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Generally seen as highly homogenous, Japan is changing fast. In Tokyo, Kawasaki and Osaka recently, I encountered quite a few non-Japanese working at convenience stores and restaurants, and saw many more on the streets. Japan’s largest immigrant groups are Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Brazilians. Though the last are mostly ethnic Japanese, they maintain a separate culture, so are perceived as Brazilians.

In Kawasaki, a city just across a river from Tokyo, I entered a Peruvian restaurant with two Japanese friends, Ryo Isabe and Samson Yee. Born in Hong Kong, Samson spent parts of his childhood in England, has traveled all over and is married to a Japanese, and his spoken Japanese is nearly perfect, I was told. Immediately, Samson identified the woman serving us as not Japanese, although she appeared native enough to me, and had barely said anything. The more she talked, the more her Japanese deficiency was exposed, however. She was Peruvian.

Ryo is a critic, mostly of rap and electronic music, and the author of a book on Kawasaki. On the ribbon over its cover is a question, “Is Kawasaki hell?” Crossing the Tama River from Tokyo, I did notice a row of shacks, erected by the homeless, but by the time the train rolled into the station, everything seemed sparklingly modern and sophisticated. Walking around, I ran into plenty of chic stores and restaurants, and a swanky shopping center, La Cittadella.

Ryo explained that although Kawasaki may appear perfectly normal, there are many underlying problems. In 2015, the city shocked Japan when a 13-year-old boy was tortured and killed, with his naked body tossed into the Tama. Since his main killer, Ryuichi Funabashi, was half-Filipino, immigration, assimilation and ethnicity became uncomfortable subtexts.

For conformity to unite and provide collective strength, it must punish deviations, but this always triggers resentment, if not rage.

On the other hand, the list of successful half-Japanese is long. Half-Taiwanese Renho Murata briefly headed Japan’s Democratic Party, the first woman to do so. Americans are most familiar with half-Iranian Yu Darvish, half-Haitian Naomi Osaka and half-American Hideki Irabu. With the last, I noticed with interest that the half-Yankee insisted on going to the Yankees. Perched on the third deck, third base side, I did manage to watch Irabu pitch at Yankees Stadium. He always seemed like a very isolated, lonely figure. In 2008, the big man assaulted an Osaka bar manager after downing 20 beers, and in 2010, he was arrested for DUI in Redondo Beach. After his uneven career flamed out, Irabu didn’t return to Japan but moved to California, although he associated mostly with other Japanese while there. As his wife and kids were about to leave him, Irabu killed himself, but we can only guess at the multilayered, complex reason.

I asked Ryo to take us to a regular, working class bar, what I’m used to, whether I’m in Kiev, Mexico City or Missoula, so we ended up in some tiny, brightly lit joint that was owned by a Korean woman. That night, it was filled with older Okinawans and a half Russian, half Japanese man who didn’t look typically either. Born in Japan, he was simply Japanese, like the rest.

“Do I look Japanese?” I joked to a septuagenarian, missing a few teeth.

“No, you look Cambodian!” We all laughed.

Sitting at my table, another Okinawan said, “I’ve never known a Vietnamese, but I’m glad to meet you. You should spend more time in Kawasaki, and get to know us.”

“I already feel very comfortable,” and I meant it.

During the Vietnam War, the septuagenarian was paid $20 a day to clean American corpses, killed in action, “It was ten times the average wage, so I was glad to have the job, but I had to quit after six months, since I couldn’t eat.”

In Kawasaki for four decades, he didn’t miss Okinawa, “I don’t have anything to return to.”

When he said he had to work later that night, I thought he was kidding, for he was well past retirement age, not to mention trashed. “I work for the railroad,” he elaborated. “I’m a painter.”

At his table sat a couple, also old, with the man in a felt fedora. “Although I’m married to Frank Sinatra,” she said of her husband while bantering with the painter, “you’re more my type!” She rubbed his bald head.

Though it was Ryo’s first time at the joint, and Samson and I were not Japanese, we were treated so warmly, so so much for Japanese reserve or aloofness, but the English, too, I’ve always found to be mostly friendly and chatty. Damn the stereotype.

Taking a photo with me, the Korean owner planted a kiss on my crown, and the old painter shouted towards the end of the night, “Now, you look very Japanese! You belong here!”

There is a universal brotherhood of lowlife drinkers. My blood brother, a Yahoo employee who says “darn” and “shoot,” wouldn’t feel welcome there, or at Philly’s Friendly Lounge, for that matter, not that he would enter either

In Osaka, the sociologist Masahiko Kishi took me and others to a seafood restaurant, Taiyoshi Hyakuban, that’s housed in a wonderfully-preserved, two-storied 1908 brothel. Wandering around, I marveled at its carved columns, beams and ceilings, fine vases and scrolls, and well-executed paintings of scenes from centuries past. Our three waiters were all South Asians, most likely Bangladeshi. They had no problems communicating in Japanese.

Taiyoshi Hyakuban is located in Tobita Shinchi, Japan’s last traditional red light districts, where the prostitutes are openly displayed through wide doorways, facing the street. Tastefully dolled up, each is seated among decorative elements, such as a basket of plastic flowers, stuffed animals, a heart-shaped pillow or a giant Maneki-neko, etc., but with an old woman, the madame, perched in a corner. Though the contrast between youthful beauty and aging ugliness is rather jarring, at least it serves its purpose as a warning and an urge. Get it while you can, and while it’s still fresh!

Tobita Shinchi is nothing like what you’ll find in, say, Amsterdam’s De Wallen, where not much distracts from the red-lit meat of the matter. Though prostitution is illegal in Japan, the Tobita Shinchi joints are kosher because, well, they’re classified as restaurants, so if you suddenly find yourself inside a waitress, it’s because she’s quite smitten by you, that’s all, and your wallet. It’s love at first sight. Maybe you’ll get lucky the next time you visit your town’s Dairy Queen or White Castle!

In Amsterdam, most of the whores are in fact not Dutch, but come from Eastern Europe, South America, Southeast Asia or Africa. The last time I was in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, most whores were also foreign, and in Barcelona, Chinese massage parlors spread. Assuming a similar situation in Tobita Shinchi, I asked Kishi-san what percentage of these lovelies were aliens, and was surprised to hear, “None!” Well, at least one corner of Japan remains absolutely pure.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Immigration, Japan 
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Before my recent trip to Tokyo, Kawasaki and Osaka, I emailed an American friend, “Japan contrasts so sharply with chaotic and dirty Vietnam. Unlike here, almost nothing happens on Japanese sidewalks, no eating, drinking or even smoking!”

He replied, “Myself, I would prefer ‘dirty’ Vietnam to Japan, any day.” Though only in Vietnam as a soldier, he still has fond memories of the country.

On the way to Tan Son Nhat Airport, the young taxi driver asked where I was flying to.

“Tokyo, I answered. “It’s my second time. They have a great subway system, brother,” and it is the most reliable, cleanest, safest and easiest I’ve ever used, with great amenities at most stations. “Who knows when Vietnam will have something similar?”

He guffawed, “We’re five hundred years behind them!”

From Narita, I took three trains to Nippori, Hamamatsucho then Azabujyuban, from where I walked to my room at International House. On the way, I passed the Juban Inari Shrine. All Japanese temples are elegant and understated, even when huge. Crossing the street was suddenly no longer an adventure. Though Vietnamese have become much better at stopping at red lights, many still bristle at the idea.

Japanese do occasionally jaywalk, and I would see more of it in Osaka than Tokyo. There are also more graffiti and littering in the home of takoyaki, Japan’s only remaining red light district and its worst slum. Japanese are not as anal as Germans, who would stand alone at a curb at 3 in the morning, waiting for the walk signal to change, with not a single car in sight in any direction.

Opening the shoji blind, I could see the tastefully landscaped garden where Yukio Mishima had his wedding reception. After unpacking, I became reacquainted with the heated toilet seat, the anus shower whose jets could be adjusted and, most comfortingly, the stream of warm air that dried even my nuts.

Vietnam’s leading novelist of that era, Nhất Linh, also committed suicide, but only quietly, with poisoned wine. Unlike badass Mishima, Nhất Linh didn’t have a gay lover hack at his neck repeatedly with a samurai sword.

During my previous visit to Tokyo, I spoke to a bookstore audience of my admiration for Japanese boldness, “Although transgenderism is in, with everybody cutting his penis off, only a Japanese could come up with the idea of offering it as a meal, at a banquet.” To my surprise, no one there had heard of Mao Sugiyama.

Sugiyama’s ballsy announcement, “Please retweet. I am offering my male genitals (full penis, testes, scrotum) as a meal for 100,000 yen… I will prepare and cook as the buyer requests, at his chosen location.”

There was no time to waste. Within hours of arriving, I was in a Roppongi restaurant with a few of my Tokyo friends. While downing beer and sashimi, we talked about their troubled nation.

Translator Miwako Ozawa shared that she didn’t know her neighbors, and that Japanese only say hello to strangers in elevators and on mountain trails. Her husband, photographer Samson Yee, added that I shouldn’t judge Japanese sociability by my friends, for they are all cosmopolitan writers and intellectuals, “If you meet an ordinary Japanese, you’ll have to climb so many walls before you get to know them.” As another indicator of the Japanese’s shrinkage from direct experiences, Samson pointed out that only 23% even hold a valid passport.

We’ve all heard about young Japanese recluses, the hikikomori, but did you know that at least 43% of Japanese between 18 and 34 are virgins? A third had never even been on a single date.

“How did Japanese go from bathing together, men and women, young and old, to being mostly alone?” I asked. No one could answer.

Writer Mieko Kawakami said that Japan’s previous tranquility and equilibrium were achieved only with much sacrifice by women, and the continuing breakdown of traditions is actually freeing women from onerous roles. Probing this theme, she is working on a novel about a woman having a baby without a man.

Many Japanese now live alone, then often die without anyone noticing, sometimes for weeks. Family members don’t call or even email them. Through a friend, I was able to visit an octogenarian who rarely left his messy apartment. His is the generation that built contemporary Japan. In the same complex, we passed a door whose letter and peep slots had been sealed by tape, to prevent the dogged stench of putrefaction from seeping out. It’s a common sight there. With its stigma of sordid death, the apartment will be hard to rent, thus adding to the glut of empty houses in Japan.

The live man’s apartment smelled bad enough. It’s a stagnant, fermented funk which actually made me pause at his genkan, and I’m no olfactory pussy, dwelling in Saigon. Carrying two six packs of Asahi beer as gifts, I braved my way in.

Next to his bed were six bottles of hard liquor and a stack of illustrated sex manuals. Cheered up by such rare visitors, he chattered away, and anyone could tell he must have been quite charismatic in youth, and a ladies’ man. He admitted to having a crush on the woman, sent by a charity organization, who came twice a week to clean.

“Is she young?” I grinningly asked.

“Yes, very young. Maybe 55!”

The neighborhood was a post-war new town development, filled with identical apartment blocks, and very few stores or restaurants within easy walking distance, especially if you’re on your last leg. A playground with its slide and jungle gym sat empty. “This is incredible,” I said to my friend. “We haven’t passed one cafe or bar. If this was Vietnam, people would just sit outside, drink and socialize.” There was a tiny seniors center at a forlorn strip mall. We strayed in to find six old people lounging around a coffee table, sipping tea. When they all got up to leave, I asked, “Why are they all leaving at once?”

“It’s the Japanese way. We do everything together!” Or at least they used to.

Convenience stores are ubiquitous in Japan. At a Family Mart, the owner told us that for many old people nearby, his little store was not just where they could get grocery, but a few words addressed to them, plus a smile.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Japan 
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How long have you lived overseas?

Well, I’ve been spending half my time overseas for about the last 20 years. The vast majority of it has been in Brazil, and this country is quite strict about its immigration policy. It can be done, but for someone like myself, it’s just too difficult of a nut to crack. Thus, without intending to do so, I’ve been living this transitory lifestyle for a long time. In fact, there have been countless times, where I vowed never to go back to the US and contrarily to never leave it after returning.

Since the only realistic way (for me) to remain here indefinitely is to marry a Brazilian, and lacking the courage (no guts – no glory), I haven’t been able to stay. Every time I try to linger in the US and grind it out, I eventually lose my mind and give up. Life in America is an absolutely soul-crushing experience, but leaving it is almost as hard as staying. I suppose it all goes back to Kierkegaard’s wisdom: ‘If you stay, you’ll regret it. If you leave, you’ll regret it.’

What made you decide to leave the US?

I was always a restless soul, and moving around America lost its allure pretty quickly as I found each locale to be slightly worse than the last. I followed the Iran/Contra affair in the news, and I arrived at the conclusion that the US was nothing more than a banana republic (without the bananas), and I would have laughed at anyone who suggested that “caravans” of immigrants would be trying to enter the country in 2018.

When in college at Michigan State, I met a Brazilian girl as one of the six students (out of 45,000) studying Portuguese. Knowing her and her friends gave me the courage to investigate the place for myself when I graduated in 1989.

Since then it has been a comedy (tragedy) of errors as to why I haven’t been able to establish some sort of residency. For the most part, I was attracted to Brazil because of the fun atmosphere, and this exacerbated my lack of self-discipline.

What do you miss about not being in the US?

Seeing my Dad.

What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?

For six months per year on a tourist visa, there really aren’t any. My credit cards and bank debit card work, and short-term housing is always easy to find. I speak the language fluently, and there are enough foreigners around here to acclimate the locals to strangers. Probably the biggest hassle is being asked a couple times per day for money by street beggars, but I get the same experience walking the streets in America.

While foreigners are common, Americans are extremely rare in this part of Brazil, so I’m regarded as a bit of a curiosity. It’s usually a bonus. For the most part, I barely feel like a foreigner. I’ve spent so much time here, it’s turned into my second home.

The only thing I can’t adjust to is the constant invasion of my personal space. People bump into me, cut in front of me, stand too close to me… I could spend 100 years here and never get used to it. Of course, if the person invading my personal space is an attractive female, I don’t mind it at all! ;)

What are some of the pleasant surprises you’ve encountered in your new home?

The biggest pleasant surprise I’ve had in the last few years has been the realization that I could learn to dance forró. I’ve tried taking lessons for other types of dances several times both here and in the US, and I could never get the hang of any dance. I found a dance studio here in Natal that really wants their students to dance. Sure, it’s a business, but they really take an interest in you. It’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, and before you know it, you’re dancing!

What are some of the unanticipated problems?

I’ve been here for too long to remember what the unanticipated problems were. My biggest gripe is having the tourist visa expire while I’m having a big time and being forced to return to America. Even at that low point, I start to kid myself that happiness is just a state of mind, and there’s no reason why I can’t be just as happy in America. And it actually works for about the first month I’m back, I bounce around America with a wink and grin, and America smiles back.

After one month, the reality starts to dawn on me, and I become ever more cautious. My interactions with people become increasingly businesslike, and I dread any unnecessary contact with anyone. All the fake smiles and “have a nice day” start to ring increasingly hollow, and the sneers become more and more menacing. Even places I visit on a regular basis seem less and less hospitable. I feel like a burden wherever I go, and I view everyone as an unavoidable obstacle to my goal of leaving without any trouble.

My financial battles with all my usual nemeses start to become increasingly complicated and dire. Thoughts of shotguns and five-gallon containers of gasoline begin to fill my mind, and I develop a bunker mentality. Shit starts getting real!

Ah, but the question was about my troubles here in Brazil, but somehow I got to thinking about the Land of the Free!

What is some advice you have for Americans who also want to get out?

Depends on the person. If you’ve never lived outside of America, go somewhere that seems interesting to you. Stay as long as you can. If you run out of money, go back to America and make some more: Rinse and repeat. Better yet, try to learn a skill you can do remotely like programming or writing. It won’t be easy, but what could be harder than spending your life in America.

If you’re afraid you might regret it, don’t worry, there’s a good chance you will, but you’ll regret it more if you stay home.

I’m too old to be living this life, but I’ll stick with it until I find something better, run out of gas, or the Empire finally collapses.

–Sean (51-years-old)

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brazil 
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Two years ago, I was having dinner in NYC with a group of Japanese writers. Next to me was Mieko Kawakami, who’s also known as a pop singer. Since her English was very limited, we conversed mostly through another person. Seeing that my beer glass was empty, Mieko filled it.

Earlier this year, I found myself in Tokyo with nearly the same group of Japanese, and next to me, again, was Mieko. Seeing that my bowl was empty, she used her chopsticks to replenish it with some fatty pork.

In Saigon a month ago, I was having dinner with a bunch of Taiwanese businessmen, whom I had just met. Next to me was a 36-year-old who had been in Vietnam for six years, was married to a Vietnamese and had two kids with her, so he spoke Vietnamese quite comfortably, even rapidly, though I must I admit, I only understood about half of it, such was his accent. Seeing that my bowl had some food scraps, he picked it up, cleaned it out with his chopsticks, then filled it with a couple of shrimps.

To be attentive to others at the dinner table is a trait inculcated in East Asians since childhood. It shows civilization, not obsequiousness. At an Oriental banquet, tables tend to be round, an egalitarian arrangement with no honored seats, and all the dishes are in the middle. Although you’re only supposed to pick, say, a piece of chicken that’s close to you, and not reach across a plate, you can choose a better morsel for anyone else, especially an older person, a guest or a social superior, such as your boss. To express concern, they can also drop food in your rice bowl.

Decades ago, I was at a Chinese restaurant in Northern Virginia with a close friend, Brian Robertson, and when our two dishes arrive, Brian instantly divided each in half, right down the middle, and scooped his shares onto his plate. Had I used my utensils to pick out food for Brian, he would have cringed and protested, I’m sure.

East is East, and West is West, and though the two do overlap, you will always know whether you’re in Intercourse or Phuoc Hai, and that’s good. Though relentlessly assaulted, the local endures, but it must be fiercely protected and nurtured.

Repeatedly, I have pointed out how boundaries are often blurred in Vietnam, but this also means that personal space is not as respected as in the West. In 1957, Gontran de Poncins published his excellent From a Chinese City, which documents his year of living in a residential hotel in Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown. Other occupants were disturbed by De Poncins’ habit of keeping his door closed during the day, so they would just open it. Seeing that De Poncins was always alone, they asked if he needed a woman, and when he said no, they offered to bring him a boy. As De Poncins sketched, someone might snatch his notebook from him, to see what he was drawing.

Saigon in 2018 is much more Americanized, so there are gated communities, condos with security guards, restaurants behind plate glass windows, ubiquitous English schools and aggressive rap music being spat at you by street performers on Bui Vien Street. At a wedding, I noticed all the young people at my table were staring at their smart phones for nearly the entire evening. American styled swagger or aggression is also being aped, so on a truck in my neighborhood, I saw, in English, “CHOOSE LIFE / DON’T TOUCH MY CAR,” with the image of two hand guns being pointed at the viewer. In several Vietnamese cities, and even Singapore, there are Liêm barbershops, where all the hair cutters are all tatted up and dressed as cholos. Speaking to packed rooms of young Vietnamese, Liêm passionately teaches them on how to properly wear a bandana, flannel shirt or Ben Davis pants, etc.

Since I live five miles from downtown, however, the texture of my daily life is still very much Vietnamese, even if there’s a McDonald’s, Popeyes and KFC within a ten minute walk. Riding a beat up bicycle, a knife sharpener offered his service. Passing a funeral, I saw the pallbearers tilting the coffin three times, to make it bow to its old house, then three more times at the head of the alley, to say farewell to its neighborhood.

This morning, I had a 47 cent cup of coffee at a café in an alley. People streamed by, on foot or motorbikes. Within sight was the neighborhood Buddhist temple. Although hideous looking, it does have a shady and somewhat quiet courtyard, so sometimes I’d go and sit on one of its cement benches, near a bunch of wizened monks.

Vietnamese know their neighbors. The café’s owner is a taciturn middle-aged dude who keeps half a dozen lurid fish in a couple of tanks. His grown son is a heroin addict who’s been in and out of jail. The smirking young man has never had a job, only lots of tattoos.

On my right sat office workers in white shirts and black pants, and to my left was a man, called Mr. Mulberry, who had a stroke a decade ago, so now must inch around with a walker. Even before Mulberry got debilitated, his wife left him to marry a Vietnamese-Australian.

Mulberry has six brothers and two sisters. Two brothers are in Australia. The sisters were infamous in this neighborhood as “horses,” the Vietnamese term for “sluts,” because people could ride them.

Mulberry’s dad used to beat his mom, and complain that her skin wasn’t as smooth as his mistress’. Despite all this, they’re still together, and live with Mulberry and a daughter, a single mom, of course, in the house across the alley from my table.

Hearing anyone’s life story, I’m always filled with amazement and admiration, because I’m not sure I could have endured so many sucker punches from random strangers, God, my family and the weather.

At another neighborhood café a while back, I sat next to a man in his early 70’s who had raised ten kids. He has owned a company making truck trailers since before the Fall of Saigon.

“I made more than enough to take care of all my kids, then the state took over my company. They had to keep me on, however, because the company could not have functioned otherwise. I had all these supervisors and advisors who collected salaries, but did nothing. I survived all that. After Đổi Mới [Renovation], I got my company back.”

“Did you try to escape the country?” I asked.

“No, because I had ten kids! It would have been too complicated, and I didn’t want to send a couple of kids out by themselves. It would have been too risky.”

“So they’re all still here?”

“Yes, and they’re all doing well. One of my sons bought land and houses when they were still cheap, decades ago. He’s loaded. Another son works for the government as an electrical engineer. One of my daughters owns this café,” where we were sitting. “All the Socialist countries were dirt poor, while the Capitalist countries were rich. That’s why things had to change.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Vietnam 
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All floridly unequivocal praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Universes, and to his faithful Servant and Prophet, Mohammed, and may Israel, that abomination, smudge and curse upon mankind, be neatly erased with no trace left behind, so the rest of us can peacefully go on with our tedious and humbling labor, all while being soothed and titilated by the certain knowledge that, just around the blind curve, there’s our just reward of 72 pristine babes well stacked with full-grown, swollen and pear-shaped breasts, though some may prefer the less-developed, but to each his own. As for the ladies, just replace “babes” with “hunks,” and “breasts” with “members.”

From 2011 to 2016, I often provided political commentaries for Iran’s Press TV, and though I was only paid minimally, I gladly got up very early in the morning, and at a moment’s notice, to instantly offer analyses on current issues, be it tension in the South China Sea, US’ meddling in the Ukraine, the world’s indifference to Myamar’s mass murder of the Rohingya, the Occupy Movement or the farcical charades that are American elections. Usually, it was just a phone interview, but sometimes, I would put on a suit and tie and head to a Philly studio to debate, via internet feeds, with everyone from ex US generals to well trained talking heads from deep pocketed think tanks. Sometimes, I would be enlightened by the other guests, such as the fearlessly penetrating, honorable, slyly humorous and very Muslim Kevin Barrett.

All these Press TV sessions were uploaded onto YouTube, until they were suddenly erased, for this Iranian network was charged by the Israeli ass licking US government as pushing propaganda, conspiracy theories and fake news, unlike, well, CNN, FOX, CNBC and the BBC. My handful of appearances on Russia Today are still up, though for a while they were stigmatized with, “RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government.” My Wikipedia page also lies that I’m “a regular commentator on Russia Today,” for Russia is evil, you see, Putin is the new Hitler and I must be a Neo Nazi for repeatedly bellowing that Israel shouldn’t exist, among other heresies.

I just love the smell of Zyklon B in the morning, afternoon, late afternoon, evening and night, for it means that I’m nicely deloused, you know what I mean?

This month, another Iranian network, Tasnim, asked for my response to renewed US sanctions against the Islamic Republic, so I said:

First, the renewed sanctions prove, once again, that America’s words mean absolutely nothing, for just two years after it signed an agreement, it decided, without any reasonable pretext, to tear it up. America is not just unreliable and unprofessional, but a rogue nation.

US sanctions will certainly hurt Iran’s economy, but not as much as intended, because key US allies such as South Korea and, most importantly, the European Union have decided to not honor these sanctions. Further, Iran will continue to trade with Russia and China. Who will be damaged the most by these sanctions, paradoxically, is the US, for American companies will be blocked from the Iranian market, and its vast energy sector. Do you think Boeing is happy with these sanctions?

It is inevitable that Iran’s ties with China and Russia will become stronger. With China and Russia leading the way, the Eurasian landmass is being economically integrated, and Iran is an important component of this, not just for its oil export, but its strategic location. Since the US has no role to play in this new alignment, it has done its best to sabotage it. This, it is doing by economically attacking, and even militarily threating, Russia, China and Iran, as well as preventing the European Union from having closer ties with these countries.

[...]

Since the American economy is much more fragile than it appears, America’s sanctions against Iran and Russia, as well as its trade war against China, constitute economic suicide. The US is also forcing its allies into closer cooperation with China, Russia and Iran, for otherwise, they will sink with the dying empire. Having wrecked several countries for Israel, America will end up imploding itself, for Israel.

Since my interview, the US has announced that China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey will be allowed, how nice of Uncle Sam, to still buy Iranian oil for at least six months. It’s quite pathetic, really, America’s disruption of Eurasia’s economic integration, but it’s also menacing to each man, woman, child and bug, for the dying empire may just blow up the entire planet as its last act.

Instead of fearing extinction, however, Americans are steered into arguing about people with dicks and balls using girls’ bathrooms, pale folks sporting dread locks and the next Holocaust. The always reliable US media announced that 11 Jews were killed in Pittsburgh, although there’s not a single pixel of visual evidence, just like there was none with, say, the Bin Laden assassination, so the cat must have instantly covered all the corpses with dirt and lapped up every drop of blood. In this age of ubiquitous cellphones, none functioned inside or near the Tree of Life Congregation to show images of terrified worshippers, bodies on ground or gurneys, blood splattered walls, fleeing survivors or triage tent, since Jews, being an oppressed minority, can’t afford even bottom end Huaweis.

If Jews in distress, terror or death are too disturbing for the public, then what about the Holocaust, as presented by horrifying images in countless books, movies, websites and museums? Across the world, there must be many more Holocaust museums than all those, combined, for the Holodomor, Soviet gulags, Allied firebombing of German and Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nakba and millions of Muslim victims of the open-ended and bogus American/Israeli War against Terror. Jews are history’s unique victims, we must never forget, and in college, I too took a Holocaust course, for which I got an A or a B, I think. Over thousands of years and across dozens of countries, Jews have been singularly persecuted just for being Jews, and not for anything they may have done.

In many false flags, photos of the carnage were quickly debunked as fraudulent, so now, only a story is told, with no supporting images whatsoever. Although they have lied to us a billion times, we’re again asked to take their words as facts, and we do, because we’re beyond gullible and stupid.

In mainstream media videos of the Pittsburgh incident, all you see are dozens of militarized police swarming the scene, so the drilled message is, again, you must welcome armed agents of the state to protect you from your fellow citizens. Trump is also framed as somehow responsible, thus an anti-Semite, although the blathering huckster is just another abject servant of Israel. This sleight of hand doesn’t just obscure Trump’s record of enabling Israeli criminality, but demands that he facilitates even more.

To better serve Jews, Trump is willing to appear as their pinata, just as the Russiagate nonsense is a way to obscure the fact that Trump, though a supposed Russian puppet, is relentlessly antagonizing Russia, to the cusp of war. Though a deep state agent, Trump is depicted in even alternative news outlets as the deep state’s nemesis.

 
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“Tổ Quốc Trên Hết” [“Nation Above All”] was a slogan of the defunct and much maligned Republic of South Vietnam, while the Socialist North rallied their populace with “Chống Mỹ Cứu Nước” [“Fight the Americans, Save the Nation”]. During the war, both Vietnamese sides stressed their nationalist credentials while discrediting their opponent as a foreign puppet. The common Vietnamese soldier, then, didn’t fight and die for capitalism, communism, democracy, internationalism, universal brotherhood, America, Russia or China, but only for Vietnam, for only nationalism could justify so much sacrifice, pain and endurance.

Two miles from me is St. Francis Xavier Church. In Vietnam, there are Catholic churches that combine Western and Eastern architectural elements, with Phát Diệm Cathedral, completed in 1891, the most striking example. Though St. Francis Xavier is quite modest in size, it’s very charming and elegant, with a Chinese pavilion in its courtyard sheltering the Virgin Mary. The red, buttony cross on its ornate gate is flanked by two white, upturned carps, while inside, the main crucifix, with an ivory-white Jesus, is framed by two contrapuntal couplets, in Chinese.

On November 2st, 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were captured at St. Francis Xavier Church, where they had fled to escape a coup. Tied up and dumped inside an armored personnel carrier, both were then shot.

Since the Americans had propped up Diem, it was they who had to give the go ahead to depose, if not kill, the man, and though Diem is often caricatured as just an American puppet, he was clearly not just that, for otherwise, there would have been no reason to wipe him out.

The very fact that he was killed by the American deep state means he wasn’t serving it very faithfully. Likewise, John F. Kennedy was also assassinated three weeks later, and though that rub out is even murkier, to the point of farce, its lessons are also abundantly clear.

If you’re an American citizen, the state doesn’t owe you any reasonable explanation, about anything, and if you’re a politician within the American orbit, it’s best that you toe the line and ask no inconvenient questions. Carter, Clinton, Bush father and son, Obama, Trump, Sanders, Hillary or whoever, they understand perfectly well the diagram of magic bullets dancing in a shattered skull, so none will let slip one heretical statement about the USS Liberty, say, or 9/11.

In Saigon in 2016, Obama visited Jade Emperor Pagoda. Built by the Chinese in 1909, it’s considered old by local standards, but Saigon is a pretty new city. Founded in 1698, it’s a decade younger than Philadelphia. Near me on Nguyen Trai Street, there’s a handful of Chinese temples from the 19th century, and the other day, I found myself ogling at one, again, as I trudged by in the heat and dark. If this was any other East Asian city, however, these modest structures wouldn’t even be mentioned in a guidebook.

Renamed Ho Chi Minh City after April 30th, 1975, this city is still universally called Saigon in daily conversations, as well as on countless shop signs, and not just here, but across the country. In Hanoi, for example, you’d find stores advertising “Saigon fashion,” and restaurants serving dishes in the “Saigon style.” Now as ever, a native son is still a “người Sài Gòn.” Finally, you can’t erase by a governmental decree a name that’s immortalized by all those songs, novels, stories and poems.

I’m bringing this up because a couple of righteous nitwits have chastised me for not knowing the name of my native city, with one John Lawrence Ré commenting, “Calling it Saigon is for revisionists still living in the illusion of american exceptionalism”! Only an American exceptionalist revisionist with the deepest illusions about himself, country and history can barf up such a load of unintended irony. It is hopeless.

War against the Americans over, the Vietnamese communists promptly fought against communist Cambodia, then China, so there goes international communist solidarity, not that it ever existed, then the Soviet Union collapsed. With communism discredited for everyone but Western bourgeoisie posers, Vietnamese Communists have resorted to the old standby, nationalism, for their legitimacy. Nation above all.

Across Vietnam, then, you’ll find nationalist murals and posters exhorting the people to defend the nation, as in “PARACEL ISLANDS AND SPRATLY ISLANDS BELONG TO VIETNAM,” “WE CHILDREN LOOK TOWARD OUR NATION’S SEA AND ISLANDS” and “FIRMLY PROTECT THE OWNERSHIP OF VIETNAMESE SEA AND ISLANDS,” etc. There’s even a kids’ coloring book called “Sea Islands My Nation,” with a boy sailor standing on a beach, holding an AK-47, with a lighthouse behind him.

In the West, nationalism has become a dirty word to the educated, progressive class, who routinely equate it with fascism. They also see national borders as somehow obsolete and oppressive, but what’s ignored is that each man is profoundly defined and marked, with practically each of his word and action, by his national heritage. Having lived as an adult in five countries, and traveled to dozens more, I have never met anyone, no matter how cosmopolitan, who isn’t essentially one nationality, with only a handful tolerably passing as a second. The nation, then, is the totality of who you are, and it’s where and how you are properly seen and understood.

The most common Vietnamese word for nation is actually “water,” as in I was born in this water and I will defend my water to the death. What water are you from? Shaped by a unique history and language, every nation sees the world differently, so only the most naive or educated can even pretend we’re all the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But he fed you, no?”

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

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

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

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

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

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Poverty, Vietnam 
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.