarqa, Pyapon… and now Li Zhou and Qiauhuang. As I write this I’m en route to Dilli (which used to be part of… Indonesia).
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In early 1999 I did a couple of month-long, back-to-back trips to Guinea-Conakry, working with a counsultant and local field team to plan and apply for a large USAID agricultural support grant (in aid work technospeak, I was working on a PL 480, Title II Food Security DAP). Our plan was to implement the program in a province called Siguiri, in a region of the country called “Haute Guinea”, which was, in turn, in a larger region called the “Sahel” – which is on the margin of the Sahara Desert. It was hot, dry, barren terrain and one of the most abjectly poor places that I’ve been to.
If ever the words of “Oh! Sweet Nothin’” applied in real life, it could certainly have been in rural Guinea-Conakry, ca. 1999: “Say a word for Jimmy Brown… he ain’t got nothin’ at all…”
And yet, the Malinke – the ethnic group that lived in that area – were as cheerful and generous as I’ve met anywhere. Memories of those visits to rural Guinea are to this day among the most vivid that I have from a life of development work thus far:
It was one of those trips where the local country director – a French guy – was the only other white person I saw for several days. Even the bathroom in the simple guest house where we stayed lacked a mirror. And so after nearly a week in the field, when I’d catch the odd glimpse of my own reflection in the car window, it would be with a mixture of surprise and dismay that I recognized the gaunt, pale image as me… a rude awakening after several days of seeing mainly the exotic, rich dark-skinned Guinean Malinke that I’d been surrounded by.
In one village, a little old man insisted on giving me a bowl of goat’s milk. A large bowl. I don’t know how he was thinking I’d ever get it back home. But he gave it. And try as I did to wiggle out of accepting what must have been a truly sacrificial gift for him to give, he would not be dissuaded. In the end we poured the milk very carefully into two empty 1.5 litre Coca-Cola bottles and carried it away with us (I gave it to one of my Guinean colleagues, also from Siguiri, who was very pleased to receive it).
On another occasion I was standing in the middle of a group of farmers talking about the problems they were having with rats infesting their ground-level, mud-walled granaries. I remember there was a crowd of kids standing around staring at the white dude in the middle. Nothing new there, really, as I seem to attract a crowd of curious kids wherever I go. But, briefly comparing Guinea-Conakry to Asia, where the crowds of kids tend to be loud and boisterous, pushing, shoving, and pulling at me, these kids kept their distance… and they were quiet. I kept discussing the rat problem with the farmers. The rats were truly an issue – the stored peanuts and corn were being ruined, and that was causing hunger and hardship (seriously). And I did not pay much attention to the perimeter of kids slowly, quietly closing in… until I felt a very light touch… I looked down to see a little Guinean child’s hand – as smooth and dark as expensive chocolate – lightly touching own, pasty white one. The hand belonged to some of the biggest, roundest dark brown eyes I’d ever seen.
The farmers noticed that I’d become distracted, chased the kids back, and motioned me over to see a rat-infested granary.
Barely 72 hours ago I was in the Li Zhou district of Sichuan province looking at the cracked, crumbling remains of what had once been people’s houses. I toured a boarding elementary school where my employer had been instrumental in providing temporary dormitory and classroom structures following the earthquake.
(Something new for me on this trip was to learn that boarding elementary schools are common in that part of China. Many of the children stay in the dormitory and attend school while their parents work as migrant laborers in other parts of the country. This practice seems to have become even more prevalent since the earthquake destroyed so many homes.)
After asking our questions, as we always do, we asked the kids if they had anything they wanted to ask us. One little girl, about eleven years old, tentatively raised her hand. She asked if she could give me a hug. Of course I agreed, and she hugged me with such fervor that it was almost moving. Trying to make light, I asked – through my translator – if anyone else wanted a hug. One more little girl and two boys lined up…
At another boarding school we interviewed several of the children, all earthquake survivors. They recalled their fear as the ground shook and buildings began to fall with a kind of serenity that I have come to too-often take for granted in Asia.
Following those conversations there was a time for open interaction with all of the children. It was a scene that I have seen many times: A hundred shouting kids, all clamoring for a look at the round-eyed foreigners (there were two of us). They didn’t know English, and my Chinese colleagues couldn’t possibly hope to keep up with translation. Those kids were loud, rowdy, intense, and all up in my personal space.
But in the midst of that cheerful chaos I couldn’t help but notice a small, light-brown hand (very light, not like chocolate, but like tea with lots of sweetened-condensed milk) take hold of my own. And just like a decade earlier in a remote, impoverished corner of Guinear-Conakry, I looked down into another pair of dark brown eyes. Eyes that belonged to a little girl, 7 years old – the same age as my own daughter – whose house had been destroyed by the earthquake and whose parents were working in another city just trying to make ends meet.
I’m not naïve enough to think that I personally met any real need of hers that day. I know that I was probably more of a novelty than anything else. A random mei guo who happened through her school. But still I couldn’t help myself: This time there were no farmers to shoo her away, no rats-infesting-the-corn issues to distract me. I let her hold my hand for as long as she wanted.
“…say a word for Joanna-Love… she ain’t got nothin’ at all…”
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As I write this I’m on a plane somewhere between a continent and an archipelago, with a full week to go before I see my wife and children again. I call home just to check in, to say ‘hello.’ My wife sounds harried and tired. My son is sick – apparently there’s a bug going around his pre-school. Point is, I’m needed at home. As exciting as the aid-work life might sound to those outside of it, there are days when I honestly wonder if the last ten years have been worth it. I wonder if I should have just been an accountant. Or a bus driver.
By tomorrow I’ll be in another country. Another place with lots of big brown eyes. On days when I feel more bravado I’ll channel Bon Jovi: “I’ve seen a million faces…”
But today – perhaps it’s jet-lag or general fatigue – I’m not feeling that bravado. I’m thinking back to China… channeling the Velvet Underground:
“Say a word for Polly-May… she ain’t got nothin’ at all…”