Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home


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Vietnam (graphic image warning)

***Warning, graphic images of the effects of war and Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people below***

It turns out, there’s a name for the kind of travel I enjoy. Apparently, it’s called dark tourism. My most recent example is a trip I took to Vietnam last month. I didn’t fly down there to swim in the ocean, or visit Monkey Island and laugh at the exploits of primates trying to pawn food off silly tourists.

For me, the biggest draw to Ho Chi Minh City was the museum previously titled The Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. It’s now, in a time of better international relations, The War Remnants Museum.

The first exhibit we saw was a dedication to the photographers of the war, the first war captured in living color, on video, in detail. When the war started photographs were in black and white, but part of what turned American sentiment against the war was the color movies coming out of the war, of the actual suffering of the people there, the people who were living in a war zone.

But the exhibits that spoke to me, and there were more than one, were the exhibits on the effects of Agent Orange. For a little background, the Vietnam War was fought on one side by foreign soldiers (along with South Vietnamese) who stood out, and on the other side, almost exclusively by North Vietnamese (and other Asians) who blended in quite well, especially to the Americans who couldn’t really tell the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese tended to use guerrilla tactics, and so one strategy of the Americans became the deforestation of areas of combat. One of the most common deforestation chemicals used was Agent Orange.

And then there’s this picture, that looks like it could be a picture of a modern ailment, a child with Zika Virus.

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I definitely paused for a long moment, wondering if there is any connection between Zika and Agent Orange. There is no reason for me to think that, just…it startled me and had me thinking hard about the effects of the things that people do to the environment

Of course the museum has a slant. Vietnam is a country run by the communist government we tried to defeat in the war. But the numbers simply don’t lie. Strip away the propaganda, and the numbers are still there.

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I mostly chose not to  photograph the people in HCMC who were missing limbs or body parts because of Agent Orange, but they were not hard to find. And one night, wandering around alone, I did find one merchant, who spoke enough English to tell me he had been born without a leg, who graciously allowed me to take his photograph to use in my “stories” on the internet.

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Of course…I didn’t spend my whole three days in Vietnam wandering the one, rather small, museum. I even left Ho Chi Minh City for a day. The intent, upon arrival, was to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese during the war. But…we decided to try something new and take an actual tour. And in the interest of seeing something of the Vietnamese culture, we wound up in the Mekong Delta.

For me, there was a lot of lighthearted fun in that tour, but before that, overshadowing the fun of the delta was this

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That’s an American soldier, walking through the Mekong, weapon dry, even if nothing else was.

That was…intense. And it colored everything else that I saw. Not enough that I didn’t have fun, but enough to keep me aware of where in the world I was.

My favorite experience in the delta, was the honey island. Our tour guide showed us the hive of bees and slowly blew a few bees around before putting his finger into the hive and eating honey that moments before had been swarming with bees. He asked if anyone else wanted to try, and my group shied away, but I have been trying to experience the world. And so I put my finger into a hive of bees and that was the best honey I have ever eaten, licked off my finger after scooping it straight from the live comb.

So, what does any of that have to do with my search for home? Not much, I suppose, except this. Never have I been ashamed to be an American. Looking at the pictures in the museum, and being aware that the same weekend that I was looking at these results of Americans being closed off to things that are different, was the same weekend the first “Muslim ban” was announced. The people of Vietnam were nothing but kind and polite to me, they were friendly, struggled through the language barrier with me, and shared friendly banter and kind smiles. But at the airport, my blue passport, for the first time ever, bought me trouble with security. Because my blue passport told the officials, at least, that I was not there in a friendly capacity. My blue passport indicated to them that I might be trouble.

 

 


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Back in the PRC

I’ve been back in China for a few days now. Long enough to register my location with the local police (required of all foreigners every time we leave PRC and return) and decide I had three days of vacation left. Apparently, spending vacation time in Beijing is not really a thing I do now, since I spend all my regular days off exploring this city. My roommate and I were sitting around on Saturday evening, both exhausted from recent travel (I spent ten days in America, she ran down to Hong Kong to achieve her exit and then sojourned on a mountain for five days), and realized we should use our time more wisely. We booked a train Sunday morning to head to Hebei Province and see the Shanhaiguan section of the Great Wall, which is one end of the wall (I know, who thinks of the Great Wall of China as having an end????), and also the only place where the wall runs into the sea.

I’ve only seen the ocean (the Pacific to be precise), so I was pretty excited to spend some time in at the Bohai Sea. And it was beautiful. Freezing, you know, since I was at about 32°N in early February, but beautiful. And I finally am feeling like I’ve actually seen the People’s Republic of China. Spending as much time in Beijing as I have, I definitely feel like I know the flow and the spirit of the capital, but the provinces are mostly a mystery to me.

In Xi’an (Shaanxi Province) I was prepared for no one to speak English and to struggle to get around, but I found the Ancient Capital to be very western/English friendly. That was not the case in Shanhaiguan (Hebei Province). Very few people spoke English, English menus (yingyu caidan), which are everywhere in Beijing, were completely unheard of, and even our accented Chinese didn’t help as much as we would have liked. It’s definitely time to buckle down on those Chinese lessons and see if I can’t lose the American/Beijing accent before I travel to Chengdu in the fall!

In any case, it was a pretty great trip and I’m quite pleased to be living a life where that’s something I can do – decide I want to see more of the world, and be on a train the next day, seeing more of the world. It’s something that is difficult in America just because we are so isolated from the rest of the world, if I want to go somewhere outside North America, I have to cross an ocean, which makes the flight a lot more expensive. So, as I consider more and more if I’m returning to America in six months, I’m trying to utilize my current ability to explore the reaches of Asia and if I return, return with an understanding of the world that I didn’t have before.


					
		
	


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I think I almost got Chinese arrested

A few weeks ago I moved into my first apartment, a small two bedroom in the Waudoukou neighborhood in northern Beijing. As you can imagine, it was a little chaotic moving two women, five suitcases, and a plastic bin of cleaning supplies and dishes forty minutes across one of the most populated cities in the world. Especially when neither of those two women spoke more than the most basic Mandarin to communicate with the cab driver. But we got it sorted out, figured out where everything went, and got settled in.

Chinese law states that we had to report to the local police station within 24 hours to register our presence and report our address. Again, neither of us actually speaking more than *basic* Mandarin.

At some point it became clear that there was some problem with my registration. Of course it would be mine. It couldn’t be my roommate, it had to be me with the police problem.

Through elaborate charade and patient use of several translator apps (and one English speaking officer) we managed to figure out that the computer wasn’t registering where I had been for three days, and therefore I was considered in violation of the law. It was dicey for awhile, but eventually I managed to convince them that I was where I was supposed to be and was let off with a verbal warning to register on time in the future, but it took three days before my heart started beating again.

Meanwhile, all official forms in China have to be signed with both an “official” name (ie the name appearing on my passport) and a Chinese name, which I obviously didn’t have. Now I do. Mudan is a “country” name meaning peony flower, which I have adopted fairly quickly for use in certain circumstances 🙂

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Outside my Chinese apartment

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Mudan (drawn by my Chinese roommate)