Air Bagan Crash on Christmas. Could have been worse.

It happened yesterday.  And it’s all over the news.  But just remember.  It. Could. Have. Been. Much. Worse.

The pilot, who happens to be the father of my childhood friend, seems weary with the thought that he has let his passengers, his staff and the company down, from his hospital bed at Rangoon General Hospital.  That he successfully performed an emergency landing and evacuated 97.3% of 71 people on the plane into safety within 90 seconds, albeit with one casualty on board and one on the ground, seems to me a remarkable feat but not enough for him.  He wanted to save ’em all of course.  And we haven’t even yet informed him of the one casualty on board.  On top of all that, he was maneuvering a 23-year-old hell of a machine (Fokker 100, if the plane type means anything at all to you) amidst early morning fog of Shan State during winter.

The domestic media outlets haven’t been too kind on the entire incident.  Understandably, Air Bagan’s management is not the most popular business around here and people are quick to point fingers.  At the end of the day, no one knows what is going to happen to my friend’s family.  Will his health allow him to continue this line of work?  Will he lose his job?

It’s rare to come by someone as professional as this man in Myanmar, and I don’t say this about anyone easily.  He’s a breadwinner in his family, a great father and a wonderful person in general … other than of course not allowing my friend to go salsa-dancing with me due to his conservative values. Oh well I guess I can forgive that at this point.

But here comes the real tofu of the matter.

What do you bring when you go see a patient at a hospital?  Ideally, some fresh flowers would be nice, which is a practice uncommon in Myanmar and it’s likely that someone will take offense (since you bring flowers to funeral services).  So I look at what others have brought to the hospital this evening: apples, apples and more apples!  The more creative types brought some imported fruit including dragon fruit and grapes that made it all the way from Florida.  Then, there were instant mixes: Milo, instant oat meal, and boxes of cookies.

You wouldn’t want to eat any of that, would you?  How do you know that the pesticides from the apples wouldn’t harm the already vulnerable patient?  (According to Environmental Working Group, apples topped 12 foods with most pesticides in a 2012 report.)  Are instant drinks as nutritious as advertised?  Or more importantly, do they even taste good?

When I have a baby and have to stay over at a hospital, here’s a list of things I would want you to bring.  Thank you in advance.

  • Full dairy Ice-cream.  Not frozen yogurt.  I don’t kid around with my source of calcium and protein.
  • Simple, home-made chicken soup.
  • Pork chops.
  • Brianna’s apple cake.
  • Sweet Potatoes from Heaven.
  • If the doctor will allow it, some sashimi, with ginger and wasabi.
  • Lomo saltado.
  • Frittada.
  • Quinoa salad with cucumbers and black beans, with a dash of paprika.
  • Elk sausages.
  • And of course, a fresh bouquet of flowers!

 

True nation-builders in Myanmar

Myingyan

Working at an international organization focusing on the poorest of the poor “bottom billion” farmers demands grappling with two different realities on a daily basis. And especially so for a fundraiser like myself. How can one individual be worth 6 billion dollars? And another has to borrow money for a meal?

But don’t pity the poor just because they may have to borrow money. Here, we don’t speak of the culture of poverty. We talk instead about the spirit of entrepreneurship. People here know how to do business. Despite the five decades of isolation and economic hardships, the farmers we work with remain resilient. This resiliency is nothing short of great inspiration.

Then, there are all these international visitors that swing by my office. Movers, shakers, and high net worth individuals under 40, with their titles, awards and impressive resumes. How does someone from a genteel family with an opportunity to attend an Ivy League deserve more credit and public recognition than a single mom small holder farmer that dares to raise two children with grace and generosity even in the most economically desolate place of the world?

Just some Mary Oliver-induced thoughts on a late Friday afternoon at work.

Song of the Builders.

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –

a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

– Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early (2004)

Hudson River

Water chores in Myanmar

No. 1.

Much like gas stations, here is a drive-thru water filling station for ox carts in Myingyan, which falls within the Dry Zone of Myanmar. A tank of water costs 250 Kyats (25 US cents) to refill. That is without the expenses for the cart and opportunity costs associated with one’s time and energy for traveling as far away as a mile or two to reach a filling station like this:

Myingyan Ox Cart1

Ox Cart 2

No. 2.

The drive-thru water stations are usually the last resort. Each village depends on one or two rainwater collection ponds like this one. The particular pond here was allegedly founded by King Anniruddha in the eleventh century. All around the pond, there are shops and restaurants where people take a rest from water chores and hang out. Hauling water is quite a chore – I have done it for merely a week as a simulation exercise in college and it was tough then! When I see pictures like the one below this text, I feel a heap of inexplicable, heavy feeling built up in my throat.

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No. 3.

People in the Dry Zone know the value of water. In fact, people in Myanmar live with an extremely small carbon footprint. There is just no other option. Along the main road in the village, one can spot homes with solar plates! Houses also use rainwater catchment like the one pictured here:

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No. 4.

Despite all this water trouble and general life hardships, my hosts in multiple homes along the way were gracious, generous and patient. My colleagues and I were fed all kinds of things during the travel. Since I was an observer on this trip, my colleagues did most of the talking, which meant that I had all the time in the world to gorge on deliciously prepared food – homemade palm jaggery included – served with a pot of hot jasmine tea.  Can’t complain.

At one house, I even had two things of fried kaw-pote sprinkled with sugar. Popularized by Shans, kaw-pote is made of sticky rice and can be turned into both a savory dish or a dessert. In fact, Myanmar people are very adept at turning savory dishes into desserts. One time in Kungyangon (about 50 miles west of Yangon), I was served scrambled duck eggs in sugar for dessert. Scrambled duck eggs for dessert? More please!

Kaw-pote-kyaw

Kaw-pote-kyaw

No. 5.

In Zagyan village near Myingyan, I also got to eat the Upper Burma style laphat. This ubiquitous tea leaf salad gets a different makeover here in the Dry Zone. The flavor of sesame sits boldly on the plate, which is not a surprise since this region is a top sesame grower globally.  The pickled tea leaf is mixed thoroughly with locally grown and toasted sesame, available in abundance in otherwise a scarce place. Freshly roasted peanuts accompany the tea leaf and you know where these peanuts come from – a massive pile of em sitting two feet away from the table!

God I love my job.

Tea leaf salad

Tea leaf salad

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Defense of The Marriage Plot

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Jack asked me one evening what book I was reading and what it was about. I happened to be reading the last book of Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffery Eugenides, The Marriage Plot, which came out a year ago.

The second part of the question, “What is this book about?” requires a longer answer. As I described the plot of the novel, I realized how unfair I was being. There is a lot more to the book than the plot, and there is a lot more to the plot than three main characters falling in love in a love triangle. I wouldn’t call this a romantic comedy, or even bother with ‘chick-lit,’ which is the impression Jack was in after I tried to sum up the 400 pages long novel in 2 sentences. That would not be fair to 9 long years of his work on this book.

Jack is not alone in his judgment (from my poor description). A quick browse on Good Reads will show two main types of reviews: very positive ones and equally negative ratings with people stopping 70 pages into the book, returning it to the library and calling it a poorly done rom com.

A character in the novel gets asked the same question as I did: What’s the book about? His response is this. “The idea of a book being “about” something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was “about” anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.” (If this sounds pretentious to you, what else would you expect from a Derrida-reading English major playing cool at Brown University in 1980s?)

Another character revisits this idea by saying in a class discussion that “Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books…how do you write about something…when all of the writing that’s been done on the subject has robbed you of any originality of expression?”

That’s when all the signals fly out at you. With heavy intertextuality, you could say this novel is a post modern take on classics that have centered around marriage. The novel quickly mentions since the beginning the senior thesis of the protagonist Madeleine, examining the marriage plot in Austin and James.

If you stop reading at the end of the first part, it’s a cute, fun campus love novel with an empty, light tease on deconstructionism, where a cerebral, tall, dark and handsome lad ends up with a beautiful, witty lady of wealthy background after an obligatory rough patch.

But that’s not where Eugenides chooses to end the novel. A seemingly generic love novel with WASP protagonists is a deliberate choice to refer back to the old literature as a point of distinction. The long pages he has devoted to semiotics is more than an embellishment to a shell of a love triangle. Deliberation seems to be the key. It’s Eugenides you’re talking about.

In particular, I would like to draw attention to the criticism made against this novel in the rendering of Madeleine’s character. Criticism comes something along the line of this: despite the frequent lip service paid to feminism, Madeleine’s dilemma comes down to two suitors and her character recedes the more constructed facades of the two males.

At the end of the novel, the two men have not really resolved anything. They have figured out what they do not want to become but without any other alternatives. Mitchell finds out he doesn’t want to go to a divinity school, Leonard disappears into the wilderness altogether. Madeleine on the other hand has found her literary voice and a career direction: that she’s in fact a Victorian. Then there’s also this implication that deconstructionism is a mere phase – intriguing but a fad nonetheless.

More importantly, what is so un-feminist of Madeleine just because her character’s identity is closely juxtaposed against the identities of the two male lovers? Isn’t ‘Who should you love?’ an equally compelling factor in one’s coming of age as ‘What kind of life do you want to lead’? Instead of viewing women’s marital decisions through the lens of hypergamy, why can’t we see the choice of a woman’s life partner as a fundamental self-examination and reflection of her values, morals and aspirations?

So you will probably be very disappointed with Eugenides if you have read his previous work (I haven’t), already know he is brilliant and see nothing but a generic, formulaic love story line because you’re reading it as a generic, formulaic love story line. But he seems to be saying so much more. How much you enjoy this book will largely depend on how seriously you take the author’s deliberation in crafting the novel the way he has now.

Baking in Burma – Brianna’s Apple Cake

Brianna is one of my favorite persons in the world and Brianna’s cake is hands down one of my favorite cakes in this universe.

I call this Brianna’s cake but the recipe of this cake is a family secret of a woman named Sally.  She donated this cake recipe to a church cookbook in Dexter, New Mexico and Brianna in turn gifted the recipe book to me at the end of my stay in the United States.  Thus, all the recipes in this book are Brianna’s to me from now on.

Baking in Myanmar is not very easy.  For starters, less than 0.1% of the country’s population own a real oven, according to renowned Statistics-Made-Up-By-This-Blog.  When you are one of the lucky few to own an oven, or if you are like myself and have befriended those with an oven, the only other thing to worry about is to find the necessary ingredients – again, not so easy either.  Therefore in the end, the secret to baking in Myanmar comes down to one’s fortitude to tweak the original recipe and ruthlessly substitute unavailable key ingredients.

But we were in luck on one Sunday afternoon at brunch.  That means I was able to procure an impressive 80% of the necessary ingredients.  We made chilled mimosas, quinoa salad and a dozen prawns that we brought back in ice-coolers from a beach last weekend.  And then, there was Brianna’s apple cake that we all savored with freshly pressed coffee and of course with some gossip from the open mic the night before.

Another Sunday well spent.

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Brunch 2

Brunch 3

Brunch 4

Brunch 5

Brunch 6

Brunch 7

Sally/Brianna’s Cake – tweaked version:

Cake: Mix 1 cup oil, 2 cups sugar, 2 eggs, 3 cups flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 1.5 tsp salt, 2 tsp cinnamon, 3 tsp vanilla extract, and 3 cups chopped apples. Butter a bundt pan or any pan you can find in a typical Burmese kitchen. Bake at 300 degrees for an hour and fifteen minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Let set for 10 minutes.

Frosting: Melt 1/2 cup butter and 1 cup brown sugar. Add 1/4 cup cream, any kind will do. Bring to a full boil and pour over the warm cake.