In Saigon, I can easily go a week without seeing any white person, but today, I ran across two white Mormons on bicycles, with one having this paper sign on his backpack, “TIẾNG ANH MIỄN PHÍ” [“FREE ENGLISH LANGUAGE”].
I also passed a young white man pulling a suitcase down the street, his face showing discomfort from the intense heat, at least, and probably because he was all alone, without a single syllable to connect him with anyone. It seemed he was headed towards the bus station, a good mile away. He could have gotten there on the back of a motorbike for just a buck, but to do that, he had to speak some Vietnamese, for this was nowhere near downtown.
Half an hour later, I saw him on another street, going in the opposite direction, so he was walking in circles, apparently. Looking determined, the lanky man in shorts marched briskly along, a foot away from swarming motorbikes. Don’t bother me, his face was trying to say, I know what I’m doing.
Actually, the dude wasn’t that forsaken, for there were English schools all over the neighborhood, with white people inside each. This knowledge must have emboldened him to meander through this alien environment. Even if he spoke no English, it had to be comforting to know there were other whites, or at least foreigners, around. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t belong.
Lost in Tokyo, I approached the only black man on the street for directions. He helped me. Needing to use a phone in Kuala Lumpur, I cheered up to hear Vietnamese spoken nearby. She lent me hers.
Also in Tokyo, a white guy could tell immediately that I wasn’t Japanese and, more surprisingly, as likely an American. Relieved to arrest a compatriot on the sidewalk, the Iraq War vet and military contractor was garrulous. He had been drinking all night.
Even in Vietnam, I was clearly an outsider in 1995, on my first trip back. Besides my lighter skin and Americanized body language, I was also dressed like no one else. Once, a stranger touched my jeans in admiration. They were called “cow pants” then. Unlike most people, I never picked my teeth in public or squatted.
In 2019, it’s much harder to single out a việt kiều [overseas Vietnamese], for many people here have adopted the American casual look of jeans, T-shirts, hoodies, flannel shirts and sneakers, etc. The conical hat is still common, but ao dais have become extremely rare, regrettably. Colorful printed pajamas are usually found only on the frumpy middle-aged.
Haircuts are cooler. Tattoos spider. Urban sophisticates browse foreign cuisines, jet overseas and are mesmerized by American films, so their demeanors and postures, too, have evolved, or been tinkered with, I should say. You no longer see men holding hands.
With more cash, dental care has much improved, and at each dentist office, white models beam from signs. As with so much else, whites provide the standard and target. My teeth, by the way, are among the worst here. In three decades, I have visited the dentist exactly twice, and only in Vietnam.
Until a century ago, Vietnamese routinely lacquered their teeth black. That custom is long gone. The 20th century was one of accelerated and often violent changes. Marveling at its conveniences and gadgets, we survivors often forget its staggering body count, social rending and psychic brutality, even as we continue to endure it. Millions of souls have been flushed down the progressive toilet.
The 20th century promised to liberate you from traditions, customs, family, nation, hometown, marriage, friendship, love, memory and even biology, so how could you resist? Thinking you have gained the moon and more, you lost your only birthright, an anchored life on this heavenly earth.
Unmoored, people lose their mind. At my Philly apartment complex, there was a young white man who would dress up as Tarzan in our courtyard. Half-naked in the semi dark, he would look up, half fearful, half excited, at all the windows.
“We should call the cops,” my alarmed wife would say.
“No, the guy is harmless.” I understood such loneliness.
Another young white guy would spend up to four hours washing his Porsche, a gift from his dad which he almost never used. He had nowhere to go, really, no one to meet. The entire world had been lost to him, and there was nothing left but the electronic screen.
In Penang, Malaysia a few months ago, I was astonished by the stone and wooden sculptures, ceramic figurines, carvings, murals and architecture of Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, a clan house. If this was an example of Chinese art in a distant immigrant community, then how marvelous are buildings in China itself? Outrageously, thousands were wrecked during the Cultural Revolution, so that Chinese scholars must travel to Penang to study the splendor of Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi.
Visiting Guatemala in 1956, Norman Lewis encountered a missionary who bought traditional Zutuhul blouses with copulating horses, only to burn them. The Indians were given Mickey Mouse ponchos and skirts.
With exceptions, and I’m being very measured here, your heritage must be protected and endlessly studied, for its wealth can’t be adequately assayed even after several lifetimes. Walk backward. Look back!
Yet, some tough guy has thundered, “And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.” Verily, I say unto you, Communism and Christianity are squirted from the same urinary meatus. Please don’t save me!
With its righteous mobs and myriad ordnances flung from the sky, as if by God, more was destroyed during the 20th century than all others combined, but it’s the ongoing ideological violence I’m trying to define and battle, and it’s basically this: the local or provincial is supposedly backward and inferior to the global and cosmopolitan, and to reach this higher state, one must begin by learning the lingua franca, which is now English, or some bastard version of it.
Squatting on the ground and picking my teeth, the few that are left, that is, with none shiny black, unfortunately, I most emphatically declare, “Fuck English!”
Fuck, too, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Lewis, Paul Bowles, Paul Theroux and all the rest, for they have polluted my beautiful, radiant mind of color with the slave masters’ suffocating lingo. With each sentence, I’m being drawn and quartered by all of Western civilization.
To acquire another language is hard enough, but to have a prolong intercourse with an alien culture is nigh impossible. Very few have done so. Most never stray far from the guided tour bus. While some may find disorientation liberating, most will balk.
There is an atavistic fear of being a misfit in a crowd, of being eyeballed, fingered, targeted or swarmed, and this terror is amplified if you have no words to fend off, explain, ingratiate or even grovel with. Speechless and diversely striped, you’re indeed a helpless animal.
In 33 Moments of Happiness, German Ingo Schulze has a narrator describe Russia, “Never, not in any other country, have I felt so vulnerable, so defenseless. I knew: If something happens to me here, no one will help me. If I stumble, they’ll trample me down, if I scream, they’ll rob and strip me. They can spot foreigners at a glance. As if we were a different color.” Funny man.
You don’t even have to be of a different color. Last year in Phnom Penh, I met by chance a Vietnamese, Ni, who had arrived in Cambodia in 1991 with just $15, which dwindled to $2 in two weeks. Unable to find work, Ni figured he’d have one last meal, then run in front of a bus, but as he debated this solution, a Toyota Camry actually knocked him down.
Out leapt the enraged driver, and as Ni was being slapped around and abused in rapid, incomprehensible Khmer, bystanders did nothing. If I fight back, they might just finish me off, Ni thought, for I’m just a “youn.”
Ni was sure he was digested, as the Vietnamese like to say, for he was about to be excreted back into the earth, just as he wished anyway, for after this humiliating beating, he would still have had next to nothing, nowhere to go and no reachable friends or relatives.
In Istanbul, I was also cornered and roughed up a bit, but I got away, and I’m not blaming anybody, for I was stupid. In a different Istanbul neighborhood, a restaurant owner refused to charge me, so delighted was he to have a visitor from so far away.
Miraculously, a savior appeared to change Ni’s entire life. Leaping off his motorbike, the middle-aged man shoved Ni’s tormentor away, and even punched him, to the crowd’s astonishment. They shouted at each other.
Suddenly, the Camry driver looked frightened, backed off and babbled what sounded like apologies. Even more unbelievably, he emptied his wallet to hand Ni two thousand bucks.
“Take it,” Ni’s rescuer shouted, in Vietnamese!
“No, two hundred is enough, brother,” so he pocketed that.
Though Vietnamese, Ni’s savior was a general in the Cambodian Army.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day of 1978, it took them just two weeks to reach Phnom Penh, and there, they set up a puppet government. With a client army built from scratch, they inserted Vietnamese officers. Some of these adopted Cambodian names and stayed behind even after the Vietnamese withdrawal in 1988. History is filled with obscured facts and secrets.
The general put Ni up in a hotel, treated him to many meals. Seeing that Ni was bright and enterprising, he set Ni up in a lumber exporting business. With the general’s contacts, it thrived, which bred other ventures, so by the time I met him, he was the owner of a hotel, restaurant, construction firm and, most lucratively, a bonsai dealership that could sell a single tree for as much as $350,000.
I met Ni’s Vietnamese wife, who arrived in a Toyota Camry. As she drove us around, Vietnamese pop music from decades ago filled our bubble. They had five children, with the three oldest sent to Vietnam to attend universities.
“If you want to move to Cambodia, I can help you out with the paperwork or whatever else,” Ni said to me twice. “I mean it.”
Ni considered me mình, you see. We belong to a many hearted flesh. “Mình” in Vietnamese means body, oneself, we, us or one’s spouse, so there’s a merging of one’s everything with all those who share the same language, culture, history and blood. It’s the most natural and ideal state, according to this one word. This month, mình beat Indonesia 3 to 1. Mình eat rice daily, they eat bread.
Speaking of soccer, a recent match between Malaysia and Indonesia ended 3-2, with two goals each scored by naturalized players, the ex-Gambian Mohamadou Sumareh and ex-Brazilian Beto Goncalves. Sumareh arrived in Malaysia at age 17, while Goncalves showed up in Indonesia for the first time at age 28. Citizenship has become more of a bureaucratic quirk than anything reflecting reality.
Invest two million Euros in Cyprus real estate and you can become a citizen of that country within six months. I saw a poster in Saigon, “BECOME A CITIZEN OF THE REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS / AND GET RESIDENCY IN CYPRUS / THROUGH INVESTMENT WITH THE BEST REAL ESTATE AGENCY IN CYPRUS,” so without speaking Turkish or Greek, and knowing nothing about his new home, a Vietnamese can suddenly become a Cypriot. I strongly suspect, though, he will remain a mình in all senses.
Without two million Euros, can a Vietnamese just show up in Nicosia and claim he’s an undocumented Cypriot? After all, no human is illegal.
I started this article at Mộng Cầm Café, named after a girlfriend of the poet Hàn Mặc Tử, but only the most literate Vietnamese would even recognize that. Then I moved to Kidzooona, a shopping mall playground. As my two-year-old nephew, Suki, played, I typed. Now, I’m at a Family Mart, the Japanese convenience store chain. To loosen my few remaining brain cells, I’m downing Tiger Beer and Doritos. Whatever works, man. It’s never easy.
Looking out the plate-glass window, I just witnessed a funeral procession, with its dragon hearse and mourners in white, and an oboe’s whining drifting in. Across the street is “Anna Dental Clinic.” For cachet, its sign is also in English. You’re killing me.
Two days ago on this block, I photographed a young woman wearing an army green jacket, “ROMH NEW GENETION A PSYHIC LOVE HVE WILL EXIODE ACRCS ALL COURES YOU WLL.” She would be a star poet in the Bard’s MFA Writing Program. I should know. I taught there for four summers.
I began this article thinking I would talk about Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, the Ashcan School and how the local must be nourished by homegrown art that reflects it, but alas, I couldn’t finesse any of that in. Maybe soon? At my advanced age, however, soon may turn out to be never. I’m feeling more digested by the second.
Sweating and grimacing, perhaps that lost white man is still wandering?