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If I get Shingles, there is no justice

There is a new Shingles vaccine, that is recommended for people who are over 50 years old (ahem).  The health unit at post HIGHLY recommended the shot to those of us who have reached that milestone.  So last Wednesday, we were all scheduled for the shot.

My first warning sign should have been when the nurse told me I had to wait in the office for 15 minutes after getting the shot.  Actually there was an earlier warning sign.  Getting the shot HURT.  I’m a wimp when it comes to needles, but I’ve developed some coping strategies.  Still, that stuff was really painful when it went in.  It’s been four days now, and my arm is still sore.

Some people get dizzy right after getting the shot, the nurse said, and some people faint.  That’s why we have to wait in the office after, so the nurse can monitor our condition.  I didn’t feel anything right away, so she let me go back to work.

About 30 minutes later, when I was back in the consular section, interviewing visa applicants, the dizziness hit me hard.  I couldn’t focus, and felt a little fuzzy mentally.  I felt that in that condition, deciding if a person could enter the United States would be counter to our nation’s national security interests, so I took myself off the line and sat down.  About an hour later, I was back to normal.

Later that night, the fever and ache kicked in.  It felt like I was coming down with the flu.  I went to bed as early as I could, hoping to sleep it off.  The next morning, I woke up with a splitting headache, stuffy nose, and aches.  I called in sick (I hate to do that) and rested up.

This was the worst side-effect of an immunization that I’ve ever experienced.  Unfortunately, that was only one of a series of two shots that are required for the vaccine to be effective.  So another round of this torture is waiting for me in two months.

I feel justified in making this demand of the universe: this vaccine had better work!  If after enduring this, I still get Shingles, I will be entitled to a refund for the pain and suffering.  I will demand that the universe refund those two days to me.

At the very least, I will be entitled to a popsicle.

So, this happened

And of course, because it’s me, this happened at the beginning of the work day, not at the end.  A quick trip to the men’s room with a stapler patched me up so I could get through the day.

Good thing I was wearing black underwear today, and not tighty-whities.

I’ve heard a lot about the great tailors in Vietnam.  Maybe this was the universe’s way of suggesting that I visit one of them.

Insert fart joke here.

 

peek-a-boo!

221 pages of pain

I finished reading my second book in Vietnamese today. It was, without a doubt, the hardest book I have ever read.  With the exception of classical Chinese, maybe. It took over four months to get through this skinny little book that only has only 221 pages.

Even the name of the book is confusing.

The book is a collection of essays, social criticism of modern Vietnam. The author has a PhD from a University in Austria, and is clearly very, very educated. He returned to Vietnam after living abroad for many years, and writes essays about his impressions of Vietnamese society.  My teacher says he publishes online.  Probably because the newspapers (they’re all state-owned here, and very un-free) would never publish his stuff.

All of these notes, and I still can barely understand what I’m reading.

As I was reading, I had to look up a lot of words that I didn’t know. It was not unusual for me to have to look up 20 or 30 different words on every page. It would take me about an hour to read one short essay.

We’ve been going over the essays in my one-on-one Vietnamese class. My teacher, who has the patience of a saint, explains the author’s prose, and the events that the author writes about. It’s a great way to learn, and I did learn a lot from the book, but it was also a very humbling experience. If you want to feel stupid, try reading something way above your reading level in a foreign language.

Cheeky Barista

When baristas at Starbucks ask me for my name so they can write it on my cup, I don’t like to give my real name. It’s a personal quirk. As a small token of rebellion against the system, I give a fake name.

Usually I’m “Phil,” for some reason. Today, though, I decided to be Ed, because I was in a hurry, and I figured that it would be pretty hard to mess up that name.

“My name is Ed,” I said as clearly as I could, thinking to myself, “that should be easy.”

Boy, did I not expect this. Did he think I had a cold?

2017 challenge: met. I win.

After my run today, I met my goal of 2,017 kilometers.  It was a tough year of running. Sometimes I could run outside, which is actually enjoyable.  I ran in Virginia, Michigan, and Vietnam.  Most of the time, though, I had to run inside.  Running for more than five miles or so on a treadmill is incredibly boring.  I don’t think I would have been able to keep going without something to distract me.  Thank you, Kindle Fire tablet, for providing some entertainment while I was running in place on a treadmill.  Action movies, especially zombie apocalypse shows, helped to keep me motivated.

The year was hard on my feet.  I lost many toenails to the dreaded “black toe” syndrome.  My knees held out pretty well, though.  I don’t think that the additional running burden caused any lasting damage to my body.  The challenge pace is not sustainable, so I will adjust my running back to a more sane regimen of 15-20 miles per week, instead of the 25+ miles per week that the 2017 challenge required.

Even though I won’t set an exercise challenge for 2018, I like the challenge idea.  I will think ofanother challenge for 2018.  What can you do 2018 of in 2018?

I finally found my barber shop

You might think that male pattern baldness would make going to the barber easy.  Less hair to cut should mean an easier haircut.  Apparently, it is, as long as you’re in America.  For some reason, while living in Asia, I’ve had trouble finding a barber who can give me a decent bald-man’s haircut.  Most of the places that I’ve been to have either trimmed around the edges, making me looking like Bozo the Clown, or have shaved me almost bald, which I don’t mind, but which my wife doesn’t like.

Not the look I was going for.

Again, I’m a bald man, and I don’t have very high expectations.  “Handsome” is something I’ve given up on a long time ago (I don’t even think about “sexy”).  Nowadays, my standard is: “not ridiculous.”  And yet Asian barbers can’t seem to get up to that level. Far too often, I’ve walked out of an Asian barbershop disappointed. It could be me, I don’t know.

Since the time of the smartphone, I’ve kept photos of a good haircut that I got in America. I show the pictures to barbers when I visit.  Again, American barbers see the pictures, and can give me exactly what I want.  But Asian barbers have difficulties.

In Vietnam, the first place that I went to gave me a so-so haircut, but it was really expensive – about US$15.  That isn’t a bad price by American standards, but it’s way more than I think I should be paying in the Vietnam economy.  And it wasn’t a great haircut, just so-so. When it was time for my next haircut, my wife took me to the place where she gets her hair done.  They did an acceptable job that time.  But the second time I went, it was Bozo the Clown again.

That’s why I was so happy with the place that I went to today.  Brothers Barbers is a real gem. It was a little hard to find.  We had to walk through a clothes shop to get to the staircase in the back alley. But when I saw the place, I knew it had promise.

This is what a barbershop should look like.

The shop is like a combination of man cave and barbershop.  While you’re waiting your turn, you can enjoy a single-malt whisky from their selection, or smoke a Cuban cigar on the balcony.

Would you like a whisky while you wait? Or maybe a coffee?

As soon as Mr. Quoc started on my hair, I knew I was in the hands of a real barber.

You want to go to this barbershop.

It was pricey, about US$17, the same price that I usually pay in America.  But I’m happy to pay it.  Mr. Quoc cut my hair exactly the way I wanted it (i.e., not ridiculous).  Plus his place is really classy.  And their website is cool, too.

Get your hair cut here. You will not regret it.

A week of constrasts

It feels like I’m doing more work out of the office during this tour.  Being able to do work in addition to visa interviews is rewarding.  I like talking to visa applicants, and I think I’m good at it.  But doing that all day, every day, for weeks on end, can become tiring.

For three days last week, I went on an investigation trip into the outer provinces.  This is a different kind of diplomatting.  We sometimes have to check the relationships between U.S. citizens who are married to Vietnamese citizens, and are applying for immigrant status for the spouses.  Most of these cases are legitimate, but there is a lot of fraud as well.  By visiting the homes of the applicants, and interviewing them there, we can determine whether the marriages are real or not.

We were a small team of three: me, a locally-engaged staff member, and a driver.  We drove a LOT over bad country roads.  We typically had to drive from one to two hours between appointments.  By the end of each day, my butt was sore from hitting all of the bumps in the road.  One of the managers told me that we really earn our hardship differential when we go out on these trips.  I agree.

The trip took us west, toward the Cambodian border.  That area is very rural, and is home to some of Vietnam’s 50-odd ethnic minorities.  Most people in this part of the country work in agriculture.

Farm workers

Economically, there just isn’t a lot happening in the countryside.  Here’s the local store:

A busy shopping center.

And in case you’re wondering, here’s a typical gas station bathroom:

Desperation makes one do things that one would not do under ordinary circumstances.

Not only is the countryside spread out and sparsely populated, but the roads are not well marked. Compared to well-organized urban areas, addresses in the provinces seem arbitrary.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.  One time, we asked directions from an old guy who was cooking outside his house.  He started to tell us how to get to the house we were looking for, then he stopped and thought for a moment.  He seemed to figure that it would be more efficient for his to show us himself.  So he walked away from his pot, but kept his spoon in his hand, as he led us down the street to the applicant’s house.

My Impressive Spoon of Direction will lead us to the correct destination.

 

Houses are constructed of wood and brick.  We saw several places in different stages of construction.

Very basic brick construction.

After seeing the low standard of living in the countryside, it isn’t hard to understand why some people would want to leave.  Some people move to the city for work, some people choose to emigrate.

Among the farms and poverty, though, we got to see some interesting regional culture.  A local religion called Cao Dai started in the 1920s in one of the provinces that we visited.  The religion combines characteristics of traditional Chinese religions like Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity.  I don’t pretend to understand much about the religion, but their temple is beautiful.  We were allowed inside for a brief visit before the evening service started at 6:00 pm.

Cao Dai temple at twilight

 

Inside the Cao Dai temple

On Friday, we finished our investigations, and returned to Ho Chi Minh City on Friday evening.  The next day was the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Many Embassies and Consulates have a detachment of Marine Security Guards.  Their official role is to provide security to the grounds and guard the classified information inside post.  Every year, the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday (November 10).  MSGs at posts abroad hold a ball to celebrate, and invite all the diplomats and their families.  It’s like prom for grownups.  People have a “day of beauty” to do their makeup and hair.  The Marine Ball is about the only opportunity that I have to wear my tuxedo.

We went to prom in order to learn how to do this.

I had the privilege of writing the speech for our guest of honor this year.  This was my second speechwriting experience for this tour.  Like most skills, speechwriting takes practice, and like most tasks in the Foreign Service, there are structures and rules.  I forgot some key elements in a standard State Department speech, like acknowledging the guest dignitaries (oops), but the speaker was experienced, and she filled in the parts that I left out.  The speech was well-received (whew!).

This was an interesting week.  My job took me out to the dust and poverty of remote provincial countryside, then back to a night of glitz and dancing in the city, all in a few short days.  This wasn’t a typical week.   My schedule for next week should be business as usual.  It will be nice to calm down and relax by doing some routine work.  Even so, the meaning of “routine” while living abroad is different from in the U.S.

I swear to God this is not a joke

I’ve received many WTF things in the mail before, but I usually have to open the envelope before I know that it’s WTF.

When they put the WTF right on the front of the envelope, I’m afraid to open it, for fear of what’s inside.

I am a YouTube Violator

So apparently my food videos are offensive to The Powers That Be at YouTube. I was just notified that my video violated YouTube’s delicate sensitivities.

This is part of the notification:

Your video “Ca Loc in Danang” was flagged for review. Upon review, we’ve determined that it violates our guidelines. We’ve removed it from YouTube and assigned a Community Guidelines strike, or temporary penalty, to your account.

I thought it might be a spearfishing attempt, so I went to my YouTube page. Sure enough, this snippet of text was waiting for me:

The video is question is an 11-second shot of my lunch: clay-pot fish. Sure, it’s “steamy,” but not in the pornographic sense:

Does this video offend you?

What “Community Guideline” does this video violate? Here are the categories, according to YouTube’s website:

Nudity or sexual content: Admittedly, the fish is not wearing any clothes. Maybe this is the one?

Harmful or dangerous content: Well, if you asked the fish, it would probably say that the video isn’t good for its health.

Hateful content: Some people don’t like fish, it’s true. Maybe this is the one?

Violent or graphic content: I’m sure that the fish was murdered. This could be the one!

Harassment and cyberbullying: Um…

Spam, misleading metadata, and scams: It’s fish, not spam. Pretty sure this one is out.

Threats: No one is saying anything bad will happen to you if you don’t eat the fish.

Copyright: It’s my video. I shot it, I own it.

Privacy: Again, the fish is nude. So, maybe…

Impersonation: The fish isn’t trying to push itself off as anything but a fish.

Child endangerment: You’ve got me: some kids don’t like fish. This definitely could be the one.

 

I assume that this is an AI fail. But it’s pretty funny to think that my food video was found to be inappropriate.

The Many Poses of Den

I was giving a student visa talk the other day, and my wife, who knows me all too well, was in charge of taking photos. She managed to capture much of my “special” body language. Clearly, I need to get some life coaching, or go to finishing school. Or just stop talking in front of people.

As usual, my humiliation is your entertainment. Enjoy.