Last month in Saigon, I hung out with my friend of 40-years, Giang. We were freshmen together at Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, then I had to move to Virginia to escape my psychotic stepmother. A screaming machine, she’s still daily enraged, I’m sure. A horrible marriage will do that.
In the late 70’s, San Jose was like today’s Fresno, with nothing slicked up about it. There were no Cisco, eBay, PayPal, Adobe, Yahoo! and Google, etc. With Oracle, Apple and Atari newly born, it was still a minor league city, dotted with fruit orchards. There were no giant, futuristic corporate headquarters. The Sharks hadn’t surfaced and the 49ers were still wind-blown in Candlestick.
Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo!, went to Andrew Hill, but it was actually a day asylum for poor kids, with more than half of them immigrants or children of immigrants. Our principal was a mustachioed Mr. Jaimez. With my judo background, I outwrestled a bigger Mexican in gym class, to everyone’s delight, but a very muscular black decided to nearly drown me in the swimming pool, just for the hell of it. He finally let me surface when I clawed some DNA from his chest.
In the library, there was an oil portrait of Andrew Hill, but I still don’t know who he is. It’s probably taken down, for as a white man, Hill had to be a racist, misogynist, animal abuser, resource glutton and world-class polluter. Unlike us people of color, he had no rights to park his bulbous white ass on beautiful California, built and maintained to this day by brown and yellow coolies. Suffering endless lashes from sneering white masters, their screams pierce your heart, even if you’re white.
The Golden State is meant for the Golden Horde, entiende? so Mexicans, too, should keep moving inland. Whites who balk at this manifest destiny will be sent to the worst reeducation camp ever, UC Berkeley. As for Hill’s bones, they must be dug up and tossed into Half Moon Bay.
Within days after I left, Giang called to say he had persuaded his dad to let me move into their household. We had lived on the same street, Locke Drive, a cul-de-sac opening onto the vast city dump, with its attendant funk and seagulls. I thanked Giang but declined, then we gradually lost touch. Before the internet, it was expensive and inconvenient to communicate long distance. Eastridge Mall, school lunch burritos, cholos, Ben Davis pants and California itself faded into nothingness.
When Giang sent me a basketball for my birthday a decade later, I barely remembered the guy, but then my life was a mess. I could barely focus on what was right in front of me, an older woman, a feverish grappling with Catholicism, my cold shell of an apartment, a sweet and confused cocktease, my delirious end as a radio host, a botched novel, rushed, desperate paintings, a sudden fondness for Southern Comfort and the realization that I was already a joke, and not even a funny one. It’s not easy to become an adult. I had just turned 22.
Giang married a Vietnamese-American girl he first spotted in his college library. She, too, was a virgin, but much quieter, and more observant than Giang. He got his business degree, became a salesman, rose up the ranks, bought expensive gifts for his wife and three Bay Area houses. She made decent money as a nurse. They had two sons.
On business trips to Japan, South Korea or Singapore, etc., Giang stayed in his hotel room when not meeting clients, for he couldn’t enjoy himself without his wife and kids, he told me.
Giang’s obsessiveness and occasional bombast must have grated on his family, however, but this wasn’t really an issue until he was laid off during the 2008 economic downturn. Giang stayed unemployed for more than two years. Home nearly all the time, Giang’s increasing crankiness made him insufferable. His wife’s contempt hardened. They divorced.
With all his efforts at reconciliation fruitless, his kids not talking to him, two of his houses gone and still jobless, Giang drove to BestBuy to buy a rope, researched online on how to tie the right knot, then emailed a laconic goodbye to a handful of people. Before my mildly overweight friend could dangle, however, his brother rushed over to prevent his descension into an even deeper hell.
Gradually letting go of his ex, Giang dated five women in the next two years or so, all Vietnamese-Americans roughly his age, with three of them divorcees. I met two of Giang’s girlfriends. Seeing my buddy’s chaotic love life, I had to sound off, “You can’t just keep fucking them then dumping them, man. That’s not right.” He grinned guiltily.
Living within a 20-minute drive of his parents, Giang saw them three or four times a week, and at least half of his San Jose friends were Vietnamese-Americans. Despite this, his Vietnamese is weaker than mine, because, well, he’s not preoccupied with words, but this doesn’t explain why he never returned to Vietnam until 2012, much later than me.
Frankly, I’m more Vietnamese yet more American than he is, not that he cares. When Giang visited me in Philly, I took him to the Liberty Bell, but he had no idea what it was about, and didn’t even know that the American Revolutionary War was against the British. He retained even less from Andrew Hill than I did.
As a refugee from Communism, Giang identifies with the Republicans, because he thinks they stand for freedom and democracy, and Trump really turns him on, because the guy’s a wheeler and dealer, so must be the right choice, supposedly, to fix America’s broken economy. Trump will also get America “back” on the moon within the next five years, as promised.
Betrayal corrodes the soul. Tired of it, Giang found his new wife online. A Saigon businesswoman, Mong owned an import, export company and raked in at least $5,000 a month, so she’s not a desperate gold digger, Giang reasoned. Never married at 35, she’s still trim, pretty and 17 years younger than him. The gap was a bit much, but hey, Giang had obvious leverage as a Vietnamese-American. Each man grabs what he can. The Donald is 24-years older than Melania, and she’s merely his official lay.
Giang flew back to Vietnam, and they hit it off immediately in person, right at the arrival gates. Moments later, he was in her bedroom, and it was almost supernatural how comfortable and familiar everything was. After nearly a day airborne, he couldn’t experience a softer landing.
Giang visited her well-organized office, met her employees then flew with her to Binh Dinh, her home province, to be introduced to her family. Mong’s parents had been married for nearly four decades, a great sign, and her mom doted on her dad. Her brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles were all sweet and candid, and he even hit it off with everyone’s children. It was like he had always belonged to this family.
Coincidentally, Giang’s father is also from Binh Dinh, so this must be fate, he thought. Giang had spent all his life across the globe only to be wedded, finally, to his ancestral province, with its unique dishes and sweet, resonant accent, though outsiders tend to find it either too coarse or coy.
Reassured, Giang went ahead with the wedding, for which he spent lavishly. Three hundred guests were invited. As soon as the paperwork was out of the way, Mong could join him in California, but there was a slight twist to this. Having made several trips to Vietnam in recent years, Giang became comfortable enough with the country to entertain the idea of moving there. With some trepidation, he told his wife about this possibility, but she didn’t flinch, “Fine, we can live wherever.” Of course, he’ll give her a grand tour of the mythical USA. They had already traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea for their honeymoon. When Giang gushed about Seoul or Singapore, Mong would say, “I can’t even imagine New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco.”
Back in San Jose, Giang waited for his wife to join him, but the day before her departure, a slew of emails from an unknown blew up everything. Attached to each were photos or videos of Mong with another man. They sing karaoke, lounge by a pool, attend a party, embrace or kiss. In one photo, she’s naked and sleeping in bed as this man smiles at the camera. In a video, she pulls her panties down so he can rub lotion on her ass. In many of the images, Giang could clearly see the wedding ring he had given her.
This dramatic turn I heard from Giang as we sat in 4P’s, an upscale Vietnamese chain founded by a Japanese expat. We drank Tiger beer and had two ricotta cheese, Parma ham wraps, a pizza with Japanese ginger pork and a plate of carbonara with camembert and seaweed. Each time we get together, it’s Giang’s treat. At a nearby table, a headphone-wearing Vietnamese boy of about 13 spoke loudly in English. Annoyed, people turned their heads.
In Saigon, you can’t walk a block without seeing an English language school, and sometimes several, with each showing a smiling white teacher on their poster. Toddlers are given English nickname, from Johnny to Pepsi, and spoken to in broken, pidgin English by their parents, for they must become an English-speaking “global citizen” and “leader,” as advertised at the language academies.
Sharing the 6th floor with 4P’s was California Centuryon, a gaudy, expensive gym. We were on top of Saigon Centre, a chic, busy downtown mall with lots of good eating. After his sad confession, Giang was still in good spirit, but the guy is always “goofy,” as we used to say in South Philly. Even wearing a noose, Giang was likely grinning.
“So she had a little fling before flying over. It’s like a bachelorette party!” I laughed.
“No, no, man, this went on for a year!”
“A year?! So who is this guy?”
“Her old boyfriend, and her employee! He’s her manager.”
“He really planned this out, didn’t he? How old is the guy?”
“Around 40. Just look at him,” Giang pulled up a photo on his phone. “He’s ugly.”
“Oh come on, man. He’s younger than you, tall, without a beer belly. He’s actually pretty good looking!”
“Fuck your mother!”
“So what did she say?
“She said she was pressured.”
“Bullshit! She wanted to get some good sex in before she ended up with you!” I laughed.
“Fuck your mother!”
We were speaking in Vietnamese, by the way, though sometimes Giang would switch to English, or intersperse English words into his sentences. There were four young ladies at the next table, so we had to keep our conversation somewhat hushed. A waitress brought a birthday cake to the English speaking brat. The twelve people at his table clapped, then sang “Happy Birthday to You.”
“Look at this,” he turned over his left forearm. There was a long tattoo, “MONG LOVES GIANG.”
“What the fuck! When did you do that?”
“Right after she got hers. She did it in India, while on a business trip, and she sent me the image.”
“And you were moved?”
“What are you, a fuckin’ teenager?!”
My friend grinned.
“So now you’re back together?”
“Yeah, but every two or three days, we’d fight, because I would bring up those images. I can’t forget. Even when we have sex, I’m thinking, She’s being screwed by the other guy!”
“So you shouldn’t be with her. She’s just using you, man, as a plane ticket.”
“But she’s so sweet, and she takes great care of me. I’ll be old soon.”
“And she’ll be gone, man!”
“Fifty-seven of my relatives went to my wedding. None is talking to me. They think I’m an idiot. Even some of her relatives think I’m an idiot.”
Sometimes, the consensus view is actually correct. By the end of the night, Giang decided he would divorce her, but stay in Saigon. When we met a week later, however, Giang said his wife was pregnant. “I’m still leaving her, but I’ll take care of my kid.”
“For at least twenty years.”
“I’ll do that.”
We talked about this new complication, then I realized, “She’s not pregnant, dude.”
“She’s definitely pregnant! We went to the doctor.”
“This is Vietnam! Anybody can be paid to say anything.”
“I saw the ultrasound.”
“How do you know it’s hers?”
“Maybe you’re right. It did seem a bit weird. She went into that office by herself and came out only two minutes later. Man, I feel much lighter now!”
Mong, then, won’t soon land in California. Driven and successful, she put off marriage because she didn’t want to stay in Vietnam. She was much better than that. She deserved to kick back in Santa Monica, at least, or maybe even Malibu. To drive down Route 1, she was even willing to sleep each night with someone she found disgusting.
Yesterday, Giang skyped me. He’d just moved into a Saigon high-rise. For $500 a month, he has a nicely appointed, fairly spacious apartment overlooking the city. “In San Francisco, this would cost me $3,600!” Cheerful as ever, Giang, too, won’t soon fly to California.
Chinese money has inflated real estate prices up and down the state. More than a trillion in debt to China, the US can neatly pay this off by handing over San Francisco, homeless shit and all, and they can have Oakland too. Take it or leave it.