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The Chinese Calculator

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2011 at 2:17 pm

And the Coupons of Death

By Antonio Graceffo

I was living in a Chinese neighborhood, outside of Kuala Lumpur while doing some martial arts and filming work with my master. Morning, I would normally take my breakfast at the Mamak, a 24-hour cafeteria, run by Muslim Indians. But, the previous day, I got myself into a shouting match with a waiter, and was now banned from eating there. So, unless I wanted to eat noodles or rice for breakfast, I was relegated to eating at McDonalds. Five thousand miles from home, I was eating at McDonals. This was my way of exploring local culture and cuisine. How much more American could I be? I told Sheung Di, my Chinese friend and cameraman, “Every time I go for breakfast at McDonals there’s a line out the door. It’s like trying to get into a rock concert.” “Yes, they’re having a promotion.” He said, without a second’s hesitation. “And all of the Chinese families are going there with coupons they downloaded from the website. Looking for bargains is like a sport for us Chinese.” The next morning, when I returned to McDonalds, I realized what Sheung Di has said was true. All of the people in line had coupons that they had printed out. It took more than thirty minutes to finally get to the counter and place your order. During that time, the conversation revolved around these coupons. “Are you sure you can use photocopies of the coupon?” One woman asked her friend. “It doesn’t say we can’t.” The second woman responded. She was holding two of the photocopies like her life depended on them. A fiftyish, Cantonese woman in line behind me asked, “Do you have a coupon?” “No, I guess I’m part of a small minority of people, paying cash.” I joked. “We’re all paying cash.” She quipped. “But we’re smart enough to use a coupon and get free food.” I was about to take offense, when she asked, “Would you like a coupon?” “Sure.” I said, getting excited. She handed me the paper and I realized why people were going nuts with these things. It was good for two free Big Breakfast sets, with any five Ringit purchase (5 Ringit = $1.60). Those sets were huge, and they cost ten Ringit each. So, for a five Ringit purchase they got twenty Ringit of food for free. Like I said, at first I got excited, but then the reality hit me. I don’t need two Big Breakfast sets. All I needed was my sausage McMuffin and a cup of coffee. I handed the coupon back to the lady. “Thanks, but although it’s such a great deal, I don’t see what I could do with a total of three breakfasts.” “You could give them to me.” She said simply. I imagine that was her plan all along. “They only allow us two coupons per person.” She added. This explained why people were borrowing children to take through the line with coupons. Of course, this meant that this woman was already getting the two breakfasts, which she was forced to buy, in order to use the two coupons so she could get the four free breakfasts. Apparently, six breakfasts wasn’t enough for her. She needed me to get her two more. “Do you eat hash-browns?” She asked me. “No, I don’t, but they’re part of the sausage McMuffin set.” I answered. “You don’t have to buy that one. It’s seven Ringit. Instead, you should buy the value set, which still has the sausage McMuffin and coffee, but no hash-browns. It’s only five Ringit.” That made sense. This woman’s greed was starting to eat at me (pardon the pun), but now she was saving me money. Maybe it was a good thing I met her. “You sure do know a lot about McDonalds.” I complimented her. When I ordered my value breakfast and handed the guy the coupons, he responded, “Sorry boss, you cannot use this coupon in connection with any other special offer. So, you have to buy the full breakfast combo, for seven Ringit, to use this coupon.” I was already embarrassed to be part of this coupon fiasco. And this was just prolonging it. I almost told the woman to give up and let me eat in peace. Instead, however, I said, “That’s fine. Just give me the full set.” The response of the Cantonese woman was infuriating. “Why are you requiring us to buy a full breakfast set?” She shouted at the poor worker. “It doesn’t say that on the coupon. It just says, ‘Any five Ringit purchase.’ There is no further restriction.” Looked at from a certain angle, she was right. The coupon did say ‘Any five Ringit purchase’ but, it just didn’t feel right to argue and fight this much to gain two Ringit. The unwritten rule of coupons has always been, that you can’t combine two special offers. So, I wouldn’t try to use a special promotion cheap-meal to enact a coupon for free meals. On the other hand, McDonalds is a huge, faceless corporation. Why should I care if someone imposes on them with coupon abuse? I guess it wasn’t really the corporation I was trying to save, but the worker. Most of the fast food workers in Malaysia are ethnic Malays who earn less in a week than I get for my daily per-dium allowance. I always feel bad for minimum-wage workers in rich neighborhoods, where they must be made acutely aware of how poor they are. Every country I go to, part of the economic analysis that I do is my “work-to-burger ratio.” This ratio asks, how many hours would a local worker have to put in, to be able to eat the product he is selling? In Thailand, for example, a Starbucks employee would have to put in five hours to drink a venti ‘coffee of the day,’ which is one of the cheapest drinks you can get. In Vietnam, a barista at Highland coffee would have to work almost an entire eight-hour shift to drink a single café late. In Malaysia, a McDonalds employee has to put in about three hours to buy a Big Mac meal. Across Asia, rich people are known for treating low-level workers terribly. Singaporeans in particular have a reputation for not tipping and for being extremely demanding customers. Rich Malaysians seem to follow suit. Americans, on the other hand, in spite of all of the other accusations; that we are fat, stupid and don’t speak foreign languages, Americans are known for being the best tippers. That may be because most of us have stood on the other side of that counter, and slug fast-food for peanuts. In the book, “Grinding it Out” McDonalds founder, Ray Krock, said that 18% of Americans had their first job at McDonalds. While that may seem a bit high, even if they didn’t work at McDonalds, most Americans have worked in minimum wage or fast-food jobs while they were in high school or university. In Asia, on the other hand, if you’re rich enough to go to university, you usually won’t work until you graduate, at which point, you will go directly into the professional job that you trained for. I worked at McDonalds once, back in 1986, and lasted exactly four shifts. The job was so awful, I didn’t even go back to collect my paycheck. It’s horrible, hot, sweaty, hectic work. There’s always a line out the door. You’d be surprised how many customers treated McDonalds like a real restaurant and want special orders or weird combinations of sauces and seasonings, all of which have to be done by hand. A McDonalds shift is incredibly taxing. Orders are constantly coming in. While you’re waiting on customers or working the till, you have multiple products cooking, all of which finish at different times. Alarms go off, and you have to drop what you’re doing, run back and pull up your fries or flip your hamburgers. Sometimes, when it was time to flip the burgers, I would see that the chicken nuggets or some other product were fifteen seconds from being finished, so I would stay there and wait. Then the manager would yell at me, “Never stand or lean. At McDonalds, there‘s always work to be done. And you need to use every minute of your time.” I guess the corporation was worried that if I waited fifteen seconds for the nuggets to come up, they wouldn’t get four-dollars-and-fifty-cents worth of work out of me every hour. Eventually, I protested by complying. “During the fifteen seconds until nuggets come up, I will go clean the parking lot.” I told the boss. I went to the broom closet, grabbed a broom, made it two steps toward the door, and the timer went off. So, I dropped my broom and ran back to pull up the nuggets. “Fries down!” someone on the front line yelled. And I dropped a basket of fries. Now, I had one-and-a-half minutes till the fries were ready but forty second left on my burgers. “I think someone should clean the roof.” I told the manager. The manager was so blinded by corporate-speak he never saw that I was just taking the piss out of him and the whole system he represented. “I like your enthusiasm.” He said. “But we have to work within the confines of the time allotted.” “Are you saying cleanliness is not important?” I asked, as if I were about to call Ronald McDonald and report him. “No, no, I’m not saying that.” He stuttered, narrowly averting disaster. “I am just saying we have to give fast, clean, efficient service to the customers, because this is the strength of McDonalds.” He was a company man, who had drunk deeply of the drug-laced cool-aid until he finally said, “Now, I love the dear leader.” The final blow to my McCareer came when I was assembling a Big Mac. Each Big Mac was meant to receive two pickles. The pickles came from a small tray, on the assembly table, and the rule was that you couldn’t refill the tray till every pickle had been used. This is actually a really important health policy, because if you keep adding fresh pickles to old pickles, you don’t know how old the food is, and you may inadvertently poison the customers. The manager was watching me, as I grabbed two pickles and threw them on the burger. I was about to wrap it up, when he yelled at me. “Don’t you see that one of those pickles is smaller than standard size?” He admonished. Actually, I had noticed that, but wasn’t sure if it mattered. So, I opened the burger and threw on one more, standard-sized pickle. “A Big Mac is supposed to receive two, not three pickles.” He shouted. “I think we need to send you back to training.” Keep in mind, this was my fourth day at work. By ‘training,’ I think he meant the first twenty minutes of the first day. I had already been through Army boot camp. It wasn’t like he was threatening to send me back there, like “Oh, man, training was so grueling! I never want to relive that hell. It was the worst twenty minutes of my life.” So, the threat was lost on me. What wasn’t lost, however, was the insult to my intelligence. I only put the extra pickle because the first pickle was too small. So, I removed the substandard pickle and was about to throw it in the trash. “What are you doing! Don’t ever throw food away.” He yelled. “At McDonalds, you need to always be thinking about how to earn money. The company is here to make money, and that should be your goal. Always thinking, ‘how can we make more money’” “And the company will give some of this money to me?” I asked. My obvious question hit him like a left jab, and the manager was rocked on his feet. But he regained composure after a standing-eight-count. “Yes, they give the money back to you in the form of a salary.’ “You mean the four-dollars-and-fifty-cents an hour that I get?” I asked. “Yes, exactly. Where do you think that money comes from? So, you need to think of ways to help the company earn more money.” “But they’re already paying me four-dollars-and-fifty-cents, without me thinking of anything. What’s in it for me if the company earns more?” “Pride.” He said. Ah yes, pride. Every morning, when I put on that uniform I felt pride coursing through every fryer-induced zit on my face. I was representing a long and glorious corporate tradition. And just knowing that our sales were higher than Burger King made me border on arrogance. And, don’t forget, I also got four-dollars-and-fifty-cents, which came out to $3.90 after taxes. And you could almost get a Big Mac meal for that. “So, what should I do with this small pickle?” I asked, returning to Earth. “Put it back in the pickle tray.” I worked around that small pickle, while I made up the rest of the Big Macs. Finally, I reached a point where the only pickle left in the tray was the small one. And of course, more Big Macs were being cooked. This meant I needed to refill the pickle tray. But I wasn’t allowed to throw away the small pickle. I also wasn’t allowed to put it on a burger. It was like a scene out of Kafka. I had the line workers yelling at me because Big Mac production had fallen behind. But, the manager wouldn’t let me take new pickles till the old ones were used. And, I wasn’t allowed to use the small pickle. The stress caused by that one undersized pickle was too much for me. I snapped, and walked out. Sadly, I never found out how they resolved the small pickle incident. For all I know, to this day, that particular McDonalds, hasn’t been able to sell any burgers, because of a twenty-five year old pickle clogging up the works. That story ran through my head at the speed of light. When it ended, I heard the Cantonese woman still yelling at the Malay worker. The one plus was that his English was pretty minimal so, he understood the tone, but not the content of her tirade. I turned to the Cantonese woman and in a stern voice said, “You’re getting twenty Ringit of food for a purchase of seven Ringit. Let it go!” of course, my statement wasn’t exactly true, because she wasn’t spending seven Ringit. I was. So, why did she even care? That evening, when Sheung Di and I were driving to our filming location, I recounted the whole story. At the end, I added one more detail that had occurred to me during the intervening several hours, “At no point did she offer me one or any part of the free breakfasts. She never said to me, ‘here, I’ll pay half of your seven Ringit breakfast, and you let me get the two free breakfasts. In her calculation, I wasn’t entitled to anything. She wanted me to do all of the work but get non of the profit.” Sheung Di just laughed. “That is what we call the Chinese calculator.” Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. website http://www.speakingadventure.com Twitter http://twitter.com/Brooklynmonk facebook Brooklyn Monk fan page Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE http://www.youtube.com/user/brooklynmonk1 Brooklyn Monk in 3D Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/ Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor) http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com/ Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor) http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com/ Brooklyn Monk in 3D Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

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Burmese Intellect in Exile (Part 1)

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Will Democracy ever come to Burma?

By Antonio Graceffo

“Now we have a parliament, but what kind of parliament? What will they do for us?” The generals have simply changed their uniforms. “They just want to legitimize, to appear to have democracy.”

I recently had the opportunity to interviewing a Burmese intellectual in self-imposed exile, working for exile media. Although far away from home, he keeps a constant eye on his country, hoping some day, to return to a democratic Burma.

The interview began with me asking the Exile to fill me about the Burma situation, as it had been a few years since I had been reporting on it. I knew that there were a lot of new factions fighting in the war, or some old factions, who had stopped, but had recently returned to active hostilities.

When I was reporting in 2007 and 2008, the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) had cease fire with the Burmese government (SPDC) forces.

Exile explained: During the cease fire, the DKBA kept their arms and uniforms but could run businesses under the SPDC. For example, traders would buy second hand cars in Thailand, and send them to Burma (without paying government import taxes). The DKBA would protect the car as it passes through their area, and then collect tax for the shipment.

Before the election the regime wanted them to join the Burmese Border Guard Force (BGF). They didn’t want to do that, because BGF is just a branch of SPDC. They would have to change their uniforms and everything. And if they joined BGF they would come under Burmese control. The highest that a Karen officer could be was a major. The Lt Colonel or Colonel would be assigned by the military regime.

So, they didn’t all accept that. A DKBA officer, Colonel Saw La Pwe (called Bo Moustache) formed a separate, splinter group. They refused the border guard jobs and are now fighting against SPDC. Other groups joined the BGF.

Other groups began their conflict again on the first day of the elections, partly because they didn’t accept the BGF also because Aung San Suu Kyi hadn’t been released yet at that point.

Every cease fire group was offered BGF. If they refuse, then they have to start fighting again, against SPDC. Many groups returned to the jungle, to a state of armed conflict. Some of the other groups accepted it.

Some groups refused like New Mon State Army. They claimed over night to have raised 10,000 troops. Basically it was their cease fire army that moved from cease fire to actively fighting.

There are three kinds of ethnic groups: cease fire, actively fighting, or political wing.

For example SSA South has been in a constant state of war with SPDC, but the SSA North was in a state of cease fire with the SPDC. Now the SPDC has surrounded the area of the SSA North, restricting their movement and efficacy. But the SSA North haven’t officially started fighting back yet.

Not all of the ethnics are able to raise an army.

I heard from some Mon leaders that it has been ten years since they last fought. When the proposition came on the table to fight again, they said, “No, I live on the border. I have a family. I have a business.” They weren’t ready to go back in the jungle again.

All of the fighting and cease fire and movement is on the Thai side of Burma. But for the Chin and Arakan, ethnic groups on the Indian and Bangladesh boarders, they have no strength. Their armies are very small. They can’t get supplies. There are almost no aid groups on that side. They are nearly powerless to fight.

According to an aid worker, the Burmese government asked the Indian government to kick out the aid groups, helping the Chin and Arakan. And the Indian government has complied.

Antonio: Historically, although most of Burma’s inhabitants seem to hate their government, the armed resistance groups, have been composed of ethnic minorities, not Burmans.

Exile: There doesn’t seem to be an armed Burmese group, but there have been conflicts inside of the army. Than Schwe ousted one senior general. He ordered many generals to change to be civilians and then accept government positions like ministers in the government. And this left only a handful of powerful generals in the army. Like the general everyone said he would be Than Schwe’s successor or Commander of the joint chiefs of staff. As of right now, Than Schwe holds every position, head of government, as well as head of armed forces.

We all know government ministers have no power, sp the general asked Than Shwe to let him back to the army. Then Than Shwe placed him under house arrest.

Antonio: In 2007, it looked like descent inside of the military was reaching such a level that many people hoped their might be coup. Now, I don’t seem to hear that as often.

Exile: Before, it seemed there was some movement inside of the army. But then there was a crackdown, and even this hope, of the army crumbling, is waning. But in the past, low level soldiers often ran away. Now, we hear stories about high ranking officers running away. But they are afraid to trust Thai officials.

Antonio: Even if military men run away from the army, it may be difficult for them to join the rebels and fight. The SSA doesn’t usually accept Burmans, even if they hate the SPDC and ask to join up and fight. But the Karen (KNLA) have been known to either accept Burmans or help them get into a refugee camp.

Antonio: Did you vote in the elections?

Exile: No, the embassy didn’t offer us that opportunity. They only informed government workers that they could vote, but not civilian Burmese. But even if they had offered, I didn’t want to vote in their election.

I remember the 2008 constitution vote, back in my village. In every village, there is a representative who represents ten homes. Then there is the leader of the village. When they go to vot,e the local leader just voted for any old people who couldn’t vote or Burmese who were working or studying abroad. He never asked how we wanted to vote. He voted for the SPDC in our names. I assume the embassy did the same thing.

The election was a sham. By our law, they have to count the votes twice. The first time they counted, the democratic party won. The government was angry. “Count again.” They said. Suddenly they found more votes, counted again, and the democratic group lost. They said that voter turn out was 97%, but I don’t believe it. For example, army and government staff have no right to vote. In the army, only their leader, as representative, votes on their behalf. So, the colonel has 900 votes, and he votes for the SPDC. At the government office, the vote paper is on the desk of the director. You have to mark the paper in front of him, no privacy. So, there is no chance to vote how you want. And there are no outside observers.

They had a meeting of parliament. It only lasted 15 minutes, and they read out the list of ministry appointments. The record was eight minutes. There was no vote and no complaint. Even the chairman of parliament didn’t know what he was to do that day, till he opened the envelope they sent to him, to tell him. Every parliament member was silent. They didn’t say anything. The chairman even said “don’t make argument. This will just waist time.” Ok. Now we have a parliament, but what kind of parliament? What will they do for us?

They just want to legitimize, to appear to have democracy.

Yes, we had some change, we had a campaign. But the important step of a democracy is the vote. They skipped that step. At the earliest stages of the election, even we exile media had some hope. One group separated from National League for Democracy (NLD) and ran separately. But they disappointed later.

SPDC was allowed to do whatever they wanted in the campaign. But all other parties had to apply for a permit to speak. In the application they had to give a list of exactly what they would say, who would speak, how long they would speak, and who would attend.

The NLD is now defunct. The government forced them to eject Aung San Suu Kyi because she has been convicted under Burmese law. Criminals cannot be party members. Next, the government wanted to dissolve the NLD. NLD submitted three appeals to the government, but they were rejected and ordered to dissolve. Because they are not recognized as a party now, they can’t do much, because they could be called terrorists, or be charged with plotting to overthrow the government. This is very dangerous for Aung San Suu Kyi now.

Burmese Intellect in Exile (Part 2) coming soon

Antonio Graceffo is self-funded and needs donation to continue his writing and video work. To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on his website, www.speakingadventure.com or by direct transfer into his bank account.

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.

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www.speakingadventure.com

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Brooklyn Monk fan page

Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE

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Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

Frustrations of a Brooklyn Monk in Saigon

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2011 at 4:30 am

If I don’t leave soon, something’s gonna die.

By Antonio Graceffo

 

 

I feel like the Incredible Hulk. Every time I get a job, and an apartment that I like, and I start building a life for myself, someone pushes me. The anger unleashes the beast within and someone looses some teeth. Then I have to move on to the next town.

 

If I don’t leave soon, something’s gonna die.

 

Living in Vietnam has been a constant frustration for me. I struggle to learn the language, and no matter how well I learn it, I can’t use it, because no one outside of the classroom understands anything I say. In all honesty I think I am functioning only slightly better, or maybe a bit worse, than the first week I arrived in the country.

 

I asked the guy at the gym which days they would be closed during New Year holiday. He made me repeat the question fifty times. He finally answered something unrelated like, “Rock mostly, and some hip hop.”

 

My teachers aren’t much better. They generally answer “Yeah?” to every question I ask. “Does this word mean hot or cold?”

“Yeah?”
”Do you want me to burn your house to the ground?”
”Yeah?”

 

In one of our texts, we learned a phrase which meant “To quit smoking.” So, using my learning brain, I formulated a new sentence, “To quit drinking.” The teacher looked confused and disappointed in me for being so dumb. “No, this word means ‘smoking’. Don’t you see? This sentence says, ‘quit smoking.”

 

“I understand.” I countered. “And now, to practice the word, I am making a new sentence. ‘I quit drinking.’”

“S-m-o-k-i-n-g” She said, sounding out the word. “This word means ‘smoking.’.”

 

Apparently, smoking is the only thing you can quit in Vietnamese language.

 

This past week, my Saigon life improved a bit because I started training again. I found a boxing and Muay Thai team in China Town and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the coach understood me when I spoke Vietnamese with him. The main coach was a squared-away guy, about 35 years old, smart and dedicated. But, the main trainer is a guy named Tuan (for purposes of plausible deniability). He is 27 years old and has a huge beer belly. Apparently, as recently as four years ago, he was super fit, and fighting in big championships in Thailand. But now, he is unemployed and apparently drinks a ton of beer.

 

The first two days of training went well, because the coach was there. The only weird thing was, because it was Vietnam, the trainer kept trying to get me to drink beer after training. Thanks to my friend who drove me, I was able to escape. But, they are so insistent about having you drink with them, that it borders on rudeness to get out of it.

 

On Saturday night, they were trying to get me to drink beer, before training! To add insult to injury, they still follow those 1950’s football training books that tell you it’s not good to drink water during training. The training room isn’t air conditioned. So, the temperature is about 30 degrees or more, and yet they scold me every time I drink water.

 

I don’t have a degree in sports science, but, if I had a choice between drinking beer before training and drinking water during training. I would have to guess that drinking water during training is the lesser of two evils.

 

The other trainer is a guy about 50 years old and proper fat. He tried to take my water bottle away from me saying, “Drinking water during training will make you have breasts like a woman.”

 

I think the only way that guy gets access to a woman’s breasts is by paying money.

 

Neither of these guys attribute their fat bellies to the fact that they drink beer every single day.

 

The young guy kept pushing me, wanting to step on my thighs when I was stretching, and bouncing on my stomach when I was doing sit-ups. All during training and exercises, he kept kicking me in the gut. I know how to train. That’s why I am still in the game at my age. I know my limits, and I don’t go beyond them.

 

He just kept saying, “No good. No good. Not professional.”

 

On the second day, he wanted me to spar with the best student. I told them, again, “I have been out of training for six months. This is the second day back. I will go slowly until I am ready. Maybe next month I can spar this guy, but not today.”

 

Of course they didn’t understand. Instead, they yelled at me for drinking water. And the twenty-seven year old can’t see that I am forty-three and still training, and that I am doing just fine. Not only does he not train anymore, at twenty-seven, but I would be surprised if he were still alive at forty-three.

On Saturday night, the trainer was drunk and wearing street clothes when he entered the gym. He kept interrupting my training, to take me over to the wall, and show me the poster of him when he was fit, and fighting in Thailand.

 

“Yes, that picture gets better every time you show it to me.” I told him.
Toward the end of the session, he started harassing me, like he wanted to fight. He may be out of shape, but he is a 90K ex champion, who is nearly twenty years younger than me.  I am not stupid enough to fight him, so I took him down and choked him out. Then I helped him up and bowed, so he wouldn’t loose face and kill me. Next, he took me down and tried to do a leg submission on me. I grabbed his belly fat, pinched it and twisted it till he screamed and released me.

 

When he stood up, his street clothes were all wet and dirty. “This, no good.” He kept muttering.

 

“Why did you attack me if you didn’t want to get dirty?” I wanted to ask.

After training, he was so aggressive about demanding I go drink beer with him, that I am not sure if I want to go back to training next week.

And that was the best part of my life in Saigon.

 

The following morning, I felt really sick. I find that when someone kicks me in the stomach or bounces up and down on it, I am not quite at the top of my game the next day. It took all my energy and all my resolve to stagger out of bed in search of food. But I have come to dread leaving my room. Every interaction with Vietnamese people becomes a frustrating chore because of the language issues.

 

I went to Family Mart (a Japanese chain, like 7/11) because I figured it was the place where I could buy food, but interact with Vietnamese people the least. One of the items I chose off of the shelf was a cream pastry. When I went to pay for it, the checkout boy opened the package and stuck his nose inside. Before I could protest, he said, “This food is no good.”

 

He led me back to where I had got the pastry, and he put right back on the shelf, to sell to the next person. Next, he opened several other packages, sniffing, finally concluding, “All bad.” But he left them all on the shelf.

 

While I appreciated the interest he took in me, and that he prevented me from eating something that would make me sick, I also felt like he was screwing with me. First off, he only spoke English to me. Next, he chastised me. “You should always sniff food before you buy it.” He ordered.

“Yeah, how about you stop selling bad food instead?” I asked.

His answer was, of course, “Yeah?”

 

Next, I wanted some instant noodles. Normally, the staff mix in the hot water for you and by the time I walk home, the noodles are ready to eat. I asked the boy to put hot water in my noodles and he asked “You want water in your noodles?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“Hot water?” he asked.

“No, cold! What are you, a comedian?” I asked. But he didn’t answer. So, I gave in and played his game. “Yes, hot water.”

“I think you can do it yourself.” He said.

“Yes you do.” I agreed. “But I think you can do it for me.”

 

“The water machine is over there.” He said, pointing. When I got to the machine, I didn’t know how to operate it. Seeing me struggling, a high school girl stepped in to do it for me. Once again, I appreciated the help, but while she was pouring the smoking, hot water into my soup, she said, “Careful, it’s hot.”

 

“Oh, yeah? Thanks. I didn’t know that smoking hot water for soup is hot. In my country, smoking, hot water for soup is cold.”

 

If this had all been in Vietnamese, I could have tolerated it somewhat, because at least I would have been practicing the language. But because it was in English, it just graded on my nerves. I wanted to shout, “I am twice your age and better educated than you will ever be! Stop talking down to me.”

 

I am not a dancing money!

 

I got home, and locked myself in the sanctuary of my room. I popped in my original Star Trek TV show, DVD set, and flipped on the internet. But Asia found me.

 

Last fall, when I was in Cambodia, a Hungarian guy called a press conference in Phnom Penh, to announce that he was making a Hollywood movie, about Cambodia, staring jet Li, John Cena, Angelina Jolie and some other unlikely famous people like Humphrey Bogart and Hunter S. Thompson. He said the budget for the movie was 70 Million dollars and it would be the most expensive Hollywood movie ever made.

 

The Khmer not only believed him, but they lauded him. The politicians and hangers on were crawling over each other to get next to this guy.

 

Apart from the Khmer press, the story only ran in English in one Phnom Penh paper and the Xinhua News Agency from China. You would think with such a huge movie, more American press would have covered it. And possibly, you would imagine that the press conference would be held in Hollywood. And, that some of the stars would have been aware of the fact that they are in this movie.

 

Soon, this story was picked up by Khmer exile media all over the world, with momentum building, and people from Australia to France, writing in and saying things like, “Finally, the world will see our Great Khmer Empire in a major motion picture.”

 

I couldn’t take seeing the same Xinhua News Agency story reprinted and rehashed for months, with people believing this myth, so, the previous day, I published an article, explaining, in painful detail, that this movie doesn’t exist and that the story makes no sense.

 

I posted it on a fan-made facebook page, dedicated to the movie. The first comment that appeared on my article was “I am very happy about this movie, because I want the world to know story Cambodia.”

 

No one can help them.

 

People often ask me what percentage of my stories are true. And the answer is, everything in this story is true except one point. Earlier, I said, “I am not a dancing monkey.” But actually, I am.

 

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

 

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.

 

website

www.speakingadventure.com

 

Twitter

http://twitter.com/Brooklynmonk

 

facebook

Brooklyn Monk fan page

 

Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE

http://www.youtube.com/user/brooklynmonk1

 

Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

 

Alleged Hollywood Movie in Cambodia

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Is it real? And, why hasn’t ANYONE done any follow up?

By Antonio Graceffo

 

In the Fall of 2009, a man named Thomas Magyar held a press conference in Phnom Penh, where he announced that he was going make a 70 million dollar Hollywood movie, in Cambodia, starring Jet Li, Angelina Jolie, John Cena, and South Korean movie actress Song Hye Kyo. The film will be called, “Great Khmer Empire,” and will chronicle the life of King Jayavarman VII, the completer of Angkor Wat, and the patron of the Khmer martial art of Bokator.

 

Xinhua News Agency apparently ran a story about the press conference, and that story has run all over the internet. It is featured on a countless blogs and web magazines around the world.

 

But when I tried to find more information about the project, I found that the only story that exists is the one from Xinhua. All of the other sites just have copies of the story. No one else seems to have done fact checking or a direct interview with Thomas Magyar before reprinting and distributing the story.

 

The Xinhua article doesn’t actually say what company Thomas Magyar works for and there doesn’t appear to be a website devoted to the film. Neither does Magyar have a personal site nor a site dedicated to his production company. His job title, in the Xinhua piece is “project manager” a term I have never heard of in the movie industry.

 

All of the reprints and various incarnations of the single story from Xinhua claim that this is a Hollywood movie. But, if Thomas Magyar lives and works in Cambodia, and is raising the money to make the film himself, how is this a “Hollywood” movie? Hollywood generally likes to be involved in Hollywood movies. By definition, Hollywood movies are made by Hollywood film production companies, directed by Hollywood directors, starring Hollywood actresses, and they enjoy national and international Hollywood release. This film doesn’t appear to have any of these attributes.

 

In the Xinhua story, there is no mention of any Hollywood studio which is involved in the project. When I checked with Khmer media friends, I was informed that Thomas Magyar has yet to apply for film permits. Neither has Magyar or his team contacted the Cambodian film fixing company who did the fix for “Tomb Raider.” There don’t seem to be scouts on the ground in Cambodia. According to other Khmer sources, Magyar stated first that he was making the 70 Million dollar film, but then said he was still raising money.

 

In paragraph one of the Xinhua article, it says Thomas Magyar has Jet Lee, Angelina Jolie and John Cena on board, but the second paragraph says they are “targeting” these people. Which means, not only do they not have these people on board, but these people are most likely not even aware of the project.

 

From what I know of Angelina Jolie, she is not going to act in a no-name, international movie without Hollywood distribution. She also doesn’t usually star opposite John Cena. I am sure John could beat me up, and he is a good wrestler, but when it comes to acting…

 

A Khmer website in the US has already started a pole to see if Khmericans oppose the fact that King Jayvaraman VII will be played by a white guy, John Cena. There are also numerous Khmer and Khmerican videos on youtube, talking about the movie. I have seen blog and forum posts where people have clearly mistaken these videos for proof that the movie exists. Actually, these fan-videos only prove that other people believe the movie exists.

 

Since we have already established that the film is not a Hollywood movie, then what is it? Thomas Magyar come from Hungary. So, I guess this is a Hungarian film. To date, I am unfamiliar with any Hungarian film with a 70 Million dollar budget. Neither has there ever been a Hungarian movie with widespread international distribution. Finally, there has never been a Hungarian film with a cast of top, international stars.

 

There is a first time for everything, BUT so far, the story makes so little sense I can’t believe anyone is buying into it.

 

Movie scams are nearly as old as movies themselves. Everyone gets excited by Hollywood and the chance for wealth and fame. People get so caught up in the moment, that they forget to do basic fact checking. The easiest way to find a producer these days is to see if they are listed on imdb.com (International Movie Database).

 

I checked IMD but there is no listing for Thomas Magyar.

 

They do, however have a listing for Gábor Forgács, who is listed as the director for “Great Khmer Empire”. And the project is listed as, “in development”. Which is Hollywood speak for “It isn’t actually happening yet, and maybe never will.”

 

IMDB only had Gábor Forgács listed as having directed a single, Hungarian, movie: “Dream Well (2009)” a Hungarian film, starring world-famous luminaries, such as Lilla Labanc, Kinga Czifra, and Ádám Csernóczki.  There was only one review on IMDB.

 

And it was less than flattering. “User Reviews: I’m sorry I spent 90 minute of my life watching this movie.”

 

Not quite the track record we could expect from someone who is about to direct a 70 Million Dollar “Hollywood” movie.

 

I feel protective of Cambodia and the art of Bokator, and hate to see anyone take advantage of my friends. One reason I have written this article is as a warning to them, not to get suckered in. But, my secondary reason for writing this article is to scold the bloggers, Khmericans, and ethnic media who reprinted or rehashed this preposterous story. Why didn’t you fact check? Why didn’t you logic check? Why didn’t you call and ask Thomas for an interview? Why did you believe this story in the first place?

 

As always, I am bracing myself to be attacked online for writing a negative article related to Cambodia. But that just makes me question more. If you can muster the energy to attack me, for brining you, what I believe to be the truth, why couldn’t you use some energy to verify this story?

 

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

 

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.

 

website

www.speakingadventure.com

 

Twitter

http://twitter.com/Brooklynmonk

 

facebook

Brooklyn Monk fan page

 

Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE

http://www.youtube.com/user/brooklynmonk1

 

Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

 

 

 

Using a Foreign Language

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2011 at 3:39 pm

 

 

A marriage to dictionary definitions will prevent you from learning to use a language.

By Antonio Graceffo

 

Back in Vietnamese classes again and meeting the age old problems. The Asian teachers and students seem to be mired in a single dictionary-definition for each English word, and they can’t seem to accept that, in this situation the translation is one thing, but in another situation, the same word needs to be translated differently.

 

Today, we had the question, “What kind of movies do you like?” To answer the question, we learned categories off movies: drama, horror, comedy, and so on. There was one type of movie whose type I didn’t recognize. When I looked it up in the dictionary, it said, “violent.” So, I said to me teacher, “The dictionary definition of this word is ‘violent.’ But, there isn’t a movie category called ‘violent.’ Is it possible that in this instance, we should translate this word as ‘action?”

 

The teacher just shook her head. “No, it means violent.”

 

If we were learning adjectives to describe movies then we would have learned funny, scary and violent. But we weren’t learning adjectives. We were categories. It is possible that my teacher was right, and that the Vietnamese actually have a category called ‘violent.’. But what bothers me is how quickly she said, “No, it means violent.” There was no consideration, at all, that given the circumstances, the meaning of the word might change.

 

One of the other movie categories translated into English as, “love film.” Now, to me, this sounds like a porno. We don’t have a category called ‘love film.’ We say, “Love story.” But, when I translated it as “love story,” the teacher corrected me.

 

“This is not a story. It is a film.”

 

This short proclamation said so much about her perception of language. First off, because the dictionary definition for the two words came out, “love film,” this is automatically the correct answer. Also, the dictionary definition of ‘story’ has to do with something that is written. So, a movie cannot be a story.

 

The examples that find their way into my linguistic articles are not one-of. Generally, when I encounter this type of difficulty with one of my teachers, I ask one of my other teachers, and often, my English students as well. I would say that 70% of the time, I will get the identical, wrong, answer from each of them. This reinforces my belief that in Vietnam, and in Asia in general, language is not taught as a living, breathing entity, which you must approach with flexibility and cultural understanding. Instead, language is taught as an unflinching science. It is math with words. And two plus two must always equal four.

 

In one translation exercise, I translated a Vietnamese word as “skinny.” My teacher marked it as wrong. “No, this word means ‘thin.’” She said.

“But ‘thin’ and ‘skinny’ mean the same thing in English.” I protested.

“In Vietnamese they are different.” Argued my teacher.

 

The meanings of English words are not determined by aspects of some foreign language. When the first English dictionary was written, English scholars were most likely unaware of the existence of the Vietnamese language. Ergo, they mistakenly thought that ‘skinny’ and ‘thin’ were synonyms.

 

To strengthen her argument, my teacher showed me in the dictionary that ‘skinny’ had a certain Vietnamese translation, whereas ‘thin’ had a different corresponding Vietnamese word.

 

Wow! I better get on the phone with those British people who write dictionaries and inform them of their error. Apparently, I have been misusing these words my whole life.

 

 

The last few weeks, I have been in Thailand, helping a Thai woman write her book about the way Thais think, and why westerners often find it difficult to communicate with Asians. One of the problems she brought up was that most Asians have no way of predicting what a westerner wants to say or what he needs or what he might be asking.

 

In your native tongue, you listen to less than 20% of the words people say to you. But, you understand most of the time. To understand people, you rely on a thousand non-linguistic clues, most of which are unique to your own language and culture. Also, your intuition, or your past experience helps you predict what someone might be saying in a given situation.

 

Often, when I am sitting in a café for several hours, studying, I will get hungry again and ask the waiter to bring me the menu a second time. Nine times out of ten, in Asia, the waiter will bring me the bill, not the menu. This is not a linguistic issue. This is an issue of expectations.

 

In the west, particularly in America, waiters depend on tips to earn a living. They want you to order more, so the bill goes up and their percentage is higher. Also, they want you to be happy, so you tip better. The last thing a waiter wants is for you to feel that he rushed you out of the restaurant. Also, people in the west, particularly in fat-America, tend to eat more. It is not unheard of for someone, half way through a meal, to order more food.

 

But, Asian people eat a lot less than we do. The average Vietnamese male weighs roughly half of what I do. Therefore, the waiter is not expecting me to order more food, in the middle of the meal. In the café where I study, in Saigon, a cup of coffee costs about the same as half-day’s wages for a waiter. Once again, he isn’t expecting me to order multiple coffees and additional food. So, when I signal the waiter, that I want something, he just assumes I want the bill, no matter what I say.

 

Lack of predictive ability goes both ways, when we speak an Asian language. Even when I understand the words coming out of an Asian person’s mouth, I don’t always understand what they are asking. For example, I was walking into a public restroom in Thailand, and the attendant stopped me and asked, in Thai, “Does your stomach hurt?” I understood the words, but the context was missing. Why was this stranger asking me if my stomach hurt? I just said “no,” and walked into the restroom. I stood, waiting in front of the locked stall door, for about twenty minutes, but no one came out. Finally, I realized that the stall was not occupied and that I would need to ask the attendant to unlock it for me. Then the pieces fell into place. In Thai, I surmised, “does your stomach hurt?” is a euphemism for “do you need to poop? Because, if so, I will come in and unlock the door for you.”

 

In this case, I lacked the ability to predict what the Asian person wanted to say. Of course the joke was on me, because by this time, I was dancing around like a Korean pop star, trying to hold it in.

 

This lack of predictive ability carries through into the manufacture of dictionaries and textbooks. Often, it seems that the people who write textbooks don’t or can’t anticipate the sorts of things foreigners would actually need or want to learn in a foreign language. In both, my Vietnamese and in my Chinese textbooks, there were entire chapters dedicated to “What country do you come from?” This is the one phrase a foreigner in Asia will never actually need to use. If we meet a Vietnamese person, we know he is Vietnamese, and don’t need to ask what country he is from. If we meet anyone else, we will speak to them in English, not Vietnamese. Why would a westerner speak Vietnamese to a Japanese or Korean tourist in Saigon?

 

Once again, we don’t need to ask “what country do you come from?” Interesting, however, these same books don’t teach us how to ask, “What province do you come from?” which is a question we could use every time we meet a Vietnamese person.

 

My Vietnamese dictionary is often the source of much mirth, or it would be funny, if it didn’t adversely affect my everyday life. I was writing an essay in Vietnamese and needed to say “I took a shower.” When I looked up the word ‘shower’, the definition meaning, ‘to bath,’ was about the eighth in a list of twenty. Of course there was no explanation of what these twenty translations of the word ‘shower’ meant or how they should be used. But why was the one meaning ‘to take a shower’ in the middle and not first? I don’t know how many uses of the word ‘shower’ there are, but this would suggest that ‘baby shower’ or ‘rain shower’ or ‘shower you with kisses’ might be higher on the list than ‘take a shower.’ I would have to believe, however that ‘take a shower’ is the single most common use of that word. So, why wasn’t it first?

 

Relating to what we already know.

 

Parallel to this predictive ability which we use to interpret, even our own mother tongue, westerners are taught, from an early age, to relate the new thing you’re learning, to something you already know. I do this institutively, but for Asian students, it seams every single piece of information is learned in isolation

 

In Taiwan, I remember an intermediate-level student reading a text out loud. Suddenly, he just stopped dead. “Teacher, I don’t know this word.” The word was ‘driver.’ Obviously, they had known the word ‘drive’ since kindergarten. But they didn’t know ‘driver’, neither could they guess what the meaning of the word was. They also couldn’t guess at the pronunciation, but that is a problem unique to young Chinese native speakers. Many Chinese learners will never get their heads around the fact that words are composed of letter with sound values. In phonetic based languages, almost every language except Chinese, you can read and pronounce a word, even if you are unfamiliar with it. Chinese words aren’t made that way.

 

Just as some westerners never manage to learn tones, some Chinese students will never master the concept of sounding out words. They will get all of the way through university, just by memorizing words.

 

While the pronunciation issue is almost unique to Chinese native speakers, across Asia I see a lack of teaching concepts and relating to what a student already knows. They know ‘drive.’ Now, just teach them the concept, when you put an ‘r’ or ‘er’ on the end of a word it means the person who does the action, such as “writer” or “driver.”

 

Where they are not taught this type of learning method, they also do not utilize this type of logic in teaching. Once again, this is a huge source of frustration for me, in learning Vietnamese. There are tens of thousands of words in the language. Rather than trying to memorize all of them, I try to discover patterns.

 

A lot of Vietnamese vocabulary is based on the old Chinese characters. Many words are composed of one or two syllable words. In Chinese, when you have learned about 3,000 syllables, then most of the rest of the language is just reshuffling and recombining them. In Vietnamese, I try employ the same type of reasoning.

 

The other day, in class, we hit a word I didn’t know. The teacher said, “It means create.”  I noticed that part of the word was the same as one of the sylables in the Vietnamese word for “manufacture.” That made sense. “Create” and “manufacture” are sort of related to making something new. So I asked, “Is this the same syllable as in manufacture?” The teacher got slightly annoyed at how stupid I was. “No, it means create.” She repeated. Then she opened the dictionary and pointed at the definition, “You see, it means create.”

 

She was right. The dictionary did say that this word meant “create.”

 

How silly of me to try and manipulate and use the language, rather than memorizing it blindly.

 

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

 

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.

 

website

www.speakingadventure.com

 

Twitter

http://twitter.com/Brooklynmonk

 

facebook

Brooklyn Monk fan page

 

Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE

http://www.youtube.com/user/brooklynmonk1

 

Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

 

 

 

 

Martial Arts odyssey: Boxing in Cholon (Part 1)

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2011 at 12:57 am

 

 

Travel with Antonio Graceffo as struggles to get back into shape, training boxing and kickboxing in Cholon, Saigon’s China Town. Antonio was surprised to find that the Vietnamese athletes are now learning Muay Thai and competing on the international amateur Muay Thai circuit.

 

Watch: Martial Arts odyssey: Boxing in Cholon (Part 1)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIePsJmnfnQ

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of six books, available on amazon.com, most notably, Warrior Odyssey and The Monk from Brooklyn. He is the host of the web TV show Martial Arts Odyssey, which has had over 160 episodes. Of late, he is starring in the world’s first 3D martial arts TV series, Brooklyn Monk.

Antonio’s website is www.speakingadventure.com you can contact him through his website and sign up for his newsletter, as well as order copies of his books or the DVD Martial Arts Odyssey, Volume One http://www.lulu.com/product/dvd/martial-arts-odyssey-volume-1—kuntaw-and-bokator/11921381

 

His book, Warrior Odyssey is available on amazon.com

Follow Brooklyn Monk on twitter http://twitter.com/Brooklynmonk

Join the Brooklyn Monk fan page on facebook

Watch Martial Arts Odyssey on youtube

www.youtube.com/user/brooklynmonk1

Brooklynmonk,Antonio,Graceffo,Vietnam,boxing,Saigon,cholon,Chinatown,district5, muay,thai,fights,Brooklyn,monk,boxing,vietnamese

Hmong Searching for a Home (Part 2)

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2011 at 10:39 am

 

 

 

By Antonio Graceffo

 

A Hmong representative showed me the heart wrenching photos of men, women, and children barely clinging to life, with little food and no medical care. At least 300 Hmong families are languishing in the jungles of Lao, hunted by Lao and Vietnamese military forces.

 

The Hmong representative asked me to remind people that this 35 year old conflict still hasn’t ended.

 

Why are the Hmong in then jungle? And why are they despised by the Communist government of Lao?

 

To understand the Hmong, and where this problem came from, we have to go back to before the 1950’s, when the French were battling to preserve their colonies in Indochina.

 

During the Second World War, the French Indochina colonies of Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao were occupied by the Japanese. Various resistance armies developed, fighting against the Japanese. In Vietnam, the leader of the resistance forces was Ho Chi Minh, who was supported by the American OSS (the predecessor of the CIA).

 

When the war ended, and the French came back to reclaim their colonies, they met a lot of hostility from their former colonial subjects, who felt that France had betrayed them. The resistance forces shifted from fighting the Japanese to fighting the French. This fighting would eventually become the First Indochina war. The primary battlefield was in Vietnam, where the French fought a loosing war against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces.

 

In Lao, the French GCMA, special operations command, recruited Vang Pao, a Hmong leader, as a Lieutenant in the French army.

 

“The French took the Hmong to northern Lao to fight for the French army.” The Hmong representative explained to me. He was at once, telling me the story of his people, as well as that of his own family. His father and his uncles had been high ranking officers in the Hmong army. “That was general Vang Pao and people like my father. Vang pao was a Lieutenant at that point. He was in the French army, not the Lao army. He commanded only Hmong troops.”

 

Vang Pao would later become a general, and work directly with US backed Air America and the Ravens.

 

“Two thousand Hmong were actually taken to Vietnam to fight in the battle of Dien Bien Phu.”

 

Dien Bien Phu was a supposedly impregnable mountain stronghold where the French suffered their final defeat in their war to keep the Vietnam colony. In the French Foreign Legion as well as in the regular French military, it is considered a great badge of honor to have fought at this historic battle.

And the Hmomg were there.

After the fall of France, Communist regimes struggled to take control of Vietnam and Lao. Vang Pao joined the Royal Lao Army, fighting the communists, and eventually became the first Hmong to achieve the rank of general.

 

“The Hmong were pro French.” Explained the Hmong representative. “They didn’t like the communists. They lived in their mountains, and they didn’t like anyone to ask them what they did. They didn’t want anyone telling them what to do. The French left them alone, but the communists wanted to control them.”

 

A civil war in Lao was fought between the Royals on one side and the communists on the other, with the tribal people caught in the middle. The Americans had their eye on the war in Lao, fearing the Domino Effect, whereby if one country fell to communism, communism would spread across Southeast Asia. President Kennedy actually identified Lao as the key to stopping Communism. While US military advisers were being sent to Vietnam, US agents were exploring options in Lao.

 

“In 1960, the American colonel Colby came to see Vang Pao.” Originally, the Americans met with another Hmong leader, Touby Ly Fong. “But People told them to see Vang Pao because Touby Ly Fong,but was pro French. And that was not good for the Americans. Before he left Lao colonel Sasi gave 2,000 weapons to Vang Pao and Touby Ly Fong. He told them they would need these weapons some day. After Colby went to see him, Vang Pao said, ‘go make the weapons ready.’”

 

“When the Americans came back, in 1961 they asked Vang Pao to fight the communists.”

 

During the more than a decade of US involvement in the war in Lao, the Hmong served alongside Air America and the Ravens, the US clandestine forces. To this day, veterans will tell you that the Hmong were some of the toughest allies the US has ever had.

 

The royal government of Lao fell, and the communists claimed victory in 1975. Vang Pao was resettled to the US at that time. According to the Hmong representative, “The Americans gave the Hmong a choice of going to the refugee camps in Thailand or to stay in the fort.”

 

“Vang Pao left orders with the colonel, who stayed behind, to keep fighting. But he told the colonel to move the battlefront closer to the Thai border. This way, it would be easier to send weapons and support to Hmong rebels to keep up the fight. They remained there and kept fighting until 1976 and 1977. After 1975, a lot of Hmong wanted to go to America. They knew if they went to the Thai camps they could go to America. But the communists were hunting them. The Communists wanted to capture the Hmong soldiers and send them to reeducation camps. So the Hmong ran back to the jungle and kept fighting.”

 

“For more than thirty years, there have been small groups of Hmong living in the jungle, still fighting for democracy. The first group to surrender was in 2000 when the first journalist brought out the story about the Hmong living in the jungle. Nearly all of the Hmong in the refugee camps in Thailand are from 1975-1977.”

 

“Before the year 2000 I sent satellite phones to the ones still in the jungle, and we got  information from them. They were waiting all of those years for Vang Pao and for the Americans to come save them. They had no news from the outside world. They stayed, and fought and waited, as General Vang Pao had told them to.”

 

After the 2000 journalist report about the Hmong in the jungle, the Lao and Vietnamese forces tightened up their control on America’s former allies.

 

Today, “The Hmong still in the jungle have to move constantly. They can’t grow rice. They can’t do anything. They move every four or five days. The rainy season is a little safer, because no one can get in or out (of the inhospitable jungle area). Occasionally, maybe they can stay somewhere for a month. But always, they are moving. The area is about 1,000 KM or more. So they move constantly.”

 

“A journalist broke the story about 196 Hmong who surrendered. And no one has been able to find them since. They are presumed dead.”

 

Up until today, 2011, there are still Hmong in refugee camps in Thailand, who have been there since 1975. The last official Hmong camp was only closed in 2009, although a few Hmong remain in Thailand, in refugee camps with Burmese refugees. According to a representative of the aid organization, Medecins Sans Frontieres, “Hundreds have been forcibly returned by the Thai authorities, and face almost certain persecution.”

 

According to a recent film documentary on the Hmong still living in the jungle, of all of the Hmong who either surrendered to the Lao authorities or were forcibly repatriated by Thailand, only 63 have been verified as still living.

 

“Yes, I am sure they killed them in the jungle somewhere, and we don’t know. The Communists don’t want the Hmong to get out.”

 

“The Thais sent a lot of Hmong back and as far as I know, no one has been able to contact them.”

 

“This is the diplomacy between Lao and Thailand. A lot of Hmong from the cities or even Hmong from Thailand went to live in the refugee camp. They said, ‘we are from the jungle.’ I think there were 2000 families from the jungle and 2000 from the city and from Thailand, because they wanted to go to the United States. So many Hmong went to America and they have money.”

 

Today, there are around 300,000 Hmong people living in the United States.

 

“They can help their family. The Hmong in the mountains are poor. But if you are in USA and have $100 dollars you can buy a buffalo for your father or grandmother living here.”

 

“These Hmong caused a lot of problems for the Thai and Lao government. If they had sent all of the Hmong to America, maybe 20,000 more Hmong would show up claiming to be from the jungle.”

 

In Lao, the situation of the Hmong is even more precarious. “Officially the war still exits between the Hmong and the communists.” Said the representative.

 

According to a number of journalistic reports, the Lao government denies the existence of the Hmong in the jungle.

 

“There are 300 families still in the jungle, but they are not one group. They are separated.”

 

We are not just talking about old men, old soldiers. These are families: sons and in some cases grandchildren born after the war. Born in a jungle camp, born into a conflict and growing up in a state of a war which the rest of the world thinks has been over for nearly forty years.

 

I asked the representative if the death of Vang Pao in January, 2011 had changed anything for the Hmong living in the jungles of Lao.

 

“Now, General Vang Pao is dead. Most of the colonels are dead. But the Homng in the jungle, they wait. Some are willing to surrender, but they cannot surrender to the communists. They are afraid. So, they want to come to Thailand, but if you look at Mekong now, it is heavily fortified to prevent the Hmong from sneaking into Thailand.”

 

They can’t stay in the jungle. They can’t surrender. And they can’t go to Thailand. And so, 300 Hmong families; men, women, and children, starve, suffer, and wait for someone to rescue them.

 

Hmong Searching for a Home (Part 3) coning soon.

 

Antonio Graceffo is a volunteer freelance journalist, funded through private donations. To support his writing and filming you can donate through the paypal link on his website, www.speakingadventure.com  or by direct transfer into his bank account.

 

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

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Asians Plus Math

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2011 at 5:36 pm

 

 

Does Not Equal  Asians and Critical Thinking

By Antonio Graceffo

 

Fifth graders across Asia can do math that I didn’t see during my BA. But yet, when they need to calculate a 10% discount, they reach for the calculator.

 

I have spent the last month exploring this, and many other mysteries that you face when you are living in Asia.

 

A Thai friend, named Kem Dang, offered to help me understand Thai culture better by explaining how Thai people thought. She knew I often got frustrated with things taking longer or needing more steps to get half the job done. So, she wanted to help me get over the hump.

 

The hump, I discovered, was a grave marker which read, “Here lays the man who tried to rush Asia.”

 

She was talking about Thailand, but much of what she said could be related to Asia in general. The whole interview will be published in book form next year. But here is a piece I think anyone who has ever worked and lived in Asia will appreciate.

 

After five days of me dutifully recording and typing up her thoughts on the Thai mindset, she asked me, “Do you have any specific questions, something you encountered in your life in Thailand”

 

“Yes, why can’t they make change?” I asked. “ And it’s not sometimes. It’s every time. At the internet shop it costs 30 Baht per hour. I do three hours, and the employee needs calculator, and a computer, and needs to call three friends. I get so frustrated. I start shouting, “It’s 90 baht. It’s 90 baht. Three times thirty is ninety. It’s 90 Baht.”

“You know what’s ironic? The only subject in Thai school which is better than American primary school is math. They do higher level math in junior high school than what I had in college, but they can’t make change.”

“To them, math is just a school subject. In their mind, you cannot apply it to real life.” Explained Kem Dang..

 

“Even English class is like this.” I pointed out. “ They can get perfect marks in school and have a large vocabulary, but not be able to communicate or use the English language in any meaningful way.”

 

Once again, Kem Dang’s answer was simple. “In school, They just make a mark and get a grade. And that’s it. They don’t think about applying school subjects to something outside of the classroom.”

 

I had been in Thai classrooms. In fact, it was during the one semester I spent teaching in Bangkok that my next anecdote came from.

 

When I was teaching in Bangkok, I asked my students how many kilometers from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. They didn’t know.” I said. “ It was a room full of twenty-five college students. And they didn’t know how far from the capital to the second largest city. The distance is 696 kilometers. If they had said, 650 or 700 I would have been fine with that. But not knowing at all really bothered me. If I were asking the distance from New York to Chicago and they didn’t know, I would say, OK, it’s not relevant to their lives. But to not know in your own country is quite sad. Anyway, after I told them it was 696 kilometers, I asked them how many meters was that. They understood the question but it took a group consensus, and about twenty minutes of tedious calculations for them to come up with the wrong answer.

 

“In America, we don’t even use the metric system, and yet in second and fourth grade we were taught to convert kilometers to meters. You don’t actually have to do any math, you just move the decimal. But they couldn’t do that.”

 

Kem has two hill tribe girls living in her home, who she has guardianship over and whom she struggles to educate. She has seen the inside of the Thai school system, fist as a child, when she was a student, and again later, through the eyes of her adopted daughters.

 

“My oldest girl learns a lot of science and math in school. She comes home, and we talk around the table, but she has no idea about that. But at school she is the one with the highest scores. It’s about application. School subjects are not real to them. She doesn’t think it’s real. She cannot connect what she learns in school with her daily life. When she comes home, I have to teach her starting from the beginning, not from high school level. I have to start all the way from the beginning.”

 

“She will say, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t remember.’ It is about critical thinking and about connecting the past and the future. Her thinking is only about now.”

 

“The employee who can’t make change for you, he makes change a hundred times a day. Tomorrow, he will have problems again. Because after they make change, they forget about it. They only know what is in front of them right now.”

 

“When you are done with this person’s change it becomes the past. When the next person needs change this is the future. So you do what you know how to do, call friends to help you.” Kem Dang finished.

 

I had ten years of Asian anecdotes to finally unburden on someone who could help me unravel the psychotic, dream-like twilight which my life in Asia often is. “Eight years ago, before I knew Thai language and culture, I went in a restaurant and the waiter brought me an English menu. I pointed at the menu items and said, “I want this one and that one.” He took my order and disappeared into the kitchen.  I waited and twenty minutes later, my food still hadn’t come. I got angry and started shouting. Eventually the manager came and asked, “What would you like to eat?”

I said, “I want the food I ordered thirty minuets ago.”

After a long back and forth, and dancing around the truth, finally the manger said, “That waiter doesn’t speak English.”

I learned from that experience. The next time I went to a restaurant I chose a menu which had both Thai and English. I read the English, to find what I wanted and I pointed at the Thai to show the waiter. That method worked for a while. Then one day, I hit the same wall, where my food didn’t come, although I had used the Thai writing to order it. I got angry, like before. And eventually, the manager turned up. We danced around, back and forth, with him pretending he didn’t know that I had ordered, or that he was even running a restaurant. His first excuse was that the waiter didn’t speak English. I said “Yes, but I pointed at the Thai writing on the page”. After more dancing and indirect conversation, he finally said. “That waiter cannot read Thai.”

In both instances, the waiter didn’t tell me that he couldn’t speak English or read Thai. But the second part of the problem is, why was he working in a restaurant that catered to 80% foreign customers?

 

“They don’t see that as a problem.” explained Kem Dang. “If you are a foreigner, you see that this is a problem. if you were the foreign boss, you would lecture the worker afterwards. But the Thai boss doesn’t see it.”

 

“How do they not see it?” I asked. “It is so obvious.”

 

I went on to tell her, “I have had similar situations where the boss eventually, apologized for the waiter’s lack of knowledge or called the waiter “stupid”. In those cases, the boss went and got my food personally. And everything seemed to be taken care of. But when I went back the next day, the same waiter was working, waiting on foreigners and getting orders wrong.”

 

“They cannot recognize that this is the problem.” said kem Dang. “The boss may see that the boy had a problem with you. But then you walk out, he can’t predict that the boy will have a problem with the next person.”

 

Another problem I see a lot is: I am a native speaker of English. I speak English very well. I also speak Thai. And I know how to speak English in such a fashion that Thai people understand me and I know how to interpret the English spoken by Thais.

 

And yet, I still have these problems. But at least half of the foreign tourists in Thailand are not English native speakers. I see old French and German guys with terrible school English or Arabs or Russians trying to communicate in their horrendous English with Thais in their terrible English. I can’t imagine how much money must be lost every day simply because the workers don’t understand the customers.

I have to use internet cafes a lot when I am traveling, to write and send my articles. Sometimes I am in the shop for six hours at a stretch. And I watch foreigners come in and ask for various services, can you print? Can I down load photos? Or whatever it is, and frequently I see the staff say,” No, sorry. We don’t have that service. But actually they do. They simply didn’t understand. So the customer walks out the door and goes to the next shop and the next till someone understands him.

Internet costs 20-30 baht per hour. But printing is 5 baht per page. You need to sell a lot of hours of internet to make up for turning away one print customer. Photo downloads can be 10 bah. And transferring data and burning a new disk is two hundred baht. This is huge money they are loosing simply because the staff can’t figure out what’s going on.

 

“How does the boss not see it?” I finally had to ask.

 

Kem Dang’s explanation seemed a little scary, but accurate. “The boss doesn’t see it because the boss has Thai understanding. He only sees one problem with you, but doesn’t realize it is the same problem with other customers. One day, maybe he will go bankrupt because there isn’t enough money coming in, but he still won’t make the connection.”

 

Often, I find that the boss is smart, and if I deal with him directly, everything gets done. But if he isn’t in, nothing gets done. Nothing works. The staff don’t know anything. And part of the culture seems to be that the boss is too important and doesn’t actually work in the shop.

 

She confirmed my suspicions, and went on to shed more light on the condition. “They don’t learn from the past. Each day is a new experience. The boss is too high to work in the shop, so he doesn’t know this problem exists. Printing is five baht he thinks he lost five baht. He cannot predict the future and know that he lost money in the future or that they will tell their friends not to go there.”

 

One day, I was sitting in the internet shop and I made a mark on a piece of paper, every time they turned away a customer asking for a service which they actually offered. This was about seven years ago, when flash drives weren’t widely known or maybe they didn’t exist yet. So it was really common that people with digital cameras would want to come in and burn the photos onto a disk to empty their camera. The fee at that time was about 200 baht. And of course every shop had that capability. In fact the shop where I did my internet work would do that for me as well for the photos I sued for my stories. They turned away 5 people while I was sitting there. That is 1,000 Baht. Maybe that was more money than they made from a whole day of every person using the internet.

 

“Yes,” agreed Kem Dang, “if they loose five customers today what about tomorrow and a week or a month.”

 

She went on to say, “But you have to do math to know that. That same symptoms as your internet shop exists in travel agencies, restaurants and in every other aspect of Thai life. They don’t understand the math.”

 

And now we were back to where we started. Math is the only subject in Thai school which is better than in an American school. But in Kem Dang’s own words, They don’t understand math.

 

 

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

 

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.

 

website

www.speakingadventure.com

 

Twitter

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Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

Brooklyn Monk in 3D

Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/

 

 

 

Shan Migrant Workers in Thailand

In Uncategorized on March 5, 2011 at 8:46 am

By Antonio Graceffo

 

Stateless, undocumented, exploited and fearful, they say it’s still better than going back to Burma.

 

Down a dirt road outside of the city, I find myself in a make-shift camp, a small clearing in the jungle, containing a handful of bamboo huts. This is the unofficial home to a collective of Shan migrant workers. Fleeing the war in Burma, they came to Thailand, seeking a better life. But, as undocumented aliens, they face a multitude of problems: low wages, infrequent employment, lack of education for their children, and periodic arrests by the police. But all of them said, they felt freer and safer as undocumented aliens in Thailand than they did in Burma.

 

In 2007 and 2008 I did over 50 articles on members of the Shan ethnic group caught in the war zone of Burma. While rape, torture and murder touch thousands or even tens of thousands of Shan families each year, millions of Shan and Burmese ethnics have been displaced, relegated to eking out a subsistence living as undocumented aliens, with no future.

 

One of the members of this workers’ commune, Leung San, a 46 year old man from Shan State told me he has been in Thailand for more than twenty years. “Back in Shan State, even if we worked on the farm, we had to pay money to the SPDC soldiers. The food we got was not enough to survive. So, I left.” He had no friends when he came to Thailand. He was only able to do itinerant work, construction and farming. When I asked what his daily wage was, Leung San answered, “The average is thirty Baht ($1 USD) per day, because I go days or weeks with no work. Now, there is no construction anymore, so I have to wait till construction comes back again.”

 

He explained that the men had formed this community 15 years ago. They can’t grow any of their own food, because they don’t own any land. They only do daily work on other people’s farms and use their meager wages to buy rice.

 

Leung San has one child but no wife. “My wife left me for another man.” He has found it difficult to raise a twelve-year old son on 900 Baht ($27 USD) per month. His son attends Thai government elementary school. This is a privilege Leung San receives because he possesses a limited green, Thai ID card. But, his child will most likely not be allowed to go to junior high school or high school.

 

“My son is under my registration now. But when he turns 15, he has to do his own registration.” explained Leung San. And it is possible the child will not be approved for an ID card.

 

I asked Leung San and the others if they celebrated Shan New Year in their tiny community. Shan New Year is the single most important celebration of the year, and a cornerstone of Shan culture.

 

“No.” They replied sadly. “In this area, we are not permitted to celebrate Shan New Year.”

 

Even the Shan culture is being suppressed. Along with their struggle to survive, the migrants must fight to keep their culture and traditions alive.

 

I asked Leung San if he had any special wish for his community. First he said, for himself, he wants his child to attended high school or college. He has to pay a small fee for elementary school, but for junior high and high school the fee is higher. Even if he could obtain permission for the child to continue studying, he couldn’t possibly afford it.

 

Fore his community he said they needed help. “We need basic electricity because we cannot find firewood to burn. And in the rainy season, it’s difficult to bring a motorcycle in here.”

 

Another community member, fifty-one year old Tun was also born in Shan State. In spite of having been in Thailand for twenty years, he is still undocumented. “I came to Thailand because it was difficult to find food in Burma. In Burma we had to keep moving.” In Burma, Shan villages are often forced to relocate at the whim of the army. Because of the constant movement, “It was impossible to grow anything or to live.”

 

So, he came here and he works on a farm for 100 baht per day, on t6he days that he has work. When I asked if he was married, he laughed, saying he couldn’t afford to get married.

 

“Life is hard in Thailand, but I feel safe here. So, it is better than Burma.”

 

The youngest family head in the community was thirty-one year old Jai Soy, who had been in Thailand for 16 years and was still undocumented. He came to Thailand because in Burma he was subjected to forced labor. “The soldiers came to the village and demanded so many workers come and work on the railway. If the village didn’t agree, then they would be arrested.”  Jai Soy said they worked, digging and carrying rocks. “The soldiers beat us and didn’t feed us enough to live. The soldiers also put shackles on our legs so we couldn’t run away.”

 

Luckily, Jai Soy did manage to escape from the work camp. Like millions of others, he came to Thailand. Now, he mostly does general work. Occasionally he collects recyclables to earn a few pennies. “In Thailand, without an ID card, we cannot work legally. We work illegally and it’s irregular. It depends on the situation.”

 

Jai Soy has two children, aged 9 and 7 who attend government elementary school. He said even though his children were born in Thailand the children don’t automatically get an ID card. It depends on the parents. And since he has no card, his kids have no card. So they cannot study beyond elementary school.

 

“I wish the government would let us live free and work.” he said.

 

When I asked Jai Soy to compare his current life with the life he left behind in Burma, he said, “In Thailand, with no ID card it is hard, and sometimes we get arrested. When you get arrested in Thailand, it’s better than Burma. They give you food. They don’t beat you. Then you go before the judge, and he will tell you how long you have to stay in jail. Sometimes, it’s just a few days.”

 

After leaving the migrant community, I stopped into a local Shan temple, where I met Kraipope, a sixteen year-old novice monk. He was born in Shan State, but came to Thailand four years ago to get an education in the temple. “I came to study here because the schools in Burma are so bad.” His dream was to someday study at Rachapat, a leading university in Thailand. When I asked I asked him if he missed his family, he told me that they were all in Thailand, now. “In Burma, it is very difficult to find work.” He explained.

 

My next question, “Back in Burma, did you have problems with the SPDC government forces?” his answer was almost comical. “Just the usual.” He said, with no hint of irony.

 

Of all of the Shan I spoke to that day, I think Jai Soy said it best. “When you get arrested in Thailand it’s better than Burma.”

 

 

Antonio Graceffo is a self-funded, freelance journalist, funded through private donations. To support his writing and filming you can donate through the paypal link on his

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Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

 

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

http://brooklynmonk.podomatic.com

 

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Worker’s Paradise

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2011 at 6:34 am

 

The Myth of Communism

By Antonio Graceffo

 

There were 171 people killed attempting to escape over the Berlin Wall. None were killed trying to go the other way.

 

Capitalism has been criticized because of the dwindling middle class. If you look at every communist country that has ever existed, they managed to create near equality. They make 90% of the population equally poor.

 

A taxi driver in Phnom Penh shook his fist when we ere cut off by a huge, fancy car with tinted windows. He shocked me by saying, “I miss Pol Pot. In Pol Pot times, I ate porridge, and rich men also ate porridge.” This was his solution to lessening the gap between the rich and the poor; make everyone function at a subsistence level, and then we’ll all be equal. But of course, even in the Khmer Rouge, cadres ate and lived infinitely better and with more power and privileges than the workers.

 

This morning, I watched a US documentary which criticized the CIA. In the video, numerous Americans spoke out against the CIA, calling it a terrorist organization. Next, searching in Korean and Chinese language, I looked for similar documentaries made by North Korean and Chinese citizens, criticizing their own secret police organizations, but there don’t seem to be any. Could it be that the very existence of the CIA defends our right to make and broadcast films criticizing the CIA?

 

Before beginning a discussion of communism or capitalism, it is important to note that both of these models are economic theories, not governmental systems. It does seem, however, that in practice, communism as an economic system only works in a totalitarian regime, whereas capitalism is closely tied to democracies and republican style governments.

 

I have lived and worked in East Germany, Lao, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, all communist or former communist countries. At no point did I regret having been born in the US versus one of these countries. At no point did I lament my ability to leave. And if they thought they wouldn’t suffocate in the unpressurized luggage compartment on the airplane, any number of locals would have been willing to hide in my suitcase, if it meant getting out.

 

More than 255,000 Vietnamese got into overcrowded, leaking boats, with inadequate food or water, and very little chance of survival. They spent weeks or months at sea, where they were hunted by hostile militaries and raped and robbed by pirates. After surviving the ordeal at sea, they spent months and even years in refugee camps, all for a chance to go to America, Australia, Canada or some other western democracy. None requested resettlement in Bulgaria or North Korea. And of course, no Americans, Australians, or Canadians ever went through similar ordeals to get Vietnamese citizenship.

 

At the end of the Korean War, more than 22,000 Communist soldiers, mostly North Koreans, refused to be sent back to their home country, but only 1 Brit and 23 American elected to be resettled in China. After the war, a further six Americans were known to have defected to North Korea.

 

In China and Vietnam, as soon as the communist government came into power and nationalized rice production people began starving. Hundreds of thousands or even millions of people died from these repressive economic policies, as well as communist government hard-line reprisals, and executions. Many more died in so-called re-education centers, which were forced labor camps.  In fact, more Vietnamese died in the years immediately following the Vietnam War than died during the war itself.

 

Under the Communist government in Cambodia, nearly 100% of the population was working in agriculture, and yet, nearly a quarter of the population died of starvation.

 

Only 2% of Americans work in agriculture. And the biggest health risk in the country is obesity.

.

Westerners who defend communism always say that communism was never given a fair chance. They say that the poverty and starvation in these countries is caused by US embargos. But the US is not responsible for the nationalization of business in these countries. This is simply part of the communist or socialist doctrine. The reason these countries become poor is because they don’t make and sell products. If you aren’t making products then a US embargo can’t prevent you from selling them.

 

Certainly the US never told anyone to nationalize rice production. And if it did, why did those countries listen? They generally hate the US.

 

Much of the abject poverty in the former communist regimes came after the fall of The Soviet Union and an end to the financial subsidies that kept these governments more or less afloat. But, doesn’t the need for constant subsidies prove that this system is untenable?

 

Do constant foreign aid subsidies keep Belgium, Italy, or England afloat?

 

When I was teaching in East Germany, just after the reunification, each morning when I arrived at my class, I found my adult students reading catalogues. I finally asked them, now that the literature of the whole world was available to them, why would they be reading catalogues? One man, the spokesman for the class, answered, “Teacher, we just can’t believe that such things existed.” He pointed to the open catalogue. “There are two pages of hammers. We didn’t know there could be so many kinds of hammers. Under the Soviets, if we needed a hammer we filled out a form. Then waited for months. If we were approved, and the hammer was delivered, it came in a brown box, marked ‘hammer.’ There was only one kind. And it was hard to get.”

 

A lot of students at the university where I studied in West Germany used an East-German-made individual coffee maker. It was kind of hip to have one of these anachronistic devices in your student flat. And it was considered even cooler if you still had the original box which said, ‘coffee maker’ in black on cardboard writing.

 

No US embargo prevented Russia from making a variety of hammers or coffee makers. This was simply the Soviet ideal for a workers paradise. Clearly, it is the veritable plethora of hammers and coffee makers that is brining down the capitalist, democratic model.

 

Westerners I have met in Asia who speak out in favor of these communist countries always say that it is the variety of goods which fuels the capitalist feeding frenzy. They point at the credit card debt and mortgage failures of US consumers and say this is proof that the capitalist/democratic system doesn’t work. Of course, none of the people making this accusation live the life of a communist peasant. They were all well dressed and had money and freedom to travel the globe, finding fault with America. But, even if they are thrifty, and refrain form the massive consumption trap endemic in the capitalist system, they still watch CNN or BBC, read newspapers, read books, think independently, and spout loud and open criticism of their own government.

 

The citizens of Communist countries don’t generally have such privilege.

 

In practice, Capitalism isn’t just owning too many pairs of shoes, or taking a sub-prime mortgage to buy an overly large house that you don’t need. It is also the freedom to read the New York Times, or the London Times, the right to blog and complain, the right to vote, to protest, and to congregate without a permit.

 

These privileged westerners who speak out in favor of the systems in Vietnam, Lao, China, North Korea, and Cambodia often sight CNN as being a biased tool of the financial-militaristic establishment. Maybe, but do you really believe you get better coverage from North Korean national TV? What about the Chinese or Vietnamese news channels? Is that where you get free, fair-handed reporting?

 

As a reasonable westerner, with a free-thinking education, and freedom to chose, I say, watch CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and Deutsche Welle, then take an average. That’s certainly going to give you a better grip on world affairs than limiting yourself to Channel News Lao, or whatever the government approved news channel in Vientiane is called.

 

It’s not just hammers and coffee makers that frightens these regimes. They all have strict restrictions on press and media. The American president or the British Prime minister, on the other hand, are not afraid of twitter. And the Australian regime doesn’t fear being toppled by youtube.

 

If you went to the home of most westerners who speak out in favor of this communist ideal, I imagine you would find a modern coffee maker and possibly even a hammer. As a doer and not just a talker, I would like to point out that NONE of these do-gooder westerners who speak out in support of communism ever gave up their British or Canadian citizenship to go live as a noble farmer or factory worker in a communist country.

 

At a Christmas party in Saigon a New Zealand woman attacked me for being American. She was telling me what a huge debt America owed to Vietnam and asked me why we weren’t doing anything to help Vietnam.

 

Actually, the US is the single largest export partner of Vietnam. We are also Vietnam’s fifth largest bilateral donor. Aid from the US is greater than total aid from the UN or the EU.

 

My point is not that the US is angel or that our system is perfect. My point is that we should use facts, rather than ingrained hatred, as the building blocks of opinion.

 

The New Zealand woman went on to tell me house nice and generous the Vietnamese were, and how they should be commended for having built such a great country…It should be pointed out that she was an extremely well-paid teacher, living in a villa. And, the school she taught at was a for-profit, terribly expensive, elite English school which farmers and factory workers can’t afford for their children.

 

She had almost no grasp on how Vietnamese people lived. In addition to not speaking the language, she lived in such a white bubble world. The only Vietnamese she encountered were from the privileged class. And even with this distorted view of how well Vietnamese people live, she did not give up her citizenship to remain in the workers utopia of Vietnam.

 

Changing the subject to something less inflammatory, I mentioned to her that I was having trouble shipping a martial arts DVD out of the country because all DVDs and books had to be opened and viewed by sensors before they could be sent in or out of the country. To the credit of the country’s increasing openness, I will say that what was probably an airtight seal ten years ago, is slightly more than an annoyance now. But it was still frustrating to have to drive all of the way to the central post office and fill out forms to receive my mail, which had been opened, viewed, and deemed acceptable.

 

The New Zealand woman then told me that she had trouble getting books to the school where she teaches, as half the shipments go missing after arriving in the port of Saigon.

 

Before I had a chance to get political again, an Australian jumped in on my side. “If the Yanks had won the war you probably wouldn’t have problems getting your mail.”

 

Capitalism isn’t just Choco Puffs breakfast cereal. It’s also the sanctity of mail delivery.

 

Another documentary I found on the web was called “Friends of Kim,” which featured an organization called Korean Friendship Association, a group which supports North Korea.  In the video, a small troop of idealistic westerners went on a friendship tour of North Korea, headed by Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez a Spanish noble who maintains both Spanish and North Korean citizenships.

 

It’s important to point out that as mush as Alejandro loves the Dear Leader, he never gave up his Spanish citizenship. Also important to note is that Spain, a capitalist democracy, allows Alejandro to go in and out of Spain, doing work in support of North Korea. Would North Korea allow one of its citizens the right to go in and out of North Korea, doing work in support of Spain?

 

In the beginning of the documentary, we see that the westerners, with the exception of the film crew, are idealistic and spout a lot of propaganda in favor of North Korea and against the US. During their tour of the workers’ paradise it becomes clear to the film crew, but not these idealistic visitors, that they are being spared visits to the poor countryside or views of the abject poverty and starvation which is the reality of life for about 90% of the North Korean population.

 

The party line says that the North Korean system is self sufficient and everyone has enough of everything. During the tour, the group is housed at expensive, hard-currency hotels and resorts. At one of these, they meet Richard Reagan, country director of the United Nations World Food Program, an American, who says that every single year North Korea has to ask for food aid. He went on to say that the US was feeding nearly half of the North Korean population.

 

As the documentary went on, nearly all of the westerners seemed to have a dramatic change of heart. One of the reporters, fearing for his life, sought refuge in the Swedish embassy.

 

Toward the end, they came back to their North Korean hotel and found their rooms had been ransacked and their video footage stolen. One journalist had every single tape stolen. They also broke into his computer and even stole his notebooks he had written for his future article on North Korea.

 

When the team finally got out of North Korea and landed in Beijing one of them said that he never believed that landing in Beijing could feel so free. But obviously, living in China is a lot better than living in North Korea.

 

But living in Toronto, as a Canadian citizen or New York as a registered alien with a work permit, is better than living as a citizen in any of these countries.

 

And if you disagree, please move there, renounce your citizenship, and start a blog to tell the world about your new found happiness in the workers paradise.

 

 

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

 

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.

 

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