A foreign country seeps into one’s consciousness via large events and personalities, mostly, as in war, earthquake, tsunami, coup d’état, unprovoked bombing, Gaddafi and Assad, etc., but it’s the lesser turbulences that will begin to yield more revealing clues about any society.
My two years in Italy, I often combed through newspapers for crime stories, for why, how and who Italy’s residents robbed, killed, wounded or raped were always instructive, as were how these stories were reported. An armed robber in Tuscany would be said to have, for example, a southern accent.
Briefly browsing through a handful of Italian rags this morning, I found out that in January, 130 cops from Prato, Rome, Florence, Milan, Padova and Pisa conducted a vast operation against the Chinese mafia, dubbed China Truck, that ended with the arrest of 33 people in Italy, France and Spain. This week in Prato, a South American prisoner assaulted four guards, seriously wounding one in the throat with a razor blade. In August, a middle-aged pub owner in Pisa hurled insults, rocks, bottles and glasses, from his apartment balcony, at three Africans who had just finished dinner at Sapori d’Africa e Toscani [African and Tuscan Flavors].
The headline in Corriere Fiorentino, “Pisa, insulti e sassi contro il locale simbolo dell’integrazione”
[“Pisa, Insults and Rocks Against the Local Symbol of Integration”]. The restaurant owners are a Senegalese woman and her Italian husband, who explains, “We came to Pisa because we knew there was a large community of Senegalese and a restaurant such as ours, which mixes Tuscan with Senegalese cooking, could work out.”
Your biases will tint your reading of these items, but at least they give you a more complicated picture of contemporary Italy.
In Vietnam, you almost never hear about interracial crimes simply because the population is relatively homogeneous, with the foreign residents mostly white, well-educated and not crime-prone. Any host has a right to choose his guests.
This week, I had a few Tiger beers with Matthew Rossman, a 48-year-old Canadian who has lived in Saigon for eight years, is married to a Vietnamese engineer and has a six-year-old daughter. They live in Thảo Điền, a new, upscale development where “just about every other person you see on the streets is a foreigner.” Matthew plans on staying in Vietnam for the rest of his life, with his retirement years spent in Vũng Tàu. Once trendy, this seaside resort has become much more serene and pleasant.
In college, Matthew studied English, then entered law school, before he realized he hated lawyers, so he taught English in Colombia for seven years. In Saigon, Matthew teaches English and manages two English learning centers. Among the teachers Matthew oversees are two Russians and a Dutchman, all highly qualified.
Three weeks ago, I also met Nick Santalucia, a Temple graduate who majored in the classics. Just 27-years-old, Nick has been in Saigon for 4 ½ years. Soon, though, Nick will return to Philly with his steady Vietnamese girlfriend of more than 3 years. Though Nick agrees that the US is in dismal shape, he believes a turnaround is possible. If not, he might just return to Vietnam.
“But to really belong to this place, you will have to seriously learn Vietnamese,” I challenged.
Without “the other” to be aggravated by, prey on or fear, Vietnamese must turn to each other to give and receive violence. Often, alcohol plays a role, as does the sheer density of this place. 78% the size of California, Vietnam has 2.3 times the population.
Two women shared not just a tiny Hanoi apartment, but the same bed, where at least one night, their boyfriends also slept. That morning, 22-year-old Sơn noticed that his girlfriend was being groped by 25-year-old Trung, but he didn’t go berserk right away. Days later, Sơn sent Trung a FaceBook message, “If I ever see you again, one of us will have a hole in his body.” Since neither would back down, they ended up in a knife fight that involved two more men. Repeatedly stabbed, Sơn is dead, while Trung is serving a life sentence. His partner in crime, an ex-convict, will be executed.
One cheap feel, and three lives are wrecked. One can contend this sleepwalking fingers, morning curious digits incident wouldn’t have happened if the women hadn’t been so poor, but it’s also true Vietnamese usually don’t mind being crammed together.
Culture was also a factor when a 60-year-old man was stabbed to death by his 42-year-old nephew, as both were getting hammered after a funeral, which is always a drawn out affair here, lasting several days.
Drunk, a 59-year-old was pissed off by his neighbors’ loud karaoke singing, so he lobbed bricks into their yard and screamed at them. Offkey crooning is a regular feature of Vietnam’s soundscape, urban and rural. After being bitten on the cheek in the ensuing fight, the man ran home to grab a chef’s knife, meat cleaver and sickle to murder his toothy opponent. He won’t breathe free again for 14 years.
This month in the lunar calendar, angry ghosts are let out of hell, many believe, so food and even money are offered to appease these spirits. One may consider it charity in disguise, for the poor, mostly kids, will converge to snatch up these gifts, right after the public ceremony. Disappointed by the paltriness of the food offerings, and no money, a 13-year-old boy got into a fight with a 15-year-old in the giving family, and stabbed him.
On September 1st, a couple hailed a taxi in Bình Chánh to go to Tân An, 22 miles away. Halfway, the driver refused to go further, so dumped them in Bến Lức, just outside a Buddhist temple. In the fading light, locals saw the man lay his companion on the ground.
Factory workers in their late 30’s, they had lived together for years without a marriage certificate. In June, she was diagnosed with late stage cancer, but since they couldn’t afford hospital care, she merely lay at home until she died on September 1st. With only 70,000 dongs [$2.99] left to his name, the man called a taxi anyway, to take her corpse back to her home village. To give some context, you typically pay 15,000 here for a banh mi, 20,000 for a plate of rice with pork chop, 25,000 for a basic bowl of pho and 65,000 for a Big Mac. Entering the cab, he told the driver his companion was merely ill.
For Vietnam’s poor, a trip to the hospital is like entering a war zone. Surrounded by broken bodies, they’re often treated in extremely chaotic and undignified ways, so every so often, a doctor or nurse would be assaulted by a patient’s relatives, or even the patient himself.
Last year, footage of violence by three Saigon daycare workers against toddlers appalled the world, and similar clips of other daycare centers have appeared. Almost all of these battered kids are children of factory workers, displaced from the provinces.
In Vietnam, then, you’re not likely to be assaulted by an unknown, but someone close to you. Though a stranger may break into your house or, much more often, snatch your belonging as he zooms by on his motorbike, it’s not likely he will try to hurt you, for that’s a task for your spouse, parent or classmate, etc. In Vietnam, interpersonal violence is almost never the result of alienation, but excessive socialization.
In the US, on the other hand… Though in Saigon, I still check my Philadelphia Inquirer, and yesterday, I learnt that 15-year-old Brandon Conrad and 17-year-old Malik Page have pleaded guilty to killing, totally unprovoked, a 57-year-old homeless man, Kevin Cullen. After Conrad threw a sucker punch, Page delivered the death blows by kicking and stomping on the victim’s head, for which he was sentenced to 12½ to 25 years. His mugshot shows a strikingly soulless and stupid face, with hints of recent tears. “Police said afterward that a witness reported hearing Cullen’s head hitting a brick wall during the attack, while others said the boys laughed after leaving Cullen behind.” This happened in Mayfair, once a thriving, white working class neighborhood.
With 314 murders last year, Philly is much more dangerous than Saigon, and there are entire neighborhoods, Nicetown, Fairhill, Kensington, Allegheny West, Hunting Park, etc., that are generally avoided, even in daylight. No such menacing ghettos exist in all of Vietnam.
Self-preserving folks also stay clear of vast swaths of Camden, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Oakland, Memphis or Chicago, which saw 650 murders last year, but that’s actually an improvement, for 771 were killed in 2016! The more melanin-rich an American place, the more blood-splattered, so it’s just common sense for any American, whether white, yellow, brown or black, to flee from it.
For all of Vietnam’s issues, it’s lucky to not be cursed with intractable “inner city problems” that will forever bedevil the US. Since America has used a different race as slaves, Tocqueville points out, it can never move past this sin, for the presence of American blacks is an eternal reminder of this barbarity.
Tocqueville, “Until now, everywhere that whites have been most powerful, they have held Negroes in degradation or in slavery. Everywhere that Negroes have been strongest, they have destroyed whites; this is the only account that has ever been opened between the two races.”
That’s not very hopeful or politically correct, is it? An installment of this is being played out in South Africa.