After ten weeks away, I’m back in dusty, remote Ea Kly and the plastic recycling plant.
Coming up from Saigon in our new truck, we avoided Highway 13, since my brother and sister-in-law are very superstitious. Last year, they got charms from a shaman to stick on our plant, yet our business still floundered. In their minds, things would have turned out even worse without these supernatural pieces of paper. Over our door lords a round mirror inside an octagonal frame.
Adaptable enough, I enjoyed Saigon while there, but as soon as I left its KFC, Popeyes and Eon Shopping Mall sophistication, I felt lighter and freer, but maybe I’m just talking about my 19-year-old marriage. When I showed up two days ago, a cafe owner asked, “Where have you been, uncle?”
Northern Vietnamese call just about everyone a greater uncle (bác) or lesser one (chú), so even a father might call his son a lesser uncle. No culture needs to make sense or explain itself to outsiders.
I’m sitting in the same wall-less café, on a concrete bench, in front of a concrete table. The nylon hammocks and plastic tables haven’t been set out yet. There is never any music here, thankfully, only birds or crickets chirping. Among my readers is the astrologist Rob Brezsny, and on June 5th, he again quoted me, “I don’t think we were ever meant to hear the same song sung exactly the same way more than once in a lifetime.” White and pale yellow butterflies flit by, half darting, half blown, seemingly, by the meagre breeze.
Mentally defective, I’m not great with names, and atrocious with faces, but they’re coming back. Stories, I store well. Yesterday, I chatted with the cafe owner’s husband, who told me about his four grown children.
The oldest is 27 and works as a paralegal six miles away. On top of this, she takes an overnight bus to Saigon each Friday evening, to attend law classes over the weekend. On Sunday evening, she takes another bus back, so she can be at work by Monday morning.
Lying on a hammock, I stated the obvious, “Your daughter is tough!”
Lying on his hammock, her dad barely grinned, “She needs to do whatever to get ahead.” He’s a bit worried, though, that she’s not married yet. Then, “How many kids do you have, uncle?”
“Actually, none! Since I’m a writer,” a fact he already knew, “my life has always been very uncertain.” Peeling back layers, neighbors become intimate.
“Ah, but there’s always a way! If you have just 50,000 [$2.15] a day, then you just deal with it!”
He and his wife certainly know how to survive. A bit here and there adds up. Each day, he catches roughly ten kilograms of tilapia from a pond just behind their hammock cafe, so that’s $6.46 already. Sixteen ducks, raised in the same pond, yield half a dozen eggs a day, though their feed more or less cancels that profit. At their cafe, a cup of coffee with condensed milk is just 34 cents, but they also sell cigarettes, soft drinks, homemade rice wine and even some traditional armpit deodorant that comes in a tiny, circular tin.
His other three kids are all in Saigon, “There’s just no work here.” A daughter teaches math, while his twin sons work construction.
Like most people here, he’s dark and wiry. Even the kids are like that, except a few pampered ones that are pale and pudgy. In Saigon, dull faced fat kids can now be found waddling everywhere.
During the long layoff, our workers had to find other ways to get by, so Hương, for example, decided to open a kebab restaurant, and it’s actually doing quite well. I dropped by the other day to enjoy skewers of minced pork, pork with okra, pork enclosing straw mushroom and even some aquatic snake wrapped in lime leaves. Bone bits in the last, though, was a taste I won’t likely acquire. Each skewer costs but 22 cents, so you can certainly stuff your face for $2.22. I skipped the gnarly chicken feet.
Another former worker, Út, is now a long distance bus driver, covering the route from Saigon to Qui Nhơn. At another café this morning, we caught up.
Each round trip takes two days, and Út does ten a month, for a salary of $410. Since drivers steer many customers to roadside restaurants, they used to eat free, but now this practice has mostly stopped. The better eateries don’t need to entice anybody. Since competition for riders is so fierce, bus companies can’t afford to not take their customers to these joints.
Út’s food budget, then, is about $65 a month. In Saigon, Út sleeps in an air conditioned room, provided by his employer, and in Qui Nhơn, he stays with relatives, so even with his modest salary, he’s planning on buying a piece of land. It won’t be in Ea Kly, however, “This place is not going anywhere.”
Drivers used to supplement their income by picking up unticketed passengers or delivering packages, but all new buses have surveillance cameras.
Among the myriad wonders of the tropics are winged insects of every description to bug the living fuck out of you. Right now, some pest is hovering around my eyelashes. To get rid of him, I’ll have to fumigate my entire face, or type this inside a gas chamber. Shalom to all my hasbara tailgaters!
Behind each story there’s another, to flesh out, complicate or challenge it, so you must always look behind what’s behind, with each discovery provisional.
Last month in Saigon, I hung out with a few writer friends, some I had known for two decades. Novelist Nguyễn Viện, however, I had never met. Walking into the café on Hoàng Sa [Paracel Islands] Street, Viện was accompanied by a much younger woman who had three cats, a howling wolf and a bearded, cigar chomping head tattooed on her upper arms and chest. With so much ink on her baby smooth skin, it was hard to look at her baby face.
Born in 1949, Viện lived through the Vietnam War, then the turbulent, brutal years after it. Escaping by boat, a girlfriend of his was raped 21 times by Thai pirates. In Vietnam, you don’t need to scratch very hard to get at the horror stories.
At the same table was Nguyễn Võ Thu Hương. Now a professor at UCLA, she escaped the Fall of Saigon at age 13. At sea, tiny Vietnamese boats swarmed an American navy ship that was still moving, so people fell off during the mad scramble up the vertiginous rope ladder.
Hương went three days without water and, for food, had just a half-eaten apple begged by her mom from a lunching American seaman. “It was only three days,” she shrugged. Stuffed below deck, hungry, thirsty, overheated and barely able to breathe, Hương also had to hear a woman wail and scream an entire night, for her two-year-old grandson had fallen into the ocean.
Two years ago, I met poet Tô Thùy Yên in New Haven. After the Fall of Saigon, he was jailed three times for nearly 13 years altogether. (My father-in-law, a combat soldier for nearly a decade, was also “reeducated” for 13 years, and it’s impossible to guess how much of his current nastiness can be attributed to these gory years.)
In Connecticut, Yên spoke with mirth about our mutual friend, Nguyễn Đạt, who was probably the worst soldier under Yên in the South Vietnamese Army. Like lots of people, Đạt couldn’t quite be trained to shoot anybody. Surviving it all, Đạt writes poems and stories, mostly about attachment to places, lasting friendships and gentle, poetic horniness. Dude’s a romantic.
Until last month, I hadn’t seen Đạt since 2001, but when he showed up, it was like I had been here all along. Đạt gave me his new book of poems, stories and drawings. Just published, it reproduces, twice, a sketch I did of the author in 1999. I have no memory of this drawing. He saved it.
All these portraits are of survivors, and though Vietnamese are no smarter or tougher than anyone else, history and geography have drilled into them a few hard lessons, so they have come to understand that life’s first goal, its prerequisite, if you will, is to be as unmolested as possible by any government or ideology. Dodging taxes and dogmas, your average Nguyen just wants to be left alone to make money, raise his children, sing karaoke and pray to the God of Prosperity and God of the Soil. Despite the bad English on their T-shirts, Vietnamese just want to go on being Vietnamese, a reasonable enough wish, and when their way of life is threatened, enough will kill to defend it, as they have for two thousand years.
The Saigon café faced a canal, with the street across it named Trường Sa [Spratly Islands], and across Vietnam, there are signs and billboards showing a gun toting soldier with the disputed islands on a map behind him. School murals, too, repeat this message that Vietnam must defend every inch of its territory, even if it won’t, because China is, well, kinda big.
In any case, a besieged or even paranoid nation stands a much better chance of survival than an oblivious one. Though America has been fighting war nearly nonstop since its founding, much of this serial bloodshed has taken place overseas, so American civilians have generally assumed they could cruise through life without any exposure to bombing, mortar rounds, car bombs, enemy tanks, sudden mass incarceration, fleeing for one’s life or refugee camps, but this seeming safety against personal and/or communal annihilation has a price. Unlike most other nationalities, Americans don’t quite realize their entire way of life can be utterly perverted or erased, by an external or internal enemy.
The increasing rancor between the American left and right has merely resulted in bad theater, sometimes with cosplay, but the real architects of America’s destruction remain unidentified, much less threatened. Every four years, they string up another pinata for half the country to whack at, and with sinister amusement, they abet street tussles so Americans can claw at each other, just like on Jerry Springer. Neo Nazi incels quake in their jackboots at the thought of being jumped by a gaggle of crossdressing, Mao quoting wusses. Wake me when real traitors die.
The American mainstream media can no longer gloss over Jeffrey Epstein and his many victims, and maybe this time, a few big names will be sacrificed, but whatever happens next, you can be sure the sick framework of American society will remain perfectly intact, so that our overlords can go on screwing the peasants, of any age.
Depending on your politics, the possibility of Clinton or even Trump being taken down by this may be tantalizing, but it won’t matter one whit to your or America’s destiny. The key lesson to take from this is that all of your televised politicians and pundits are on the same fuck boat, though some may be merely boatswains with barely a labial lick sneaked in sidewise, and you, obviously, are the screaming teenager being raped! On November 11, 2016, I did write in “The Trump Ploy“:
Like politicians, casinos specialize in empty promises. Trump, then, is a master hustler, just like Obama, and with help from the media, this New York billionaire became a darling of the flyover states. Before his sudden transformation, Trump was certainly an insider. He donated $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation, and Bill and Hillary attended his third wedding. Golf buddies, The Donald and Bill were also friends with one Jeffrey Epstein, owner of the infamous Lolita Express and a sex orgy, sex slave island in the Caribbean.
In 2002, New York Magazine published “Jeffrey Epstein: International Money of Mystery.” This asskissing piece begins, “He comes with cash to burn, a fleet of airplanes, and a keen eye for the ladies—to say nothing of a relentless brain that challenges Nobel Prize-winning scientists across the country—and for financial markets around the world.”
Trump is quoted, “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it—Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
Bill Clinton shouts out, “Jeffrey is both a highly successful financier and a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science. I especially appreciated his insights and generosity during the recent trip to Africa to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS.”
Epstein gushes back, “If you were a boxer at the downtown gymnasium at 14th Street and Mike Tyson walked in, your face would have the same look as these foreign leaders had when Clinton entered the room. He is the world’s greatest politician.”
Even during a very nasty election campaign, Trump stayed clear of Clinton’s association with Epstein because he himself had been chummy with the convicted pervert.