A Journey of Lessons (A Hopeful Sign)

Please see my latest posting on the e-zine A Hopeful Sign about being in Southeast Asia and experiencing the 5-star hotels juxtaposed with the extreme poverty of the region, as well as its affects on our kids.  To be fair, it’s also about bringing the lessons of the world in which they do not live to them and making it accessible via experiences right here in Tokyo as well as the tie-in to the Jewish holiday of Passover, that happened while we were visiting Cambodia.

The E-zine is called A Hopeful Sign for a reason – the messages of hope and positivity it brings are a breath of fresh air in today’s increasingly negative and pessimistic world.  Go see my posting, but also go to see all of the other wonderful writers who post there.  Click HERE.

Here’s the body of the text:

Our Journey of Lessons Travelling in Southeast Asia

Photo: Child begging for money from her little “boat”, a pot (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

(Post by AIMEE LEDEWITZ WEINSTEIN)

I never doubt that my kids are indeed children of privilege, which is not necessarily bad, because the important thing, I believe, is what one does with that privilege.  In recent weeks my kids have had many lessons in humility and giving, and the grace that comes along with the ability to recognize the gifts of humanity, no matter how they are packaged.

We started our journey of lessons at the Asian University for Women (AUW) fundraiser.  AUW, located in Bangladesh, takes young women from around the region and gives them a top-notch university education. The support committee, of which I am a part, showed an American PBS film about Women and the Taliban in Afghanistan and how they are fighting back.  My son who is 13 understood a lot of it, but my daughter who is 10, did not.  The important part for both of them, though, was the speeches that followed the movie by the two girls who had come to Tokyo from AUW in Bangladesh.  One girl, originally from Afghanistan, stressed the importance of education, finding one’s voice, and telling one’s story.  The other, from Nepal, spoke eloquently on the idea of one person making a difference and changing the world.  Both kids were enthralled by these two girls.  Obviously young, they carried themselves with poise that belied their backgrounds and they spoke confidently about their viewpoints and ideas, something my children could admire and appreciate.

The next day after hearing the girls at the AUW event, the kids, my husband and I got on a plane for Southeast Asia.  We spent the next six days exploring Hanoi, Vietnam, and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh Cambodia.  (You can read about our adventures on http://TokyoWriter.com)

It wasn’t our first trip to the region, but seeing the extreme poverty never gets any easier, especially for the kids.  Hanoi was chock full of honking cars, a mix of traditional and modern architecture, and people who were thrilled to see tourists.  Many people approached us on the street to sell us something, and of course, some were kinder than others.  When my daughter expressed discomfort, my husband explained that this was how people made their living; not everyone can afford a storefront.  We bought things we wanted and said no to vendors when we had to.

In Siem Reap, the resort hotels eclipse some of the more extreme poverty, but it was really unavoidable as we took a boat ride up the Tonle Sap Lake to see the floating villages there.  Random kids approached us over and over again, begging, one little girl with a snake around her neck asking if we wanted to give her a dollar to see the snake up close.  Another girl approached us as we were eating our dinner at a sidewalk café.  My daughter was stricken when we wouldn’t buy her books and the girl groaned her disappointment. I faltered when I explained that one to my own darling girl.  That young lady was helping her family by trying to sell the books.  Maybe she had been in school all day and worked a little to make extra money at the dinner hour, but this was her life and this was what she knew.  Even I could tell that the explanation fell flat – of course the girl could observe that we could afford dinner in a restaurant and she couldn’t – but we noticed our daughter chewing on what she had seen and the ideas I presented.

That night was the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and our normal celebrations at home include a large seder with many friends.  It’s the holiday when we retell the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt – it’s a celebration of freedom.  I had packed a few copies of our Haggadah, the book we read at the table for Passover, so the four of us sat in our hotel room after dinner reading about our ancestors and telling the story as it is commanded, as if we ourselves were enslaved in Egypt, feeling the yoke of slavery and the gratitude for the miracles wrought by God to bring about its end, even if did mean forty years of wandering in the desert.  We tell it that way to encourage empathy and enhance that gratitude.  In addition to telling the story faithfully to our children every year, we – Jews – infuse the seder with the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, saving the world.  “Let all who are hungry come eat,” says the Haggadah, commanding not just Jews, but really everyone, to share the gifts they are given.

Even though it was the lowest-key seder we’ve ever had, and the smallest, it was by far the most meaningful.  The kids were both able to talk about not just freedom to walk around and go wherever they please, but also freedom from tyranny and freedom from want.  The Haggadah gave them language to appreciate the accident of their birth into a loving and financially stable, Western family.  We were able to talk about the gifts of their good brains and the ability to use them and the bright girls who go to AUW on scholarship who have a stroke of luck to get their fine education whereas our kids tend to take their schooling for granted.  They vowed never to complain about it.

We saw some exquisite sights throughout Vietnam and Cambodia, things that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.  One morning we woke the kids before the sun to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, an enthralling picture that I can still see weeks later when I close my eyes.  To think that was built in the 12th century!  Later that day, my son said that he was sorry he fussed (which he really hadn’t) about getting up because it was worth it, and he was going to tell his kids about it someday.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

“Maybe you’ll take your own kids to see it,” I suggested.

My daughter watched my son nod in agreement and smile. “Maybe,” she allowed finally, “But I hope I can give my kids what you and Daddy give me.”

I don’t think she understood my silent hug or the tears that sprang to my eyes as I surveyed both of my children.  My children are among the luckiest there are to be American and live an exciting life abroad in Japan.  They have every gadget available as well as access to the finest schools and activities in the world. I have no idea whether these lessons will stay with them even into next month, but I am sure that we planted seeds in the children that week, seeds that will hopefully bloom into beautiful tomorrows.

Hanoi – A Spinning Bustle of Activity

The main shrine at the Temple of Literature.

The main shrine at the Temple of Literature.

We arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at night, so we didn’t get our first taste of it until we stepped out of our marble-laden, oasis of a hotel in the heart of the old city, onto the dirty, crowded and noisy streets after breakfast that first morning.  It was akin to the scene in “Enchanted” where the Cinderella figure leaves her fairytale land and pops up in the New York sewer system.  We had been warned that the streets would be crazy, but we weren’t fully prepared for the any-which-way-ness of them.  The motorbikes, “cyclos” (a guy on a bicycle – push bike – ferries up to two people around town), cars, and bicycles all shared the road space with not an inch to spare.   Lane demarcations were little more than suggestions and traffic lights merely optional.  There were crosswalks, but they amounted to little more than paint on the street.  Crossing the streets was an exercise in bravery and being purposeful.  Our method was to wait for a reasonable opening, step off the curb and

A view of the street from a second floor restaurant. It doesn't come close to showing the true craziness, though.

A view of the street from a second floor restaurant. It doesn’t come close to showing the true craziness, though.

just GO.  Oh, we weren’t reckless or anything, especially with our kids, but we did have to use a certain amount of faith – and even prayer – to get across streets, and sometimes even down them if they circumstances were dire.  By the end of the day it became entertaining to see how on earth we were going to get from point A to point B safely.  At first the constant honking really bothered our daughter, but then we realized people didn’t use horns to ask people to get out of their way, rather it was the opposite: a gentle honk every few minutes reminded people you were there.  The streets, in most areas of the city, were like nothing we had ever experienced, even in all of our travels.

One skinny building!

One skinny building!

The architecture of the city is also amazing. One guide told us that buildings are taxed according to the amount of street space they take up – so they strive to take up as little street space as possible.  Therefore most buildings are tall – and very skinny.

That being said, the city of Hanoi has a lot to recommend it.  The Temple of Literature, our first stop, was rebuilt from the ancient times when it was home to scholars and priests to study all measures of art, literature, politics and other high ideals.  It’s a stunning courtyard of homage to the past and past scholarship that includes UNESCO protected statues.  Sometimes I stand awestruck before these religious statues and carvings that are older than the country of my birth.

The French Quarter of the city has fancy, old hotels and the local stock exchange building.  While the streets are wide and tree-lined,

The turtles of learning - a UNESCO protected set of statues.

The turtles of learning – a UNESCO protected set of statues.

they are no less crazy.

All over the city, sidewalks were littered with low-slung Ikea-like, child-sized plastic tables and chairs in front of cafes where people sit and eat lunch, snacks, dinner and drinks.  It’s astounding to pick your way through the people as you walk.

The old city, where we were staying, seems like it was lifted straight out of 1975.  The streets are narrow and crowded, with shop after shop hawking wares.  Bargaining is an art form, trying to make both sides pleased with a sale.  Some people are just carrying goods for sale and they approach others, especially

Typical old meets new scene in the city.

Typical old meets new scene in the city.

foreigners, to buy from them.  That bothered both of my kids a lot – they didn’t like turning people – mostly women – down when they asked us to buy from them, and my husband and I might turn our backs if we didn’t want to buy.  Of course, we did buy many things and even went through the weekend night market when we were there on the hunt for bargains, of which we found many, including sneakers for my son and a fun handbag for my daughter.

And we ATE!  The Vietnamese food was simply delicious, and way beyond just the Pho that Americans often think of as Vietnamese.  While we did eat the beef noodle soup, there were also many delectable morsels of pork, chicken, and other noodle dishes to be had.  We ate duck and spring rolls, and drank fresh fruit juice, like mango and watermelon juice, until we practically floated instead of walked.

The hotel where we stayed, as I mentioned, was an oasis from the dirt and grit of the city.  Called the Golden Sun Palace, it is a new,

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of the museum dedicated to his memory and achievements.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of the museum dedicated to his memory and achievements.

boutique hotel with only 20 rooms right in the bustle of the old city.  Coming in off the streets with the white marble beckoning like a siren song, felt heavenly.  The people were so nice and helpful, and they really did try to please in every way possible.  They were the first to introduce us to the thick, rich Vietnamese coffee and we never looked back.  Either with or without the condensed milk for lightening and thickening, it is delicious in every rich sense.

On our second day in the city we went to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and museum. I was wearing pretty modest shorts, but they wouldn’t let me in with my knees showing.  I had to buy a wrap and put it around my waist in order to go in.  Respect.  It was all pretty surreal to see a preserved body as well as all of the “information” at the museum.

The beautiful and graceful water puppets.

The beautiful and graceful water puppets.

One of our last stops was the renowned Water Puppet show in the city.  Against a backdrop of

live, traditional music, puppets dance around and through a small pond at the front of the theater, telling traditional Vietnamese stories. It was vibrant and beautiful.

Hanoi is a charming and interesting city if you can get through the pedestrian experience and the interminable grime. I hope to go back there some day.