How to say hello in southeast Asia

One of the many things I have loved about traveling through southeast Asia and, now, Japan, is the ways that people in this part of the world greet each other.

Greetings are, of course, cultural codes that are so ingrained into our daily lives that they seem natural or even invisible. When you travel though, seemingly quotidian things, like saying hello to friends and strangers, become interesting spaces to understand and communicate across cultures.

In the States, there are a variety of ways to greet folks. If you come across an acquaintance–not a close friend–you would probably say, “Hello, it’s so nice to see you.” Men tend to reach out and shake the person’s hand.  A woman might keep her hands down at her side or she might show her palms in an act of welcome and openness. Unless it’s a professional setting, women don’t tend to shake hands and men don’t tend to shake hands with women.

If you came across someone who is a really good friend, you might be more demonstrative. You might say something like, “Oh, man, it’s so great to see you! How have you been?” Or, you might use another term. I like to call my good friends, “Brother,” “Sister,” “Big Man” or “Big Fella.”

In much of southeast Asia, a greeting is generally accompanied by namaskar– all you do is to put your hands together in front of your chest so that the tips of your fingers are just below your chin and then slightly bow your head toward the person you are greeting. So, if you are in Cambodia, you would greet someone by saying “Sousday,” as you are doing namaskar.

It is not common to shake hands in many parts of southeast Asia. This took a bit of getting used to for me, as shaking the hand of a stranger or even a good friend is very natural for me and for most Americans, I suspect. The few times I did put out my hand in southeast Asia, people would look at me kind of uncomfortably and then grab my extended hand with both of their hands. All you can do then, is put your hand on top of theirs so what you are left with is four hands piled on top of each other.

It’s awkward and I only did that once or twice.

It didn’t take long for me to get used to greeting folks with a namaskar. I should note here, too, that I’m aware that there are distinctions between namaste and namaskar, but for this post, I’m using them coterminously.

Sujata likes to tease all the yoga people back in Denver who are inclined to greet each other with a namaskar and say, “Namaste.” She finds it humorously affecting and a mild form of cultural appropriation. “They’re just saying ‘Hello,'” she laughs. I’m of a very different mind: I don’t think it’s odd for people to do namaskar at home and I loved doing namaskar when I greeted people when we were in Bali and Cambodia. I’m a tall white guy, so I already felt sort of awkward in many of the places we went and doing namaskar helped me to fit in or to at least demonstrate my respect for where we were.

As I’m thinking about this now, I’m coming to realize how gendered hand shaking is in the States. And it’s not just that, as I mentioned above, there are different expectations for women and men when it comes to greetings. It’s also the way greetings, especially handshakes, are done. American men tend to tightly grasp the hand of the person they are shaking and they put their shoulder into it a bit so the action can oftentimes come across as assertive. Sometimes men are judged if they have a ‘weak’ or ‘limp’ handshake.

Namaskar is actually a much more gender neutral way of greeting. Part of that may simply the root meaning of namaskar–it’s to demonstrate respect for the person you are greeting. Because there is not physcial contact between the greeters, it simply cannot become an act of dominance. In the same way, men and women do namaskar exactly the same way; that is, there is not a gendered way (from what I could tell) to namaskar. And, given that there is no physcial contact (as in a handshake or a hug) men and women can namaskar to each other without eithe paryt feeling uncomfortable.

Tuk tuk drivers are ubiquitous in Cambodia–you can’t walk out of your house or a cafe or restaurant, let alone cross an intersection without a tuk tuk singing out, “Sir! Tuk Tuk?!”  If you did acknowledge them and say “No thank you,” most of the drivers would quickly respond, “How about tomorrow?”–as if I knew when I’d be needing a tuk tuk  a full 24 hours later! Most people–foreigners and nationals–just ignore them (unless they need a tuk tuk, of course) and just keeping walking without acknowledging the request. I spent enough time in tuk tuks, especially in Cambodia, to realize that these guys are really super cool, friendly and hard working. Most of them love to chat and they’ll offer all kinds of advice and insights into the city. And even if they are not garrolous, you have to respect what they do–it’s hard and dangrous work, there’s more competition than you can imagine and they don’t make money. They are not, for instance organized into tuk tuk collectives (like taxi drivers, for instance) so they are all out there struggling for customers. Given that, then, after a few days in Cambodia, when a tuk tuk  driver bawled out to me I would always acknowledge him with a namaskar and the typical Khmer greeting, “Sousday!” If nothing else, it made me feel good that I was acknowledging these underappreciated purveyors of cheap (and fun!) street travel, and most of the time, they smiled and, sang out “Sousday!” accompanied by a namaskar.

There’s another reason I like to greet people with namaskar: it reminds me of Walt Whitman and the mid-nineteenth-century American writers I love. Here are the opening lines of  Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

These are some of my favorite lines in all of American literature partly because what Whitman is doing is performing a literary namaskar for his reader. Among the great early American writers, Whitman wasn’t alone in his love of eastern culture and traditions. Emerson, Thoreau and all their Transcendentalist friends (save that old codger, Hawthorne) were walking around Cambridge and Concord with copies of the Vedas and the Upanishads tucked under their arms, looking for ancient literary and cultural inspiration as they forged their own. Emerson read deeply among sacred Hindu texts, and he turned Thoreau on to them as well. Some of Emerson’s greatest essays and poem directly and indirectly invoke Indian mythology and culture and Thoreau based much of his writing on his reading of eastern texts.

If Walt Whitman  was passing through any southeast Asian country he, too, would freely namaskar everyone he met.

I think that is one of the things I liked so much about southeast Asia: there were so many opportunities to connect with people. I could have stopped and chatted with any tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap in the same way that I could have chatted with any shop owner, restaurant owner, patron or bar fly in Ubud or Phenom Penh. It’s the same way in Ireland and that’s probably why I like Ireland so much, although doing namaskar in Ireland might get you punched in the face.








Traveling with kids, the dark side

Let me begin with some context and qualifications: I love traveling with my children. They are engaged with their surroundings, inquisitive, thoughtful and they have a great deal of strength and stamina. Rarely do they complain about long travel or sightseeing days and when they do, it’s for a good reason like they are starving or their legs are so tired they are about to fall off.  We have done a couple of overnight international flights–by far the most difficult flights because you’re only on the plane for 5-6 hours so you really can’t sleep which means when you land in whichever country you are landing in, all that’s really happened is that you’ve been up all night. It’s hard on me so it’s got to be doubly hard on them but, still, they have powered through these and many other difficult travel experiences with gusto, verve and aplomb. They are polite and gracious to strangers. They have gone for long stretches of time without food or water–because that’s just what happens sometimes when you are traveling–and being vegetarian makes it even more difficult, sometimes, to eat when people are hungry. They are frequently in bed late and up early the next day, and they manage this lack of sleep with incredible fortitude. In short, I can’t expect anything else from my children in regards to our travels so far.

Atticus carrying his and his sister’s backpack after an all-night plane ride. That’s toughness.
Sweet Cow smiles in Saigon

That said, sometimes is just a !@#$% pain in the %^&* traveling with children. It makes me want to (*#%^ scream.

Much of the frustration I feel is compounded by where we are. We’ve spent the last four days, for instance, in Tokyo, a city that is like New York City on steroids, if you can imagine that.

Imagine being 4 feet 5 inches tall and having to make your way through this AFTER a long day of sightseeing!

So, if Sujata and I were on our own, here, we’d be fine. We’d go to visit museums and shop during the day, come back to our air b and b then go have a drink (Japanese whiskey is amazing), a nice dinner and then hit a jazz club after that. We’d walk hand in hand down the bustling streets, smiling at all the life and movement, staring up at the amazing verticality of this city and gazing down the neon streets at night.

We, of course, do some of those things, but they are all peppered with moments that are punctuated with one or both of us shouting or whispering in a hard voice, “Hey, don’t walk in front of me!” Or, “Could you please not swing your arms back and forth and to the sides like you are doing jumping jacks?” Or, “Would you please lift your head up and look in front of you–you are running into people and they are giving us dirty looks!” Or, “No, I’m sorry but I can’t repeat, what I just asked your mother. It really doesn’t concern you.” Or, “Do you see Japanese children behaving the way you are behaving right now?”

Sujata summed it up best when she said, “They drive you nuts, but they are so great.”

I should say, though, that sometimes I’m not much better than the kids. I am, happily, able to walk a straight line on the streets of Tokyo and, up until now, I have refrained from flailing my arms around and bouncing them off passersby. I generally don’t fall from standing positions, drop all forms of coins and glasses, blow bubbles in my water, shout weird things in public, like I have Tourette’s, or knock over dishes and cups in restaurants.

But, I do get grumpy, say stupid things to Sujata, complain about things I shouldn’t complain about and wait too long to eat or drink, thereby increasing the possibility of me doing all of the weird things the kids do.

And, since Sujata has planned, and continues to plan, the bulk of this trip–she researched and purchased all the plane tickets, all of our hotels and air b and b stays, she is masterful at using Google maps and she generally finds us places to eat–my major mode of communication her is in the nature of questions, as in:

“Sujata, where are we going tomorrow?”

“Sujata, where are we eating dinner?”

“Sujata, where is a bathroom?”

“Sujata, how do you make an international call?

She, god bless her, takes it all in stride (mostly).

The point here, if there is one, is that traveling changes everything. You gain a lot of control of your life because you don’t have to be anywhere or do anything that you don’t want to do. I, for instance, haven’t sat in a stupid, unproductive ‘meeting’ in over six months and I feel all the better for that. At the same time, you lose control of a lot of things: I don’t always know where we’ll eat our next meal, sometimes it takes a couple of hours in the morning before I can find a cup of coffee, I haven’t gone for a swim in weeks because I don’t have access to pools, I haven’t touched a piano in weeks, it took us about three times longer to get home tonight than I imagined . . . All that said, for now, I’m enjoying the uncertainty and the wackiness of it all. We’ll see how long that lasts . . .



National Day, Vietnam and a few more thoughts on Cambodia

We flew into Ho Chi Minh City today, 2 September 2016. Seventy-one years ago, to the day, a young Ho Chi Minh climbed onto a primitive wooden platform in Hanoi and declared Vietnam free of French rule by reading the American Declaration of Independence. As he read our sacred document, American war planes flew by and tipped their wings in approval. A lot of good that did Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people. Twenty years later, the first American Marines climbed ashore in in Danang . . . you know the rest.


The view from our balcony of fireworks celebrating N


It’s sobering, I have to say, to be an American traveling through southeast Asia. For most of my adult life I’ve been conceptually aware of the effects of the wars we waged here during the Cold War era, but when you see it, walk through it, talk to people who suffered through it . . . that’s just an entirely different thing.


In a previous post, I told the story of our family’s visit to the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. At the end of that post, I asked my readers their views on our decision to take the children to those places. Many of you got back to me (thank you for that) and the overwhelming consensus was, yes, it was the right thing to do, especially since we talked about what we witnessed and helped the kids process the experience. Here’s a follow up to that:


When we were in Siem Reap, we met to young Colombian nationals who had crafted a career for themselves as photographers and videographers. They were wonderful, smart, interesting young people. We got to talking one evening about Cambodia’s history. I told them about our experiences in Phnom Penh and one of them told me this story:


An American travel group brings American teenagers to Cambodia to build houses for people in the villages and to cycle through Cambodia. The American kids spend a month or so here, and they have a blast. At the end of their time in Cambodia, they tour used to take the kids to see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, but after a while, they started getting complaints: the kids said it ruined their time Cambodia because it was so sad and that they wanted to leave the country feeling good about the places. So, the tour group started making the visits to the Killing Fields optional and, soon, no one even opted to visit.


I’m sure you can imagine my thoughts on that. So, given that and given our experiences (which I are best represented in Atticus’ post), and upon a lot of reflection and some experience in Cambodia, I’m of the mind that if you are an American and you spend any time at all in Cambodia, you are just shy of being morally obligated to go to these spaces of public memory because, as Atticus writes, “I hope that you tell other people about this horrific thing because they ought to know.” And, if that’s all we can do, then we should do that.

I ask a waitress in Siem Reap to turn off “Hotel California”

Earlier this week, we ate a late dinner at a place called Jungle Burger in Siem Reap. I was enjoying a cold Cambodian lager and a veggie burger until I started paying attention to the music playing over the sound system: Billy Joel, Rick Springfield, Lynrd Skynrd and Bob Seeger (I actually like Bob Seeger, but I don’t need to listen to that here).

And then “Hotel California” came on and I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought of that great scene in The Big Lebowski, when The Dude asks the cab driver to turn off “Hotel California” and is unceremoniously tossed out of the cab. It felt for a moment, as I sat at Jungle Burger, that The Dude and all the rock and roll gods were imploring me to take action.

So I did.

I politely signaled to the waitress who politely walked over to our table. I asked her if she had control of the music and she said she did. I asked “Can you put some Cambodian rock and roll on? We really don’t want to listen to this crap.” Her eyes widened with delight, she turned on her heels, ran to the back of the bar and, voila!–“Hotel California” is replaced with funky, Motown-inspired Cambodian pop and I went back to enjoying my beer.

If you don’t know Cambodian pop, and if you are tired of hearing “Hotel California,” when you are just trying to enjoy your Guinness, Dales or Anchor Steam, tell your bartender to trade in that 1970s crap (why do they keep playing those songs in public?) for some cool Cambodian pop. They can start with Dengue Fever, a great LA-based band that churns out high energy, danceable American-Cambodian rock and roll. They’ll have you up and dancing and calling out for another round of Cambodian lager.

Sujata took this photo to commemorate our victory over the ghosts of rock and roll past

There’s also a cool documentary, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll that you can watch when you get home.

So get out there and stand up for a world free of “Hotel California”!

We visit the killing fields outside Phnom Penh

We just got back from a tour of the Killing Fields and before that we spent the morning in the Cambodia Genocide Museum. Needless to say, it’s been a tough day. Right now, all four of us are slouched into the couch of our flat, quietly reading and writing. There really isn’t much to say. We are physically and emotionally drained and after a day like this, words, ideas, even thinking itself, just seems so useless.

Our flat is on the same block as the Genocide Museum so after our breakfast and coffee we spent two hours there. The Genocide Museum is the site of the notorious S-21 complex—a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison and torture center for people who they perceived to be enemies of the state but who were, by and large, just ordinary people living ordinary lives.

One of the cell blocks of the S21 compound–the large photo is shows the four children who made it out of there alive.
One of the cells where prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were held
Barbed wire placed outside the cell blocks so prisoners could not escape

Our tour guide was a young Cambodian woman who led us through the rooms where people were electrocuted, shackled and maimed, and about halfway through the tour she started telling us about her mother who was living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and, within hours, force marched the entire civilian population of the city from their homes and into the country side where they were either executed or forced to work in labor camps. The Khmer Rouge targeted urban populations because that’s where the intellectuals were—the doctors, professors and lawyers whose soft hands and white collar professional positions made them enemies of the Khmer Rouge and who were rounded up and killed.

1975 was not that long ago—I was 10 years old–so just about anyone you talk to here in Phnom Penh can tell you a story about a family member who was force marched out the city on that date. Some of them survived and made it back, many didn’t. In fact, over the course of four years 40 percent of Cambodian society was either executed or died from starvation, untreated disease or, in some cases, simply losing hope in life. So, part of the reason Cambodia is struggling today is because it lost, not just nearly half of its population, but the part of its population that held nation and community building talents. Imagine losing an entire generation of our doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, chemists and biologists.


Signage outside one of the cell blocks. Probably the most appropriate signage I’ve ever seen.

In the Genocide museum I stared for what seemed like minutes at walls filled with candid, headshot photographs of the victims as well as the members of the Khmer Rouge who committed the atrocities. We have these photos because the Khmer Rouge, like many other fascist dictatorships, kept copious records of their own as well as their enemies.  In 1975, many of victims as well as Khmer Rouge soldiers were my age or just a little bit older. Beautiful, young people who should have been sitting in cafes, reading Camus and Hesse, studying for exams, flirting, racing their scooters through these narrow streets, traveling the world, living their lives. Instead, they were either forced to join an army run by a genocidal mass murderer or, worse, tortured and summarily executed by their own country men and women.

We left the Genocide Museum, ate some Khmer food, and then got in a taxi and set out to see the Killing Fields of Choeng Ek. After a 30-minute drive down Street 217 we made a left-hand turn onto what seemed an ordinary residential street, and in less than two minutes we pulled into an ordinary parking lot, stepped out of the car, walked through a large, ordinary-looking gate, paid our fee, were handed audio recorders and headphones and sent on our way to hear about the very extraordinary things that happened here because it was in this compound where the Khmer Rouge executed about 20,000 ordinary people in the most brutal manner over the course of their four-year reign of terror of this country from 1975-1979.

In a word, what happened here is simply beyond human reason so all I can really do here is describe what I saw and learned and how it made me feel.

Since everyone is issued a headset and headphones, the first thing I noticed as I started walking on the path that lead me around the compound was how quiet it was. Part of that was because there were no tour guides explaining what happened here. It’s just a bunch of stunned people stumbling from one sad site to the next with blank, dazed expressions plastered on their faces. The oppressive heat, combined with horrific stories you are hearing about mass murder and complete lack concern for human life leaves everyone numb. If I wasn’t staring in wonder at the mass graves and the glass boxes filled with bones or articles of clothing that had been left behind by the executed, I was looking off into the distance, or down at my shoes, trying as best as I could to not weep.

Here’s a photo of a mass grave on the left and a close up of the thousands of bracelets visitors have left behind:

At Choeng Ek, the earth itself seems to still be sick from what happened there. Every so often after a heavy rain, it wretches up bones and clothing from the victims.

Victims’ clothing washed up from rains. Recently-discovered bone on top of glass case

The Cambodian government has done the best it can, I guess, with making this place peaceful and a place of meditation and reflection, despite that, though, I found it to be hot, harsh and unsettling. On the backside of the site is a vine-choked lake surrounded by invasive grasses and unpleasant-looking trees. A rough gravel path leads you around the lake and the narrator of the audio tape asks you listen to stories of survivors and meditate on the dead as you walk through the ‘tranquil’ site. I found it neither tranquil nor a place that encouraged peace.


There is a stupa on the grounds (in fact, it’s the first thing you see when you walk through the gates) that the Cambodian government erected in the early 1990s to memorialize the people who died here. In a clear reaction against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s banning of religious practice in the country the stupa combines elements of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. If you look at the photo of the stupa below, you’ll see the figure of Garuda—the eagle who Vishnu rides upon in the Hindu tradition—and above that, you can see depictions of Naga, snake-like beings who protected Siddhartha after he found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. As you get closer to the stupa and gaze through the glass paneling you see 5,000 skulls from the people who died on this site staring back at you.  That said, this is not Gettysburg or Vietnam War Memorial, thoughtfully and aesthetically planned to memorialize the dead.

You might be thinking how the children did with all this. To this point, I’m honestly not sure. We spent a good part of yesterday preparing them for what we were going to witness and hear about today. At the Genocide Museum, they don’t hold anything back—there are graphic photos of the victims displayed throughout and even the empty cells, where the Khmer Rouge shackled and tortured people conjure up horrific feelings. It’s all very close in there and I think this was the most difficult part for the kids. Choeng Ek is, of course, outdoors and you can move along the paths as you like, or sit down on the bench if you like, so I think that made it easier for the kids. Atticus, who is naturally sensitive to injustice, was off by himself most of the time, quietly shuffling down the paths or sitting on a bench as he listened to the audio guide.  He keeps asking me who the good guys were-“Were the Vietnamese the good guys, Dad?” he hopefully asks, wanting this to be a Manichean struggle, like in Harry Potter.  At a certain point I just said to him, “Son, there are no good guys in this story.” Eleanor, who bobs on the surface of life a bit more than Atticus, seemed a little less affected by it all, but, like I said, I can’t really tell at this point. At one point our guide in the Genocide Museum, sensing the the children’s anxiety about the photographs of people being tortured, asked us if we wanted to take the kids out to the courtyard for a break.  As I was finishing this post later in the day, Eleanor began expressing anxieties about what she saw:  those bad men aren’t going to come and get us, are they mom? There may be nightmares tonight. Hers and mine.

When I walked back out the gates toward the taxi, I looked down at my own shadow, happy to see it there and sorrowful for all the people who lost their lives on those grounds.

I’m curious, though, how you folks who are reading this post feel about this: should we have taken the kids there? Was it irresponsible to have them confront all this unmitigated suffering? What would you have done if you were here with your children?