The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
 TeasersLinh Dinh Blogview

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New Reply
🔊 Listen RSS

Indoctrinated for decades by relativism, we’re supposed to consider all life styles equal and never pass judgments. There must be legitimate reasons for a culture to embrace, for example, child marriage, bride kidnapping, female circumcision, Oprah Winfrey, or universal, all day long access to pornography.

Shit, though, is a hard sell, thus open sewers or public defecation don’t have too many fans. In An Area of Darkness (1964), however, V.S. Naipaul describes one, “Indians were a poetic people, he said. He himself always sought the open because he was a poet, a lover of Nature, which was the matter of his Urdu verses; and nothing was as poetic as squatting on a river bank at dawn.” The subject is a young, handsome and elegantly dressed Muslim student at “a laughable institute of education.”

With such an attitude not rare, apparently, Naipaul found “Indians defecating everywhere, on floors, in urinals for men (as a result of yogic contortions that can only be conjectured). Fearing contamination, they squat rather than sit, and every lavatory cubicle carries marks of their misses. No one notices.”

In 1990, 75.1% of Indians were defecating in the open, but by 2015, only 44.4% were, so there is progress (or regression, if you’re into venting your root chakra in the morning sun, with the birds singing, as a freight train comes into view). Counting also Indians who must use a pit, body of water or shared latrine, then it’s 56%. In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi wrote:

I learnt 35 years ago that a lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room. I learnt this in the West. I believe that many rules about cleanliness in lavatories are observed more scrupulously in the West than in the East. There are some defects in their rules in this matter, which can be easily remedied. The cause of many of our diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing of excreta anywhere and everywhere.

In 2007, poet Vivek Narayanan wrote me from India:

The rows of shitters I pass on my morning run by the sea here in Madras (yes, not far at all from the very same marina where once Naipaul ogled, unflinching, a certain G-string) are all surly men, some with little cigarettes or joints hanging from their mouths.

I understand well the happiness and relief they must feel in being able to take their morning shits right by the waves, facing the rising sun—although I don’t enjoy coming back from the run with the inevitable bits of human excreta sticking to my shoe.

The West itself has come a long way in regard to cleanliness. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1935), George Orwell talks about the undeniable stench of poor Englishmen:

Of course, as a whole, they are dirtier than the upper classes. They are bound to be, considering the circumstances in which they live, for even at this late date less than half the houses in England have bathrooms. Besides, the habit of washing yourself all over every day is a very recent one in Europe […] But the English are growing visibly cleaner, and we may hope that in a hundred years they will be almost as clean as the Japanese.

Always paying attention to details, Orwell describes one working class arrangement:

The lavatories are in the yard at the back, so that if you live on the side facing the street, to get to the lavatory or the dust-bin you have to go out of the front door and walk round the end of the block—a distance that may be as much as two hundred yards; if you live at the back, on the other hand, your outlook is on to a row of lavatories.

Imagine having to routinely run the length of two football fields just to take a dump! So 83 years ago, most Englishmen had no toilet in their home, just like contemporary India, and Orwell gave them a century to be nearly as clean as the Japanese.

Spoiled by modern plumbing and sewerage, most Americans would find Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower” hardly believable:

Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

But that’s London in 1710. By 1855, the River Thames was roiling with shit, as testified by scientist Michael Farraday, “Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind […] The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully-holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.” With three million people, London was the largest city ever, so it faced unprecedented problems.

The sanitation crisis culminated in the Great Stink of 1858, but from it, the English did manage to think and muscle into being a comprehensive sewer system that functioned well from 1875 onward, a feat that eludes many nations today.

According to “Out of Order, the State of the World’s Toilets 2017,” 2.3 billion people, or 32% of mankind, still don’t have a toilet at home, and of the 25 saddest countries in this regard, 23 are in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the others being Haiti and Papua New Guinea, also black nations. Here are the ten most toilet-deprived: Ethiopia (92.9%), Chad (90.5%), Madagascar (90.3%), South Sudan (89.6%), Eritrea (88.7%), Niger (87.1%), Benin (86.1%), Togo (86.1%), Ghana (85.7%) and Sierra Leone (85.5%).

Without a toilet, your whole life is a mess. “Out of Order”:

Girls who don’t have decent toilets at school or near home have to defecate in the open or use unsafe, unhygienic toilets, often shared with boys. Aside from the health risks, this is uncomfortable, embarrassing and puts them at risk of verbal or even physical abuse. To avoid the experience, they will often avoid eating and drinking during the day, making it hard to concentrate at school. Once they start their periods, girls are more likely to miss classes or drop out if there is not a decent toilet at school. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one in ten girls miss school during their period.

With such poor sanitation, Sub-Saharan Africa also leads the world in deaths by communicable diseases, which also shows up as having the shortest life spans. Of the 25 worst countries by this measurement, 24 are in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the lone exception war-torn Afghanistan.

The oldest living people are those of Hong Kong, who live 84.11 years on average, then Japan (83.56), San Marino (83.56), Italy (83.20), Singapore (83.09), Switzerland (83.02), Iceland (82.68), Spain (82.66), Australia (82.50) and Israel (82.46), all places with proper, clean toilets and no open defecation. At the bottom, you have Swaziland (48.87), Lesotho (49.96), Sierra Leone (51.31), Central African Republic (51.42), Chad (51.87), Côte d’Ivoire (51.92), Angola (52.67), Nigeria (53.05), Mozambique (55.37) and Guinea-Bissau (55.47).

An American can expect to go underground at age 79.16, just before a Cuban (79.55), Puerto Rican (79.57), Costa Rican (79.59) and Lebanese (79.63).

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Poverty, Third World 
🔊 Listen RSS

Southerner Fred Reed writes about Yankee hypocrisy, “You’ve heard about white flight. In nearly about every city in the North, white people streak for the suburbs so’s not to be near black people, and then they talk about how bad Southerners are for doing the same thing […] Fact is, you can see more social, comfortable integration in a catfish house in Louisiana than you can in probably all of Washington.”

As of 2010, Philly was 41% white, 43.4% black and 6.3% Asian, and I would guess there are more whites and Asians now, thanks to obvious gentrification in several neighborhoods. See what I just did there, equating gentrification with fewer blacks? But that’s just how it is in contemporary America, where fewer blacks in any neighborhood means fewer crimes, better schools and rising house prices. Even Spike Lee can’t refute this.

I live in Passyunk Square, a white, Asian and Hispanic neighborhood that’s adjacent to Point Breeze, a gentrifying ghetto. Broad Street is the dividing line, and for the longest time, it would not be wise to cross into Point Breeze, unless you were begging for a mugging. I know one white guy who was relieved of his wallet, at gunpoint, and a white woman who was punched and kicked by a bunch of black teens, just for the fun of it.

Just before Christmas, a black acquaintance had his apartment burglarized, with the thief breaking in by taking out the air conditioner from a window. He took that, plus the television and a Michael Kor watch. “It’s weird he knew where it was. I kept it in a drawer. I think he’s a friend,” or a lover of this gay man. With 24,137 people, Point Breeze had 112 burglaries in 2017.

With its cheap rent and proximity to Center City, Point Breeze has lured many non-blacks over the years, however, and the first group to move in were poor Asian immigrants. In 1984, I visited an overcrowded house that had people sleeping in the living room. I remember a tiny pregnant woman, lying on the floor. By 2000, there were 900 Vietnamese in Point Breeze, or 12% of the population. Now, Point Breeze has Indonesian groceries and restaurants, an Indonesian storefront mosque, a Chinese Buddhist temple, and a Laotian one. At St. Thomas Aquinas, a magnificent church founded by Italian immigrants in 1885, there are Vietnamese and Indonesian services each Sunday.

Rocky marries Adrian in this church. From its website, “St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Community, through our cultural diversity, united in our expressions of faith, lives the Gospel message in our neighborhood through worship, education, service, and advocacy.” Inside, there’s a beautiful shrine to the Vietnamese Catholic martyrs of the 18th and 19th centuries. For following the Western religion and, in many cases, supporting the invading French, at least 130,000 were tortured and killed by Vietnamese authorities.

I know all you lovers of diversity can’t wait to move into Point Breeze now, for it has every color in the rainbow, but by the time you get here, there won’t be too many African-Americans left, I’m afraid, so let me give you a quick tour of black Point Breeze. Our first stop is Scotty’s Bar, famous for its Obama shrine. Our handsome, half-white 44th president is seen smiling inside an oval, blue background frame, with tinsel and colored string lights all around him.

Other black men are honored throughout Point Breeze for, well, being shot. Walk around and you’ll run into their wall portraits, such as that of “FAT CAT.” Seen holding his daughter, he was killed in 2005 at age 23. In the bay window of a well-kept middle-class home, there are two colorful banners with purple stars and red roses. Under the message “ALWAYS AND FOREVER” is the face of a young soldier in uniform.

Nearby, there’s a framed print of a black Jesus.

Since it’s just around the corner, let’s stop in Sit on It, my favorite black bar in Point Breeze, and it’s dirt cheap too. Here, the bartenders are Miss Cynthia, Miss Mary and Miss Rose, all old ladies. Fifty-four, Rose is divorced and has four grown kids, “They’re doing OK, except my boy. He’s giving me a bit of trouble.”

Rose works three days a week, and is also a home nurse. Although Rose lives five miles away in West Philly, she still comes here to drink on her days off.

“You don’t get sick of looking at the same people?”

“No, no, I love the people here. I’m a people person!” She certainly is. Rose remembers every name and is always cheerful.

“Yours is easy. I just think of Ding a Ling!”

“That’s right!” I laughed.

Since it’s the afternoon crowd, the patrons are all old heads. With so many young black men dead or in prison, those who make into old age tend to be exceedingly mild and pleasant. The worst of the tribe cull themselves. When I walked into Sit on It on January 2nd, several strangers shouted, “Happy new year!”

In North Charleston, South Carolina, I chanced upon a ghetto bar that was owned by a South Asian who wouldn’t allow anyone younger than 35 to enter his establishment, “They cause too many problems,” he smiled. In Trenton, a Middle Easterner who owned a liquor store told me he had set up a bar, “But it wasn’t worth it. Too many fights.”

Point Breeze was home to John Blake and the Heath Brothers, but since this is 2018, you’re not going to hear any jazz in Sit on It. Even for those with white hair, it’s mostly rap, varied by a bit of rhythm and blues, soul and rock oldies.

Across the bar is an 86-year-old Korean War vet. Like us, he’s eating two small pieces of fried chicken, free of charge. It’s a bit salty, yes, but damn good! In Jackson, Mississippi, I wandered into a black bar in a frightful neighborhood littered with burnt out houses and, what do you know, they gave me a free plate of food, since it was a barbecue day. Like Sit on It, it was filled with older folks, nattily dressed.

As with many black neighborhood bars, Sit on It is actually not black-owned, but neither are most ghetto grocery stores and restaurants, and one can only conclude that blacks generally can’t compete with non-blacks in running small businesses. Even the black barbershop, that social institution, is being undercut by Asian barbers. On YouTube, there’s a hilarious commentary by Jay Love, a Philly homeboy, on black vs. Asian hair cutters:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kp92S_U8534

 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Blacks, Multiculturalism 
🔊 Listen RSS

At age 18, Theo volunteered for the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. Based near the demilitarized zone, he saw much fighting and lost most of his left arm in 1968. Post war, Theo learned karate, opened a dojo, married, fathered three children, got his college degree and became a high school teacher. The Philly native settled in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Yesterday, Theo was in sub-freezing Philly to see his two sons, other relatives and many old friends. Around noon, he dropped into Friendly Lounge to meet his cousin, Felix, and me. I thought we would just chatter over a few Yuenglings, but Theo insisted on lunch, his treat, at the rather fancy Anastasi, a seafood eatery down the street.

Soon after we were seated, Theo showed me a newspaper clipping on his smart phone, “This is what happened exactly 50 years ago.” The article’s title, “48 Marines Killed, 81 Wounded by Reds in Battle for Village.”

“Wow, man, and that’s just one battle. Nothing like this happened in Iraq.”

“In Fallujah, it did.”

“But it was never that high, not 48 Marines in one day.” Later, I checked to find out that the deadliest day for Americans in Iraq ended with 37 deaths, with 30 from a helicopter crash.

“Yeah, you’re right. In Vietnam, we fought in closer proximity. In Afghanistan and Iraq, they fought from a greater distance.”

At age 69, Theo appeared at least a decade younger, with no beer belly or bad posture, and his demeanor was calm, his words measured. At the table were also his two sons, Aaron and another whose name escapes me, for he was so silent and inconspicuous. Both were in their 30’s.

Scanning the unfamiliar menu, I saw that pan seared dry scallops were $27, pasta with clams, mussels, shrimp, lump crab in a marinara sauce was $22, but the shrimp platter with fries and slaw was only twelve bucks, so I chose that.

A year and a half ago, I interviewed Tony the cook, who worked at Anastasi. Six months later, Tony got fired for allegedly stealing while working Anastasi’s parking lot. The security camera kept catching Tony turning his back as he counted the Federal Reserve notes. To keep Tony from starving, many of us at Friendly then lent or gave money to the scrawny, hard drinking and lottery ticket addicted man. I chipped in $40, a sort of belated payment for his being so generous with his life’s details. Stories nourish. Neglecting to pay his gas bill, Tony’s apartment, whom he shared with his sister, was also freezing. The cranky, aging lady’s a bipolar, pot puffing and wine swilling waitress who’s probably fired by now. Skipping out on all his debts, Tony then went home to Bucks County, only to die, I just found out yesterday. Tony, “I’ve been with a lot of women. I love women. I’ve been with 138, and I’m working on 139. Any day now. I ain’t dead yet.” He was 56.

Depending on how smug or sheltered you are, Tony is either a freakish outlier or quite typical of our despairing working class. Underpaid, overworked and forced to compete with an endless supply of immigrants, legal and illegal, they’re increasingly blighted by every social pathology. Whenever they complain about anything, they’re jeered by our condescending media as being reactionary, racist or just plain losers who are more than deserving of their dismal lot. For 2017, drug overdose deaths in Philly are around 1,200, up from 900 of just last year. Nationwide, the 2016 drug body count was 65,000, more than all the American deaths from the Vietnam War. Is Fentanyl from China a payback, with interest, for the opium trade of the 18th and 19th centuries?

Theo went to Vietnam because he believed in fighting Communism. Aaron, however, believes his father was definitely on the wrong side of history. Capitalism is imploding, he’s convinced, because it is inherently unjust, and China is the future. Unlike Western countries, China doesn’t exploit lesser countries but helps to develop them, through respectful cooperation.

“We’ll see,” Theo said with a bemused smile.

“China is about China,” I added.

Aaron, “Unlike the US, with its many wars and bases all over, China has never invaded anybody.”

“Actually, China has invaded and absorbed quite a few nations,” I said. “There are many nationalities within China.”

“China hasn’t invaded anybody since 1949,” Aaron countered.

“Even Vietnam has invaded and absorbed other nations. Everybody does this. And Vietnam’s eternal fear is to be absorbed by China. If you go to Vietnam, you won’t hear Vietnamese talk badly about Japan, France or the United States, all of whom has caused a lot of suffering there, but China is different, because China is right there! My cousin is half Chinese, but you should hear this woman. She’s insanely anti-China!”

A successful Saigon businesswoman who’s fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, with several trips to China, Lan has raged to me about Chinese invading Nha Trang and Da Nang, Chinese clothes with toxins or even leeches, and Chinese noodles and rice made of plastic. The Chinese are trying to kill the Vietnamese, Lan is convinced, and to show how barbaric they are, she told me about Chinese eating fetuses.

Aaron, “I think Vietnam should learn how to cooperate with China, and not lean on the US in any way.”

“Vietnam is working with China, and emulating it, but it also doesn’t trust China. That’s why it’s working militarily with the US, and buying American weapons.”

“I think that’s a big mistake.”

“He’s giving you the Vietnamese perspective, Aaron,” Theo interjected. “You don’t know how people in Vietnam think.”

Just by offering an alternative to Western styled capitalism, China is already giving hope to the rest of the world, the young man insisted. China is the future. Tall, clean shaven and square jawed, Aaron never smiled and was often irritated. Earnestly proselytizing, he spoke of “objective economic realities that cannot be debated.”

“So what do you think will happen to the United States?”

“It can’t go on like this. A revolution must happen.”

“How can this be put in motion?”

“The working class needs to be educated to overthrow capital.”

“But what’s the first step?”

“A conversation like this.”

“Then?”

Aaron was suddenly speechless. I prodded, “Do you envision this revolution happening in ten years?”

“No, that’s too soon.”

“Fifty?”

“Before then.”

“Do you see the US as staying in one piece?”

“I support self-determination for everyone, including the first nations. If the Navajos want to establish their own country, I’ll back that.”

“But how will you break up, say, Tucson, Arizona?” I half grinned, as did Theo.

Aaron, “If the people of the Southwest want to form their own country, join Mexico or stay within the US, I will support it, as long as it’s done democratically.”

Theo, “Hey, why don’t you eat your food! You’ve been talking so much, you haven’t even touched your sandwich!”

Way overpopulated, China has been exporting people and importing jobs for decades, while the US did the exact opposite. Chinese immigrants send money home and open new markets for Chinese goods, so it’s great, from China’s perspective, that Chinese are flooding into the Russian Far East, Europe, North America and Africa, although many have decamped from the last for greener pastures. No traffic is going in the other direction, mind you, for China has the lowest percentage of immigrants in the entire world.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: China, Immigration, Poverty 
🔊 Listen RSS

Two blocks from my front door, there are two signs in a house window, “FASCIST SCUM YOUR TIME IS DONE,” “WHITE SUPREMACY IS TERRORISM.” Seeing them, my 71-year-old friend, Felix, snarled, “I feel like throwing a rock through that window! How dare he comes into this neighborhood and calls us Fascists!” Interesting, Felix’ immediate assumption that the man was a newcomer, that is, an outsider who had intruded to find the locals more than deplorable.

Less than a block away, there are these signs in second floor windows, “VETERANS FOR TRUMP / MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” “TRUMP / MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” “the silent majority STANDS WITH TRUMP,” “TRUMP / MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” plus an American flag.

Fifty yards from that house, there is a poster showing the Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta being flushed down the toilet, “CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS DIDN’T DISCOVER SHIT / DECOLONIZE / ABOLISH POLICE . RETURN STOLEN LAND . CEASE INDUSTRIALIZATION . CEASE ASSIMILATION . PROTECT SACRED LAND AND WATER”

So far, who is the extremist here? Of course, the correct answer is all of them, thanks to the extreme polarization of our society, for if you don’t agree with someone politically, he becomes a Fascist or Communist.

The last fellow echoes Derek Jensen, who has written 20 books to defend nature and denounce human supremacism, industrialism and agriculture. Jensen wants to destroy all that is and reboot the world. Since humanity can never think or act as one, however, there is no chance that, say, “CEASE INDUSTRIALISM” can ever be applied universally.

We’ve only walked two blocks, and the political and social division on display is already jarring, so let’s take brief refuge in the Friendly Lounge, yet even here, there’s a civil war abrewing. Check out this Yelp review, “Calling this bar ‘Friendly’ Lounge must have been somebody’s idea of a sick joke. The bartender (it’s almost always the same dude) is downright surly (which it must be said, I usually do go in for). He kind of perches on the bar and doesn’t really move when people come in. There is definitely a negative vibe directed at anybody under forty, particularly those in ironic t-shirts and thick black frames. Also, you’re more than likely to hear some offensive (most likely racist) joke told between the staff and the regulars if you stay around long enough. There are no beers on draft and a very limited selection in the bottle. I think Yuengling was the creme de la creme of that selection.”

Friendly owners still resist serving Pabst Blue Ribbon, it’s true. To those who are into man buns, soul patches and tight jeans, this is a stay away sign. Metrosexual hipsters are not missed by Felix, “They’re Communists, basically.” Returning the favor, they’d brand him a Fascist for his defense of Trump.

Yes, the nighttime bartender, Marco, can often be surly, but his brother, Dominik, who works daytime, is always courteous and accommodating. Last week, when two black dudes tried to pay with a fake $20, Dom didn’t freak but gave them two free drinks, just to avoid a commotion. As for the racist jokes, they come in all colors, including plenty against Italians, “the Awopaho tribe.”

Felix, “Everybody is a little racist. You have to a bit prejudiced, just to get by in this world. If you walk in a black neighborhood and you see a gang of teenagers at a corner, you’ll cross the street. The ‘correct’ people are the biggest bigots of them all. Back in the 60’s, the quote was, ‘Never trust anybody over 30.’ Now, I don’t trust anybody under 30.”

Three blocks from me is a huge mural of Frank Rizzo, the Fascist late mayor, according to many, or a law-and-order man who prevented race riots from enflaming Philadelphia. Dom, “Rizzo didn’t see black or white. He saw blue.” Felix, “He gave black people more jobs than any Philly mayor before him.” A Friendly regular, Cookie, has a brother who worked as a Rizzo bodyguard. Paint has been repeatedly splashed on the Rizzo mural, in the heart of the Italian Market, and after much protest, the Rizzo statue will be evicted from its prominent spot near city hall.

Rizzo fans are all over South Philly. Cops, firemen, longshoremen, iron workers and carpenters, they drink at dives like Shamrock, Dee’s Place, O’Jung and Cookie’s, the last with American flags all over, and signs such as, “America is #1 Thanks to our Veterans,” “MY FRIEND TOOK BILL CLINTONS PLACE IN VIETNAM / HIS NAME IS ON THE WALL” and “Politicians don’t keep US “FREE” / OUR MILITARY DOES! USA, USN, USAF, USMC, USCG”. In the men’s room, there’s a sticker with “HANOI JANE” in each urinal. On Fonda’s cheek is a hammer and sickle. Piss on the traitor! Outside, there are two large banners, “MARINES MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

College-indoctrinared millennials wouldn’t be caught smirking in Cookie’s, not even for a speedball dose of contempt and irony. They hang in joints like Pennsport Beer Boutique and 2nd Street Brew House. In New York City last year, I chatted with a 25-ish woman who referred to middle America as “hell land,” and many of those “hell landers,” in turn, wouldn’t mind seeing Manhattan, Seattle, Portland or San Francisco nuked, for they’re all “Commie” bastions.

Around Temple University, flyers went up this month in the middle of night, “Hey you stupid NIGGERS / Bernie would have won if it wasn’t for you. Seriously, fuck you all. This is all your fault.”

We speak of red and blue states, but our violent political division exists within each city block, and often within the same household. Spouses have divorced over their fealty to Trump or Hillary, war criminals both, just like Obama, Bush and Clinton, etc., all brown noses of the military banking complex and Israel. Branding each other Fascist or Communist, we absolve our common enemies.

Overweening state power, as epitomized by both Communism and Fascism, is the common threat that should unite all Americans.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Left, Conservatism, Donald Trump 
🔊 Listen RSS

With their vast parking lots and chain stores, strip malls may appear generic, impersonal and characterless, but each harbors an intense web of social interactions, with an infinity of stories to tell, but to even state this is redundant, for there’s no man, woman, child or dog who isn’t, by his lonesome, asshole self, a thousand-page novel.

In Scranton recently, I was daily dragged by Chuck Orloski to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Washington Avenue. From its beauteous and ample plate glass window, I could espy the wondrous China Moon across the street, and Dollar Tree, Rite Aid, Brick Oven Pizzeria, Pro Nails and PNC Bank were all within rifle shot distance.

Chuck knew just about everybody in Dunkin’ Donuts but the guy sleeping in the corner, with his head on the table. He introduced me to Andy, Hoppie and Melissa. Behind the counter was Ashley.

Ashley’s husband, Brian, did a good deed two weeks ago. When the temperature dipped into the 20’s, Brian went to check on Jimmy, a homeless guy who always slept outside Weiss, the dead supermarket. It’s a spot the native Texan liked because it fully caught the morning sun. This morning, Jimmy’s teeth were chattering, and it sure didn’t look like he could survive the next several days, all forecast to be sub-freezing. With another Dunkin’ Donuts buddy, Brian took Jimmy to the West Side Hotel, two miles away, and gave him three nights, at $150 altogether. They also gave him a bag of donuts and breakfast sandwiches.

Ten days later, Brian was $50 short for his gas bill, however, so Chuck lent him $43, all he had in his wallet.

When Chuck moved into Lighthouse, a charity home run by a blind Carmelite nun, Hoppie gave his friend an 8-inch TV, for he was certain Andy Griffith, Columbo, X-File, Gunsmoke and the Philadephia Eagles could divert Chuck from always thinking about his many woes.

Sitting across from Hoppie, I could see that he was very pleasant, if a bit senile. Next to me was Melissa, an Iraqi refugee. Two of her kids were also at the table. Hearing about her difficulties, Hoppie would exclaim, “God bless you,” or, “I’ll pray for you.”

Turning to me suddenly, Hoppie blurted, “Welcome to America!”

Before leaving, Hoppie pleaded to Melissa, “And please, pray for me too, for I need your prayer.” Then he got up and did a lurching jig on the open floor, to the mild amusement of the cashiers. They had seen it. Encouraged by their grins, Hoppie kept dancing for a bit too long.

Melissa has been in the US for 2 years and 7 months. With no husband here, she must manage six children, aged 18, 16, 14, 11, 8 and 5. Her 16-year-old daughter, Melina, wants to be cheerleader, but that’s not going to happen, Melissa said.

It’s her 14-year-old daughter, however, who’s giving Melissa the most trouble. Mina has discovered sex and at least marijuana. “She likes black guys,” Melina told me. Mina would disappear for days, and once, drove Melissa’s car away and stranded her mother.

Yes, I know Melissa is not yet an American, but she will be one soon enough. Moreover, by wrecking her native country, America has caused Melissa to be here, so she is very much an American product.

On Melissa’s left arm was a heart tattoo with a dagger sticking out of it. Her eyebrows had also been tattooed on. Her head was uncovered.

I never sleep enough. Like, four hours, five hours. That’s it.

I work at Dunkin’ Donuts, from last year, October.

We have three thousand pound of dough. Sometimes three thousand pound. More! They pay me 11 an hour. I work hard, hard, hard.

You know the jelly? I fill that. Yesterday, I fill 62 baskets. Too much, 62, too much. My neck hurt all the time. Then, I take the sugar jelly. Yesterday, 68. You’re killing me, man.

If you work from 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, four hours, they give you 30 minutes. I take overtime, so nine hours, 30 minutes. And they don’t pay you, you know. Other companies pay you.

People who work five years, they give them 12.

I want to change this work. Horrible.

I work at TJ Max. Was bad. Because I work just two days. I have to watch my baby. Saturday and Sunday, because my kid home, I can’t work.

He in childcare. The bus pick him up every day, 7:50. I give my baby to the bus, then he come back 3:30.

Sometime, they told me, “You have to work at 4 O’clock.” I have to take my baby, then I have to go to the other school, for my daughters.

I never sleep. Never. I told you. I can’t sleep.

Sunday off, Monday working, Tuesday off. They don’t give me two days off. Fuck it. No problem. “Because we don’t have the people.” Of course, you don’t have the people, because everybody left. One day, everybody left. Too much. Good people quit.

Spanish people, they steal stuff. I just finish my work. I see beside the car, a bucket. They say, “Mommy, don’t touch it.” It’s heavy. I think about telling the manager. I afraid.

We have buckets of vanilla, chocolate. Expensive buckets. More than 30 dollar. Used to be nobody take this stuff. They take the glaze. They have friends with stores, so they sell it.

We have 24 people. American, Spanish, anybody. Just me, Araby.

In my country, the men work. The women watch the kids, the house.

In 2003, I live with my mom, and my dad, in Baghdad. When my mom die, when my brothers die, I be married, this time. So I live with my husband, in Kirkuk, then, terrible with that family, so I move back to Baghdad. I live in Baghdad nine years.

My father is a farmer. He grow vegetables, fruits, apples, lemons. One day, I stand with my father outside, and American trucks, four! come. We see my brothers come home from fishing. Two, three American soldiers jump from trucks, shoot, tat, tat, tat, tat! They kill my brothers, so we get their bodies, you know. We have a good life, but they break it.

Al Sadr, he die, but his son, his son maybe fight with the American. They shoot them. They just want to be, like, a hero, you know. They don’t care for the people. I say, “Man, what are you talking about?! The American have this one, guns, different. What are you talking about?! You have, ah, ah, Kalashnikov? What do you have? They know where are you. The American, they have everything. Why you kill your people, man? You know, when you make all this stuff, the people are killed. They’re destroyed. The people be die, like, for no reason.”

2014, I pay money for visa. Around 90,000 Iraqi. Six hundred dollar. Me, and my babies. Then I leave from Baghdad to Kirkuk. We stay on the bus for 44 hours.

Monday, we come to Turkey, and just sleep the night. I wake up with my children. We sleep in the hotel. It’s not hotel, like apartment? I wake up at 5:30 in the morning. Just take my children to United Nations. So, I just told them, “I want to get out of here, man. I want to get out, because I have the kids. My life is hard in Iraq. My life is difficult, too difficult. My kids, every day, I’m scared to death, you know. When my kids go to school, oh my God, every minute I hear boom! boom! My heart is like this, all the time, every morning. When they come home, I’m scared somebody come and kill them. My kids, you know?” So I just told them, “Please help me!”

They take my name. They take my children’s names. So, between there and there, I don’t have a house, I don’t have enough, so I go to my cousin. He was in Turkey. My husband’s uncle, before me he go there. So my cousin, he help me to find house. Five days, I stay with my cousin. I find a house. The Turkey people, they help me. Too much. They bring some stuff. I buy some stuff to my kids. I just stay in the house. My husband, he work. He send me money, to pay the rent.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Immigration, Poverty 
🔊 Listen RSS

On Thanksgiving, I came to Scranton to stay with a 65-year-old friend who’s going through a cage fight kind of divorce, though only one side is dishing out the sharp elbows and knees. Just hearing Christmas music at the Dollar Store was driving him mad, Chuck confessed. The four-hour bus ride from Philly stopped in Doylestown, Easton, Stroudsburg and Mount Pocono.

Just outside Easton, a black man had just shot two white cops after he was pulled over for speeding, and even as I dozed on the bus, another black man murdered a white state trooper in faraway Texas. Both incidents would be downplayed by our media, then forgotten almost immediately.

Getting off the bus, I thanked the friendly bus driver, a middle-aged black man. He, too, would have a late Thanksgiving dinner. From the terminal, Chuck came into the cold to meet me, and together, we walked half a mile to The Lighthouse, his group home. Paying $400 a month, Chuck gets a 10X10, plus use of the communal kitchen and dining room. Paying $100, I got five nights.

Sister Lindy Morelli, the blind Carmelite nun who runs Lighthouse, was supposed to have dinner with me, but since she suddenly had a migraine headache, I ended up eating solo. Though a vegetarian, Lindy had made a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the entire house. My heart-warming plate had turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mash with gravy, string beans, cauliflower and carrot. For Lindy, I brought a bottle of Chianti Classico, complete with the black rooster seal, but she drinks no alcohol, I found out.

“Can I cook with this?” Lindy asked me the next morning.

“No, no, it’s too good for that!”

“Oh yeah?!” She laughed. “I’ll give it to my sister then.”

Founded in 1994, The Lighthouse has hosted nearly a hundred people. As could be expected among the destitute, there have been criminals, freaks and life-long bunglers, but the vast majority were just ordinary folks, down on their luck. One morning, I chatted with 55-ish Lee Ann, who had been at The Lighthouse for over a year.

“When you told Chuck you had to go to work at 8, he said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ That’s pretty funny. Why sorry?”

“Ah, you don’t know! The dayshift people don’t do nothing, so when I come in, I’ll have to clean up after them. They don’t count the leftover newspapers, or put them away. It’s not my job to train them. I don’t get paid enough!” We laughed.

Price Chopper is a supermarket chain. This week, you can get 10 cans of Chef Boyardee for just 10 bucks. Lee Ann has worked there for six years.

The short, slightly overweight lady was on the couch, while my rotund self was beached at the dining room table. On the walls were crosses, Jesuses and uplifting messages. Over the stairs was a watercolor of a kneeling woman with her hands together, “Prayer is the key to the morning and the lock of the evening.” The Lighthouse doesn’t proselytize, however.

Lee Ann sighed, “This week, I’ll have three funerals to go to go. Three!”

“Wow.”

“One is for a co-coworker. She’s in the bakery. We just took up a collection for her.”

“She has no family?”

“She lived with the mom. She had kids, I think, but no husband.”

“How old was she?”

“Around 35. She died of a blood clot.”

“Dying of a blood clot at 35!”

“She was a big girl.”

Lee Ann has had her own health issues. She had a brain tumor removed at age five, and was operated on for kidney cancer recently. Her recovery, she attributes to a miraculous icon at St. George, a Greek Orthodox church she attends every Monday and Wednesday, “I was waiting outside in my car by 4:30. The door opens at 5, and service begins at 6. It’s always packed.”

Online, there are several testimonies about the healing power of the myrrh exuding icon of Taylor, PA. One example:

A man had a massive heart attack while in the church. Two nurses who were present rushed over to him and began to do CPR, while others called 911. As the nurses tried to revive him, he showed no pulse, stopped breathing and actually died. While waiting the few minutes for the ambulance to arrive, Fr. Mark Leisure, the priest of St. George Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA took the Kardiotisa, “The Tender Heart” myrrh-flowing, miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and held it over the man so that the fragrant myrrh would drip from the icon onto the chest of the man. Immediately, the dead man took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and began singing “Mary, Mother of God Save Me.” By the time the paramedics arrived, he was sitting up and didn’t think he needed to go to the hospital, even though they insisted that he get checked.

Another:

One stranger began to attend on Mondays, and at one point stood up and said, “These icons in the Church are against Allah. They are idolatry.” He argued that Allah was not pleased with these icons. After attending for a few weeks, this man from Iran finally approached the icon. Fr. Mark admitted that everyone was tense because he wasn’t sure what the man was going to do. Over the past three years, Fr. Mark has seen someone pull out a knife and try to stab the icon; others have tried to smash it; some have spit on it; and one person even vomited over the protective case. The man from Iran approached and stood motionless in front of the icon covered with fragrant myrrh. Fr. Mark said the man was like in a trance, and it seemed like a battle was going on in his mind. Slowly a tear formed in his eyes, and he began to cry. He kissed the icon. As he walked out of the church, he stopped by the candle stand and wrote something in the sand in Arabic. Since no one could read Arabic, the priest took a picture of what he wrote and got someone to translate it. The man wrote, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Several months later this man was baptized and is now a pious Orthodox Christian.

“I’m a walking miracle,” Lee Ann declared. The icon gives her energy and hope.

Going back upstairs, she said, “I don’t know about this Meghan with Prince Harry. Everybody’s talking about it! Ellen was discussing it, and that’s what they’re going to talk about, too, on The Talk. The Queen is not too happy about Meghan being divorced, you know, but I say, ‘Look at your own son, Charles! Just shut up already!’”

Their coal seams exhausted, their factories gone, Scrantonians get by on dead-end jobs, cheap alcohol, pills and unaffordable heroin. In September of 2017, Lackawanna County sued pharmaceutical companies over the ever-deepening opioid crisis. “The line has been drawn,” the county commissioner declared.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Poverty, Working Class 
🔊 Listen RSS

Millions of Americans still have ties to their ancestral country. Two years ago, I met an 54-year-old man who would periodically visit his family home in Abruzzo. Its grape vines and olive trees had been sold a long time ago, and the house itself was little more than a husk, thanks to thieves, “Locals, not gypsies, have broken in to steal just about everything. Each time they see me, they shout, ‘Ecco l’americano!’ They ask all kinds of questions about this country. I love Italy, but I love America more. Everything is better here. Everything.” Despite all that, he still owned the house, so Italy still held him.

My friend, Nguyen Qui Duc, had a successful career in radio broadcasting. He worked for the BBC and NPR. In his mid 40’s, however, Duc decided to move back to Vietnam. Now, he owns two houses and three businesses there, including a Hanoi bar, Tadioto, that has been featured in TIME Magazine, the New York Times and on CNN, etc. When I saw Duc a month ago, he was happy and relaxed, so it’s safe to say he won’t head back this way.

In Hanoi, I met several Vietnamese-Americans, including Helen, a 33-year-old Chicago native who had been living in Vietnam for three years. She told me about her ordeals in Vietnamese public hospitals, where you must tip each nurse and doctor to get decent treatment. Used to American standards, Helen had no idea.

My father is a very traditional Vietnamese man. He was born in the 30’s. He also had a really strange life, because he was an orphan. His parents both died when he was eight or nine.

His father’s body was never recovered because he died on a mountain in a landslide caused by Japanese bombings. His mother’s body was never found because she was on a train that was bombed by the Japanese. The last time he saw his mother, she came by the pho stand where he worked and they hugged, then she got on a train.

So, he grew up alone, and his whole goal was to have a family. He thinks a lot of security comes from family because he didn’t have it. He married my mother because she was, you know, a hot, traditional Vietnamese woman, and I think later in life, he realized that maybe you should get married to people for other reasons. They’re still together though.

My father doesn’t talk about it very much, but he was a part of the South Vietnamese Army. He didn’t see combat. He worked in logistics. He also taught English to other Vietnamese people because he had studied English at university. After his parents died, my father decided to become a poet and changed his name to Văn Sơn [Literature Mountain].

He was an extremely handsome young man and would juggle five to seven girlfriends at a time. I like the story of his first love: he was tutoring a beautiful rich girl who was a few years younger. They’d leave each other love notes in the tree outside her gate. One day, he went to go pick up the love note and it was a letter from her parents, informing him that they’d shipped her away to France and that they’d never accept a penniless orphan as a son-in-law.

In fact, I think of this often because I don’t think I’d exist had there not been an exodus in 1975. Given the class distinctions, my parents would have never met. There was a big class difference between them. I think it was a big chip on his shoulder. He was like a Charles Dickens orphan or whatever.

My mother’s family has been, I think, always connected to the government, under the French, and before that, mandarins in the imperial government, way back. They were always very wealthy. My grandmother lived in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and her family owned a fish sauce operation. During World War II, my grandmother told me that people were starving, pushing dead bodies in carts on the streets. Her family made congee for everyone on the block.

In 1954, my mother was a year old when her parents decided to move to Saigon. They got into a car accident and flipped off the mountain road into a river. French soldiers heard her crying and helped them out. Everyone survived.

In the years leading up to 1975, my mother had been set up with the sons of rich families by matchmakers. She tells me that she didn’t like any of them and would botch the tea ceremony to make herself look like an unacceptable candidate for daughter-in-law.

On April 30th, 1975, my father left on a helicopter from the US Embassy in Saigon, thanks to an American friend of his. My mother’s family boarded a boat after a harrowing drive through the city, all 10 of them crammed into their luxury vehicle. She was narrowly missed by bullets on the boat. My parents met on Wake Island in the South Pacific, and then they met again in Chicago at a mah jong and pho party on Argyle Street. At the time, my mother’s family was living in Milwaukee.

She was 22 when she came to the US. My father is much older. They’re about 20 years apart. They were married a year or two later. My mother moved from Milwaukee to the West Side of Chicago. She was terrified by all of the gunshots from gang wars in the 1970s, so my father moved them over to Elmwood Park, a suburb. They opened a restaurant. It started out as a hot dog stand in Oak Park, but my father thought, because he had learned how to make pho as a kid, “Why don’t we switch over to Vietnamese food?” It was one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in Chicagoland.

The Vietnamese community in Chicago loves my mother’s food. She once sold 2,000 eggrolls at $1 a piece to pay for my braces. She’s the type of person who can identify every ingredient in a dish blind-folded and she can also recreate most dishes after tasting them once.

Growing up, I felt like my mother wasn’t the type of girl I would have been friends with. She was like a really hot, rich girl. I mean, she’s a kind person, but there are things she didn’t have to think about when she was growing up. She grew up rich, I grew up poor, so I didn’t connect with her very much when I was a teenager.

So, she grew up very, you know, in her own bubble, in her own wealthy bubble, and even when they moved to Saigon, she lived in a mansion of some sort. They employed a professional chef in the kitchen, someone who had mastered Vietnamese, Chinese and French cuisine. When I talked to her about what had happened during the war, she said she didn’t really experience much of it because she lived in a bubble and went to a private school.

When there are issues to solve, financial issues or whatever, my brother, father and I will jump on and try to figure out what to do, and she’s like, “Everything will work out!” She’s very optimistic in this way that, like, only rich people are, you know? Her big thing is, she really does believe in America. She’s like, “Well, you show up, you work hard, you help people, people help you and everything will be OK.” I think maybe, in some ways, it actually does get her far, like she has a lot of friends from different walks of life. She’s a social worker in non-profit. She’s a really caring and smart person.

My mother scrubbed toilets in a bowling alley, actually, her first year in the US. Then, after she moved to Chicago, she worked for a while for this travel agency run by Japanese Americans, which was really cool. They were old Japanese Americans, who had been interned, so they were really, like, for me, the first non-Vietnamese, Asian Americans I met as a kid.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Vietnam, Vietnamese 
🔊 Listen RSS

Drive-in theaters are practically extinct, diners are dying, but go-go bars are still common in working class neighborhoods across America. It’s wholesome afterwork entertainment for the sweating man.

When I was a housepainter over twenty years ago, our crew would hit The Office in CenterCity or Penn’s Port Pub, on Christopher Columbus Boulevard. After a long, hot day of scraping paint or standing on a 40-foot ladder, it was somewhat soothing to see lovelies pole dancing.

Yesterday, I went with Felix Giordano to Penn’s Port Pub to rekindle some old memories and, well, long lost sensations. “This may bring a dead man to life,” Felix joked before we walked in. He’s 71, and I just turned 54.

Yes, the doors to a movie theater also separate real life from fantasy, but entering a go-go bar, you’re really descending into your simmering, frustrated id. Of course, it’s bizarre to stare so hard at someone’s orifices, with all your clothes on, in public. Being in a go-go bar is akin to witnessing a public execution.

In the early afternoon, there were only six aging, contemplative gents in there. We chose a reasonable vantage point and ordered two Yuenglings.

Within a hundred yards, there were also Club Risqué and Show & Tel, but they’re gentlemen’s clubs, and Felix and I just don’t patronize such snobbish and exorbitant establishments. Once, a Club Risqué dancer did ask Felix for directions outside Wal-Mart, “She was stunning. I couldn’t believe such a beautiful woman would ask me for directions!”

All the Christopher Columbus Boulevard big box stores, Wal-Mart, Target, Ikea, Staples, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy, have destroyed most Pennsport mom and pops, but what are you going to do? Small businesses gone, the city tried to build casinos in Pennsport, but locals blocked the plan.

There are often beggars standing in the median on Christopher Columbus. Sometimes, you’ll even see a homeless person sleep within sight of the Penn’s Port Pub.

The SS United States is docked in Pennsport. Since its last voyage in 1969, all schemes to convert it to a casino, hotel, cruise ship, troop transporter or naval hospital have failed. The largest ocean liner to have ever been built in the US, it molders and rusts on the Delaware River.

At Penn’s Port Pub, they show all and don’t bother with pasties, and it’s generally assumed that’s because it’s a cops’ go-go bar. Pennsport is still heavily Irish.

The Mummers are big here. They rehearse all year long for New Year’s Day, when they can finally wear sequins, colored feathers and/or some outrageous, custom-made dress. Strutting down Broad Street, they strum a banjo, blow on a saxophone or twirl a gay umbrella.

As a blonde lady jiggled, writhed, hung upside down or spread, a man stared at his smart phone. There were two televisions on, but with the sound off. On a cooking show, seafood was being seasoned. Felix recognized an older black man at the end of the bar as the cook, “He’s good. They have good food here.”

Trawling for tips, the ladies will walk on the bar, so be prepared for one to wiggle her assets over your plate of chicken wings.

As dark-haired Damiana squatted in front of my placid, resigned face, I confided, “Me and this guy haven’t been here in twenty years. I don’t think you were working then.”

“No, I wasn’t,” she giggled.

“Were you even born then?” I complimented her.

The man next to us was 50 and balding, “I have hair all over me, on my back, growing out of my ass and my balls. I’m Italian, you know. Maybe if I walked upside down, hair would grow from my head again.”

When Damiana came on, her nether shave reminded baldy of the most evil man, supposedly, who ever lived, “Do you know that Hitler had a secret train? It was used to transport gold, inside a tunnel!”

The blonde didn’t look older than 25, but she admitted to being 40, “I’ve only been doing this for five years. I’m going to quit next year.”

“You should look into art modeling,” Felix advised. “They don’t make bad money.”

“Hey, that’s an idea! I don’t have any problems taking my clothes off!”

“You can model for individual artists too, not just art schools,” I chimed in.

Leaving, we went to 2nd Street and had a couple beers at Shamrock. The dark dive bar had small American flags all over. A sign listed champions of a basketball league, with “Drop the Bomb” the winners for 1991. Going to the bathroom, I passed an image of a serious John Wayne in “Green Berets,” “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

On a bulletin board were death notices, dart scorecards and thank you notes for benefits staged. One example:

Words could never express how thankful I am to all of you for the beautiful benefit that you had for me and my family.

I am so grateful for all the good friends and family for all your love and support through out my journey.

I wish there were a more meaningful word then thank you. It dosen’t seem to be enough.

Again thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I truly appreciate it.

Love Paul, Renee, Justin and Jordan

For many uninsured, working poor, a medical emergency will send them to the local bar for assistance, for that’s their social hub. I’ve seen benefit announcements at many dives across America.

My friend, Ian Keenan, shares:

My grandpop spent much of his adult life in North Philly bars and would also say ‘never trust a man who doesn’t drink.’ He would seat the family at church on Sunday and then sneak out to hit the bar. He was a sort of ghost that imprinted my childhood even though he died before I was born and I didn’t form the view, especially after I created a suburban drinking club at 15 that met multiple times a week, that I could keep a secret from someone, repress a long held thought, or deceive someone.

Pubs in the British Isles (especially Ireland) are law courts, hiring halls, and everything else… you have to settle up with people and if you jerk someone over you’re going to see them again and again.

As a social glue and balm, then, the neighborhood pub was even more important than the church. Thanks to the zombifying television and internet, the pub has lost much of its grip on our hearts, minds and livers, however, for we can just ogle sports and nudes at home. Modern urban planning has also done its job. In his 1937 Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell explains:

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Working Class 
🔊 Listen RSS

To go home, I had to take a taxi to Saigon’s airport, fly to Hanoi, then on to Hong Kong, where during a 5 ½ hour layover I’d take a train to Central to hang out a bit, then back to the airport to fly to JFK, then hop on two trains just to get to Manhattan, then two more to reach Philly’s 30th Street Station, from where I could, finally, take two subways to my South Philadelphia neighborhood. With so many legs to a trip, a thousand things could go wrong.

Tan Son Nhat Airport, Saigon
Tan Son Nhat Airport, Saigon

Riding through Saigon at 3:30AM, I noticed a bunch of restaurants were already open, with people sitting at sidewalk tables, eating noodles or drinking coffee. Tired, I said nothing to the driver. No jokes about a national homosexual policy, strictly enforced for half a century, to reverse the runaway population growth.

Before taking off from Saigon, the Vietnam Airlines stewardess warned us that to open any aircraft door during flight would result in a $880 fine.

A sign at Hanoi’s airport, “NO MOTORBIKES, BICYCLES OR PRIMITIVE MEANS.” During a month of hectic travel through urban and rural Vietnam, I saw just one ox-drawn cart and maybe a dozen pedicabs. SUV sales are surging, however, and there’s also a growing market for Harley Davidsons. They cost $16,000 to $52,000, twice as much as in the US. In Phan Thiet, I spotted a US Army jeep, meticulously restored, parked outside the ultra-trendy Ocean Coffee.

The express train from the airport to Central Hong Kong runs every 10 minutes from 5:54AM to 12:48AM, and takes but 24 minutes to cover 23 miles. Nearly every world-class city has a direct train to connect its international airport to downtown, but Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC simply don’t, and Americans just don’t give a flying, exploding cockpit! We’re number one!

Since the Washington Metro opened in 1976, politicians have talked about extending it to Dulles. Forty-one years later, it has crept within seven miles of the badly designed, unfriendly and decrepit airport, opened in 1962. It may even get there before the much welcome controlled demolition. In 2014, news.com.au asked of Dulles, “Is this the world’s worst airport?”

Year after year, East Asian top airports rank as the planet’s best, with Seoul’s, Singapore’s, Tokyo’s and Hong Kong’s nearly always in the top five. In Europe, London’s, Amsterdam’s, Frankfurt’s and Zurich’s are also first-rate.

With twice the population density of Saigon’s, Hong Kong’s streets are nowhere nearly as clogged, thanks to its excellent subway system and a vast fleet of private buses. Like Singapore, Hong Kong is also a hundred times cleaner and more orderly than my native city. Most impressively, Hong Kong’s murder rate per 100,000 people was only 0.4 for 2016. With 7.347 million people, it had 28 murders. By contrast, Philadelphia tallied 278 homicides for a population of 1.568 million.

Year after year, American blacks commit murders at roughly seven times the rate of whites, a fact that’s blamed by many on socioeconomic factors, historical resentment and/or ongoing racism, while others attribute it to a low IQ, innate lack of impulse control and/or propensity for violence. A century from now, will blacks still be an underclass in any multicultural societies still existing? How about in five hundred years?

Without a significant black population, East Asian societies don’t have to deal with this debate or problem. I’ve wandered unfamiliar Saigon, Hanoi and Singapore streets in the middle of the night without any fear of being shot or stabbed, and I’ve done the same in many European cities, including Istanbul and war-time Kiev.

In recent years, Africans have started to emigrate to Vietnam, and in Saigon’s Gò Vấp District and on Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, there are even black male prostitutes, a phenomenon that’s particularly pleasing to certain middle-aged Vietnamese women. The Africans’ prices are high for local standards, around $25 for a quickie, $50 for an overnight. A recent police raid brought in 50 Africans for questioning.

Wandering around Hong Kong’s Central, I spotted a graffiti, “DESTROY RACISM.” Nearby, there’s a pretty, young, blonde model on an ad for a high-end real estate firm, Man Hing Hong. A few steps away was another blonde, this one merely a teenager, on an ad for an ordinary hair salon, mina dev’ wil. Noticing racial differences means having racial preferences. We will never be color-blind.

As an adult, I’ve had two 2-year stints away from the US. Living in Saigon from 1999-2001, I missed Mexican food, Seahawks games on TV and some jazz, so I asked a friend, traveling to Saigon with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to bring me Django Reinhardt, and Lester Young accompanying Billie Holliday. Returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, I asked my brother to drive me straight to a Mexican joint. Now, there are good Mexican restaurants in Vietnam, and you can listen to anything on YouTube.

Living in Italy from 2002-2004, I missed decent fried chicken, tolerable Chinese food, bullshitting in bars and watching the Seahawks on TV. The Italian ways were so wonderful, the people so hospitable and sweet, I had several nightmares in which I suddenly found myself back in Philly. Opening my eyes, I discovered, with tremendous relief, that I was still in Italy.

Flying into Dulles, I noticed how wide the freeway medians were. So much space wasted, I thought. The currency exchange girl gave me several hundred dollars too much. Catching her mistake, I returned the cash. “Whoa!” She laughed.

During my month in Vietnam, I checked Seahawks games in progress, answered a few emails from Philly buddies and knew I would be back to eating canned chili, baked beans and clam chowder soon enough.

The flight from Hong Kong to JFK took 15 hours 45 minutes. Most of the passengers were Chinese-Americans, a fact I discovered when all these Cantonese speaking folks took out their blue passports at immigration. On the plane, the stewardess kept speaking Cantonese to me, even though I had answered her in English the last time around. Vietnam’s eternal fear is to be blended into China. Two seats away from me was a young man in a yarmulke. Since he had his earphones on during each waking moment, we never chattered.

Recently in Spain, I met a Norwegian who swore he would never return to the US, “The immigration at JFK was so long, and the agents so unfriendly! After such a long flight, we had to stand in line forever, and there were children and old people. We were all trapped!”

Without a direct train to Manhattan, I took the AirTrain to Howard Beach, then waited at least 20 minutes in the cold for the sluggish A Train. Descending the stairs, I passed a portly black man in a burgundy suit. Staring hard at me, he made a sibilant fart with his mouth. “How are you doing, man?” I answered.

“Get on the A Train,” Ella sang. “Soon, you’ll be on Sugar Hill in Harlem!” Yeah, right. All around me were exhausted passengers with their luggage. After flying for countless eons from Dar es Salaam, Ulaanbaatar or wherever, they stood, shivering.

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: American Media, Political Correctness, Poverty 
🔊 Listen RSS

It was a 200-mile journey from Saigon to Dak Lak, a highlands province that saw much fighting during the Vietnam War. Just north of Saigon, I passed quite a few grand villas, with two dog statues on gate columns, though some owners outdid their neighbors by having lions instead.

The further north I went, the smaller the houses became, and the more churches I saw, some brand new. The government states that only 8% of Vietnamese are Christians, but the true percentage must be twice that, at least. I saw many graves with crosses.

As I climbed higher, the rubber trees gave way to coffee and pepper plants. Here and there, an avocado orchard or corn field. Noticing people on motorbikes with a windbreaker or hoodie, I suddenly became alarmed at not having brought a coat, but the temperature never dipped below pleasantly cool.

One recent summer evening in Catalan, a man I was chatting with at an outdoor cafe shudderingly said he had to rush home because it was getting too cold, and I thought he had to be joking or a wimp. “You live in the US. This is nothing for you. I’m freezing!” It’s all relative.

Serpentining upward, dragonlike, I skirted the Cambodian border. The Ho Chi Minh trail was once just on the other side. At a dusty intersection, an old bicyclist had on gray pajamas and a black combat helmet. Though with a face like a squashed prune and toothless, he can still aim straight, I’d bet. A propaganda billboard advised, “FIRM WITH THE RIFLE, STEADY WITH THE STEERING WHEEL.”

M’Drak Street Scene
M’Drak Street Scene

In Dak Lak Province, most of the place names aren’t Vietnamese, but even in strange-sounding Ea Kly, Ea Kar or M’Drak, all I saw on the streets were Vietnamese, for they have taken over. A century ago, there were 151 Rade villages in the area, so where were the Rades?

A Vietnamese, Quan, informed me, “As we move in, they retreat further into the forest. Plus, they dress just like us now, so if you see them in town, you may not notice. They are darker, though.”

Smiling, Quan added, “And their women are rather disgusting, when you look at them. There’s something not quite right about them!” Like a tolerance for heat or cold, it’s mostly what you’re used to, I suppose, though novelty, for some, can be intriguing.

Born in harsh Binh Dinh, Quan moved to Saigon as a teen. In college, he often couldn’t afford more than a plate of rice with pig liver and bean sprouts for lunch, for it only cost 9 cents. He rode a cheap Chinese bike that often broke down. Now, Quan owns several businesses and was in Dak Lak to buy land for a recycling plant. Looking into exporting organic Vietnamese vegetables to India, he visited that country recently. His wife went to Dubai for fun.

With Quan, I visited a business associate of his, also a Vietnamese. Everything inside Truong’s house was tired looking. The front room was decorated with a large picture of fruits and vegetables, something you’d find in a barrio grocery store. The backroom had two wooden beds and a beat-up glass cabinet, containing faded, threadbare and long-outdated clothing. His parents came out to greet us. The old man wore a white and baby blue golf shirt that featured this stitched on tag, “THTP Buôn Ma Thuột” [“Buon Ma Thuot High School”]. After four decades, maybe he’s still enrolled.

Truong, “Yes, this area is changing very fast. More and more people are coming in, and the trees are being cut down. You hardly see elephants anymore. The elephant is very important to the Rades. It’s their spiritual core. Plus, elephants hauled timber. Now, elephants are only used to give rides to tourists.”

“So they’re being bred just for that?”

“It’s not easy for elephants to breed, big brother! You don’t know. They’re very picky, and can only mate in the forest. Once they’ve paired up, you have to let them wander into the forest. They can only have intercourse there.”

“If you let them go, how can you find them later?”

“They’ll come back by themselves!”

“Strange.”

“Oh, the Rades love their elephants! They even stage weddings for them! With less forest every day, it’s harder for the elephants to breed, however, so there are fewer and fewer elephants.”

With corrupt officials looking the other way, illegal logging is rampant in Dak Lak, and the Rades themselves participate, since it’s a great source of cash, and they’re developing a taste for the accoutrements of modern life, such as blue jeans, cable TV, beer and the smart phone. The ones who are raking in the most money are the Vietnamese, of course. Many of them had descended from the North, after the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

One evening, I visited a man from Bac Ninh, a province just outside Hanoi. Twenty-four years ago, he moved to Ea Kly, a dusty, miserable village of 10,000. Now up to 20,000, it has little to recommend it. There’s a restaurant selling rice gruel with eel for breakfast, a homely elementary school with a drum to call students to class, and a Buddhist temple with a tin roof and walls of faded, corrugated plexiglass.

Entering Săm’s living room, I was immediately blown away by his huge, sumptuously carved cabinet/altar piece, however. Made from jackfruit wood, it had lacquer inlaids. At the top, two-tiered pagodas flanked a framed portrait of Săm’s deceased father. Inside a lit, glass enclosure was a circular portrait of General Giap, a rather surprising feature since Săm is my age, thus too young to serve in the War. Beneath General Giap were three wooden statues symbolizing prosperity, status and longevity. A gigantic wooden vase stood on each side of the cabinet/altar piece.

As we sat on ornately carved wooden furniture, I blathered to my host, “I’ve never seen such a beautiful altar piece! It belongs in a museum!”

“It’s modeled after the one in Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng’s house! I saw it once.”

“Your house must be the most beautiful in this village!”

“It can’t be! It’s all right. My brother’s is also nice.”

And it was, with a similarly spectacular cabinet/altar piece. Outdoing his brother, he even had a coffered wooden ceiling.

A small, dark man with brown or missing teeth, Săm had clearly been knocked about a bit. He seemed ten years older. His brother, Thắng, had a brighter, smoother complexion, more gleam in his eyes and more cockiness in his voice. When I told him I was simply a writer, and my wife a mere sales clerk, Thắng beamed a thousand watts as if he had just knocked me out in a cage fighting match. Traveling across this turbulent, blighted earth, I had accomplished next to nothing, while he became a veritable king in But Phuc Yu.

“In every society, there are winners and losers,” Thắng actually declared. Very vô duyên, indeed.

The brothers’ first contact in the area was an aunt who had gone South in 1954. During the War, she made a small fortune selling opium to American soldiers. “My aunt was a legendary beauty,” Thắng exuded. “But after 1975, she was broken.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: 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.