Two Mutants in Hong Kong

February 9th, 2019

On the Hong Kong subway today, I was the only one in the car (or for that matter the platforms we passed) with blonde hair.  My travel companion, Nancy, has let her hair go gray but she was at one time a blue-eyed blonde with skin much fairer than mine.  “I’m the mutant here,” I thought to myself, but when I shared that thought with Nancy, she pointed out that really, Asians are mutants too.  So are we all, unless we are pure-blooded indigenous Southern Africans.

We know now beyond a doubt that Europe and Scandinavia were the last areas to be populated by human beings, and that the light skin of people in those regions is due to a need to lose melanin so as to improve skin absorption of Vitamin D in the short season when people could go around lightly clothed. So yes, the Chinese are mutants too, but I am quite a bit more so.

It has been quite a learning experience for me to be the odd one out in Asia.  I am the one people don’t understand, I am the odd-looking one.  I am the one making all the subtle cultural faux pas that would brand someone an outsider even if appearance didn’t scream it.

Throw that up against the other major realization I have had China so far.  All my life I have been fed the story of American superiority, and I find now that while we’re were enjoying a long, complacent nap, China not only caught up but has surpassed us in many ways.  Quite honestly, except for Broadway, there isn’t anything I can think of about New York that compares favorably to Hong Kong.  The subway is clean and spacious, with sliding doors at the platforms, like airport trams, to keep people safe. Public transportation is multifaceted and it all seems to work. The  buildings are modern and everything seems so much better maintained.

Yes,  you may say, but go out into the countryside, or into more impoverished cities, and you will see another reality.  To which I reply, are you talking about the United States or China? There are many American towns, neighborhoods, and cities that are on the same level as what we so dismissively call “third world.”

Shanghai is the largest container port in the world.  Think about what that means.  Astonishing amounts of goods are coming out of China, growing their economy daily.

I used to think it might be true that China was gradually winning a battle for supremacy with the US.  I don’t think that any more. I think they have already won.  That’s why it has been such a strange experience to be the blonde one.  I used to be from the group that was on top, the global winners, from the the coolest country on earth.  Now, that feeling is gone.  I guess Americans  are just going to have to learn to do a better job of sharing, starting with a healthy dose of humility.

I don’t think we have much practice at either sharing or humility. I think we’d rather just keep hearing about American Exceptionalism until every one of our corroded bridges has fallen and we all know someone who has died from medical neglect.  Exceptionally myopic about America and Americans, that’s what we are, and we have only begun to pay the price.

Don’t Worry—Be Travelly!

February 6th, 2019

No question about it—travel is stressful. Since several people I have traveled with have commented about how I never seem to  get freaked out by anything, I guess I might have some worthwhile thoughts to share.  

Corona Axiom 1: There is a difference between travel stress and travel anxiety.

The body doesn’t like long haul flights, even if you are lucky enough to upgrade to business or first class.  The body doesn’t like to deal with heavy luggage.  The mind doesn’t particularly like dealing with the unfamiliar, especially when jet lagged. There’s the aching head and muscles, the incomprehension of looking at money one has never seen before, of dealing with the facts on the ground rather than the way things looked on a map or in a guidebook, the realization that the person you really need to help you has no idea what you just said.  Some things about travel are just never going to be easy.

But travel anxiety is different. Worrying can be far more exhausting than any difficulty or discomfort we actually face.  And though anxiousness has some of its roots in basic personality, there’s a lot about travel worries we can manage and minimize.

I once came across a diagram showing how we perceive stress.  

Here on the horizontal axis we have perceived difficulty of the task,  ranging from “piece of cake” on the left to “no way in hell”on the right.  On the vertical axis the bell curve measures the stress we feel.  The interesting thing is that on the “no way” end (on the right here), we feel about the same lack of stress as we do for easy tasks.  To illustrate, if someone asked me to turn on the lights, I know I can do that, so no stress.  If someone asked me to do a triple back flip on the way to the light switch, I don’t feel stressed because I know I can’t do it.  When the answer is a sure thing, whether yes or no, the situation is simple.  

The point the author of the model was making is that stress builds as we wonder whether we can actually do what is being asked, with the most stressful point being the 50/50 chance situation—when you just don’t know if you can get through security before you miss your flight, or you just don’t know if something you need really is lost, stolen, or forgotten, or just hiding somewhere in the recesses of your travel bag.

There’s one more important element to this bell curve, and that is that the outcome has to matter.  If you can’t find your passport or glasses, or prescription meds, the stress obviously will be more than if you can’t find that furtive granola bar.   If all you want is a quick hop from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, or Philadelphia to New York, missing the plane probably will delay you an hour or two. Unless you have theatre tickets to Hamilton that night, or it is the holiday season and getting another flight might be hard, or you are rushing to get to a dying loved one, or you spent your last dime on a non-refundable and non-transferable ticket, there’s just not that much at stake. 

But that peak anxiety at the top of that bell curve—when we don’t know if we can actually do something and it really, really matters that we do—is something we can train ourselves to avoid, at least to a degree.  

Sometimes the answer is to dial down how important it is to have the situation be just the way you want.  There are other ways for things to work out. If you are lost, you can try to see it not as a disaster but an opportunity to do, see, learn something different. You aren’t lost, you’re just not where you thought you would be.    If it rains the one day you are in a new and exciting place,  don’t fret, just get wet.  You’ll get dry again.  Happens every time. 

The second is to improve the odds that what you want to happen actually will.  You can allow way more time than you think you need to get to the airport. You can buy travel insurance to make Plan B less financially stressful.  You can get every last detail in place the night before—all these ideas being so obvious they hardly need saying.  Making lists can help.  So can physically blocking the front door with things you can’t pack until just before you leave.  

In my case, for example, flights to Bhutan on the tour I arranged for April only go twice a week at 6am.  If I miss my flight, I am not going to Bhutan, because I don’t have enough time between cruises to wait for the next flight.  Therefore, the chances of feeling stressed about missing the plane are pretty high. So the night before, I am going to fork out the extra money to stay at the hotel right in the Singapore airport, set the alarm on every device I have, plus arrange  a hotel wake up call. I probably won’t need any of it because I won’t be able to sleep—I never sleep well when I have something important riding on the effective functioning of an alarm.  But so what if I don’t sleep?  I’m going to Bhutan!

When I have to catch a ship for an assignment, I assume things could go wrong—lost luggage, missed connections—so I go a day, or even sometimes two days early, depending on how dire the situation could become. I have seen people in airports devastated by a delay significant enough for them to miss their ship. I have seen people borrowing clothes on an Atlantic crossing because their luggage didn’t make it onto their plane, and there was no way to get their own clothes to them until a week later, when we hit the first port on the other side of the ocean—just in time for them  to fly home.  Both were probably avoidable. Neither of those disasters  has ever happened to me, and I am pretty sure I can keep that record going.

For me, the aching body and the jet lag are all the stress I  willingly accept as the price of travel, and my goal is to stay as clear of the anxieties as I possibly can, and laugh and count my blessings when I can’t,

I’ll discuss Corona Axiom 2 in a subsequent post, but I’ll give it to you here, since it builds on Axiom 1:

Axiom 2a:The mind is capable of magnifying small, solvable problems into huge, unsolvable ones.

Axiom 2b: The mind is also capable of diminishing huge problems into small, solvable ones.

The goal is to try to do more of B and less of A.  I’ll share thoughts on that another time.

 

Somewhere in the Gulf of Tonkin

February 3rd, 2019

About a year ago, when I was finalizing my cruise schedule for 2019, I got the speaker assignment on a cruise that would go to Vietnam during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year that coincides with the Chinese one.  

Anyone my age associates Tet with the Tet offensive, which the North Vietnamese army undertook in 1968 during the ceasefire for the holiday.  Places on the cruise itinerary like Hue and Da Nang were in the news every night, Hue because it was so close to the DMZ and suffered according, and DaNang because the biggest US and South Vietnamese air base was there.

As soon as the assignment was confirmed, I knew who I had to ask to join me: my best friend in college, Nancy Strathman Regan( photo above). We were ardent war protestors  back then, and it just seemed too amazing to be able—fifty years later!—to go to the place that, though half a world away,  was such a part of our lives. And now, here we are, on a ship crossing the Gulf of Tonkin ( remember that?) on our way to spend the next few days visiting Hue and the area around Da Nang.  

In Halong Bay yesterday we spent a couple of hours in the nearby town, and I realized that about 99% of the people we saw weren’t alive at the time.  It is such a young population, I am not sure many of their parents were either.

Still, the scars remain on the psyches of many Americans in my generation, who lost confidence in our leaders over their handling of the war, and through the critical lens of the time, formed strong views of social justice at home, which for some of us became lifelong commitments.

I remain an unabashed “liberal,” having never seen any reason to change my mind about values like inclusiveness, equity, and respect for the dignity of all people.  I thought, erroneously it turns out, that America changed for good as a result of the civil rights era, and now I am so deeply saddened by this horrendous backlash against it.  

A deliberate lie told to the American people about an attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin precipitated a power grab by Lyndon Johnson to expand the war.  Even  one lie can have such enormous consequences. Tell that to the dead, both American and Vietnamese, and their grieving families. Tell that to every sentient being and every landscape that became what is brushed off as collateral damage. 

The damage to me is small, limited to a life of American guilt. Don’t argue with me about whether I should feel that way—I do, and I think it is far better to bear it than to try to make it go away.  Others have paid far greater prices for that war, but no one escapes entirely when moral courage and human empathy are drowned out by expediency and use of power for selfish ends.

Presumably anyone who knows me, in person or through this blog, knows where my thoughts are going with this, but I don’t have the stomach to write about our current national  sickness, fed once again by lies and megalomania.  May the uprising begin, strong, robust and committed, because we know we can take down power. We have done it before.