By Clive Lindley-Jones | February 21, 2013 1:30 pm
Asian Travels January 2013
Normally these blogs have a distinct health and wellbeing theme. This month, because, as some of you may know, during January I was away in Asia working and playing, this is an un-ashamed travelogue month, when I share with you where and what I was up to. So if you could not get an appointment with me, now at least you will know what I was doing just when you wanted me on hand! The privilege of age is getting to do things you fancy. So here goes.
It all started a few years ago, on a cliff top in Cornwall. My friend Lee, suggested that he and I might enjoy exploring Vietnam together one day, being of that age that the very name Vietnam, takes us back to our stormy ’60’s youth. This suggestion was then consigned to the “one day” file and the years went by.
When I was a young man, hungry for direct experience rather than just book learning, after many years as a student, I had travelled extensively over Asia, ending up in Japan for a year, where, thanks to bit parts in films and teaching English, I was able to earn enough to take me onwards as well as touch something of the old and new life of Japan.
So, when the call went out to members of the International Board of Examiners, of the International College of Applied Kinesiology, for volunteers to go to South Korea as part of an examination team in January 2013, I wasted no time in putting my hat in the ring. Here was my chance to return to my old East Asian stomping ground, forty years on, and, maybe, even fit in the Vietnam trip in as well, and, with a bit of luck, get paid for my efforts too.
So the long months of planning rolled on and, before I knew it, the end of the year was approaching and I had arranged not only a week of examining in Seoul but a trip around Vietnam, (due to timing difficulties only crossing Lee, and his daughter’s path for a brief night in Hanoi), then back to lecture at the ICAK-Korea AGM and on to Osaka to meet up with one of my daughters, Hanna, who was going to be working the week before organising a conference in Bangkok. From Osaka we would continue via an old friend, Katsue, in Kyoto, and then on to Tokyo, my old home all those years ago ending with a weekend seminar for the AK community in Japan. A seven flight, three-country, five week intensive…goodie, just up my street!
January the 1st 2013 saw me flying the long flight to Seoul to join my two colleagues, Kathy from the USA and François from Quebec to start examining the eight impressive Korean Doctors for the advanced Diplomate exam. Nine hours time difference needs a little getting used to so on our first day Kathy and I, first to arrive, ventured out on a sightseeing jaunt into the -15C bright, clear, cold, sunny Seoul air to explore and enjoy the absorbing sights of the palace of Gyeongbokgung,
When I was last in Korea in March 1972, I notice, re-reading my diary of that journey from Japan to Korea, I referred to the country then as,
” sad, confused, half adapted, screwed up but open…” How things have changed! Then it was Japan, which was the shiny, new, East Asian tiger, pushing all before it. Now its light was dimmed by crazy bank debts of trillions of Yen, while the South Korean economy, as seen by Samsung’s, fourth quarter profits going up by 76%, is racing ahead and Seoul is transformed, utterly. Nothing of the old, low-rise city, is recognisable. Down in Gangnam all is style and high-rise neon-soaked modernity. Gone is the Seoul of yesteryear. Now it is a spectacular city of wealth and vibrant energy, as fiery as the food. Only the remains of an anarchic driving style remind you how recent has been the transformation from war-ravaged dictatorship to hyper-modern, affluent democracy. Let us hope despite the adoptions of some Japanese banking styles, they will not fall down the same enormous rabbit hole that the inflexible Japanese economy has been stuck in for so long now. But it is not as if we have the wisest bankers in the world either I remind myself.
When I was first in the city, Park Chung-hee was the dominant General-turned-President-strong man, using his power and secret police to control and enrich the country. Still revered by many for his long reign and drive to turn South Korea into a modern, industrial export-driven state, Park Chung-hee is also remembered for his brutal and growing illegitimate reign, a heritage that his daughter Park Geun-hye who was elected as South Korea’s 11th and first female President and took office in February 2013, has to live with as best she can. This transition from Japanese occupation, war torn destruction and post war instability to affluent modern democratic state is a remarkable one. And it was a pleasure to see the country, whatever its on-going difficulties and its tragic division into Stalinist, Gulag state in the north and successful democracy in the south, at least finding a better life for so many in the south.
If I ever wonder why I choose to travel around the world and put in such exhausting hours I am reminded of the great sense of affection and warmth that can grow up, so quickly, between those who share a passion for helping others through such medical ideas as applied kinesiology, osteopathy, chiropractic, NLP & functional medicine. We had not been in Seoul for more than a week before we felt a strong bond of shared passion and enthusiasm. So much so that, sometimes, during our translated practical exams, hearing chunks of technical, imported English, mixed in amongst the Korean, one could, in a fatigue-filled reverie, almost imagine one had mastered the complexity of Korean! Of course an illusion, and yet metaphorically we did ‘speak the same language‘ and, when this happens across the barriers of culture and language, a great affection is rapidly engendered. If this is strengthened, after all the hard work, with food, alcohol and even Karaoke (Hey Jude, is always a good one to end a long work spell with) then international friendships are made and cemented surely a good outcome. As I left our kind host and organiser the impressive Dr. Seung Lee, I was glad that I was coming back to share more with his stellar group.
The flight from Seoul to Hanoi is only a few hours across China, and yet it is a long journey culturally. From a country
once divided and which had suffered a murderous war that laid waste to it and killed millions, leaving it still bitterly divided to another which, with a different history, had suffered a similar meat-grinding fate, was a few decades behind in its journey to recovery and democracy, and yet which has managed, with much bloodshed, to finally throw off colonial oppression and, at unbelievable cost, has at least united its people, all be it under the increasingly corrupt waxworks of the Politburo in Hanoi.
I should say, at the outset, I liked Hanoi. Therei is of course, the sad Leninist mausoleum, where Ho’s mummified corps, is still used, against his wishes, as a prop to sustain the national myths and so bolster the questionable right of a single party to hold all power to itself but even accounting for the twitchy, self-important, military scene around the large ministries of state, I have to aknowledge that we have our own, after all. The more you study the tragic history of Vietnam the more you feel inclined to cut the regime some slack, in a way that would have been unthinkable in, say, unreformed Eastern Europe, let alone the city built on lies and concentration camps, Pyongyang in North Korea. Of course this is in not inconsiderate part because the use of, old style, communist lies & coercion is much tempered and the likeable, industrious people of Vietnam seem to be able to get on with their lives and generate wealth, largely unbothered by fear of the secret police, as long, as they don’t rock the boat or want political power. I suspect eventually in some decades time a new less corrupt more democratic system will prevail. And to have achieved what they have, you can see perhaps why they needed such a ruthless political system to take on and overcome the challenges they faced in Ho’s day. This is a country that will go far and I cannot help developing an abiding affection for. The people are generally warm, approachable, the misogyny of central and southern Asia is muted, somehow out of the ashes healing seems to be occurring and all with fewer scars than anyone dared hope for.
Many people have better things to concern themselves with, especially in their formative years, than international conflicts on the other side of the world. And then there are the International News Nerds, of which I must have been one. I was mesmerised with admiration for the photography, and horrified by the content, of Larry Burrows brilliant war reportage from Vietnam in Life magazine throughout my teen years. Graduating to a slow burn radicalisation brought about by the quagmire of the Vietnam war (or The American war, as it is known in Vietnam) in my student years and beyond in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Marching in London and San Francisco is almost a life time away, and yet Vietnam was at the centre of a whole caldron of key issues that came to the fore at that time and have persisted to change the world since those turbulent days.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson may have been a brilliant man, but he was an uninspiring leader to young people getting the vote for the first time. And yet, decades later I hold a soft spot for Wilson in one area at least, and that is his refusal to bow to pressure from Johnson to send troops to Vietnam. My generation were right in the bulge of troop numbers of the mid to late 60’s and so, now, visiting the country that might have been my early grave, held particular resonance.
The first thing that strikes you about the streets of Hanoi or Saigon, (HCMC) are the sheer numbers of motor scooters that flow like beeping liquid through every street in the city. The highway code is in its infancy, and yet, after the first shock has died away one soon adapts to the nerve-wracking task of crossing the road; stepping out slowly but firmly into the stream of belching bikes, watching them flow around one in an aqueous ballet, invariable one reaches the farther shore of the opposite pavement, somehow intact. The roaring and purpose has magically accommodated one within its big mind and one lives to explore another street. Although, of course, if you thought you were going to be safe walking down the pavement, think again, after all, where do you think those 3 million bikes are parked and where can one set up a banana fritter stall, play badminton or run a hairdressing business?
There is something wonderful to me about reading up on a country, its people, culture and history, and then travelling there, however briefly and trying to get a feel for its life and loves. It must be the wanabe anthropologist in me, that likes to dip my toe in like this, but equally I would not make a true anthropologist, who must be able and willing to immerse oneself in a culture, its food, customs and language for years, away from loved ones. I have had a minor taste of that when young and was not that good at it. But these little amateur adventures are fun.
I was able to spend several days on my own exploring Hanoi then go on and see many of the familiar well known sights of Vietnam, including Halong Bay, and travel on the Reunification Express, (perhaps that last word is a bit of a misnomer) down to the ancient capital of Hue, on the perfumed River and on via the Hai Van Pass, via Da Nang, to Hoi An and beyond to the deep south in Saigon and the watery world of the Mekong delta. There is still something rewarding about rocking along in an old train through the night, however grim the loos, waking as the train cranks along through unfamiliar rice paddies and deposits you in the heart of a new fascinating city, in this case, the old capital Hue.
Hue’s ancient citadel one time seat of the old Emperor and his vast retinue of mandarins, eunuchs and concubines, was much damaged during the famous Tet offensive of 1968. This attempt by the NLF and the North Vietnamese to trigger a mass uprising was a catastrophic failure in that no mass uprising was triggered and over 5000 local people in Hue alone, were murdered by the north simply because they were educated. More NLF (VC) troops were lost than the Americans lost in their whole involvement in Vietnam, during this offensive and yet, through its impact on public awareness in the USA, it became a turning point in the whole American war.
Gradually some of the old treasures of the heritage of Hue are being restored and again it is becoming something of the cultural centre in the way perhaps, Kyoto or Oxford are in their countries. Along the Perfumed river, is the famous Thien Mu Pagoda, at one time the training place of both Thich Quang Duc, famous for his anti-government protest in 1963 when sitting motionless in full lotus, he burnt himself to death as a protest against the president. Also from this Pagoda came the famous Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who has had to live in exile in, Plum village, France for over 40 years.
It is interesting to note that while Buddhism in its quiescent, simple family temple form, is tolerated by the communist government, they are far more twitchy about anyone teaching young people to actually practice Zen, as Thich Nhat Hanh has so profoundly done over many decades. He was allowed to return a few years ago, but only under close observation from the secret police. I was most happy, through a friend of a friend in Plum village, to spend an afternoon with a young English-speaking Vietnamese, I better not put her name, and hear how it was to aspire to practice what she called, ‘real Buddhism’ in a communist country. It must be a strange assignment for an undercover cop to have to go and meditate to ensure no disloyalty to the motherland is brewing in the youth of your country!
Travelling up over the Hai Van Pass a climatic watershed between north and south, takes one to Da Nang, and on to the attractive old trading port of Hoi An. There like many others before me I had a nice suit made to measure for me in not much more than a day, something I was glad of back lecturing in Seoul and Tokyo.
The further south we went the warmer it got. Today the tailoring business is almost out of control in Hoi An so many are there vying for your business. This is a city that hundreds of years ago was a major trading centre linking, China, Japan Vietnam and even as far away as India. Today unscathed by the destructions of the wars, it is an island of the old and small scale in a country that, especially the closer one gets to Saigon, is going the way of all, into the concrete box culture that is despoiling the world. But here in Hoi An some remnants of the old wooden buildings are still to be seen.
Saigon, always the wild, mercantile, south to Hanoi’s more political, poetic north, comes with a blast of hot air and motorbike fumes. Vibrant, bustling, still, for some of us old romantics, with the faint whiff of the ghosts of Graham Greene, murky CIA secrets and, for those of a certain age, there still lurk in the back of our memories those hard to forget, iconic images of the end of the American war. Tragic shots of helicopters on roofs, as below harassed Marines fought off growing throngs of desperate, fearful, abandoned Vietnamese, trying to escape, before, after Pol Pot not long before in Cambodia who knew what horrors might come with the arrival of the feared Northern Army.
But today there is a largely young population, all born long after those chaotic times. Inward investment along with Vietnamese energy and entrepreneurial zest, is making Saigon, if not loveable, certainly a vibrant, bustling city. The new boys on the block are selling obscenely expensive handbags from glitzy Gucci shops down town, below new high rise blocks with helipads half way up, on the fiftieth floor. These sit, slightly strangely, with the straight-laced old-style, puritanism of the communist propaganda posters in the parks.
Beyond the city lies the great Mekong Delta. Rice basket of Vietnam, capable of taking three crops a year, and making Vietnam, which could not feed its own people, now the number one rice exporter in the world.
Beyond the Chu Chi tunnels and Halong Bay marvels of man and nature, perhaps the greatest marvel in Vietnam is the resilience of its people. Enslaved by the French for almost a century, then decimated by the Americans plus their own civil war armies of right and left, then almost starved to death and ground down under Marxist-Leninist Thought, the country has come back from unimaginable suffering and destruction of it people, its soil and its gene pool (through the wide scale use of Dioxins by the Americans), and somehow now in 2013, here is a country of optimistic, friendly, often English, French, or German speaking outward looking people, who, even as they try and sell you something you may not want, have a twinkle in their eye and share the whole joke with you.
After the soft 30C warmth of my homestay in the Mekong, suddenly it is time to earn my living again and back in Seoul it has warmed up to a barmy -9C for a flying 36 hours, with my friends in Seoul for their AGM. This time there is only me to keep a hundred of these enthusiastic, intelligent and enormously over-qualified medics happy for a Sunday away from their families. Luckily the work ethic in Korea is fearsome and one can see why they have transformed their country in a few short decades.
No one seems to take holidays, and advanced degrees seem two a penny. But again whatever divides people, when you get into your area of passionate interest and others share the same interest, you reach across all sorts of limitations and a strong bond links you with affection. I was honoured and touched to join them and share some of the things I have learnt over the years. It is always amusing to find oneself, for however brief a moment, being asked to be photographed with so many people and this seems to be the form at the end of such events in Korea and Japan.
On to Japan: The last leg of my Journey.
From Seoul I moved on to Osaka to meet up with Hanna, my daughter. This was fun both to meet up on her birthday, and for me to return, with Hanna, to Japan after over 40 years. First we much enjoyed
meeting up with Katsue an old friend who used to baby- sit for us when she was living in Oxford decades ago when Hanna and her sisters were children. Katsue kindly took us around and spoiled us rotten as we enjoyed seeing something of Kyoto in our brief visit.
Kyoto, O Kyoto, what has happened to you? Sitting at the apex of Japanese culture, recognisedby the state department in 1945 as more than just another target city to be bombed, it was seen as a
treasure of the world and taken off the bombing target list. Surviving into the post-war world more or less intact, it was the city fathers who destroyed it and despoiled the old city with its intense charms, great temples and rich depository of ancient wooden buildings and cultural treasures. Today around the outer reaches of the city there are still many great temple complexes such as the outrageous bling of Ginkaku-ji and many other more subtle treasures such as the 16th century monochrome, Daisen-in abstract garden inside the great Rinzai temple complex of Daitoku-ji in north
west Kyoto. So much of the city has suffered the fate of brutal modernisation epitomised by the outsized Kyoto tower and Station complex, obscuring the views of some of the great nearby temples.
As Alex Kerr notes in his Book, Dogs & Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan;”
“The tearing down of the old city of Kyoto was by no means limited to the 1950’s and 1960’s, when every city in the world made similar mistakes. The city’s destruction really gathered speed in the 1990’s, by which time Japan was a mature economy, with a per-capita income exceeding that of the United States. According to the International Society to Save Kyoto more than forty thousand old wooden homes disappeared from the inner city of Kyoto in that decade alone”.
For me, it was a happy pilgrimage to visit Daitoku-ji temple where my own first Zen teacher, Irmgard Schloegl came to study Zen from 1960-72. Her path in negotiating that fearsomely tough monastery life, especially as a foreign woman may have been eased by studying with Ruth Fuller Sasaki, an American woman who was already accepted as a Zen priest and ran a training temple for foreigners- the First Zen Institute of America, within a corner of the great Daitoko-ji temple complex.
Despite the endless urban sprawl between Kyoto and Tokyo, Mt. Fuji was clearly visible for once, beyond the smokestacks and concrete boxes.
So much of not only Kyoto but also the little I saw of Japan, was hard to recognise. Returning to my old street in Tokyo was interesting. Once full of old wooden houses and a local bathhouse round
the corner for all of us who did not have such facilities at home, now it was, despite the still small plots of land along the tiny streets that had remained intact, new fancy houses were abundant, often with outsized cars trying to negotiate the miniature streets.
In some ways it was good to see that the neighbourhood had gone up in the world. But there was a certain unease to witness, in Tokyo, as in Kyoto, the wholesale transformation that had occurred, leaving almost nothing of the old recognisable.
Shibuya was its intense self still, and it was fun to stop by at the world’s most profitable Starbucks coffee shop overlooking the busy street crossings of Subuya, where once I had to endure the crowds each day to and from work at Tokyo English Centre. How happy I was when I could leave the frenetic bustle of Tokyo and swap that life for a summer in the mountains near Kyoto growing vegetables and doing yoga and trying to work out where my young life was going.
While Hanna explored greater Tokyo I was due to be giving a weekend seminar. Sadly the day before I went down with a fever. But, after six months in the planning, the show must go on, so somewhat feeble and feeling distinctly not on form, I managed to call on ‘Dr. Seminar’ to boost my adrenaline, stay upright for the weekend and deliver the seminar to a charming group of Japanese enthusiasts for this work.
They were, like their Korean colleagues, a pleasure to teach and get to know. I was only sorry that my health gave out at this crucial juncture so that, although I was able to do my stuff, I was not quite my usual effusive self! However it was with some gratitude and relief that, my job done, I was able to fly home the next day and get on with getting well.
It had been a great trip, new friends made, old familiar places revisited and updated to their current status in my mind and new cultures explored. What a great privilege to travel the world and share ones enthusiasms, teaching and learning. It doesn’t come much better than that!
Book of the Month:
by Anthony Grey published by Pan in 1982.
Of the dozen or so books I consumed, about the area, leading up to, and during, my East Asian travels in January, perhaps the one that stands out as having most impact is the now, rather forgotten, but brilliant historical novel Saigon by Anthony Grey, the one-time Reuters correspondent in Beijing, who became famous during the Cultural revolution when the Red Guards took him hostage in his flat in Beijing for two years.
Perhaps as a result of this long period alone, ~I do not know, some years after this he came out and wrote one or two, if not great works of literature, certainly engrossing and reasonably historically accurate, novels about both the Long March in China and the long battle for Vietnam.
Saigon follows the fortune of an American, Vietnamese, French and British family as their lives are intimately affected by and affect the turbulent years between 1925 when the French colonialists were still firmly in power in Indochina, up to those, above mentioned, days of collapse, when the Americans had to ignominiously leave Saigon by helicopter in the dying days of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975.
Admittedly the intertwining of these families fortunes over this fifty year period at times, stretch our credulity and yet the reader forgives any narrative licence taken with the plot because this does allows us to be at just about every key moment, from the last days of the Emperor in Hue, to the rise of Ho Chi Minh in the north in 1945, on to Dien Bien Phu in 1954 through the struggles of the American War and the denouement of the fall of Saigon in 1975. We gain a ringside seat with these characters and live and breathe the heroic and often bloody story of those crucial Vietnamese years of gaining their freedom, at least from outsiders. Today there is still some freedom to be gained from a one-party state, but that is another story.
It is clear that Grey put in a considerable amount of scholarship over a three year period in both Paris, Washington and London, when Vietnam was still closed off limits for such research, reading extensively in the archives consulting experts in the history of Vietnam in order to both paint such a vivid and exciting picture of the times, as well as maintaining the readers trust and confidence in his historical verisimilitude.
Over 750 pages the reader, as in any really good historical novel, both learns an immense amount about the country and period in question and, at the same time, gets drawn personally and emotionally into the account in a way that is more difficult in all but the best pure history.
If you have any interest in this area of the world and have time for only one book, this might be it. Even if you don’t it is a good read!