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Céline half joked, “If you stay anywhere long enough, everyone and everything will stink up, just for your special benefit.” Without this pungency, however, there is no real understanding of anything, and Céline knew this as well as anyone. With tremendous physical and mental courage, the man endured. He survived being wounded in WWI, a year in Africa, a month in America, being a slum doctor for decades, WWII and the consequences of being an anti-Semite, everything but his first marriage.

I first encountered Céline as a 22-year-old, living in a crappy shell-of-a-house in grim Grays Ferry, and paying all of $25 a month for rent. Filled with illusions and vanity, I had no idea Philadelphia would be my life, would define me, but it’s perfect, this fate, for everyone must stay somewhere long enough for everything to become richly three dimensional, with a complex and nuanced history.

Thirty of my 54 years have been spent in Philly, and walking or crawling, I’ve measured this city with my body, for I don’t drive. As a housepainter, house cleaner and window washer for over a decade, I worked in dozens of neighborhoods, and I’ve roamed around many more, so just about every Philly tree or trash can addresses me by name. Behind this bush at 34th and Walnut, I once slept. At 11th and South, I was nearly mugged by a guy wielding a hammer. The last three months, then, have been one drawn-out goodbye, filled with last glimpses of places and faces.

Goodbye, then, to Point Breeze, with the lovely Rose in Sit On It. Months after I’d written about the 54-year-old, she told me more about herself. She was born of a Dominican mother and African father, of which country, she’s not quite sure, for she never really knew him. Rose’s mom was a bartender. “When I was 14, my mom came home at around 3 in the morning, woke me up and force me to iron her dress. Being sleepy, I burnt it, you know, and this pissed her off so much, she made me take my clothes off and get in the shower, then she burned me all over with the red-hot iron! I ran downstairs and hid in the utility closet, but I couldn’t deal with the pain, you know, so I knocked on a neighbor’s door. I can still remember the man’s face as he called out to his wife, ‘Martha, there’s a naked woman at our door.’ When his wife came out, she said, ‘That’s not a woman, Robert. That’s a child!’”

Rose never lived with her mom again. She worked her tail off, married early, had two kids, but was so depressed, she ballooned to 275 pounds, all on a 4-foot-10 frame. Now free from her abusive husband and amazingly down to 130 pounds, Rose’s as cheerful and sweet as can be.

“You know what I’d like to do someday? Take a cruise!”

“Which country would you like to go to, Rose?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe Hawaii?”

Goodbye to Dirty Frank’s, which I’ve also written about, including in a poem that mentions Skinny Dave and Sheila Modglin. The first is dead of an overdose, and Sheila is still in the hospital, after being hit by a car four days after the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, as the entire city was partying away. Though merely a bartender, Sheila started a non-profit, Sunshine Arts, that provided all sorts of classes, and an occasional field trip, for the kids in her Upper Darby neighborhood. Buzzed, I’d shout out, “You’re a saint, Sheila! A saint!” Everyone agreed. Now, Sheila’s a bedridden, speechless angel.

When I was in Frank’s in the 80’s and 90’s, I would see Uncle Moe, a silent, stooping man, nursing his Yuengling in the corner. Twenty years later, I would find out that Uncle Moe was actually a pill pusher. He’d start out his day with a lox and bagel at 4th Street Deli, drop into Friendly Lounge for his morning beer, then drift across town until he ended up at Dirty Frank’s, two miles away, his leisurely lifestyle supported by drug dealing.

On Delaware Avenue, there are more beggars than ever, and nearly all of them white, dirty and wasting away. Seeing these likely junkies, my friend Felix would bitterly joke, “They’re sure enjoying their white privilege.”

Goodbye to 9th and Market, where the electronic news ticker dismally announces, “In the opioid epidemic, breastfeeding emerges as a possible crime.”

Goodbye, too, to Suburban Station. With its tacky shops, seedy eateries, confusing passageways and underlit, tucked away corners, it’s a magnet for the homeless, drifters, assorted weirdos and busking musicians. In 2013, I wrote a poem about a competent through diffident guitarist who strummed outside the Dollar Store. Once, Tony had made OK money as a pizza deliveryman in Cape May, then came the drugs and rehab, so now, he was reduced to living in a house with a bunch of pigs, including one who consistently splattered and smeared the toilet seat.

In 2015, I ran into another Tony. A serious 23-years-old, Anthony Coleman had a large sign around his neck, “When you first look at me, do you see… / A black man? / OR / A human being?” Next to him was another sign, “Will you stand for LOVE and TRUTH? / Join the Movement!” Armed with a high school education and almost no work experience, Anthony was not just interested in becoming a life coach, but a revolutionary thinker and global leader of love and peace, “In ten years, I see… the Human Race Movement established. I have a team go across the country, to be featured in schools. They go into different businesses and talk to different people. I even see them go overseas.”

Goodbye to 12th and Chesnut, where in 2015 I met a homeless man with an IQ of 165. John’s SAT score was 1560, just 40 short of the maximum. When I confessed that mine was only 1110, John laughed, “I hear McDonald’s is hiring.”

After earning his PhD in applied mathematics from UPenn at 20-years-old, John worked for 18 years in a bunch of countries for the Defense Intelligence Agency and US Army, then he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

With his monthly pension of $2,700, John should have been OK, except that he’s contributing $2,000 to his mom’s nursing home cost, “At first we had her in a cheaper nursing home, but we visited her on Tuesday, and she’s wearing a sunflower dress with a mustard stain, and when we visited her on Saturday, she’s wearing the same sunflower dress with the mustard stain, plus ketchup and chili stains. When you have Alzheimer’s, you really need one-on-one care at meal time, and she wasn’t getting that. If no one is paying attention to you, you may not eat at all. It is a sacrifice, but I don’t see it as a sacrifice. I’m happy to take care of mother.”

 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Poverty 
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The jokes about New Jersey keep coming. It has the third highest taxes in the country, yet ranks dead last in fiscal health. Its most successful residents flee.

Those who have never been to New Jersey still sneer at it, thanks to its mostly horrible depiction in the media, as in Jersey Shore, where a cast of morons defame both the state and Italian-Americans.

In a South Park episode, Stan Marsh rants, “Having neighbors from New Jersey is the worst. All night long, they keep me awake. They’re either screaming at each other, or making some disgusting sex sounds. It seems that all people from Jersey do is hump and punch each other!”

Living in South Philly for decades, I’ve had a different perspective on New Jersey. It’s where the beaches and boardwalks are, a vacationy place, and where South Philadelphians move to, an upgrade from their tight rowhomes. Jersey also has a bunch of charming and fascinating towns, Bordentown, Pitman, Moorestown, etc., each one distinctive. Of course, there are also hollowed out ghettos, and too many sterile, strip malled bedroom “communities,” with the local Wawas or QuickCheks their main social hubs.

After each Alcoholic or Narcotics Anonymous meeting, Wawa Warriors can shoot the shit in their favorite convenience store’s parking lot, with all their worldly needs just a glass door away. Driving by in the dark, you can still see them standing there, because there’s nowhere else to go.

Many Jersey towns are dry, can you believe it?! Luckily, you can always booze up at the very next town. My favorite bar in the entire world is Billy Boy’s, in the Pine Barrens. I wouldn’t mind just moving into that super fine establishment. They make an honest mashed, sell a dozen steamers for just eight bucks and their tacos are only a dollar each on Tuesdays. In spite of everything, there’s still comfort, quality nutrition and probity left in the world!

Oh, how can the universe not be eternally grateful to New Jersey for gifting it Frank Sinatra, Valium, John Travolta, disco fries and nobody Chuck Wepner, who actually floored Muhammad Ali (by stepping on his foot)?! That fight was billed as “Give the White Guy a Break.”

PayPal me, Governor Murphy! I’m doing my best to send clueless tourists your way, and I’m not talking about drunk Quebecois either. They don’t need no advertising!

It’s hard to believe, but I only have three weeks left in this country, so even Philly will dissolve soon enough, much less New Jersey. Last week, I likely saw its beaches for the last time, and on the way back, I stopped in Millville, a town I had never seen.

Before Mike Trout made Millville famous and cool, it was dismissed as just another depressed Jersey town, with one website, HomeSnacks, even crowning it as the redneck capital of the state.

What stopped me was Jenny’s Place, a bar with a wide, stark frontage, and a dollar store/Asian food market in the back. It appeared a supermarket had been converted. A large and mostly empty parking lot accentuated its barren loneliness. On the edge of town, it was surrounded by nothing.

Walking in, I found an old white guy at the bar, and a Chinese man behind it. There were three pool tables. The beer choices were limited and lame, with Stella Artois the only fancy option. Photos of happy clients, plus one of George and Laura Bush, jammed the back wall, above the liquor bottles. Potato chips, corn chips, beef jerky and sausage sticks were all there were to soak up the suds.

By and by, many folks came in, black and white, with most there to shoot pool, and some were awfully good, too, though none could beat Chang Liu, the bar owner. Casually, he would clean up each table, at the first opportunity.

A white guy arrived in a white truck, with “PRIVILEGE” in white stickered onto the rear window. On a side window, there was, “DON’T LAUGH… Your Girlfriend MIGHT BE IN HERE.”

A black biker showed up on an asskicking Harley, with rap liberally blasting “nigga,” which prompted Chang to ask, “Why you play that, man? What if a white guy call you a nigger?”

“My white friends call me nigga all the time, Chang! There is a difference between ‘nigga’ and ‘nigger.’” On CNN in 2013, Trayvon Martin’s girlfriend, Rachel Jeantel, explained exactly that to Piers Morgan.

Though Chang’s dollar store/Asian food market at the back was completely untended, there was a bell at the bar to alert him should someone walk in, and a monitor to show when a customer was ready to pay. A convenient door between the bar and store allowed Chang to quickly run back and forth. In any case, it didn’t look like the sea of made-in-China junk had many takers. Jenny’s Place pays his bills.

Five-eight and fat-free, Chang had a scowl even when he smiled. Always ready to spring, he was like coiled lightweight. Although his English vocabulary was adequate, Chang’s accent was still thick, and he often chopped the s from the end of words.

There are many bars here. Larry, Bojo, Railroad Tavern, Old Oar, this place. There are five, but there used to be ten!

I own this place 16 years. I been in Millville 21 years. Half my life! I’m 48.

I start out in New York, then I move to north Jersey, then central Jersey, and now I’m here, in south Jersey. I had a store and a restaurant in Wildwood. Chinese food. I work for other people, making Chinese, Italian, French, American food. Making food is hard. I’m sick of it. The health inspector. It’s too much trouble. That’s why I don’t make food here.

When I open this bar, the people here didn’t like it. They say, “Hey, you Chinese and you own this bar?” They gave me problems the first five years, but you have to be strong. I beat up a tough guy. Once you do that, then they scare. If you beat up the meanest, toughest guy, then the average, the little guy, he think, I better not mess with that man!

Millville used to make glass, but the factories are gone. Two went to China. One to Mexico.

I have two son, one daughter. My son, they study at Drexel. Mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. My daughter study dermatology. She want to be a, ah, aesthetician. She has two kids. Her husband has a good job. She’s OK.

My wife help me out here. Sometime, I hire a local for a day.

I been here 31 years. If you want me to go to another country and fight, I won’t go. Why?! If somebody invade this country, then I fight, because this is my country. Yes, I’ll fight to defend it.

Ming Dynasty. Zheng He, he went everywhere, went to Africa, but did China take anything, beat you up, make you a slave? No! China help you. You don’t have this plant? Here is some seed. China don’t steal anything. China help you.

If China is big, and you are small, China can be your big brother, help you out, not like the US. The US used to be good, but no more. The US used to help people, but no more. Now, it bomb, cause trouble, beat people up.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: China, Immigration 
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I’ve hung out with poet Hai-Dang Phan in quite a few places. Since our first meeting in Certaldo, Italy in 2003, we’ve downed a few pints together in New York, Washington, Milwaukee, Iowa, Illinois, Philadelphia, Hanoi, Saigon and Vung Tau. This week, Hai-Dang flew down from Boston, and with his rented car, we spent two days visiting a handful of Pennsylvania and New Jersey towns.

I had wanted to show Hai-Dang Bethlehem and Allentown, but Steven Byler in Friendly Lounge suggested Intercourse, Lititz and other hamlets around Lancaster, so off we went, but the joke was on us, for Intercourse, at least, was nothing but a tourist trap, with stores peddling schlock paintings, garish animal sculptures, doofus T-shirts and Amish quilts, which are quite magnificent, undoubtedly, but mostly made by Hmong refugees.

Allentown’s The Morning Call explained in 2006:

Most quilt shop owners do not mention their Southeast Asian workers. That would spoil the image of a Lancaster quilt as the product of strictly Amish or Mennonite hands. Quilt tags in pricey shops credit the work of Lancaster’s Plain People, but rarely the Hmong, who are referred to as “local Lancaster quilters” if at all.

To keep the identities of these women from the eyes of tourists, some shop owners won’t allow Hmong in their stores during business hours and make them use the back door when delivering piecework. One Amish shop owner once made a Hmong seamstress hide in the coal cellar. It is the dark side of the alliance that has existed for more than two decades.

The day was saved, however, for we found a very honest and hospitable bar in nearby New Holland, next to the railroad tracks. Its sign showed a flying dart, martini glass and an 8 ball, with “12 WINGS and 6 SHRIMP” advertised beneath it, but with no price. The Bud Light neon in its one window was turned on, and there were half a dozen cars and trucks in the parking lot.

Behind Shooters Crossing, we spotted a confederate flag fluttering over a trailer. It shouldn’t surprise that many in rural America identify with the South, for they both cherish community, the land and traditional values, and are equally contemptuous of the coastal elites, with their globalist ideology.

Opening the door to a dark and surprisingly large space, we were greeted by Hank Williams’ Lost Highway. “This is perfect!” I exclaimed. As opposed to Leon Payne’s jaunty and oddly cheerful delivery, Williams imbued his slowed down rendition with just the right, genius dosage of grief, regret and world weariness, but that’s why he’s the man. A decade later, Johnny Horton would smear on us his cheeseball version.

There were 12 beers on tap, with some excellent microbrews, which beat, by a mile, all the Philly dives I haunt.

The Hank Williams medicine didn’t last long, for soon after our first chug of Dogwood, the Village People’s gay anthem came blasting on, “I’ve got to be a macho! (dig the hair on my chest) Macho, macho man (see my big thick moustache).” Raps and oldies alternated the rest of the evening.

We talked to a retired gentleman who made money, under the table, driving Amish people around. “It’s the easiest job,” Frank chuckled. “Some of these people have money, man. I know an Amish guy with 140 acres in Virginia, that he uses just for hunting deer and pheasants.” Frank seemed very relaxed. He has a son studying at Drexel.

Frank, “The Amish do some weird things, but they’re very good with their hands, and they know how to work. If you hire an Amish roofer, he won’t quit even ten minutes early. They work hard, man. Same with the Mexicans. They’ll get a lot more done than your average American.”

Amish don’t drink. That evening, I did talk to a young man who had left the Mennonite Church eight years earlier. After freaking out, his parents had calmed down. With his muscle T, bottle of Bud and pack of Marlboro, the cheerful dude appeared no different from the others, except he wasn’t all tatted up. A woman put her arms around him. They laughed.

A prim couple ordered wings, french fries and onions rings, found everything disgusting, so threw paper napkins on their nearly full plate and left. We weren’t the only strangers, obviously. Sensibly, the barkeep took the goodies to the other end of the bar, where a regular happily gobbled them up.

“I almost asked them for the food myself,” I said to Kristen, laughing. “I’m glad you didn’t throw it away.”

“I don’t know why they acted like that,” she frowned. “There’s nothing wrong with the food.”

At a pool table, two well-inked guys cued up in a haze of cigarette smoke.

New Holland’s Main Street was dominated by antique stores. “A lot of these towns are like this,” Hai-Dang commented. “Everyone is selling junk as antiques! Growing up, it was garage or lawn sales every weekend with my mom. Driving through even smaller towns, you’d see all these lawn signs for yard sales, in places with hardly any people. I picture all these people in small towns wearing each other’s second hand clothes!”

There was a restaurant, La Casita, that flew a Puerto Rican flag. Fleeing exorbitant New York, thousands of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have moved into rural Pennsylvania.

Hai-Dang grew up in small town Wisconsin, then went to college in Grinnell, Iowa, population 9,200, where he’s now a professor. Hai-Dang also studied in Madison and Gainesville, and has traveled all over. Although rooted enough to the Midwest, he is also a cosmopolitan. His part Iranian, part English girlfriend lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, so Hai-Dang spends months there at a time. Last Thanksgiving, they vacationed in Miami. Still escaping the snow, they showed up in Santa Monica in March, then whooped it up in New Orleans in the Spring.

The term “rootless cosmopolitan” was coined by a 19th century Russian literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, then popularized by Joseph Stalin in the 1940’s, to describe Soviet Jewish intellectuals who were, in his mind, traitors to Russia. Instead of extolling Russian/Soviet culture, they were open to the West, and they sided with Israel, naturally, whereas Soviet Russia backed the Arabs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is outrageous.”

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

“So what did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve been there?”

“I’ve been everywhere,” Benny smiled.

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

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

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

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

My mother is Polish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

“Jack got you fired.”

“Yes, he did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is clearly not Japanese, dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Yasukuni Shrine
The Yasukuni Shrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Visiting, brother?”

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

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

“Where were you in Saigon, uncle?”

“Dak Lak!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tổ tiên [ancestors]?”

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

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

“Have you been to Vietnam?” I asked.

“No, no.”

“Do you feel Thai or Vietnamese?”

After a slight hesitation, “Both.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone’s barbarism will flower.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Assimilation, Thailand 
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.