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First, the good news. To those who can’t stand my scribbling, it’s clear this pitiful, barely gurgling font is drying up quickly, for lately, all I feel like doing is vegetate at a sidewalk café, or wander mindlessly for miles, so that I can be just another anchovy in this demanding, forgetful stream.

Though my synapses are burnt toasts, and I’d rather putz in peace, I shall strive to paint some pictures, will a few thoughts into being, and if you deem they suck, just shove me into the nearest gas chamber already, for I’m primed to be chosen. Disinfested, I’ll ascend, or rather, descend, for I’m as guilty as the next mensch.

In oven like heat or monsoon rain, I’ve walked. With parked motorbikes and food vendors cluttering sidewalks, Saigon is not ideal for strolling, that’s for sure, but it’s still the best way to see everything. On signs for barbers, dentists, opticians and gyms, nearly all the models are white, and English is often inserted to lend cachet to whatever is being sold. “HENRY’S GAMING / LET’S FEEL THE ASSASSIN’S SPEED.” Toyota’s slogan, “NO QUALITY / NO LIFE.” On the side of a massive building, there’s an image of bespectacled Korean executive, with “I like K-food.” The more universal English becomes, the more infantile, even at its sources. For $2, you can buy a locally-made “FUCK LIFE” baseball cap.

A decade ago in Reykjavik, I was on a literary panel with handful of international poets. Along with Canadian Angela Rawlings, I found myself somewhat dominating the discussion, and it wasn’t because we were overbearing or brilliant, but simply because the proceeding was in English. When this was pointed out by an audience member, I conceded, “When America collapses, which will happen soon enough, English will also lose its dominance, so cheer up!”

In Singapore two years ago, translator Motoyuki Shibata pointed out to me after a group reading that the host had given me the longest and most enthusiastic introduction, “I think you being an American has something to do with it.”

Goddamned, sexy English, and the most sexed up English is Americanese, as promoted by an endless stream of movies and songs, spanning a century.

Under a nagging Saigon rain, I trudged past a tiny, shriveled up woman, with a raisin-like face. Her faded blue T-shirt had two pairs of feet, and this in English, “I’M YOUR BIG LOVER, SWEETHEART.”

On a teenage boy’s backpack, “BORN TO BE PLAY HARD.”

English language school signs, “HELLO! HI! STEP INTO THE FUTURE,” “YOUR ENGLISH / YOUR FUTURE,” “English for Future Leaders,” “GLOBAL PASSPORT / Learn to live together.”

One academy is named “Beyond English / Premium Quality.” What is “Beyond English,” exactly? Russian? Chinese? Martian? What nonsense, but don’t worry, just give us your money and we’ll hire some white guy, as on the billboard, to hand your child a spiffy award.

In an alley, I stumbled upon an English learning club that meets twice a week. On its sign was a black bearded and head scarf-wearing white househusband holding a baby, brush and dust pan, while flexing his biceps, “We Can Do It!”

Speaking English, you can converse with, befriend and perhaps live among whites. There are many businesses here to help you secure a student visa to white countries, thus on a sign, there are three white faces and a very light-skinned black one, with the Australian flag behind them, and, “You did it! Congratulations. A warm welcome to Australia.”

Whites are sexy. On a bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon, there were two French women behind me, one black, one white. Speaking a surprisingly good English, a Vietnamese guy was coming on hard to the pale one. He’s very Christian, he declared, and had even been to Israel to visit holy sites. Although he’s married, “Vietnamese men are allowed five girlfriends,” he joked, “and I’d like a white one!” To cement this possible bond, he suggested they go into business together, “and make lots of money.” She could provide used clothing from France, and he’d sell them in Cambodia. “You know, Vietnamese people love foreigners. Blonde hair, blue eyes!” Later, after the French lovelies were long gone, the Christian told me he had a sister in Nebraska, but had never visited her. Then, “How much do prostitutes cost in America?”

On the webzine Kiến Thức [Knowledge], I read about a young Vietnamese woman, Duyên Bkrông, who’s attracting much adulation because she’s tall, pale and has a high-bridged nose. “Although she has tried to explain that she’s an Ê Đê [a minority tribe], Duyên is still annoyed by people who keep whispering, ‘If she’s not of mixed race, how can she be so beautiful?’”

White is sexy. Most Ê Đê, though, tend to be darker than Vietnamese. A dwindling tribe, they are most numerous in remote Dak Lak. At some dusty gas station in that province, I was suddenly struck by the beauty of a young Ê Đê, then by another at a roadside refreshment stand. Vietnamese used to call them savages, highlanders then minorities. Now, they’re just ethnics, người dân tộc.

My last week in Philly two months ago, I had a couple of beers with Paul Bonnell, an Idahoan who was just passing through. Adopted from Vietnam as an infant, Paul suspects he’s an Ê Đê, for he looks more Amerindian than Vietnamese. His culture, though, is thoroughly American. After a childhood in Malaysia and the Philippines, then college in Tennessee and North Carolina, Paul has established roots in Boundary, a sparsely populated county abutting Canada. Paul has taught English and American history at the junior high, high school and college levels. He coaches cross country and track, hikes, climbs, skis and performs folk music at bars.

A year ago, Paul returned to Vietnam and Dak Lak for the first time. Even as Ê Đê culture is being gravely eroded by the Vietnamese and modernity, enough remains to deepen Paul’s sense of himself. He will return.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Vietnam 
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Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “Among the ancients, the slave belonged to the same race as his master, and often he was superior to him in education and enlightenment. Freedom alone separated them; freedom once granted, they easily intermingled. The ancients therefore had a very simple means of delivering themselves from slavery and its consequences; this means was emancipation, and when they employed it in a general manner, they succeeded.”

When slaves and masters are biologically identical, full equality between them is possible, post-slavery, but if they are physically distinct, what you’ll have is exactly what the United States must endure, for as long as it exists.

Hypothetically, let’s just say the differences between blacks and whites are only skin deep, that they’re exactly the same otherwise, with equal mental and physical potentials, but even if this is true, black Americans will always be branded, by themselves and others, as descendants of slaves, so this alone will eternally cause social division and discord.

Even Africans who arrive long after slavery ended are colored by this crime, shame and endless source of outrage, just as any white is somehow guilty of all the ramifications of racial slavery, even if he’s Irish, Polish, Czech or a fresh-of-the-boat Moldavian who’s never heard of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King.

Blacks as ex slaves and whites as ex slave drivers has become the cartoony backdrop to all American conversations about race, so that any anti-social or violent act by blacks can be explained away by a mainstream media chorus of black apologists.

Michael Brown, for example, couldn’t help but steal a cigar, shove an Indian clerk out of the way, walk down the middle of the street, ignore a white cop’s command to move onto a sidewalk then, most fatally, reach into the cop’s car to grab officer Darren Wilson and his gun. Now, a man of any color in any country who does that is asking to be shot, and if you were the cop, I’m sure you would have blasted your 6-foot-4, 292-pound assailant also, and this is no he said, she said, for Brown’s DNA was found on Wilson’s weapon, which means that he was right on top of Wilson, and not at a distance, with his hands up.

Truth, though, didn’t get in the way of widespread rioting, Brown’s beatification, the birth of Black Lives Matter, Brown’s mother’s appearance at the National Democratic Convention and her publication of Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son Michael Brown, whose kindle edition can be yours for only 99 cents at Amazon.

With the Ferguson riot constantly in the news, I often consulted the St Louis Post Dispatch so, by chance, found out about Daniil Maksimenko. A 22-year-old Bosnian immigrant, Maksimenko was delivering pizza when he was fatally shot by three black men. They didn’t want to risk anyone fingering them for stealing a pizza, I suppose. In contrast to Michael Brown’s death, Maksimenko’s meant absolutely nothing to the black apologists that make up our mainstream media, for there was no analysis or debate, and no concern for his devastated family. Granted, black on white crimes are daily occurrences, so this was hardly a special case. In June of that year, a white woman delivering pizza was stabbed 50 times by two black teens in Cedartown, GA. If the races were reversed, you can be sure the entire world would have heard about these outrageous murders.

As a tireless walker, I must have logged at least a thousand miles through hundreds of cities and towns across the United States, so I’ve seen many black ghettos with ruins of Polish, Italian or Irish churches, or Jewish synagogues. It’s obvious the people who built these had every intention of staying there for generations, so it wasn’t because of racism, but the very real fear of being mugged, killed or raped by blacks that they abandoned their fine homes, dear neighborhoods and magnificent places of worship.

I have a close friend from Singapore who two years ago moved to San Francisco, for work, with his Croatian girlfriend. Since they didn’t know the Mission from the Castro, they innocently rented a tiny room in Bayview, which at $1,280, they deemed expensive enough. They lasted but a few days. He emailed me that “it felt dangerous” just to walk through Bayview to their apartment, so they “desperately” fled to Los Gatos. Once more, it wasn’t racism but a healthy survival instinct that prompted these two to hightail from a neighborhood that’s known for its social justice advocates, anti violence murals and colorful death shrines to murder victims.

Trayvon Martin, though, was killed by a half white, half Hispanic, George Zimmerman, who claimed self defense, and an all-women jury, of five whites and a Hispanic, agreed. Although all grew to dislike Zimmerman, they believed he had to shoot because Martin was sitting on top of him, while raining down blows that bloodied Zimmerman.

Commenting on this case, James Howard Kunstler outlines a culture of young black men that “is oppositional to virtually every other group in America, white, Asian, Hispanic, et cetera, and the only response to it from the jittery ‘others’ is a set of excuses for black opposition and failure.” Most incisively, Kunstler adds:

The Civil Rights victories of 1964 and 1965—the public accommodations act and voting rights act—created tremendous anxiety among African Americans about how they would fit into a desegregated society, so the rise of black separatism at exactly that moment of legislative triumph was not an accident. It offered a segment of the black population the choice of opting out of the new disposition of things. Opting out had consequences, and over several generations since then, the cohort of poorer black Americans has grown only more oppositional, antagonistic, and economically dysfunctional—with the sanction of America’s non-black “diversity” cheerleaders, who remain adamant in their own opposition to the idea of common culture.

During segregation, blacks operated their own country, so to speak, with their own banks, hotels, stores and restaurants, etc., so they were self-sufficient, because they had to be. With integration, blacks can take their money to superior, non-black businesses, and that’s why you see almost no black businesses any more, not even in the blackest neighborhoods. Walk through any black ghetto and you’ll find corner bodegas run by Hispanics, Koreans, Chinese or Arabs, bars owned by whites or Asians, fried food takeouts with bullet-proof plexiglass operated by Chinese or Hispanics, and nail salons run by Vietnamese. Even many ghetto barbers are Chinese or Vietnamese.

In every field besides sports, entertainment and politics, blacks are failing spectacularly against all other races, a fact readily admitted to by blacks and black apologists themselves as evidence of America’s racism and oppression of blacks. America is racist, but so is every other country and person, for racism, at core, is merely an extension and manifestation of innate self-love. One loves oneself, family then nation, which is made up of those that share one’s language, above all, as well as culture and history, if not also a physical similarity.

Loving oneself and kind doesn’t mean having a right to violate anybody else, obviously, and if one favors another race over one’s own, then that, too, is racism. No one is color blind.

Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith explains, “Wherever we go around the world, we feel that instant connection when we bagel each other. And being part of a big global family means each of us has an international network of people who genuinely care and will help each other […] Every Jew is my responsibility; we are different parts to an organic whole.”

 
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A foreign country seeps into one’s consciousness via large events and personalities, mostly, as in war, earthquake, tsunami, coup d’état, unprovoked bombing, Gaddafi and Assad, etc., but it’s the lesser turbulences that will begin to yield more revealing clues about any society.

My two years in Italy, I often combed through newspapers for crime stories, for why, how and who Italy’s residents robbed, killed, wounded or raped were always instructive, as were how these stories were reported. An armed robber in Tuscany would be said to have, for example, a southern accent.

Briefly browsing through a handful of Italian rags this morning, I found out that in January, 130 cops from Prato, Rome, Florence, Milan, Padova and Pisa conducted a vast operation against the Chinese mafia, dubbed China Truck, that ended with the arrest of 33 people in Italy, France and Spain. This week in Prato, a South American prisoner assaulted four guards, seriously wounding one in the throat with a razor blade. In August, a middle-aged pub owner in Pisa hurled insults, rocks, bottles and glasses, from his apartment balcony, at three Africans who had just finished dinner at Sapori d’Africa e Toscani [African and Tuscan Flavors].

The headline in Corriere Fiorentino, “Pisa, insulti e sassi contro il locale simbolo dell’integrazione”

[“Pisa, Insults and Rocks Against the Local Symbol of Integration”]. The restaurant owners are a Senegalese woman and her Italian husband, who explains, “We came to Pisa because we knew there was a large community of Senegalese and a restaurant such as ours, which mixes Tuscan with Senegalese cooking, could work out.”

Your biases will tint your reading of these items, but at least they give you a more complicated picture of contemporary Italy.

In Vietnam, you almost never hear about interracial crimes simply because the population is relatively homogeneous, with the foreign residents mostly white, well-educated and not crime-prone. Any host has a right to choose his guests.

This week, I had a few Tiger beers with Matthew Rossman, a 48-year-old Canadian who has lived in Saigon for eight years, is married to a Vietnamese engineer and has a six-year-old daughter. They live in Thảo Điền, a new, upscale development where “just about every other person you see on the streets is a foreigner.” Matthew plans on staying in Vietnam for the rest of his life, with his retirement years spent in Vũng Tàu. Once trendy, this seaside resort has become much more serene and pleasant.

In college, Matthew studied English, then entered law school, before he realized he hated lawyers, so he taught English in Colombia for seven years. In Saigon, Matthew teaches English and manages two English learning centers. Among the teachers Matthew oversees are two Russians and a Dutchman, all highly qualified.

Three weeks ago, I also met Nick Santalucia, a Temple graduate who majored in the classics. Just 27-years-old, Nick has been in Saigon for 4 ½ years. Soon, though, Nick will return to Philly with his steady Vietnamese girlfriend of more than 3 years. Though Nick agrees that the US is in dismal shape, he believes a turnaround is possible. If not, he might just return to Vietnam.

“But to really belong to this place, you will have to seriously learn Vietnamese,” I challenged.

“I know.”

Without “the other” to be aggravated by, prey on or fear, Vietnamese must turn to each other to give and receive violence. Often, alcohol plays a role, as does the sheer density of this place. 78% the size of California, Vietnam has 2.3 times the population.

Two women shared not just a tiny Hanoi apartment, but the same bed, where at least one night, their boyfriends also slept. That morning, 22-year-old Sơn noticed that his girlfriend was being groped by 25-year-old Trung, but he didn’t go berserk right away. Days later, Sơn sent Trung a FaceBook message, “If I ever see you again, one of us will have a hole in his body.” Since neither would back down, they ended up in a knife fight that involved two more men. Repeatedly stabbed, Sơn is dead, while Trung is serving a life sentence. His partner in crime, an ex-convict, will be executed.

One cheap feel, and three lives are wrecked. One can contend this sleepwalking fingers, morning curious digits incident wouldn’t have happened if the women hadn’t been so poor, but it’s also true Vietnamese usually don’t mind being crammed together.

Culture was also a factor when a 60-year-old man was stabbed to death by his 42-year-old nephew, as both were getting hammered after a funeral, which is always a drawn out affair here, lasting several days.

Drunk, a 59-year-old was pissed off by his neighbors’ loud karaoke singing, so he lobbed bricks into their yard and screamed at them. Offkey crooning is a regular feature of Vietnam’s soundscape, urban and rural. After being bitten on the cheek in the ensuing fight, the man ran home to grab a chef’s knife, meat cleaver and sickle to murder his toothy opponent. He won’t breathe free again for 14 years.

This month in the lunar calendar, angry ghosts are let out of hell, many believe, so food and even money are offered to appease these spirits. One may consider it charity in disguise, for the poor, mostly kids, will converge to snatch up these gifts, right after the public ceremony. Disappointed by the paltriness of the food offerings, and no money, a 13-year-old boy got into a fight with a 15-year-old in the giving family, and stabbed him.

On September 1st, a couple hailed a taxi in Bình Chánh to go to Tân An, 22 miles away. Halfway, the driver refused to go further, so dumped them in Bến Lức, just outside a Buddhist temple. In the fading light, locals saw the man lay his companion on the ground.

Factory workers in their late 30’s, they had lived together for years without a marriage certificate. In June, she was diagnosed with late stage cancer, but since they couldn’t afford hospital care, she merely lay at home until she died on September 1st. With only 70,000 dongs [$2.99] left to his name, the man called a taxi anyway, to take her corpse back to her home village. To give some context, you typically pay 15,000 here for a banh mi, 20,000 for a plate of rice with pork chop, 25,000 for a basic bowl of pho and 65,000 for a Big Mac. Entering the cab, he told the driver his companion was merely ill.

For Vietnam’s poor, a trip to the hospital is like entering a war zone. Surrounded by broken bodies, they’re often treated in extremely chaotic and undignified ways, so every so often, a doctor or nurse would be assaulted by a patient’s relatives, or even the patient himself.

Last year, footage of violence by three Saigon daycare workers against toddlers appalled the world, and similar clips of other daycare centers have appeared. Almost all of these battered kids are children of factory workers, displaced from the provinces.

In Vietnam, then, you’re not likely to be assaulted by an unknown, but someone close to you. Though a stranger may break into your house or, much more often, snatch your belonging as he zooms by on his motorbike, it’s not likely he will try to hurt you, for that’s a task for your spouse, parent or classmate, etc. In Vietnam, interpersonal violence is almost never the result of alienation, but excessive socialization.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Crime, Vietnam 
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My first book, Fake House (2000), was dedicated to “the unchosen,” and by that, I meant all those who are not particularly blessed at birth or during life, just ordinary people, in short, with their daily exertion and endurance. Further, I’ve always considered losing to be our common bond and bedrock, for no matter how smug you may be at the moment, you’ll be laid out by a sucker punch soon enough. Being born into a war-wracked lesser country undoubtedly made it easier to think this way.

Though I spent more than three decades in the shining city on a hill, the indispensable, greatest nation ever, I was still mostly surrounded by the unchosen, such as Tony, who died at 56, just months after being fired from his restaurant job, with his last apartment freezing from unpaid bills, or 66-year-old Chuck, who’s carless and has but a tiny room in a group home, as he suffers through his divorce and alimony payments, or 55-year-old Beth, whose crepe restaurant has gone belly up, so for economic reasons can’t dump a husband who chronically cheats on her with both men and women.

A 35-year-old Philly friend who’s been semi-homeless for the last two years just told me she doesn’t even have a phone any more, so must wait for up to an hour at the library to use a computer for 30 minutes, a predicament that severely limits her ability to find a job. She barely survives by cleaning houses.

Surely, all these American tales of woes must pale next to Vietnamese ones, you must be thinking, for it must be horrific to be poor in such a poor country, no?

In Vietnam, the rich and poor are generally not segregated, for if a family’s economic situation improves, they won’t move to a better neighborhood, but build a better house, right where they’ve always been. A ramshackle wooden shack may morph into a three-story brick building, then a five-story virtual palace, with an ostentatious wrought iron gate, while in the next lot, a modest dwelling has only gotten new paint jobs, if that, over decades.

Since almost no neighborhoods are strictly residential, poor people also show up everywhere as restaurant, shop or factory employees. Daily, they also swarm through to sell nearly everything, so in my Saigon neighborhood, for example, I often see the same fruit seller, with a toddler sitting in a basket on her pushcart. Buying a kilo of rambutans, a regular customer teased her boy, “I’m going to catch you, put you in my purse then sell you!”

At my morning coffee spot, I often sit near an old woman who makes about three bucks a day, selling lottery tickets. One of her relatives owns a box making factory, however, so she has a place to sleep, two meals a day, plus $22 a month from this relation.

You’ll also find many poor people living in middle and upper class homes, as domestic servants. Long inquisitive about these servants’ plights, I’ve written about them in prose and poetry, in English and Vietnamese, so let’s meet one.

A Teochew from backward Vĩnh Châu, down the southern coast, Ỵ has ten brothers and sisters. Her recently deceased dad was a lifelong drunk who regularly beat her mother, sometimes with a piece of bamboo, to the point of drawing blood. The family has a bit of land, on which they grow rice, sweet potatoes and bananas.

When Ỵ was in second grade, her people got into a knife fight with some neighbors, which landed one of her brothers in jail for a year. “My brother thought they had killed my father, so he grabbed a meat cleaver, the kind you use to chop ducks, you know, and hacked a guy on the shoulder. His arm nearly fell off. There was so much blood, blood everywhere. Panicking, my brother dropped the cleaver, but then my father grabbed it to hack another guy, severing his Achilles tendon.”

Too terrified to walk past these neighbors’ house thereafter, Ỵ quit school, so she’s basically illiterate. Though she can read numbers well enough to use a cellphone, Ỵ signs her name with an X. On top of her native Teochew, she’s also fluent in Vietnamese and Cambodian, however.

Folks in Vĩnh Châu are apparently quite comfortable with knives. One of Ỵ’s uncles was jailed for killing his own mother, “He hacked grandma on the chest, and nearly cut her left breast off. In prison, the other inmates beat him nearly to death, because they knew why he was there. Although my uncle was allowed to go home, he died soon afterwards.”

These rural donnybrooks are quite charming, no? Perhaps they can be packaged with local religious festivals, pseudo traditional music concerts, elephant or sampan rides and some jivey folkloric dances.

In 1998, Ỵ went to Saigon at age 16, “A bus ticket from Vĩnh Châu was only 40,000 dongs [$2.50 at the time], and I stayed in this room with four other people,” rent free, and where she was also fed, thanks to kindly “big sister” from home. “My big sister was trying to find me work. Each day, I went to Bình Phú Park, and just sat there. A man rode up and asked if I wanted to work in a restaurant, but I barely understood him. I didn’t really know Vietnamese then. Plus, I was afraid he was up to no good. I said, ‘You better talk to my big sister,’ and he actually did, so I was hired for 350,000 a month [$23]!”

“But he fed you, no?”

“Yes, and he gave me a place to sleep.”

When Ỵ reached 17, her parents decided she should marry a Taiwanese, for that would fetch at least $900, and though six Taiwanese actually wanted to marry her, something always went wrong, “With three of them, our age differences [in multiples of 3] didn’t work,” meaning they portend back luck. “One man was simply too fat. Another was probably lame, as he sat perfectly still and never got off his chair during our meeting.” Ỵ laughed. “The sixth, I agreed to marry, but then I changed my mind, for I’d heard too many horrible stories about Vietnamese women who had gone to Taiwan.”

With old, morbidly obese or crippled Taiwanese out of her life, Ỵ fell in love with a Vĩnh Châu lad, a dark, strapping Cambodian, which horrified her parents, but they married anyway. At the beginning, Ỵ’s husband worked hard enough, then he just sat home and sulked after his father yelled at him for always being a coolie, never a boss.

“We lived with his family. We had rice, but nothing to eat with it. His mom bought everything on credit, until no one would sell to her. Once, six of us shared one packet of instant noodles. I ate so little, I didn’t even have milk for our baby.”

While still pregnant, Ỵ worked in the rice paddies, for just 20,000 dongs a day [$1.25 in 2004], and she had to catch field rats so her husband and his buddies had something to munch on as they got trashed on the cheapest rice wine. After her son was born, Ỵ bought a stolen motorbike for just $40, and used it to drive around to buy and sell longans, rambutans and other fruits, whatever was in season.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Poverty, Vietnam 
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Trinh Cong Son, the great song writer, poet and soul of Saigon, said that he got his heart and mind revving each morning by watching frantic life unfurling all around him, while sitting in a sidewalk cafe. Lesser Vietnamese do exactly the same, however, for to be among one’s own kind is practically an hourly necessity here. The second they’re free to do so, most head straight for the nearest café, eatery or beer joint, which is, still, most likely on the sidewalk, or open to it.

At the next table, there is a man, woman and a baby girl, nursing from a bottle. Sunlight floods in, ceiling fans barely cool, while just outside, motorcycles swarm past, beeping too often. Up and down the street are scores of similar joints, with most specializing in just one or two noodle or rice dishes.

There is also a McDonald’s, overpriced by local standards, yet still filled, for it’s a destination for the nouveau riche, and for regular people to sometimes treat their kids, to expose them to how white people eat. Just out of sight is a billboard showing Denzel Washington, looking super cool with some sort of mean-assed rifle.

A dark, wiry dude rides by on a bicycle, with a speaker that repeats, “I buy air conditioners, refrigerators and sewing machines.” Now and then, a lottery ticket seller strays in, but none are children, as in the 90’s, and there are almost no beggars left, and gone, absolutely, is the appalling spectacle of kids in rags, waiting for a diner to finish his meal, so that they can eat whatever’s leftover, even if it’s just a bit of broth.

This eatery is known for its braised pork offal, served with French bread, and for its cubed beef, presented on a cow-shaped skillet. I like to write here because it’s free from distracting music, and because a can of Tiger beer is a reasonable 73 cents. Seeing me typing, the owner asks, “Do you need me to turn on the light, brother?”

“No, I’m fine, sister. Thank you!”

It’s this comfort with being on top of each other, all the time, that has helped the Vietnamese to survive, I think, for their togetherness is constant and literal. To the Vietnamese, the masses are not an abstraction, but a relentless experience they actually enjoy. By contrast, most Americans would not put up with this nonstop proximity of other bodies. Americans only get a chance to belong to a crowd at a rare football game, NASCAR rally, Insane Clown Posse concert, Burning Man or George Soros-sponsored protest, etc.

The Vietnamese’ eagerness to always merge doesn’t make them natural Communists, however, for outside of any collective crisis, they’re individualistic enough, as evidenced by the maddening proliferation of small businesses everywhere, from pushcarts to neighborhood factories. To be his own boss, a Vietnamese would sell ten old pairs of shoes and assorted junk, displayed on a tarp, as he sits in the sun on the sidewalk.

In the Christian West, the first person was one lonely man, Adam, while in the Vietnamese creation myth, a woman gave birth to a hundred eggs, which hatched into the very first mob of Vietnamese.

Noticing the Vietnamese’ compulsion to cluster, foreigners have repeatedly compared them to ants or other insects. “The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer,” goes the biblical proverb, but it’s always summer here, so the Vietnamese are prepared year-round, year in and year out, for whatever calamities await them. Stoic and always stocked up on the basics, they are perennial preppers.

Many Vietnamese towns have “an,” “yên” or “bình” in their name, with each meaning “peaceful,” but all these Peacevilles have been sacked, looted, burnt or bombed through the centuries, as is typical of all settlements worldwide, except, of course, for those in the USA.

My two years in Certaldo, Italy, I lived a block away from the rebuilt house of Boccaccio, destroyed by American bombs. The town itself had been erected on a hill, with a defensive wall, for war was always nearby, and not something overseas or on television.

The most typical Vietnamese male name is Hùng, meaning heroic, for it’s not just a masculine ideal, but a societal necessity. Without enough heroic men, your nation will be snuffed out, as countless have been. Wherever you are, you’re living on a graveyard of obliterated societies.

This week came news that Nguyễn Văn Thương, a Vietcong spy during the Vietnam War, had died at age 80. In 1969, Thương was trying to smuggle documents from Saigon when he was spotted by American helicopters. With his AK-47, Thương shot one down, killing three Americans, but finally he was captured by a swarming posse of 72 helicopters, an ARVN division and a US Army regiment, it is said.

Trying to win over this invaluable intelligence asset, the Americans offered Thương $100,000, a car, a villa and the rank of an ARVN colonel, but he would not switch sides, so they locked him up for four years while subjecting him to all sorts of torture, including, get this, the sawing off of his legs six times, one chunk at a time, until all Thương had left were two pitiful stumps.

I’m not going to conjecture how embellished all this is, but it can’t be more preposterous than any Rambo movie. The key takeaway is that both characters are meant to inspire, but there is a key difference between them. Whereas Rambo’s role is to reassure Americans they are still invincible, that they’ll always kick ass if not for a backstabbing bureaucracy, Thương reminds Vietnamese that an individual or nation may have to endure unspeakable pain and sacrifice to possibly survive another day.

It’s more than curious that many Americans are still willing to be sent anywhere to fight anybody, for any reason, no matter how bogus, but this can be partially explained by the myth of American invincibility. Young American males will sign up tomorrow to be dispatched to Timbuktu, North or South Korea, Saskatchewan, Mars, Atlantis, wherever, because they’ve been brainwashed into thinking they will quickly kick ass then go home, to a hero’s welcome. Bring it on!

A concomitant factor is sadism. Conditioned from infancy to enjoy seeing bodies maimed in every which way imaginable, many Americans welcome the chance to blow up, shred or chop up a few, and though this mindset is certainly pathological, it’s a prerequisite of any empire.

Everybody else on earth will only fight to defend their nation, however, but this is exactly what gung-ho Americans have failed to do, paradoxically, for as they bomb away everywhere, their homeland is raped and disfigured beyond recognition, but I’m no longer appalled by this. A population so meekly clueless deserves its doom.

Linh Dinh’s latest books are Postcards from the End of America (non-fiction) and A Mere Rica (poetry). He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Vietnam 
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During a recent gay pride parade in Philly, a transgender woman was arrested for attempting to burn a Blue Lives Matter flag. The charges against ReeAnna Segin were arson, causing/risking a catastrophe and other misdemeanors. After Segin was released, however, her case smoldered on, for he/she claimed that his/her human rights and dignity were violated since he/she was locked up for four hours with male inmates, that is, with other humans cursed or gifted with a penis.

Having a dick, though, no longer means that one is male in the Disunited States of Whatever. Segin’s beef was amplified by all the Philly news outlets. In front of television crews, Segin demanded that cops be banned at future Pride Parades, “We can protect ourselves from police and violent organizations on our own. We need to create a world where our trans family is safe.”

I was sitting in Friendly Lounge, exercising my liver, as usual, when my friend Lisa expressed outrage at the police’s treatment of ReeAnna Segin, to which I replied, “If this person has a penis, but is locked up with a woman, how would his or her cellmate feel? I mean, there is no privacy in a jail! Should we start building prisons for transgenders?”

Besides separate facilities for MtFs and FtMs, we should erect brand-new, state-of-the-art gulags for agenders, bigenders, polygenders, neutrois, androgynes, intergenders, demigenders, greygenders, aporagenders, novigenders and maveriques, and please forgive me for leaving out other mutations.

Until we achieve this prison-industrial complex nirvana, binary jails must suffice, so should Kaitlin Jenner be booked, he/she will be stripped, like everybody else, then subjected to a manual cavity search or forced to sit on a Body Orifice Security Scanner. Naked, Jenner will simply be male or female, according to the usual definition.

With its infinity of facts and unarrestable processes, one’s own body is one’s most exhaustive and exacting teacher, on just about everything, and like everybody else, I’m not exactly comfortable with my body’s uncompromising and often cruel pointers, lessons and allegories, but such is life. Daily, I bow to my first and last sensei.

At Pennsport Pub, Philly’s last old school go-go joint, the dancers are quite at ease with being naked, but they’re still composing themselves, thus still cultured. Standing on the bar, statuesque Kitty jiggled her ample ass in front of my buddy, Felix.

“How’s that?”

“I’m fine as long as you don’t fart in my face!” the never censored 71-year-old cheerfully replied.

When I was a housepainter many moons ago, a co-worker joked, “Why do women wear makeup and perfume?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s because they’re ugly and they stink!”

In that case, then, we’re all women, for we’re all trying to mask our fug ugliness and funk with all sorts of barely convincing cosmetics or scents, be it an expensive suit, much learning, bravado or this syntactically showy sentence, so carving ourselves up to become a new person certainly belongs to this desperate strategy.

In East Asia, too many have deformed themselves to appear whiter, but even with blonde hair, rounder eyes and a higher nose bridge, an oriental remains his or her birth self, just as a man wearing a dress is just some guy in drag. (Meaning merely Easterner, “oriental” is much more exact than “Asian,” so should never have been displaced.) Though it may be a drag, you are, exactly, your biology.

Like most people, I couldn’t care less what kinds of convictions or fantasies you have about what’s between your legs, for you’re free to add, subtract or transmogrify to your heart’s content, it’s none of my business, but subjectivity can only go so far. Though I can claim to be Serena Williams, I shouldn’t be surprised if the world doesn’t quite agree.

The new dogma that you can define your own sex is one of the surest signs that America, and much of the West, has gone mad. I write this while sitting in a Saigon eatery. Although there have always been Vietnamese cross-dressers, people here still equate being female with having a uterus, and not just a dress and makeup.

At a death anniversary last week, I found myself feasting at a table with just men, while all the women chattered, joked and laughed away in the kitchen, where they had prepared all the food, but then Vietnamese men have other duties, not least of all the ghastly task of war. There’s a proverb, though, “With the enemy at the house, women must fight.”

If a woman felt like boozing with us, she was absolutely free to do so, and one did join us for a toast of beer. While it’s wrong to codify or criminalize the differences between men and women, it’s perverse to see them as inherently harmful, to be overcome.

Vietnamese don’t “raise boys and girls the same way,” according to the Western progressive dictate, and they’re not striving for a postgender society, where cultural, biological, psychological and social roles of gender are finally banished, as if that’s possible. In the postgender utopia, anyone can be pregnant and father a child, although “father,” that bloody, stinking and oppressively patriarchal word, should already be flushed from the lexicon.

Now in America, a single person can assume the plural pronoun, “they,” or be called “ze” or “xe,” because merely “he” or “she” may be inappropriate or hurtful.

The term “transsexualism” was coined by Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of Berlin’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, whose lifespan coincided with that of the Weimar Republic. Hirschfeld categorized 64 genders, so it’s really déjà vu all over again.

A sexual decadence ground zero, Berlin gave the world Anita Berber, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, then came Hitler. Since America is convulsing through its own Weimar, which of its artists, writers, composers or dancers will be remembered? Maybe nobody. Thoroughly philistine, this listing ship can’t produce one memorable minstrel. Perhaps Drake is America’s poet laureate, “Got no sense like jizzle and shh / Big and bad like leader and shh.” Whatever, but who are pushing this shit?

American child, you won’t be taught how to be a boy or girl, for those are harmful, reactionary concepts, and your national borders will mean nothing, for no person is illegal, and race is but a chimera dreamt up by racist minds, although collectively, you will either be guilty as all hell, or never culpable, as determined strictly by your race.

As Stalin said, “Education is a weapon,” and there is a concerted effort by the state, media and academy to neuter the American mind.

By besieging, indicting and belittling traditional masculinity, America’s rulers aim to enfeeble and neutralize half of its citizens, while enraging the other half into a propensity for cartoonish violence, resulting in a society of sheep and mindless soldiers.

With its twin cocks publicly castrated and its founding principles hacked off, the US itself has become a shrieking, floundering void, thrashing in a homemade stew of incoherencies. Transitioning, Uncle Sam stumbles towards irrelevance. Again, who are pushing this shit?

Linh Dinh’s latest books are Postcards from the End of America (non-fiction) and A Mere Rica (poetry). He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Political Correctness, Transgenderism 
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Céline half joked, “If you stay anywhere long enough, everyone and everything will stink up, just for your special benefit.” Without this pungency, however, there is no real understanding of anything, and Céline knew this as well as anyone. With tremendous physical and mental courage, the man endured. He survived being wounded in WWI, a year in Africa, a month in America, being a slum doctor for decades, WWII and the consequences of being an anti-Semite, everything but his first marriage.

I first encountered Céline as a 22-year-old, living in a crappy shell-of-a-house in grim Grays Ferry, and paying all of $25 a month for rent. Filled with illusions and vanity, I had no idea Philadelphia would be my life, would define me, but it’s perfect, this fate, for everyone must stay somewhere long enough for everything to become richly three dimensional, with a complex and nuanced history.

Thirty of my 54 years have been spent in Philly, and walking or crawling, I’ve measured this city with my body, for I don’t drive. As a housepainter, house cleaner and window washer for over a decade, I worked in dozens of neighborhoods, and I’ve roamed around many more, so just about every Philly tree or trash can addresses me by name. Behind this bush at 34th and Walnut, I once slept. At 11th and South, I was nearly mugged by a guy wielding a hammer. The last three months, then, have been one drawn-out goodbye, filled with last glimpses of places and faces.

Goodbye, then, to Point Breeze, with the lovely Rose in Sit On It. Months after I’d written about the 54-year-old, she told me more about herself. She was born of a Dominican mother and African father, of which country, she’s not quite sure, for she never really knew him. Rose’s mom was a bartender. “When I was 14, my mom came home at around 3 in the morning, woke me up and force me to iron her dress. Being sleepy, I burnt it, you know, and this pissed her off so much, she made me take my clothes off and get in the shower, then she burned me all over with the red-hot iron! I ran downstairs and hid in the utility closet, but I couldn’t deal with the pain, you know, so I knocked on a neighbor’s door. I can still remember the man’s face as he called out to his wife, ‘Martha, there’s a naked woman at our door.’ When his wife came out, she said, ‘That’s not a woman, Robert. That’s a child!’”

Rose never lived with her mom again. She worked her tail off, married early, had two kids, but was so depressed, she ballooned to 275 pounds, all on a 4-foot-10 frame. Now free from her abusive husband and amazingly down to 130 pounds, Rose’s as cheerful and sweet as can be.

“You know what I’d like to do someday? Take a cruise!”

“Which country would you like to go to, Rose?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe Hawaii?”

Goodbye to Dirty Frank’s, which I’ve also written about, including in a poem that mentions Skinny Dave and Sheila Modglin. The first is dead of an overdose, and Sheila is still in the hospital, after being hit by a car four days after the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, as the entire city was partying away. Though merely a bartender, Sheila started a non-profit, Sunshine Arts, that provided all sorts of classes, and an occasional field trip, for the kids in her Upper Darby neighborhood. Buzzed, I’d shout out, “You’re a saint, Sheila! A saint!” Everyone agreed. Now, Sheila’s a bedridden, speechless angel.

When I was in Frank’s in the 80’s and 90’s, I would see Uncle Moe, a silent, stooping man, nursing his Yuengling in the corner. Twenty years later, I would find out that Uncle Moe was actually a pill pusher. He’d start out his day with a lox and bagel at 4th Street Deli, drop into Friendly Lounge for his morning beer, then drift across town until he ended up at Dirty Frank’s, two miles away, his leisurely lifestyle supported by drug dealing.

On Delaware Avenue, there are more beggars than ever, and nearly all of them white, dirty and wasting away. Seeing these likely junkies, my friend Felix would bitterly joke, “They’re sure enjoying their white privilege.”

Goodbye to 9th and Market, where the electronic news ticker dismally announces, “In the opioid epidemic, breastfeeding emerges as a possible crime.”

Goodbye, too, to Suburban Station. With its tacky shops, seedy eateries, confusing passageways and underlit, tucked away corners, it’s a magnet for the homeless, drifters, assorted weirdos and busking musicians. In 2013, I wrote a poem about a competent through diffident guitarist who strummed outside the Dollar Store. Once, Tony had made OK money as a pizza deliveryman in Cape May, then came the drugs and rehab, so now, he was reduced to living in a house with a bunch of pigs, including one who consistently splattered and smeared the toilet seat.

In 2015, I ran into another Tony. A serious 23-years-old, Anthony Coleman had a large sign around his neck, “When you first look at me, do you see… / A black man? / OR / A human being?” Next to him was another sign, “Will you stand for LOVE and TRUTH? / Join the Movement!” Armed with a high school education and almost no work experience, Anthony was not just interested in becoming a life coach, but a revolutionary thinker and global leader of love and peace, “In ten years, I see… the Human Race Movement established. I have a team go across the country, to be featured in schools. They go into different businesses and talk to different people. I even see them go overseas.”

Goodbye to 12th and Chesnut, where in 2015 I met a homeless man with an IQ of 165. John’s SAT score was 1560, just 40 short of the maximum. When I confessed that mine was only 1110, John laughed, “I hear McDonald’s is hiring.”

After earning his PhD in applied mathematics from UPenn at 20-years-old, John worked for 18 years in a bunch of countries for the Defense Intelligence Agency and US Army, then he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

With his monthly pension of $2,700, John should have been OK, except that he’s contributing $2,000 to his mom’s nursing home cost, “At first we had her in a cheaper nursing home, but we visited her on Tuesday, and she’s wearing a sunflower dress with a mustard stain, and when we visited her on Saturday, she’s wearing the same sunflower dress with the mustard stain, plus ketchup and chili stains. When you have Alzheimer’s, you really need one-on-one care at meal time, and she wasn’t getting that. If no one is paying attention to you, you may not eat at all. It is a sacrifice, but I don’t see it as a sacrifice. I’m happy to take care of mother.”

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Poverty 
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The jokes about New Jersey keep coming. It has the third highest taxes in the country, yet ranks dead last in fiscal health. Its most successful residents flee.

Those who have never been to New Jersey still sneer at it, thanks to its mostly horrible depiction in the media, as in Jersey Shore, where a cast of morons defame both the state and Italian-Americans.

In a South Park episode, Stan Marsh rants, “Having neighbors from New Jersey is the worst. All night long, they keep me awake. They’re either screaming at each other, or making some disgusting sex sounds. It seems that all people from Jersey do is hump and punch each other!”

Living in South Philly for decades, I’ve had a different perspective on New Jersey. It’s where the beaches and boardwalks are, a vacationy place, and where South Philadelphians move to, an upgrade from their tight rowhomes. Jersey also has a bunch of charming and fascinating towns, Bordentown, Pitman, Moorestown, etc., each one distinctive. Of course, there are also hollowed out ghettos, and too many sterile, strip malled bedroom “communities,” with the local Wawas or QuickCheks their main social hubs.

After each Alcoholic or Narcotics Anonymous meeting, Wawa Warriors can shoot the shit in their favorite convenience store’s parking lot, with all their worldly needs just a glass door away. Driving by in the dark, you can still see them standing there, because there’s nowhere else to go.

Many Jersey towns are dry, can you believe it?! Luckily, you can always booze up at the very next town. My favorite bar in the entire world is Billy Boy’s, in the Pine Barrens. I wouldn’t mind just moving into that super fine establishment. They make an honest mashed, sell a dozen steamers for just eight bucks and their tacos are only a dollar each on Tuesdays. In spite of everything, there’s still comfort, quality nutrition and probity left in the world!

Oh, how can the universe not be eternally grateful to New Jersey for gifting it Frank Sinatra, Valium, John Travolta, disco fries and nobody Chuck Wepner, who actually floored Muhammad Ali (by stepping on his foot)?! That fight was billed as “Give the White Guy a Break.”

PayPal me, Governor Murphy! I’m doing my best to send clueless tourists your way, and I’m not talking about drunk Quebecois either. They don’t need no advertising!

It’s hard to believe, but I only have three weeks left in this country, so even Philly will dissolve soon enough, much less New Jersey. Last week, I likely saw its beaches for the last time, and on the way back, I stopped in Millville, a town I had never seen.

Before Mike Trout made Millville famous and cool, it was dismissed as just another depressed Jersey town, with one website, HomeSnacks, even crowning it as the redneck capital of the state.

What stopped me was Jenny’s Place, a bar with a wide, stark frontage, and a dollar store/Asian food market in the back. It appeared a supermarket had been converted. A large and mostly empty parking lot accentuated its barren loneliness. On the edge of town, it was surrounded by nothing.

Walking in, I found an old white guy at the bar, and a Chinese man behind it. There were three pool tables. The beer choices were limited and lame, with Stella Artois the only fancy option. Photos of happy clients, plus one of George and Laura Bush, jammed the back wall, above the liquor bottles. Potato chips, corn chips, beef jerky and sausage sticks were all there were to soak up the suds.

By and by, many folks came in, black and white, with most there to shoot pool, and some were awfully good, too, though none could beat Chang Liu, the bar owner. Casually, he would clean up each table, at the first opportunity.

A white guy arrived in a white truck, with “PRIVILEGE” in white stickered onto the rear window. On a side window, there was, “DON’T LAUGH… Your Girlfriend MIGHT BE IN HERE.”

A black biker showed up on an asskicking Harley, with rap liberally blasting “nigga,” which prompted Chang to ask, “Why you play that, man? What if a white guy call you a nigger?”

“My white friends call me nigga all the time, Chang! There is a difference between ‘nigga’ and ‘nigger.’” On CNN in 2013, Trayvon Martin’s girlfriend, Rachel Jeantel, explained exactly that to Piers Morgan.

Though Chang’s dollar store/Asian food market at the back was completely untended, there was a bell at the bar to alert him should someone walk in, and a monitor to show when a customer was ready to pay. A convenient door between the bar and store allowed Chang to quickly run back and forth. In any case, it didn’t look like the sea of made-in-China junk had many takers. Jenny’s Place pays his bills.

Five-eight and fat-free, Chang had a scowl even when he smiled. Always ready to spring, he was like coiled lightweight. Although his English vocabulary was adequate, Chang’s accent was still thick, and he often chopped the s from the end of words.

There are many bars here. Larry, Bojo, Railroad Tavern, Old Oar, this place. There are five, but there used to be ten!

I own this place 16 years. I been in Millville 21 years. Half my life! I’m 48.

I start out in New York, then I move to north Jersey, then central Jersey, and now I’m here, in south Jersey. I had a store and a restaurant in Wildwood. Chinese food. I work for other people, making Chinese, Italian, French, American food. Making food is hard. I’m sick of it. The health inspector. It’s too much trouble. That’s why I don’t make food here.

When I open this bar, the people here didn’t like it. They say, “Hey, you Chinese and you own this bar?” They gave me problems the first five years, but you have to be strong. I beat up a tough guy. Once you do that, then they scare. If you beat up the meanest, toughest guy, then the average, the little guy, he think, I better not mess with that man!

Millville used to make glass, but the factories are gone. Two went to China. One to Mexico.

I have two son, one daughter. My son, they study at Drexel. Mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. My daughter study dermatology. She want to be a, ah, aesthetician. She has two kids. Her husband has a good job. She’s OK.

My wife help me out here. Sometime, I hire a local for a day.

I been here 31 years. If you want me to go to another country and fight, I won’t go. Why?! If somebody invade this country, then I fight, because this is my country. Yes, I’ll fight to defend it.

Ming Dynasty. Zheng He, he went everywhere, went to Africa, but did China take anything, beat you up, make you a slave? No! China help you. You don’t have this plant? Here is some seed. China don’t steal anything. China help you.

If China is big, and you are small, China can be your big brother, help you out, not like the US. The US used to be good, but no more. The US used to help people, but no more. Now, it bomb, cause trouble, beat people up.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: China, Immigration 
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I’ve hung out with poet Hai-Dang Phan in quite a few places. Since our first meeting in Certaldo, Italy in 2003, we’ve downed a few pints together in New York, Washington, Milwaukee, Iowa, Illinois, Philadelphia, Hanoi, Saigon and Vung Tau. This week, Hai-Dang flew down from Boston, and with his rented car, we spent two days visiting a handful of Pennsylvania and New Jersey towns.

I had wanted to show Hai-Dang Bethlehem and Allentown, but Steven Byler in Friendly Lounge suggested Intercourse, Lititz and other hamlets around Lancaster, so off we went, but the joke was on us, for Intercourse, at least, was nothing but a tourist trap, with stores peddling schlock paintings, garish animal sculptures, doofus T-shirts and Amish quilts, which are quite magnificent, undoubtedly, but mostly made by Hmong refugees.

Allentown’s The Morning Call explained in 2006:

Most quilt shop owners do not mention their Southeast Asian workers. That would spoil the image of a Lancaster quilt as the product of strictly Amish or Mennonite hands. Quilt tags in pricey shops credit the work of Lancaster’s Plain People, but rarely the Hmong, who are referred to as “local Lancaster quilters” if at all.

To keep the identities of these women from the eyes of tourists, some shop owners won’t allow Hmong in their stores during business hours and make them use the back door when delivering piecework. One Amish shop owner once made a Hmong seamstress hide in the coal cellar. It is the dark side of the alliance that has existed for more than two decades.

The day was saved, however, for we found a very honest and hospitable bar in nearby New Holland, next to the railroad tracks. Its sign showed a flying dart, martini glass and an 8 ball, with “12 WINGS and 6 SHRIMP” advertised beneath it, but with no price. The Bud Light neon in its one window was turned on, and there were half a dozen cars and trucks in the parking lot.

Behind Shooters Crossing, we spotted a confederate flag fluttering over a trailer. It shouldn’t surprise that many in rural America identify with the South, for they both cherish community, the land and traditional values, and are equally contemptuous of the coastal elites, with their globalist ideology.

Opening the door to a dark and surprisingly large space, we were greeted by Hank Williams’ Lost Highway. “This is perfect!” I exclaimed. As opposed to Leon Payne’s jaunty and oddly cheerful delivery, Williams imbued his slowed down rendition with just the right, genius dosage of grief, regret and world weariness, but that’s why he’s the man. A decade later, Johnny Horton would smear on us his cheeseball version.

There were 12 beers on tap, with some excellent microbrews, which beat, by a mile, all the Philly dives I haunt.

The Hank Williams medicine didn’t last long, for soon after our first chug of Dogwood, the Village People’s gay anthem came blasting on, “I’ve got to be a macho! (dig the hair on my chest) Macho, macho man (see my big thick moustache).” Raps and oldies alternated the rest of the evening.

We talked to a retired gentleman who made money, under the table, driving Amish people around. “It’s the easiest job,” Frank chuckled. “Some of these people have money, man. I know an Amish guy with 140 acres in Virginia, that he uses just for hunting deer and pheasants.” Frank seemed very relaxed. He has a son studying at Drexel.

Frank, “The Amish do some weird things, but they’re very good with their hands, and they know how to work. If you hire an Amish roofer, he won’t quit even ten minutes early. They work hard, man. Same with the Mexicans. They’ll get a lot more done than your average American.”

Amish don’t drink. That evening, I did talk to a young man who had left the Mennonite Church eight years earlier. After freaking out, his parents had calmed down. With his muscle T, bottle of Bud and pack of Marlboro, the cheerful dude appeared no different from the others, except he wasn’t all tatted up. A woman put her arms around him. They laughed.

A prim couple ordered wings, french fries and onions rings, found everything disgusting, so threw paper napkins on their nearly full plate and left. We weren’t the only strangers, obviously. Sensibly, the barkeep took the goodies to the other end of the bar, where a regular happily gobbled them up.

“I almost asked them for the food myself,” I said to Kristen, laughing. “I’m glad you didn’t throw it away.”

“I don’t know why they acted like that,” she frowned. “There’s nothing wrong with the food.”

At a pool table, two well-inked guys cued up in a haze of cigarette smoke.

New Holland’s Main Street was dominated by antique stores. “A lot of these towns are like this,” Hai-Dang commented. “Everyone is selling junk as antiques! Growing up, it was garage or lawn sales every weekend with my mom. Driving through even smaller towns, you’d see all these lawn signs for yard sales, in places with hardly any people. I picture all these people in small towns wearing each other’s second hand clothes!”

There was a restaurant, La Casita, that flew a Puerto Rican flag. Fleeing exorbitant New York, thousands of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have moved into rural Pennsylvania.

Hai-Dang grew up in small town Wisconsin, then went to college in Grinnell, Iowa, population 9,200, where he’s now a professor. Hai-Dang also studied in Madison and Gainesville, and has traveled all over. Although rooted enough to the Midwest, he is also a cosmopolitan. His part Iranian, part English girlfriend lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, so Hai-Dang spends months there at a time. Last Thanksgiving, they vacationed in Miami. Still escaping the snow, they showed up in Santa Monica in March, then whooped it up in New Orleans in the Spring.

The term “rootless cosmopolitan” was coined by a 19th century Russian literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, then popularized by Joseph Stalin in the 1940’s, to describe Soviet Jewish intellectuals who were, in his mind, traitors to Russia. Instead of extolling Russian/Soviet culture, they were open to the West, and they sided with Israel, naturally, whereas Soviet Russia backed the Arabs.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Amish, Multiculturalism 
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I was just interviewed by two Temple journalism students, Amelia Burns and Erin Moran, and though they appeared very bright and enterprising, with Erin already landing a job that pays all her bills, I feel for these young ladies, for this is a horrible time to make and sell words, of any kind, and the situation will only get worse. We’re well into postliteracy.

With widespread screen addiction, hardly anyone buys books or newspapers anymore. My local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer (Inky), no longer has a book review section. Its retired editor, Frank Wilson, was never replaced. Frank had three of my books reviewed, Night, Again, Fake House and Blood and Soap, but the last was in 2004.

Frank lives near me, so I see him around. A lifelong Philadelphian, he takes pride in knowing the city well. Speaking of Steve Lopez, an Inky reporter who made his name with a novel about North Philly, Badlands, Frank sneered that Lopez didn’t actually try heroin, so he didn’t really know what he was talking about. Frank did.

If you mess with Frank, the bearded, snarling Irishman will maul you with his cane. Frank’s not just ancient, but old school.

After moving to Philly in 1982, I’d read Clark DeLeon’s daily column in the Inky. Covering the city with knowledge, heart and humor, DeLeon helped me to feel grounded, and challenged me to explore my new home. After 23 years at the “same sloppy-topped gun-metal gray desk,” DeLeon was fired, however, a casualty of postliteracy.

Clark, “For 16 years I wrote six columns a week for the paper’s metro section. In later years I was cut back to five columns a week. In the final year, I was down to 1 column a week in the feature section.”

No longer a professional journalist, Clark earns his keep by working as a costumed tour guide outside Independence Hall. Done with work, he’d often down a few at Dirty Frank’s. A tall, square-jawed and rugby playing dude, Clark would sit there in his black tricorne hat, brown waistcoat and white shirt with billowing sleeves, like a hulking Paul Revere, here to announce the worst of possible news. The death of the word, and thus thinking, is coming!

One recent evening, there was karaoke at Frank’s, so Clark got up to sing Springsteen’s My Hometown. With his strong, sonorous voice, Clark handled its lyrics expertly, but then he unexpectedly choked up, and had to stop. It’s understandable, because the song’s depiction of economic collapse describes the country and city he loves, as well as his own plight:

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores

Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks

Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back

Our physical degradation is nothing compared to our mental derangement. Take our song lyrics, which are no longer required to make sense, as long as the beat is righteous. Postliterate, we fumble and befoul English. As we are forced to shout at each other above the constant din, there is no subtlety left to language.

Before the internet, I would buy the Inky first thing in the morning, often before dawn, as the newspaper box across my apartment had just been stocked, then I would get the Daily News. Many days, I would also pick up the New York Times and New York Post, and during the week, I would read the Philadelphia City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly. Just about everybody I knew also bought at least the Inky or Daily News each day, so what we had, then, was a shared body of topics to discuss. We belonged to the same mental community.

Of course, you can rightly claim that we were all uniformly brainwashed, especially since the Inky and Daily News were owned by the same damn company, but the free weeklies did provide alternative viewpoints, and many neighborhoods also had their own rag. The Philadelphia Tribune catered to blacks.

As a young writer and artist in the 90’s, I was written up in all the local outlets, Inky, Daily News, City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly, and this coverage grounded me, tied me to my city. When I had my mug in the Daily News in 1991, for example, the cashier at a cheesesteak joint congratulated me, and the owner of some corner store urged me to go home and be creative!

Although my writing about Philly has become much more in depth, my local audience is mostly gone, thanks to the internet, which has fragmented each place on earth, for no matter where you live, you’re hardly there any more. Thanks to the internet, everything around you has become much less concrete, as in your city, desk, lamp, spouse, with the computer screen now turned into your most needy and indispensable companion, for it has become your mirror, soul and shrine.

Traveling to a new town, I always looked forward to browsing its newspaper, for here was its self-portrait, exotic and absolutely inaccessible to me previously. I remember being delighted by the social tidbits in a rural Maine newspaper, as in Mr. and Mrs. Smith had a three-day visit from their grandson, Jack, an accountant in Boston, or the Tremblays have finally left for their long-planned trip to Las Vegas. They will be back on Monday, with many interesting tales to regale us all. In the style section, there might be a meatloaf recipe from, say, Mrs. LeBlanc. With its colloquialism or even clumsiness, the English, too, is reflective of a place.

Whatever its flaws, the local newspaper gave each community a social forum and common culture, and though newspapers haven’t died off completely, the remaining ones are eviscerated, and hardly read, for nearly everyone is on social media, all day long, where they can broadcast themselves. From reading about their town, people now upload endless selfies and self-important proclamations. Everyone is his own news, superstar and universe. Self-publishing, each man is an insanely prolific author, of gibberish, mostly, delivered to almost nobody, but it’s all good, for he can endlessly worship his preening self, on a screen, an intoxicating experience. With FaceBook, Twitter and Instagram, everybody is famous all the time, to himself.

There is a silver lining to all this, for the internet has allowed deeply heretical views to surface, so that we can be swayed by writers who would otherwise be entirely silenced, and I’m thankful that I can crank out thousands of words monthly to thousands of people, if only for PayPal donations, and it’s a miracle I haven’t ended up homeless myself, like some of the people I portray. The net effect of the internet is negative for both literacy and community.

Drowning in bilge, we excrete our own and happily guzzle it all. There are no coherent stories left, and no reflection, and if something makes sense, it can only do so for a flash, before it’s washed away by a deluge of lies and trivia. Nearly as soon as something is read, or rather, skimmed, it’s permanently forgotten.

Serious art forms such as painting, sculpture and poetry have become occult pursuits, for they require contemplation, solitude and silence, which are all but banished from this manic society. Nothing matters, man, least of all the word. Across the river, Whitman’s grave sits desolate.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Poverty 
Linh Dinh
About Linh Dinh

Born in Vietnam in 1963, Linh Dinh came to the US in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). He has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, among other places. He is also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (2006). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. His writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and he has been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Reykjavik, Toronto and all over the US, and has also published widely in Vietnamese.