The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
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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.”

“Who?!”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”

 
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After ten weeks away, I’m back in dusty, remote Ea Kly and the plastic recycling plant.

Coming up from Saigon in our new truck, we avoided Highway 13, since my brother and sister-in-law are very superstitious. Last year, they got charms from a shaman to stick on our plant, yet our business still floundered. In their minds, things would have turned out even worse without these supernatural pieces of paper. Over our door lords a round mirror inside an octagonal frame.

Adaptable enough, I enjoyed Saigon while there, but as soon as I left its KFC, Popeyes and Eon Shopping Mall sophistication, I felt lighter and freer, but maybe I’m just talking about my 19-year-old marriage. When I showed up two days ago, a cafe owner asked, “Where have you been, uncle?”

Northern Vietnamese call just about everyone a greater uncle (bác) or lesser one (chú), so even a father might call his son a lesser uncle. No culture needs to make sense or explain itself to outsiders.

I’m sitting in the same wall-less café, on a concrete bench, in front of a concrete table. The nylon hammocks and plastic tables haven’t been set out yet. There is never any music here, thankfully, only birds or crickets chirping. Among my readers is the astrologist Rob Brezsny, and on June 5th, he again quoted me, “I don’t think we were ever meant to hear the same song sung exactly the same way more than once in a lifetime.” White and pale yellow butterflies flit by, half darting, half blown, seemingly, by the meagre breeze.

Mentally defective, I’m not great with names, and atrocious with faces, but they’re coming back. Stories, I store well. Yesterday, I chatted with the cafe owner’s husband, who told me about his four grown children.

The oldest is 27 and works as a paralegal six miles away. On top of this, she takes an overnight bus to Saigon each Friday evening, to attend law classes over the weekend. On Sunday evening, she takes another bus back, so she can be at work by Monday morning.

Lying on a hammock, I stated the obvious, “Your daughter is tough!”

Lying on his hammock, her dad barely grinned, “She needs to do whatever to get ahead.” He’s a bit worried, though, that she’s not married yet. Then, “How many kids do you have, uncle?”

“Actually, none! Since I’m a writer,” a fact he already knew, “my life has always been very uncertain.” Peeling back layers, neighbors become intimate.

“Ah, but there’s always a way! If you have just 50,000 [$2.15] a day, then you just deal with it!”

He and his wife certainly know how to survive. A bit here and there adds up. Each day, he catches roughly ten kilograms of tilapia from a pond just behind their hammock cafe, so that’s $6.46 already. Sixteen ducks, raised in the same pond, yield half a dozen eggs a day, though their feed more or less cancels that profit. At their cafe, a cup of coffee with condensed milk is just 34 cents, but they also sell cigarettes, soft drinks, homemade rice wine and even some traditional armpit deodorant that comes in a tiny, circular tin.

His other three kids are all in Saigon, “There’s just no work here.” A daughter teaches math, while his twin sons work construction.

Like most people here, he’s dark and wiry. Even the kids are like that, except a few pampered ones that are pale and pudgy. In Saigon, dull faced fat kids can now be found waddling everywhere.

During the long layoff, our workers had to find other ways to get by, so Hương, for example, decided to open a kebab restaurant, and it’s actually doing quite well. I dropped by the other day to enjoy skewers of minced pork, pork with okra, pork enclosing straw mushroom and even some aquatic snake wrapped in lime leaves. Bone bits in the last, though, was a taste I won’t likely acquire. Each skewer costs but 22 cents, so you can certainly stuff your face for $2.22. I skipped the gnarly chicken feet.

Another former worker, Út, is now a long distance bus driver, covering the route from Saigon to Qui Nhơn. At another café this morning, we caught up.

Each round trip takes two days, and Út does ten a month, for a salary of $410. Since drivers steer many customers to roadside restaurants, they used to eat free, but now this practice has mostly stopped. The better eateries don’t need to entice anybody. Since competition for riders is so fierce, bus companies can’t afford to not take their customers to these joints.

Út’s food budget, then, is about $65 a month. In Saigon, Út sleeps in an air conditioned room, provided by his employer, and in Qui Nhơn, he stays with relatives, so even with his modest salary, he’s planning on buying a piece of land. It won’t be in Ea Kly, however, “This place is not going anywhere.”

Drivers used to supplement their income by picking up unticketed passengers or delivering packages, but all new buses have surveillance cameras.

Among the myriad wonders of the tropics are winged insects of every description to bug the living fuck out of you. Right now, some pest is hovering around my eyelashes. To get rid of him, I’ll have to fumigate my entire face, or type this inside a gas chamber. Shalom to all my hasbara tailgaters!

Behind each story there’s another, to flesh out, complicate or challenge it, so you must always look behind what’s behind, with each discovery provisional.

Last month in Saigon, I hung out with a few writer friends, some I had known for two decades. Novelist Nguyễn Viện, however, I had never met. Walking into the café on Hoàng Sa [Paracel Islands] Street, Viện was accompanied by a much younger woman who had three cats, a howling wolf and a bearded, cigar chomping head tattooed on her upper arms and chest. With so much ink on her baby smooth skin, it was hard to look at her baby face.

Born in 1949, Viện lived through the Vietnam War, then the turbulent, brutal years after it. Escaping by boat, a girlfriend of his was raped 21 times by Thai pirates. In Vietnam, you don’t need to scratch very hard to get at the horror stories.

At the same table was Nguyễn Võ Thu Hương. Now a professor at UCLA, she escaped the Fall of Saigon at age 13. At sea, tiny Vietnamese boats swarmed an American navy ship that was still moving, so people fell off during the mad scramble up the vertiginous rope ladder.

 
• Category: Culture/Society, History • Tags: Jeffrey Epstein, Vietnam 
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In December of 2011, I was on an Amtrak rolling through North Carolina. Sitting in the lounge car, I gazed mostly at trees and fields, with their isolated houses or trailers. Every so often, a town would flit by, Smithfield, Kenly, Elm City… Though all these names meant nothing to me, each settlement appeared sweet and inviting, and I constantly wished I could just get off the train. Once in Mississippi, I did just that, so had to take an additional bus to my final destination.

In Kenly, there’s a Stormin’ Norman’s Barbecue, which I thought was General Schwarzkopf’s. That would have been a good catch if it was, a place worth visiting. Most often, though, a traveler will ride or walk right by a spot without realizing its significance.

At Rocky Mount, the train stopped, and there wasn’t much to look at but a bunch of dead storefronts, with only Bottoms Insurance in business. Still, I was very excited. Turning around, I shouted to two strangers, both around 25-years-old, sitting at a nearby table, “Hey, this is where Thelonious Monk was born!”

Of course, they were startled and a bit annoyed, for I had interrupted their flirting. The white woman had just graduated from the University of North Carolina, majoring in administration. On the Formica table in front of her was a lurid paperback, the type you buy at 7-11. The black man had been talking about how nice he smelled each time he wore his girlfriend’s coat.

Since Monk stopped playing even before I got airlifted out of Saigon, I never saw him, but in 1983, I did catch a concert in Washington DC by Charlie Rouse, Monk’s long-time sax player. A local drummer, Dude Brown, was also wonderful that evening. As an aspiring artist/writer, I was impressed not just by Monk’s singularity, but his late silence. Without an explanation, Monk simply stopped, and it’s too simplistic to say he was burnt out.

Though Monk was only five when he moved to NYC from Rocky Mount, it certainly shaped him, and it’s speculated that his Rootie Tootie, with its train sounds, is an echo from his infancy. As Sam Stephenson points out, “There aren’t any train whistles in New York City.”

These thoughts occurred to me this week after I happened to walk by a Saigon building I recognized as the old Cambodian Embassy. Its two guardian lions tipped me off. After half a century, I was suddenly in my maternal grandma’s neighborhood. Turning right, I soon ran into the Banana Orchard Market, whose name I still remembered. Locating my grandma’s house, though, wasn’t so easy, for it’s tucked in an alley, but which one?

As an adult in the US, I would sometimes think of these alleys, with some so mazelike and narrow, I started to doubt my memory. In a dream or half dream, I would find myself in a dark, twisting, tunnel-like alley near my grandma’s house, but waking up, I would think, surely such a place cannot exist. This week, I was in that alley.

After a few false turns, I finally found myself staring at my grandma’s house. Though its door and windows were old enough, they weren’t from 1975, when my grandma last lived here. The opposite house was less than six feet away, even closer than I remembered. As a child, I spent quite a bit of time in this tiny house, and even attended first grade in the neighborhood. My mother liked to outsource mothering.

It has but two rooms, with a round window in the wall separating them. Like a bird or a child on the moon, I often perched in that window. The kitchen was in the back and partly open. At night, sometimes I could hear a cat walking on a neighboring tin roof.

My maternal grandpa was killed by the Communists in the early 50’s, so my grandma had to raise five children by herself, yet she managed to put each through college. By the time I lived in that house, only my youngest aunt, Hằng, was there with my grandma. Aunt Hằng was in law school. In the US, she worked as a law librarian for nearly forty years, for just one firm on I Street in Washington DC.

In 1972, I was sitting on a bed with aunt Hằng and my grandma, watching TV, when a man arrived to announce that my uncle Bảo, on my father’s side, had just been killed. Uncle Bảo was a medic in the South Vietnamese Marines. Not yet married, he was considered the best looking of four sons. Since neither woman really knew uncle Bảo, they only sniffled a bit, and not sobbed, I noticed.

After my parents got divorced in 1973, I never entered that house again, so the very next time I saw my grandma was in a Guam refugee camp in May of 1975. With about 100,000 people living in endless rows of hastily erected Army tents, it was a miracle I should run into anyone I knew, but there was my grandma, and though she was happy to see me, she wasn’t effusive. It was as if we had chanced onto each other at the Saigon Zoo.

Saigon had fallen, and my father was presumably still there, with his fate uncertain. Escaping, my grandma had left behind many relatives and friends. Like all the other Vietnamese in Guam, she had no idea where she would go next, and what she had to do, yet her composure was rather typical, for Vietnamese can impose normalcy on just about any situation. Since the refugee camp had access to a beach, many people went swimming.

From a barge just offshore, but well within view, at least a dozen American GIs were skinny dipping, not unlike the boys in Thomas Eakins’ Swimming Hole. On the beach, there were dozens of Vietnamese, including old people and little kids. Our alienness likely prodded these young men into their exhibition, licensed their inhibition. Whooping and hollering, they were having a fine time. Though hardly believing what they were seeing, the Vietnamese were mostly passive.

Some Americans were inside the refugee camp as food vendors, so there was a man selling hot dogs. My grandma bought me one, but as she was about to pay, she asked, “How many?” instead of “How much?” An 11-year-old smart ass, I thought to myself, Grandma is wrong! I never saw my grandma again after that afternoon. Living only three years in the US, she’s buried in Northern Virginia.

Walking around the Banana Orchard neighborhood, I recognized just one business, a corner restaurant, although its name had likely been changed. My old school, too, had a new name, Lương Định Của. Educated in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Fukuoka and Kyoto, Lương Định Của was a pioneering Vietnamese agronomist, and his wife, Nobuko Nakamura, also made a name for herself, first as a Japanese language broadcaster for Voice of Vietnam, then for her memoir, Wind from Hanoi, which was published in Japan in 2000.

Interviewed in 2013 by a Vietnamese magazine, Tuổi Trẻ, Nakamura shared, “Everyone say that Japan is a developed and wealthy country, but Vietnam is poor, and during my time, there was also war, so I must have suffered. But it wasn’t like that. No matter how much I suffered, my life wasn’t as hard as it was for a Vietnamese peasant, out in the field from early morning, with his feet in the bone chilling mud, and not much to eat. Also, the Vietnamese have always helped me. And next to me, I had my husband, Của, and my children.”

In Vietnam since 1952, Nakamura lives in a Banana Orchard alley.

 
• Category: Culture/Society, History • Tags: Vietnam 
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Done with my article on walking, I rewarded myself by heading to the local Popeyes. Yes, there’s one in District 6, within walking distance of my mosquito netting. Though any Saigon lunch beyond two bucks will cause me infinite, enduring pain, florid self-recrimination and post-traumatic stress disorder, I manned up and handed the young, angelic cashier $3.50 [82,000 đồng], then patiently and humbly waited for this ethereal, merciful being to somehow yield to my disgusting, pitiful self two pieces of fried chicken, plus a jivey biscuit that was vaguely coated with something distantly related to honey, a Coke and, what I so shamelessly craved, some mashed potato!!!

I manhandled that mash alright, dove headfirst right into it, to make up for all those mashless months. Just give me that mash! Give it up!

In my Tri-Cities Postcard, I quoted a Vietnam vet, Pablo, “When I came home, my father asked me about Vietnam, and I said, ‘It has become a part of me!’ Every place you go becomes a part of you, so Vietnam has become a part of me. It’s inside me!”

Very true, so Tacoma, Salem, San Jose, Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Certaldo, Norwich and Leipzig, etc., are my ingredients, to be stirred up as a craving for a certain dish, and it’s always something very simple, such as mashed potato, which I was introduced to at elementary school cafeterias in Tacoma, Washington. Even at age 55, I distinctly remember mispronouncing it as “smashed potato,” to my classmates’ amusement.

My first two months in Tacoma, I lived in a house owned by an American colonel and his Vietnamese war bride, who was actually half British, half Chinese. Her dad had been my English tutor back in Saigon. My father, brother and future stepmother were also in this home.

A native of Montana, the colonel was a thin, wiry man who usually wore a red plaid shirt and blue jeans. He was twice his wife’s age, and Annette was so young, he enrolled her in Lincoln High School. She was petite, pretty and often looked bemused. This marriage didn’t last. Annette ended up with a Vietnamese man.

During my stint in the colonel’s house, I often saw him eating canned baked beans or canned chili con carne. Trying both, I found the chili OK, but the baked beans, I thought preposterous. In Philadelphia, however, I always had baked beans in my cupboard.

In 2015, I visited my friend, Daniel Kane, in Hove, England, just down the beach from Brighton. (Daniel is the author of All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s.) Daniel told me about a guest who stayed in his house, alone, for a weekend. When Daniel came back, he found his trash bin filled with cans of baked beans, and nothing else, “So the guy ate nothing but baked beans for the entire weekend! Can you imagine that?! It’s, like, he gave up on life!”

The guy’s a Brit, and that’s his comfort food, obviously. Towards the end of his life, Duchamp ate nothing but spaghetti with pats of butter. Even if that’s not entirely true, I like the thought.

In Philadelphia during the late 80’s, I had a chemist friend from Thailand, Somchai, who ate a Wawa Italian hoagie for just about every meal, and this was no bizarre self-punishment or performance art. As a Philadelphian, Somchai just loved Wawa Italian hoagies.

Marty told me that, after an evening of drinking at the Friendly Lounge, all he wanted was a roast pork sandwich from Pat’s, three blocks away, so he had had hundreds of them. Still working as a plumber and electrician at 75, Marty deserved a $10 sandwich at the end of the night. He started his working life dressing corpses.

Relating these tepid nonstories, I’m suggesting that it really doesn’t take much to make a man content. As long as he’s free from immediate danger, pain, strife, stress or hunger, even a can of Budweiser or Miller, basically the worst beers in the world, will make him happy. All too often, though, a poor, simple man can’t be left unmolested to enjoy his falafel.

This morning, I emailed Chuck Orloski, “It sure looks like the Jews will get the world embroiled in another war. I’m still hoping it won’t happen… If only life could be as simple as enjoying a Coney or Chinese food on Main.”

Chuck answered, “I miss you, & Keystone Restaurant & the Chinese Restaurant on Main are regular stops, mighty fine. Am very afraid for what ZUS has planned for Iran.”

For just $5.25, you can get a lunch special at New Foliage, and though its hot and sour soup, egg roll and sweet and sour pork will probably be spat at by any New York Times food critic, it’s mighty fine to sit in there, like Chuck said, and stuff your face with so much homey comfort. Done, you can mosey down to the Lounge on Jackson, and knock down a few with some of the finest folks anywhere.

Since we’re in the endless war era, another war for Israel is on the horizon, but hardly anyone seems alarmed, least of all Americans, for they’ve come to see themselves, quite casually and indifferently, as only asskicking agents of war, and never its victims. Conditioned by Hollywood, many Americans also find mass violence exciting, so as another bloodbath looms, some joke that they’re getting out the popcorn to enjoy the fireworks.

Not even two decades ago, an American war still needed elaborately concocted justifications, but now, any throw away lie will do, for hardly anyone is paying attention, preoccupied as he is with selfies, duck faces and hazy, indeterminate genitalia, and where to gently tuck them without incurring wrath and censure.

So let me get this straight: As the Japanese Prime Minister was visiting Iran, two Japanese tankers were supposedly attacked by Iran. This is like sending your son out to scratch up your buddy’s SUV while he’s inside your living room, drinking a friendly six pack with your sorry ass.

Discounting Muslims, Japanese have the absolutely lowest opinion of Israel, with one poll showing 55% negative, and only 3% positive, so is someone sending a message here?

Getting out the popcorn, we want to see explosions and hear reports of mass casualties, for the thought of so many people being blown up can’t help but cheer us up, for we’re not in harm’s way, and since these people are so evil, as our televisions relentlessly tell us, they fully deserve this destruction. Plus, this war will give us another viewing option, for just a baseball game each night can get a bit tedious.

Above, I named Jews as the instigators of war against Iran, which made some readers cringe, I’m sure, for you’re only supposed to point a finger at Israel or Zionists, at most, and never say anything negative against Jews, though it’s fine to accuse, say, whites, Russians or just men, as a sex, of numerous sins. Thanks to the gaseous Holocaust’s swarming shadow, the worst ism ever is anti-Semitism, so a Jew’s feeling is much more inviolable than, say, a Muslim body.

 
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In Saigon, I live with my in laws in Phú Lâm, the same neighborhood I was in at 8 and 9-years-old, when my mother had a pharmacy here. It was named Linh. Then my parents got divorced. Sometimes in life, you end up exactly where you started.

Twice a day, I’d take my nephew for a walk, with the first usually at 6AM, and the second around 5PM. I’ve done this for over a year. Though his real name is Thiên Ân [God’s Gift], he’s called Suki, for nearly all Vietnamese babies have a nickname, usually something cute sounding, like Bim or Bon. In this neighborhood, there are toddlers nicknamed Coca, Pepsi and Khoai Tây [French Potato].

Suki has just turned two. Like me, he loves to be on the streets. Delighted by what he sees, he sometimes laughs out loud, and once startled a boy badminton player in mid swing. Suki particularly likes to observe men working. Everywhere we go, we see new houses being built, four, five stories high, so we would stop to watch men and women fill then push carts loaded with sand or bricks. Mesmerized by cement mixers, Suki has sort of learnt how to pronounce it, “máy măng,” leaving out the “xi.” Many of these construction crews have gotten used to seeing Suki showing up early in the morning to watch them work. Smiling, they’d banter with him.

As we watched a cement mixer growlingly turn, a woman in a nearby house noticed mosquito bites on Suki’s legs, so she went home and got some medicinal oil to rub on my nephew, and this she did with the greatest concern. We didn’t even know her.

“Say thank you to granny, Suki!” I urged.

Just by wandering around nearby alleys each day, we’ve rubbed ourselves into the neighborhood. People notice.

Wending through alleys, Suki becomes acculturated, learns how to be Vietnamese, and what he sees isn’t always charming. At Phú Định Market, a regular stop, he watched as a man snipped off a frog’s mouth, hands and feet, then cut straight down its back, so that he could peel its entire skin, coatlike, off the still living animal. Eyes blinking, twitching or crawling around, the now purple frog could now join dozens of his similarly undressed relatives.

Seeing Mr. Hiếu at an alley cafe, Suki and I sat down at his table. Across the way was a hideous Buddhist temple that, over time, I’ve found less ugly, and once or twice, from a certain angle and in the right light, I even thought beautiful.

To say that I’ve known Mr. Hiếu for 20 years would be misleading, for there’s not much to know. The man hardly talks. Sixty-seven-years-old, he was a car and truck mechanic, but hasn’t worked in a long time, as his strength ebbed. He lived in the house he was born until last year, when it had to be sold. Now dwelling half a mile away, he comes back to his old neighborhood each day, out of habit and sadness. Yesterday, I caught him walking by his old home just to look at it. Mr. Hiếu was married for just a year, before his wife left him. He’s been nowhere, done nothing exciting and doesn’t touch alcohol. He does smoke Jet, at 86 cents a pack, and drink iced coffee.

What Mr. Hiếu does have, though, is an abundant sense of belonging, so maybe he should feel sorry for you?

As I walked alone, a scrawny boy of about four suddenly grabbed my hand and meekly pleaded, “Uncle, take me to my mommy.”

“Your mommy?! Where is your mommy?”

“That way.”

“But I don’t know your mommy. Where do you live?”

“This way.”

“Why don’t you just stay home, and wait until your mommy comes back?”

“I’m home alone.”

Turning to a nearby woman, I asked, “Do you know this boy?”

“No,” she smiled, “but he can stay with me until his mom shows up.” She yanked over a low plastic stool for the boy to sit on. Becalmed, he perched.

“I’ll leave him with you, sister.” Satisfied with this arrangement, I continued my rambling.

In the US, I also walked tirelessly, for during my 30 years as an adult there, I owned a car for just one year. Though certainly not the most efficient way to get around, walking is the most intimate and social, for that’s how you can measure your environment with your body, one foot at a time. Wandering, you can feel the friendly, off-putting, desolate or menacing vibes of each neighborhood.

I logged many miles in San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Portland, St Paul, Chicago, Columbus, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, New Orleans, Charleston, Atlanta and Orlando, etc. Mostly, I walked all over Philadelphia, for that’s how I got to know my city. Not too wisely, I repeatedly strayed into its least congenial sections. When I lingered at the corner where my friend Jerome Robinson had been killed, an angry, scowling teenager marched over to tell me to get the fuck away. Jerome was shot by such a kid.

Much of this walking, I did without any maps. When I got lost in Washington’s Anacostia, one of its few remaining black ghettos, I asked a woman to point me to the nearest Metro Station. In the sweetest, most maternal voice, she said, “It’s this way, baby!”

In Philadelphia’s Logan, a woman who appeared to be half black, half yellow asked me as I passed her on the sidewalk, “Are you partly black?”

Half amused, half apologetic, I had to answer this lovely lady, “No, no!”

Working up a sweat, I would reward myself by barging into any bar that looked cheap enough, and the reception I got was nearly always convivial. In 2012, I dropped into Chicago’s Logan Square’s Western Tap, a joint I had been in just once, in 2009, yet the bartender, Pancho, still remembered me. Granted, no other Vietnamese had likely sat in this long-time Polish bar, then frequented mostly by Puerto Ricans.

Another guy, Manuel, was perched on the same stool as three years earlier, and he too remembered me . As we chattered, Enter The Dragon came on TV, so we talked about Bruce and Brandon Lee, and I told him about my recent travel. Manuel had only been to New York once, for two months, and had returned to his native Puerto Rico a handful of times, and that’s it for his traveling. Too busy working, he had never even been to nearby Milwaukee, St Louis or Detroit. Manuel had toiled in all types of factories, and even in a Chinese restaurant. “There was so much work back then. You could always find work, not like today.” Manuel labored so hard, he never got around to getting married.

On the Western Tap’s sign, there wasn’t even its name, just “HEILEMAN’S OLD STYLE” framed heraldically. Like the beer, the bar is gone. Like diners, dive bars are disappearing.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Vietnam 
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Our first year in Ea Kly was a failure. We lost quite a bit of money. For the past month, I’ve been in Saigon so we could formulate a new game plan. Even in a low-wage economy like Vietnam, plastic recycling is barely feasible.

Seeing people falling is funny. In his magisterial Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti observes, “A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggests helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh.”

A fallen man is funny because he’s no longer composed, erect and posturing, but symbolically reduced to meat, to be stripped naked, slaughtered then eaten. Go ahead and laugh. I’m falling right in front of y’all. Eat my ass.

Last year, I also fell right out of the American literary scene, though this process has been drawn out for nearly a decade. You see, when I mocked Obama, questioned 9/11, dismantled the Bin Laden “assassination,” advocated for the boycott of American presidential elections, rejected Hillary Clinton, dismissed American higher education as a brainwashing scam and appeared on Iran’s Press TV dozens of times, I lost most of my literary allies, nearly all of whom are servile academics. My worst sins, however, were repeated attacks on Jewish power and frank discussions of racial differences, which culminated in “Blacks, Jews and You.”

Here’s how Wikipedia describes my racial views, “He has suggested that African-American biological inferiority means that ‘in every field besides sports, entertainment and politics, blacks are failing spectacularly against all other races,’ but I’ve never described any race as biologically inferior or superior to another. Here is exactly what I said:

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.

In an email, one lifelong academic moron screamed at me for “excoriating” blacks, and I was astounded and saddened that a man charged with teaching thousands of young people how to write better English clearly did not understand such a basic verb as “excoriate.” Though I’ve talked many times about black crime and dysfunction, I’ve never lashed out at this entire race, for that would be preposterous, and not enlightening. The observer’s job is to highlight, describe and explain, with praise or censure sentimental acts best kept to a minimum.

There’s only one American poet left who admits to being my friend, and Ian Keenan and I were sort of neighbors, with him living just across the Delaware from Philadelphia. We took a few multi-day MegaBus trips together. When you’re over 50, it’s no fun to sleep on a tight, bumpy seat so save on hotel bills, but that’s what Ian and I did. Spending little, we explored Toronto, Montreal, Atlanta and New Orleans.

Emailing Ian, I wrote, “Though I’m accused of being a hater of blacks, I’ve actually written many more sympathetic words about blacks than nearly all of my critics combined. Take my Jackson, Wisconsin, Point Breeze and North Philly postcards, for examples, with the first two in my book, or a bunch of poems in A Mere Rica. I observe blacks closely, listen to them attentively and quote them at length, which are more than what most poets are willing to do, even the black ones!” Then, “Pay particular attention to Stewart Crenshaw, an allegory about the black experience that’s one of my best stories.” Much of this writing is now gathered in a free PDF, BLACKS. Read it and judge for yourself.

In English and Vietnamese, I’ve also written about Vietnamese dysfunction, with many accounts in prose and poetry of dishonesty, power abuse, corruption, mindless superstition and general idiocy. Check out my novel, Love Like Hate. Of course, I’ve also described many instances of beauty, empathy, courage, resilience and sacrifice, which I’ve routinely encountered them wherever I went, for they are all necessary for human survival.

About 15 years ago, Ron Silliman sized me up, “note that he is hardly the only good or successful Vietnamese American poet, let alone the only poet to come from a working class background, yet he is not writing ‘about’ or even ‘toward’ nor ‘from’ any one of these contexts so much as he is through them—they are lenses, filters, that condition his perspective on everyday life. Imagine what any other poet with this strong a sense of form would have had to become in order to write such poetry. Ted Berrigan, for example. Berrigan shares Linh’s class background, which enables him to be as ruthless in a different way as Linh is in his. But the comparison stops there. Linh is writing straightforward poetry, but from a perspective shared by almost no one else. This kind of exile is far deeper than mere geography… you can feel Linh’s deep loneliness on every page & realize that there are aspects of his poetry that you can’t find anywhere else. We probably haven’t had a writer this singular since the death of William Burroughs.”

Even at the time, I thought Silliman overpraised me, and I remember thinking, Poor Ron. I hope he won’t regret such effusiveness. Now that I’m tarred as a Fascist, perhaps Ron wishes he never endorsed me at all. In any case, I went from being compared to Burroughs and Bukowski to being untouchable, with no reading invitations for years before I left the USA.

It’s no mystery, really. I’ve become a pariah because I’ve repeatedly attacked Jewish power. That’s the one unforgivable cardinal sin in that Jew-dominated nation, where every public intellectual, academic, politician and even the president must prostrate himself endlessly before this mendacious, blood thirsty and vindictive Moloch.

How can they forgive me for calling their sacred Holocaust an elaborate myth that’s “propped up by a shoahload of bogus scholarship and hundreds of tear jerking movies”? And I’ve added, “The Holocaust does not explain genocide but enables it, but few dare to say so, for fear of Jewish power.”

Jewish power has only inconvenienced my life a bit, not humiliated me daily, bulldozed my house, arrested me, tortured me, shot me or destroyed my entire society, so I’m the slightest casualty among its millions of victims. Americans, though, are both victims and mercenaries of Jewish power, for even as they help Jewish power to destroy other societies, their own is being deformed and wrecked by Jewish power. America is Jewish power’s war horse, galloping towards the glue factory.

Wars fought for Israel are added to the list of American war crimes, to be condemned by Jews as evidence of the innate evilness of the white race.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Anti-Semitism, Jews, Political Correctness, Zionism 
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I’ve spent 13 of the last 17 months outside the USA, and have no plan or wish to return.

I wouldn’t mind an honest cheeseburger now and then, however, but each version I’ve had here has been awful, with the worst something that came in a plastic bag, with the “burger” a brownish orange paste to be squeezed from a packet. Vietnamese pizzas, too, have been gross, with the crust too sweet and rubbery, the toppings scanty and scammy, and the no tomato, no cheese taste desperately jazzed up by squirts of mayonnaise and hot sauce. In downtown Saigon or Hanoi, there are first rate burger and pizza joints, I hear, but I rarely go there. In Osaka, Japan, I did have an excellent burger at a MOS.

My Americanness also surfaces in flash fantasies about baked macaroni and cheese, mashed potato with mushroom gravy and chicken fried steak, which I actually ordered at a Phnom Penh bar, only to have my spirit and dignity spat on, for everything about it was wrong. The best versions I’ve had were in San Antonio and Wolf Point. Richmond wasn’t bad. McCook was disappointing.

I also check on my Mariners and Seahawks, my writing audience remains primarily American and I get emails from American friends.

This morning, I got a distressing missive from “Beth,” not her real name, to say that her marriage with a Pakistani doctor is over, since he’s gotten his green card and doesn’t have to be nice to her anymore. “I suppose he only thought of me as an American woman to use up and throw away and then bring his Muslim family over here.”

There were many red flags. Younger, Farooq was better looking than Beth. Plus, he sounded quite gay bantering with his many Pakistani FaceBook buddies. “It’s a huge subculture,” Beth informed me. “They’re all married, they all fuck each other and they don’t think it’s cheating.” She pulled up page after page of guys striking cutesy poses. Every so often, a box of condoms would be delivered, but almost none was sheathed on their cold bed.

A white woman from semi-rural Pennsylvania, Beth always dated nonwhites, and I first met her 30 years ago through her Vietnamese boyfriend. She then married an older Japanese divorcee. After five years in Philly, they returned to Japan so he could see his two daughters before dying of cancer.

In an email, Beth describes his final moments, “In the hospital where he died (in Yoshida, a state hospital his sister-in-law put him in so as not to spend money on him), various ghosts visited his bedside. Some he wasn’t too impressed with, but one older couple that died at different times in the same hospital, were together and would visit dying people to comfort them. They often visited him. There are brown eagles that travel in pairs over the plains of Yoshida and they would fly slowly and gracefully from a long distance all the way to the hospital window. I never once thought of taking photos but now I wish I could look at them again. They were always a bit of magic in our day when they showed up.”

Beth’s second husband was a Venezuelan, and together, they composed songs in imitation of Cat Stevens. He also beat her up.

At 57, Beth’s looks have faded, her health’s shot and her spirit’s shredded. Still, she has had an interesting life, and she’s been loved, too, I believe, if only briefly or sporadically.

Most of my American friends are divorced or never married. When I was still in Philly, my friend Judith told me about her divorce, “I didn’t need to be around an angry man all the time. If I want to be angry, I can be angry by myself!” I never saw Judith enraged. Drunk, she would turn sweetly maudlin.

My buddy Felix Giordano claimed no woman had ever said she loved him, not even his wife of nearly a decade. Now 72, Felix lives alone and doesn’t even frequent our old haunt, the Friendly Lounge.

Felix, “i’m getting old and cranky too. and getting arthritis too. decided to go in to get an operation to get some metel out of my left foot that still is bothering me.. been avoiding the friendly crowd when dom’s not there.. they’re so leftist i can’t bare to be around them.. vern’s the worst, he frothed at the mouth with his hate shit.. so for old times sake i avoid him or leave when he starts his shit.. want to move away now… and my daughter is on a hate dad kick again. so she’s threatened that i’ll never see my grandkids again stuff.. i’m gonna look for some cheap place 30 or 40 miles out of philly, in the country.. and people are still real.. or maybe something cheap in bridesburg.. i have more friends up that way anyway.. and those great dive bars.. haven’t been to the pennsport lately… been to o’jung’s, nickles and the black cat… been meaning to go to fatso’s again.. but in truth without you around i’m afraid i’ll drink too much.. been mushrooming near billy boys, but didn’t go in for the same reason.. been trying to paint to not get depressed.. the hate climate in this neighborhood is so fucked up.. you are lucky you never had any kids.. the only reason mine ever bothered with me is she still thinks i’m rich… don’t know why i never became a junkie on kensington ave?”

When I last saw Kensington nine months ago, there were several tent cities there, filled with junkies, mostly white and under 35, and as the city cleared one after another, new encampments sprung up, for the hopelessness never went away. Some of these Kensington addicts wander onto Delaware Avenue to beg, and Felix would often say when he spotted one, “He’s sure enjoying his white privilege!”

Alas, Jack’s Famous Bar is no more. I took a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter to this Kensington institution and introduced her to Mel, its literate owner. On Christmas Eve of 2014, evangelists marched into Jack’s to give each cheap beer nurser a care package, and I opened mine to find bits of calories, Planters salted peanuts, TOP RAMEN instant noodles, Twizzlers “strawberry” licorice, Starburst “fruit” chews and Nerds gotta-have-grape candy pellets. Of course, there were also several Christian booklets, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, The Poor Revolutionist, Smile Jesus Love You and The Gospel According to Saint Luke, much condensed. Before I left Philly last year, Jack’s had just been bought by some “Asian guy,” who promised to keep the place intact, including all of its decades-old liquor bottles on the shelves. He lied.

In 2016, I interviewed a bartender, B.B., and the featured photo had her with her ex boyfriend, Josh. After he died of an overdose a year later, B.B. texted me, “his absence and the void it’s left in my heart is reverberating through every task and moment of my life, even when i’m sleeping, and it’s only been a few days. i have the rest of my meaningless, pitiful and pointless fucking existence still.”

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Poverty 
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Convinced I was destined to become an oil painter, I attended art school, and during my art fag days, I honed in on art museums, wherever I went. As a writer, however, I quickly realized I needed to scrutinize the streets, for even without people, a community reveals much about itself through its houses, shops, and how these are laid out.

A few hours roaming the alleys of Naples, for example, will teach you more about Neapolitans than the same amount of time at its archeological museum, though of course, you should also check out the astonishing Farnese Bull, with its matchless ensemble of humans and animals, carved from a singled block of marble, with everything perfect, even the bull’s well-articulated asshole. Now, that’s artistic piety!

The Japanese hate trash on the streets so much, they don’t even have garbage cans on sidewalks, for you’re not supposed to do anything in public to generate trash in the first place, no eating while walking, no smoking even. In Germany, public toilet stalls often have scrubbers, so that you can clean up after yourself if necessary. In Thailand, car horns are rarely heard, but in Vietnam, the beep beeping from motorbikes has become part of the white noise.

I just got back from a week in Malaysia, where I spent each waking minute on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang, Kajang, Ipoh, Bidor or Tai Ping. (Johor Bahru I had glimpsed on another visit.) I spent much of my time with John Tang, a 73-year-old structural engineer with an architect wife. Together, we read buildings.

Born in Malaysia, John got a degree from John Hopkins in Baltimore, and was supposed to make his career in the United States. His first stop was Washington D.C., where he stayed for a few months with an American sponsor. “When I first arrived, he said to me, ‘This is the greatest civilization ever, kid, and you’re going to be a part of it!’” John met the Malaysian ambassador, had a visit from a Kuala Lumpur girlfriend, got a job at Sears.

“I didn’t like it, so I came back here. I missed the food!” We were sitting at Fun Kee Bamboo Noodle, a Cantonese joint John had eaten at for over four decades.

“And it’s not just the food, but the ambience,” I added. “Just look at this place!” Old school, it had worn marble tables, white tiled walls and a small plastic sign advising customers not to spit.

As is common in sultry Southeast Asia, the entire front was open. Eleven ceiling fans whirled. At a round table out back, an old guy sat in his thin tank top, looking, well, just like me back in Saigon. Extreme heat makes people more casual, even sloppy, but Malaysia is nowhere nearly as messy or chaotic as Vietnam. Though not Singaporean spotless, it’s clean enough.

“That waitress is married to the owner’s son,” John pointed. “She’s Indonesian. I know her mom, too. She worked here for 25 years.”

“Is she still here?”

“No, she went back to Indonesia.”

Behind the cash register, there was a small, glass paned bookcase with volumes by Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Roald Dahl, O Henry, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, Narayan, Art Buchwald, Sting and Woody Allen, etc. There were also several books on Lee Kuan Yew. A small blackboard featured a quote of the day, such as, “BOOKS AND NOODLES KEEP ME ALIVE!”

Though busy, the owner dropped by to say hello, and was delighted to have a visitor from Vietnam. I told him I liked his books, and John said I was a writer. On our second visit a few days later, the bespectacled man refused to charge us for our meals!

The neighborhood had many small Chinese factories, an urban industrial area. It’s sliced in half by a four-lane street, Sungai Besi. “They put that in to destroy the community,” John commented.

Whether by malice or just sheer incompetence, Malaysia is comprehensively marred by bad planning decisions, but you wouldn’t know this from afar, for the Kuala Lumpur skyline, with its Petronas Towers and other iconic buildings, simply looks marvelous in photographs.

Consider the Jamek Mosque. Designed by an English architect, Arthur Benison Hubback (1871-1948), it’s one of the most beautiful in a country dotted with ugly, soulless mosques, many of which resemble tacky casinos or even strip malls. Built at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers, it’s best viewed from a bridge on Leboh Pasar Besar, but even this vista is blighted by “KUALA LUMPUR” in big, bright yellow lettering, spelled out for the tourists, I suppose, just in case they forget where they are.

Besides the Jamek Mosque, Hubback is also responsible for the resplendent Sultan Abdul Samad Building and old Railway Station, designed in the Indo-Saracenic style, itself inspired by Mughal Architecture, another hybrid. Fusion is often delightful. Foodwise, there are quite a few Malaysian dishes that mix Chinese, Indian and/or Malay influences, so I had fried tofu with a fiery peanut sauce at an Indian buffet, and curry mee at a Chinese eatery.

Approaching the mosque’s entrance, I ran into an electrical building which I mistook for a public restroom, then I was dwarfed by huge, steel-poled parasols. Clearly modeled after those in Medina, Saudi Arabia, they looked elegant enough, but their placement added to the confusion of the layout and obscured the mosque itself.

Since it was near iftar, there were throngs of people, all eager for their communal fast breaking meal. Suddenly splashing on water, I thought it might have come from an overflowing restroom, but then I traced its source to a badly designed pool, with one corner lowered to accommodate a ramp, so that water was forever spilling from it.

Staring at John, I asked incredulously, “How do they let that stand?!”

Intercepted by all the tacked-on pavilions, parasols, fountains, pools and landscaping pods, I never made it to the Jamek Mosque.

Jamek Mosque is on Tun Perak Street, named after a 15th century Malay statesman. Over this major thoroughfare is plunked a huge and hideously ugly elevated railway. Adding gloom to downtown, it also obscures several beautiful, mostly Colonial-era buildings.

Much of Malay history is reconstructed from sketchy documents and scant artifacts, with its golden age that of the sultanate of Malacca, an entity that was defeated in 1511 by an invading Portuguese armada of 16 ships carrying 1,009 men. Interestingly, the Chinese and Indian residents of Malacca sided with the Portuguese, so were not violated during the ensuing sack.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Chinese, Malaysia, Southeast Asia 
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Last month, I received an email from a young Mexican, “I am a DREAMER (I find the term infantilizing) someone who was brought to the U.S as a child illegally and raised here. I received a work permit through DACA, I can only work legally, I can’t step out of the country and step back in as of now, and previously I would have to apply for special permission and pay the government $600 dollars to do so. I have managed to become a university student and it is my senior year. Given that, I plan to go to Mexico after I graduate and never to return to the U.S. Some people were born to be immigrants and I was not one of those people.”

“DREAMER” comes from the the DREAM Act, which is an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. It was introduced by two senators, Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), in 2001, to eventually grant residency to illegal minors living in the United States.

In 2019, the DREAM Act remains, well, a dream, and it’s unclear if it will ever pass. Its opponents reject all illegal immigration, and don’t want to set any precedent enabling more of it. Its supporters depict the issue morally. The New York Times has published many passionate editorials defending DREAMERS. On February 26th, 2018, for example, there’s Joseph W. Tobin’s “If You’re a Patriot and a Christian, You Should Support the Dream Act,” which begins:

The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls on us to welcome and protect the stranger. This should not be hard to do when the stranger is young, blameless and working hard to make this country a better place.

There are nearly 700,000 young men and women in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program who could soon be at risk for deportation. These “Dreamers” live in our neighborhoods, attend our schools, fight for our country and contribute to our workplaces. Our leaders in Washington, including President Trump, have a moral obligation to try to protect those who came to our nation as children with their parents, and who are Americans in every way.

“Young, blameless and working hard,” dreamers are already ideal citizens, Tobin tells us, so why should we cruelly and immorally deny their simple dream of becoming Americans? At least one, though, is saying, “No, thanks,” so let’s hear more from this young man.

Please talk about your family background, and how you arrived in the US?

I have no full-brother or sister. My parents met in rural Nayarit, only my mother is from there. That was where I was born, for reasons I do not know and am apprehensive to question. My father left my pregnant mother, but returned a couple of years later, but by then my mother and I had immigrated to the U.S. In early 1993 my mother and I had crossed into the U.S illegally/undocumented (the semantics don’t matter.) For clarity’s sake I will tell you how I was snuck in. I was placed in a crib in the car of a green-card holding aunt who had a U.S born child, and my cousin’s birth certificate was what was shown as proof that the baby in the crib can cross the border. My mother had to cross through the hills on foot like one usually imagines illegal crossings.

Once here, my mother and I had a tranquil existence, she would make good money working factory jobs in and about Orange and San Diego county. Things seemed to have been on the way up but unfortunately she got involved in an abusive relationship with a refugee from Latin America. In a quarrelsome household where one partner has legal presence and the other doesn’t, constant threats of deportation were made and that sword of Damocles is one that always hangs over our heads. From then on my mother would run away from the house taking me and my new half-siblings and of course she would be pursued by her abuser, this continued for years. Roughly the years where I was in elementary school to middle school, such an unstable childhood going from women’s shelter to unhappy homes again and again left me with the fact that by the time I finished high school I had gone to more schools than there are grades.

Where have you lived in the US, and what are you doing now?

Given such an unstable childhood, I have lived in numerous places in Orange and Fresno county and lived for a while in South L.A then at the time of middle school moved to an Appalachian community.

Currently, I am a senior in a “good” university on the East coast. I had it planned that I would have some sort of legal status by graduation, but outside of DACA I have no legal status. My mother does though, good for her.

Although you’re functionally and socially an American, you’re not one legally, so your integration has been very problematic and tension filled. Please talk about this process. How emotionally attached are you to the USA? And how are your bonds to Mexico?

First thing, I always knew I was illegal, it was something I had to always be conscious of, I don’t know anyone else who brought here illegally as a child who did not always know they were illegal. When school tests would ask for my social security number I always had to check with the teacher on how I should answer with the excuse “I don’t know my social.” I know exactly why I didn’t know my social, because I didn’t have one. I always knew I was illegal.

Other issues are that I never integrated into a larger immigrant community, because I was always moving around, there were times I lived in immigrant neighborhoods and times I lived in very multi-cultural (no sarcasm, families of all background’s inhabited them) woman’s shelters. I never sprouted roots

Given that background, there was always the darn hope for papeles, one day, one day we would get our papeles and our nightmare would be over, that was our religion our hope.

Starting in high school my family situation finally more or less settled down. My family moved to a very white and rural area, a place that would make you think why the fuck are there Mexicans here and why would they move here. I finally made long term friends, white americans, who I didn’t have to abandon after a couple of months. My high school had very few Latinos, so I was friends with rednecks and edgy white kids. This is the time I was very functionally and socially an American doing American teenager things, but of course I had the burden of illegalness and crushing extreme poverty.

Being poor and not having a social security number really limits what one can do for fun (no money, no driver’s license, no car.) So I read, nonfiction books and articles online and at the library.

It was that habit that led me to question whether I could be and should be an American. And it was also what kept me busy during high school. Teenage delinquency wasn’t for me because I had been taught that as soon as a police officer shows up me and my mom were to be deported (the worst of all fates). Crushing poverty and lack of driver’s license also made buying teenage me a car a non-starter. So I was considerably less mobile and much more cautious than regular teenagers. That doesn’t mean I didn’t drink, smoke pot, or any other teenage stuff, it just meant I was completely reliant on friends with cars. Avoiding legal troubles wasn’t difficult for me, for one I dislike weed and I was simply on the road less often than most. Most of my U.S born cousins have been caught with weed in their cars.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: DACA, Immigration, Latinos, Mexico 
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Smaller than California and settled for millennia, how can Vietnam even have a frontier?! But that’s what the Central Highlands were until very recently. Some of the heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War prevented Vietnamese from moving there en masse, but now they’re swarming all over. With nearly a hundred million people on so little real estate, no parcel can be left unmolested.

Moving in, Vietnamese build Buddhist temples to assert their culture and sanctify their presence. In Krong Buk, an unfinished temple features a huge Buddha on its roof, visible from a quarter mile away. A lot of money is being put into this. At the back of the temple compound, there’s an artificial mountain range, with Guan Yin, the widely venerated female bodhisattva, standing in a grotto at the top.

Next to a tiny pond, there are, rather surprisingly, ceramic statues of Chí Phèo and Thị Nở, two physically repulsive, destitute and outcast characters from Nam Cao’s 1941 short story. Their brief love affair is one of the most poignant and well known in Vietnamese fiction. You know you’ve written a classic when even the illiterates know your characters. Of course, many people only know of Chí Phèo and Thị Nở from the film version of the story.

Each culture is its own universe, with an infinity of moving, funny or appalling references inaccessible to outsiders. The Rade living nearby would not be able to identify Chí Phèo and Thị Nở, nor do they know the significance of any street name in their rapidly reshaped landscape, but their children will, for they’re being Vietnamized in schools.

For four months now, I’ve been living in the Central Highlands, in Ea Kly, a merely functional town with no attractions to speak of. There is a hotel, but it’s meant to be rented by the hour. A pleasant cafe attached to it is empty most of the time, for locals don’t want to be suspected of enjoying some extramarital loving, just for drinking a cup of coffee with condensed milk.

This is a region settled by desperados, outcasts and the dispossessed. Over duck meat and rice wine, a 47-year-old man, Hĩnh, told me, “We were poor in the North, but it was even worse here, at first. Back then, our people had to go into Rade orchards to steal cassavas, jackfruits and whatever else. Starving, you must steal, and that’s that. Some people couldn’t take it, so they tried to go back North, but many simply died!” Hĩnh laughed.

Having endured all that, Hĩnh now has a reasonably spacious house, plus land on which he grows black pepper, avocadoes and jackfruits, raises chickens and ducks. To make money, he paints houses mostly, but also does farm work for hire, like most people in Ea Kly.

Dropping by last week, I found Hĩnh and half a dozen men sitting cross legged on a straw mat, eating tiny snails which they poked and twisted out with toothpicks. There was just enough meat in each gastropod to dip in the spicy and garlicky fish sauce. While everyone drank the home-distilled rice wine with shot glasses, constantly refilled, the bare chested Hĩnh downed his with a beer mug, and it was only a Monday.

These people are rugged and resourceful. I met a native of Thừa Thiên, near Huế. At age 14, he hopped a train to reach the Central Highlands, 260 miles away. Doing all sorts of physical work, he made enough money to bring his parents down, get married, buy land and build a house, plus a shack near a lake where he now fishes.

Entering this crude, messy dwelling, I was greeted by the quacking of many penned ducklings and the cluck, clucking of a hen, about to hop on the only bed. Three hammocks were slung at chaotic angles, plastic bags hung from nails and two blacken pots sat over a wood fire.

For lunch, the wiry middle-aged man grilled up some fish, just caught, with the grill half of an electric fan’s casing. The slightly seared, succulent fish was then placed on banana leaves, to be wrapped with assorted leaves, plucked from nearby trees. Quang Nam noodles with chicken [mì quảng] were also served, and moonshine was brought out in a jerrycan. Sitting on the ground, under lush, towering trees, a dozen people enjoyed this feast. It was one of the best meals of my life.

Leaving his much nicer house mostly empty, he spends the bulk of his time in this primitive, out of the way shack, and I suspect it’s because he’s still a frontiersman at heart.

Over civilized, with our lives codified to the smallest details, we find innumerable ways to regain, if only fleetingly, our more savage or spontaneous selves, so we go camping, hunt, visit foreign lands where our actions are decoupled from familiar meanings, join the army under false assumptions, lose ourselves in pornography, binge drink until the darkest hours, pull our pants down at less than ideal moments or enroll in a naked yoga class, etc.

Just moving away from the known can be thrilling. In Roughing It, Mark Twain describes the beginning of his journey West, “The stage whirled along at a spanking gait, the breeze flapping curtains and suspended coats in a most exhilarating way; the cradle swayed and swung luxuriously, the pattering of the horses’ hoofs, the cracking of the driver’s whip, and his ‘Hi-yi! g’lang!’ were music; the spinning ground and the waltzing trees appeared to give us a mute hurrah as we went by, and then slack up and look after us with interest, or envy, or something; and as we lay and smoked the pipe of peace and compared all this luxury with the years of tiresome city life that had gone before it, we felt that there was only one complete and satisfying happiness in the world, and we had found it.”

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Food, Vietnam 
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.