After this experience, I may have to move to Japan.
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 usually enjoy a cup of coffee in the afternoon. But our office holiday party was held in the afternoon this week, at a local micro-brewery.
Coffee vanilla porter bridged the gap perfectly.
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.
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.
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.
As soon as Mr. Quoc started on my hair, I knew I was in the hands of a real barber.
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.
Chapter 1: Restrained.
Chapter 2: Liberated.
Chapter 3: Consequences.
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.
Economically, there just isn’t a lot happening in the countryside. Here’s the local store:
And in case you’re wondering, here’s a typical gas station bathroom:
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.
Houses are constructed of wood and brick. We saw several places in different stages of 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.
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.
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.