Good morning, Vietnam

It is well past noon when we hurry down a dusty alley in Danang, Vietnam. On one side of the alley, bored women, sequestered behind their piles of brown dried meats and mounds of maroon meat floss, fan themselves in the afternoon heat.

banh xeo, Danang

Where the alley turns right into another row of bored dried-meat vendors, sits a bánh xèo institution. There is a ravenous silence around the sterile stainless steel tables as we stuff rice paper with fresh herbs and leaves and cool raw cucumbers and a tumeric-laced “crepe”, itself already bursting with tasty bean sprouts and shrimp and pork, and dip the whole fat roll into bowls of tangy satay-style sauce.

Little time for chit-chat. Much has already been said about external persecution – beatings and destruction of property and threats, and about internal strife – denominational division and sheep-stealing. Now we need to ride on to Hoi An to meet another group of brothers and sisters.

Hoi An will be our third stop. We are somewhat exhausted from bumpy roads and hard beds, but encouraged by God’s work.

Hoi An lanterns

That evening, after dinner, I speak about the importance of trusting God’s word in the Bible,  of the Bible being both a divine word and a human word, and as a human word – capable of being understood by the normal means of comprehension and consideration of context. Context to be considered: literary context, book context, historical context, and whole Bible context. I see furrowed brows during the hour-long session and pray that God would use this poor dry attempt to somehow help his people.


God deigns to use his weak vessels. Over little piles of hến trộn the next day, brothers talk about how struck they are that God’s word is primarily about God and what he is doing in the world, and about changing our fallen view of the world – not about going off to do something; and sisters say how mortified they are that they’ve been doing character studies on the life of Joseph.

Oh, that they will see the stupendous banquet that awaits them as they dig properly and heartily into the Scriptures. How much firmer they will be able to stand, knowing that the unspeakable sovereignty of our Father and the eternal salvation wrought by his Son, and the glorious hope of the new creation.

And this we pray too, for ourselves.

Good Food and Street Art Wall Murals in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. And Goodbye.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia) -> Georgetown, Penang (Malaysia)

After several years away from south-east asia, my tastebuds were eager to be overwhelmed by the manifold spices of Malaysian/SIngaporean (please fight about authenticity and origination elsewhere) cuisine. A quick stopover in Penang would put that right, I hoped, before an overnight coach down to Singapore.

in the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
view from the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, PenangFoot passengers and vehicles occupied the same space on the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown on the island of Penang.

The UNESCO World Heritage site had retained many of its pre-war shophouses (the original SOHO):
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

There were old-timey signs, and fake old-timey signs (simulacra ftw!):
Gold Cup Mahjong, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Kedai Biskut & Kek Ming Xiang Tai. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

There were the commissioned Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculptures – a collection of caricatures installed on several streets by Sculpture at Work:
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Marking George Town Steel Rod Sculpture. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

And then there is the recent street art or wall murals (or graffiti), both commissioned and, err, spontaneous:
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
faded wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaWould these wall murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic be less authentic as an art form because (i) they were commissioned for the 2012 George Town Festival, (ii) he’s not Malaysian, (iii) they have become objects of tourist adoration – marketed not only on official tourist literature but also reproduced on keychains, notebooks, pens, and other kitschy souvenirs?

Penang street artists sure like cats:
cat, wall  mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
cat wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaGeorgetown, Penang, Malaysiaor not:
Bruce Lee kicking cats, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaAnd when is it art and when just eyesore?
dog eating steak, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaGeorgetown, Penang, Malaysia
man on boat wall mural, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
I want to believe + altar, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
pink elephant, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
gangsta penguins, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
grafitti, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

man cleaning altar street art, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ballet girl street art, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaI remembered reading with amusement how some Londoners wrote asking Banksy to go do his art somewhere else, because the graffiti had been embraced by so many Gen Xers that it was no longer counter-cultural, and in fact was causing gentrification of areas and an increase in living costs for original residents.

kelong, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kelong. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kelong. Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaHis fellow graffiti artists, meanwhile, accused him of selling out for making money from his art. Why should it be less authentic to get money from art? Or why should his message be less real if more people embrace it so much they would pay for it? “Just take the f*cking donut!” says Amanda Palmer in The Art of Asking.

Joo Hooi Cafe (more of a coffeeshop really) at the junction of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee managed to retain both its old booth seats and an elderly grumpy drinks aunty. Later, she forgot to be grumpy in her amazement at the amount of food I was putting away. Everything I had was good and full-flavoured, with the right mix of ingredients, cooked at just the right temperature for the right time – something that many of the mainland Chinese employees of Singaporean hawkers could not replicate:

Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
rojak, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
assam laksa, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
teh o ais limau, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
char kway teow, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysiarojak, assam laksa, char kway teow (with duck egg)

Outside the coffeshop, two rival carts of chendol vendors faced each other on the narrow Lebuh Keng Kwee. The popular (and some say original) one is the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol (as opposed to the Penang Road Famous Chendol). It’s RM0.50 if you want to eat its icy treats in Joo Hooi, or there’s seating further down the road in a coffeeshop space rented by the chendol vendor:
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ais cendol, from Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

ice kachang, Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol, Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaSpent a really comfy night at the newly-opened Muntri Grove – the first and last hotel of the trip. I was sold by the much lower rate per night offered by the nice manager.

Late the next day, strolled over to Toh Soon Cafe, where there was a crowd waiting for seats:
Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
charcoal grilled bread and charcoal heated water, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
iced milk coffee, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
packs of toast, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, tea and coffee, Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Shared a table with two interior designers who’d come to Georgetown to see a client. Minimalist designs and the vintage theme, they said, were their most common briefs. The wait for the grilled toast wore on. Hungry, one of the girls went to the coffeeshop at the other end of the little alley and returned with a bowl of wanton noodles to share. The texture of the noodles was “very QQ”:
wanton noodles, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Food was so ubiquitous in Georgetown that every street had some cart or stall to pique culinary curiousity:

you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
you tiao, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysiaa couple of ladies making and frying you tiao (dough fritters) – like all fried food, best eaten very hot!

Whilst taking a shortcut, saw someone standing outside a faded signboard that read “Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay” (facebook). Went to investigate and found an Aladdin’s cave of kueh delights!

Moh Teng Pheoh Nyonya Koay, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
framing, Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay. Georgetown, Penang, MalaysiaThen, just before the Grassland coach to Singapore overnight, grabbed dinner at Lebuh Presgrave. The last of this whole London to Singapore trip:
Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
prawn noodles, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
ice kachang, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Goodbye, freedom of the road. Farewell, the materially-simple backpacker’s life. Tomorrow, re-entry into society, with all the roles, responsibilities, and joys that that will bring.

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

(For reasons known only to my subconscious, everytime I attempt to speak a foreign language, what comes out is French before that segues somewhat into the intended vernacular. And it’s not like I actually know that much French. Useless brain. So after speaking French to several confused Penangites, I switched to Malaysian-inflected English. As my Singaporean-Malay teacher used to say, if you cannot make it, fake it lah.)

*the last part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Cultural Authenticity. Bangkok, Thailand.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia)

The Nattakan Transportation Company bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok wasn’t a pleasant experience for many fellow passengers, mostly due to a very demanding group of Americans who spent the time complaining dumb these people were and then shouting the same question repeatedly, not because they didn’t understand the driver’s reply, but because he wasn’t giving them the answer they wanted.

Border between Cambodia and ThailandLater at immigration at the Cambodia-Thai border, one of them deliberately, with the urging of another of the party, cut a queue some of us had been waiting in for a long hot sweaty while, then pretended she didn’t understand the queuing system, and bitched loudly how unreasonable people could be. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they took their aggressive self-righteousness with them on a mini-bus they’d badgered the company for.
mini-bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok, ThailandI felt very sorry for a French couple with two young children who were waiting patiently and quietly for things to come together.

On the next bus after the border, we had two very lovely Spanish guys and one German who chatted about how long they’d been on the road, and a couple from Shanghai who explained alot about modern Chinese culture in the big city – how money was not scarce but prestige was, and so Louis Vuitton and Hermes were now too common for the arms of the truly rich and more exclusive brands were sought. We parted, very sadly, when we arrived at Khaosan in Bangkok.

Many complain about how touristy Bangkok has become, how polluted with backpackers, so that it is no longer an authentic Thai city, but merely one set up for tourists.

Who cares? I’d say, somewhat deprived traveller that I am, come, let’s check out all that cheap plentiful delicious street food!

My first stop after a whole day of travelling without a bite to eat (on account of having no more US$ or Thai baht) was Sukhumvit Soi 38:
street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
pad thai, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
pad thai, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
satay, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
satay, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
mango sticky rice, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
mango sticky rice, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand

Because I’d known Bangkok quite well in the past, I was happy to stay a while longer to get re-acquainted and to hoover up the culinary delights of the City That Never Sleeps.

On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
sugar on toast, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
soft-boiled egg in a coffee cup, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailandglass of iced Thai coffee, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailandtraditional breakfast of sugar on toast, steamed soft white bread with kaya, soft-boiled eggs, and a mug of iced Thai coffee at ออน ล๊อก หยุ่น On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Road;

toast and grilled bananas, street food, Bangkok, Thailandon a random street, a charcoal grill topped with toast and bananas;

Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
ข้าวเหนียวดำสังขยา khao neow dam sang kaya (black sticky rice with egg custard / kaya and coconut milk) wrapped in a banana leaf, at the Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailandข้าวเหนียวดำสังขยา khao neow dam sang kaya (black sticky rice with egg custard / kaya and coconut milk) wrapped in a banana leaf, at the Silom Soi 20 market;

roast chicken, white chicken, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
vats of curry, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
bananas, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
strawberries, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailandand a range of other cooked food, and fruits at the Silom Soi 20 market – the cooked food might be consumed for breakfast, or kept for lunch.

For lunch:
Bangkok, Thailand
Green Chilli restaurant, Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, ThailandGreen Chilli, Section 2, Soi 38, No. 126 in Chatuchak Market, was run by Ann, an ex-Thai Airways public relations officer. No-MSG in the food, she assured me, a choice of organic brown rice, and all the raw fresh vegetables I could eat.

Afternoon snacks just anywhere along a street in Bangkok:
street snack, Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailandcrispy shredded coconut rolls

Khanom Buang, Soi Convent, Bangkok, Thailandkhanom buang (crispy Thai crepes with shredded coconut and gooey meringue) on Soi Convent.

And as is necessary when navigating the crowds and the narrow indoor sois at Chatuchak Wholesale Market, something very cold:
Hale's Blue Boy, Bangkok, Thailand
Hale's Blue Boy syrup with basil seeds, Bangkok, ThailandHale’s Blue Boy with “frog eggs” (sadly, actually just seeds of the ocimum basilicum or sweet basil),

famous chatuchak coconut ice-cream. Bangkok, Thailandthe original famous Chatuchak Market coconut ice-cream, and

coconut ice-cream with free "toppings", Bangkok, Thailandone of the many stalls that has jumped on the coconut ice-cream bandwagon, this one distinguishing itself by inviting customers to help themselves to the “toppings”.

iced teh tarik man, Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, ThailandA twirling iced teh tarik man at Chatuchak Market who drew a large crowd with his tea-mixing dance.

And for dinner, perhaps something from Talad Rot Fai?
salt baked fish, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailand
horseshoe crabs, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailandsalt-baked fish and, yeeeuurrr, horseshoe crabs which I refused to even contemplate since we already drain them of blue blood.

people eating on a street, Bangkok, ThailandIn the chapter of his book, The Authenticity Hoax: Culture is for Tourists, Andrew Potter, who is more serious about such matters, argues that in effect even if the Thais had retained their ethnic dresses and never built anything more than a hut, they would still fail to be authentic.

Hello Kitty shop, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailand
Beer House, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, ThailandThere has been the idea, throughout human history, on possibly all continents, that a particular society should be internally homogeneous in traditional art forms, festivals, language etc. Yet, history has shown that all living societies continually change as they interact with other societies in trade, marriage, warfare.

Ronald McDonald says sawadeekup, Bangkok, ThailandSo when one seeks, artificially, to preserve these things, they become inauthentic since the real society has moved on. And even if it had not, the fact that tourists had travelled just to see these things, and the fact that the audience isn’t indigenous means that the act or event is divorced from its historical and cultural significance and has in fact turned into ” museum piece” to be gawked at.

Thai King's birthday light-up. Bangkok, Thailand
yellow "Long Live The King" t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand
tak bat, morning alms, monk blessing, Bangkok, Thailand
tak bat, morning alms, monk blessing, Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand
please offer the seat to those in need, Bangkok, Thailand
monks on the river boat, Bangkok, ThailandBut what Potter is more concerned with is the effect on globalisation on the ethos or worldview of a society. “For all the benefits that the outside world can bring, it is possible for a society to be overrun by external influences, diluting and undermining the culture to the point where little remains of the original ethos. The possible destruction of a unique and probably irreplaceable worldview is one of the real and tragic consequences of globalisation. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that the forces that lead to the destruction are both thoroughly legitimate and almost impossible to control or impede in a free and open society. Individuals have the desire and the right to improve their lives through trade, to adopt new technologies, to explore other ways of seeing the world. This process by which individuals acting in their own interest collectively ensure the demise of their own ethos is the great tragedy of the cultural commons.” [Comment: objectively, why would this be tragic?]

This has led in the last hundred years to liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant popularising the idea of cosmopolitanism. “The cosmopolitan rejects both particularism and localism, seeing instead his or her loyalties and obligations as extending to the entire human race. But this is not with the aim of homogenising all mankind, rather, they thought that variety was valuable. “For [John Stuart Mill], “diversity matters…his argument was straightforward: just as different plants and animals flourish in different physical environments, different people flourish in different moral and cultural environments. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, and unless “there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.””

Buddhist statues for sale, Bangkok, Thailand
statues of Buddhas, Bangkok, Thailand
begging bowls and monk effigies, Bangkok, ThailandHowever, communitarians have been pushing back at what they see to be liberal self-centred-ness and narcissism. The Kantian liberal’s goal is the maximisation of individual freedom; the Mill-ian liberal’s aim is the maximisation of individual happiness or welfare. Paramount importance is placed on satisfying individual needs. “[But] it’s not all about you”, the communitarian says, “there are common goods that transcend our individual wants, that command our allegiance, and might require our sacrifice.”

Potter suggests that liberals and communitarians have been talking at cross purposes: “The cosmopolitans are talking about the importance of certain liberal principles, while the communitarians are concerned about the effects of that liberalism on values. The principles/values distinction is one that we don’t usually make in our everyday language, and it is not uncommon for the terms to be treated as virtual synonyms…”

“When we talk about principles, we are referring to the general rules that govern our sense of right, such as the constitutional statements of due process, equality, and the freedoms of religion, speech, and association that support a liberal society. Values, on the other hand, refer to our sense of what is good to do or believe. Values are what give our lives meaning or purpose.” So the two are not mutually exclusive. In the Charlie Hebdo shooting incident, for instance, the liberal principle of the freedom of speech would agree that you could express your thoughts should you choose to do so, and communitarian values would determine the manner and method by which your thoughts would be expressed.

But what of communitarian values in a diverse community? Voltaire thought that religious diversity was the foundation of public order rather than a threat, saying,”If there were only one religion in England, there would be the danger of despotism, if there were only two they would cut each other’s throat; but there are thirty, and they live in peace.” He was referring, however, to 30 version of Protestantism.

Where there is true multiculturalism, Robert Putnam has found that large-scale immigration and increased diversity within a society has made people “act like turtles” and become “less open and more distrustful of one another”. But the solution to this is not less diversity, rather Putnam argues that a society’s long-term project would therefore have to be the deliberate construction of a broader and more inclusive civic identity.

[Comment: this is something the pioneers in Singapore have sought to do for its ethnically and religiously diverse population. The racial riots of only a few decades ago is still fresh in the minds of the older generation, but it is tragic that many of the younger generation have scoffed at this as mere PAP propaganda, as they sneer at anything any of arm of the government says, regardless of content. A recent issue has been a petition for Thaipusam (a Hindu festival) to be made a public holiday in Singapore. Not everyone who supported it was Hindu, some were just on the extra holiday bandwagon. This well-worded reply came from SIngapore’s Ministry of Manpower:

We appreciate the perspectives shared by many Singaporeans on whether Thaipusam should be reinstated as a public holiday.

As many have noted, Thaipusam was a public holiday until 1968. The prospect of the British withdrawal and the need to compete for a living in world markets necessitated many changes in the country. The government decided to reduce the total number of public holidays, amongst other things.

The decision on which public holidays to give up in 1968 was reached only after careful consultation and discussions with various religious groups. The Muslims chose to give up Prophet Muhamed’s Birthday as well as an extra day for Hari Raya Puasa. The Christians, who had to give up two days as well, chose to give up the Saturday after Good Friday and Easter Monday. The Hindus had to choose between retaining Thaipusam or Deepavali as a public holiday, and chose the latter.

These were difficult decisions for the leaders of each faith, with something of value being given up by each group in the larger interest. The Buddhists, who comprised the largest faith and had only one public holiday to begin with, Vesak Day, were not asked to offer any cuts. Some groups continued to celebrate religious events of significance to them, such as Vesakhi for the Sikhs and Lao-Tzu’s Birthday for the Taoists, without these being public holidays.

The resulting 11 public holidays that we now enjoy is neither high nor low when compared to other countries. It is the same number enjoyed by New Zealanders, Canadians and the French, among others. Our closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, enjoy a few more days than we do, but we have a few more than developed countries like the United Kingdom and Germany.

But beyond numbers and economics, our calendar of public holidays is a reflection of our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. There is much value and meaning attached to each of our ethnic and religious festivals, including Thaipusam, both among that particular group and Singaporeans generally.

But any move to reinstate any one festival as a public holiday will immediately invite competing claims, and necessitate considerable renegotiation with all communities. Balancing the wishes of each community will not be a simple matter. Neither can we simply re-allocate public holidays by ethnic group, as amongst both Chinese and Indians we have citizens of a few different faiths.

While we will always ensure that all Singaporeans can practise their faiths freely, it is impractical to make all important festivals of all faiths public holidays. But it must always be possible for Singaporeans of all faiths to make arrangements to observe their respective religious festivals. We encourage all employers to show understanding and flexibility in this regard.

We have learnt to live harmoniously with each other with this balanced approach, where everyone makes some compromises for the greater good. It has served us well for the better part of five decades and remains the best way for Singapore.

Alvin Lim
Divisional Director, Workplace Policy & Strategy Division
Ministry of Manpower

To which at least one Singaporean on Facebook commented, without reason: “absolute crap!” and another, illogically in light of the explanation given, complained of unfair treatment of Hindus because they were not the main religion in Singapore.]

Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, ThailandPotter suggests, however, that the reason for this is less “racism, classism, prejudice, or any xenophobic refusal to associate with the “other””. Instead, the ethnocultural society starts with few shared norms. In cities, the absence of a small, close-knit society where there might have been regular interaction that facilitates enforcement of existing social norms, the breakdown of the economy of trust is accelerated. (It is this community of trust that yuppies yearn for when they move to the suburbs, at least in an American/Canadian context.)

So while seekers of authenticity wish to preserve Havana or Bhutan romantically in yesteryear, Potter argues that this narrow and selfish desire misses “any sense of what is gained in the way of political freedoms, increased material wealth, and greater intellectual and creative opportunities…it ignores the way that cosmopolitanism represents not only a material advance, but also a form of moral progress.”

Societies do not exist to be “compatible with someone’s preferred account of what constitutes an authentic culture…”

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Conspicuous Authenticity, but not in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamLondon -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

What was refreshing about Ho Chi Minh City (aka. Saigon) was the continued lack of conspicuous authenticity. Being a city just getting a dip into the conspicuous consumption pool, it was still way behind the next wave of status competition: conspicuous authenticity.

park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
songbirds in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
crickets as food for songbirds, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
mealworms for songbirds, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
exercising in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
dance practice? Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
broom and basket, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
more dance practice, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
exercise equipment in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamIn contemporary advertising in other cities, a fundamental marketing technique is to appeal to the authenticity of the product.

Andrew Potter, in The Authenticity Hoax: Conspicuous Authenticity,suggests that it is Denis Diderot’s portrayal of the titular nephew in Rameau’s Nephew that transformed authenticity from a quest for individual freedom and self-fulfilment into a marketing strategy. His awareness that his sponging off various rich people was “the beggar’s pantomime”, said G.W.F. Hegel, made him “the avatar of a new individual consciousness” that “looks upon the authoritative power of the state as a chain…obeys only with secret malice and stands ever ready to burst out in rebellion.”

Now however, such awareness is so familiar and ubiquitous that there is no one who does not consider himself to be as Rameau’s nephew, an anti-hero of authenticity. Inauthenticity is a cuss word we use on other people – office drones, government lackeys, yuppies etc.

Perhaps, Joshua Glenn argues in Fake Authenticity, the nephew’s “cultivated alienation and easy nonconformity”, far from making him an anti-hero of authenticity, makes him the archetypical hero of fake authenticity, “the face of hip capitalism, and an architect of consumer dissatisfaction and of perpetual obsolescence”. If one defines authenticity as “a struggle against received truths, inherited contingencies, any ideology (in the Frankfurt School sense of the word) which impedes the possibility of freeing oneself — and others — from all forms of oppression”, then authenticity itself has become an ideology.

Elsewhere, simulacra is what Jean Baudrillard famously calls things that aren’t copies of the real but constructed to resemble expectations of what that the real is to look like, and therefore becoming real in themselves while bearing no connection with the thing it is meant to resemble in reality.

And there is much demand for such simulacra.

tea and sweets, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
flowers, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
alleyway of pedicure and manicure shops, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
paintbrushes for sale on a street, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam“Over the course of the twentieth century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each market by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of Veblen’s time to the bourgeouis conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the twentieth century, a pattern of status competition commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses”. The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivate non-conformity that is variously known as “cool”. “hip”, or “alternative”. This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the 1960s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life, we saw the emergence of what we call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image – underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes”. [Comment: oops, i guess that’s all tired and old mainstream now.]

“Norman Mailer set the agenda in the 1950s when he wrote that society was divided into two types of people: the hip (“rebels”) and the square (“conformists”). Cool (or hip, alternative, edgy) here becomes the universal stance of individualism, with the hipster as the resolute non-conformist refusing to bend before the homogenizing forces of mass society. In other words, the notion of cool only ever made sense as a foil to something else, that is, a culture dominated by mass media such as national television stations, wide-circulation magazines and newspapers, and commercial record labels. The hipster makes a political statement by rejecting mass society and its conformist agenda.”

“Cool fizzled out when it was exposed as just another consumerist status hierarchy, and when it passed so deeply and so self-consciously into the mainstream that it became simply embarrassing.” [Comment: hence the very popular threadless T-shirt “I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet“]

“But status, like power, abhors a vacuum…The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. what matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life that is focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility.”

“Do you subscribe to an organic-vegetable delivery service? Do you believe that life is too short to drink anything but wine straight from the terroir? Do you fill your house with heirlooms, antiques, or objets d’art that can’t be bought anywhere or at any price? For your next vacation, are you going to skip the commercialised parts of Europe or Asia and just rent yourself a cabin in British Columbia or a farmhouse in Portugal, away from all the tourists and the people trying to sell you stuff? Welcome to the competitive and highly lucrative world of conspicuous authenticity.”

“Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by turning the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide me with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet.”

Andrew Potter then uses organic produce as case study. About 15 years ago, organic food was exclusively consumed by certain enlightened people. It was essential to authentic living and, to quote Mark Bittman, “the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, even ethically”. When organic produce became so popular that produce was easily obtained in huge stores like Whole Foods and Walmart, the standard of authenticity shifted: locavores started to extol the benefits of locally grown food as tastier, fresher, more environmentally-friendly (all of which are subject to debate). The 100-mile diet, says Potter, is an illustration of this one-upmanship, “the trend of turning environmental authenticity-seeking into a competitive anti-consumption publicity stunt”.

Authenticity is a “positional good that derives its value from the force of invidious comparison. You can only be a truly authentic person as long as most of the people around you are not.”

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
cooked snails, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamIn other news, please note how eating local food with the locals makes my travels oh so very much more authentic (tone: dripping sarcasm):
Bún mắm stall, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Bún mắm stall, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamBún mắm stall, Bến Thành market

iced Vietnamese coffee, iced Vietnamese tea, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnamiced Vietnamese coffee, to be washed down with complimentary iced Vietnamese tea, on a sidewalk

Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo). Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo). Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
fried crickets, Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo), Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamLuong Son (Bo Tung Xeo)

(On the way home, a Vietnamese girl stopped me to ask for directions in the vernacular. Again, I unthinkingly replied in English. She was so shocked she giggled into her hand and fled.)

Now this guy was authentic:
evangelist, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam“Hello,” he said to an American backpacker waiting for her bus,”I am Vietnam evangelist. I want to tell you about Jesus.”

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

There has been no end of people gushing how my London to Singapore trip, over land, was going to be the journey of a lifetime. I just could not understand it – all I was doing was taking a really slow and tedious route from Europe to Asia.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamAnd many of the epic train journeys, like the Trans-mongolian Railway and now the Reunification Express were just normal means of commuting for many people. Perhaps it wasn’t the cost of train rides that were the issue, but the rarity of the experience in our little social circle?

Continuing my read-through Andrew Potter’s book:

The Authenticity Hoax: The Creative Self

“In the last couple of chapters, we have followed the turn in Western culture that began with an initial, visceral reaction against the three pillars of the modern world: spiritual disenchantment, political liberalism, and the growth of the market economy. As we traced it through the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this reaction gave rise to the ideal of authenticity, which culminated in a celebration of spontaneity, emotional transparency, and a fixation on the creative powers of the individual to provide meaning in a world that otherwise offers none.

This last development is particularly important. Once the authentic self becomes, in effect, an artistic project, that puts a number of questions relating to art and authenticity front and center. What counts as an authentic work of art? What threatens artistic authenticity?…”

“There is an ambiguity in the way we use the term authenticity when discussing art. The first kind of authenticity, what the art world refers to as its provenance, is concerned with the correct identification of the origins or authorship of an object or work…[the second kind is about] whether the work is a true expression of the artist’s self, her vision, her ideals, or perhaps her community, culture, or “scene”. What we are concerned with in this case is that there is a divergence between the art that is expressed and what we think the artist ought to be expressing, or is entitled to express.”

“The underlying intuition here is that there is an intimate connection between your upbringing and your identity: that the biographical question “Where are you from?” is a reliable guide to answering the existential question “Where are you coming from?” Further, there’s a normative dimension to this, insofar as your background (including your race, your class, your schooling, even what part of the country you are from) frames the scope and limits of what you can legitimately claim to speak, or sing, or paint, or write about.” [Comment: class distinction and social hierarchy smuggled in another form?]

“This intuition manifests itself all over the place. For example, it is what drives one of the longest-running battles in the culture wars, over “appropriation of voice” and the question of when, if ever, it is permissible for someone of one culture or racial background to speak in the voice of another.” [Comment: long-running assumption that “blacking-up” is politically-incorrect, but what about cripping-up then? ask some]

“…what the [Sonia] Sotomayor incident highlights is the way this type of identity politics quickly turns into a form of status competition, where the relative authenticity of one voice over another results in a game of moral one-upmanship.”

“According to the standard picture of cultural co-optation, what happens is an authentic art form emerges organically out of a given subcultural milieu. Eventually, members of the dominant culture (usually rich white males) come along and appropriate the superficial looks or sounds or techniques of this artform while taking some sandpaper to its rougher edges. This softened version is then sold to the masses as the real thing…What happens if we can’t tell the difference between the original and the fake, or between the authentic and the ersatz?”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam “We might think it is a straight-forward, empirical fact whether a painting is an authentic Rembrandt, and the connoisseur is the one who can tell us. But in a world where art can be copied, reworked, and reproduced in an indefinite number of copies, the very idea of the “original” work becomes problematic, and by the end of the twentieth century it had led to a serious crisis of authenticity in the world of art.”

“[Walter] Benjamin argues that there is a straightforward answer to the question of what distinguishes an original work of art from the perfect copy, since even the perfect copy is lacking in one crucial element, namely, its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…the sense of awe or veneration we have for an authentic relic or a work of art is captured by more than just its past. What we value is its aura, which consists in the history and individuality of the object, insofar as it is embedded in what he calls the “fabric of a tradition.” That is, an authentic work of art is an object that was created at a certain time for a specific purpose.”

“In secular cultures, the aura is preserved…by what Benjamin calls “the cult of beauty”, the secularised but quasi-religious worship of art for art’s sake.”

“So to qualify as an authentic work of art, it is essential that it be connected in some way to a community and its rituals, and the further removed an object is from this ritual power, the more the aura withers. This is why Benjamin thought that the early-twentieth century debate over whether photography and film are legitimate forms of art completely missed the point. The real issue was the way in which these had completely transformed the entire nature of art by dissolving the relationships within which the concept of the authentic work made sense. The two main solvents at work in the age of mechanical reproduction are massification and commodification.”

“In the age of secularised, commercialised, mass-marketed entertainment, what plays the role of the ritual in preserving the aura of the work is the artist’s life. Their past, their history, their lifestyle or persona is what provides the ballast that anchors the work in some sort of creative tradition or narrative, saving it from the frothy superficiality of mere commerce.”

“…in the age of digital reproduction, we treat art as a commodity – cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected.”

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam“…in the age of digital culture it is not just access to art that has been democratized but its production as well…But when everyone is so busy creating, who has time to consume any of it? In an economy where what is scarce is attention, the spoils will go to the artist who is best able to command it, even if this requires some rather baroque or contrived setups to achieve.”

“Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitized and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity…Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground…This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral, participatory, and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect.”

“But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle…now it turns out that authenticity is something for which people are willing to spend great sums of money.”

I wondered what people would have paid for a journey from Hanoi to Saigon in a compartment full of sweaty Vietnamese men…if it was sold as performance art or as an authentic trip unlike any other.

My compartment-mates were a few too many – it seemed that they’d only paid for two berths but were 6 (and maybe more). There was an older man in a uniform and two underlings who looked very uncomfortable. And there were three other men who drank frequently from a jerry can of moonshine, smoked cheap cigarettes, and played cards. All the space under the bottom berths and under the table were taken up with their large pieces of luggage. Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThey felt at liberty to sit on my berth as well, inching closer and closer to the ball I’d made of myself next to the window, until I told them to please remove their unwashed selves.

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamStill, there were offers of moonshine, and then tea as they sought to deal with their moonshine headaches. I wondered how my perception of the situation would change if this were my weekly commute, or if this was the set of a interactive art installation. Food on the train was rather dismal after the tastiness of Chinese restaurant cars: bao and steamed corn for brekkie: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnama restaurant car patronised only by train attendants, and where it was made clear that I was unwelcome: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnamafter which I decided to take my chances with the packed food coming round: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThis was the only station we managed to hop off for some food-shopping: Reunification Express from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamSo, the glamorous authentic adventure of train travel.

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Sleeper Train from Nanning (China) to Hanoi (Vietnam), and Rousseau’s Romanticism

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam)

train from Nam Ninh (Nanning, China) to Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
sleeper train from Nanning China to Hanoi, VietnamBid farewell to China and headed down to south-east asia by train. First stop, Hanoi in Vietnam.

Ga Gia Lam, Hanoi, VietnamWalked out Ga Gia Lâm,

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnamand following the familiar smoky aroma of pork grilling on the street, was heartened to see the familiar roadside scenes and hear the beeps of motos coming in both directions. I couldn’t decide if I’d consider Copenhagen or Vietnam my third home.

Phở bò, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò shop, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò, Hanoi, VietnamThen, the first person I talked to, a phở bò seller, laughed at my very rusty Vietnamese.

Ho Chi Minh's Tomb. Hanoi, Vietnam
communist poster, Hanoi, VietnamHere are more photos of lovely peaceful Hanoi scenes interspersed quite randomly (ah, can anything be random?) with a continuing read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax:

The Authenticity Hoax: A False Return

“The Romantic response to modernity was an attempt to transcend or mitigate the alienating effects of the modern world and recoup what is good and valuable in human life.”

“What [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau came to realise is that the gap between appearance and reality is not just metaphysical (as Plato thought) or epistemological (as it was for Descartes) but that it has a moral dimension as well, since it is the source of all that is wrong with the world. Appearance is the realm of guilt, reality is the domain of innocence.”

“The problem ultimately lies not with men and their bad intentions, but with society and the inevitable friction it introduces into relations between people. Society is necessarily the land of appearances, and it is society that introduces evil into the world, in the form of the quest for prestige, status, wealth, and esteem.” [Comment: (i) here Rousseau apparently discounts any responsibility Adam and Eve might have had for eating that fruit. (ii) this was exactly what i thought too as a kid! need to find those angsty diaries.]

“For Hobbes, the state of nature is a large, multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma, where what is good for everyone, collectively, is undermined by each person’s individual rational calculations. Without a coercive authority to enforce cooperation, each of us retreats into tactics of self-preservation that are collectively self-defeating. It is not human nature, but the structural lack of restrictions on people’s behaviour, that led Hobbes to assert, infamously, that life in the state of nature wold be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Rousseau has a rather different account…as he imagines it, it is rather a congenial sort of place, in which man enjoys a life of isolation, equilibrium, and self-sufficiency.”

communal dancing, Hanoi, Vietnam
communal exercises in a park, Hanoi, Vietnam“In contrast with Hobbes’s monotonic “psychological egoism” (the claim that we are utterly self-interested), Rousseau sees human nature as characterised by two basic drives…self-love (amour de soi) and…pity…Rousseau sees self-love as motivated by nothing more than the need to promote the survival and flourishing of the individual, by satisfying each individual’s rather modest needs…finding food and shelter, little else, but even this minimal amount of self-interest is moderated by the second drive, pity.” [Comment: a just-so story? The Bible’s explanation of human sin in Romans 1 is far more convincing.]

“How did we get from the congenial state of nature to the cutthroat selfishness of modern life?”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnami just like the juxtaposition of this evidence of community in Hanoi and Rousseau’s whine

“Before, social intercourse was transient and fleeting. But then these transient relationships started to congeal into a more settled form of life…inevitably, this nascent society led to the idea of comparison, or what Rousseau calls “relations.”…In becoming aware of how they compare with others, men got into the habit of self-regard, and “thus it was the first look he gave into himself produced the first emotion of pride in him.”…The sense of pride…gives birth to a new motivation, and a new form of self-love, which Rousseau calls amour-propre…it is nothing less than the quest for status, from which all the evils of civilization follow.”

“…the real problem with society is not social alienation, but self-alienation. Once amour-propre comes to dominate the relations between men, everyone becomes obsessed with appearances and with questions such as who sings or dances the best, who is the best-looking, or the strongest, wittiest, or most eloquent. Status becomes the only good worth pursuing…”

“In such a world, deception becomes a necessary survival skill. In a society dictated by relations of vanity and contempt on the part of social superiors, and the envy and shame of inferiors, it becomes imperative to appear better than you actually are. The mediated world of seems is now paramount, and the unmediated and unmasked world of is ceases to matter.”

motorcycle jam, Hanoi, Vietnam
on a motorcycle, Hanoi, Vietnam“When it comes to coping with the downside of the modern world, there are two lines of approach. We can try to eliminate the causes of our problems or, alternatively, we can work toward mitigating the effects. That is, we can see about changing society and eliminating competition and inequality or we can focus on building stronger, more self-sufficient individuals within the sphere of modern life. As it turned out, Rousseau thought the second approach had the best chance of success…”

“…Rousseau’s rather dismal account of civilisation…had considerable uptake among his contemporaries. Characteristic of the neo-Rousseauian genre is the work of …Dom Deschamps, who dreamt of a world free of the petty jealousies and enviousness that arose out of prideful men competing with one another in a market economy. In a passage that makes…the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban seem urbane in comparison, Deschamps proposed a world where intellectuals would be banned and everyone would live together in a hut, “work together at simple tasks, eat vegetarian food together, and sleep together in one big bed of straw. No books, no writing, no art: all that would be burned.”…Modern civilization is alienating, while primitive societies promise a return to our lost unity and natural wholeness, where we can avoid the status competition and raw commercialisation of society and embed ourselves in a true community based on simple, nonexploitative relationships. In this view, the search for our lost authenticity is essentially an exercise in retrieval, as we hearken back to our own premodern past.”

“If contemporary evidence is anything to go by, there is nothing peaceful, congenial, or even terribly solitary about tribal life. Instead, it is a world of “despotic chiefs, absurd beliefs, revolting cruelty, appalling poverty, horrifying diseases, and homicidal religious fanaticism” (a state of affairs which has been almost completely eradicated from the modern world).” [Comment: this sort of bunk thinking is truly alive in the present world. Recent examples include the refusal to vaccinate children for measles due to misinformation about children’s “natural immunity” and allegations that it causes autism (what’s wrong with autism? an autistic writer then asked).]

“…a more charitable reading of Rousseau is to think of his state of nature as a “regulative ideal” that is unattainable in practice but that an be used to evaluate actual social institutions and relationships and to measure our progress toward a more egalitarian and less exploitative society.” [Comment: but surely if the basis of the theory is inconsistent with facts, then the purported goodness of such an ideal might not be valid.]

street-side meat seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
street-side meat-griller. Hanoi, Vietnam“…on the living tree of Rousseau’s intellectual descendants, there is one group that has enthusiastically adopted this tunnel vision and developed it into a root-and-branch condemnation of the modern world…Let us call the people who seriously foresee the coming apocalypse “declinists,” and their animating philosophy “declinism”…the rights-based politics of liberal individualism, combined with the free-market economy, have served to undermine local attachments and communitarian feelings, leading us to seek meaning in the shallow consumerism and mindless entertainment that is leading us to ruin.”

“In order to recover from this alienation and restore our lost authentic wholeness, we need to learn “the grammar of harmony”, restore our lost “balance”, and achieve “organic order”, by inventing technologies that “work with the grain of Nature rather than against it.”…It is typical of this genre of critical declinism that any positive programme must remain unstated, and any concessions to the benefits that have accrued to humanity over the past hundred years or so must be grudgingly downplayed or even denied.”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam“…the central concern of Rousseau’s philosophical project is to distinguish what is natural from what is artificial in the state of men in society. He knows that civilization deforms human nature, but the precise contours of that deformation are unclear.”

“And so the popular, primitivist view of Rousseau’s ambition is mistaken: instead of looking for some sort of modernity-free sanctuary somewhere in the world or in our distant past, he proposed that we look inward and find our authentic self by attending to our most basic, spontaneous, and powerful feelings and emotions. In this view, the authentic person is someone who is in touch with their deepest feelings, whose emotional life is laid bare…Who am I?…Je sens mon coeur…”I feel my heart”…”I truly am what I feel myself to be.””

Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, Vietnam
Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, VietnamBún Bò Nam Bộ, 67 Hàng Điếu – my heart says,”Yummy tum-tum, this is delicious”

“The truth is an elusive beast, and one that ultimately Rousseau does not think is worth pursuing…As he writes in his Confessions:”I have only one faithful guide on which I can count: the succession of feelings that have marked the development of my being…I may omit or transpose facts, but I cannot go wrong about what I have felt or about what my feelings have led me to do.”

“He takes the Cartesian search for certainty and completely upends it, so where Descartes concluded that the search for truth could only begin with an indubitable fact (“I am, I exist”), Rousseau says…truth begins with the indubitability of emotions, and only once you know how you feel can you make any progress.”

rattan goods seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
rickshaw riders, Hanoi, Vietnam
overladen vehicle stuck in traffic, Hanoi, Vietnam“Authenticity becomes redefined as the ongoing process of filtering our experiences through our most deeply felt emotions and constantly interpreting and reinterpreting our lives until we find a story that is uniquely our own.”
Huu Tiep Lake and the downed B-52. Hanoi, Vietnam
business tourists and a train track. Hanoi, Vietnam“…it firmly establishes the quest for the authentic as an artistic enterprise. Being true to yourself, in the sense that Polonius intended it, is now a lifelong creative project from which no one is exempt, and it plants the solitary artist at the center of our moral understanding.”

colourful laquered coconut shell bowls, Hanoi, Vietnam
pop-up greeting cards, Hanoi, Vietnam
iPho, Hanoi, Vietnam“This is the Romantic turn in the modern worldview, heralding the start of a backlash against science, rationalism, and commerce. The authentic individual is one who disengages from the deforming forces of society and looks inward, drawing inspiration from the murky depths of the creative self.”

“…it was Rousseau who launched the first serious volley in the culture wars…the dispute between passion and reason, art and commerce, the individual and society, the bohemian and the bourgeois. To be bourgeois is to be alienated from your authentic self, which is just another way of saying that you’ve allowed your creativity to atrophy in the name of comfort and security. You’ve sold out, in other words, and the only way to get your edge back is to become a bohemian, a non-conformist, a solitary rebel at odds and out of step with the main-stream.”

shopkeepers, Hanoi, Vietnam
bamboo sellers, Hanoi, Vietnam
men drinking coffee, Hanoi, Vietnam“An authentic person is one who, almost by definition, rejects popular tastes, thoughts, opinions, styles, and morals.”

Thereby tripping themselves (their real selves?) over.
*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Culture Shock and Eating in Beijing, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China)

Beijing was a bit of a culture shock.

I’d worked in Shanghai before of course, but had been driven around in company cars or taxis, and stayed in hotels where every requirement and request had been met efficiently by the concierge. (Shanghainese friends would say disparagingly at this point that the superiority of Shanghai has nothing to do with this.) Now, my backpack full of Mongolian winter clothes and I were being pushed towards the exit of the 北京火车站 (Beijing Railway Station) by a sea of humanity, drowning in the cacophony of shouting and high-pitched women making the announcements.

I held up a bit of the tide enough to ask a security guard about left luggage, but could barely hear her replies or, be heard.

“Can you speak-a English!” she shouted, waving her handheld metal detector about.

“I AM SPEAKING ENGLISH!” I replied. To no avail. She was not familiar with such a business concept, and said kindly that I could leave my bag with her if I wanted. Outside the 北京火车站, after buttonholing several groups of security personnel, one man left his post to show me to the door of the left luggage facility. It was on an upper floor, but its entrance was along a row of similar looking shops with gaudy red signs.

A further problem: Beijing yuan, or the lack thereof. Surprisingly, there were no moneychangers at the railway station. Across the overhead bridge, the Postal Savings Bank of China did not have a foreign exchange service, but perhaps I could try the bank a street away? That bank did not accept British pounds or Singapore dollars, perhaps I could try another bank a block away? Yes that bank did accept British pounds but they did not look new enough.

I did end up with just enough money to pay to leave my backpack in safe hands for a few hours while I went exploring, avoiding the innumerable globs of spit all over the tiled floors and pavements. Everywhere, you could hear people behind you and in front of you about to hack another to join its fellows on the ground. I could not tell if it was the notoriously polluted Beijing air or the Beijingers’ rampant smoking that caused them this trouble. Worse were the pedestrians who stopped suddenly in mid-stride to empty the contents of their leaky noses onto public walkways.

However, for once in the last few weeks, food was readily available along the streets, and relatively cheap.

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

smoking indoors, 老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China

老北京炸酱面 (Lao Beijing Zhajiang Mian), Beijing, China老北京炸酱面大王 (Lao Beijing Zha Jiang Mian King) was rather bland, even after a week of Mongolian mutton. Note the lack of ban on smoking in enclosed restaurants.

 After this hiccup, there wasn’t another bad meal in Beijing:

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Beijing, Chinabao in fast food eateries and in holes-in-the-wall along the pavement, one basket for just 10,

Beijing, China

Beijing, Chinadeep-fried garoupa with chilli, washed down with a light Yanjing beer,

Beijing, Chinagiant cotton candy clouds,

Beijing, China北京酸奶 (Beijing fermented milk drink or yoghurt drink),

oh, and those amazingly diverse food choices along dedicated food streets (aka. night markets):

东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

centipedes, beetles, spiders, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

hearts, livers, and other organs, x东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

deep-fried crab, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

how to eat so your clothes stay clean, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

potato spirals, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, China

skewers of candied fruit, 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), Beijing, Chinawe were early at 东华门夜市 (Dong Hua Men Night Market), but already, thick clouds of cooking and frying enveloped us as we walked along, deciding what to sample. Would it be 串儿 (chuan er, lamb skewers, كاۋاپ in Uyghur)? Or star fish and frogs and sea urchin? Or beetles and centipedes, finished off with a hairy tarantula spider? Or hearts, kidneys, livers, and other organs and spare bits? Or just deep-fried whole crabs? Or spirals of fried potato? Or colourful skewers of candied fruit?

A few minutes away, equally interesting food on offer at 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market)

singing noodle hawker, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

quail eggs, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, China

baby scorpions, 王府井夜市 (Wang Fu Jing Night Market), Beijing, Chinaa singing noodle hawker, quail eggs on a stick, two men pounding peanut brittle candy, and squirming baby scorpions on skewers.

Not sure what to think of the Chinese costumes – the half- 长衫s with mandarin collars with frog buttons, etc. On one hand, it panders to the Western orientalist (in the Edward Said sense) gaze that would prefer photographs of fake pig-tails to Jeremy Lin basketball shirts. It is a simulated authenticity staged for the benefit of the tourist yuan. Even further, it mixes orientalist signs with authentic differences of language and foods to further confirm themselves as the Other, the Altern, for the consumption of foreigners. On the other hand, why not?

At Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant though, there was modern sophistication a world away from the costumes of the street stalls. Ah, but do the white crockery, white table cloths, chef hats, internal water feature, dramatic setting of the duck ovens not constitute a different category of signs?

北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

aubergine stack, 北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China

different ways of eating duck, 北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, China“Look, the eyeball!” exclaimed B, who was determined not to act the part of the squimish Brit,
北京大董烤鸭店 (Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant), Beijing, Chinaand promptly wrote home about her authentic experience. I do love B, and also truly loved the irony. 🙂
Beijing, China

Onboard the Trans-mongolian Train 24 from Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) to Beijing (China)

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China)

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

PB130424Train 24 on the Trans-mongolian Express route from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (China) was such a nice change from the Chinese stock I took from Moscow to UB.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWhether or not due to the presence of the unsmiling Mongolian provodnitsa, the interior of the compartments were comfortingly clean and the bunks properly-made. The bed-linen wasn’t stained or dusty.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingOur compartment attendant was on her knees scrubbing the corridor several times during the 1 day-journey. And naturally, the stainless steel toilet almost sparkled.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingInstant coffee and salty milk tea were provided, and paper cups in which to mix your drinks with the hot water from the samovar at one end of the carriage. I shared a second-class compartment with an elderly Korean sailor who had been in Mongolia for the last 6 years. Or so I think he said – he either changed his story several times in the course of the journey or we were suffering terribly from the effects of Babel. Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingWe shared food – I brought biscuits to the table, and he, some fried bread.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingHe proved to be quite a character – I would awake suddenly from naps to find him staring intently at me, not too far from my face. In the photo above, he is standing and staring into the provodnista’s compartment which she had just entered with a change of clothes.

For a change of scenery, I headed to the restaurant car: Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingThere were some Americans there, one of whom was throwing a tantrum about foreign food and how the cook was not doing his steak just the way he liked it back home. Felt bad for his friends who were trying to explain to a thoroughly confused waiter what the problem was, and then trying to counsel him that this was all part and parcel of travelling.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSat back and enjoyed the passing beauty of the Gobi desert. Here, a family of wind turbines; there a few yurts or gers; in the distance, a cluster of dots – cattle? camels? It was fun to speculate along with the rest of the restaurant car. “I see a hump!” “I see two humps!”

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingSoon, we pulled into an assembly line to have our bogies changed at the Chinese border from the 1,520 mm Russian gauge used by Mongolia, to 1,435 mm standard gauge that the Chinese use. Now, life on board the train revolves, amongst few other things, around the loo and its availability. It’s usually locked at railway stations (for hygiene reasons) and here, it was out-of-action for more than 2 hours, causing a little distress amongst those who hadn’t the foresight to do a little bladder management.

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to Beijing

Trans-mongolian Express Train from Ulaanbaator to BeijingIn the morning, the view outside the clear train windows had changed remarkably. There were golden fields of wheat, and mountains just out of a Chinese painting. I finally understood the scenery my Chinese art teacher was trying to get us to portray.

Q: How much does the different sort of native scenery impose on artistic method (versus, say, easy availability of materials)?

Q: Further to a previous musing, how much do political borders delineate existing differences in genetic pool, culture, language, ideas, worldviews, and how much do they incite differences in these areas?

Curious minds want to know.

Meanwhile, here’s a gratuitous photo of what some fellow passengers claimed was toilet waste: frozen toilet waste, Trans-mongolian TrainYou’re welcome.

Mutton and Süütei Tsai (Salty Milk Tea) in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)

Locavore, self-sustaining, free-range, and even…organic, might be some adjectives used of Mongolian cuisine if these historical nomads were minded to describe their food in terms understood by the Western city folk.

But the vegetarians, vegans, pescetarians, and other plant-based diet fans for whom these labels are gold would be sorely let-down. Mongolian cuisine consists mostly of meat (with very little seasoning), animal fat, and salty milk (tea).

Exhibit 1:
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Бууз (buuz) in oil-slicked soup.

(An aside. I’d like to trace the history of dumplings in the world. While in Latvia, we had pelmeņi at the self-service weight-priced XL Pelmeni (7 Kalku, Riga):
XL Pelmeni, 7 Kalku, Riga
XL Pelmeni, 7 Kalku, Riga
XL Pelmeni, 7 Kalku, Riga

In Moscow, it was khinkali (Georgian dumpling) at Duhan Chito-Ra (Kazakova Street, 10/2, Moscow 105064):
Duhan Chito-Ra Save Kazakova St., 10/2, Moscow 105064

and also good old-fashioned pelmeni with sour cream:
pelmeni with a side of sour cream

A great idea for cooking meat in bite-sized portions. But who had the idea first and what would the passage of that idea through different geographical areas over time tell us about the exchange of ideas in human history? Curious minds want to know.)

Exhibit 2:

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
More Бууз (buuz – Mongolian dumplings) and сүүтэй цай (süütei tsai – Mongolian salty milk tea).

Exhibit 3:

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
хуушууp (khuushuur) which is basically buuz flattened and deep fried. Yum. We ended up at this shop because Mongolian friends were reminiscing about the Naadam Festival and how the area around the competitions would be full of people frying and selling khuushuur.

Many tourists complain about the food in Mongolia. “Just mutton and more mutton and animal fat,” they grumble.

Should there be a universal standard for taste, or even, what might be considered healthy? How many foodie magazines consider the environment from which different cuisines emerge? How many “scientific” studies consider the impact of environment on the nutrients and calories needed by a person living in that different situation?

The sub-zero temperatures of Mongolia make eating mutton and drinking salty milk tea a great pleasure (and even, a necessity), especially when one is not being driven around in a vehicle with more than adequate heating. Much more so for the nomads cattle-herding on the steppes outside the cities.

“You must drink this,” advised several Mongolians,”It will warm you up.”
“And you must eat the fat of the meat, it will keep you strong.”

For this reason, they were leary of vegetables and fruits, seeing them as pernacious attempts by the Chinese to weaken their constitution.

Oh and by the way, Mongolian barbecues? Not Mongolian. They were popularised in Taiwan in the 1970s and then exported to America, then re-exported (or imported?) to Mongolia! The fable put about was that Mongolian soldiers would gather large quantities of meats and prepare them with their swords on their upturned shields over a large fire.

I just had to partake of this irony, so decided to check out BD’s Mongolian Grill, part of a U.S. chain:
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
It cost 5 times as much as a meal in an ordinary Mongolian eatery. The meat was overcooked and, because I did not want to pay for the buffet, not enough for the amount of trekking I was doing. Boo.

Street Scenes in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)

In the 6 a.m. darkness, I was the only one emerging from the coal-smoked cocoon that had been home for the last 5 days.

“慢慢走! (be careful!)”, said the Chinese train attendants as they helped me off the carriage. They’d become properly motherly as the days had gone by, always looking out for me. On long train stops, I could feel their eye on me as they smoked cigarettes on the platform, while I went exploring. Also, they did not trust the Mongolians – “危险! (danger)”.

“谢谢你照顾我.(Thank you for taking care of me)” I replied.

They looked properly abashed,”不用,不用!”

On the platform, hotel touts who had been waiting for the arrival of the train swarmed up in busy expectation. But as they scanned the length of the platform, it became apparent that there was only one potential in sight and that person had a hostel booked, I had to keep repeating. But they did speak English quite fluently so as I waited to be picked up from Улаанбаатар өртөө (woohoo, Cyrillic still useful here!)(Ulaanbaatar Station), we chatted. Many were in family businesses catering to tourists – they didn’t like waking up so early, but someone had to do it (“we have hostel in city center, you want to go now?”). Oh loads of things to see in UB but best to go outside (“we have car to national park, you take this brochure?”). At the arrival of my driver (the husband of the lady running the hostel), they scattered with a smile and a wave.

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThe driver was a big man, wide and tall with a heavy tread. He had thin eyes that stretched almost to the edges of his wide face and a little moustache and spoke English haltingly. I would meet many similar-looking men in the days to come, some wearing only a white little singlet and shorts and complaining about global warming: “Only -15°C! Who has ever heard of it so hot at this time of the year!”

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThe private room in the hostel was basic and clean. Like many similar establishments, it was in an anonymous apartment block and could only be accessed from the sandy parking lot in the back, where there was little in the way of signage to identify the place.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaIn the morning light, a stroll through the city revealed something of a frontier town: basic roads and pavements, shiny new buildings beside shacks or older Communist era blocks, towers left to the elements after construction money ran out, uncovered potholes, too many new cars for the roads, nothing much in the way of greenery but a bit of scrubby grass, and everything covered with a fine dusting of sand.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaThere were snacks sold to school-children from repurposed (or stolen) supermarket trolleys, and an old couple sitting outside the post-office waiting for people to rent their weighing machine.

Ulaanbaatar, MongoliaAround the corner from them, a man was selling secondhand books by the road. I loved the incongruity of the deel and the mobile phone.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

There were quite a few other deel-wearers about town, looking very warm and comfortable, and some fashion magazines might say, stylish.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

And just across the street, in front of the gianormous Genghis Khan memorial (Chinggis Khan apparently, not Genghis), electric toy vehicles, padded with fur, were hired to speed-demon kids. Here, the postcard touts operated. Wanting to support one who claimed to be the artist of several watercolours, I selected a few with Mongolian-ised nativity scenes of three camel-riding men approaching yurts lit by large stars.

“Ah, you Kkrristian?” asked the other touts, who had come over for a look at what had been sold. (“How much did s/he buy?” they asked the artist in Mongolian.)

The history of Christianity in Mongolia is interesting. The first Christian-like religion to hit the big time was Nestorianism in the 7th century. Under Chinggis Khan (Temüjin), in the 13th century, Nestorianism was tolerated alongside other religions and some of the khans even had influential Nestorian wives. Historians have concluded that the Mongolian empire was remarkably welcoming of foreign influences and beliefs, encouraging trade and commerce, putting currency (backed by precious metals) into common use, and facilitated international cultural exchange. Temüjin’s grandson, Mongke, even invited Christians (Nestorians? Orthrodox Christians?), Buddhists and Muslims to debate the merits of their faiths before him.

Since the end of communist rule in 1990, Protestant Christianity has been on the rise. I ended up at one such church on Sunday. After Bible study, we all went out together for lunch.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

It was my first introduction to the ubiquitous mutton and salty milk tea that would be my staple diet in UB. I revelled in the joy of being welcomed by people I had not known previously, who not even included me in their lives, but also bought me a meal! Even though they were a mixed crowd – English teachers from America, ethnic Mongolians who had been brought back from Chicago by their parents so they would “know their Mongolian roots”, Mongolians who had gone to India to study medicine and were hoping to practice soon, they took me in because I was in reality part of their family as they were part of mine. It is as Jesus said:

29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)