Monday, December 31, 2007


Sweet jeebus it's great to be home. So, so many stories to tell, I'm a bit overwhelmed by it all. Never fear, trusty unordered listage to the rescue!

The Good
  • Langkawi. I spent whole days lazing by the pool reading (The Kite Runner, thanks Chris' brother) and occasionally going for a dip. Gorgeous wide beach, not too overrun with tourists.
  • Cheapass and delicious Malaysian cuisine. Roti canai, Rotiboy buns, ice kachang, teh tarik, coconut, fruit smoothies and juice.
  • Cheapass Vietnamese food and drink.Best was banh mi thit (at Saigon's famous Nhu Lan bakery).
  • More cheapness: got a stack of fake Moleskines notebooks and sketchbooks, stationery, drawing pencils, some medbooks and a supply of DVDs to last me the whole year and then some. West Wing here I come!
  • A lot of fodder for an Amy Tan-esque novel that will never be written, about the flaming batshit that is Vietnamese family life.
  • My Viet improved. I was thinking in Viet and even managed to write a letter (unsent) even if I managed to misspell "I" every single time, frigging diacritics. Remind me to bitch some time about the ridiculous grammatical caste system whereby there are no fixed personal pronouns so that at EVERY SINGLE ENCOUNTER you have to work out your interlocutor's age and status relative to yourself and thus a simple question like "can you please pass me a pen" turns into a tongue-tying etiquette death trap.
  • Bonded with the mothership against common enemies. We're a team. I realised that for all the usual mother-daughter bickering, I'm fiercely loyal to her and vice versa.
  • Motorbike rides, baby! Too bad that they've just brought in helmet laws meaning that my hair doesn't get to blow sexily in the polluted wind.
  • Met some lovely people. Primo, Co H, a family friend of sorts, who gave me a personal guided tour of a Hanoi hospital and sheltered the five of us when we were kicked out of / ran screaming from Bac Q's house. I like her a lot - spirited, very sweet, with a cheeky humour. She was an almost painfully thoughtful and considerate hostess so that I was slightly stressed out at being on my best behaviour the whole time. Her husband Chu T was sweet as well. Probably will write more about them later - intricate and sad family circumstances. There was also Bac T's family in Hanoi. He gave me another hospital tour and kept teasing me in his incomprehensible northern accent. A good-natured bloke - I think he might be useful in dad's pro-democracy work. He's Everyman, made some astute and witty jokes about the political sitch. In Saigon there was the orthopaedic surgeon who took me to yet another hospital and patiently taught me how to stab people with sharp things. Basically did more hands-on meddy stuff in two days than in the whole of last year. Plenty of nice nurses there too who each taught me their own special technique, thoroughly confusing this hapless medkid. There's quite an art to getting drugs out of an ampoule I tell ya. Also in Saigon was another Bac T, an anaesthetist and Stepdork's childhood friend. Jolly and straightforward, such a change from the poisonous peoples in Hanoi (below).
  • Personal Growth. Learned plenty about my own numerous flaws (temper, acid tongue, impenetrable reserve, selfishness, etc etc) and hidden strengths (2008 = Tina takes no more shit year). Learned what kind of person I respect and want to be like (see above), and what kind of person I have to avoid becoming (see below).
The Bad
  • The initial awkward icy silence between me and the stepsisters. It lasted more than a week, but through our shared misadventures it's now thawed to a warmer truce. Not BFFs by a long way, but we can trade the odd joke or comment.
  • Learned to give injections ie. caused already sick people more pain by my clumsiness. Oh and managed to spill some poor patients' meds and make a mess. Worse still though, was how I found my compassion gland switching off. I couldn't see every single person as an individual human being - there were so many, with such horrific injuries (ortho ward), and there was the language barrier, and they just lay there passively. Not that any of that is an excuse. I didn't engage with them, I broke every rule of bedside manner that Newie has so carefully taught.
  • I'm a generally chilled out person, but somehow the stress of travel and family political bullshit reset my baseline mood to a constant pissed-offness, sometimes elevating to full-blown stinking rage to the point where I'm imagining smashing brick walls with a baseball bat and/or running into traffic.
  • Vietnam bathrooms. It's called SHOWER CURTAINS people!! A piece of plastic to stop the water splashing everywhere so you don't get a wet ass every time you go to the toilet! It's not rocket science!
  • Bac Ky (Northern Vietnamese) politesse. Related to the stupid pronouns above and also other linguistic formalities like forms of greeting and polite phrasing. But extends to how people are judged by their status - wealth, family position, education, age - and then treated accordingly (ie. like shit, if you aren't deemed worthy). It's bloody mediaeval. Even the nice northern people freaked me out with their politeness. God bless the frankness of English. NB. My paternal side is from the north but moved south after 1954 (fall of the French); my dad has never even been to Hanoi.
  • Vietnam street juice ie. the dodgy patches of wetness on the street that are a mere centimeter of plastic from parts of my body. Definitely not pure water either - one time we caught a dog nonchalantly pissing in the middle of the pavement.
  • Vietnam crowdedness and rule of the jungle. Spent Christmas eve in the middle of a throng of motorbikes and pollution. You risk your life every time you cross the street. You're a target for pickpockets and cheats wherever you go. Stepdork got his pants pocket slit (nothing important was in it) and at Saigon airport, the taxi registry guy stuck his hand into Stepdork's backpack and stole our camera! Huge screaming match shitball. Luckily mum had the presence of mind to look under the taxi and found the camera where he'd ditched it upon hearing Stepdork accuse him. This was about 15 minutes after we'd touched down in Saigon.
The Fugly
  • Staying with Bac Q in Hanoi. Oh my flord. I never knew there could be so many incredibly duckwitted jerks in one family. I thought Chu H, Stepdork's brother in Sydney, was bad enough. His mental age is about 13. He's a doctor, "just a GP" but has made shitloads of money and lets everyone know about it. Buys (and boasts about) the most expensive of everything- he gives his kids Louis Vuitton bags and $20k first class plane tickets and zero parenting or attention. I've watched him for ten years and have never seen him show any evidence of thinking about anyone but himself. BUT WAIT, THERE'S WORSE. Bac Q. He's Stepdork's 60+yo cousin and a former maths professor. Oh my god. I had a bad first impression as soon as we came in- barely a nod of welcome. I started disliking him when in his first conversation with my mother he asked her point blank "what do you do? I mean, what did you study at university? what do you mean, you didn't even go to university?!". I left the room at that point. I started hating him when he started to patronise her while at the same time bossing her around the kitchen and telling her off like she was his servant or a child. This is my mum, who can turn men to quivering jelly by the mere force of her glare! And my contempt for him was cemented when he made a speech on his wife's birthday. A masterpiece of vanity. He managed to spare about two sentences to grandiloquise about her virtues and then proceeded to talk for twenty minutes about his own qualifications and the glory of his family line. He actually brought out the equivalent of a Viet Cong Who's Who and pointed out his father's entry and then catalogued all his children's academic achievements and the dollar value of his properties. I didn't know whether to laugh or bash my head into a wall. In fact Stepdork was filming the occasion and thinking it was our video camera, I pulled magnificent faces and eye-rolls - only to find out later that it was Bac Q's vidcam! Apparently he thought I didn't understand Viet and was just bored at the length of the speech. If only he knew. Even more contemptible was how there was an abrupt about-face in how he treated me and mum after he found out that my "aunt" (Co H) was a cardiologist and that I was a med student. How he started fawning then. There's more to the Bac Q story that lead to us fleeing his house, let's save that for next time.
  • Ba Noi (stepgrandmother). Or, as I like to call her, B-I-T-C-H (to the tune of "Bingo was his name-o"). Dominates her husband and treats him like an infant- she actually forbade him to go get a coffee when he'd already gotten his coat and was almost at a door. "You won't be able to sleep so you will get skinny and then everyone will think you're a drug addict! And who will suffer? ME! Everyone will laugh at ME! How dare you be so selfish!" He's this gentle, quiet, harmless little man for whom coffee is the only escape from the witch. The worst was when we were leaving - both Bac Q AND she had to do some more speechifying. In her bit she repeated the whole "oh HOW I HAVE SUFFERED because of my husband" spiel again and then added a dig at my mum, who had taken pity on stepgrandfather and made him some coffee. She said she'd never liked my mum from the beginning but noooo, Stepdork was so disobedient. She also snarked at how having a university education was THE most important thing. This was in front of everyone, with mum and me and stepgrandfather all present! This was one of those internal baseball bat moments. I slightly regret not saying exactly what I was thinking. I did manage to finally interject "RESPECTFULLY, THAT'S ENOUGH WE GET IT GRANDMA, WE ARE GOING TO BE LATE FOR OUR APPOINTMENT". Later we heard that she'd bitched about my mum behind her back saying that she was a money-grubbing home-wrecker, which, if you know the history of my parents' divorce, is not only the worst insult but also the greatest irony. Apparently she also said I dressed like a beggar and that she'd slap me in my face for my intervention in a certain family crisis (more later on that). Just before we flew off, Stepdork phoned her again. Of course she was all hypocritically saccharine to us. I'm very proud to say I suppressed the urge to curse and instead beat her at her own slimy Bac Ky game with the following exchange in Viet (B = her, T = me):
B: I wish you happiness in the new year and hope you study well and get great exam results and--
T: Oh THANK YOU Grandma. You know I have to say how grateful I am that you have treated me JUST LIKE your very own grandchild.
B: You're welcome dear. Now when I come to Australia you have to promise to give me medical treatment!
T: Alas, I am a very stupid student. SO, SO STUPID. I guess you'll have to wait til S2 [ie. younger stepsister] graduates, she is far smarter than me.
B: No no no, [stepsisters' mother] has told me how brilliant you are, the girls always go to you with questions.
T: Oh, [stepsister's mother] and you are both TOO SWEET.
On balance, it wasn't THAT bad of a trip. Touristing-wise it was all deja vu since we basically retraced the trip mum and I took in 2004-5, only Langkawi was new. It was the people that made it maddening and interesting. The bitter drama just made more of an impression on me than the good stuff, but I'll take lessons from both. I've said it'll be a long time before I go back to Vietnam...I dunno now. Travelling in other countries, we only see the outside, have contact with other tourists and those who cater for tourists. More or less moving postcards. Only in Vietnam do we get plunged into the bubbling stew of human relationships with all the ensuing pain and humour.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run

Dunno what that's got to do with anything, the tune is just stuck in my head.

Back from Melbourne last night, in Sydney now, and off to Malaysia in about 18 hours. Ah jetsetting. I meant to do a "2007 in review" post cos much batshit has happened this year, but I can't think on a Windows 98 16-colour monitor so will probably do a tipsy post on New Year's Eve Eve on our return.

So Merry Xmas in advance dear loyal readership (ie. Chris and Chez)! Will bring back heroin for you both.

Off to roti, illegal DVDs and cheapass med textbooks!

PS. UNGRADED PASS, baby! Wooooohooooo.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


Yet another 3am ramble. An hour when world-nudging delusions can actually get the edge over "omg this is SO OPRAH" cynicism.

The inspiration: zenhabits on bringing people closer.
The pitch: Pay it Forward concept breeds with BookCrossing technology.

PIF is a kindness pyramid scheme where A does a good deed for B, who pays the favour forward to 3 other people, who each pay it forward to 3 more, and so forth. BookCrossing is where people leave used books in public places, with a code and URL stuck in it. Whoever finds it can log in on the site and enter the code, then passes the book on, so you can track the progress of the book across the world.

So to merge these: a way of tracking good deeds. When you do something good for someone, give them a Post-It with "record your good deeds at" on it. The recipient of the favour registers what was done for them, and what they have done for others. They too give Post-Its to their recipients. Thus, theoretically, you get a map of the spread of good deeds and a community of altruists.

I can already see flaws in it actually, because the people most in need of good deeds, the disadvantaged, may not have internet access. Hmmmm. Maybe it could be entirely internet-based good deeds such as...I dunno, designing a graphic for free, or buying someone one of their Amazon wishlist items (nah, too consumerist) or mailing them stuff they can't buy from their own countries. Maybe it could be set up in an existing web community. Maybe the "act of kindness" needs to be a specific act - what is a universal good deed?

Come to think of it, the Jerry library is a pay-it-forward scheme and an idea with potential I reckons. Tis simple - each borrower mails the library set to the next. The key elements are:
  • A "good" that is scarce and valuable, but not priceless. Here the content of the library DVDs was rare, but the physical DVDs themselves don't cost much and are easily replaced.
  • Decentralisation and self-sustaining. There are 3 sets of DVDs (two US, one Australasia), each with their own list. The admin only has to add new people to the list and borrowers contact each other for address details. The system relies on the next borrower harassing the previous person to hurry up and send the thing.
  • A small "paying forward" burden. I've probably spent less than $50 setting up the entire thing, and each person probably spends less than $10.
Now how to extend this idea to something slightly less obscure? The "good" needn't be something physical, but c'mon, snail mail is fun to receive. Stamps and envelopes are so retro!

Food for thought.

Oy, this blog was meant to be a place to forge (ha! double entendre) my identity as a student doctor, but it seems there aren't that many opportunities in med for these Giant Harebrained Ideas I seem to like. Or maybe I just haven't looked hard enough. We had CPR training this week and the guy showed us some horrible comparative stats on how many Aussies vs Seattle folk survive cardiac arrests. We suck. It was something like 7% vs 70% (don't quote me on that). The dude attributes that to the lack of CPR training and defibs here. If true, that is DUH. CPR is so easy. Here, go learn it. Hey, maybe the Thing That Is Passed Forward could be "teach someone" so it'd be a pyramid scheme of knowledge. It worked for Christianity, why not CPR! "Teach it forwards".

Yknow what this sounds like? Public Health. Is that where this is leading? P-values and policy-making?! eeep. Maybe should've stayed awake in Health Economics lectures this week. Reminder to self: write about breadth vs depth of impact, helping individuals vs groups.

Ok, pressing "Publish Post" now in anticipation of a "wtf is this crap I wrote?!" hangover tomorrow.