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In Marseilles, I met an illegal immigrant from Nghe An. He said his boss and housemates in Paris were all from the same province. Long known for its poverty, Nghe An leads Vietnam in the ratio of people working overseas, with most never returning. In fact, so many have become illegal in South Korea, Vietnam is blocking 11 Nghe An districts from sending people there.

Last week, I was in Nghe An for a three-day wedding. The one-hour-forty-five-minute flight from Saigon landed me at an airport, Vinh International, with no other planes. Across its empty tarmac, we walked to the new, airy terminal. Outside, there was a large, colorful mural of Ho Chi Minh being applauded by citizens and soldiers, and presented with flowers by two children. Flying over Uncle Ho’s head, a plane dropped nothing.

Nghe An is Ho’s home province, so in Vinh (pop. 500,000), his 39-foot-tall granite statue lords over Vietnam’s largest square. As I shall explain, much space was available.

Going into town for lunch, I noticed many houses had roof spires that evoked nearby Laos. Across the border was Xiangkhouang, the most heavily bombed Laotian province during the Vietnam War, with American planes pulverizing all but one of its temples, some dating to the 16th century. As the starting point of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Nghe An was also pummeled, with Vinh leveled by more than 4,700 air strikes.

On the way to the wedding, I passed Truong Bon, where on October 31st, 1967, American bombs hit a road repair crew. All 13 victims were under 20, with 11 of them female. Perhaps it’s because most were only teenage girls, they’re honored with a huge monument that attracts a thousand visitors daily.

I walked into a spartan roadside store to find some skinny old guy behind a lonely glass cabinet.

“Visiting, brother?”

“Yes, uncle, I just came up from Saigon. Have you been?”

“More than twenty years ago,” he grinned, showing only a few teeth.

“Where were you in Saigon, uncle?”

“Dak Lak!”

That’s over 200 miles north of Saigon, I thought, but close enough. Similarly, many southern Vietnamese routinely refer to all of northern Vietnam as “Hanoi.” Many would even say, “Will you come to Hanoi or Vietnam?”

The wedding was in Quy Hop, an idyllic city of 119,000 that’s ringed by mountains, with a serene lake downtown. Its chief economic activities are stone quarrying, tin mining and logging, resulting in fantastic wealth for some. I walked pass quite a few ridiculously fine houses, including a marble mansion boasting a huge roofed gate that’s made from a single block of stone. I also talked to a man whose daughter, working in Saigon, could only afford to visit him once every few years. “We’re still very poor,” the sun-baked man sighed. Among crotch-high sugar canes, his wife poked around with a hoe.

Unlike much of Vietnam, the water buffalo is still widely used as a draft animal in Nghe An. In tiny, remote Van Loi, however, school kids now wear jeans, with nice backpacks, something I never saw while visiting similar villages in 1995.

At the first banquet, a 57-pound goat was slaughtered, and that’s enough food for seven tables. Every bit of the goat used for a variety of dishes, including blood pudding. A local specialty is “hill chicken” [“gà đồi”], but this mountaineering fowl was so tough, I couldn’t develop a taste for it. For breakfast, locals prefer eel congee or eel soup, eaten with bread. Both are sophisticatedly seasoned and quite hearty. They drink a bright green “stabbed tea” [“trà đâm”], that’s made from freshly crushed leaves of exactly the right age. If too old, the tea darkens, and if too young, it’s bitter. Stabbed tea originated with the Tai, one of 36 ethnic minorities in Nghe An.

A Quy Hop custom requires you to shake everyone’s hand after each toast, and that night, I shook so many hands, it made me groggy for all of the next day. The crazy folks of Quy Hop can sure down their banana wine, much of it home brewed. Women, too, knocked them down. Outdoing the rest, a construction worker guzzled his from a beer mug. Over the next three days, I had to repeatedly decline his aggressive toasts, and once, he freakishly bounded out of the dark as I walked down an empty dirt road in Chau Dinh, miles from the wedding. “Oh come on, just a few! My house is right there!” I had to peel his fingers from my arm. Glancing at his dwelling, I spotted two pool tables under fluorescent lights, his wife’s side business. Along with alcohol, volleyball and procreation, it’s such a village’s chief diversion.

Heroin, though, is Nghe An’s most troublesome addiction, and it’s growing. Smuggling it from Laos, many locals make the news. In 2015, two Nghe An brothers were executed for trafficking 450 pounds of this nodding, passing euphoria. Armed with just a knife, two motorcyclists were caught on January 31st with 15 pounds of heroin and 11 of crystal meth. Since having over 1.3 pound of dope means a mandatory death by injection, they’re done.

I had come to this wedding knowing neither the groom nor bride, only the bride’s brother’s Saigon boss, but it was more than enough, for as soon as I showed up, I was warmly welcomed into the endless carousing. Generous, gregarious and down-to-earth the 43-year-old Saigon boss is very well-liked, and this pervasive affection spilled over onto me.

I was told that the bride had been deeply withdrawn and clearly possessed by some demon, literally, until she was cured by a renowned fortune teller, “He can even tell you when you’ll die, brother. Once he told a perfectly healthy man that he would die four days later, and sure enough, the man went to sleep that night, feeling perfectly normal, but he never woke up again.” At the wedding, the bride was gracious and self-assured. As the Wagner came on, she stood beaming on stage, next to her man.

To plan any important occasion, most Vietnamese consult a fortune teller for the best date, and even time. In real life, however, events can take unexpected turns. In Quy Hop, locals will recount with mirth one recent wedding. After arriving at the bride’s house, the groom’s party wasn’t let in, since it wasn’t yet the auspicious time. Unfortunately, it rained hard that day, so after several rebuffs, the groom’s angry father ordered his people home. On the way, they stopped at a café where there was a pretty, pleasant waitress. Impulsively, the old man asked, “Would you like to become my daughter-in-law?” After she said yes, the wedding went on as planned, but with a different bride.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Immigration, Vietnam 
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In 1987, V.S. Naipaul was asked by Andrew Robinson, “Have the immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean changed British life?”

Naipaul, “I feel that there will be a lot of difficulty. I don’t see how it can be avoided, especially with these immigrants who are not seeking a new identity or a new kind of citizenship. They are migrating to allow their barbarism to flower, so they can be more Islamic or more Sikhish than they can be in the comparative economic stagnation of their home societies. I think it is very dangerous.”

Of the US, Naipaul stated, “Americans are really very nice, very humane people. What a humane civilization and culture to have been created from a big melting pot.” As for living there, Naipaul said, “I have no plans, but it would be nice to be in a place where nearly everyone you meet is a stranger.”

Did Naipaul contradict himself? If having a culture where everyone is a stranger is very nice and humane, then why shouldn’t England, or anywhere else, become a “big melting pot,” American style? The caveat, perhaps, is that the immigrant must seek a new identity, must transform or deform himself, so as to shed his “barbarism,” but with multiculturalism replacing the melting pot as an ideal, assimilation, no matter how imperfect, is no longer required, so is the new, barely-tossed salad, where every ingredient is distinct, even more humane and nice?

Born in an Indian-dominated melting pot, Trinidad, Naipaul went to university in England, which has become his home in every sense, but this hasn’t prevented him from having extended stays in numerous places, including a year in India. Born uprooted, Naipaul has chosen to spend much of his life as an outsider, so it’s within this context that one must view his suggestion that an ideal society is one where everybody is similarly estranged.

When asked what aspects of himself he felt was specifically Indian, Naipaul answered, “The philosophical aspect—Hindu I would say. Speculative and probably also pessimistic. What I mean by pessimism is not things turning out badly, but a pessimistic view about existence; that men just end. It is the feeling that life is an illusion. I’ve entered it more and more as I’ve got older.”

So despite his cosmopolitan aura and English manners, Naipaul remains Indian on the deepest level, for all of his experiences and learnings rest on a Hindu foundation, and this, too, informs and dyes all of his emotions.

So what, you may say, for the accommodation of diverse groups is already required of all societies, for none is truly monolithic, but between diversity and homogeneity, what should any society aim for? In traditionally white countries, diversity is the new religion, opposed only by racist louts, so go the white media, while in all the yellow, brown and black countries, ethnocentrism still rules. So who’s on the right path, the “progressive” West or more traditional, “reactionary” societies?

Recently, I visited Chanthaburi, a Thai province with many Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians. The first 100 Vietnamese arrived in 1709, as Catholics fleeing persecution. Now, there are more than 8,000 people in Chanthaburi (pop. 550,000) who identify as Vietnamese. Almost none can speak the language, however, and many are also of mixed blood. Religion is the primary glue that holds this community together, and their present church, built 109 years ago, is the largest in all of Thailand.

Standing outside a chapel, I saw a flower-bedecked coffin with a framed portrait of a priest, and two dozen people, mostly old, praying. Immediately, I could tell that it wasn’t Thai, but then it wasn’t Vietnamese either. Every so often, however, I would catch a word or phrase that was somewhat Vietnamese. When they were done, I spoke in Vietnamese to the folks walking out, but the first three couldn’t answer me, then a man approached with tentative English, “Can I help you?”

It turned out they were all Vietnamese, praying in Vietnamese, and to prove it, the 55-ish man showed me his Vietnamese prayer booklet. With his tones all mangled, he proudly read me a sample sentence. In strained English, he then stated, “I want to learn Vietnamese. My father, mother, Vietnamese.” Then, “My tổ, uh, tổ…”

“Tổ tiên [ancestors]?”

“Yes!” He smiled. “My tổ tiên, Vietnamese!”

Until World War II, Vietnamese was still taught in the community, he said, but now, there’s only one old guy at the market who could speak it fluently.

“Have you been to Vietnam?” I asked.

“No, no.”

“Do you feel Thai or Vietnamese?”

After a slight hesitation, “Both.”

Fair enough. If there was a shooting war, however, which way would his rifle be pointed?

In Chanthaburi, I saw several Buddhist temples and shrines that were clearly Chinese, so religion is intertwined with ethnicity to preserve a separate identity for each subgroup. A most fascinating example of this are the Jews of Kaifeng, China. There at least a thousand years, they are indistinguishable from other Chinese, yet still consider themselves very much Jewish. Some have emigrated to Israel.

At the other end of Thailand, there are 64 Chinese villages, populated by descendants of Kuomintang soldiers. Thailand let them in to be a buffer against the Chinese, then Thai Communists, and all have been granted citizenship. In a 2015 New York Times article, a 47-year-old man is quoted, “I may have a Thai ID, but I’m Chinese. My family is Chinese, and no matter where we go, we’re still Chinese.”

After seven decades, these “Thais” are still attached to China, unsurprisingly, although it’s still ruled by the same Party that tried its best to kill off their forebears.

Since blood is thicker than paperwork, its corruption is one way to dilute a competing allegiance. My Chanthaburi friend, Mala, is half Chinese, half Vietnamese, speaks only Thai, considers herself 100% Thai and is married to a Thai man.

Ethnic and race mixing, though, can only go so far, and even if universally applied, will only create new shades, each with its attractions and repulsions, not to mention a lingo that’s inhospitable to outsiders. With each group defining itself against all others, conflicts will continue to erupt, as they always have.

Just as a man who claims to love all women, loves no woman, no one is remotely capable of giving a damn about everybody, no matter how much he may go on, often with righteous, vindictive rage, about universal brotherhood. With self-love as his compass, he will jab, kick and snipe at all those who differ even the slightest from himself, as testified by the comment stream following this very article.

With population and sense of entitlement constantly rising, against resources rapidly depleting, a state of constant war, nearly everywhere, is the best we can hope for, and in such a situation, a fragmented society will have no chance.

Everyone’s barbarism will flower.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Assimilation, Thailand 
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History is primarily a chronicle of wars and invasions, most often among neighbors, so every inch of every border has been fiercely fought over, for that’s how any population maintains its autonomy, integrity and identity. Plus, you need land to prosper so, often, you grab your neighbor’s when he’s weak. Everyone has done this. Everyone.

Peace, then, can only be achieved when you’re strong enough to defend your borders, and if you’re no longer willing to do this, then you’re already lost, conquered, and not necessarily by an external enemy.

Take Thailand. It has fought against China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the Malay state of Kedah, all of its neighbors, in short. After swallowing up Laos in the 18th century, it lost it to France in the 19th, and in 1941, Thailand surrendered to juggernaut Japan after only five hours of, uh, fighting. At least it wasn’t less than 45 minutes, which was how long it took the Sultanate of Zanzibar to raise the white flag to Great Britain. To be fair, the Sultan saw no reason to continue after the Brits had shelled his palace, instantly killing 500 troops and wrecking his beloved harem.

All countries have been built on war and conquest, and the bigger a nation, the more wars it has fought, so an empire, by definition, is a war machine, with many fighting until the homeland itself is incinerated. One is so possessed, however, it has eviscerated itself by waging endless war on behalf of a supposed vassal, and for this dog wagging tail, is threatening to blow up the entire world.

Pointing out such basics, I’m sometimes challenged by world-class nitwits who’ll say something like, “Well, China never invaded anybody. All the myriad tribes that make up present day China just couldn’t resist the allure of superior Han culture, so they became Chinese voluntarily. They demanded to be Chinese!” This echoes the colonel in Full Metal Jacket, “We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook, there is an American trying to get out!”

But surely, after seven decades of (war-filled) Pax Americana, everybody does want to be American, as witnessed by the pervasiveness of American culture worldwide, but this is merely cosmetic, I insist, to be scraped off in a blink. Traveling, Americans tend to gravitate towards the most Americanized pockets of whatever country, so they’re inclined to see foreigners only as touchingly degraded versions of themselves, and not as autonomous beings in an entirely separate universe.

Last week, I was in Chanthaburi, Thailand, population 28,000. In the middle of town, there’s a Robinson Mall, with a huge sign, almost entirely in English, advertising Tops Market, Super Sports, Power Buy, B2S, SFC Cinema, KFC, Swensens, Yayoi and MK Restaurants. With the exceptions of KFC and the Japanese Yayoi, however, the rest were Thai chains, and of the four movies shown, two were Thai, and two were American: Malila: the Farewell Flower, Thibaan the Series, Black Panther and Lady Bird. Wandering around, I spotted a bearded white guy on an ad, “DANCE / LOSE WEIGHT / CONTEST SEASON.” Wearing a red tank top, he had a green hula hoop, like a twirling halo, around his impressive love handles. Throughout the mall, most of the other models were also white, I can’t deny.

Beyond the mall, English was nearly nonexistent, however, and often bizarre, as in a roadside sign for a “MiniConcert” by “BOY PEACEMAKER.” Holding a cowboy hat, a cartoon cow had a speech bubble, “Hi.!” Bits of English lent hipness to caps and T-shirts. A 45-ish woman wore one with Sesame Street Muppets and, “REPRESENTING THE STREET.”

Showing up on clothing and even couple of trucks, the American flag was a popular decoration, and on Route 3, a dozen leather-clad guys pompously straddled Harleys.

All the Americanness, though, was extremely superficial, I repeat, for the social fabric of daily life, each second of it, remained deeply Thai. At no point did I feel like I was in nearby Vietnam, much less America, for its pace of life, tones of speech, modes of address and many other details, large and tiny, were all distinctively Thai, as they should be.

Take the wai, the Thai greeting of having hands pressed together, prayer-like, and bowing slightly. Most foreigners, especially tourists passing through, feel rather ridiculous doing this, so can’t be bothered, but that’s why we’re not Thais. They are.

Next to a public porch swing, there was a plugged-in boom box, so the amorous couple could play their cassettes.

Reminiscent of the Japanese fondness for kawaii, cute figurines stood outside temples, stores or even bathrooms, as in a bare-chested, chubby and smiling guy performing a wai.

Sampling a few lurid streets in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket or Chiang Mai, foreigners come home with tales of live sex on stage and ladyboys, but Thailand is no more of a brothel than the Netherlands, although each Dutch city, not just Amsterdam, has its red-light district. Most Thais are conservative, rural people, and during my visit to Namtok Phlio National Park, all the female swimmers were well-covered, except one, a young blonde whose barely there bottom revealed most of her cheeks.

Since 1912, Thailand has had 21 coups d’état and 29 prime ministers, so that’s a lot of turbulence, but it has not suffered any foreign occupation, civil war or mass imposition of an alien psychosis, such as Communism. Its twin pillars have been the monarchy and a brand of Buddhism that includes the worship of Phra Phrom, a version of the four-faced Hindu god, Brahma. Inside India, there are almost no shrines to this deity, but they are all over Thailand, with the one outside Bangkok’s Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel making world news when a bomb near it exploded in 2015, killing 20 and injuring 125. No one has been charged.

Inside several Chanthaburi shops, I spotted two hanging pieces of paper, with writing, lay out in curious patterns, and a vertical alligator. These weren’t cutesy decorations, but deadly serious talismans, there to ward off evil and reel in good fortune.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Thailand 
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Even more than eating for fun, the main pleasure of Vietnam is mingling, but that’s only if you enjoy being around people, which Vietnamese obviously do, and here, community life is most intense and intimate in alleys.

The French gave Hanoi and Saigon a facelift, so there are straight streets, grand boulevards and many traffic circles, but if you enter an alley, you can be sucked into a labyrinthine network that’s entirely Vietnamese, and once in, there is a risk of humiliation with each turn, for if it’s a dead end, one must retrace one’s steps past all the locals. Escaping one dead end, one may enter a worse one. Thinking they might never get out, most foreigners never take the first step.

On my morning walk today, I passed the egg noodle man, who’s been in business for over three decades. Though overcharging a bit, his food is decent enough to fill his three tables, set up each dawn at the head of my alley.

Turning right, I saw the shoe repair guy, sitting on an old camp bed in the shade, fixing a sneaker. Across the alley were his used shoes for sale, arrayed on a nylon sheet on the ground.

Within sight was the itinerant fish monger. Perched on a tiny plastic stool, she snipped one fish head after another.

Up and down that alley, men relaxed at tiny cafes, under anchored umbrellas. Some read newspapers. A pair played elephant chess. Here and there, an old man sunned himself in front of his house. Food carts sold noodles, wontons or sticky rice. A man pushed a three-wheeled pedal wagon, laden with vegetables. Under a conical hat, a woman slowly drove her motorbike around, with a speaker that repeated, “Hot bread here! Crusty, thick-bodied bread here!”

Even in alleys, there are many factories, so within a five-minute walk from me, you’ll find manufacturers of machine parts, jewelry, carton boxes and plastic bags, as well as a water bottler and an overnight car garage. Blending into daily life, all their doors are wide open. One factory has five chickens that spend their day pecking around its alley.

At a small, half-dead banyan tree, still believed by some to be holy, there is an array of Taoist icons, plus two faded and dusty tiger figurines. Once all over Vietnam, this fearful, sacred creature was dubbed “Mr. Tiger,” but between sport hunting, as introduced by the French, then Napalm, illegal logging, poaching and explosive human population growth, there aren’t even five tigers left in the entire country.

Pulling up to a tube pasta restaurant’s window, a motorcyclist shouted, “Beef here!” Then he handed the waitress a small sack of red, bleeding flesh. Much more meat was in a green basket between his legs.

Beneath an idle fan, a thin, shirtless tailor was concave over his antiquated Singer.

Alarmingly, there’s this on a greengrocer’s wall, “A THOUSAND DISEASES CAN ENTER THE BODY THROUGH THE MOUTH.”

An entire semi-covered market can be hidden inside alleys, with butchers, fish mongers and vegetable vendors all jammed together, so that each merchant is within earshot of half a dozen others, facilitating much jovial bantering. “If that whore isn’t ridiculous, then who is?” “Such a fart-sniffing face, yet so arrogant!”

A coffee seller yelled to a fruit dealer across an alley, “Where you going, missus?”

“To collect some money!”

“You’re going to get drunk! Admit it!” Both women laughed.

Of course, people need to joke and jive to lighten their workload and shorten their day, but they can’t do it if their work space and pace are strictly regimented, with a supervisor constantly hovering over them. At a crowded soup joint on a large street, I saw employees assigned to work stations, just like in an American restaurant, so the assembly line has penetrated the Vietnamese kitchen.

At a curbside cafe, a middle-aged man opined, “This month is for drunken carousing. Next month is for gambling. When cash is short, you gamble.” Overheard bullshit should also be a part of any healthy diet.

In each alley, you’ll find many laundry racks, with good clothes, an impossibility two decades ago, for just about everything would have been snatched. In 1995, a shoeshine boy sprinted out of a Saigon restaurant with my leather pair, then in 1998, my glasses disappeared in Nha Trang. With mirth, a lady told me about having one shoe stolen as she relaxed by the Saigon River in 1980, with the thief returning minutes later to demand a ransom.

Though Vietnam is still poor, its steadily improving living standards give people hope, and since many are their own boss, they feel more in charge of their destiny. Its -0.3 migrants per 1,000 people is the same as Malaysia, worse than Thailand (0), but better than Morocco (-3.2), Mexico (-1.8), Bangladesh (-3.1) or even China (-0.4). A successful society is one that can retain its poorest, as well as its brightest. With American student loans becoming unpayable for millions, many are already fleeing the country.

In my alley, there was a driver who emigrated to the US with his wife and two boys in 1999. Now, the older is a transsexual and the younger, very likely gay. Though these developments are causes for celebration in progressive America, the driver is none too pleased. His wife, “Had we known they would turn out this way, we would have stayed in Vietnam.”

A Viet manicurist, Vu, spends ten months a year in Ferguson, MO, then two months in Saigon, where he keeps his wife and five-year-old son. They live with ten other people in her parents’ home. In Ferguson, Vu has a basement apartment and practically no social life, “On my days off, I might not speak to another person for an entire day. The guy above me is also Vietnamese, but we don’t hang out much.” Taking out his phone, Vu showed me a photo of some middle-aged dude with his face on a kitchen table, with beer cans around him, “He often drinks alone until he passes out. Sometimes he even pisses on himself!”

With us was a man who had never been to the US, so Vu turned to him, “The US is like a cemetery!” he laughed, “but people don’t know it, because they only see American films! There is no one on the streets and you have no idea what your neighbors are doing. They could be dead, and you wouldn’t know it!”

With virtually no zoning laws, nearly every Vietnamese neighborhood is residential, commercial and industrial, which makes Vietnam freer, in at least one respect, than “the freest country on earth.” Just outside Saigon, I saw a house that had added a factory to its front plot, plus a row of rental cells for workers, with each just large enough for a bed, small table, two plastic stools and a motorcycle.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Vietnam 
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When the French ruled Indochina, they had a shortage of white collar workers in Cambodia and Laos, so solved it by bringing in many thousands of Vietnamese, which, understandably, didn’t please the Cambodians and Laotians too much. Most of these Vietnamese would be kicked out in waves, sometimes violently, as happened in Cambodia during the 70’s.

Still, many Vietnamese have returned to both countries, and the primary reason is population pressure, for Vietnam has 96 million people, while Cambodia and Laos only 16 and 7 million. It’s also why China and Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to export people.

Although there are certainly rich illegal immigrants, most tend to be poorer than the locals, so in Cambodia, which is even more impoverished than some Sub-Saharan countries, many Vietnamese are in truly sad shape.

A Vietnamese settlement in Svay Pak, north of Phnom Penh, became infamous internationally as a center of child prostitution, and in an American documentary about it, there’s a glimpse of the neighborhood church, so some prayed to Jesus, then sold their daughters. Fortunately, that situation has pretty much been snuffed out.

Just after six one morning, I took a ferry from Phnom Penh to Akreiy Ksatr, in search of its Vietnamese. Forgetting how much it cost, I handed the fare collector 1,000 riels (25 cents), but he gave 500 right back. There were only two cars on the old boat, with the rest pedestrians or motorcyclists, with one lady hitching her Honda to a truck that was laden with cucumbers, carrots, cabbages, lettuces and ginger.

Maybe I’m actually English, for nothing calms me more than a pint or to be on water, but crossing the Mekong didn’t last too long, and as the dismal houses of Akreiy Ksatr came into view, it was clear the capital’s wealth didn’t even splash across the river.

The village’s main drag wasn’t even paved, and though it was early, there was plenty of activities on the street. I passed a full restaurant, then a café that was filled with men watching European soccer. Shops abounded, with many already open. Pausing at the I Trust International School, I admired its colorful mural of wild animals, with this caption, “LET US PROTECT THEM FOR THE NEXT GENERATION.”

So far, I was not sure if I had seen a Vietnamese, for many Viets are dark enough that they are indistinguishable from lighter skinned Cambodians. Walking on dirt and dodging puddles, I soon reached the main market, which was just setting up. Hungry, I approached a lady selling rice gruel, pointed to the pot, smiled then cupped my hands to resemble a bowl. Frowning, she lifted the lid to show her food wasn’t quite ready, so I stretched my smile even tighter to indicate I would eat it anyway, but she would not budge, such was her culinary integrity. Starved, I would have slopped up her dish water. After a nod and a wave, I moved on.

Spotting a woman eating something at another stand, I went straight for it and, again, pointed to the pot, but the proprietor wasn’t quite ready to ladle up her chicken rice gruel either, so I simply sat down and waited until she granted me my bowl a few minutes later.

To my right, a fishmonger had set up her carps, catfish and anchovies on a dirty piece of canvas, placed right on the ground, so a hundred flies, at least, were buzzing all around her, like some kinetic nimbus, but there were flies everywhere, including over or on the plastic basket of mint leaves, in front of my face.

It’s well known that Cambodia’s street food is inferior to what’s found in Thailand or Vietnam, so I didn’t expect much, but my soup was even sadder than what I had eaten in Phnom Penh, though I was within easy mortar range of the capital. To chase away the taste, I bought two hard donuts from a young lady who was radiant with mirth, so surprised was she to see an obvious outsider at her provincial market.

Fortified with chicken, rice and processed sugar, I walked back to town. From afar, I could see a woman making bánh xèo, the Vietnamese stuffed pancake, so I approached her and asked, “Chị làm bánh xèo?”

“បាញ់ឆែវ,” she answered. Cambodians call the same dish, “banh chao.”

To blend in better, many of the 600,000 Viets in Cambodia won’t speak Vietnamese in public, so maybe she was one of those, for she could have been my cousin. Desperate to achieve legality, some Vietnamese are even claiming to be ethnic Cambodians who have fled from Vietnam to escape discrimination. Heading in the general direction of the church, I eventually found it, and suddenly, I was surrounded by Vietnamese speakers.

Through open doors, I could see Catholic icons in most of the houses, then I stopped at the modest yet beautiful lime-colored church, with its watchtower-like belfry and a raised, open-sided and covered structure sheltering a Madonna. Another Madonna had her own flowered shrine near the doors. The church’s roof profile, cornices and decorated columns all echoed Cambodian or Thai temples.

When Pol Pot ruled, the Communists killed all priests, many monks and destroyed many religious statues, or threw them into rivers. They dynamited Phnom Penh Cathedral. In 2008, a Cham Muslim found a heavy chunk of metal at the bottom of the Mekong, and since it was too heavy for him to pull up, he sold its location to eight Vietnamese Buddhists for $7.50.

After two days of hard work, the Buddhists recovered a statue of a woman on April 16th, 2008. On shore, it was recognized by a Vietnamese Catholic as the Virgin Mary, so he advised them to neither break it up nor take it anywhere. Alerted, the dirt-poor Vietnamese parish of Akreiy Ksatr agreed to buy it for $500.

Before delivery, one of the Buddhists dreamt that the statue flew over his boat three or four times, which he interpreted as a reprimand for their eagerness to cash in on their sacred find. Terrified, the eight Buddhists agreed to take no money, but over the years, the parish has bought them enough rice and instant noodles to make up for the lost amount anyway.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Cambodia, Immigration, Vietnamese 
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Cambodia makes good, cheap beer, so I was sitting in some lunch place with yet another can of Angkor, after having polished off a plate of fatty pork with rice. Two tables away, a girl sat, doing her homework. She had a machine that sang out, “Old McDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O!” and so on. Suddenly, it switched to, “and girls… just want to have fun!” It’s all good, for it was all in English, and this girl needed a constant fix of the world’s master language, if she wanted to get ahead, that is, but what if English should wane as the lingua franca during her lifetime? It won’t matter much, as long as she can make a few bucks from her English skills.

Her ancestors built the greatest city in the world, Angkor, under a king, Jayavarman II, who declared himself “The Universal Monarch.” Now, the Cambodians are sneered at by even the Vietnamese, who never managed to build anything distinctive in wood, much less stone, but that’s history for you, for over time, all elephants will become dogs, to riff on a Vietnamese proverb.

Seven centuries from now, which American ruins will attract tourists? Maybe none. There will be a plaque, “Here existed the world’s most inveterate generator of illusions,” and in smaller type, “Big or small screen, soft or hard core, real or implant, they sure kicked ass! For a century, they mesmerized the world with Marilyn Monroe, Micky Mouse, Sylvester Stalone, Madonna and Black Panther, the last undoubtedly their most iconic contribution to Western civilization.”

Phnom Penh is even more ovenlike than Saigon, so during my many long treks, with my shirt soaked in sweat, I would stop at a coffee stand for one or two iced latte or lemon tea. Often, the menu would also be in English, even in neighborhoods that saw almost no foreigners, and though most baristas couldn’t speak English, they could readily understand “espresso,” “cappuccino” or “hot chocolate,” etc.

Perched on a stool, I was asked by the guy next to me, “Are you from Siem Reap?”

“From Siem Reap?! No, I came from Saigon.” I’m sure he meant, Had I visited Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap. Dark, with short hair, wearing chinos and a golf shirt, he was in his late 20’s.

“Saigon!” With so few words, one must exclaim. Across the street, four monks in saffron robes walked under yellow umbrellas, with a canopy behind them advertising Coca Cola.

“Yes, I’m Vietnamese, but I spent many years in the US.” To make myself easily understood, I detached each syllable, I noticed, so my speech became staccato. I was exclaiming, too. Unwittingly, I was ruining both my English and his.

Exhausted from the linguistic exertion, he returned to his tablet and ignored me for the several minutes, then, “Do you like soccer?” He pointed to a replay from the last World Cup.

“Yes.” I peered at the running figures. “That’s Brazil and Germany, no?” Spontaneously, I had suppressed “versus,” for I thought he would not know it.

“Yes, Brazil!”

Putting his tablet away, he turned to some thin book and started to mark it.

Noticing the roman script, I asked, “Are you studying English?”

“No, Spanish!”

“Spanish?!”

“Yes,” and he brought his text closer. It was a Spanish guide to Angkor Wat, marked all over by a blue pen, red pen and yellow marker, with notations in both English and Khmer.

“Wow! This is incredible!” I staccatoed.

“I want to be tour guide,” he explained.

“Are you taking classes?”

“No.”

“No classes?”

“There is no class!”

“No Spanish class in all of Phnom Penh?!”

“No class!”

“No way. There must be! So how do you study?”

“Like this.”

“Do you have anyone to talk to?”

“No.”

“So no Spanish conversations?!”

“No. I contact Cuba! Embassy!”

“To do what?!”

“Help me!”

“Did they respond?!”

“No!”

As for the Spanish-speaking tourists, he hadn’t been able to befriend any, not that they would likely want to waste their precious vacation time chatting with a Spanish language beginner.

On my first evening in Phnom Penh, I met a woman from Valencia. Planning on a quick Cambodia visit, she had to stay on because a man on a motorbike had snatched her backpack, which contained her passport, but that’s what she got for leaving it in the front basket of her rented bike. Muy estúpido. Julia was anxious to move on to Thailand, then Vietnam.

Thinking about my new friend’s predicament, I said, “You know, there are two Mexican restaurants, right around here. There’s one in that alley,” I pointed, “and one down the street. It’s called Cocina! Cartel! I don’t know if they are Spanish speakers, but you should go and find out.” It can’t be more desperate than reaching out to an embassy.

Hearing him read a few passages, it was clear his pronunciation was a mess, so his boldness and persistence may yield no cash, for there’s no reason why anyone should hire this man instead of just buying a guide book, I thought. Plus, a tour guide must be able to answer questions.

Online, though, I found this tidbit, “Un guía hispano-hablante cobra como mínimo 50 dólares el día, mientras que un guía en inglés puede cobrar 20 dólares. En dicho sentido, muchos guías camboyanos quieren aprender lenguas como el español y el italiano, para poder obtener mejores beneficios,” so there are already Spanish-speaking Cambodian tour guides.

A visitor gushed over one Mot Thon, “Todo fue de maravilla, habla correctamente en español, tiene mucho conocimiento de la historia del lugar, y nos respondía a todas nuestras preguntas con amplias explicaciones.”

Another is praised, “El guía Son fue excelente, muy recomendable […] Hispano hablante a la perfección, totalmente claro y dinámico. Una historia impresionante!!!!”

One more, “Kay is the best! What a renaissance man Kay is. He speaks English, Spanish and his native Cambodia as well of bits and pieces of Portuguese, Russian and French.”

One afternoon, I met a 48-year-old restaurant manager with the same aptitude. Born in Phnom Penh, she escaped to Thailand, with her family, at age five, then at age eight, emigrated to Singapore and stayed for 21 years. There, she studied Vietnamese for three months, “It was so easy. Vietnamese is like French, but with all the accent marks,” which is patently nonsense, but still, she spoke Vietnamese to me just like a native.

“I know seven languages.”

“Seven?!”

“Yes, I can also speak English, French, Russian and Japanese,” on top of Cambodian, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

“That’s not possible!”

“I have the gift,” she smiled. “And now, I’m studying Thai. When I was in Thailand as a child, I didn’t like Thai people, but now, I love them! I go to Thailand all the time.”

I have a friend, Niccolo Brachelente, whom I confirm can comfortably speak and write English, Spanish, French and Japanese, on top of his native Italian. Two years ago, Niccolo asked me to proof his resume so he could apply for a job in Taipei, so maybe he had picked up some Mandarin also. Oh, and he knows basic German.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Cambodia 
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Traveling, I prefer to be on the ground, for that’s how you get an overview of the countryside. The bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh took more than seven hours, but that included 30 minutes for lunch, plus 45 more at the border. My seatmate was a young fellow, Morris, from Halle, Germany, and we had a fruitful, wide ranging conversation. For a moment, I had mistaken him for a woman, for he had a pony tail and such a smooth, unblemished face.

In 2016, I gave a talk at his university. Of Halle, I remember its imposing 16th century clock tower, other fine buildings that survived World War II bombing, an ugly promenade from Communist days, two Vietnamese restaurants, some Turkish eatery where I had doner kebab and an Ur-Krostitzer, many more African pedestrians than nearby Leipzig, an artsy neighborhood with striking murals and a budget store displaying its made-in-China clothing outside.

Morris had been outside Germany for 11 months, with three of those in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and most of the rest in China. In Guangdong, he took a university course in economics, but the Chinese lecturer’s English was so mangled, Morris understood almost nothing, “Still, it was worth it. I’ve learnt a lot just being in China.”

China is becoming a cashless society, Morris said, so everything is done with the smart phone, “Without it, many Chinese can’t function.” This means that people are entirely at the mercy of their government, I pointed out, and Morris agreed. If a citizen misbehaves, just deactivate his phone, and he won’t be able buy even a baozi.

“All governments will try to do this,” I laughed. “It is our future!”

“And I will suffer much longer than you!” Since he’s three decades younger.

Of his own country, Morris complained about the rise of the nationalist right, “They harass people, but Germany has long been a nation of immigrants. First, the Italians, Poles and Turks came, and now these people from the Middle East and Africa. They will all contribute to the economy.”

Despite the stereotype of the raging neo-Nazi, there is nowhere on earth where the national consciousness is weaker or more discredited than Holocaust-shamed Germany.

Exiting the country, many Vietnamese tipped the officer a buck to get their passport processed immediately, ahead of the thick stack next to him. They knew the ropes. Morris said of a woman in floral pajamas, straw hat with a polyester daisy, black scarf, white socks and plastic flip flops, “I don’t understand why she’s dressed like that.”

Borders are magical. From Juarez, one can see the El Paso skyline, and I remember seeing a mother and son walk to the border crossing, just to witness the streaming traffic, then they turned back, for they could not cross. With the erasure of borders in Europe, one can drive from, say, Spain into France, and hardly notices it, but that won’t last. A man, tribe or community can only define itself with borders.

Once I stood in Lao Cai, on Vietnam’s border with China. Hekouzhen was clearly visible across the Red River, but I couldn’t experience it. For an American, China charges $140 for a visa, and this can’t be applied online, much less at the border. By comparison, my Cambodian visa cost but $36, and approved within two hours, after I had uploaded my photo to complete the easy application. A hundred-and-sixty countries admit Americans either without a visa, or with one granted on arrival.

Morris, “There are many more foreigners in Vietnam. In China, you hardly see any outside the biggest cities. Foreigners only see Shanghai, Beijing and a few other places. If they take the train, they ride the fast, modern one, so only see the best stations, but there are local trains that only Chinese use, and the stations aren’t so nice.”

Morris likes to take photos, “At first, I wasn’t sure how to do it in China, but then people started taking pictures of me, so I snapped pictures of them! I don’t know, but for them, maybe it’s like, ‘Hey, I saw a white guy on the subway today!’”

Finally, we’re in Cambodia. Dusty Bavet’s main business is gambling, and so on both sides of the road were casinos, with most quite modest. Our Mekong Express Bus rolled past chintzy Bao Mai, Good Luck, Emperor, Roxy, Le Macau, Las Vegas Sun, King Krown, New World, Tan Hoang Bao and Titan King, etc. Interspersed among them were restaurants and eateries, mostly ramshackle.

Since Vietnam only has casinos for foreigners, Vietnamese must spill into Cambodia to empty their wallets. Each Bavet casino hires hustlers to recruit Vietnamese gamblers, in Vietnam even. For each sucker snagged, a hustler gets $10, and he can even smuggle someone across the border for $22. Hustlers and faux suckers have teamed up to divide the commissions.

Gamblers who run out of money can borrow from roving hustlers, but if they’re still broke at the end of the day, a high likelihood, they’ll be locked in a “dead room,” until cash is sent from home.

With its kitschy pseudo luxury and promise of instant wealth glossing over mass destitution, each casino is a Potemkin village, with its owner a master hustler, someone any sensible person should be super leery of, but there’s one nation so drugged and gullible, it has actually entrusted such a conman with its destiny. That entire nation is a smoke and mirrors, nonstop come-on Potemkin village, however, where all news are fake, and each public figure is an imposter. At this all-you-can’t-eat buffet, there is nothing but bullshit, where beneath each layer of bullshit are more cow pies, artfully presented, so the morbidly obese patrons keep lining up for more. Let them eat bullshit!

Outside Bavet, there is the preposterously named Manhattan Special Economic Zone. Most of the companies there are Taiwanese, making garments and electronics. Frequent strikes have broken out over wages and working conditions, and in 2012, the governor of Bavet shot into a crowd of strikers, hitting three women, two in the hand and one in the lung. Arrested only in 2015, Chhouk Bandith was given a draconian sentence of, ah, 18 months!

Crossing from Germany into Poland, I noticed the houses became shabbier, and I saw the same entering Cambodia from Vietnam. It was clear I was in a poorer country, and a dirtier one, too, with trash everywhere. Though Vietnamese also litter, they do sweep up, at least much more so than Cambodians. Later in Phnom Penh, I would see no more than a handful of public trash cans in a week, after walking for miles each day through various neighborhoods.

Houses on stilts, shopkeepers dozing on hammocks, a butcher sitting on a low stand surrounded by five forlorn pieces of meat, the Japanese flag on the commemorative plaque of several bridges, the word Angkor everywhere because it’s the name of a beer and grand, elaborate gates to temples with magnificent roofs.

Chiphu, Prasaut, Svay Rieng, Svay Chrum, Kraol Kou, Kor An Doeuk, Kampong Trabaek, Neak Loeung, Kien Svay, each town was similarly dusty, forlorn and trash strewn, then the houses and stores brightened up, high rises rose, traffic thickened, nice cars appeared and folks became better dressed, for we had reached the capital, where most of the country’s wealth seemed concentrated.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Cambodia 
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In Saigon, the foreign tourists stay mostly downtown, where they can patronize American bars, and restaurants serving Indian, Thai, Korean, Italian, Mexican and Middle Eastern food, not to mention McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, Starbucks and Lotteria, the last a Japanese chain. With English as the lingua franca, they can be overseas, yet somewhat at home, and with their smart phones, they can be anchored further in the familiar. Once, traveling meant having virtually no news from home, and no choice but to be immersed in the alien. How many still remember picking up an International Herald Tribune to find out, say, if the Phillies won three days ago?

The salad bowl or cultural mosaic of downtown Saigon is, in fact, quite generic, for it echoes that which can be found all over the world. Far from celebrating differences, multiculturalism blunts distinctivenesses, for cultures tame, tint and distort each other when abutting. During French rule, Vietnamese stopped lacquering their teeth black, started wearing Western clothing, so now, the traditional head wears and tunics are rarely seen, especially on men. In Germany, many school cafeterias have removed pork dishes since their growing population of Muslim students can’t eat them. Putenwurst, anyone?

For two weeks in Saigon, I only went downtown twice, so saw almost no one of another race or even ethnic group, so almost no one who was unfamiliar with the infinity of Vietnamese traditions, habits and tics that make up this nation.

Most mornings, I was awakened by cockcrows, for Vietnamese keep chickens everywhere, even in army barracks and factories. I learnt to identity the sounds of two nearby roosters. For five days straight, however, I was also roused from bed, before seven always, by musicians entertaining funeral guests down the street. Sometimes, it was the funky sounds of Mekong Delta blues, or “nhạc tài tử,” with a supremely evil guitarist jamming away. Other times, it was a horn band, with two trumpets and two saxophones, that sounded like Nola, Motown or Sun Ra, or just plain schmaltzy. They also employed a guy who could balance a motorcycle on his head and shove a long steel rod up his nose. This is no way to send off the dead, you may think, but it’s perfectly normal in Vietnam, and all out in the open, for the entire neighborhood to see.

Another day, an eight-month-old baby was placed in a basket then ritualistically abandoned in an alley. Immediately found by a relative, he was brought home, where his new (old) family gushed, “Oh, what an adorable and sweet baby! He’s so easy to take care of! That’s why we’re adopting him!” The reason for this skit? The kid had been spitting out milk during feeding times.

Imagine either of the above scenarios taking place in Cupertino or Leipzig.

Being among your kind means there’s no need to explain a cultural or historical reference, where nothing is exotic, where conversations are subtle and freely allusive, where humor is constant and deft, where you never have to apologize for just being, but there are also niceties to observe and taboos to avoid, obligations that are ungraspable to nearly all outsiders.

It’s rare to find a man who’s equally at home in two cultures, much less several, but it’s an alluring myth, as testified by the popularity of the Dos Equis ads featuring “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” A suave and world-wearied middle-aged man golfs with bushmen in the African savanna, emerges from an Inuit’s fishing hole, bowls expertly in a Pakistani cricket match, jokes with locals while riding atop an Indian train, walks on hot coals while carrying a woman in the South Pacific, plays handball in Harlem, soaks with macaques in a Japanese hot spring. “He never says something tastes like chicken, not even chicken.” “He can speak French, in Russian.” “When in Rome, they do as he does.” “Locals ask him for directions.” Never out of his element, this impossible character is a globalist icon.

In reality, the vast majority of men can’t even order coffee in a second language, and would feel out of place in a strange bar, much less a foreign country, and that’s fine, for it has always been this way.

Not even war could chase millions of Vietnamese out of the country. Only Communism, a deeply alien ideology, managed to do so, but now that the Party has eased up on its dogmas, many Vietnamese are returning.

Those who have never been to the US, however, still harbor many fantasies about it, for American movies and music videos are hypnotically seductive. Even as it kills and commits suicide, the US tirelessly projects images of boundless wealth, virility and sexiness. Producing next to nothing, it sells dreams.

Last week, I witnessed a bingo game where each number was coupled with a humorous verse. While one man banged on a drum and cymbal, another guy sang, “Mamma, don’t marry me off too far away. The US or Canada is fine! Mamma, don’t marry me off nearby. I’ll visit often to borrow rice!”

Oh, exotic America! A mile from me, there’s a café called Cowboys’ Place, with a slogan in English, “Cowboy Up Your Life.” Its logo is a mean-assed sheriff with two Colt 45’s. What it offers, though, are lassis, matchas, yogurt shakes, Italian sodas, fresh juices and assorted queer, fruity concoctions. It’s clear that neither its owners or clientele have thought too much about the cowboy concept. It doesn’t matter. Cowboys are American, thus cool, and that’s enough of a selling point, apparently.

At a Lotteria, there’s this mangled evocation of America on a wall:

redneck bikers munching sliders look to the past for better riders stars and stripes and girls in stetsons cows in buns and boys in we sterns rock then roll for big check pay days mountain rang estenlane freeways this land is our land but once was their land the untamed food of gold rush miners the beef, the fries the roadside diners, oh say can you see from the nation of night its gift to the world

It’s like Whitman shredded, digested and pooped out. As the country implodes, its spastic myth still lights up the sky.

More sobering tales are filtering back, however. I heard one manicurist, for example, tell of witnessing the rioting in Ferguson, then being robbed at gunpoint three years later, then sued by an overweight customer who sort of fell inside his store.

A people can endure any travails if they still have a common culture and history. With these snuffed out, there’s no nation left to save. Just ask yourself, Who have the means and desire to hollow out America? What are their final aims?

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: Globalism, Immigration, Multiculturalism, Vietnam 
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With their brief existence, and dumbed down now by a degraded and warped education, most Americans have a telescoped and cartoony sense of history, so nothing matters, really, beyond the last two or three presidential elections, and each foreign country is represented, at most, by a caricature or two, so Germany is Hitler and Merkel, China is Mao and Xi, Russia is Lenin, Stalin and Putin, Japan is no-name-comes-to-mind, Korea is Little Rocket Man, Vietnam is Ho Chee Mann and Mexico, right next door, is, ah, Speedy Gonzales. Having no historical depth, many Americans will claim that China, for example, is a peace loving and fair-minded civilization that shuns invasions and genocides, but you couldn’t have become the most populous nation on earth without gobbling up many lesser ones, and China’s appetite will only increase as its girth balloons even further. To thrive, it will need a chain of vassals and colonies, same as it ever was.

By 1820, China has expanded to roughly its present shape, with some territory lost since, and other regions becoming more firmly under Chinese control and Sinicized. From 1735 to 1792, China waged ten major wars, including campaigns against the Burmese, Vietnamese, Gurkhas, Xinjiang Muslims, Dzungars and Jinhchuan hill tribes. If you haven’t heard of the last two groups, it’s because they’ve been mostly wiped out. Though extremely costly, with two clear defeats, these wars were dubbed the Ten Great Campaigns by the vain and delusional Qianlong Emperor.

Incompetently ruled, slow to modernize, corrupt, decadent, with many of its men on drugs and its women’s feet bound, China was racked by rebellions then defeated and gang-raped by Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungary, thus came the end of Imperial China. Backward through much of the 20th century, China hardly invaded anybody because it couldn’t.

In Vietnam, China’s pretext for the 1788 invasion was the restoration of a deposed Viet king, Le Chieu Thong, and when at least 40,000 Chinese marched into Hanoi in October of 1788 without facing resistance, they surely thought their mission was all-too-easily accomplished. Four months later, however, the Vietnamese launched a Tet offensive that killed roughly 20,000 Chinese, with the rest decimated further during their chaotic sprint back to China. A defeated Chinese general, Sun Shiyi [孫士毅], would fare much better against the Hmongs and adherents of White Lotus, a Buddhist sect. When you can’t beat a small nation of dark, scrawny men, you can still flex your overhyped muscles against, say, Grenada and Branch Davidians.

The last time China occupied all of Vietnam was from 1407 to 1427. The victors took the Viet king, Ho Quy Ly, back to China, where he was either killed or turned into a common soldier. The Chinese also kidnapped many Vietnamese boys whom they castrated and made into court eunuchs. One, Nguyen An, became a key architect of Beijing’s Forbidden City, now a symbol of China second only to the Great Wall.

China’s ruler then was the Yongle Emperor. Among his many achievements was to send Zheng He on seven naval expeditions that scoured all of East and South Asia, and even reached the Strait of Hormuz, the Red Sea and East Africa. Nearly six centuries later, China is trying to become a blue-water power, and it has established a military base in Djibouti. Last week, newspapers around the world reported that China may be testing an unprecedented electromagnetic gun, mounted on a warship, that can fire missiles a hundred miles at seven times the speed of sound.

To consolidate control, the Yongle Emperor killed thousands of political enemies and scholars of uncertain loyalty, including, most famously, Fang Xiaoru, along with his wives, children, grandchildren, grandparents, uncles and aunts with their spouses, cousins, in-laws, students and even friends, a total of 873 people associated with Fang. That should teach the insolent bookworm! Threatened with family extermination to the ninth degree, Fang immortally shouted, “Make it tenth!” Cut in half, Fang supposedly wrote “usurper” [篡] on the ground, with a finger dipped in his own blood.

History is replete with magnificent men grossly wronged or abjectly humiliated. For defending a disgraced general, Sima Qian was castrated, then jailed for three years, but this didn’t stop the Chinese Herodotus from completing Records of the Grand Historian, a colossal history of China spanning 2,500 years. For the sake of his masterwork, Sima Qian continued to serve the expletive who had transgendered him, the Emperor Wu of Han.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a much more familiar Tet offensive, so a block from me in Saigon, there’s a well-designed billboard depicting six Vietcongs against a blue background of palm trees. The three most conspicuous soldiers are women, interestingly, with one holding a captured M-16. Walking around, I also ran into a photo display recounting how the Vietcong used a restaurant, Pho Binh, to store smuggled weapons and plan the Tet Offensive. On the first floor, diners were served Peace Pho [Phở Hòa Bình], unaware that in a secret basement was a cache of AK-47s, anti-tank weapons, hand grenades and plastic explosives. Above the eager slurpers, their enemy planned their destruction.

Surely, there are lessons to be learnt from the Vietcong’s urban guerrilla tactics, an uprooted eunuch who built enduring structures, a bold yet ruthless emperor, a servile grand historian and an uncompromising scholar who caused all who knew him to perish? In article after article about the 1968 Tet Offensive, sacrifice is repeatedly stressed, as in one must be willing to die for one’s ideals, nation and the Communist Party, with the last clearly a false note to many.

In peace, Vietnamese display few civic virtues, with traffic accident victims often robbed even, but when collectively threatened, they can show a striking unity and resolve, which have led many foreign observers to compare them to insects. Whatever. What matters is that they have endured for more than two millennia, and from the Trung Sisters, Ly Thuong Kiet, Le Loi, Tran Hung Dao to Quang Trung, the only consensus Vietnamese heroes are those who resisted China. Vietnamese honor Tran Binh Trong. Captured by the Chinese in 1285 after a battle, he refused to yield information and declared, just before he was killed, “I’d rather be a southern devil than a northern king.”

A community can’t survive without a collective memory, and no, sport trivia don’t count. Drugged, decadent, easily manipulated, narcissistic and ignorant of history, how will Americans deal with the existential storm awaiting them?

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: History • Tags: China, Vietnam 
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In the 17th century, the Manchus conquered China, causing thousands of defeated Chinese soldiers and their families to flee to Vietnam, then divided between north and south. The Nguyen Clan, rulers of the south, granted these Chinese land in nominal Cambodian territory, paving the way for Vietnam’s annexation of a third of Cambodia. This obscure history is just another example of how immigrants are used to serve rulers, and how de facto borders are often fluid, to be contested over.

In Bien Hoa, the competent and enterprising Chinese built a thriving port city that traded internationally, and for this achievement, their leader Chen Shangchuan [陳上川] was showered with accolades and honorifics. In the late 18th century, however, this Chinese city was looted then razed by Quang Trung, a rival to the Nguyen Clan. Thousands of Chinese were slaughtered.

In Bien Hoa, there is a modest shrine to Chen Shangchuan, but each Vietnamese town has a street named after Quang Trung, a brilliant general and king who instituted many key economic and social reforms. His butchery of innocent Chinese is but a footnote.

Through all the persecution, the Chinese are still doing well in Vietnam, thanks to their human capital. Never dwelling on historical injustices, they merely forge forward. Yesterday, I had coffee with Chan, a 64-year-old Chinese from Vinh Chau, a once miserable backwater on the coast. Visiting it in 1998, I had to endure a primitive ferry crossing plus miles of rocky road. Perched on a low chair in its main market, I had a regrettable bowl of soup.

Thirty years ago, Chan couldn’t afford his morning coffee. Now, he owns four houses and a 22-employee business that buys and sells used chains, cables and pulleys, “My son worked for a guy who did this, so that’s how we learnt the business. Now, we have clients from all over the country, even in Hanoi.”

“Why can’t they just buy their chains and cables up there?”

“We have the largest stock!” The mustachioed man smiled, “and the best prices. People trust us.”

Vietnam’s revival results from the economic reforms of Doi Moi. Once the state got out of the way, commerce blossomed, wealth was generated and abject destitution mostly disappeared.

Like most Chinese in Vietnam, Chan betrays an accent when speaking Vietnamese, and his usage of idioms can be slightly odd. Language bonds or repels in a continuum, and a Vietnamese can pick up immediately if you’re from the Mekong Delta, Saigon, Hue or Hanoi, etc.

A hands-on boss who’s not leery of getting his hands dirty, Chan’s at work by 7:30 each morning. “I can’t take a vacation. If I’m not here, my employees may pocket some of the receipts, you know, or neglect urgent orders.”

During the decade and a half after the Vietnam War, over a million people fled Vietnam by boat, but not Chan, “I had a friend who was a boat builder, so I could have escaped for free, but I didn’t go because of my aging father.”

To get on a boat, one normally had to pay eight gold taels, then risk capture, prison, hunger, thirst, sickness, storms, pirates and death, all in the hope of arriving in Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, China or Hong Kong, yet even then, one may be repatriated, as many were.

Although wealthy now, Chan has only been outside Vietnam once, “I have a business associate in Cambodia. He kept saying, ‘You must come over!’ but I never went, so once, he just showed up and basically kidnapped me! I spent three days in Cambodia. It was fun.”

The café was on a street with an unusually wide sidewalk. We leaned back and watched people stream by. Since it was around 6:30AM, the temperature was pleasantly cool. Seeing a slow-moving funeral procession, Chan laughed, “Once in a wedding car, once in a hearse, then it’s over!”

I was about to joke that one can get in several wedding cars, then I remembered that Vietnam’s divorce rate is extremely low. Though many men frequent prostitutes or have mistresses, they don’t tend to dump their wives.

Though no longer living in Vinh Chau, Chan still owns land there. “I leave it fallow. It’s really not worth it to grow anything. The weather is too unpredictable. Before, you knew it would be dry for six months, rainy for six months, but now, it rains whenever it feels like. You stand a good chance of losing money by growing crops.” By owning land there, Chan is asserting he hasn’t abandoned his roots.

“What about shrimp farming? I hear that’s huge down there.”

“But they can all die. Shrimp farming is also very risky.”

“So what’s happening in Vinh Chau?”

“Almost nothing!”

“But I hear there’s a lot of development down there. It’s like a brand-new town!”

“That’s because of the money that’s being sent back by people like me. You must know your roots. If not for Vinh Chau, I wouldn’t be here. Although we’re no longer home, we stay in touch. If we hear, for example, that the temple needs to be fixed, we all chip in.”

Leaving Chan, I went to the Seven Wonders Restaurant to meet more Chinese from Vinh Chau. Once a week, about a dozen men and women meet to socialize and discuss what needs to be done back home. As the conversation was mostly in Teochew, I was out of the loop. Still, it was remarkable to witness such a sense of community from these successful business people.

Garish, the Seven Wonders flaunts bright concrete statues of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto and an Egyptian pharaoh. The cuisine is Cantonese, mostly.

If you ask a Vinh Chau Chinese how did his ancestors end up there, you’d only get vague answers, such as, “That’s where our boat land, more than hundred years ago.” One man said, “two, three hundred years ago.” And, “It was undeveloped land, so we just start to farm it and build houses.” Sort of like the Pilgrims.

“But weren’t people already there?” I asked.

“Yes, there were Cambodians, but there weren’t that many.”

Another man added, “And once we became more established and successful, we bought land from the Cambodians. That’s how our community grew.”

A young Cantonese raised in Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown, told me his great-grandfather walked there all the way from Guangdong.

“Couldn’t he, ah, have gotten on a cart or something?”

Sen, “My people didn’t have any money! They were starving! In fact, when one of them died, the others had to hold him up and pretend he was still alive. They couldn’t bury him until dark.”

“Why?”

“If the other people saw a dead man, they would have eaten him! They were all starving!”

After his dad abandoned the family, Sen’s mom became a whore, so he and his sister grew up desperate. Now, he’s a well-traveled yoga teacher, and his sister is married to a rich Jewish guy nearly twice her age in California. They roam the world to scuba dive.

At its peak in the 12th century, the Cambodian Empire occupied much of present day Thailand, half of Vietnam and all of Laos, then came eight centuries of decline that reached its nadir under Pol Pot, a man who combined secular Jewish messianism with atavistic Angkor yearnings.

The collision between East and West was greased by zealots pushing a bearded Jew, Jesus or Marx.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: China, China Vietnam, 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.