Guest Post: Bloomberg’s Gunfight

I asked my good friend who is hyper liberal in almost all ways (except for gun control) to write something explaining the argument why “guns are good.” To many who live outside the US (and many who live there as well), the prevalence of guns seems like a scary mistake, part of redneck culture and sign of a failed or failing state

But are there legitimate arguments for widespread gun use? Mr. Rober Swan, a former U.S. Marine and Professor of Community Policing as well as anarchistic muralist, marathon runner, and recovering academic currently living in Oregon., is here to explain the case for guns.

It’s a long read, but worth it. While I personally disagree with him rather vehemently, I do think he makes some interesting points and I’ve definitely gained a deeper understanding of the issue.

(At) Home on the Range

(At) Home on the Range

Bloomberg’s Gunfight
—by Robert Swan

“It’s controversial but, first thing is all of your, 95 percent, 95 percent of your murders and murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take the description and Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities 15 to 25. That’s true in New York, it’s true in virtually every city in America. And that’s where the real crime is. You’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of the people that are getting killed.” —Michael Bloomberg speaking to a largely white, wealthy audience at the Aspen Institute (Colorado) [Ignoring the profound inaccuracy of his data, Bloomberg has since advocated the disarming of all minority males between the ages of 15 & 25, regardless of criminal record]

Guns.  For many lefties in the U.S, the very idea (let alone the reality) of firearms evoke a great deal of concern, if not horror and outrage.  Why?  There are many reasons for the left’s generally profound aversion to guns but the most obvious and basic reason is that firearms are designed, exclusively, to kill other living creatures.

I get that.

But why is a white, male billionaire—with an abysmal policing and crime-control record in New York City and a clearly racist policy intent— telling us how to control gun violence?  And, more importantly, why are we (lefties) listening?  Admittedly, the left is not always aware that the prepackaged and recycled anti-gun message they subscribe to in the policy process today has become a uniquely Bloomberg product—complete with racist & classist characteristics and include a fairly vast expansion of the American penal and juridical system.  Nonetheless, the fact that Michael Bloomberg—who, over the years, has identified as a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent (e.g., whatever works)—is the primary financial driver behind the current spate of new, state-level gun control policies should give us pause.

As a lefty myself (I am left…far left…of President Obama)—and as a former U.S. Marine and Professor of Community Policing—I understand all too well the horror that guns inflict upon our world.  Whether we are talking about war, mass shooting events, suicide or neighborhood-level crime, the profound waste of life is paraded before us every night on cable news networks, and all day, every day on social media.

In addition to these distorted, for-profit visions of mayhem, some of us have actual (as opposed to vicarious) experience with gun violence.  As a professor of criminal justice and policing living in central California for two years, my sleep was frequently punctuated by 3:00AM gun battles between the Norteños and Sureños, two ferociously combative criminal gangs that have made a battleground of California.

….and yes, they had weapons and ammunition magazines that violated California’s rigid firearms restrictions…but I digress….

I won’t delve into crime data too much here, since I think that we can all agree that guns are destructive and that people will, with some frequency, use guns for nefarious purposes.  They always have and they always will.  However, I think if we’re honest, we can also agree that most gun owners in America do not use their firearms for nefarious or destructive purposes—if we limit our agreement on that to strictly person-on-person violence.  (e.g., I acknowledge that my vegan and vegetarian friends likely find hunting to be a destructive, if not nefarious, pursuit).

What I would like to address here is the political and social value related to one’s ability to possess firearms in a democratic society. Indeed, what is largely forgotten, misunderstood or intentionally neglected in the typical narratives surrounding guns is that the right to legally possess and deploy guns represent something much larger than a right to kill and maim.  In fact, the right to own a firearm in the U.S. represents an opportunity for citizens to exercise a freedom usually reserved for military and law enforcement in other countries.  This freedom has, traditionally, conditioned our sense of individual responsibility and efficacy in relation to individual and collective well-being. Importantly, the cyclical, distorted and heavily mediated national discussion over firearms has had a large impact on the many debates regarding the limits of freedom (more generally) in the U.S.  It is through these hysterical media discussions—and resulting policies— that the moral entrepreneurs seeking to politically profit from gun violence are able to infantilize an entire nation.  After all, if you can regulate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, what can’t you regulate?

The fierce opposition to firearms restrictions is not—as the anti-gun internet trolls would have you believe—about gun-loving rednecks who want to stock-pile weapons for a zombie apocalypse or government overthrow.  Rather, the ferocity of the gun debate is related to citizen resistance to a creeping fascism; a softening of our resolve to be responsible for our own actions.  It is about fighting to remain a grownup in an increasingly childish and selfish society.

The Symbolic Value of Gun Ownership:  “Yup, Grownups Live Here”

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”—The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Before I address the practical value of legal gun ownership in the U.S., it is useful to trot out a few statistics, tropes, myths and symbolic realities related to gun crime and the legal right to own a firearm.

First of all—and though I (sort of) promised not to talk crime statistics—it is useful to point out a few, important gun crime statistical confusions.

Contrary to President Obama’s assertion that “mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.  It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency,” in fact, mass violence has been declining in the U.S since the mid-1990s and mass violence (and violence in general) does happen in advanced countries and, with some frequency.  Of course, it all depends on how you define “advanced.”  Russia, for example, has a homicide rate 2.4 times greater than the U.S. and Brazil’s homicide rate is almost five times higher.

That being said, one really shouldn’t compare crime rates between completely different rule of law systems.  In comparing our system to a similar system like, oh say, Britain we might be able to make some assertions about gun crime that do not distort the issue.  Even though the U.S. has the most guns (88 per 100 citizens), the gun homicide rate in the U.S is only 2.8 per 100,000.  In England and Wales, the gun homicide rate is considerably lower at .07 per 100,000 and Northern Ireland is at .28 per 100,000 citizens.

Interestingly, both the U.K. and the U.S.—all in the name of promoting democratic freedom in developing countries— are major exporters of small arms, which means both are spreading the love beyond their own borders…but I digress (again)…

However, when factoring in all other crimes, Britain actually has three times as much crime as the United States.  So, while we might argue that fewer guns means fewer gun crimes, we can’t say that fewer guns equals less crime.  In fact, one might make the argument that more guns equals less overall crime.  Some do make that argument, but that’s beyond the scope of the argument here.

Crime and statistical literacy is also a huge deficit when it comes to public discussions on crime. In fact, most people don’t understand how crime is distributed. For example, many foreign nationals appear to fear becoming a victim of a violent crime if they visit the U.S.  Well, that may be a valid fear if you plan on vacationing in the shittiest parts of Chicago, L.A., Boston, Stockton or Cincinnati, but generally speaking, most people are not at risk for victimization at the hands of gun wielding thugs.  In fact, most people in the United States are quite safe primarily because crime is unevenly distributed and tends to be concentrated in specific areas.  Any simple internet crime mapping tool will tell you that (or a good travel agent).

So, now that the unequal distribution of risk idea has been sorted out, let’s talk about why the U.S. is prone to more aggressive types of criminal behavior. Gun-wielding criminal behavior in particular.  The good news is that criminologists Stephen F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld have already written a book about this (5th or 6th edition, actually) called “Crime and the American Dream.” In this macro-level criminological research, guns are not the primary villain.  The economic system is.

In fact, it is our particularly virulent form of capitalism, combined with diminished social safety nets, our collective disconnect from the well-being of…well… the collective, and a culture of “winning at all costs” that has led us to where we are today.  Recall (if you saw it) the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” with Will Ferrell.  In one flashback scene Ferrell’s father tells him that “If you ain’t first, then your last.”  That’s America in a nutshell.  Guns, then, are simply an efficient way to be “number one” when all other legal pathways to success have been blocked—typically through some kind of legal or economic subterfuge inherent in the American political and economic system.

In addition to comparisons between the U.S. and other advanced countries using Messner & Rosenfeld’s criminological ideas, we also know that more diverse countries have more conflict.  Conflict, from a Marxist perspective at least, usually means more crime.  Less diverse advanced countries have far less crime than the U.S. simply because there is more consensus on collective goals.  In the U.S., we have an absolutely terrifying record of economic and political oppression by elites and almost no point in our history have we reached a consensus on anything (Hell, we’re still fighting battles over the confederate flag for crying out loud).

Do we need guns?  In my opinion, we only need guns for symbolic reasons, though there are many other practical reasons to own guns (e.g., self-defense, hunting & etc.).  For me at least, the symbolic Constitutional placeholder role is enough to keep gun ownership legal in this country.  The question really is, do we want to do away with our right to own guns?

Yes, the right to own a firearm in the U.S. is firmly entrenched in the U.S. Constitution and recent U.S. Supreme Court cases (See: D.C. v. Heller).  The courts have cited a number of practical and constitutional reasons for maintaining this right, but what does having this right mean in terms of symbolic value?  Well, it means at least a few things:

1) It means grown-ups live here.  Not only do we have the right (in theory) to speak, pray and associate freely (not to mention enjoy the right to a fair and humane justice system), but we also (in theory) have the right to carry and deploy firearms in order to defend those rights.  For example, I would argue that the outcome in South Carolina would have been much different if at least ONE person in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had been packing heat. High capacity heat.

In short, (and to borrow from a right-wing trope for a minute here), the Second Amendment is not about the right to hunt or target practice (see: Tench Coxe, a contemporary of James Madison).  That being said—and regardless of the internet “revolution” gossip surrounding the Bundy standoff with the BLM (e.g., armed insurrection)—an interpretation of the Second Amendment does not (with any seriousness today at least) suggest that a large-scale, armed revolt against the U.S. government should or could occur—especially given the size and capability of the U.S. military.  But what it does mean is that the right to own guns is an individual right, a right to act in defense against violent attacks upon your person (or others) based on race, gender, ethnicity, political beliefs, sexual identity or sexual orientation.  It is a tool that individuals can use when faced with unjust violence at the hands of unruly mobs or individuals.  It is a tool that need never come out of the toolbox and serve only as a symbolic reminder that you are, in fact, a grown-up living in a free society (like the Swiss!).  This is how the Second Amendment has traditionally been used, not as right-wing extremists have depicted…or the way it has been depicted in really nifty zombie apocalypse TV shows.

While there continue to be vigorous legal and political debates on the meaning of the Second Amendment (and appropriate restrictions), ultimately, being a grown-up in America is tightly coupled to the right to own and deploy firearms, as well as to all other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.  Eviscerating (or attempting to nullify) the Second Amendment seems to be less about increasing public safety than it is about decreasing public power.  It is no accident that Bloomberg’s gun control policies and proposals seem to be guided by a patriarchal and infantilizing impulse—it is the general zeitgeist of all Sugar Daddies after all. Everywhere.  Always.

“As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”—Tench Coxe writing to James Madison on the 2nd Amendment as an individual right.

2) The right to own firearms in the U.S. context also means that because you are a grown-up exercising your right to own and potentially deploy a firearm that you will be held accountable for your actions.  In our system, “rights” also include “responsibility.” This, then, is the essence of the “freedom” trope found so often in pro-gun narratives.  They have a point.  If the rights of citizens are reduced through infantilizing public policy (e.g., reductions in the opportunity to be responsible for your actions though the evisceration of your right to act in the first place), then a key element involved in being a free person has been removed.  Yep, in this country, it’s all fun and games until you yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater (or, alternatively, let a round fly accidentally from your concealed six-shooter while watching that movie).  To try to prevent the misuse of a given right by removing that right is both tyrannical and, frankly, nonsensical (as evidenced by gun crime data…er, hem…Chicago!).

The Political & Social Value of Gun Ownership: Personal Efficacy and Political Action

Contrary to media portrayals of gun owners, most of us spend a fair amount of time thinking about the responsibility that comes with gun ownership—if for no other reason than our handling of firearms has the ability to significantly impact the lives of others.  This level of responsibility is consistent with the other responsibilities people in a democratic society are given (e.g., paying taxes, driving a car, voting & etc.).

In my experience, people who live in states with heavy-handed and overly restrictive gun laws are the angriest, least efficacious, least trusting (paranoid, actually) and least mindful people I have ever met. What seems to be lacking in these states are feelings of trust (about anything); high levels of fear; and, importantly, low-levels of personal and political efficacy among the general population (though, interestingly, elites never seem to feel marginalized in these states.  See: voting participation data for California, for example).

These may be false correlations but it is my opinion nonetheless.  It is such a strongly felt opinion that after only two years I left a tenure track teaching job in California because of it.  Indeed, I may have short-circuited my academic career over it.  However, it is also my opinion that there is nothing more detrimental to human efficacy than a distrustful governance system emboldened (and empowered) by a coercive political culture.

The political cultures in these states tend to be fairly coercive across policy domains, not just in relation to firearms.  This is an important cultural feature to be aware of because, as some criminologists have argued, coercive political cultures are usually related to citizens’ distrust in each other and in their government.  Coercion (as a governing tactic) is the last resort in states in which voluntary, collaborate action is no longer possible—or perceived by the state to be no longer possible.  Thus—paradoxically— the problem of gun violence goes largely unresolved in states possessing coercive political cultures because, as criminologists and political scientists are well aware of, effective crime control is a co-produced outcome achieved through the voluntary collaboration of citizens and a state’s penal and political systems (e.g., community building and community policing are effective gun violence reduction strategies that embraces the co-production idea.  SEE: Boston Gun Project & David Kennedy’s work).

The social and political outcome described above are not due simply to firearms restrictions, of course, but, the over-regulation of firearms in these states tends to correlate with the over-regulation of everything else.  California is a good case in point, and, as I stated earlier, the catalyst for my current thinking on the relationship between gun ownership and personal and political efficacy.  What is interesting is that as ineffective as current gun control proposals and policies actually are (see: California, New York & Illinois for examples), they continue to dominate the interests of state legislatures—even in states that don’t have much crime at all.  Why?

                        Purchasing a Firearm in California:

  • Generally, all firearms purchases and transfers, including private party transactions and sales at gun shows, must be made through a California licensed dealer under the Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS) process. California law imposes a 10-day waiting period before a firearm can be released to a purchaser or transferee.
  • Purchasers of handguns must provide proof of California residency, such as a utility bill, residential lease, property deed, or government-issued identification (other than a drivers license or other DMV-issued identification), and either (1) possess a Handgun Safety Certificate (HSC) plus successfully complete a safety demonstration with their recently purchased handgun or (2) qualify for an HSC exemption.  (Pen. Code, § § 26800-26850.)

    Purchasing a Firearm in Oregon:

  • Buying from an FFL (Guns store/ dealer):
  • A person must be at least 18 years of age to purchase a rifle or shotgun. To purchase a handgun, a person must be at least 21 years of age.
  • Must be Oregon Resident.
  • Pay $10 background fee.  Wait 10-30 minutes.
  • Leave store with firearm once background check clears.
  • Until August 9th, 2015, Oregonians are still allowed to privately buy and sell firearms to each other with no background check.

The Left is Taking Marching Orders From a Scoundrel…whaaaat?

Both the political left and political right in America seem alarmingly oblivious to the nasty history of gun control and seem equally oblivious to the positive role firearms have played in America’s historical fights for equality. Indeed, gun control has profoundly racist roots (see: “Negroes and the Gun: A Tradition of Black Arms by Nicholas Johnson).  How else do elites (government and business) cling to political power than by disarming disgruntled populations?  In the case of African Americans, gun rights have traditionally been denied (often violently) because political and economic elites correctly assumed that an armed, marginalized population would be dangerous to their interests (see also: “slave catchers,” black resistance and the origins of modern law enforcement).

Michael Bloomberg has continued the tradition of stripping African Americans of their guns, first in New York (e.g., “Stop and Frisk”) and now, nationally through his shell groups, Mom’s Demand Action & Everytown For Gun Safety.  Admittedly, not all liberals understand the relationship that Bloomberg has to current gun control policies.  Most people aren’t even aware of his abysmal racial record in New York City.  But Bloomberg understands them.  He is well aware of the left’s dogma surrounding gun control and has used it, I would argue, against them.

Today, Bloomberg’s policy ideas are designed—at least implicitly— to limit firearms access to all people of color as well as to members of the poor and working class, regardless of race.  These are the most marginalized populations in America and, thanks in part to America’s general “war on crime,” and specifically, to America’s nonsensical “war on drugs”, many people in these groups have become legally disenfranchised for low-level drug felonies (which of course, makes them ineligible to either vote or own firearms).  The public safety messages broadcast by Bloomberg and his cynical crew are, really, thinly disguised calls for racial exclusion that pander (shamelessly) to the always poignant fears of the white middle class.  The left—to my chagrin— is particularly gullible to Bloomberg’s message.  But, in their defense, it is a message that is typically cloaked behind the image of self-actualizing mom’s trying to “save the children.”  The King of Sugar Daddy’s has actually coopted the very notion of motherhood (e.g., Mom’s Demand Action) and put it in service to elite interests!   It’s pretty fucking clever, actually.

By most accounts, Michael Bloomberg is a clever scoundrel.  For the lefties (like me) who pay attention to these things, Bloomberg’s “Stop-and Frisk” policies in New York City were touted as effective crime control but, in fact, were both ineffective at reducing gun violence and horribly destructive to communities of color and police legitimacy (see: ACLU New York).  For ten years Bloomberg stubbornly forced his cops to engage in this behavior, and for ten years communities of color were oppressed and marginalized by these race-based stops, searches & seizures.  So, then, one has to ask: “Why are left-leaning groups taking marching orders from Bloomberg and his well-funded shell groups, Every Town for Gun Safety and Mom’s Demand Action?”  Well, there are a number of factors at play here, but I’ll start with the theoretical.

Some critical sociologists have hypothesized that the way elites control the general population in a democratic system is “by proxy”, rather than directly (as is the case in true dictatorships, usually though the use of terror campaigns, mass incarcerations, executions, mass torture and arbitrary arrest).  It is also, for some sociologists, a gender and class issue.  To fit the Bloomberg Plan into a theoretical framework such as this, is not difficult: 1) Billionaire White Dude; 2) Empowers (through money and political support) upwardly mobile white women (Mom’s Demand Action); & 3) …to divide the working class and poor on the issue of guns.  More importantly, as Mom’s Demand Action recruitment messages indicate, this strategy also divides the poor and working class by gender, as the MDA appeal to poor and working class women is pretty simple: “Do something about violence against children.”  Certainly, it seems to be true that if you want to push an agenda all you need to do is trot out dead children… in this case, it is not designed to “save children” but, rather, to divide the households of the poor and working class by offering a false sense of efficacy to women who otherwise possess very little (if any) power.

Universal Background Checks and the Politics of Trust

In what world are policies designed to increase the number of restrictive laws—while simultaneously decreasing public safety and public trust—acceptable?  Well, the world in which wealthy elites seek to control increasingly unhappy and marginalized populations (see: John Irwin & “rabble management”).  As scholar Donald Black has asserted over and over again for decades, the best way to disable a society is to increase the distance between individuals by increasing the amount of formal law that separates them in the first place. Simply, law is a barrier to personal efficacy and collective action.  In some cases, this is a good thing (see: “Crime as Self-help, by Donald Black).  However, too much law is coercive to healthy social systems.  In criminal justice and political science, this translates in to the evisceration of informal social control (e.g., collaborative social networks) while simultaneously increasing the importance of formal social control (e.g., police and prisons).  Welcome to Bloomberg’s world, where more law means more cops, more courts and more prisons (but not necessarily less crime or healthier communities).

As Bloomberg’s moral and political entrepreneurs know all too well, adding more restrictions on gun ownership is a good way to go if you want to diminish the health of a given political culture.  Recently, in Oregon—a political culture that has traditionally enjoyed strong, left-leaning libertarian impulses— Senate Bill 941 (with generous financial backing from Bloomberg) was fast-tracked (as “emergency” legislation) through the Oregon legislature and signed by the governor this year. In simple terms (though the law is anything but simple), SB 941 requires police background checks on the private transfer of firearms. Traditionally, Oregonians have been trusted to conduct these transfers on their own.  Not anymore.

The emergence of SB 941 was especially confusing given that Oregon has enjoyed a declining violent crime rate for some time, to include gun homicides and robberies (UCR, 2013). My confusion was resolved once I realized the role that Bloomberg (and his “astroturfing” strategy) played in pushing his agenda in Oregon.  “Astroturfing,” in a nutshell, is a fake “grassroots” effort designed to manipulate public opinion for private gain. In particular, “astroturfers” try to manipulate public opinion by using false or misleading data and marginalize anyone who disagrees with them.  It is an effective trick, especially among a largely media-illiterate population.

Unfortunately, the astroturfing efforts by these Bloomberg-backed groups are not true efforts to do anything about crime, but, rather, are efforts to radically change our political culture. The resulting culture of control (Garland, 2001)—as is the case in California and New York, for example—will become increasingly punitive and coercive.  In short, the politics of trust (or distrust, as the case may be) has come to Oregon.  While Bloomberg’s rhetoric may assert that the “NRA is resisting positive change in Oregon,” the truth is that many Oregonian’s are—without any NRA influence at all (they contributed nothing in defense of SB941)— resisting Bloomberg’s effort to foment distrust among the poor and working class.  Simply, Bloomberg’s effort to eviscerate informal social control and divide the poor and working class in Oregon did not go unnoticed.  The four State Senators currently enduring a recall effort can attest to that.

Back to being a grown up….

My argument is that the right to own guns is an essential right and responsibility in the American democratic system.  Primarily, this is because it is through the preservation of this right that citizens maintain their sense of individual efficacy; their sense of gravitas; their basic sense of responsibility for the well-being of others.  Smart phones and video games won’t do it (unless what we really want are a nation of distracted children).  You don’t need to own guns in order to appreciate the contribution the right to owning them has conferred on the nation as a whole.  Though admittedly, it is hard to see that through the fog of mediated mayhem.

Of course, my argument may not resonate with some, and may, in fact, create feelings of hostility in others (Hello internet trolls!).

I get that.

However, as a lefty, non-hunting, non-criminal, non-violent progressive person, I have found myself defending this right more and more, which puts me at odds with the people with whom I usually agree (hello social progressives!)… and in bed with folks I don’t (hello angry rednecks!).

The issues surrounding gun ownership and gun violence have become too dichotomous, too polarized, too distorted.  “Balancing” safety concerns has come to mean eviscerating a key Constitutional right.  Anomalous gun crime events (which are declining) have become overemphasized and the role that a healthy government—fueled by a critical, efficacious citizenry—has been minimized or ignored altogether.  Unfortunately, our collective fear of guns is greater than our fear of bad government—a perverse and paradoxical outcome for citizens who think themselves freedom-loving, independent thinkers.  Right now the dangers to our democratic system do not originate from the barrel of a gun but, rather, from Bloomberg’s wallet and the misplaced middle-class white fear he panders to.

Yeti Rants: Making Yourself Another Face

If I were to ask you how you felt about foreigners’ behavior in other countries, what would you say? Do you believe that people should follow the customs of the countries they were born in/currently reside in? That paying respect to different customs is the mark of maturity and wisdom?

Or do you think one’s own values trump the local flavor? That personal integrity stays the same regardless of where your body happens to reside?

Of course most people will operate somewhat between those two extremes. Both of these seam reasonable but each have a flip side as well. On one hand, what if you’re an asshole who ignores customs in favor of your own actions? Taken to extremes, this is sociopathic behavior. On the other hand, does it matter if traditional values are based on superstition, religion, and other falsehoods?

Taking a place on the spectrum, wherever you are, does not justify the kind of two-faced Shakespearean hypocrisy I allude to in the blog title. It increasingly seems to me that people support causes or deride them with no thought to the logic behind their rushed judgements.

To take two recent events, a controversy currently going on in Korea is that a religious group is opposing the efforts by the LBGT community to throw a pride parade. Traditionally, Koreans have not supported or even acknowledged homosexuality. In a country that is over 50 percent Christian (the fundy American flavor at that) they have a holy book that uses the word “abomination when discussing the issue.

To most of us, this is ridiculous. Giving in to bigoted and superstitious religious fundamentalists who draw moral lines between what is natural and what is not in their own didactic terms goes against every impulse of modernity and open-minded thinking. The values that brought us everything good in the world, basically.

You can see for yourself how with “tradition” on your side (even a relatively recent tradition) you are free from the pressing demands logic, the stress of making any sense at all. This looks like satire but it is actually being handed out to foreigners in the streets of Seoul.


Amid the zany claims of 5000 years of “great moral virtue” (some Christians claim that Korea developed Catholicism separately from the West) and equating homosexuality with bestiality and incest, there is one valid, legal point. It’s a shitty law, but it is a law.  You can fight to get the law changed (I’d agree you should fight to get the law changed) but you cannot do this and then argue that customs and traditions should be generally be respected.

Backpackers Eleanor Hawkins and Emil Kaminski, among others, are also in the news. Recently they stripped naked on top on Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo. Their party (as much as could be tracked down and arrested) was jailed, fined almost 1000 pounds each, and deported.

A couple days later, and earthquake killed almost 20 people and stranded hundreds more. Many cited the taking off of clothing by Miss Hawkins and Mr Kaminski as the reason for this tragedy. Among those assigning such  blame is Malaysia’s State Tourism Culture and Environment Minister Masidi Manjun.

They actually didn’t break any laws, only custom. And yet the overwhelming response to taking off their clothes in public was that they were shallow, stupid, and irresponsible. These are the best things that were said.

In Mr. Kaminski’s own words, he recieved “thousands of pieces of hate mail” with many “death threats” labeling him a “cultural terrorist” and a “pig shit asshole” with wishes that he could be pushed off the mountain or get his head chopped off. In one internet poll, 91 percent of over 2200 hundred voters agreed that visitors should be mindful of local culture. A highly rated comment one site sums up the general attitude: If you don’t agree with their laws, that’s fine, but just don’t violate them while you are visiting the country. Otherwise, don’t go to that country.

Admittedly, much of the vitriol Kaminski received was after he mocked locals, their officials, and their customs in a snarky video that certainly did his PR no good. His counter: If local religion prohibits certain actions, then local believers of that religion should not engage in it, but they cannot expect everyone to obey their archaic and idiotic rules.

If he sounds combative, keep in mind that in addition to death threats he has been accused of causing the death of almost a score of people. Also keep in mind that he seems to be a bit of a dick. That aside, isn’t his attitude largely how we Westerners feel about the local religion in Korea? Is it not both archaic and idiotic to demonize homosexuality and to blame earthquakes on literal demons angered by the sight of bums, boobs, and wangs?

In fact, blaming natural disasters on the moral failings of others is old hat for those who fight for tradition.  In 2014, UKIP councilor David Silvester blamed punishing floods in the UK on the passing of a same-sex marriage bill. But the list of disasters blamed on the LBGT community and their desire to get married is nearly limitless. Little did you know, earthquakes and hurricanes and 9-11 itself were all because of people not respecting tradition.

I mentioned the Malaysia incident in some detail because it so recent. But similar instances in Cambodia and all over South East Asia periodically crop up. Hell, last year, Malaysia put a person in jail for 6 six months because they filmed their friends playing naked on a private beach. (And no, playing in this instance is not a euphemism.) It seems to be verboten to suggest that these customs and traditions are out of place in the modern world. If so believe this you then also must believe either that your opinion only matters in the country you were born in or that some ignorant traditions are worth keeping and others must be discarded, but with no objective criteria to know how.

If the the case of the would-be paraders and the naked backpackers are substantially different, I fail to see in what respect. Whether visiting a country or living there, there shouldn’t be an obligation to follow the most narrowly defined or anachronistic customs as defined by zealots. Perhaps the right to be naked is not a vital one, but assigning any moral decrepitude or indecency to our non-clothed forms is just as idiotic as equating two men kissing with a man humping a sheep.

So … how do you feel about customs, traditions, and the need to acknowledge  them?

Students on Superheroes, Cats, MERS, and more.

Fair warning: this post might be boring for non-teachers. (Come to think of it, this might actually be quite boring for teachers as well.)

But these are some of my favorite results from my students over the last couple months on a variety of subjects. I really like getting insight into their thoughts, especially funneled into a foreign language they have a good but imperfect understanding of.

“Mers like camels. But it doesn’t like clean.”

How we all feel right now

How we all feel right now

The below entry is from one of the sweetest, smartest girls I have ever taught. There’s apparently no antidote for the monstrosity that is ugliness when you’re in the 5th grade.

he is smart but little ugly

he is smart but little ugly

The years are going by so quickly, but when I was a kid they seemed to last forever. Or so I thought. For this student, her mind is blown that the year is already half over.  Me too, Yuna!

even at ten years old, time flies

even at ten years old, time flies

One very bright 3rd grader on his favorite animal.

the cat is cat

the cat is cat

Just a funny little exchange that came about when I asked them to create their own superheroes.

How are you?

How are you?

This is from a very quiet middle school student who rarely speaks. I’m not sure if she has a (hidden) quirky sense of humor or was just annoyed at having to free write in English.

Lector's Fast Food

Lector’s Fast Food

I had one class read a bit of L Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (our book is currently on an inexplicable Xmas kick.) Then I had them continue the story, or draw a picture, or include a comic. This is what one of the nicest girls in class did. Thanks for the clarification, Chloe!



How I spent 1000 dollars on a bottle of wine (or the 60 hours I spent in China)

I always joke that Korea is everyone’s backup plan but in December 2014 it was my lifeline after a disastrous (albeit brief) stint in China. I snuck out of my hotel at 6 in the morning, caught a cab to the train station, a train to the plane station, and then that night was back in Seoul (and my old dorm, no less) after being away for 2/1/2 years. This was exactly 6 months ago today.

Surreal doesn’t even begin to explain how I felt. But what happened in China? I invested a lot of money in the flight and the visa. Why did I flee so quickly?

Trivial Trivia Prize

Trivial Trivia Prize

Here is the full tale.

In November I accepted a job at a newish school in China in a tiny no-name town (of a few million) named Cuxi a few hours out of Shanghai. This place wasn’t even mentioned in the Lonely Planet; nor did it have a McDonalds (not that I care but it is a good mark of “civilization.”)

There were red flags aplenty, not least of which was that it apparently involved some work with 2 year-olds, the head teacher instructed me to fake my TEFL via photoshop, and, you know, it was in a boring, industrial city in China. But I took the job because a) I was dead broke b) it paid quite well (500 a month more than I’m making now, in fact), and c) I was told I had my afternoons completely free (which I wanted to spend writing.)

Without airing too much dirty laundry, the work environment was not pleasant. Co-workers initially struck me as petty–they talked badly about everyone they knew. Really badly. Some of them seemed blatantly unfriendly to me, and I later found out I had replaced one of their friends who had been fired. (Which a reasonable adult wouldn’t hold against the replacement, but as we shall see….)

Classwise was tough as well. I was in charge of a group of 2-year olds who spent the first 45-60 minutes crying because they’d never left their mommies before.  I had known some of my classes would have the little fellas, but it turned out that all of them did. My first official teaching in class was observed by the office manager, the owner, and another suited, frowning woman whose exact role I never learned.

The last teacher (understandably) didn’t leave me any notes so I had no idea what they had been taught. I had no time to myself as I was shadowing classes and there were no pre-existing resources (and the printer was down) so I scrawled some letters onto pages from my notebook and made impromptu flash cards. I planned some activities for G, including being goats.

Most of the kids cried when they saw me but it actually went as well as could reasonably be expected. (But there’s that R-word again.) Afterward, I got 47 minutes of notes after the class from the head teacher, all critical. It was deemed disastrous enough the parent’s observation classes planned for the next day was postponed. (No complaints for me there.) My defense: “What do you expect the first time I meet a dozen 2 year-olds? It takes time to make relationships with kids. And they’re babies.” This didn’t seem to matter much. I was additionally criticized for not having pretty enough flash cards.

Every afternoon (which I thought I’d have off) I had to wake the babies up from their naps and help them change their diapers. Then try to teach these groggy, grumpy babies some phonics. The teachers of older students *did* get this time off, so it hadn’t been completely false.

So this was a challenge, a big challenge but that was only half of what went wrong. My co-workers (with the exception of two guys excluded from the cool crowd) weren’t very nice. (Later, I would tell this story to a friend who had worked for years in both Korea and China and he said that he had largely found that the expats who teach in China tend to be more bitter and unhappy than those in Korea. Which I understand is a huge generalization.)

But I can say these guys and I did not get along. From jetlag and the stress of a new job, I was barely sleeping. My third night there, we went to pubquiz. I was exhausted and shouldn’t have gone, but I was still trying to make an effort to socialize and, oh yeah, I do like pub quizzes.

Cuxi isn’t big enough or foreigner savvy to actually have a pub with pub quizzes, but the 10 or so foreigners in town (including the guy I replaced) took turns writing their own quizzes and got hosted in a chill spot. A cool idea, and the quiz the night I went was super well-written and a lot of fun. But I joined the two unpopular guys (from Hong Kong and Pakistan) and we did very well. The head teacher’s boyfriend, who was the snottiest of the lot, grew increasingly acerbic. When we passed the sheets around for correction, he began to mark our answers wrong based on handwriting. Deliberately misreading letters.

It’s no secret that although I am typically pretty chill, when people act like deliberate arseholes to me, I quickly get pissed me off. I got up and asked him if he really was going to act like that. (In my head, he smirked, though perhaps real life is more nuanced than that.) He definitely did say “Start marking our answers right and we’ll mark yours right.”

I just left. I had no idea where I was staying but asked the bartender downstairs to draw me a little map. While waiting, one of the teachers (the one who had made it most clear she didn’t like me) ran down and confronted me. “Where do you think you’re going? Just storming off? Stick around like a man.”

“I am not going to sit around when someone acts like an asshole to me.” I said and walked off. She ran after me, shouting, but I ignored her. Later, I wanted to ask her why it mattered so much to her. Or at all. But you can probably answer that for yourself.

Tired as I was, I couldn’t really sleep that night. If I had been stressed before, you can imagine how much worse things were now. All night I worked on my apology, acknowledging jet-lag and exhaustion as factors in my behavior.

The next day though, I was persona non gratis. Despite my disagreement being with the head teacher’s boyfriend, the head teacher never said anything. At lunch, nobody sat by me (they made a point of going past my table to an empty one) and they made it obvious they were talking about me with repeated stares and giggles. One of the guys from my team the night before found me and presented me with the bottle of wine  we had won the night before. (Apparently we had still won.) “They were pissed I didn’t open it last night but you won it. I wanted to save it for you.” It was a very nice gesture and I thanked him.  “They have been talking mad shit about you all day,” he told me. “The Cuxi QQ group for foreigners has been changed to Gluto.” (The night before, they had pretended to read one of my answers as Gluto instead of Pluto.)

The office manager was rushing to find me an apartment as I was staying in a hotel on their dime. Apartments in China are cheap but you have to pay three months in advance. After work, I walked home along a crowded street with no sidewalks. I had taken the school’s VPN on my flashdrive so at my hotel I chatted with my family and a buddy in Korea. I was thinking of going back to the US–it was almost christmas, but my buddy insisted I come stay with him. I had to decide then and there–once I put money down for the apartment, I was committed.

It was a really hard decision. But with all aspects of life there frankly unpleasant, I bailed. I felt bad about screwing the school. My first hagwon in Korea was added to the blacklist and shut down soon after I left but I stuck it out an entire year. This was far worse. Anyway, they recovered quickly.  I left on a thursday and the school had a new teacher by the next monday. And as of today, 6 months later, they still haven’t returned my MA to me.

I had another false start in January, where I accepted another job with red flags and a bad gut feeling and that one too, I left early. But as of March I started my current position and although I wasted lots and lots of money and time (not to mention the effort that went into the fake TESL) it was worth it. My current job is not free from the typical hagwon silliness, but the students are fantastic and overall it really is were I wanted to be.

I don’t think things always work out for the best, but I did learn to trust my instincts a bit more. Decisions made from panic or fear rarely achieve fruition. And so while I spent over a thousand dollars to, in effect, trade my MA for a cheap bottle of wine, if I can remember to trust myself a bit more it might have all been worth it.

Ignorance is Dasieobsneun Gippeum

An American guy I once met in Nepal two years in a row was incredulous when I turned down his offer of pot. “You come to Nepal and you don’t smoke?”

Smoking wasn’t the main reason he came–he was attached to the Kathmandu tattoo convention–but it certainly played a big part of his experience.  My not taking him up on his offer seemed in his mind to be like going to Rome and not eating pasta, to france and missing the Eiffel tower, like going to London and not getting rained on.

Tattoo Convention 2014

Tattoo Convention 2014

Interestingly, the guy had never set near the Himalaya, or any other mountains in Nepal for that matter, which put him in the minority of tourists there. I don’t think it had ever occurred to him that hiking in the mountains was even an option. He didn’t know the pleasure of striding into a new village, the thrill of seeing children and goats playing together, the brash music of Tibetan monastery over 3000 meters into the alpine wilderness.

Nor should he. I’m not picking on the guy. One of the pleasant parts of travel–of life, really–is that we can pick and choose our experiences. As our friend Cat Stevens says, “There’s a million ways to be.” But this attitude is rife amongst travelers.

In Korea, this mindset takes on a very specific form. This comic below sums up the attitude perfectly.

Easiest writing system in the world and the people who refuse to learn it.

Easiest writing system in the world and the people who refuse to learn it.

Never mind that it falsely conflates the unhappy foreigner with a non-Korean speaker (many of the unhappiest [or at least most vocal] expats here are quite proudly fluent in Korean).  The judgement here is clear: if you don’t speak Korean, you don’t deserve to complain/are lazy/and deservedly negative. This is a widespread belief the permeates much of the foreigner culture here. To be fair, there are absolutely some people like that. The comic isn’t entirely wrong. But it misses an important concept.

Even more so than Nepal, I think Korea has a real variety of options. Things like jimjilbang (spa), galbi (meat restaurant), and shopping are the favorite things for many foreigners here. Maybe most. In 3+ years here, I haven’t done any of those (apart from grocery shopping, of course.) Likewise, the long urban strolls I take most weekends are not on many other people’s list of favorite activities.

As you have no doubt guessed, I am including learning Korean as an interest. There is undoubtedly a bit of cultural Imperialism to this categorization–you don’t have to learn other languages when you speak English. Some people love learning new languages.  Other people don’t easily pick up new alphabets, or don’t care to. There are reasons not to as well. By not speaking Korean, you can exist in a sort of simplified Zen state where life is simple and uncomplicated. A good friend of mine calls this “the bubble.”

There are many advantages to learning Korean, of course. Reading signs, catching buses, chatting with co-workers are all worthwhile rewards. Participating in the culture you live in can be important. It can help communicate with students and is useful in a million other ways too. Learning Korean is a great thing to do.

Korean and English

There are also benefits, not least financial and liver-related, to not spending lots of money at the bar each weekend. Or to hiking a couple times a month. Or to walking instead of catching cabs, not eating meat, going to the gym. Many things that most of us don’t consistently do.

The idea that people who don’t speak Korean are lazy or not making an effort is  an unexamined position. There are good reasons to learn Korean, and if one was planning to live here for a long time it would make a lot of sense. But there are good reasons to do lots of things most people don’t do. And there are good reasons not to learn Korean as well. Just as it’s okay to go to Nepal for a tattoo convention and not go hiking.

These are my thoughts. I would like to hear yours.

How to be a Traveler – 15 tips for Long Term Nomadry

I’d like to begin with a word about budgeting. There is some dispute amongst travelers, with some camps accusing others of spending way too indiscriminately.  The other side argues it’s not a contest and who are they to get judged for how they want to spend their money? This ultimately begs questions of why you are traveling, and for how long but the way I see is that all other factors being more or less the same,  if you love something, you generally want to do more of it. I love reading and I read every day. This doesn’t make me better than someone who reads one book every couple months, but it does mean I have a different relationship with reading, even though technically we are both “readers.”

In other words, if you are spending less money to travel for longer, you have a closer relationship to travel/backpacking/nomadry. And, almost invariably, spending less money will create a closer connection to the people and world around you. (Money often serves as a buffer from reality).

(One other disclaimer–most of what I’m talking about is for people spending months or years on the road, not weeks.)

Nepal - Goat

The Goat Welcomes You

Here are fifteen somewhat scattered thoughts I think can help new travelers. Some are practical and some are philosophical and all are admittedly skew toward my style of travel. Your mileage may of course vary.

1. Pre-booking defeats the point.

If you’re flying into Melbourne at midnight during the Australian Open, or hitting Edinburgh in the middle of Festival, booking ahead is essential. Otherwise, there really isn’t any reason to pre-order your rooms. There aren’t many advantages: You could end up in a less than central location, the cheapest places often aren’t online, and even those that are give discounts in person that cannot be attained over the interweb. Most importantly, aren’t you traveling to learn how to let go of type-A, over-controlling tendencies? Why eliminate your flexibility before you even arrive?

Danish street art

2. Follow other tourists.

Like Dirk Gently and his holistic detective methods, you can have fun following other tourists around. Don’t get all creepy, mind you, but you don’t need a map or a phone if you simply observe where other tourists are heading. This can lead you into some unexpected fun places and being free from expectations, you definition of “rewarding” will be pleasantly lowered.


3. Traveler’s insurance is for Fools and Mendicants.

This ties into my discussion about budgeting. Insurance isn’t cheap and wouldn’t you rather spend that money on adding a month to your trip? And again, aren’t you traveling to break free of the culture of fear and over-protection of the developed world? Take a risk, even if it’s one as banal as traveling with an uninsured digital camera.

So tough! So cute!

 4.  Slow down, speedy.

There is a tendency to “do” a country, meaning a quick 7-10 days zooming between 5 or so major sights. This county can now be ticked off and now has been done. There is something to be said for occasional short trips like this, but as a habit it is kind of superficial. Even the smallest places are worth a few days’ exploration. 3 to 5 days is a good rule-of-thumb minimum stay. This gives you long enough to either explore the town, visit a few restaurants, time to get to know the staff at that one place. You can wander around the town/city/village and also find the nearby places just outside of town that locals know but guidebooks do not mention.

It's in your head now, isn't it?

It’s in your head now, isn’t it?

5. Be an Ambassador.

Like it or not, fair or not, your actions represent more than just you. When trying to stave off aggressive touts, don’t say “maybe later.”  This means no, something they’re very well aware of, and you’re just too polite to say it.  But that kind of politeness is only needed when dealing with people of your own culture.  Just saying “no, not interested,” is a better of dealing with touts.

Those of us who grew up in West believe the human body isn’t disgraceful or disgusting. Many religions have strict dress codes, and it’s mind boggling to imagine gods who created humans (including shoulders) but feel disrespected by someone showing their shoulders at a temple. None of that matters. You are in their country, you play by their rules.

Maybe the difference between tourists and travelers is how they get to big locations?

Scandinavia - Street Art

6. Talk to Strangers.

Even if you’re shyer than the mayor of Shysylvania, there’s no better way to get around than asking the people who, you know, live there. Other travelers are great for information too if you’re not exactly sure where that last turn led you. You will meet people you never expected and for those collecting “authentic” points, a trove awaits here. This also will often keep you safer, as being human makes you less of a target than being an exotic other.

Ubud - Vanilla Discovery

7. Embrace the Unknown

If you’re fully embracing nomadry, you will constantly run into situations where you just don’t know what’s going on. The bus can be 24 hours late. The airplane may unexpectedly kick you off your flight. The UK doesn’t allow you to enter. These all happened to me–you will accrue similar ones of your own. This will frequently be frustrating but it is a good chance to practice living in the moment. Try your best to treat it all as a game, and don’t let the bastards get you down.

Wild Camping in Norway

8. Research all your options.

There might be flyers everywhere for a bus/train/ferry at a set price, but odds are the locals will have a cheaper, more interesting way to get there. For instance, in Malaysia it cost 20 dollars for a ferry from Georgetown to Langkawi. Every hotel and restaurant in Georgetown advertise this. But some googling showed that by adding a couple hours and going back via the mainland, you can save 8 dollars. And it’s a more interesting journey. This advice is mostly relevant in developed countries; some places there is one bus, and if you want to go, you’d better be on it. But it’s a good habit to research as much as you are able. You’ve never had more information at your fingertips–take advantage of it!

Lombok statue

 9. Take photos of more than just the Sights.

While a great picture of a castle, temple or mountain can win you some serious flickr fame or instagram cred, you might enjoy looking back more on a picture of your favorite kebab stand or that tasty popsicle you bought every day. Especially if you only visited the “sight” for an hour or two.

Bali Sea View

10. Trust everyone.

Why travel if you don’t believe in the innate goodness of your fellow man? People all over the world want to help you; give you directions or offer you a ride. And don’t insult them by carrying a money belt or bum bag. If someone wants to take your money, they will find a way. If you wouldn’t wear a money belt at home, wearing one abroad is, at best, highly prejudiced. Tourist countries have developed too many ways to steal your money legitimately via tours, touts and old-fashioned price gouging to need to emphasize pickpocketing.

Random Oslo creature

11. Don’t trust everyone.

Okay, this isn’t quite the same as the above note. Its true that you should in general trust people, and there are far fewer psychos than the local news would have you believe. However, there are still plenty of scam artists who would quite happily part you from your money or possessions. Developing a bit of judgment will help your trip immensely. This varies from country to country–in general people in Laos or Myanmar are less likely to lie than people in Indian or Vietnam. You will develop your own instincts about trustworthiness.

Copenhagen Street Art

12.  Tiresome tours.

There’s this idea that the more semi-official tours you do, the better your trip is. It’s pretty easy to land somewhere, sign up for a trip to the local whatever and move on. But instead of dropping too much money on a tour or boat ride, try walking around some non-touristy areas. Talk to whomever you meet—they’ll likely be much more interested than if you had stayed in the backpacker areas. And this can be a far more rewarding way to spend your day. Nearly all the pictures in this post were taken on random wanders.

Kebabistan - Copenhagen

13.  When in doubt, find a tout.

Touts can be annoying, but they are not evil agents of chaos trying to take all your money. They’re often very poor people trying to make enough to get by from people who are far richer than they. Most guidebooks advise not talking to them, but you can find some really good room deals by chatting with touts and looking at the rooms they offer. If someone has a hokey fortune telling bit, play along and give them a dollar or two. Traveling very cheaply is great, if that’s what you want, but improving other people’s lives, even incrementally, is much better.

Troll Tongue


It’s usually fairly easy to get by speaking English, but if you are headed to a country for 3 or 4 weeks you can learn some basic words—yes, no, please, thank you, 1-10–before hand or in impromptu language exchanges. with the children who will swarm you on trains, in cafes, on the street, or at monuments. They’ll be delighted to hang out and teach you some of their native language, and you’ll pick up a smattering of useful words. Win-win.

Chiang Mai - New Fruit

15. Sly Money Trick

When you’re new to a country and don’t know how much things are, try paying with a low denomination note. (You can ask, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get the right price quoted to you.) Either they will ask you for a little more, or assume you know what you’re doing and give you back the correct change. You can use this to get a baseline for prices of all your staples.

In the interest of not writing too much, I think I’ll end it here. But I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Agree? Disagree? Completely apathetic?  Let me know!

This is not ‘Nam. There are Rules. (A Vegan Vietnam Experience.)

The Halong Bay cruise was admittedly a low point. Of course, it being Southeast Asia, everyone from the ticket seller to the driver to the people loading luggage onto the boat, had assured us that vegan food as available as an option. “Oh yes, very tasty, very fresh.”

It being Southeast Asia, they were all lying. The rice was vegan, it’s true. And a huge plate of crunchy peanuts were free from animal products. The rest, side dishes and fried eggs and entire fish, were decidedly not. I mixed the peanuts into my rice. I’d had worse meals, some of them cooked by me.

Dinner was no different–big piles of rice were the only surely vegan options–there were a few veggies swimming in a sauce that smelled of fermented fish. Plain rice isn’t so tasty but I happened to have a small container of nutritional yeast and some dried seaweed flakes, so even though I missed veggies it was a bearable few days.

Halong bay is beautiful, absorbingly so, and between climbing to caves and kayaking through lagoons and hiking through jungles and moonlit swims, the lack of vegan food didn’t interfere that much.

It was a low point, but only relatively so. Vegan Vietnam is an incredible treasure trove of tasty treats.

55 million Vietnamese people, give or take, are Buddhist, and have a tradition of eating veggie foods twice a month. (Snack options during this time include vegan pig ears, vegan chicken feet, vegan dried squid meat, and vegan king mackerel fish in tomato sauce, all of which costs two dollars or less ). Vietnam is easier than other places in SE Asia to be vegan in another regard as well. The word “chay,” written in a westernized script, adorns every veggie restaurant and food cart. Vietnamese being a tonal language, it’s a harder word to pronounce than you’d expect, but at the least you can keep your eyes out for it in written form.

The big cities have many vegan options of course. There are the cultish but always dependable Loving Huts, which often offer buffets on certain days and affordable, tasty meals the others. Not many people use Happy Cow anymore, and many of the listed restaurants have since closed, but the numbers do provide some perspective. Happy Cow lists 28 veggie and vegan places in Hanoi, 94 in Ho Chi Minh city (which puts it roughly on par with Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur and not too far behind Bangkok, which clocks in at 130. Interestingly, it’s the tiny Singapore that sports an all mighty 287 listings!) But the little towns are where the fascinating vegan options–and experiences–are to be found.

North from Ha Long Bay is Sapa, the famed hill station nestled in a land of misty rice terraces and cheeky Hmong touts. The specialty here is Dau phu Ca chua or tofu fried in tomato sauce and sprinkled with green onions. If that doesn’t sound exciting, then you need to hit skyscanner right now; the tofu is that good.

Because it is high in the hills and quite chilly by Southeast Asia standards, the other ubiquitous vegan friendly option is hot pot. Like shabu shabu or steamboat, they bring to you a grill and large pot of veggie stock, along with a table full of veggies, mushrooms, tofu, and even some mock meats. It’s fun to cook your own food at the restaurant, and one hotpot is enough food for two or three people.

One good thing about the tourism in Sapa, and other popular destinations in Vietnam, is that everyone understand what you mean when you ask for no egg or no fish sauce. All of the dishes are quite cheap–think in the 2 USD range–but for even cheaper you can DIY.

That most tasty remnant of French colonialism–baguettes–is everywhere and always vegan. It usually costs about .15 cents USD (depending on your haggling prowess, of course.) The markets have fruit, and many of the little stores sell western sundries, so peanut butter and banana baguettes are very easily achievable as well. (Or in a pinch, you can swap pringles for bananas, but it’s not recommended unless the very real danger of hanger is about to happen.)

Excepting the Ha Long Bay cruise of course, the food in the north was excellent. But it wasn’t until the cities of Hue and Hoi An that I really got to talking to Vietnamese vegans. In a crowded lunchtime place in Hue, one woman–who has lived in the US for over 30 years now–asked me if I knew that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. This made me laugh, as I had walked 4 kilometers along a busy road to find this place, and that the small room was filled with grey-robed monks. We chatted for a bit and I assured her I loved veggie and vegan food and had for all my life. The woman remained politely dubious–Americans she knew loved meat and cheese and milk. She watched in fascination as I munched on a plate of mixed rice.

Unfortunately, it was then that I discovered a vegetable that is truly loathsome. We’re talking a Lovecraftian menace; some kind of ancient, fermented something with a clear grudge against humanity. I can’t really describe the taste–though words like “rotting old socks” or “slightly corpsey” suggest themselves–and though I tried I could not eat it. Even the other foods on the plate it had touched were tainted. The woman watched my struggle, saying nothing, but when I left with half the food on my plate uneaten she smiled sadly to herself, clearly thinking something like “that’s what I thought.”

Three hours south, in Hoi An, things got better. Like everywhere else in the touristy parts of Vietnam there are plenty of great places to get vegan meals here (including the deservedly famous Karma Waters). But my favorite place in town didn’t even have a name. Down a side street off a different side street, it was the kind of place you could stumble into once and never find it again. There were no menus, only a small buffet for lunch with some of the tastiest eggplant I’ve ever had.

On my fourth or fifth visit there, the woman in charge started talking with me. She was a new vegan, and in a case of no one as pious as the recently converted she talked to me of the powers of grains and veggies for quite some time. It was all quite interesting, but when I told her I had been a vegan since 1995 she stood up and grabbed my biceps. With a big smile, she then disappeared into the back. Moments later, she returned with a dilapidated Polaroid and took a photo of me, which she tacked up onto the wall. “Very strong,” she said, smiling at me.

I took the night bus that night and didn’t see her again, but for all I know there’s still a photo of me hanging on that wall. What I learned later is that many Vietnamese think that without the protein provided by meat, there won’t be enough nutrition and you’ll waste away, or even break in half. (Seriously.) Having seen (and photographed) me, a 6 foot 3 guy, who is not skinny, might have helped her win the next argument. At the very least, she got to tell me about how healthy beans were, and I think that meant a lot to her.

Further south, the Russian enclave Na Trang was the land of 50 cent vegan Bánh mì from a smiling lady with a cart close to the ocean. I bought four from her on the way out of town. Dalat, another hill station with horses painted to resemble donkeys, had more cheap vegan restaurants than I could even try in a week and all of them were more delicious than I can say. Think a big bowl of phở (or something like it), three enormous fresh spring rolls, and unlimited tea for around 1 dollar USD. As for Hanoi–well Happy Cow wasn’t lying. The number of restaurants were staggering and all of them were grubbin’, but a small place called Huong Sen earned repeated visits for its awesome set lunches.

The tradition of abstaining from animals and their products has existed culturally for long centuries, but veganism is still new, burgeoning even, and that makes for a rewarding place to travel. As part-time vegetarians, they understand the needs of full-time vegans surprisingly well. From the powerhouses of phở and Bánh mì, to the equally tasty rau mong (the tastiest river weed around), you’ll eat well in Vietnam. Just watch out for the fermented gym socks.