The Shady Business of the Warm Glow

Hey all – I have been diligently reading articles for my thesis…did I say reading and thesis? I meant tweeting and the election, or eating and peanut butter cups, or lying and in the sun. But seriously: I am actually doing some work while on vacation in Florida, that is, whenever I’m near an outlet. I have been struggling lately to keep my devices charged. According to my guide book, not stressing over low battery levels is an important step when transitioning from a Toxic-Type-A personality to Chill-Type-B. While I was going through some of my computer folders, I found this essay I wrote about corporate social responsibility freshman year. This was before I went full on socialist, minimalist and environmentalist, before I had developed the proper language to describe the systems I was critiquing. But this morning, my friend dressed her daughter in pink because her school is doing something for Breast Cancer Awareness month. I talk about this campaign in my essay, so I figured it’d be a good time to repost it, especially since my new pieces are taking a while to nail down. Here’s freshman PJ writing on CSR and capitalism: 

The Hard Truth about the “Warm Glow” 

Endangered Species Chocolates, a company that sources their chocolate ethically and sustainably, gives 10% of their profits to environmental non-profit organizations, and includes information about endangered species on the label of every candy bar. They’ve been doing this for over a decade, since long before every company had a philanthropy clause. When you could buy a Yoplait Yogurt without helping find the cure for breast cancer or a box of Nature Valley Granola Bars without helping to conserve national parks. You know, the good old days.

To be clear, I hate breast cancer and love national parks as much as anyone and I jump at any opportunity to support these causes. For years, I bought into this scheme of corporate social responsibility (CSR). It’s hard not to. I feel better eating a granola bar that promises to feed hungry children in Africa than one that only feeds its well-satiated shareholders. Ditto to wearing Tom’s Shoes, which sends a pair of shoes to an African child for every pair sold. Even my almond butter congratulates me for helping them contribute to the American Farmland Trust. The branding of these products gives us what researchers call a “warm glow.” Charitable behavior elicits pleasure, social connection, and trust. Sure. But is contributing to a corporate-driven philanthropic campaign truly charitable? We allow ourselves to feed on this artifice by supporting campaigns and causes that appeal to us emotionally. All the while, we believe (or allow ourselves to believe) that our purchasing power has more of a social impact than it actually does. Companies hide this truth well, but it’s a truth that that will leave your formerly warm heart merely tepid.

Let’s look first at the promising blue ribbon on Nature Valley boxes, “YOU can help preserve the parks,” it shouts, depicting a scenic mountain-scape. “YES, I can,” you think. But wait, not so fast. You have to go online first, read the rules and regulations, then enter your UPC code and hope that the maximum donation set by the company has not yet been reached. These rules are in place to protect the company and were created after a scandal in 1999 between Yoplait Yogurt and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. In a 3-month campaign promising to send $0.50 per lid to the BCR Foundation, Yoplait did not advertise that the donation would be capped at $100,000. They found themselves in trouble when 9.4 million lids were sent in, leading consumers to the wrong conclusion that $4.7 million would be donated to this cause. As a “penalty,” and to avoid “legal consequences,” General Mills, parent company of Yoplait, donated an extra $63,000 to the BCR Foundation.

This was not a minor legal mix-up with the IRS over your tax-deductible donation of $50 to the local animal shelter; we are talking mountains of cash here which companies like General Mills push around like pennies. But does the problem lie in Yoplait and General Mill’s withholding of information? I think we should pay attention to why 9.4 million consumers were willing to lick the yogurts off these lids, place them in envelopes, lick the envelopes, stick on the stamps, and send them on their way, all the while ignorant of the campaign’s credentials. This is the kind of do-gooder activity that we see from people unable or unwilling to fully contribute to causes that they care about, from people who want a subtle tan but are afraid to burn in the sun.

We put on our blinders to corporate scandals and hypocritical behavior because it allows us to shop with greater ease. We accept the charitable messages we see on the outside of boxes (nearly every box these days, it seems) and welcome the good feeling that accompanies our purchase, often without further research of the company’s true values. If we take a further look at the Nature Valley website, we find three adjacent tabs: Preserve the Parks, Skiing, and Golfing. Intrigued, I clicked the golf tab, though I wish I hadn’t. A banner beside a silhouette of some golfers reads: “From pristine fairways to the unique terrain of each course, golf reveals nature at its best. Nature Valley supports golf because it offers us all an opportunity to play in nature.”  The pairing of national parks and golf is striking, since golf courses are a huge environmental hazard. They contaminate water sources with pesticides and fertilizers and drive out local species by excavating large plots of land. When we put the images of Joshua Tree National Park next to the Nature Valley Cup, it becomes clear that there is a balancing act going on here. We have become desensitized to give-and-take tactics like these because we enjoy the feeling of doing good, even if that something good is a cover-up to counteract other behavior.                                                                                                                                                                                                         For another example, let’s look at the Heart Truth, a campaign run by Coca-Cola to raise awareness for heart disease in women. The red dress logo is a recognizable part of Diet Coke cans. The logos remind drinkers about the campaign and numb them to the larger implication of their beverage choice by making a not-so-subtle connection between Coke and heart health. (Though, it might be the chemical combination of aspartame and caramel color that’s responsible for the numbing.) Coca-Cola holds its head high while wearing its Heart Truth label, despite a growing base of evidence linking sweetened beverages, even and especially diet ones, to heart disease. Their cheeky, albeit catchy, slogan, heart disease doesn’t care what you wear, capitalizes on the unseen values of the campaign. The Heart Truth fuels on a positive image, not science. But we as consumers are not so dissimilar from Coca-Cola’s marketing director; we care more about how our figure looks in that metaphorical red dress than we do about our tainted ways of achieving such a figure. Everyone from my grandmother to law school students to my sociology professor knows that something that sounds as perfect as a zero-calorie sweet beverage is too good to be true. But they drink it anyway, valuing the instantaneous rush of caffeine over the long-term health implications. The hard truth to accept is that The Heart Truth is a sham.

But isn’t it all? Let’s look back to the Endangered Species Chocolate. Their business platform tries to “do good.” In advertising their environmental initiatives, however, they attract a large base of customers looking for those buzzwords, sustainably and ethically sourced, thus boosting sales and profits. We cannot extinguish the bottom line that burns beneath these marketing tactics, even if they are made with the best intention. When we reach for an Endangered Species Chocolate bar, or a similar one that wears a Fair Trade, 1% for the Planet, or Equal Exchange stamp, we make false contributions to these causes. When we pick up a bag of Ethical Bean Coffee, a Fair Trade Kit-Kat (so far this only exists in the UK, but yep, that’s a thing), or a Diet Coke with its Heart Truth sticker, we act as the image-obsessed individuals we are, not as the humanitarians we want to be. We want to taste the sweetness of Coke without worrying about extra calories, and we pay no mind to the artificial sweeteners which help us achieve that satisfaction. We also want to save the world, really, we do. But we want to do it from the comfort of our local Stop & Shop, while shamelessly flipping through UsWeekly and thinking, Wow, Miley Cyrus is blowing up, and not in a good way. We want to make our splash from the supermarket line, not the front lines of a UNICEF project in Africa. If I can buy a candle that helps a girl from Ghana learn how to read, you bet I’m going to buy that one over a pine-breeze scented candle from Glade. Girls read, I give a mediocre gift to a co-worker, and everyone wins, right? Charitable donations are one thing, for they are made without an exchange of materials. The only thing we gain from making a donation is a good feeling. That’s it. We and our beloved corporations have taken charity to a new level, making it a mutual exchange of merchandise. We let our purchases define us, using them as devices to raise our status or raise others’ opinions of us. We make these purchases because we like the way that glow looks on our faces. We do it because of the warm, fuzzy feeling we get inside. But that might just be one too many ethical chocolate bars struggling to make it through our collective arteries.

Resistance is Victory


Mary at Notre-Dame Basilica at Saigon

When I was growing up, my parents talked about politics, but they didn’t disclose who they voted for. I knew they were registered as Independent and did not feel particularly charged by either of the main parties. In the 2000 election, we had “Scholastic Reading” pamphlets that described the Republican and Democratic candidates, but no third parties. In the activity in that pamphlet I “voted” for Gore because I liked his name and face better. But we also took a trip to the town hall to go into the voting booths and participate in mock election. I pulled the lever for Ralph Nader of the Green Party. I had heard his name at my house, and had heard that he cared about the environment and planet. I also really liked that his last name rhymed with Alligator. That was 2000. I was seven.

When I was a teenager, we began talking about candidates and party politics more. When the 2008 election came around, I was frustrated with the oil wars and the Bush presidency. I didn’t know where I stood politically, just yet, but I knew I didn’t align with the Republican party. I was frustrated that I couldn’t vote in such an historic election, but I did everything I could to be politically informed. I engaged at all levels; I watched the debates, read the articles, rocked bumper stickers and pins and t-shirts.  In addition to educating myself on issues, I campaigned for Barack Obama. I started small, with a letter to my extended family telling them why I was supporting Obama and asking them if they would consider doing so, too. I phone banked from my dorm room. I used my calling card because the minutes were cheaper than my Verizon plan. I still have the number burned in my brain (1-800-569-6972, Pin: 16111482052, in case you ever need to make a toll free call, I doubt I still have money loaded on it.) That was 2008. I was fifteen.

When I was college freshman, Obama was up for re-election. I went to the polls on  November 6th and voted Democrat. That was 2012. I was nineteen.

Earlier this year, my parents and I changed our voter registrations from Independent to Democrat in order to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary. I was abroad during primary season and felt removed again from the political process, as I had in 2008. But I did what I could from a distance– I donated, tweeted, posted, wrote, read, talked. One day at a cafe, a french couple saw the Bernie sticker on my laptop and asked me, “Do you think he will win?” I said, “Yeah.” The man laughed and said, “Do you want him to win, or do you think he will win?” I was like, sir, engage in an actual conversation or leave me alone, I replied, “I think he will win.” They left me to my plate of fried potatoes and naive sense of hope.

Eight weeks before the CT primary (I was taking no chances), I walked around Ho Chi Minh City with my ballot looking for the embassy. I arrived at the embassy, and they let me in without proper identification–my white, English-speaking, American privilege at work. I walked up to the booth and asked if I could mail my ballot from there. The woman said no, the embassy doesn’t send mail. Duh. She directed me to the international post office. I paid the postage, paid extra for tracking. I needed that ballot to get to On my way home from the post office, I walked by the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. I went in and tried to pray, but it was really busy, so I looked at some of the paintings, took some holy water, and saw my way out. There were a lot of people begging at the doors of the church. There was a gorgeous statue of Mary in front of the cathedral, so I went and stood there for a minute. A young man brought yellow flowers up to the statue, signed the cross, and walked away. A woman went up to the flowers after and adjusted them, tying them to the bottom of the statue. On the ground to the side, sat a man with some goods set out. I sat down opposite him and looked at what he was selling. I picked up a magnet of the church; the paint was a little chipped, and I liked this aspect. I asked how much. I gave him the amount and a little more. We held hands as I handed over a Vietnamese bill amounting to no more than 10 USD. We exchanged names. He had great English, though he had a speech impediment in addition to visible physical disabilities. He pointed to a woman nearby and told me that it was his mother; “She has been affected by Agent Orange,” he said; his physical deformities made sense. “She has had cancer several times.” The woman smiled softly and nodded at me. I asked when he was born. 1966. One year before my mother, and yet he looked ten years older. I told him thank you for the magnet. I put in my earbuds and walked back to my hotel, and all I could think was, “America did that” followed by, “I am American.” That was March of 2016. I was 22.

I wasn’t alive to protest the Vietnam War, but I’m alive today to protest oil wars masked as wars on terror, police brutality masked as self defense, and pipelines masked as job production. I’m watching the world crumble at the greedy hands of neoliberal elites. This is not melodrama. We live in a two party system, and if you support one of the two main parties, great, vote for them. But, don’t forget, we live also in a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, ableist system that strategically cuts down anyone whose deviation from the socially constructed “normal” poses a threat to capitalism. To accept the former reality as True, and use it as a base upon which to make electoral decisions, is to support and perpetuate the latter reality.

Another future is possible. It takes imagination, determination, and courage. Courage to abandon the notion of “good enough,” courage to stand behind your beliefs despite ridicule or harassment, courage to not only swallow your pride, but digest it and accept that you might be wrong, or your plan might not work, courage to start over when you are and it doesn’t. I reject the concept of a “protest” vote. A vote is an opportunity to express one’s hope for a better future, to express support for a candidate who shares your values and speaks your truth. It is for this reason that I am no longer a registered democrat. My vote is my voice. Your vote is your voice. This is October, soon to be November, of 2016. I am 23. I’ll be at the polls in three weeks. Will you?

And for your musical note:

There is a war going on for your mind

If you are thinking you are winning

IHPacking Up

“I’m tired but resolute; that I’d rather be striving than settled, Oh I’d rather be, moving than static.

Oh I’d rather be by your side.”

It’s Sunday. Tomorrow is Monday. That’s how days of the week work, so I’ve been told. Tomorrow’s a big day. Back home, it’s graduation day. Four years ago, I would’ve told you that it would be my graduation day, but life intervened and I listened. But tomorrow’s a big day here, too. Tomorrow I’ll wear my backpack (under 30 kg, I hope) instead of a cap and gown, and I’ll be grab hold of a plane ticket and custom forms instead of a diploma. Tomorrow, I pack up and go home.

I think about that alternate year, sometimes, because the prospect of IHP was the reason I almost stayed enrolled. In that alternate universe, I’m sitting on campus reading Marina Keegan’s Opposite of Loneliness, tying up loose ends in the form of wandering around dark streets with a bottle of wine wondering where the last four years had gone. Instead, I’m in Bolivia. Ebba is asleep with a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. My computer charger keeps sizzling because my $8 converter from Vietnam broke. My bags are half-packed, but my heart overflowing. If I’d stayed “on track,” if I’d pushed myself to graduate “on time,” I wouldn’t know these 30 faces (and the three outfits associated with each of them). Sure, I’d have known different faces, held different hands, laughed different laughs, but it wouldn’t be this group, precisely. As sad as I am to say goodbyes tomorrow, when I think of how this semester very easily could’ve never happened just as it did, I know that what tears I’ve shed have been ones of joy and gratitude. I’m in Bolivia, writing and wondering, where did the last four months go?

San Francisco was just yesterday…Trader Joe’s trips and biking up and down the hills, the terror of snapped brakes, swimming in the cold bay water, the never-ending Bay model. We were in Vietnam this morning…iced coffee and karaoke, hiking Bach Ma and biking the rice fields in Hoi An. And didn’t we just have lunch in Morocco? Abdo called us all together for tagine and khobs and oranges to calm the hanger on the patio in Ben Smim. We played thirty rounds of Oh Hell as we digested. Our adorable Bolivian host families picked us up this evening at the Cocha airport; we still have another three days to spend splashing naked at Los Toucanes, don’t we?

Hardly. In a mere 46 hours, I’m gonna land in New York…in 48 hours I’ll be pulling up to my house and ringing the doorbell…in 60 hours I’ll be riding my bike to Blue State for an iced latte before work.

It doesn’t seem possible, but then again, none of this did.

The nonstop travel, on bumpy roads in uncomfortable buses, sometimes hungover, the altitude, the salmonella, the afternoon lectures, the crowded ‘M,’ the contradictions, the group photos under blazing suns, the stupid number of plastic water bottles we consumed (see: contradictions), the lost toenail, the dozens of dong/dirhams/Bs spent on hot chocolate in exchange for wifi–it was such a small IHPrice to pay for all the cool shit we got to do together. Tomorrow is the end of our (first) intimate trip–we might not text about our bowel issues after tomorrow  (but who knows, we might). The future, as we know, is  behind us, unseeable and unknowable. It’s a scary thing. But now that I know all of you, I know that your 60 hands are out there, grappling, climbing, pouring coffee, turning pages, tapping on desks, raising questions–probably about funding, or gender, or hydroelectricity–and I feel a whole lot better. Thanks to each of you for being precisely and unapologetically you. May these next hours, and the years they lead to, be, in the words of our favorite Hue bar, never sad and always funs.

With so much love,



see you @ brown eyes. 10pm. ladies night on friday.


Shattered & Hollow — First Aid Kit (1st quote in post)

Ruminant Band  — Fruitbats

Save Tonight — Eagle Eyed Cherry  (throwback. fitting)

Rivers And Roads — The Head and the Heart

Sahara Sunrise

Dear family and friends,

What a time to be alive— am writing you from a hotel bed in La Paz, Bolivia. After three months of circumventing the planet, I’m now back in EST time zone! Hooray! I have just arrived after some thirty odd hours of travel on several continents. My altitude is 13,310 feet, double that of Denver and Ben Smim. Thinking it’s time to kick my workout routine up a knotch–nothing like some good altitude training. But that’s tomorrow. Today I’m going to focus on breathing extra deep, drinking coca tea, and enjoying some rare wifi.

I spent the last week in Casablanca, but before that I went on spring break with a group out to the Sahara desert. On the drive out, we saw ancient kasbahs (castles), that had been occupied centuries before but are now used for film sets (most recently Game of Thrones) and backdrops for tourists photoshoots. We drove through several oaises that were bursting with color and life, a complete contrast to the dry desert that lay ahead.

When we got to the edge of the desert, we left our bags in the van and boarded camels. The views were unreal. We rode for an hour out to our camp and then climbed the dunes to watch the sunset. As I was looking out, a young boy came and sat by me—he took out a bunch of souvenirs from his bag, keychains and stuffed camels, etc., and arranged them in rows in front of him. His own portable gift shop. Then his friend came and set up right next to him. I smiled at them, but motioned that I had no money on me. They continued to sit there with me, and so we three watched the sun set. I glanced down at beaded camel eyes, a random pair of earrings, and up to the boys’ four eyes, which looked at me, then at the sunset, then back me. I remembered I had some Moroccan dirham in my overnight bag, so I motioned for them to stay while I ran down to grab it. Aziz and Mohammed, aged twelve and thirteen, helped me pick out a couple souvenirs that were in my price range. They priced out everything in Spanish, and so I was hoping we would be able to talk a little more, but they only knew Spanish numbers. They spoke Amazigh, or Berber, which is a classification of indigenous dialects in North Africa. The dialects are being lost, though, as French, Arabic, and English are “valued” more highly by society. I knew the words for thank-you and my name is, so that was helpful. Through gesturing and doodling in the sand I learned their ages and that Aziz lived in the valley below where we sat, but Mohammed lived somewhere on the other side of a very large dune. The sun set and they went running home. I joined my crew back at the camp for delicious tajine dinner and stargazing.


The next morning we woke up super early to catch the sunrise. We boarded our camels and set off. I noticed pretty quickly that my camel, let’s call her Sal, wasn’t doing so hot, but there was little I could do, as our guides were at the front of the line, and my legs couldn’t possibly take me ninety minutes through desert sands. The wind picked up as Sal teetered over the edge of a dune. I turned my head down and closed my eyes tight. With Sal’s unclear condition, I felt pretty uneasy about this steep decline. As I opened my eyes, I caught a glimpse of my friend, Jackson, sliding off the side of his camel right behind me. His camel freaked out and started running toward Sal and me. I don’t really know how to explain the noises the camels made as they were wigging out. It was nasal-y and distressed. Jackson’s camel ran up into the back of mine, and as mine turned around to say “WTF,” I was ejected off the side. I let out my own nasal-y distressed screams as I went tumbling into a sand dune. The crew turned around to look at us, sitting confused in the sand. I soldiered on, Sal soldiered on, and Jackson and his camel were taken to another part of the line.

So that was my trip to the Sahara–albeit brief, I had time for a few selfies with the dunes, a keychain purchase, and to form a memory of being thrown from my camel at sunrise.

The altitude is making me sleepy–that and the dearth of sleep I’ve found this week, so I’m going to sign off for now. I’ll keep you posted on what adventures await in Bolivia.

Peace out–yours truly,


Through the Dark

i wrote some stuff but it was all scrap so I started over. this is a draft, but so is everything.

Hi reader. It’s been a while. Have you missed me? I’ve been missing me.

I meant to write from roof of my school in Rabat, but the sun blinded me, so I did cartwheels instead. I meant to write from the bus to Ben Smim, and then a week later on the bus to Agadir, but I got carsick, so I slept instead. I meant to write from the train up to Asilah, but I stared out the window for three and half hours and listened to The Shins instead (ditto for the ride back).

I want to tell you a lot of things; I want to write pleasantries and “wish you were here”s. I want to tell you how stunning the clouds are. Cumulus, cirrus, doesn’t matter what kind; they are stunning and every day I dream of floating away on one. I want to tell you about the church Jess found in Rabat, about the simple stained glass and franciscan cross; about how much peace I found in those pews. I want to tell you all about the winding walls of the medina I live in, how cats lurk around every bend, how they make me uneasy and sneezy. About the discomfort of every fifth guy winking at me in the street, about the comfort of my host mom’s cornbread, jam, and eggs. About how my host grandma sleeps in the room adjacent to mine and Jess’s, how she snores, and how one night she came home with a pet hamster named “Hamster.” I want to tell you about how the living room opens to the sky, how birds fly down to eat breadcrumbs out of a pan next to the couch. I want to tell you about the street art I bought and how psyched I am that it’s made out of recycled trash. I want to tell you I’m having a great time.

If someone told me that I wasn’t actually in Morocco, that I was actually in an industrial blender, I would be like oh, yes, that makes a lot of sense……

 I saw hundreds of cases of plastic water bottles, shrink wrapped in more plastic, in a bottling company that exploits its workers and natural resources despite widespread drought in the region: set to “shred.” I held a packet of hybrid seeds and listened to the farmer discuss how the seed company, in conjunction with national agricultural policies, forces him to grow a single type of tomato based on market interest, how it won’t grow without pesticides sold by that company, and how the plants aren’t pollinated by local bees, but rather by mail order bees from, yep, the same company: set to “pulverize.” I saw french colonialism booming in the form of a lavish resort, but I ignored the contradictions because the pool looked inviting and the cocktails were complimentary: set to “puree.” My brain whirs. Constantly. Every now I hear a crack, followed by some grinding, a surprise piece of ice I’d thought had melted, then back to whirring.

Last night I took a shower. On my way upstairs, I looked up at the moon. I laid down on my couch-bed and recited the first two pages of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to Jess. (In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf. One day the warm sun came up and pop out of the egg crawled a very tiny, and very hungry caterpillar. He started to look for some food.) I closed my eyes and tried to allow for some settling. But even as I was still—as I rarely am—I could feel these last days, weeks, months stirring around inside.


and as per usual, a music suggestion from my playlists of the past: 

I used to talk with honest conviction of how I predicted my world

I’m gonna leave it to stargazers, tell me what your telescope says.



So Long, Vietnam

a recap of the last four weeks! warning, it’s a bit lengthy. 

Xin Chao, reader,

Greetings from 36,000 feet. I left Vietnam at 20:00 this evening, and will arrive in Morocco at…some point tomorrow…but I have a paper due about the negative externalities associated with “green energy” development, particularly as it pertains to food and water supplies, when we land, so I’m not exactly rushing the flight. (Though sleep at some point would be nice. I dozed off for a minute on the runway at our layover in the UAE, and next thing I knew an hour had gone by…Some might call it exhaustion, but I’ll just say I’m a little sleepy. Nothing a cappuccino can’t fix. ^.^)

I’ve checked in sporadically throughout the last month, but let’s just recap: First stop was Hanoi, a very large, bustling city. While there, we had a number of lectures and very few site visits. It felt like very traditional schooling the first week, but that was necessary to get some basic understanding of the Vietnamese government and the power dynamics between the communist party and citizen activist groups. Then we moved to the central coast of Vietnam, to Hue, the economy of which relies heavily on agriculture. The central coast isn’t just vulnerable to future impacts of climate change, it’s already happening. We visited several farms, and the members of each farm told us about how the summers were hotter and drier, the winters colder and wetter; these changes are not flukes, but are emerging patterns, and farmers have to work quickly to learn what adaptive techniques are possible.

In one commune, we met with a farmer, Hoa, who switched over from industrial agricultural methods to organic composting. We pulled up in a massive, pink, Hyundai bus. 31 tourists clad in sunburns and string backpacks, equipped with pencils, notebooks, at the ready with our iPhones in case a water buffalo walked by. We looked ridiculously out of place walking through the dusty roads that intersperse the rice paddies. We did not fit in the landscape. I was very aware of how unnatural it was for me, a white, twenty two year old student from the United States, to be standing in Mr. Hoa’s front yard as he turned his pile of manure and rice stalks, his bare feet caked in compost.  He poured us tea. He didn’t talk too much; the organization who sponsors his organic farming did most of the talking. I had some questions answered for my research project (which will focus on the historical use of pesticides and their impact on agriculture, human health, and climate change). We walked out to his fields and saw his stunningly green lettuce. It looked better than any of the other crops near by. His land was healthy, as were his hands. He noted that the burns he used to have from using chemical pesticides had healed since switching to organic. But organic agriculture is arduous. It takes a lot of time, and sometimes the yields won’t bring in enough income, especially for families with children.

In Hue, we also visited a hydropower dam—one of many that have been commissioned by the main electric company, EVN, which is owned by the government. We had an incredible opportunity to meet with several people who had been displaced by the dam; these individuals were part of the ethnic minority in Vietnam, and have been inhabitants of the region forever. With help from our translator, we were able to talk with them about what the implications of the dam were for their families and work. Even though the government has promised to give them reparations for their lost land, these reparations have been inconsistent and at times ineffective. Some of the positives are that these groups now have access to roads, schools, and medical centers. They also have access to electricity and running water, but they have no money or capital, and so they can’t afford it even though their new homes are set up with that capability. Additionally, they houses and neighborhoods the government moved them into are arranged differently than before, so families and communities which used to work together are now split up. They government also granted them forest land to use, but the land is a long motorbike ride from their resettlement, and furthermore they do not know the plants or forestry or animals in the new land. Many of the displaced individuals are now food insecure because they can’t hunt, fish, and forage like they used to. Everything has its trade-offs, I suppose, but these individuals did not elect to move to a community with roads and schools in order to receive those benefits, they were forced to do so. And while the government is trying to provide assistance, these populations won’t get a cut of the (large) profits gained on their previously occupied land. Instead, they’ll feel the negative climate impacts that will come along down the road as a result of the dam’s construction. Stellar.

Hue was damp, rainy, and muddy, but the sun came out when we got to Hoi An. Another small city in central Vietnam, Hoi An is touristy beyond belief. The entire city’s economy relies on the industry. Young people from surrounding rural areas are abandoning their farms at home to move to Hoi An to work in restaurants, shops, and hotels. In the ancient downtown district, the only Vietnamese people you see are those working to sell their wares. Everything is catered to European and American tastes. Every block is just shop after shop of scarves, toys, and snacks (mangoes were a group favorite and iced white coffee. Lots of iced coffee). Custom tailored clothing is huge, but the selection of patterns is fairly repetitive from shop to shop. All the foreigners walk and bike around dressed in the same 10-15 popular fabrics, with slight variations in their rompers or maxi-dresses. I felt weird about all of the consumerism. It was aggressive, and for someone who doesn’t like shopping, disconcerting. The streets are lined with magnets, postcards, and straw hats, all of which reproduce stereotypical, orientalist views of Vietnam. They’re produced en masse for the Anglo-tourist, in other words, me. I am a tourist in this country. I fumble with the local currency (which customarily must be handed over with two hands to cashiers, waitresses, etc.). I botch the pronunciation of what few phrases I know. I am trapped and confined to a Vietnam that was constructed for my pleasure, for profit.

But I am also a student, and in my adventures as a student have had endless conversations about the environmental and social impacts of tourism. It’s not all bad. For instance, Hoi An is one of the most environmentally sustainable towns in Vietnam, and has become so because green is in vogue, and so having eco-tourist attractions boosts traffic to the region. They were one of the first cities to implement a composting program in Vietnam (most other places don’t recycle, let alone compost. A lot of trash is burned.). There is also a rise of organic farming and agriculture throughout the region. Many people visit the city to tour local, organic farms, stay in bed and breakfasts on property, and consume food grown on that land. But there are still people who travel to the coast to visit beaches. And the beaches, they’re not too fond of tourism. The construction of multiple resorts along the coast has caused a massive—and I mean massive—amount of erosion. In just two years, 100 meters of beachfront has been swallowed by the sea (I wrote a post about it <here>.). Tourists who come for beachfront property are shocked when they arrive, and are kept up by the sounds of mechanical attempts to keep a sea wall up. While tourists must muddle through a disappointingly short beach volleyball court before they return home at the end of the week, resorts and local people struggle to find solutions.


hand rolled incense in Hue 

One of the redeeming qualities of staying in such a touristy town, though, was that we were staying with local families. My family spoke very little English, but they were incredibly sweet and welcoming. Mealtimes were always an adventure as we tried to communicate basic stories about our days. For more involved questions, my host mom would smile, and flutter out of the room, returning with her phone, open to the Google Translate app. They fed me and the other two girls living with me extremely well. Every night they would keep filling my rice bowl long past the point when I was full, and after rice topped with meats and sauces and freshly grown lettuce (all produced in Vietnam…the country imports very little food, and consumers do not typically buy things for home consumption that are not grown in Vietnam.), we would have fresh fruits. Green bananas or pineapple with salt or lychee, and always a glass of tea. Breakfast was usually noodle soup, again with some kind of meat or peanut sauce or bean sprouts. Every day we biked to school, which was a terrifying experience, but after a day or two I got the hang of it. Like I mentioned before, there are very few rules of the road, mostly just customs you need to know how to follow. Most importantly: don’t stop. You have to find a break in the traffic line and just pedal at a consistent pace, and pray you make it to the other side. By the end of our two weeks in Hoi An, I was zipping through pedestrians and motorbikes like a pro.

It was tough to say goodbye to Hoi An, my host family, the Nguyens, and my bicycle, but it’s time to move on. There’s a lot left to learn and explore. At the tail end of our time in Vietnam, we spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam, but I spent much of my time in HCMC working in coffee shops and the hotel lobby on various assignments. This has been enough of a break from my essay, so I better get going. It’s currently 11:00 in Vietnamese time, and so we’ve been traveling for 20 hours, only six(ish?) more to go to get to Rabat!  Might be time to ring for another coffee….

Hope all is well at home. I’m following the primary season closely from abroad, so if your state is still up to vote, please register and do that!!!

Peace out,


Falling Into Touch, The Sea

Sophomore year, my best friend and I had a piece of orange construction paper on our wall titled “Discoveries.”  Whenever we figured something out, we would put it on the paper. Some were literal discoveries, like Harold, the small mouse that would run across our floor every so often. Others were theoretical, sayings or mantras we needed to keep in mind in order to keep going. I don’t remember the context, but one night I shouted “The squeaky wheel gets the cheese!!” I was in a slaphappy state and mixed up metaphors (something I love to do, so hold on tight), but Susan dug it, so we put it on the wall. Another one I keep revisiting is: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” On the “Discoveries” document I wrote it in the wrong order and had to write a numerical key next to it so that the sentence made sense. Perhaps the silliness of these two entries solidified them in my memory, but I think there’s a better explanation for why I keep revisiting them two years later.

I’ve been thinking about these two ideas (squeaky cheese & scary dreams) in the context of the U.S. presidential race. Donald Trump is a nightmare and a true squeaky wheel–one that should fall off the wagon, crash into a tree, and remain there until it rots, leaving behind nothing but a few  golden strands of synthetic hair. And as expected, the media is rewarding  him with a lot of cheese…White American cheese product, obviously. But what’s grosser than cheese product is that people are eating this nonsense, even though there’s some amazing Brie sitting in the kitchen just waiting and try’n to be served. But you wouldn’t know it listening to the news, because the media is spurting clips of Trump’s xenophobia and racism faster than blood from a punctured jugular. When it comes to the other wheel in this race, though, the media’s reading a dead pulse.  That other wheel, who is the squawk to Trump’s squeak, is, of course, Bernie Sanders. Mainstream media refuses to make a big deal about Sanders, despite his tremendous success, particularly in Michigan’s primary. But that’s not surprising.

When you consider that  90% of American media outlets are controlled by just 6 corporations, referred to sometimes as “the big six,” it’s pretty easy to see why Sanders gets no air time. After all, why would a network that’s owned by a massive corporation want to give Sanders any cheese? He can’t even get a crumble of sweaty blue cheese, and the logic is simple. Bernie Sanders sees the strings that control the system, and has spent the last thirty-plus years pointing out that they look awfully similar to the strings coming from the hands of our nation’s best puppeteers <drum roll>…The big six and other similar (read: identical) corporations. While Sanders calls these behemoths on their bullshit, the other “democratic” candidate, Hillary Clinton, sustains herself on their lifeblood–money. Not sold? Take a look at Hillary Clinton’s top donors. Between 1999-2016, Cablevision Systems made her top 10 list, donating more than $300k in the last two decades; turn the clock back a bit further to Clinton’s whole career and you’ll see that Time Warner makes the top 10 for Hillary supporters, having donated nearly $600,000 to her political campaigns. While Bernie Sanders refuses PAC money, Clinton thrives on it. So, yeah, she’s “winning” in the eyes of the media.

Free speech may be our first constitutional right, but don’t be fooled. The media as many Americans know it is anything but free. The six corporations I mentioned (which, let’s face it, are all the same in everything but name) aren’t covering Sanders out of personal interest. The thought of a president who wants to upset the system terrifies the board members of these corporations. As it should.  The system supports them; the system is the reason for their success. So of course they’re doing everything they can to keep Sanders and his success out of the spotlight. They have big money, which we all know can and does influence politics.  That should terrify you. It terrifies me. Why? Because these corporate moguls aren’t just throwing big bucks at the candidates they want in office, they’re abusing their position as purveyors of “information” by deliberately skewing election-related coverage. They are giving Trump more air time so that people feel the need to vote for Clinton out of fear, because no one with two brain cells can stomach the thought of a Trump-(Palin? Probably.) presidency. And, if you’re watching mainstream media, you’re being told that Sanders is a risky, unelectable candidate, so naturally Clinton is the safest option. If you look at what’s actually happening across the nation, you would see Sanders is anything but. Independent media tells a different story, a story this author buys, or rather, doesn’t buy.  Trump is scary. Corporate power is scary. We need to fall back into touch as a nation because the skewing of political news by corporate media isn’t just twisted…it’s criminal.

And while U.S. politics appears to be cracking, 

Vietnam is falling into the sea. Yesterday we took a trip to Cu Dai Beach in central Vietnam. Located in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site, this beach draws a lot of tourists annually (2 million, maybe? Unclear. Just know that it’s a whole lot). The sun beat down on our group of thirty-one as we stood on a strip of sand not more more than 4 meters in width. Two years ago, this same site had a hundred yards of beach. A crab made its way through the crowd as our translator shouted depressing facts about erosion into a megaphone. People pointed and took pictures of the crab. A large wave crashed on the hair-thin beach, splashing the half of our group that stood seaside. My toes curled in the sand, my etchings were washed away, my shoes wet. But my eyes were not on the ground, or the crab, but on two chubby, white foreigners walking out of their hotel room. They were clad in bathing suits, seemingly oblivious to the destruction that lay before them, which they, in a round-about way, had contributed to. Which we all, in a round-about way had contributed to. Our translator mentioned that many tourists complained to resort staff; they said that the photos they saw online showed much healthier, luscious beaches and they were disappointed. The tides change quickly round these parts, and the web-designers can’t (and for good reason won’t) keep up with the rising tides. The local economy relies on tourism, so even if the sea continues to encroach on the shore (and it will), people will continue to draw tourists to Cu Dai Beach. So, sorry tourists, that your vacation included 95 less yards of beach. I’m pretty sure you’re  going home to a La-Z-boy sofa, flat screen TV, and delivery sushi, while the natives of Hoi An and similar coastal towns try to figure out how to adjust to changing tides which impact way more than one’s ability to tan and play volleyball. I thought about these tourists rotund waistlines, Vietnam’s shrinking shoreline, the waves crashing, the crab crawling; it took every effort not to burst into tears. I wished the tide would take me with it. Some contradictions are too heavy to hold.


left side: resort hotel rooms. right side: sea wall, constructed in the last two years, projected to last two years.

But I can’t end there…so let’s try for this: If there’s one thing that’s keeping me going, it’s this: physics doesn’t negotiate, but neither do revolutions. Bernie Sanders has sparked a revolution that’s exactly what a political revolution should be: by and for the people. Some people–those listening to corporate media–won’t commit to Sanders because they don’t think he’s serious enough. He’s too much of a dreamer, they say. He won’t get anything done with Congress. Well, to that I say, if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. (And also, 435 seats are up for election in 2016, so get out there and campaign and vote). Bernie Sanders is a dream we can’t give up on. What’s happening in the U.S. is too big to ignore, and with any hope, too big to fail. When I fall asleep (five minutes from now), I’ll be dreaming of a nation that cares less about capital and more about community, of a world that doesn’t salivate over prospects of gold but strives to support social justice. In my dreams, I’m pushing back against Time Warner Cable and the South China Sea. Hope to see you there.

PJ’s listening for the week:

Handle Bars — Flobots

Beautiful Lasers 2 — Lupe Fiasco

Don’t Fight It — The Panics