In Bangkok for Miss Universe 2018, Miss Cambodia and Miss Vietnam made international news when they were idiotically mocked by Miss USA for not knowing English. The Vietnamese beauty, H’Hen Nie, is a Rade from Dak Lak, a province well-known to many American Vietnam War vets, but otherwise not often seen by foreigners. Its waterfalls and elephants don’t attract too many tourists, who prefer to crowd the beaches in Nha Trang, one province over.
Typing this, I’m lying on the floor, with mouse droppings inches from my laptop, in Dak Lak. It has been raining, often fiercely, for more than 24 hours. Outside my brownish steel doors are huge nylon sacks of plastic trash, or just trash. I’m working as a foreman at my brother-in-law’s plastic recycling plant, and living in the back of it. Tripping towards old age, I must make minimal provisions. It’s really cascading outside.
We have 30 employees, 23 women and seven men. The women’s main tasks are sorting the plastic pieces according to types and colors, and making sure no metal is left in them before they’re fed into the pelletizing machine. To remove metal, these small but tough women use a hammer or meat cleaver, mostly, but sometimes a screw driver or plier. Banging away for hours is grueling work, obviously.
Men load and unload heavy bags from trucks, operate the pelletizing machine. When men work together, even the smallest and weakest must suck it up and hump as much and as long as the rest, for to quit would be too humiliating. Sport teams, construction crews and armies all operate on this principle. Our hardiest male employee is also the shortest and scrawniest.
The women earned $6.82 a day, but their paces were slow, so now they’re paid by how many kilograms of plastic garbage they clear, which I track. Moving much faster, many routinely make more than $8.58 a day. The men are paid between $7.72 and $8.58. Around here, $6.43 daily is considered a decent wage, and most people don’t have to worry about rent, mortgage or property taxes.
The women prefer working here to the coffee plantations or lumber yards, since it’s inside and requires no heavy lifting. When a Rade woman was fired for repeatedly making mistakes, she threatened to bring her entire village down to take care of our manager, but nothing came of it.
Since the temperature inside the plant ranges from cool to moderately hot, it’s odd to see all the women well-wrapped up, so that only their eyes are visible. Perhaps they’ve retained this habit from toiling outside, where the dreaded sun will turn their skin darker, which they hate.
This town, Ea Kly, has around 20,000 people. Near our recycling plant, there’s a café with hammocks, so sometimes I go there to lie down, or to type. The owner used to serve beer, but she stopped when locals kept complaining about her price of 52 cents for a can of Saigon.
She only charges 34 cents for hot coffee with condensed milk, a Vietnamese standard, but it’s never hot. In Saigon, no one would put up with this, but we’re in remote, end of the road Ea Kly, OK, so just chill. In Hanoi, too, I’ve been served tepid coffee as “hot,” so it’s sort of a northern thing. From her accent, I can immediately tell the Ea Kly lady is a northerner. Decades of hard-core Communism degraded all northern foods and drinks, so that the worst pho on earth is actually in Hanoi, its birthplace.
It took a dozen visits before I found out the lady’s specialty is rice wine, home distilled, “I had to make my own because all the suppliers I tried were so inconsistent,” for they would use cheaper ingredients, hasten the process, cut corners. Though her wine has become famous locally, she won’t sell it in bulk, for fear it will be diluted or swapped, thus ruining her reputation.
She and her husband moved to Ea Kly in 1982, and back then, the FULRO insurgents were still very active. FULRO stands for Front Unifié pour la Libération des Races Opprimées. Rade, Cham and Cambodians made up the bulk of their membership, but there were also Bahnar, Jarai and K’Ho fighters, all unified by their hatred of the Vietnamese, who had stolen their lands.
You, too, are living on stolen land, and the fact that you’re still here means your heroically murderous ancestors have wiped out plenty of people, or at least their cultures. Physical war may be sporadic, but culture war is constant, and what’s at stake, always, is self-definition. The most common, persistent and insidious war is the fight between nations, often inside the same borders, over self-definition. Countless men have been willing to die to protect their nation’s ability to define itself. If you lose sight of this objective, you’re already defeated.
The café owner’s husband tells me, “When I first moved here, the FULRO would occasionally show up to collect rice, but what they needed most were medicines. Hunger, they could handle, but not being sick in the jungle.”
“Did they kill Vietnamese civilians?”
“No, not when I was here. They were in trouble. Our government is very good at maintaining security. The FULRO were being chased around, so they couldn’t set up base camps and grow vegetables, like our soldiers did during the war. A couple of times, drunk FULRO even walked down the middle of the road, shouting, ‘We’ll take this land back!’”
“So what happened?”
“We never saw those guys again!”
“What do you mean?”
“The government got them, I’m sure. We had plants inside all the minority villages.”
If it wasn’t for the Vietnamese, the Cham would not be aligned with the Rade, Bahnar and K’Ho, but subjugate and assimilate them into Champa, which once took up most of central Vietnam. These obscure and nearly obliterated nations should remind you that your nation, also, can easily meet the same fate.
With the Vietnamese, me included, surging into Dak Lak, the Rade have become a minority here. Most still live in their own villages, which I’ve been advised to stay clear of. Many Rade are employed by Vietnamese, so I often see them going to work, sitting on the flat beds of tractor trucks. In our plastic recycling plant, we also have a handful of Rade employees.
Near the end of a long day, the sweating men are taking a brief break, during which one Rade spoke to another in their language, which prompted a Vietnamese to shout, “Stop speaking Chinese! We can’t understand it!”
Second Vietnamese, “That’s not Chinese. That’s Rade!”
A third Vietnamese addressed the Rade in the one Cambodian sentence he knew.
Second Vietnamese, “That’s Cambodian. They’re Rade! It’s a different language!”
Fourth Vietnamese, “There’s this song I’ve heard. Maybe it’s Rade. I can’t quite remember the title…”
First Vietnamese, “You mean the one, ‘I don’t take a bath, and that’s why I stink’?”
This kind of racist needling or bantering, I’ve heard many times before, but as a minority in the USA. That’s just how knuckleheads talk, the world over. Culture war winners freely crack jokes.
One of the Rade men is older and taller than the rest, so he’s nicknamed Bố Già, or Godfather. A bit kooky, he’d fish out a plastic bracelet from the trash and wear it, or grinningly tilt a decapitated doll’s head back and forth, just to see the blonde babe open and close her eyes.
Though Rade are generally darker than Vietnamese, you will occasionally run into one who’s remarkably white, with vaguely or even quite pronounced white features, but this shouldn’t surprise, for the French were here for decades, then the Americans dropped by. Capitalizing on the Rade’s hatred of Vietnamese, the US armed them to fight the Viet Cong, but the Rade ended up killing a few ARVNs too.
In Saigon, you can’t stumble a block without finding at least decent food options, but in Ea Kly, the culinary offerings are rather humble and humbling. Outside Vietnamese schools, there are usually a handful of vendors, at least, selling breakfast, lunch and snacks, but the elementary school near me has just one choice in the morning, sticky rice with bits of corn, fried onion, pork roll and dry, shredded pork.
Although dog and cat meat joints are very rare in southern Vietnam, there are a handful in Ea Kly, thanks to the many immigrants from the north. As for the Rade, they have their own dishes, of course. To prepare one delicacy, they place slices of beef over a nest of weaver ants, then poke it to get the pissed-off ants to swarm out to nibble on the meat and urinate on it. The ant piss-marinated beef would then be placed on a tin roof, to be baked by the sun. Weaver ants and their eggs are themselves eaten, in a sweet and sour soup. At banquets, guests wolf down medium rare beef or buffalo dipped in just MSG. Another Dak Lak tribe, the Mnongs, can boast of a barely-cooked-pork salad, served in the pig’s hollowed out carcass.
Dak Lak is renowned for its coffee, including the super expensive cà phê chồn, Vietnam’s version of kopi luwak, which is coffee beans collected from the excrement of a civet. This beast only selects the choicest coffee cherries to eat, and its intestinal enzymes imbue the coffee beans with an elegant flavor, and no, there’s no shit to ingest after processing. When the French introduced coffee to Vietnam, it was an exorbitant beverage reserved for the priviledged, so coffee growers themselves could only afford crap, so goes the story, but this smell, to me, too much like later-invented illustration of Colonial oppression and class differences.
“Yeah man, they made us grow this java, but we could only sniff it, not drink it, so cursing our opprimée fate, we drunkenly decided to brew some random shit, found on the ground, but dude, it turned out to be some boss shit! The best shit ever!”
What if a Rade moves to, say, Minneapolis and decides to open a restaurant serving ant piss-marinated beef? If all cultures, and hence all cultural practices, are equally valid, then there’s no reason why he can’t, but of course he won’t be able to, just as Muslims can’t have their prayer calls broadcast across an American city, or Christians their displays of the Ten Commandments on public land. The more multicultural a society, the more muted and blunted each culture within it, and a man can only be fully himself within his own, self-defined context. As soon as a Rade, Indian, Kenyan, Swede or whoever is removed from his native soil, he’s compromised, if not a sick caricature of himself.
Sometimes, I eat lame pho at a place run by a woman from Thai Binh. Here since 1995, she used to make excellent money serving bus passengers, “That’s how we could afford to send our kids to schools. My place was open from 3 in the morning until 10 at night. Back then, a bus from South to North would take several days, so there were many stops.” Now, with much better roads, they just zoom by, thus depriving her and many others of income.
She offered all types of dishes, “I had fresh killed rabbits. I had dogs, but the dogs would cry and moan during the night, just like people, so I stopped.”
Many of her customers have been Rade, “My husband went to Saigon and bought a 60 million dong [$2,500] flat screen, so the Rade would just sit here for hours, from 8 in the morning until 4!”
“But they would order food and drinks the whole time?”
“Hardly anything! Some would just get cigarettes for 5,000 [21 cents]. If they ordered dog meat, they would keep requesting extra lemon grass and skunkvine leaves, so they could dip them in the fermented shrimp paste, and I couldn’t say no.”
Once when she was away, her husband pissed off some Rade so they wrecked the place, “They thought he didn’t want to serve them because they were Rade, but it was just because I wasn’t around. He was drunk, though, so he didn’t say it very nicely.”
She goes home to Thai Binh every three years, but once stayed away for five, “The last time, it cost me 10 million [$429]. For each person I visited, I had to bring a tin of cookies, a kilogram of sugar and a packet of MSG. If it’s an old person, then I would also give 500,000 [$21.45].”
Like me, she moved to Dak Lak for economic reasons, and though she’d rather be in Thai Binh, I’m sure, where the culture is more familiar and congenial to her, she doesn’t have a choice but to stay and, likely, die here. A visit to the local cemetery showed that most of the deceased came from elsewhere. In the eyes of the Rade, they’re all invaders, and so am I.
If you take the long view, no land is intrinsically the property of any tribe, so terms such as “native American” or “first nation” are inherently nonsensical. Nations have always encroached on each other, and these include not just armies but immigrants, illegal and legal. Of course, outsiders have also been welcomed in, and the justification, nearly always, is that they benefit the host society. To this list, we can count African slaves to the Americas, Muslims to Europe and, now, Southeast Asians to Japan.
During Miss Universe 2018, H’Hen Nie wore an outlandish banh mi outfit as Vietnam’s national dress, but such is the evolution of culture. With its French bread, paté and mayonnaise, this bastard of French colonial rule has been embraced by Vietnamese to define themselves, to be draped onto a Rade whose self-definition has been much compromised by Vietnamese.
Since H’Hen’s mother speaks no Vietnamese, she’s interviewed by vnExpress through a translator. She shares, “At that age, girls in my village start to get married, have children. Back then, if H’Hen had listened to me, she wouldn’t be able to shine so brightly today. I feel very happy and lucky that my daughter was so stubborn. From now on, I will never urge her to get married […] As a child, when I was still carrying her on my back to school, I could see that she was very special. As a child, she made everyone cherish her because she was so cheerful and positive. The road from home to school was very long, and got muddy each time there was a storm, but H’Hen never dreaded it, but went to school diligently. There were days she went to school without breakfast. I feel guilty for not having the means to send her to school properly. H’Hen’s achievement today is mostly through her own effort.”
Placing fifth at Miss Universe 2018, H’Hen was paid $25,805, all of which she has already given to charities, with the main project the building of a library in her impoverished village, Sut M’Dung.
It’s not hard to see why H’Hen is receiving a tremendous amount of love from fans, domestic and foreign, but cheering her on, Vietnamese can also congratulate themselves on proving to the world that 1) They don’t discriminate against minorities 2) Despite having 54 ethnic groups, Vietnam is just one big, happy family. Similar delusions infected many Americans when they elected Barack Obama.
Having often been threatened with cultural annihilation, one society doesn’t just know that self-definition is an endless war, but is willing to fight even to the death for it, and that’s why it will endure. Warring against itself, the other one implodes.