Angkor Wat

Written 01/08/11

Arriving in complete darkness, I couldn’t help but bring all my expectations of Angkor Wat to the forefront of my mind. Stars lit up the early morning, while Venus shone bright as a reminder of the sun that would consume it in the eastern sky (OK, I didn’t know it was Venus at the time). Our driver said it was the Morning Star and was an auspicious sign of a good view of the sunrise over the temples.

And what a view that would be, I was sure. This was the view I’d had described to me many times, seen in hundreds of paintings throughout Phnom Penh and thousands of pictures throughout my lifetime. I felt that I knew exactly what I was going to see, and I worried that perhaps this knowledge would dull my experience. I need not, but I did.

There was also the reality that Angkor Wat is a major tourist attraction. Certainly over 50, perhaps 100 people were lined up in the best viewing spot, clicking away with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment, flashing shots that instantly destroyed your night vision, and creating an overall murmur that seemed perhaps perverse in such a setting. Of course, I snapped many pictures, chatted with my friends and bought a book from a vendor, dutifully contributing to the strangely uncomfortable anticipation building around me.

Yet Angkor Wat is a place where one loses all perspective, not simply of size, but of beauty, complexity, faith, power and potential, often even time. From nothingness emerged a faint outline of three spires, a shadow of a shadow that was as recognizable as if every detail was already in focus. Almost immediately, the entire crowd’s focus merged, and as a group we went through the futile motions of trying to capture an image that contained no light, despondently trying to catch a moment that can and should only be experienced. The first glimpse of Angkor Wat is a lesson.

Of course, lessons take time to be learned, and I spent the next hour or so alternately reveling as the entire complex came into focus and recording as best I could every variation of light as the sun crawled out of hiding. We had gotten there very early and stood on the bank of a pond in front of the western entrance for well over an hour before the sun had truly risen. Many around us had given up well before, either too excited to get inside, or too impatient with the slow turn of the Earth. Reflecting on what I had just seen, I had to remind myself that this happened every day; it was not a unique event like a meteor shower, but a constant, through almost 1,000 years. And I thought perhaps not a day has gone by for all that time in which someone did not experience what I just had.

With the sun up, the crowd felt free to talk and laugh and sometimes shout. I realized this day was unlikely to be one of peaceful reflection and wonder; but I was prepared for that. One would need great mental discipline to find that peace, discipline to quiet the crowd and discipline to suppress the myriad thoughts and questions that invariably flood the mind. Not being so strong a person, I did for me the next best thing and submerged myself in the history, tried to learn as much as I could about everything I was seeing, while forcing myself to stop and imagine everything in its freshly-built glory.

Walking through the entrance, we were immediately confronted with an immense, intricately carved wall, perhaps 100 meters long, and well higher than my head. The entire wall depicted a great Hindu epic battle. My first thought was this isn’t my grandmother’s religion. Soldiers on either end march towards the center of the wall, where battle is hand to hand, with men stricken with swords and arrows dying below the great warriors in combat. The scene gives a sense of never-ending, with soldiers continuing to emerge from either side to fight and be slain by the heroes in the middle.

These bas-reliefs line the entire outer section of the temple, depicting many of the most important Hindu stories. Yet, as we walked further within, I realized that not only was this outer section fully carved, but the entire complex was. Literally every inch of space had been carved in some way, whether it be a simple lotus shape, the outline of a monkey, the large carvings of seemingly beautiful women, known as Apsaras, which appeared on virtually every wall, or the simple ornamentation to each pillar. I thought to myself none of this is really possible.

Within the next chamber is a strange set of rooms. Empty deep pools lined with walkways defined the space, but I was caught by the headless statues leaning up against the walls. Many, many statues, all without heads. Here was a sign of reality, that a place as special and sacred as Angkor Wat was not, and had never been, safe from the realities of thievery and war and plunder and human weakness. The solution to the room was simple: if you can’t carry the entire statue away, take the head. All the statues were of Buddha.

Through this chamber we emerged as tiny specs in a vast open sanctuary below three massive towers that dominated the sky and, briefly, all the senses, as once again perspective was lost. There are actually five towers, four arranged in a square around a central spire. Here we took some time to take in the full setting. I brought my focus down a few magnitudes and studied the carvings along the temple’s face, and then the walls surrounding the sanctuary. Everywhere carved, everywhere worn with time, everywhere its own individual triumph.

A guide walking through was talking about an Apsara on a nearby wall, so I walked up. He said to me, “this is the sexiest Apsara in the whole temple.” I laughed, tentatively. Seemingly each Apsara is different in slight ways, whether they be hair style, clothing or positioning. Yet they’re all remarkably similar: a perhaps dancing woman with often long, always ornately styled hair, an intricate necklace, bare breasts, though perhaps only due to a see through top, an outer dress, usually long leggings and bare feet. And this one had very short leggings. She was certainly showing more skin than any other Apsara, so perhaps “sexy” was closer to the right word than I had thought. I took a moment to ponder the mind of a 13th century Khmer artist, and then moved on knowing there was no way I could.

The stairways up to the central towers were blocked off as we walked around the sanctuary, and we all thought that we weren’t going to be able to go up. We were all pretty tired at this point, though it was still morning, so it wasn’t a huge disappointment. Luckily, we rounded a corner and saw that the last stairway was open, and there was a line to go up. The stairways rise only about 10 meters, but from below those ten meters look much more like a climb than anything resembling a walk. After seeing the stairways before closed off, I had semi-imagined this central area as somehow sacred from the imposing tourists, and at first I was almost disappointed that we were allowed up.

The stairs turned out to be no problem, and atop came a view of the surrounding jungle stretching towards the horizon. I remembered where I was. For a moment, Angkor Wat emerged from its singular position and melded into first the area around me, then within Cambodia, and finally on what I know of the Earth, merged with right now and before. I found the beginnings of a context for the masterpiece I was experiencing, and I quickly dismissed it, for the moment, and returned to where I was.

All five towers connect in the this central keep, and we slowly proceeded to walk around the circumference, sometimes looking out at the view below or looking within at the statues of Buddha where monks and tourists alike prayed. In my slow march around I quickly lost any sense of direction, where I had started and how far I had gone. Though this is a cheap sensation for me, one who is unbelievably easily lost, I always enjoy it, and up at the top of Angkor Wat was a marvelous place to lose any sense of where I was.

Eventually, we descended the stairs, which is always more difficult than going up, and made our way towards a different exit from this central area. We walked towards where we thought would be a bas-relief of the Hindu creation story “the Churning of the Sea of Milk,” an intriguing story that I hope to read some day. Unfortunately, it was blocked off for restoration. At this point, I felt that I had taken in more in these few hours than I could possibly truly comprehend. I was also tired and hungry, and happily agreed to go eat lunch and move on to the numerous other unique and equally wondrous temples in this region, a few of which I’ll try to describe soon.


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The Eightfold Fence

Written 10/09/10

“Eightfold rising clouds
build an eightfold fence”

-From “Eightfold Fence” by an anonymous Japanese poet, 712 A.D.

My idea of the Eightfold Fence is wrong. The reference is from the first poem of the “Kojiki,” the oldest surviving book of Japanese myths and stories. It’s actually a simple marriage poem.

Yet for me the Eightfold Fence has been a construct I’ve long used to simplify the psyche. From within the Eightfold Fence one can smile when they are sad. Deep behind it’s walls come the lies that are only understood through the lens of one’s most hidden fears and hopes. It is the protection from senseless tragedy, the gates that are slowly opened to loved ones, the place where secret ambition is guarded, and perhaps the one thing each person can know is entirely unique to themselves.

It is eightfold because I believe everyone has many layers they can hide behind. Even as we allow people in to our lives, our dreams and our nightmares, we hold back the layers of our own truth that would leave us too vulnerable. And it is made of clouds because even for the most disciplined among us, we are constantly being prodded within our defenses by people, circumstances and truths that find ways to penetrate the ethereal walls.

The Eightfold Fence is not good or bad; it is a tool of sanity. Some use it to maintain indifference to evil acts they themselves commit. Others use it to steel themselves to pain they know must be endured for a greater good. It can be the source and dam of passion. It is probably not the correct way to understand people, but it has been the one that works best for me.

I came across this idea in the book “Shogun” by James Clavelle as a representation of how ancient Japanese society had endured the hardship and suffering endemic to its past, “for surely we would all go crazy without our Eightfold Fence” (as I remember the quote, not having the book here). Living in Southeast Asia, I think I understand it better now. I know I certainly use it more. But at what cost?

“You want to go to the chicken farm,” the motorbike driver asked me in a confident voice.

“The what?”

“You want girls, boom-boom?”

I turned and walked away.

“You buy book, help me get money for school,” the boy pleaded as his mother watched discreetly from across the street.

“No, thank you,” I replied, donning the best smile I could muster while facing down the icy stare of a child hardened by constant rejection.

“Where should I put my trash,” I asked.

“Just throw it in the street,” the man replied indifferently.

I discreetly found a trash can.

“You go grocery store always; never buy grapes. Please, please, buy my grapes,” the middle aged woman begged desperately as I walked by again on the way to the supermarket. As always, I smiled at her and shook my head, while continuing an even pace to my destination.

In a way, there is nothing remarkable about these anecdotes. In some form, they are a daily occurrence for an expat in Southeast Asia. Morality is not simple here; though perhaps it isn’t anywhere.

It is easy to get caught in terrifying questions: does a child who lost a limb to a landmine deserve my charity more than one who cut it off himself in order to be a more effective beggar? It is easy to enable crippling cycles of poverty; buying a book from a child on the street makes that child less likely to go to school and more likely to continue what has just made him/her money. It is easy to feel passionately guilty; the hopeless eyes of the desperate rein fire on the conscience. It is easy to get justifiably angry; the woman on the street with the black eye, the 60 year old man with two 20 year old girls, the references to women as objects and numerous more examples are a source of more rage than I’ve felt in my life. And it’s easy to despair; the water is undrinkable, the rivers spoiled, the sewers full, and yet the trash and refuse continue to be dumped on the sidewalk or street.

And so the longer I live here the stronger the wall I’ve built behind which I can withdraw, disengage from the instincts and emotions that flood my conscience. There are still moments when my defenses fail, but they have become fewer with time.

And oh, the wonders before me if I build my barriers well: constant attention, cheap thrills of all varieties, status. Of course, these only seem meaningful if I build the fence above my eyes.

There’s a statue to Mahatma Gandhi in Phnom Penh. Inscribed next to it are what he considered the seven most dangerous traits to humanity: “Wealth without Work, Pleasure without Conscience, Science without Humanity, Knowledge without Character, Politics without Principle, Commerce without Morality, Worship without Sacrifice.”

Since I first came across it, I find it giving words to the warning that’s been welling up within my subconscious. These are the traps an expat can fall victim to living here, and the unfortunate reality is that most do. This is what will happen if I build the wrong walls.

Yet I’m coming to realize that this struggle is why I love living here. While in so many ways life is easier here, certainly cheaper, for me, who has been able to coast my way through so many of the past years, it is the biggest challenge of my life. Not the challenge of surviving here, which is simple, but the challenge of answering the question: can I be a good person in Southeast Asia?

I have this vision of expats arriving here in a kind of moral purgatory, a place they can’t stay. Slowly or more often quickly, their actions decide their path. Obviously, this is a pretty melodramatic representation, but anyone who has visited or lived here knows which is the road less taken. This is rarely because a person is innately bad or good, usually a question of weak or strong.

I came to this realization in a conversation with a 50 something year old expat who had married a much younger Asian wife, after divorcing his wife in England. Up until I found this out, the man seemed like a pretty fun guy, as it goes. Then he said to me, “weak men date western women, who believe in equality and all that crap; strong men date Asian women who know the truth.”

Walking away, I thought to myself, how in the world could this man have gotten it so backwards? Only to realize the obvious; everything about this place is convincing him he’s right. And the only guard I have available against this continuous reinforcement is the strength of my belief to the contrary. So the deeper and more often I have to subjugate that belief in order to endure one of many poignant everyday moments, perhaps the weaker it gets. Maybe while hiding behind my Eightfold Fence, I am blind to cracks in my morality, my humanity. Maybe.

And it is precisely this uncertainty that forces upon me two options: maintain as I’m going and hope I don’t fall for the traps of the weak mind, or find a way to actively reinforce the principles I’m trying so hard to live by. With so much at stake, this is no choice. The conclusion I come to is that if I want to live here for a long time, which I do, I’m going to have to find work that helps me do this, whether it be through an NGO, a charity, a newspaper or publication, or volunteering. Moving to Phnom Penh in December provides me with a good starting point, a place from which I can build the right walls, follow the right path, and truly enjoy the wonder around me, with open eyes.

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…and then you get hit by a motorbike


There are some days here when I feel truly at home. I can walk the streets comfortably, recognize the few vendors that make up part of my routines, laugh at silly tourists, and generally feel like part of this country, as opposed to a visitor. These days aren’t the norm yet, by far. In fact, I just went through a series of days when I was feeling very homesick, mostly frustrated with my inability to communicate as well as I’d like, but also missing my friends and family. Still, today was one of those days…and then I got hit by a motorbike.

Two days ago, I said to Anh, who I rent my apartment from, “I want to learn how to make Phở, and then I want to learn how to make Bún bò Huế.” These are two of my favorite dishes and will certainly be part of the upcoming post on food (which I’m going to wait to do until I have a camera). My idea was that this family cooks so much for me that I’d like to simultaneously learn how to make these dishes and then make them for everyone, perhaps relieving a bit of the workload the women carry every day. So we made plans to go to the market the next morning and buy the necessary ingredients, mostly beef bones which are used to make the stock, some chilies, mint, fresh noodles, and a few other spices.

The next morning Anh had to go visit her mother in law for some sort of semi-emergency and so our trip to the market was canceled. Instead, she ordered the ingredients and had them delivered, telling me it cost 270,000 Dong, which I thought was a pretty damn good deal. That’s about 14 bucks or so. We said we were going to split it, so I gave her 150,000 Dong, thinking there were probably other ingredients involved and rounding up was always a good idea. And to be honest, it made me feel generous, a feeling I selfishly pursue wherever I can get it.

Being under the impression that we were going to be making the Phở on Friday, I picked up a whole bunch of work for the day, happy to have the opportunity to make a bit of extra money. After a long day of work, my back sore from sitting in the same position for so long, I decided I’d have some dinner, expecting it to be the usual rice with assorted meat and fish, along with some vegetables and a bit of cold soup. Walking up to the roof-top kitchen, I could smell that my scheme had unraveled. Sitting next to the table was a very large pot of already cooked Phở, complete with the tired and sweating women who had spent the day preparing it.

I really was horrified. My whole idea was maybe not so much to give them a break, as they’d have to teach me, but at least to be a part of it, and definitely learn enough to do it on my own in the future. Once again, their disbelief that a man would actually want anything to do with cooking had led them to go ahead and make it without telling me, assuming I’d be happier not to have to put forth the labor. Communication, particularly between cultures, is not simply about language; it’s also about proving that your fundamental differences in outlook are not merely politeness or some other type of courtesy. When someone has grown up knowing that men don’t cook, don’t like to cook, and shouldn’t cook, just saying you enjoy cooking is not going to break that barrier.

So eating my Phở I was sullen, which they took to mean that I didn’t like it. While I’m normally a pretty positive guy, when I get down, it feels like all the energy in the world couldn’t put a smile on my face. These episodes are extraordinarily rare, but they happen, and this series of events had jolted me into this depression rather suddenly. I simply couldn’t put it all together to give them the only thing they wanted from me, a bit of joy. Of course, knowing what they wanted and knowing how impolite I was being only further exacerbated my condition, along with learning it had cost about three times as much as I thought, making me cheap rather than generous; of course, they wouldn’t accept more money and I was probably being rude in offering. At this point I was feeling pretty damn sorry for myself, wishing I could talk with my mom, my sister, my friends, anyone who didn’t need me to try to find creative ways to express ideas with a very limited vocabulary, both their English and my surprisingly blossoming Vietnamese (seriously, I’ll do a post on what I’ve learned so far, but I’m pretty damn impressed with myself on this front).

I’ve been through this enough to know it’s a cycle you simply have to find a way to break. Of course, eating left over Phở the next day for lunch didn’t help. Luckily I got assigned about 6 hours of work in the afternoon and was able to basically zone into my computer until evening, all the more because I was transcribing a think tank discussion on financial reform, pretty dry stuff. So returning to the world from the trance of repetitive work, I found myself feeling much, much better. What can I say? I don’t understand the brain, I just play along with it.

The day after a depressed episode is always wonderful. I know it’s dangerous to go from extreme lows to extreme highs, but it’s hard to tell yourself not to feel good. So, even though I only slept about 3 hours last night (mostly from too much of the wondrous Vietnamese coffee), I woke up this morning feeling awesome! I quickly dispatched with my morning work and set out to buy a present for 12-year-old Linh’s birthday on Sunday. She’s Anh’s niece who lives with them, and is just about the cutest little girl I’ve ever met. Of course, I’m a bit biased on this in that she already calls me Uncle Ben, which always makes me feel good, not to mention the fact that children are always the easiest to communicate with when you don’t have language as a resource.

Walking the streets this morning, I soaked up all the things I love about Saigon. From the guy I buy cigarettes from smiling at me and saying “Marlboro,” to the security guards who now recognize me nodding their approval at whatever I was doing right, to the cute girl who was seemingly hungrily staring at me, today was my day. Walking towards the market, this was further brought home by two Vietnamese women who stopped me for a brief chat, and ended by saying: “you look like Nicholas Cage.” I probably looked pretty dumb with the huge smile on my face as I continued walking down the street. Later, walking through the market and looking for a good present, I heard a group of elderly English women say “are we going to have the noodles where Bill Clinton went?” Of course, they meant Phở 2000, a decent chain restaurant, with one outlet making a killing off advertising that President Clinton once ate there. Still, just recognizing the chasm between their lack of knowledge and my growing understanding made me feel even a little bit better. On a side note, there are plenty of places to get much better Phở, although they won’t be as clean.

Thinking to myself that just about everything I was seeing at the market was nice, shiny and cheap as hell (quality and price), I decided that this was not where I wanted to buy a present and headed back home. It didn’t even bother me that my famous lack of any sense of direction got me lost within a kilometer of where I live; I was confident I’d find my way. And I did.

Deciding to hit up the supermarket before I got home, I took a left on Cống Quỳnh, feeling as confident as I’ve felt since arriving. I literally had thought to myself a few blocks before, “man, I really feel comfortable here today.” Walking across the street I looked left and saw two motorbikes coming my way, certainly nothing to worry about in a country where 10 motorbikes coming your way means walk. Seeing that they would easily go around me, I turned my head the other direction to check for more traffic.

The Vietnamese honk for everything. So when an accident is impending, they yell instead. Hearing a shout to my left, I started to turn when a tire hit my left leg at about 25 miles an hour, flipping me up in the air and down flat on my back. My reaction was actually exactly the same as the time I got hit by a car while riding my bike in San Francisco. I immediately stood up, and said to myself, “I’m OK.” And, for the most part, I was. Blood was dripping down both arms from cuts on my left forearm and right elbow, along with my whole right arm throbbing generally, but pain really doesn’t bother me. I don’t say this to be tough; it’s simply that when you have the type of chronic back pain I have, it takes a whole lot more hurt to get in your head.

Now the guy who hit me had obviously stopped, and he seemed to think it was my fault, while I’m sure it was his fault. In reality, it was both of our faults, as I turned my head, and he must have stopped looking forward when he was 20 feet or so away. Regardless, I yelled “God damn it” at him, waved my arms a bit and simply turned my back to him and kept walking. The only serious injury here was to my ego.

Of course, everyone on the street had seen this and was staring at me. Of course, pretty much regardless of where you are in Saigon, everyone on the street means at least 30 people. I pointed in the driver’s direction and did my best to convey that I thought he was a dumb ass and walked on with as much dignity as I could muster.

Because I’m stubborn, I decided to still go to the grocery store, only a block away. Wiping the blood off as best I could, I walked in and quickly got what I wanted, some cat food and sweetened milk for coffee, hoping that no one would see the blatantly obvious cuts on my arm. I got out of there without incident. Walking back home, a few people who had seen the accident came over and said something that I’m sure translated into “Jesus, are you OK?” I used hand motions to say that it was no problem, small cuts, not hurt, don’t worry about me.

Walking towards my apartment I decided I needed to cheer myself back up, so I went to the bakery across the street and bought a big, beautiful cake for Anh as a thank you for cooking for me. I walked into my apartment feeling great.

Moral of the story: always try to keep your head up.

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Big Brother (or Uncle Ho)

Written 07/08/10

Note: I’ve learned not to trust government, and the Vietnamese government is no exception. So this is obviously a harsh and one-side critique, but that was my intention, and likely how I would feel with any government, US foremost, that was in control of where I live. So don’t take it as a condemnation of Vietnam, merely the government. That’s a very important distinction. Vietnam is a unique country with problems and potential I’m only beginning to comprehend. But they’re government, like all governments, is undoubtedly holding them back.

To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!

There’s no name tag that says “I work for the government,” or, better yet, “Communist Party Member.” Yet the Vietnamese government employs millions of people, directly or indirectly, and you often get the sense that many of them are watching. From the thousands of police, of numerous types, to the vendors hocking lottery tickets, to the cashiers at many clothing stores, the city is filled with potential government agents. I don’t mean to say that they’re all out there spying on the people, certainly not, but I think some of them are. And with a government that often seems schizophrenic in their indecision between the past and the future, it’s impossible not to think they take full advantage of this resource. Paranoid? Certainly, but that’s probably healthy here.

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

You can’t work within the government bureaucracy without being a member, in good standing, of the Vietnamese Communist Party, or, as they say, have your “Red Diploma.” This isn’t something you sign up for. If your parents think it’s even possible, as a kid, you enter into a Communist children’s group, where you’re fed government propaganda (in addition to what everyone receives) and trained in party loyalty. Upon high school graduation, a background check is performed, going back three generations, to find any dissent from the government in your family’s history. Your parents fought on the wrong side of the war? Out. Your grandfather worked for a French colonialist? Out. Supposedly they’re loosening this a bit right now, only going back one generation, but that’s a very recent change, and one that many people seem skeptical of. So with your childhood Communist education in hand, a clear family history, and a set of skills the government is looking for, you have gained the most secure job in Vietnam: member of the bureaucracy. Regardless of your job performance, they’re not firing you. Why would they? You’re loyal.

There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother.

What these party members are doing is running the bureaucracy, with a hand in much more than the foreign policy, social services and financial regulation that typify a capitalist state. These men have been trained to run everything because that’s what the government wants to do. Slowly, it is relinquishing its grip on the numerous industries it controls, but very unwillingly, and it continues to stubbornly defend the incompetent. My favorite example I’ve heard so far is the car industry. Vietnam doesn’t produce any cars, but more and more Vietnamese are becoming wealthy enough to buy them. So what does a control-obsessed government do, you ask? Well, obviously tax the hell out of cars, a 100 percent luxury tax, making cars in Vietnam as or more expensive than anywhere in the world. But that’s simply not enough.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.

So where can you get more control? Parts! Every car in Vietnam, within a certain period of time (haven’t figured out how long yet), has to have its parts replaced with Vietnamese-made items. You need new tires for your Audi? Gotta buy from Viettire (I made this name up, although I’d almost bet it exists). So how does your average well-to-do Vietnamese deal with this situation? Simple, buy a car in Thailand, bribe the border guard to get it in the country, and then bribe a bureaucrat to get the proper paperwork. The black market on cars in Vietnam is, not surprisingly, exploding. Eventually, I’m sure, the government will give in and decide to open up the industry, but do so gradually, continuing to waste money and efficiency along the way. It’s becoming apparent that they simply hate being proven wrong, regardless of how often that has happened over the last 35 years. I guess at least they have that in common with every government I’ve ever known or studied.

I tell you that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the party holds to be truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.

Yet, Communist party members represent a very small piece of the puzzle that is the broad spectrum of Vietnamese government influence. Most of them likely work in Hanoi, or live in well-to-do communities rarely frequented by outsiders. They are an elite class to themselves, not one based on wealth, although they do fine, but on status and power. You certainly don’t want to mess with a Communist, that’s been made clear. Then again, the vast majority of people, and, for that matter, government workers aren’t Communists. They likely revere Uncle Ho (if you say Ho Chi Minh, everyone will think you’re talking about the city), probably support their government, and often agree with the party line, but talk to them about their lives and their dreams and it’s quite obvious they view the world from a winner-take-all capitalist perspective. It seems communism is a nice idea for the very secure and the very poor; everyone in between is, like in most places, out for that almighty dollar (literally, actually; they love to get dollars here instead of the Vietnamese Dong, and know the exchange rate obsessively).

If there is hope, it lies in the proles.

So where does the government intersect with my life here? In some places, it’s what you would expect; like most countries outside America, your hotel or landlord registers with the authorities your passport. In Vietnam, this is compulsively followed. Now, I have no idea who these authorities are, where they are stationed, what they do with the information, or, for that matter, exactly how much they know. But I think the ten police officers that lounge along the street within two blocks in either direction of me likely know where I’m registered and that, for the moment, my paperwork is in good order. An ever present part of life in Vietnam is the realization that you are being monitored. How extensively, how effectively, to what end? You just can’t know. In a country of 87 million people, how much could they actually keep track of? My guess is they know everything and nothing.

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.

But the reality of being monitored, especially for someone used to and in love with the idea of liberty, can lead to some crazy thoughts. I was on the toilet one day, my fourth trip of the afternoon, and I suddenly pondered, “I wonder if they know how many times I’ve flushed today?” Which led to, “what could they do with that information.” I decided they couldn’t really do anything, unless, of course, there’s a flush quota. I guess it’s reality that paranoia comes from some absurd directions. But once you start wondering, there’s no end to where the mind can take you. (On a side, fairly ironic note, this day was the only time I’ve had digestion problems, and it was from hamburgers I cooked for the 4th of July. Another conspiracy?)

Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.

I always smile at police or security guards. Of course, I smile at just about everyone who makes eye contact, including the numerous people that stare at me unabashedly; children being the most obvious, often giving me the impression they’re thinking “look at that hairy, sweating monster.” But the police I smile at as a protective measure. One reason is because it’s very difficult to tell what a police officer’s job is here. There are numerous different types of security personnel. In tourist areas, you’re most likely to see the “tourist police,” ostensibly employed to help the hapless foreigner cross the street and make sure they don’t get their pocket picked. Of the hundreds of these men I’ve seen, only once have I seen them guide anyone across a street, and it was a group of Vietnamese children. I think their real job is simply to maintain a government presence, remind everyone, Vietnamese and foreigner alike, who is in control.

The object of power is power.

Of course, being in control doesn’t mean enforcing the law. I’ve had prostitutes proposition me right in front of police officers, motorbike riders mumble “marijuana” in similar situations, and seen locals ranging from younger than 10 to 80 selling illegal non-government numbers game lottery tickets completely openly. No, the police don’t want to enforce these laws; they want to monitor them, not let them be violated too flagrantly, and, more than likely, take a cut somewhere in the process. I still think it’s best to stay within the laws, though, because if they do decide to go after you, they have virtually unlimited power. Perhaps the embassy could help me if I got in trouble, but certainly not immediately, and the stories I’ve heard of people getting arrested usually involve beatings and harassment. So I smile to the police.

…what was in Room 101? I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it.

But these tourist police are only a small part of the security apparatus. There are also what we might think of as regular police officers, complete with cars and sirens, although they seem few and far between. Of the myriad noises you hear on the streets here, a blaring police siren is rare, and something that will turn a few heads, not an easy thing in a country where no one even bats an eye at the sound of a car horn blaring like an impending deadly collision is imminent. Then there are numerous private security guards, hired by any number of local businesses, from banks to clothing stores, to guard their premises, mostly watching the motorbikes of shoppers; I get the impression, in this respect, Saigon is similar to Berkeley, with bike theft the most common crime (this is probably the only similarity). Every now and then you will see a military vehicle, similar to the American Deuce and Half (if that reference rings a bell with anyone), filled with men in uniform in the rear, always, it seems, with one older, bad-ass looking guy that is obviously in charge, leading a group of younger, fit and well disciplined underlings. What they’re doing, where they’re going, I have no idea. But they are intimidating as hell, and I know I wouldn’t want to be there when they all got out.

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place…The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself–anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide.

There’s also the men I think of as the Special Police. They can be found in numerous spots, including small one room outposts, where they’re keeping track of something on the wall (what, once again, I don’t know), on some street corners, or, more than likely, similar to every other security personnel, lounging in small chairs in the shade on the side of the road. They seem to get the most respect from Vietnamese passing by, which makes me all the more wary. They also seem the least likely to return a smile, although probably half of them will. And I’ve even had one strike up a conversation with me out of nowhere, initially scaring the shit out of me, and then turning into one of the numerous occasions where a Vietnamese person simply wants to practice some English. But these men, like the “tourist police,” seem to do very little. They are simply a presence, which is why you have to assume you’re being watched.

He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.

Security personnel are obvious, though, and exist in any country you visit (at least you would hope they do). I find the most interesting government employee to be the Lottery ticket sales-people. The motto of the Vietnamese Lottery, translated, is “The Lottery is Useful for Both the Country and the Individual Family.” A ticket costs maybe 20 or 30 cents, with five winners of $5,000 dollars every day. Run completely by the government, it is probably the most widely promoted commercial product in the country. Yet you don’t buy Lottery tickets from a store. You buy them from one of thousands upon thousands of people employed simply selling a stack of maybe 30 tickets which they offer to everyone, continuously. Walk anywhere in Vietnam, from Saigon to a small beach town to the east, and you will be offered a Lottery ticket within 5 minutes, literally almost without fail.

The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory.

Now, at first I saw these Lottery sales-people as a ridiculous inefficiency. They could employ a quarter of the people and everyone would still get all the tickets they wanted. Then it finally dawned on me, from the Lottery ticket sales-person to the security personnel to the 10 sales people in the government owned clothing stores, the jobs are not there to maximize sales, security or profit. The jobs are there to be jobs. The government wants people employed, so if they have to add a few hundred thousand useless jobs in the process, its worth it; people who work have less time to disagree, organize, or, even more simply, think about disagreeing or organizing. Once you view the system from this perspective, it makes a lot more sense.

The citizen is not allowed to know anything of the tenets of the other two philosophies, but he is taught to execrate them as barbarous outrages upon morality and common sense.

Why else would there be a Viettien clothing store two blocks from a Viettien clothing store, two blocks from a Viettien clothing outlet, two blocks from a Viettien clothing store? Each of these employs twice the number of people necessary for an adequate sales staff, with a few security guards out front. Simply, they’re government owned and managed; they can’t go out of business, unlike the other clothing stores, which open and close with the speed of the restaurant industry in the states. They are there to provide jobs, plain and simple. Of course, they also serve another purpose: promoting what I like to think of as the Vietnamese government’s preferred uniform, nice slacks and a button down collared shirt, which is virtually the only thing available in these stores. The Ben Fitzpatrick of, let’s say, five years ago would have fit in very well here, although I don’t know how they can wear so much clothing and survive the humidity (I think people who know me from California may not get this reference). But that’s primarily what is available in the government clothing store, men’s clothes, very boring, and fairly uniform. I think if the government could enforce it, this would be mandatory uniform for all. But they’re realizing more and more that arbitrary rules can no longer be enforced here. They certainly don’t seem to have made as much inroads into women’s clothing, but my speculations on why that’s the case are best kept to myself 🙂

Not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.

Of course, none of how the government works makes sense without the context of the past 35 years. Following “the American War,” as they call it, the North Vietnamese government took control of the entire economy of the largely capitalist/post-colonial south. Owners of large businesses, farms, universities and so on were often sent to reeducation camps, or forced to live in semi-exile in rural parts of the country. Imagine for a moment taking all the industry, business and social continuity of California, eliminating virtually all the upper management, and bringing in a basically untrained, under-educated, and often undisciplined government bureaucracy to take over. You have Vietnam in about 1975. And so the government decided, in true traditional communist form, to attempt to control everything.

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

I’m willing to bet you can imagine the disaster. Agricultural control led to rioting and vastly diminished output. Industrial production plummeted as foreign sources for goods outside the Iron Curtain dried up. Poverty, disease, joblessness and homelessness ran rampant throughout the southern half of the country. In short, the nationalization of south Vietnam exacerbated all the social and economic crises that resulted from the wars fought over the preceding 30 years.


So reform was obviously necessary to all, particularly in agriculture, which began in the early ’80s, spreading to other segments of society through the ensuing 20 years. Of course, the massive elephant in the room in this respect was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, a topic which is glaringly absent from virtually all discussion of progress here. I can’t decide if that’s because it’s looked upon with sadness or if they want full credit for making the necessary changes. Regardless, the fall of the biggest example of communist government in history right in the middle of the time when reforms were being made certainly was, at the barest minimum, a catalyst. Yet, up to around the year 2000, the reforms were slow, uneven, and, more often than not, announced but not enacted. Yes, the government sold shares in industry to private individuals and corporations, but almost never enough to end their almost total control of those sectors. In short, reform was necessary, but too much reform would not only give away the power very much enjoyed by the massive bureaucracy, but also admit the failure of the old system.

The essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty.

The last ten years are when the real change has hit. As the country has truly opened up completely to the outside world, the government has had little ability to control the numerous influences that inundate it from all directions, from large corporate investment to western fashion and movies to, probably most radical in its effect, access to all the accumulated knowledge much of the world takes for granted, but which in Vietnam had previously been unavailable. The government may try to stop you from logging on to Facebook, but they allow the Google, and that’s a revolution in itself. Protests now break out when towns are deprived of electricity, forcing the People’s Committees (who seem to be aptly named only in that they’re made up of people) to quickly change policy. Men will now whisper to you on the streets the stories of their abuse by the government in the wake up the “American War,” describing in vivid detail how the government divided their family, took their home, sent them away, and left them with nothing. Of course, this is what has happened after virtually every civil war in history (ours included, if you read the history closely enough), but you can tell that before they would never deigned to have described it out loud, particularly to someone they don’t know. Simply, the government seems to think change is coming when, in reality, it’s already here and there’s no stopping it.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

I’ve heard about a blogger who wrote a relatively highly publicized piece in which they criticized the government and was then arrested for two weeks. So if you don’t hear fr

Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed— would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper— the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever.

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You’re Not Having the Tuna?

Written 07/01/10

There are few aspects of Vietnamese culture so far that I haven’t found either beautiful, charming, or, at worst, kind of funny; but I really wouldn’t be describing my experience without calling out the one thing I find absolutely abhorrent, the rampant sexism. Obviously, sexism exists throughout the world, in my view, a remnant of the male-dominated societies that existed almost exclusively up until, let’s say, the 20th Century. From advertising to the workplace to our laws to parenting, sexism certainly has not been driven from American life, or any other country, for that matter. Yet, here in Vietnam, sexism is entrenched, a part of their culture and tradition, something that people not only take for granted, but usually don’t even seem to understand why it should or could be different.

I hate sexism. I hate it for the way it makes me feel in its presence. I hate it for the way I imagine women must feel when confronted with it. I hate it for what it causes a society to lose, both in brain and manpower. I hate it because women have been most of the best influences in my life. I hate it because it’s so obviously dumb.

In Vietnam, the women cook. The women take care of the children. The women clean. They offer just about everything to the men first and take what’s left. This is not to say that there aren’t strong women here; in fact, I’ve met some of the strongest women I know in just the two weeks I’ve been here. But their strength and power exists only within the constraints of the sexist system within which they live. A woman may rule the house, control the finances, and yell at her husband seemingly without end. But she also knows that, in the end, the man always comes first. It’s very sad.

I worry that some might think I’m too harsh, that I don’t understand how this system works for the Vietnamese, or how, perhaps, it’s changed over the past decades. I’ve even thought that myself. But the fact of the matter is that this has been the excuse for discrimination throughout the world for all time. People will say who am I to judge another culture that I understand so little about. My response is that, while they are few and far between, some principles are universal, equality chief among them.

At first, I thought maybe what I was seeing was more a result of me being new and a somewhat “honored guest.” In my first days here, I didn’t notice all the small details that make this aspect of their culture so obvious, from the exclusively-male police force to the exclusively-female-dominated domestic life. I didn’t notice how the male children were pampered far beyond anything provided for the girls. I didn’t notice that the men ate when they wanted and the women waited until after, often eating simply what was left.

It all came together for me at dinner one night. Anh had cooked some wonderful tuna steaks, knowing that it was a fish I very much like. As I sat down at the table, two plates arrived, one for me and one for Thanh, her husband. Nim sat down next to me and filled her bowl up with Pho, and began to eat, quite happily. Ignorantly, I thought, why in the world wouldn’t she want this tuna, and offered her half of mine. She looked at me a bit surprised, then smiled and said, “no thanks, maybe I have some later.” Of course she wouldn’t; they only made two. I started to eat, enjoying my food a bit less, and then continued to offer her some, perhaps even getting a bit pushy. She continuously refused, not understanding why I would want her to have any. As far as I could tell, she didn’t even see the situation as unfair, or at least had internalized it so deeply that it would never show.

When I show up to the table, if women are seated, they immediately move and give me the best spot. They don’t want to let me even do the dishes, although I insist. Me helping to wash my clothes is an absolutely ridiculous idea. And the idea that I know how to even make their equivalent of Ramen noodles surprises the hell out of them. All of this they play off good-naturedly, making it seem like they’re simply surprised that I could do such things; “better to leave it to the experts” sums up their response. But after a while it’s transparent; men just don’t do these things.

Older folks are perhaps the worst in this respect. Sitting around at lunch, I met Anh’s stepfather (I think), who all the women, while constantly giggling, told me had two wives, one older, one, from the sound of it, very much younger. As they gossiped and laughed about this, I thought to myself, these women don’t care about the wives; they simply find the fact that this man has two wives funny (my guess is he doesn’t have two wives by law, probably more like wife and live in mistress. But who knows). As I pondered the life of the younger wife, who was quite obviously there for sex, I couldn’t help but truly dislike this man, regardless of the fact that he was really nice and invited me to come visit him sometime soon. But what about the young woman, who probably has to sleep with a 65 year old man at his whim, or the self-image of the older wife, being forced to confront her age in perhaps the most disgusting and disheartening of ways, cast aside physically and sexually, yet kept on probably for the good food and efficient cleaning? It wasn’t so much this weird relationship that bothered me (although of course it does); these types of situations exist throughout the world, spoken and unspoken. Instead, it was the fact that other women didn’t seem to have much of a problem with it. Seeing other women as objects didn’t outrage them at all; it’s completely normal.

Which brings me to one of the more complex areas where I see sexism in Vietnam: the constant focus on marriage. It’s not simply that Vietnamese women seem focused often exclusively on marriage; obviously, marriage is an obsession of women around the world (and men as well! More than you might think). It’s more the differences between married and single women. From her actions, the way she is treated, and the way she views herself, a single woman in Vietnam is simply not successful, or, perhaps better put, not yet succesful. It seems kind of crazy, but it’s almost as if the married women have the real freedom, or at least the ability to feel empowered. Being raised to think that getting married and having a family is virtually the end-all be-all of a woman’s life, they are able to view themselves much more positively than those who are still searching, certainly act and talk much more freely. I talked with Nim about her friend who is getting married, and she was so excited for her. I asked if she liked the man and she got quiet for a second and then said, simply, “no.” But that didn’t really seem to matter; she’s getting married! How he ends up treating her is secondary to her new position in society.

I think this may be one of the reason Vietnamese women like western men so much. Through stories and anecdotal evidence, I’ve come to understand that many Vietnamese men treat their wives very badly, and that there really is little recourse for women in the worst of situations. It’s sad, but I actually find hope in the simple fact that women like western men; at least it shows they want and know there is something better (I’m not saying, at all, that western men are better than Vietnamese men, only that, generally, western men have a more progressive view of women). I’ve often wondered how people can live happily, day to day, while experiencing discrimination, and Vietnam has shown me: you make do with what you can, find happiness where you can, and block out what you can’t have.

I want to make clear at this point that the family I live with is actually quite progressive. Thanh and Anh love each other very much, can be extremely romantic, both in public and private, and, from my point of view at least, treat each other with a great deal of respect. This respect exists within the sexist traditions and culture, but it exists nonetheless. I just want to make that clear, because, while I’m putting forward some pretty strong positions here, they simply do not stem from Thanh’s treatment of Anh. In fact, all of this post has been extraordinarily general and perhaps full of stereotypes. There are many young people here who would fit in better in my image of Los Angeles than the picture of Vietnamese society I have painted here. I’m sure that slowly things are changing; it’s just that that’s simply not good enough for me, or, more importantly, for Vietnamese women.

So how can I reconcile my strong feelings on this subject, while also respecting the culture and traditions that bind this complex society together? I haven’t found that answer yet. I know I will have to leave the moment I begin to take this part of their life for granted, but I honestly don’t think that will happen. For now, I will simply fight it, good naturedly, but forcefully all the same. I hate the idea of thinking my views are superior to other people’s; I’ve fallen into that trap too often in life. Yet I can’t explain this reality away as them simply being different from me. I know what they’re missing out on, not only in that they’re not educating and elevating half of the smartest of their citizens, but also that they can’t experience the real beauty of an empowered woman, confident and strong in herself, and given all the opportunities that I’ve taken for granted my whole life. Vietnam has given me a great deal already, taught me about myself and other people; I think maybe this will be how I can give back, if only on a very small and individual level.

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Peanuts…not Penis

Written 06/26/10

Walking down Diên Biên Phu Rd (đường Diên Biên Phu in Vietnamese), I can’t help but get the message: we won. Diên Biên Phu was the famous battle in which the Vietnamese ended French colonization, of course leading to the eventual war with America. Not speaking the language, I find myself noticing all the other different ways in which people communicate, from body language to names of roads and stores, to architecture and city layout. Having always loved words, particularly written words, I have previously often missed all these other vastly interesting forms of expression. For this reason alone, perhaps, this experience has already taught me a great deal.

There is no one message that you get walking around Saigon. Dường Diên Biên Phu connects with đường Pasteur, an obviously French name. Walking down đường Diên Biên Phu, you will see a Circle K, a KFC (if you gave me 10 guesses on which fast food chain dominates the Vietnamese market, KFC probably wouldn’t have even been on the list), perhaps a Louis Vuitton designer store, and a couple pizza places. Of course, these are a just a few of the hundreds of stores you will see, most of them in Vietnamese, and, to be honest, most of them selling women’s clothing. So what message can I take from that?

What I see is a country looking forward. Dường Diên Biên Phu was likely named shortly after the war, along with changing the city’s name from Saigon to Hồ Chí Minh City, and numerous other names, such as the Victory Hotel. The Vietnamese are rightly proud of their past and their current independence, but I feel very little desire to focus on it now, just so long as it’s not forgotten. For every glare I’ve gotten walking down the street, I get at least 25 smiles. People seem less likely to see me as a foreign invader and more likely a foreign investor. And I think they know that they, not me, best represent the future.

I have to be careful with my generalizations here, because I already know that most of my first impressions have been wrong. For example, my first week was spent in the most touristy part of the city, an area that survives on visitors spending money freely. In reality, this is not Saigon. My hotel on đường Phạm Ngũ Lão was right in the middle of District 1, the center of the city, full of tourist attractions (as a side note, Phạm Ngũ Lão was a famous Vietnamese general from the 13th and 14th century who twice defeated the invading Mongol armies of Kublai Khan; I’m thinking about trying to write a book about him actually).

So when I wrote previously that I constantly get harassed to buy stuff or take a motorbike ride or any other thing, it was from a warped perspective, kind of like saying you understand Florida by going to Disneyland. Living now in District 3, I have, perhaps, a better sense of the true Saigon. It’s just as fast paced and high energy, but without the constant pressure. I still get asked from time to time if I want a motorbike ride, but a smile and a “no thanks” is all that’s necessary to move on. I can probably count on one hand the number of foreigners I’ve seen in the blocks around my apartment, which makes me feel that this is truly a Vietnamese area, if a relatively high-class one. Walk across the Saigon River to District 2 and I see a whole other Vietnamese life, one of poverty and malnourishment, perhaps of crime even, although I’ve yet to see any signs of that so far.

What I see now is a beautiful culture that has picked out some distinctly French and American ways, while remaining distinctly Vietnamese. Whether it’s the amazing French bread available on virtually every street corner, the Starbucks-style marketing of the clothing store Viettin (one on almost every corner), or the street vendors selling Phở, this country has a character that surprises me daily. Depending on my mood, I can walk down the street and feel completely familiar or like I’m in an alien world. Luckily, I have my own place to escape to when reality becomes a bit overbearing.

As I wrote before, I found my apartment through a real estate agent, Anna, who I was initially very interested in. Once again, first impressions are dangerous. In the long history of bad dates, this was not the worst, but for me it certainly was. It turns out Anna lives in a convent of a huge Catholic church. So when showing up for the date, she told me to meet her in the church. Now, many of you likely know that I get very nervous around churches. I honestly don’t like them, but I don’t want to offend the people who believe, so I try to stay away. Waiting for half an hour inside a Catholic church in the middle of confession time is, for me, like the worst form of hazing. Yet there I was, sitting uncomfortably in the back pew, looking around apprehensively for a woman I knew almost nothing about.

When she finally arrived, we walked down to a park and got some coffee and she went into a story about how much she hates the smell of cigarettes, that her father had smoked, and that he died when she was very young. At this point, I really wanted a cigarette!! Being forced into it, I now can read body language a bit and it was obvious that Anna had no idea what we should do, couldn’t figure me out at all, and was either trying to get out of there as fast as possible or trying to think of something, anything that I would enjoy to pass the time. Of course, I don’t know anything about the area, so I could offer very few ideas. I asked her what she liked to do for fun and she told me she had very little free time, but that she liked to go ballroom dancing. It was at this point that I decided I had somewhere I had to be in about an hour, allowing me to set an end to this hell. The only bright spot was that I found a relatively cheap yoga studio that I’m likely going to check out some time next week. Riding on the back of the motorbike away from the church, I felt like a kid released from school for the summer.

Still, I’m glad I met Anna because she found my apartment, which is the absolute highlight of my stay so far. Not the physical apartment, although it is probably the nicest place I’ve ever lived, but the family that I rent from. It sounds and is cliche to say that family is extremely important in Vietnam, but it’s also the truth. In this building resides Anh and her husband Tanh, their two sons, baby Bean and two year old Timmy, along with their niece (perhaps 10 years old) Foong Lin. Close by live three of their other nieces, Bing, Nim and one girl whose name I haven’t figure out yet. Tanh’s mother also lives close by, a woman whose name I thought was Lai, although now I think that might be a word for mother actually. All of them spend their day here, cooking and cleaning, looking after the children, and generally helping out with whatever needs to be done for the family. Lai is, most certainly, the ruler of this small domain. I am absolutely confident that any of their relatives could walk in off the street and have a place to stay, food to eat, and any other help they would need, for as long as they want. All that would be asked of them is to help out with cleaning and maybe some cooking, if Lai lets them around her well guarded stove.

And so when I first walked in to look at the apartment, the entire family had to come see. As it became apparent that I really wanted to live here, what I would call the hard sell began. I’m not talking about money here; that we worked out quickly and with no difficulty. No, when Anh saw me, money was the furthest thing from her mind. She was thinking about Nim.

In what seems like a former life, I used to work as a car salesman. I’ve had my manager tell me to do everything I could to stop a customer from walking out the door. I’ve seen car salesmen spill water on people to delay them, car sales-women flirt extravagantly to convince unsuspecting men, others follow customers out into the street to keep the potential sale going, make guarantees they could never live up to, and then continually harass them by phone for days or weeks. Before moving to Saigon, that was what I considered the hard sell. They got nothing on this family.

Anh speaks the best English of those that were there (Tanh speaks great English but was at work), so she did most of the talking. Within ten minutes of me arriving, she was telling me that it was obviously fate that me and Nim get married. I’m serious here; she was talking marriage before I had even seen the bathroom. Lai, a woman who could put any stereotypical domineering Italian mother to shame with her power, was already telling me to call her mother. She speaks maybe five words of English, but they all seem to have to do with me and Nim. She can say “You, Nim,” while bringing her two fingers together, or “Nim, Beautiful,” and a few other not at all subtle comments.

She is right about one thing, Nim is beautiful, and perhaps there’s a future there, but I’m taking my time on that front. Too much could go wrong to risk anything on my gut feelings or whims. Still, I have a deal set up where I’m helping to teach Nim English in exchange for all of my meals being made for me. Some days I think maybe I’m a little bit too lucky. Their food is unbelievable, but I’m saving that discussion for its own post in the future.

Being an almost adopted member of their family, I finally have a way to begin achieving my goal of learning Vietnamese. Right now, I’m learning mostly through food. To me, gà, ga, gã, and gá sound pretty much the same right now. Yet, they mean chicken, gas, chap and to pawn, respectively. Similarly, chia means to share, whereas chợ means market; they sound really similar. Yet, I have to thank French Jesuit missionary Alexander de Rhodes for introducing the Quốc Ngữ, a Latin based written language, allowing Vietnam to be the only Asian country, as far as I can tell, with Latin letter and number characters. The signs above and below the vowels indicate the tone used and are actually quite logical. That doesn’t mean I can recognize the differences by hearing though. Interestingly, at least to me, if I use the incorrect tone for a word, the Vietnamese seem pretty much unable to figure out what word I’m trying to say. They are simply used to listening to words entirely differently from me.

Yet the same thing works in reverse. The Vietnamese have difficulty with a number of different English sounds, particularly hard consonants like T and P. This has led to some pretty funny exchanges. Often when we sit down for a meal, I will point out what I know in English and ask what it means in Vietnamese. So when they brought out a bowl of peanuts, I said, “I know those, peanuts.” All of them seem to enjoy this exchange, and try to learn the English words, which led to the entire table saying, quite clearly, “penis, penis.” I’ve learned to use lots of different forms of sign language to get my point across, but not entirely sure of the culture here, I decided not to use pointing to explain the difference. Another time, Anh was telling me about her sister, and continuously kept saying, “bitch, bitch.” My face must have shown my surprise that she would speak in such a derogatory way about family, so she continuously repeated the word. Eventually, I figured out she was saying her sister lives by the beach.

Despite the difficulties in language, this family, the Nguyens, if you will (pronounced “Wen”) have made me feel truly at home, and eliminated much of the homesickness that I might be feeling otherwise (although when I just found out my sister is having a girl, I couldn’t help but wish I was there to give her a big hug. Congratulations again, Vanessa!!!). The hardest part for me has been that they ask almost nothing of me, and rarely accept the help I offer. I at least have convinced them to let me do some dishes, and next week, when I get paid, am planning on taking the entire family out for dinner. But still, even though I have a good idea of their ulterior motives, their generosity is truly heart-warming and something I already very much cherish.

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When You Expect the Unknown, You Know Everything You Need

Written on 06/16/10

Below is my description of my first three or so days in Vietnam. It’s a bit disorganized because I’ve been writing it in bits and pieces, not to mention how much crazy stuff has happened in the days since. But those are for my next post. Enjoy!

From 30,000 feet, Vietnam looked the same as just about any other place: lots of greens, browns and blues, densely packed cities surrounded by what I imagined to be lush jungles, small farms, and quiet rural communities, a few mountains, and the vast South China Sea. I had taken an uncomfortable window seat just for this view, and after landing thought to myself that I would probably have preferred stretching my legs in the aisle. Unexpectedly, landing in Ho Chi Minh City was a largely unemotional affair. The plane landed, taxied and I steadily walked down the tunnel to the unknown.

Customs was a breeze, until the guy saw Plato and decided that this was likely an easy way to score a bit of a bribe. One guy asked me for his papers, looked at them and said “not right,” and looked at me expectantly. I looked him right in the eyes and said “right, correct, yes” (haven’t really figured out pigeon English yet, so I just try different words). I think he understood that I knew what I was talking about because he said he had to take the piece of paper and walked away. I quickly picked up Plato’s carrier and hurried through the door to freedom, not entirely sure if he had said I could go, but certain that waiting would be a dumb idea.

Walking through the doors out of customs was when everything truly came home. The heat, noise, crowds of people, motorbikes flying everywhere, drivers constantly asking “need ride,” and the knowledge that I knew only one person in the country all combined into an oppressive wave of terror throughout my entire being; what the hell did I get myself into?

So I did what I always do; I put one foot in front of the other and faked it. Eventually if you fake confidence long enough, you find you’re actually confident, or have at least confused yourself enough to maintain the act with less thought. So I walked out of that airport trying to look like I knew exactly what I needed, where I was going, and what I was doing. I don’t think anyone was fooled. All they needed to see was the sweat pouring down my face and they undestood.

Which is why it was such a relief that J (first he said “J,” and then when I said “J?,” he said “yes, the arrow.” I left it at that) was standing there with a sign reading “Ben Fitzpatrick and Plato.” He said he is one of my veterinarian’s students; I have a fucking awesome vet! He had ridden his motorbike to the airport, but was there to make sure I didn’t get screwed by a taxi driver. I was on my way to the Pet Saigon Veterinary Clinic, an establishment dedicated to improving small animal welfare in Vietnam. I think that’s such a beautiful thing!

Having watched my fair share of Travel Channel shows, I found myself relatively prepared for driving the streets of Saigon (not driving myself, mind you. That’s gonna be a while). Motorbikes, bikes, three wheelers and pedestrians all combine into what I can only describe as a completely disorganized and fully functional transit system. These people are incredible drivers, though not in a way that would be helpful at all in America. You wanna dodge around a bike? Just pull right into on-coming traffic on the other side; they’ll go around you, probably.

I’m convinced there’s something like a Morse Code with the car horns. A few short beeps is just letting everyone know you’re behind them, or turning, or bored, or perhaps scared to death. If you close your eyes, you could picture the traffic around you easily simply by the all the sounds; but I wouldn’t recommend that. You don’t want to miss a second of this roller coaster!

I was beginning to be kind of intimidated by my driver, thinking to myself: “I couldn’t do this.” That was until his cell phone rang and Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” blares out of its speakers. I didn’t laugh out loud, thank God. I did laugh, though, when I thought to myself later that Britney Spears had just helped me conquer some of my fear of this new country.

Arriving at the veterinary clinic was a huge relief. I finally got to meet Dr. Nghia, who is as nice in person as he has been over email. A short, perhaps 45 to 55 year old man, with a constant smile, and smart eyes; many of the same features I’ve seen in vets throughout America. Here was something familiar!

He checked Plato out, decided he was a bit dehydrated, and gave him some wet food to relieve that. Plato ate the food and almost immediately looked substantially better, more energetic. I could tell he was in good hands. Plato was a trooper! I can’t imagine the hell he went through during almost 24 hours of travel time, but I know that I don’t want to put him through that again for a long, long time!

Leaving the clinic, I took a cab to Xuan Spring Hotel, where I had a reservation. This was in what the Vietnamese call the Backpacking District, because it’s where all the foreigners who want to live cheaply stay. In a dirty, loud, fast paced way, this is really a beautiful place; thousands of tourists out for food, drinks, shopping, sex, sight seeing, and anything else they desire, with tens of thousands of Vietnamese out to make sure they’re the one to take advantage of this gluttony. Having just said it’s beautiful, it’s also kind of disgusting.

Xuan Spring Hotel is a shit hole. There’s really no way around that one. For $15 a day, I didn’t expect better, although I could have done without the two inch long cockroaches I had to kill in the bathroom every morning. But it was safe, had A/C and Internet, and had a decently comfortable bed. That’s really all I was hoping for. One nice thing about this hotel was that it provided flip flops in the rooms (this is the part of story telling where you introduce the proverbial “gun” early on, only to make a major appearance later).

So with Plato safe, a room to put my stuff in and a bit of money in my pocket, I decided to explore. I like to walk. I like to wander. I like to get lost. I think it’s the best way to experience a new place. I’m happy to get the tour at some point, but first I want to find out what I can for myself. It took me maybe four blocks to be lost to the point that I couldn’t find my way home for over an hour. I love this city!

I was warned before moving here that crossing the street was really hard. Though there are some perfunctory traffic laws, cross walks, even tourist police on some corners ready to help a shy pedestrian, I don’t need any of that. On my two feet there’s nothing that can stop me. The way to cross the street here is simple, just go; walk right into traffic and keep a steady pace, mind the cars, and assume the bikes will go around you. Even some Vietnamese are obviously intimidated by this, particularly older people, who I would guess have seen some startling changes to their city over the years. For me, though, it’s fun, intense, and, honestly, kind of rewarding. I bet not that many people in America feel like they’ve accomplished something when they get across to the opposite curb.

Let’s get one thing straight: our supposed communist friend Vietnam is the most capitalist country I’ve ever visited. Everyone is selling something; everything is for sale; and it’s all negotiable. I’m convinced there’s few things I couldn’t get in an hour or so walking the streets of Saigon. There’s probably enough sunglasses for sale in this city to shade the eyes of the world. You just have to be ready to negotiate, and I wasn’t. Not wanting to get screwed, I simply didn’t buy anything other than a bottle of water for 5,000 Dong, a little bit over a Quarter American.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about Saigon is the guys on motorbikes trying to give you a ride. They spot you from a half block away, yell “motorbike,” and make what I now think of as the universal symbol of biking, two hands out as if on the handle bars. I say “no, thank you,” a phrase I’ve used more in the past week than possibly the entire decade before that. Usually the next question will be “where you going.” This one I have the answer to, “nowhere.” This baffles them, and I can usually move on without further harassment. Otherwise I’ll just tell them I’m going for a walk. I get the impression the Vietnamese aren’t big fans of walking; they seem to be generally in too much of a hurry for such slow and ponderous transit. I can understand; you put your head down for a second in this city and you’ve missed something.

Eventually, after wandering for an hour or so, I walked into a small bar and chatted up an Australian tourist for a bit. As far as I could tell, his name was Clappo, but that seems a little too weird to actually be true. He works for a shipping company contracted through the Australian government to pick up Afghani refugees who do just about anything they can to get into Australian waters, where they know they can get asylum. He described his ship as sort of a floating jail, going back and forth along northern Australian territorial water picking up hundreds of refugees. Every once in a while, they make a port call, drop off the refugees with immigration, who then go about determining that they are, in fact, fleeing Afghanistan, and not just trying for an easy move (as he described one guy who had over 200,000 dollars in his bag when he boarded their ship). Anyways, interesting as hell; and I drank two beers for a total cost of about a dollar, very nice.

Finding my way home later, I took a quick nap, watched a bit of World Cup soccer and then headed out again at night. This was my first real mistake. You see, there are no standards to the sidewalks in Saigon. Some places there’s no sidewalk at all; some places very bumpy, uneven surfaces; and some places beautifully crafted smooth walkways. Regardless, you should always be watching your step, especially if you’re wearing a pair of free, cheap, too small flip flops provided by your hotel likely just for shower use. About a 15 minute walk from my hotel, I tripped and massively cut open my big toe. We’re talking blood!

As a 6’1 foreigner in Saigon, it’s easy to have the feeling that everyone is watching you. As a 6’1 foreigner with blood flowing steadily out of your big toe, painting your foot red, that feeling magnifies to where your crimson foot is the only thing anyone could possibly be looking at. Highly embarrassed, somewhat nervous about what crazy infection would result, I hightailed it home, where, luckily, I had packed some first aid cream and was able to clean the cut and wrap it. It’s still a pain in the ass, and will take a while to heal, but it’s not going to get infected, which is all that matters.

So now is the point when everyone living in a developed country should pause and say thanks to building codes. You see, building codes require, among many other things, that 4 inch pipes be installed in all buildings, leading to wider 10 inch pipes further along the system. While this seems trivial at first, it allows for something I’ve taken for granted my whole life: being able to flush toilet paper.

Development in Vietnam has been so fast and varied that there are virtually no building codes. Hence, piping isn’t standardized and will get clogged very quickly if paper is flushed. So you simply don’t flush your toilet paper here; you put it in a small bin next to the toilet. It’s kind of gross at first. But when in Rome… And most places, my new place included, have a small hose for washing first, before wiping. I’ll leave this discussion there.

Venturing out the next day, I walk by the same bar I’d been to the day before and see Clappo sitting there drinking a beer. Not wanting to be rude, I walk in and sit down for a drink with him. It turns out Clappo has a plane in 5 hours, and he doesn’t want to leave, so he’s decided to get drunk. First he buys me a round. Then, once again, not wanting to be rude, I buy the next round. At least ten rounds later, Clappo has a plane to catch, and I’m absolutely sloshed, stumble my way home, to wake up hung over and dehydrated at 4:00 in the morning. At least it wasn’t expensive.

Luckily, I have real plans for this day to meet a real estate agent about looking at apartments. Her name is Anna, and I’m a big fan. Looking up her office online, I see that it’s only about 1.5 kilometers away, so I decide to walk. Pretty quickly I realize that I am totally lost and about to be late. If it’s even possible, the sweat begins to drip down my face at an even faster pace.

So I decide that now is the time to finally take my first motorbike ride. Mistake! I look around and see a guy within five feet looking to give me a ride, tell him where I want to go and ask him “How much?” He puts up three fingers, and I think sweet, only 3,000 Dong. That’s like 15 cents!

Riding on a motorbike is fun as hell. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t drive one, but I love riding on the back of them, and my first time was no different. To me, the ride was way too short, but I had somewhere to be, so I couldn’t complain. Getting off the bike, I take out 3,000 Dong, begin to hand it to him, and he yells, “no, three dollars,” and stamps his foot extremely hard. Most people on the street turn to look.

Now I’m happy to be screwed out of a bit of money by enerprising Vietnamese, but three dollars for a 5 minute ride on a motorbike here is absolutely absurd. For three dollars I could buy all my food for a day, or three t-shirts, or a new pair of sandals. There was no way I was giving this guy that kind of money. In his mind, though, we had a verbal contract for three dollars and he isn’t leaving until he gets it.

With everyone staring at us, we begin to get in an inter-language argument where we both understand exactly what the other person is saying without understanding any of the words. About a minute or so into this I decide I need a plan to get out of this without bringing some sort of official into it. I decide I’ll give him 20,000 Dong, a little more than a dollar, and definitely more than the ride should cost.

Giving him this money does nothing to assuage his anger, and he continues to stomp his feet and yell. If I was any other person, I’d probably have found this hilarious, like everyone around me. I decide it’s time to switch gears and enact my universal backup plan. I pull out my pack of cigarettes and offer him one. He takes the cigarette and hops on his bike resigned to getting only twice as much money as he should have made. Overall, I’m feeling pretty good about myself.

So then I go to the office to meet Anna. Anna is maybe 5’0, very good looking, speaks decent English, and extraordinarily friendly (as are most people here, unless they’re trying to sell you something). We chat for a bit about the two places she’s going to show me, and then head downstairs to take a ride there.

Hesitantly, Anna turns to me and says, “you drive?” I respond that I don’t, and I can see this is a bit troubling to her. She was obviously thinking that I would drive her bike to the apartment and she would ride on the back. Not today. So popping on a helmet that fits maybe the back of my head, I hop on the back of the bike and Anna takes off down the street. The sight of me towering at least a foot above her on this bike was, I bet, something to see.

After a few minutes, Anna says to me, “I’ve never driven a foreigner around,” and I get a strong sense that she’s both scared and very excited. I think to myself, this is my kind of woman. She adjusts herself a bit further back into me and I decide I like Vietnam even more than I thought…

to be continued in “Peanuts, not Penis”

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