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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Poverty 
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Last Saturday, five eternally misunderstood and oppressed gentlemen fired 41 shots at a crowd at 20th and Susquehanna, killing one and injuring four others, including a 5-year-old boy. The TV news reported that the deceased was a “standout basketball player.”

North Philly is generally not good for your health and happiness. Though neighborhoods have cute, idyllic names like Nicetown, Hunting Park and Fairhill, they’re mostly postindustrial, trash strewn, drugged up ghettos with plenty of dead businesses, dilapidated churches, boarded up homes, caged porches and corner bodegas with signs forbidding hoodies, guns and knives. Chinese takeouts dish up beef lo mein, moo shoo pork and fried chicken from behind bullet-proof plexiglass. Graffiti mar just about every flat surface, including, sometimes, beautiful murals celebrating prominent black figures in art, science, politics and civil rights.

The northeast corner of North Philly, though, is generally spared from this mayhem and squalor. Composed primarily of Poles, Irish, Ukrainians and Italians, Port Richmond and Bridesburg retain their dignity and orderliness through half a century of economic decline.

On Allegheny, there’s the magnificent St. Aldabert Church, with perhaps the most beautiful altarpiece in the entire city. Founded in 1903, it has masses in both English and Polish. Popular eateries The Dinner House and Syrenka are just down the street, as well as cozy Donna’s Bar, where I’ve had cheap bottles of Okocim, Zywiec and Lech, plus tasty bigos and perogies. Their golabki is also wonderful, I’ve been told. I must get that the next time.

Half of one wall is taken up by a wallpaper Manhattan, at night, as seen from Brooklyn. The Twin Towers have not been imploded.

A guy in his mid-50’s said, “I had no problems paying child support. In fact, I gave my kids twice as much, because they’re my kids. This one guy told me, a black guy, he said, ‘After they arrest you six times for nonpayment, they’ll stop bothering you.’”

“That’s ridiculous,” I laughed. “Why would anyone want to be arrested six times for anything?!”

“Even if there was no law, I would still pay, because they’re my kids! Their mom tried to turn them against me, you know, but I’ve never said a bad word about her, because she’s my kids’ mom. As they get older, they can judge me for themselves, see if I was an asshole or not.”

Sunday at Donna’s, I met two intriguing characters, Rick and Benny. Bar regulars, they’re good friends.

An American-born Colombian in his mid-30’s, Rick said he had just been chased from another neighborhood tavern, after his very first beer there, “At first, I didn’t even know what he was talking about, so he said it again, ‘I think it’s time for you get out of here, buddy. Beat it!’ I was so shocked, man, I felt like crying. I had never been treated like that.”

“That is outrageous.”

“And I don’t even look that Hispanic. It was unreal.”

“So what did you do?”

“I just left, man. I couldn’t process it. I just got off work. I just wanted a beer, that’s all.”

This night, Rick had another unpleasant encounter. Talking to me, he reached for what he thought was Benny’s pack of cigarettes, but it belonged to the woman next to him. After she snatched it away, Rick explained his misunderstanding and apologized repeatedly, but the middle-aged lady never lightened up. Stern, she pointed to her pack and blurted several times, “This! You go! Wawa!”

Looking hurt, Rick turned to me, “See how quickly that shit comes out?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, man. It doesn’t look like she speaks much English. She can’t understand you, dude!”

“And I’ve eaten at her restaurant too. Once. I will never go back there.” Shaking his head, Rick went outside to calm down.

Later, Rick told me about his sister. American born, she went to Colombia, ended up working as an escort, then was raped and murdered by two Polish tourists, “But don’t you believe all this shit about Colombia. They make it out like it’s the most dangerous place on earth, but it’s perfectly safe for foreigners. The people are so nice and friendly, and Colombian women are the most beautiful. You’re constantly looking at this one, and this one. It’s like, you’re constantly walking around with a hard-on, man. Ain’t that right, Benny?”

“He’s right,” Benny turned to me, “they are the most beautiful.”

“You’ve been there?”

“I’ve been everywhere,” Benny smiled.

In his mid-60’s, Benny has done just about everything and wants you to know about it. Familiar with this proclivity, the bartender kept asking me, “Is he bothering you?” as Benny went on about himself.

Outside, the intermitten downpour had paused, and we were only interrupted once by some vapid disco, blaring from the jukebox.

I’m a Tartar, from the Crimea. I’m a part of the Yellow Horde, like you. We’re brothers!

My father was ugly, like you, with slanted eyes. Ha, ha!

My mother is Polish.

The Crimea was its own country, then the Russians came. I hate Russians. They should all be castrated!

Look what they did to your country. The Russians and Americans used Vietnam as an experiment. They caused so many people so much pain. They don’t give a shit.

Communism is so evil because it destroys your entire culture. It destroys your mind.

Ninety percent of the Jews in the world were in Poland, because no one else wanted them. They destroy everything. I hate Jews.

The first time I was in Auschwitz, I saw a plaque that said three million Jews were killed there. Ten years later, I came back and it said 1.8 million Jews were killed in Auschwitz. The last time I was there, the plaque said 800,000, so what the fuck is it? It’s greatly exaggerated. There was no Final Solution.

I had a good Jewish friend, Jacob. One morning, he called and asked if he could borrow 4,000 bucks. I was still in bed. This guy had millions, and here he was asking to borrow 4,000 bucks, but he was a good friend, so I went to the bank to get him the money. Two hours later, he paid me back! He was just testing me, you see.

Just before he died, he would sometimes give me a hundred bucks and said, “Go get yourself a whore, Benny. I can’t fuck anymore!”

His own son didn’t go to his funeral, because he had to close out a business deal that day. That’s the kind of asshole he was. Jacob said to me, “I’m a Jew, but my son, he’s an Israeli!”

I speak eight languages. I speak Tartar, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, some English. When I went to Bulgaria, I could make myself understood. All the Slavic languages are very similar. I speak Spanish.

By the time I was 19, I had been to 40 countries. I have been to 150 countries.

I sold and bought contracts. I did import, export. I own properties.

Have you heard of Radio Free Europe? I worked for it. During the Solidarity movement, I went to Poland with a Swiss passport. I brought them ink, paper, printing equipment. Once I was stopped by the police, so I yelled at them, “Do you know who the fuck I am?! I’m glad you stopped me, because now, you can hold my dick while I take a piss!” They backed off. I bluffed my way out of trouble.

I was in Afghanistan a couple of weeks before the Soviets invaded.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Poverty 
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I’m sitting in a spacious bar, Love City, that was once a factory. Too slicked up, it’s not quite a ruin bar, of the kind you find in Budapest. The patrons are mostly hipsters and yuppies, but with a handful of Joe Sixpacks thrown in. Looking like contractors, they’re probably fixing properties in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

On the way here, I spotted a few homeless lurking in the underpasses, beneath the Reading Railroad train trestle. Long disused, it’s being turned into a beautiful park, so soon enough, you’ll find the haves walking their dogs, jogging or sunning themselves above, with the have nots sleeping on dirty mattresses, or going to the toilet, below. They’ll probably all be shooed away. Problem solved.

After talking to three black men, a once-pretty white woman scrambled up an embankment. Reeking of urine, a groggy black dude asked me for change, as did a black lady waiting at a bus stop. A handful of tourists tittered outside the Edgar Allan Poe house.

Since a 20 oz. Love City Lager is a reasonable $5, I have one in front of me as I upload three photos, just taken in the neighborhood.

One is of a sign on a corner grocer’s door, “No Weapons Allowed / Detection Devices On Premise / Upon Detection/ Police Will Be Notified Immediately!” Beneath it is an ad for Newport, aimed at a black clientele, obviously, though you’re not supposed to notice that, since we’re all the same, remember? This is the kind of store that sells cigarettes, soft drinks, candies, potato chips, beef jerky, canned food and the only symbol of hope left for many Americans, lottery tickets.

The second photo is of a billboard, “OPIOID DETOX / GET CLEAN. / LEAVE PROTECTED,” with five white faces, and one black, all happy. Just three miles away, there are around 40 tents on sidewalks, occupied by homeless junkies, mostly white and under 35. I didn’t think Kensington could get worse, but it has.

The last is of graffiti on a long-abandoned factory, “FUCK A NAZI!”

Though it didn’t say, “FUCK A NAZI UP!” it still sounds hostile, but that’s English for you, for in this language, making love is constantly used to convey hate or calamity, as in, “I will fuck you up,” “He’s fucking with us” or “We’re fucked.”

With Trump installed, liberal, progressive Americans see Nazis everywhere, by which they mean all those who oppose having an open border, or who might identify as, God forbid, a nationalist, but a nation, by definition, can’t exist without borders or nationalists.

Believing in America shouldn’t equate to cheerleading her wars, however, and that’s where too many Joe Sixpacks have erred. In their bars, you’ll find all kinds of signs thanking soldiers and veterans, and the American flag everywhere.

A Joe Sixpack tavern accrues history organically, honors it and is grounded, like its patrons. A hipster/yuppie bar, on the other hand, is always divorced from its surroundings, and serves an anchorless crowd. Designed to make you feel au courant, it also leaves you restless, for you know that way cooler bars will appear soon, nearby. According to hipsters, the future, too, is always right around the corner, and history is just a hazy series of crimes and mistakes, to be condemned and flee from.

So hep, they identify themselves with a term from more than a century ago.

Me, I would rather get stupid in Friendly, Nickels’ or Fatsos, places where they joke about erections and blow jobs, but I’m at Love City because I’ll have to give a paid talk a few blocks away, in an hour.

At Friendly, a short, philosophical Honduran said to me, “My wife, she gives me pussy, right? But my mother,” he stared at me hard, “she gave me life!” Smiling triumphantly, Manuel gave me a fist bump, shook my hand.

After 30 years in the US, this former illegal immigrant’s English is still somewhat shaky, but you must give him much credit for doing his best to blend in. Manuel believes in a common culture.

At Fatsos, 65-year-old Rick yelled at another old head across the bar, “Would you like a blow job, Steve?”

“Sure.”

Turning to the slim, blonde, 35-year-old bartender with thick, stuck-on eyelashes, Rick petitioned, “Erin, will you take care of Steve for me? My mouth is full,” then he went back to scratching lottery tickets, on which he spends between 40 to 50 bucks a day. Each time Rick lost, he’d curse and toss the ticket onto the floor, behind the bar, for Erin to dispose of.

Nodding at me, Rick grinningly asked Erin, “Have you ever blown a Chinese guy?”

Flattering her, he then said, “Will you wipe your ass with this dollar and give it back to me?”

That kind of bantering, you won’t find at Love City, that’s for sure.

The title of my slide talk is “The Future is Asia.” Its main point, I have discussed in various essays, and it’s basically this: Nations that stress linguistic, cultural and/or ethnic unity will outlast those that don’t. Further, nations that shun their own heritage are as good as dead. For years, I have also stressed that the United States is ruled by a rootless, criminal cabal, and for pointing out something so obvious, I have had countless slurs hurled at me.

Whatever, man, I’m tired. As this ship sinks, wave that flag and snipe away!

Mellowed, I walk to my talk venue. A progressive institution, it no longer has men’s and women’s rooms, but two “All Gender” bathrooms, with only individual stalls, so that a 13-year-old girl, say, may find herself right next to me. As we do our business, we’d only be separated by a partition a good foot off the floor.

In Vietnam, they would find such an arrangement insane and felonious, but then it’s not as advanced as the US of A. The transgender spiel is a part of the campaign against masculinity. Castration is in.

As a toxic model, this criminal, decadent and deeply-confused nation can’t collapse soon enough. Americans, too, need a fresh start, though they may have to cease calling themselves American. It won’t matter much. It already doesn’t.

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

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Political Correctness, Poverty 
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I’m back in Philly to wrap things up, return my apartment, give a paid talk and say goodbye to my friends. With Felix Giordano, I’ve hit bars in the Italian Market, Point Breeze, Pennsport, Fishtown and Whitman. Soon, we’ll run over to Billy Boy’s in the Pine Barrens, where the owner/cook makes some of the best comfort food anywhere, and the hardy, friendly people soothe our souls. Mellowing in there, it’s hard to believe you’re only 30 miles from the mayhem of Camden. Even in the Piney, though, things have changed for the worse. “You can’t really smell pig shit anymore,” Felix pointed out. “It’s not like when I was a kid, coming here. There’s less pig farming now.”

At Nickels’, I had a $3.50 roast beef sandwich that came with pickle, peppers, horseradish and potato chips. Can’t beat that! There was a sign, “DRUG ACTIVITY WILL NOT BE TOLERATED HERE.” At a Fishtown dive, Teresa the bartender comped my second Guinness, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” There, I talked to a 56-year-old union electrician, Matt, about Poland, the economy, his fishing boat and heroin. We both know people who’ve died from it.

Matt showed me, on his cellphone, a young man nodding on a subway train. A couple years ago, Matt found a friend passed out on the street, so he lifted him onto a shopping cart, pushed him home. The man died soon after from an overdose. “This guy was a football player in high school, man, a super jock, and very popular.” As we chattered, the pleasant smell of marijuana wafted in from the sidewalk.

As Felix and I were leaving Sit On It, a middle-aged black lady stood up and shouted at us, “I love you all! Love you all!”

Wandering around Center City, I enjoyed the bustle and fine, cool weather, but also got reacquainted with the sights of sleeping or panhandling homeless. Near City Hall, I noticed a row of broken glass panes at a subway entrance. I’ve been to maybe 30 countries, and the only one that had the same level of vandalism and graffiti as the US was Germany.

With purple hair, eyebrows and lipstick to accentuate her cadaverous complexion, an out-of-shape, college-aged woman wore a jean vest that had a cupcake on each side. “EAT SHIT” “AND DIE,” they said.

At Thomas Paine Plaza, there’s a multi panel art project celebrating Dreamers, or underage illegal immigrants. One large image shows a Hispanic girl studying a book, Milk and Honey, with these words surrounding her, “Education THINKING Research Success FUTURE Expert SKILLS PROGRESS JOB KNOWLEDGE TRAINING DEVELOPMENT PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE ADVANTAGE FOCUS LEARN WORK SOCIAL LEADERSHIP EMPLOYMENT TEST HOPE HARD WORK,” and so on.

Everywhere, there are LOOK UP/SPEAK UP signs to condition citizens to be suspicious of each other. Since the 9/11 false flag, enforced paranoia has become the norm.

Sticker on a steel pole, “THE LEFTIST AGENDA: DIVIDE AND OPPRESS.”

At a bus shelter, a fat man with a vapid expression sat next to a poster advertising the TV show, Arrested Development.

Near City Hall, there’s a white sign with a black arrow, pointing to the ground, “HUB OF HOPE.” I have no idea if it’s a joke.

Three days after I got back, I checked the Inquirer to find out nine Philadelphians had been shot within 18 hours, with five dead. Among the survivors was a 61-year-old man who had been hit in the groin, and a 28-year-old who had been blasted in the face. I was certainly not in East Asia anymore.

Six Temple students have been killed or committed suicide this academic year, with two business majors overdosing from drugs within one week. A 24-year-old was found dead in the library. In 2017, 1,217 Philadelphians died from drug overdoses, up from 907 in 2016. Per capita, Pittsburgh tops the country in drug deaths.

Discussing the opioid crisis last year, I was hissed at by a gaggle of pissy ostriches. One sneered, “What are these places he’s talking about? And the commenters, too? Who are these degenerates? I don’t know a single person or place that fits ANY of this. And I’m no spring chicken.” It is hopeless.

One evening, I ran into a 41-year-old bartender who had been fired, months before, for being so fogged up, she couldn’t give the correct change or even hear a drink order. It didn’t help that Becky also downed shots of Jameson while working.

“You look great, Becky! You really do. The last time I saw you, you were pretty out of it.”

“I know.”

“That guy Jack who gave you pills, he fucked you up!” Handing out pills, Jack got whiskey back.

“The pills did help me, Linh.” Becky’s foot was in extreme pain.

“Jack got you fired.”

“Yes, he did.”

In retrospect, Becky is not all that sorry to be canned, for her boss was an asshole, “Elio kept telling me to not let the Mexicans sit at the bar. ‘They have to sit at the tables,’ he kept saying, but how do you tell people they can’t sit at the bar?! That’s why I came home crying all the time. One time, Elio came in and yelled at me, ‘Why is that guy sitting at the bar?!’”

“I know Elio’s an asshole, but I didn’t know he was that much of an asshole!”

“That’s why he won’t stock Corona or Tecate. Elio doesn’t want Mexicans in his bar.”

“With all the old white guys gone, he should welcome these Mexicans as customers.”

“And they’re good customers, too. He keeps saying they don’t tip, but they do tip. They’re very sweet and never cause any trouble.”

With no work since, Becky’s been supported by her 48-year-old boyfriend. They’ve been together eight years. Volatile, he sometimes beats her.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Poverty 
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We landed in darkness. The last time I was in Narita was 18 years earlier. With a six-hour layover, I inexplicably didn’t leave the airport. “Can I possibly die without at least a glimpse of Japan?” I’d ask myself, cringing.

Finally, I was there. My first impressions were the generous legroom on the train to Tokyo, sterile apartment buildings somewhat reminiscent of Singapore, subway cars packed with standing, black-suited salarymen then, at Nippori Station, a commanding middle-aged executive, sheathed in an expensive suit, staggering drunk. Everyone else on the platform stood so straight and rigid, I also noticed, as if contrapposto was banned. In Vietnam, few can stand for more than a few seconds without leaning on something or collapsing into a squat.

My maternal great-grandfather, Ngo Thuc Dinh, was one of the top officials in the pro-Japanese Vietnamese government of World War II, and for this collaboration, he was targeted for assassination by the Communists. Unable to do this, they killed my grandfather instead. This incident didn’t just change how my mother was raised, but my emotional makeup.

As a motherless 12-year-old in Tacoma, Washington, I had a Japanese-American teacher, Miss Dogen, who treated me like a son. If you can read this, I thank you and am truly sorry I never said a proper goodbye. Learning to write, I read Mishima, Kawabata, Akutagawa, Dazai, all suicides, and the Japanese-American David Mura, whose Turning Japanese gave me enduring insights into Japan, America and myself.

My father owned a Japanese restaurant in Santa Clara, CA. Its cooks were Mexicans and Vietnamese, however, with only one Japanese ever employed, right at the beginning, to teach the rest the basics, then he was, ah, fired. Among Kobe’s decorations was a Turkish serving plate, bought at a flea market.

“This is clearly not Japanese, dad.”

“It’s close enough. No one will know.” To be so slapdash and careless is typically Vietnamese, I’m sorry to say.

Young, I saw The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Fronted by Kembra Pfahler, it’s a cathartic band of half-naked, weirdly-painted women, with a Japanese drummer who walked around, even before the show, in a bottomless leather pants. Even at my most rebellious, I never had such balls.

My wife and I booked a small yet very efficient apartment in Nihonbashi, the financial district. For the first time, I experienced a heated toilet seat and a jet of water aimed at my exit. What impressed me most, though, was a mini-sink built into the water tank, so as it was being refilled, I could wash my hands.

Some people aren’t meant to travel, for the unexpected will alarm or infuriate them. They simply can’t stomach the fact that the aim of traveling is to be refuted, disorientated or, if one’s very lucky, deranged. For an entire day, my wife stayed inside to watch a Vietnamese TV movie on YouTube.

As Europeans roamed and conquered, East Asians turned hermetic. From 1405 to 1433, the Chinese arrayed an unprecedented armada to explore the world, then they stopped voyaging, banned the building of large ships and outlawed seafaring. There was nothing beyond the waves but trifles and Japanese dwarf pirates, wokou. Smug, the Chinese sank themselves.

Initially open to whites, Japan’s rulers then saw the Christian missionaries as deforming and dividing their society, thus began 220 years of isolation. With his suck-on-this black ships and two white flags as gifts, Admiral Perry changed all that, and once Japan decided it had no choice but to compete with whites, it systematically and energetically proceeded to deform itself, a process that hasn’t stopped.

Genpei Akasegawa (1937-2014) was an artist who documented Tokyo architectural components that had become useless. Not demolished, they’re often even maintained or fixed, as in the railing of a wooden staircase leading nowhere. These instances of found art, Akasegawa dubbed Thomasson, after the American baseball player. Though signed to the biggest Nippon League contract ever, Gary Thomasson was a strikeout machine as the cleanup hitter for the Yomiuri Giants. Serving no purpose, Thomasson became art, as it were. A recurrent Dada nightmare, Thomasson was nicknamed the “Giant Human Fan.”

The beauty (and sadness) of Thomassons is that they represent the nearly obliterated past, and walking around Tokyo, I couldn’t help but feel, constantly, that the entire city was a gorgeous and glittering tomb over a scorched and pulverized Japan.

41 km2 of Tokyo were obliterated by American bombs, as compared to 6.5 km2 of Dresden, by British and US planes. Killing 100,000 mostly civilian Tokyoites over two days, Operation Meeting House is still the most destructive bombing raid in history.

As for the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American justification is that they saved millions of GI lives, with sadism, racism, worship of technology and the desire to browbeat the Russkies playing no significant part. As the shocking-and-awesome proof of American supremacy, the atomic bomb had to be used! You can buy a T-shirt with a mushroom cloud, “MADE IN AMERICA / TESTED IN JAPAN.”

Many will say the Japanese had it coming after their Bombing of Chongqing, Rape of Nanking, Bataan Death March and Unit 731, etc. For over a thousand years, Japan only invaded a neighboring country once (Korea in 1592-98), but after being bullied by whites, it tried to outwhite whites by unleashing the worst barbarity against other Asians. It is as if in doing so, Japanese proved they weren’t really yellow.

The chief planner of the firebombing of Tokyo and 64 other Japanese cities was General Curtis LeMay, “There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore.” “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time [...] I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.” LeMay’s most famous statement, though, concerns the Vietnam War, “My solution to the problem would be to tell [the North Vietnamese] frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Ages.” In any case, if entire cities must be destroyed to atone for war crimes, then Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, etc., should have been vaporized yesterday.

The Yasukuni Shrine
The Yasukuni Shrine

 
• Category: History • Tags: Japan, World War II 
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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 
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.