Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “tourist”

To India and Back Again

In just over two weeks, I will travel with a group of global activists to India to see projects funded by American Jewish World Service and hear the stories of our grantees, their challenges and vision. To help prepare myself, I just finished reading Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers. I admit I do not often read  non-fiction, but Ms. Boo truly brought the people she followed to life as though they were characters straight from a classic novel. I felt the same regarding setting and even plot (the individuals’ stories). This book has made me reevaluate how I feel about the genre. If you write or read non-fiction, this book is well worth picking up. If you don’t read non-fiction – it is still worth the read and is so accessible in Ms. Boo’s writing. I listened to the audio during my commute and walking my dog – it is a superb rendition.

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Ms. Boo follows the lives of a number of people who live in Annawadi, a makeshift slum that is both side-by-side and overshadowed by beautiful, pristine hotels and the Mumbai international airport, all within a stone’s throw of each other. Their stories reflect everything that seems so wrong in India, but it is told without condescension and judgment. Crime and corruption live alongside hope and the driving desire for dignity. 

The dichotomies are everywhere. As Patralekha Chatterjee shares on DNA India: ”More Indians have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet. Everyone knows that. The issue became a major talking point in 2010 when a report by the Ontario-based UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health pointed out that while India had roughly 366 million people with access to improved sanitation in 2008, a far greater number, 545 million, had cell phones.”

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It is the irony and frustration of a beautiful land and incredible people, more a continent than a country, several nations under one flag and within one border. But everywhere you go, you find a society immersed in a deep history, rich philosophies, and pulsating culture. I spent several months there when I was younger and, in many ways, I never left.

While the memories have faded, the sensory assault dulled, Katherine Boo brought me back to the streets of India, even as I negotiated the BART public transport commute and long walks with my dog along the water looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz . Back in the early 90’s I was a tourist on a spiritual journey to India to find myself. Two decades later, I prepare to return as a global human rights activist, working for a transformational non profit organization, and traveling with inspiring philanthropists driven to help make a better world for those most marginalized.

To read about AJWS work in India, please click here. One of our main projects is the struggle to end child marriage. Despite a law making it illegal, 47% of girls in India are married before they reach 18. 

Shashi Tharoor summed up best what I am feeling: “India shaped my mind, anchored my identity, influenced my beliefs, and made me who I am. … India matters to me and I would like to matter to India.”

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. His latest novel is Sacrificial Flamethe fourth in the series.

Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

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Unwanted Heroes – Chinatown – Part 2 of 2

Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I would like to share then with you over the next few weeks.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision. 

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

 Chapter 5 continued: 

We enter a small shop in a side alley.

His receptionist, a young Asian-American woman, hands me a form and I write about my allergies and pay thirty dollars. With perfect timing, a door opens behind me and I turn.

“This is Doctor Li”

Dr. Li smiles. His face is deeply lined with age and the small man moves slowly over to shake my hand. But his firm grip leaves no doubts of his vitality in my numbed extremity.

Dr. Li shoots a short question in Chinese to my friend. His assistant translates and Julie replies that she is doing really well. Thank you. This is translated back and there are smiles all round.

“He doesn’t speak English?”  I ask apprehensively, and for some strange reason, whispering.

“He doesn’t need to,” replies his assistant warmly. “Dr. Li embraces Traditional Chinese diagnosis.”

“But how can I give him information?”

She turns and shoots a few sentences to him in Chinese. Dr. Li nods and smiles at me.

“I just did,” she informs me. “Do you want to explain whether you feel the damp heat rising in the morning or evening?”

“I err, I don’t know,”

“Precisely,” she says, smiling victoriously. “Good luck.”

Julie pushes me in and also wishes me luck.

“Aren’t you staying?” I ask in near panic.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate, though I’d like to watch him sticking the needles in. Maybe he’ll let me do a few?”

I close the door on her sharply and turn to face Dr. Li.

He smiles serenely and indicates for me to sit on a massage table covered with a white sheet. He rolls my sleeve up and slowly checks my pulse. His eyes seem to glaze over, but the occasional tut and uh-huh reassures me that he is discovering profound truths about my condition.

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I look around the room. There are a variety of brass instruments that hang from red string, a chart of the human body indicating what I assume are acupuncture points, some Jade Buddha statues and, I am relieved to see, a bonsai tree by the window.

After a few minutes Dr. Li takes his hand from my arm and examines my face closely. He sticks his tongue out, indicating that I am to do the same. I stick mine out apprehensively; years of social etiquette training chastising me. As a kid, I was punished for such behavior and now I am being encouraged. I glance around, expecting Ms. Thornbridge from preschool to intercede angrily and send me to stand in the corner.

“Good, good,” Dr. Li beams. “No tongue now, all good.”

He picks up a clipboard and squiggles on it. Doctors, the world over, have different methods and medicines, but share the same inability to write legibly.

“Sex good huh?” Dr. Li asks enthusiastically. “You sex good?”

I swallow hard. Doctor or not, I am British. “Yeah, no complaints except for frequency.”

“Aaah,” he nods.

“You understand me?”

He nods sagely. “No understand, bit. Sex good, not much, like most men.  Morning, is good?” He makes a sign with his hand as though encompassing a firm penis, a rather flattering one at that.

“Yeah, I often have an erection in the morning. This is normal, no? Frustrating, but normal.”

“Oh yes, yes.” He nods again.

I haven’t a clue what that means. He points to a vase of flowers near the bonsai.

“This make up-chi?”

“Sometimes. Also dust,” I make a motion as though I am wiping dust off of the massage table. And cats, but only sometimes.” I repress the urge to meow.

 “Then,” he wiggles his nose, “go up-chi, up-chi, up-chi…”

“Yes, that’s right.” I nod, earnestly wanting to be a part of the charades.

“Good, good. You know Chinese medicine?”

“I know you stick needles in people,” I make a piercing movement and it makes him laugh. He then demonstrates, reassuringly in a far more delicate fashion. “That’s much better,” I say feeling reassured, “and herbs.” I point to a picture of some root that looks a bit like a man.

He looks as well. “Herbs, yes. Ginseng, good for man and sex.”  He again makes the sign of holding a penis, the size of which would have facilitated ginseng’s extinction centuries ago.

“You know chi? Tai Chi?” He makes a slow martial art move and I recall my extensive Karate Kid movie experience. I nod. I actually did study some Tai Chi in London. He smiles and points at the picture of the human body. “Chi flow through body … like blood … no chi, dead. Slow chi, not good, too much chi, no good. Understand?”

“Sure.”

“Now, you do up-chi, up-chi. Chi come up, understand?”

He bursts out laughing and his whole body shakes. “I make joke. Up-chi, up chi. Only joke I make in English. Make to every patient. Up-chi!”

He laughs. So do I. This guy is about to stick needles in my body, I will laugh at his jokes.

He makes me take off my shirt and trousers and lie on the massage table. I brace myself for the piercing. After seeing Marathon Man at a tender age I have harbored a deep fear of dentists and the dentists, for their part, always seemed willing to play the part. Why do they feel obligated to say: “this isn’t going to hurt now,” about five seconds before you scream?

But his needles are gentle and I hardly feel them. He must stick a dozen needles in from below my knee on the inside of my leg, on my arms and my face. I can see one sticking out below my check bone and it is a bit freaky. But he is smiling all the time and asking: “Is good? All good?” And, I admit, I do feel all-good.

I feel especially all-good when he burns something that looks like a smudge stick and smells of pot. He holds it over various parts of my body and I feel a deep heat envelope me from within. I wonder if I run the risk of arrest if I leave here and walk pass a policeman with a keen sense of smell.

After a half hour or so, the needles are out and I am dressing. He writes something and then escorts me out. He talks with his receptionist and she conveys that he is giving me an herbal formula. I need to take it to one of the herbalists, who will make up the formula and tell me how to prepare it and when to take it. I am to come back to see him in two weeks.

I turn to the doctor and find myself slightly bowing. I speak slowly and deliberately as I thank him.

“No problem,” he replies in fluent American. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

He returns to his office leaving the receptionist and Julie both laughing. I feel like an idiot.

I take my friend’s arm, desperate to leave. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

The receptionist answers: “The doctor thinks the treatment is more effective that way. Also it makes for a far more enjoyable for him.” She laughs again.

Julie opens the door for me and then bows most reverently.

“Welcome to America.”

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.

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Unwanted Heroes – Chinatown – Part 1 of 2

Unwanted Heroes was much longer before my editor got his hands on it. A number of chapters were cut because they do not directly move the plot along. They seem to have something in common – my desire to show the many facets of San Francisco. I would like to share then with you over the next few weeks.

There is nothing here that spoils anything in the book – which probably vindicates the editor’s decision.

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

Chapter Five:  China Town

San Francisco boasts a Chinatown unrivaled outside of Asia. It feels like a different world with its own products, language, culture and traditional medicine. Unlike other Chinatowns in the US, it also has a feel of authenticity, as though this neighborhood is for the residents and the tourists are, at best, tolerated.

Chinese Medicine is well respected in California and a Chinese medical practitioner is held in high esteem, especially if their clinic is in Chinatown. If you live in San Francisco and have a health challenge, a visit to the Chinese doctor is a rite of passage.

I have suffered from allergies all my life, which developed into occasional asthma a few years ago. But my introduction to Oriental medicine happened because…because I had no choice…she was pretty and I wanted to hit on her.

“You must see my herbalist!” I am not sure if this is an order. “I used to be just like you, now look at me.” She giggles as she twirls.

I am at a party in the Mission District, not long after alighting from the metaphoric boat. A new friend has taken me under his wing and this party should have been my much-anticipated coming out event, my chance to make an impression on the Bay Area social scene. I have meticulously dressed to impress and carefully sharpened my English accent in preparation. My face is smooth and keenly saturated with aftershave. I am ready.

And then I have an allergy attack: just as I step into the house where the party is taking place. My tongue begins to assault the roof of my mouth. My nose begins twitching, transitioning swiftly into exploding mode. My already-fragile ego implodes as people rapidly evacuate this part of the room, putting a safe distance between themselves and me. I am a pariah. It is truly an unforgettable coming out!

Someone takes my arm and guides me through the crowd; it is not challenging. Moses couldn’t have parted the Red Sea with the ease of an erupting allergist in a crowded room. I assume my guide is a bouncer and I brace myself to be thrown onto the street, if not straight to Alcatraz. This is a country that insists you put a bottle of beer in a brown paper bag in order to quench your thirst outdoors, but allows you to carry a semi-automatic rifle with impunity; I have surely broken some law. Still there are other cities in the US, I think miserably. What was the name of the Northern Exposure town in the Artic Circle?

Through tearful eyes, allergy and self-esteem in equal parts; I see that the arm supporting me is female, slim and tanned. She somehow manages to grab a box of tissues as she leads me down some stairs and into a small garden. Other partygoers abandon their need for fresh air and I realize this would be a good ploy if ever a more romantic situation materialized.

I am seated on a metal bench and when my nose is finally exhausted, I look up, trying to appraise my Florence Nightingale. She is blonde, thin and wears an expression that doesn’t try too hard to hide the smirk. I am vaguely aware that she has been saying something.

“You must see my herbalist!” She repeats enthusiastically. “I used to be just like you, now look at me.” She holds out her arms in expectation that I appreciate her humor. Well she deserves it.

“Will your herbalist transform me into a beautiful blonde angel?”

She blushes. I have gambled that this brash approach would either compensate for my memorable entry or to scare her off and leave me alone in my misery. I’m not sure which I prefer. She remains standing in front of me and folds her arms across her chest, coincidently emphasizing her cleavage while slightly arcing her hips to one side. It is pleasantly effective. My mind stops dwelling on my social debacle, though this is not easily achieved.

“I’m Will,” I say, attempting to be social. “And you?”

“Julie. Joe says you’re the new boy, the freshman. Welcome to America. Do you always make such an entrance?”

“Looks that way,” I reply, misery returning.

“Have you been to Chinatown?” Julie asks.

“No. I’ve only been here two weeks. Looking for a flat, err apartment,” I correct myself, “and a job have been the priority.”

“Any luck?”

“Next weekend I am moving into a house in the Sunset. It’s student land, but the rent is in range.”

“I’m a student,” Julie replies sternly.

“And I’m hoping the ground will swallow me up any moment.”

She smiles again. “I’ll forgive you this time. But you’ll come with me to Chinatown.”

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****

I shouldn’t complain. Two weeks into discovering America and my hand is being held by an attractive business major guiding me through the uniqueness of the Far East, out here in the Wild West. Christopher Columbus surely never had it so good. No Starbucks, no public transport system where they actually remind you that you can use the ticket a second time, no cable TV with four hundred channels and nothing to watch. Sure Columbus discovered America before me, but he had to deal with wild ravenous predators, indigenous populations who showed scant appreciation for arrogant colonialism, greedy gold miners and zealous missionaries. My biggest dilemma is whether to watch Saturday afternoon British soccer at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. Thankfully around this time I discovered Digital Video Recorder: God bless America!

I think the most impressive aspect of Chinatown is that it is full of Chinese people. I mean it. Millions of tourists pour through her marble gates and take excited pictures by her ever-guarding dragons before buying Chinatown, San Francisco T-shirts, three for ten dollars, no returns. But one senses that the real business happens between the Chinese and there are so many of them. Certainly there are no Westerners lining up to buy live fish, fresh turtles and scantly feathered birds of every kind. The negotiation over the price of vegetables displays the gritty determination of a people who have survived five thousand years. The Yellow Emperor and Mao Tse-Tung may have come and gone, great dynasties risen and fallen, but the bok choy must remain fresh and firm if it is to be purchased. One look at the grim-faced, scarf-covered, vegetable buyer and you know that this bok choy is seriously stir-fried.

But my lovely companion leaves me no time to play philosopher-tourist. Julie guides me effortlessly skirting the precariously stacked and pushed vegetable and milk carts being continuously unloaded, elbowing through the throng of bargain hunters, whether their prey is embroidered purses or stuffed pig heads. Between breaths she points out different things, arming me for survival in this surreal world.

But surrealism is only just beginning. There will be no escape.

Having turned on Clay Street, I had tried to duck into a bonsai shop. I have a long held fascination with bonsai and consider myself a bit of an expert having watched The Karate Kid at least a dozen times. I fancied the salesman might have been my Mr. Miyagi, my mystical Taoist teacher, and I could have learnt the secret ways of the Orient and the pruning of bonsai trees from him. But I am dragged on, deeper into the bowels of Chinatown.

Continuing tomorrow…

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.

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