Most of the towns in Đắk Lắk I have never heard of until I’m in them. A few days ago, I was in Yang Reh, which has just 4,100 people, and founded only in 2002. Coming in, I spotted a tiny, dark woman of unclear ethnicity, pushing a junk bicycle that had assorted bags dangling from its handlebar. She wore two hats, a black boonie over a tan newsboy, with the outer advertising FUBENZON, stenciled twice, across the band. It’s an ingested medicine for intestinal worms. Her ancient slide sandals boasted Nike swooshes.
The center of town was a three-way intersection that had an only slightly dirty restaurant, serving rice noodles, and rice with choices of fish, shrimp, pork, chicken, fried eggs, pickled eggplants, water spinach or bamboo shoots, everything made just like my mom would, if only she could cook. There were two cafés, with the fancier one flaunting two garish murals evoking Europe. Sitting in scorching and dusty Yang Reh, one can contemplate these chill, lakefront villas, with their elegant, romantic balconies, while a handsome boat waits in the placid water, for you and your languid yet eager lover. Green or purple leafed trees jostle exotic cypresses on distant hills. Seagulls bank and squawk.
Sweating, I entered the café to find it completely empty, save for a girl of about four, sleeping next to a stuffed Doraemon cat. The red and sand-colored straw mat they lay on had “Gia Đình Hạnh Phúc” [“Happy Family”] printed on it in a cursive script. A naked, blonde doll, smaller than a sparrow, had her eyes wide open, but no legs and only one arm.
On a mauve wall were blooming violets, butterflies and weird purple dandelions, with this in English, “I miss you / I miss you because / I never miss you.”
On a pink wall, cartoon women in traditional dress danced with a fan or wide flat hat, or played the pipa, with this in English, “In spring trees the subtle fresh green / budding from the branches of the tree.”
Even at the end of the universe, which Yang Reh clearly is, one feels compelled to look towards the imperial center, with its glamorous cities, people and cool sounding language. “Oh my God,” “oh wow,” “let’s go,” “hot boy,” “hot girl” and “sexy,” etc., have crept into daily Vietnamese conversations, but this is happening everywhere else too.
As a child in Saigon, I would hear some of my father’s friends insert the French moi and toi into their conversation, which I found ridiculous. A man would say, “Why don’t toi come by moi house tomorrow?” Now, I hear the English me and you intruding into Vietnamese sentences, as in, “Me don’t like what you’re doing to me.”
In Ea Kly, I saw a teenage girl with this on her jacket, “MY MAMA DON’T LIKE YOU,” then I walk by a bag of chicken feed by the side of the road, “VIET HOPE.” Not one in twenty here even knows the English “hope.”
A 14-year-old boy, Bo, was mesmerized by a YouTube video of 365daband, a music combo of pretty boys whose every dance move mimics some American singer. Hearing obvious influences of Lady Gaga, I asked Bo if he knew who she was. He said no. Since Bo’s 38-year-old mom was nearby, I asked her the same question, and she had no idea who Mother Monster was either.
Probing further, I asked Bo to name five Americans, from any field, so he told me about a school field trip to a museum in Buon Ma Thuot, the nearest city to Ea Kly, “I saw an American, so I said to him, “Hello! How are you? What is your name?” He told me his name was Tim.”
“No, I didn’t ask if you have ever met an American! I want you to name me any five Americans, like famous people, from any field.”
It took Bo a good minute, before he could pronounce, with some difficulty, “Alan Walker.”
“Alan Walker. He’s a singer.”
Bo had on a white T-shirt with black lettering, “AMERICAN COLLEGE CHAMPION / Best Football Player,” so I asked him, “There’s English on your shirt. Do you know what it means?”
“So why did you choose this shirt?”
“I didn’t choose it. My aunt bought it for me. I don’t normally buy my own clothes.”
Bo’s parents work at our plastic recycling plant. His dad doesn’t say much unless he’s drunk. A 500 ml bottle of homemade rice wine can be had here for 86 cents. Normally, Bo stays with his grandma in Buon Ma Thuot. Though Bo has been to Saigon three times, he doesn’t care for it. He’s never flown, and can’t imagine himself living outside Đắk Lắk, much less overseas.
Obedient, Bo does whatever his parents ask of him, be it running errands, doing housework or even helping out in the plastic recycling factory. It disciplines and toughens him up, teaches him a few basic skills, they reason. Better that than having the boy bury himself in video games.
Orientals reach puberty after blacks, browns and whites, and in this Confucian culture, obedience to one’s elders is still stressed, and education, too, so Vietnamese teens tend to be nerdier than many others. In my former neighborhood in South Philadelphia, the small local library was filled almost exclusively by Orientals after school.
In a mixed society, each race has to compete against every other at everything, so an Oriental who would have been a bully in Asia may have to conclude that he’s not such a badass after all, and a glasses wearing black kid who would have been, say, a renowned chemistry professor at the University of Liberia may decide that it’s probably best he works on his left handed layup and crossover dribble.
A worshipper of Slick Watts, I still mourn my aborted NBA career. Daily, I seethe that God never enabled me to do a Shawn Kemp type dunk, repeatedly, at will, over the entire universe. Take that, bitch!
“Where do you think you’ll be at age 25, Bo?”
“In my grandma’s house!”
“I notice you like to watch YouTube videos, and they show, you know, lots of foreign places? What do you think of these places?”
“Uh, these foreign countries are more modern than Vietnam. They’re richer than us. There’s this city in India where the police drive around in these awesome cars. Lamborghini!”
“Which city is that?”
“Dubai.” Then, “Foreigners aren’t just rich. They can also be poor, or homeless. There are countries even poorer than us! Vietnam is not rich, and not poor. We’re in the middle.”