Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dear Twos 11-24-2007

Dear Twos,

Being an American overseas has, like all things, both advantages and disadvantages. The difference however, is in the details. For example, one real advantage is the stark lack of a need for a visa to visit most countries. This simple fact most of us take for granted, however, there are those with passports that require bank statements, invitation letters, proof of residency of the letter sender, and a picture proving the friendship just to get a one week tourism visa into countries like Japan, England, and yes, the U.S.

However, it’s not at all roses and candy for Americans abroad. For one thing, there are the questions. Every American gets them, “This country is weird, but at least they didn’t vote for Bush, right?”; “So how did the Americans let Bush invade Iraq?”; “What’s going on with this person, Plame?”; “Why does America constantly support Israel?” or any number of similar questions involving whatever may be the latest political insanity coming out of the U.S. When I was in Spain, not long after 9/11, I had many people ask me all kinds of questions, mostly involving Bush somehow, though sometimes involving more obscure aspects of American politics, such as the reasons why Americans won’t vote for Ralph Nader, or why we only have two political parties. Most of my European friends are now convinced that the American government hands you a gun upon entry into the country (thank you Mr. Moore). I don’t think I’ve said the words “2nd Amendment” inside the US since 7th grade, but out here, it’s nearly a weekly conversation.

These questions invariably end either with the more timid and genuinely curious people accepting whatever argument you make, or the more stubborn simply degenerating into bashing American politicians, which is, of course, woefully easy.

Even for the more educated and, dare I say it, reasonable amongst these people, it can be tiresome and unreasonable to engage in these discussions. If one were a Ph.D. in comparative politics, or a career diplomat, it may be possible to fire back with some quips and queries about that person’s own domestic politics, but the simple fact is, most of us barely even know who Ralph Nader is, let alone why exactly he’s useless as a leader.

This intellectual bombardment follows every American everywhere, every bar, restaurant, party, and car ride, and it doesn’t matter if the other person is French, German, Columbian, Nigerian, or even another American. Somewhere, someone is going to criticize the U.S. and its politics, make some sweeping generalization that does little more than expose their own ignorance about the U.S., and propose a remedy that is so preposterous it will make you choke if you happen to be swallowing at the wrong moment.

I remember one man (yes, he was French), in my first conversation with him, I asked him a friendly question like “Why are the most beautiful foreign women in Vietnam all French?” He responded by first claiming that France is a utopia of mixing cultures, where everyone is accepted and cultures are freely shared (what are race riots?), resulting in beautifully mixed ethnic women. When I chimed in that America has a similar advantage (being a nation of only immigrants), he jumped into a 45 minute tirade about America being the most racist country on the planet, and the most violent, because of our terrible society and evil gun laws. When I asked him if he’d ever visited the US, he said no.

Eventually, we all learn just to smile and laugh, we really have no other choice when confronted with such terrible ignorance by “educated” people.

Nonetheless, part of the beauty of being thrown into absurdly multicultural situations is that one is forced to share both the good and the bad of other cultures. Nowhere is this more universally enjoyed than in the case of sharing one’s holidays. In a world with cultures with holidays and food that has been in development for thousands of years, there is little that America has to offer in the realm of cultural richness (McDonald’s and Coke don’t quite replace fois gras and Oktoberfest). However, there is one, bright, shining beacon of that which Americans are capable of: Thanksgiving.

There’s something very odd and beautiful about Thanksgiving overseas. Quite often, it’s almost impossible to do right. The fourth Thursday of November is a work day in most countries, turkey is not always easy to come by, let alone proper stuffing or cranberry sauce, it’s usually impossible to get the Dallas-Detroit game on TV, and the worst blow of all, most of us have to spend Thanksgiving away from our families. One would think that this would kill Thanksgiving, but the human desire to find a way to stuff one’s face with ungodly amounts of food is beyond traditional, it’s primordial.

When I lived in Spain, Thanksgiving was a community-wide affair. The family I lived with invited nearly every American they knew and packed them into their mid-size apartment. Including the kids table, there were 25 of us. We started eating and drinking at about 4 PM on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. By midnight, we had finished 24 bottles of wine and 5 bottles of champagne.

For most of us overseas, this is one of the few moments when it’s okay for us to miss America. I don’t mean miss our family, or our friends, or our home, we all always miss those things. But on Thanksgiving it’s finally okay for us to simply miss our country, our culture, our kind. Any other time, and missing American culture comes in the form of missing movies, music, TV, overly processed food (Kraft), and other materialistic things that make us ashamed to admit that we honestly miss these things. But on Thanksgiving, we miss something more, something that unifies us all (Americans, that is) and helps to define us as our own nation. It’s perhaps the only thing that is truly unique to Americans, that we don’t export to other countries for massive profits, and that’s not stolen from some other culture. Thanksgiving is pure, incorruptible, and most of all, it’s ours.

Part of the fun of Thanksgiving abroad is not just getting together with everyone you know and gorging yourself, but being able to teach this love and joy to those who have never experienced it before. German, Columbian, Nigerian, even the French have an insatiable curiosity about Thanksgiving. “What do you do?”; “We get together with friends and family, and we eat. A lot. And we say thanks.”; “Thanks? Thanks for what?”; “Hmm, nothing in particular. Anything, really. I mean, I guess, everything.”; “Thanks for everything? Hm, can I try it?”

America is unique because it is so jam packed full of everyone else’s nations that it has no nation of its own. The only time I’ve ever heard someone described as “half American” was coming out of a French woman’s mouth. Americans are not a nation, because we are not unified by thousands of years of common lineage and history like the Spanish or Chinese. However, on Thanksgiving, we can share something together that no other people in the world can properly understand. Thanksgiving is the closest Americans will ever come to experiencing a true unity as a nation of people, rather than just fellow citizens.

I think the reason for this is because of what we are sharing on Thanksgiving. You see, on a normal day, if two Americans reminisce about America, it’s usually regarding movies, or maybe food. But in reality, what these Americans are sharing is just a common experience. On Thanksgiving, Americans aren’t just sharing a common experience, they aren’t merely reminiscing about past Thanksgivings, but they are sharing a common spirit, the happiness of a deep sense of satisfaction, and the gratitude of having made it through another year.

For me, inside the US, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but outside the US, it is much more than just a holiday, more than a meal, it’s the one part of my country that follows me wherever I go, and the one time I do not have to defend my pride in my people. And for that, I am very thankful.

Until next time…


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dear Twos 10-21-2007

Dear Twos,

I have finally gone through the ritual act of adding all of my letters to a blog. I feel slightly embarrassed to have a blog at all, I feel like I should be sitting in a coffee shop in Seattle dreaming of how wonderful being creative makes me feel. To be honest, I don't know why I've converted to a blog, I still think I prefer to send these things to people directly, but I understand that people may not want them, so perhaps it is better that I just provide a forum for people to hear what I have to say, and let you all make your own choice if you want to hear it. In the end, I am happy just to write it, as it will, at the very least, help me remember it, no mater what "it" is.

Vietnam is a funny place, every foreigner I have met here both loves and hates it. We foreigners are not fair to Vietnam, we spend most of our time together complaining about the aggravations of dealing with such an underdeveloped society and country. The restaurants are slow, people here look at us like we are nothing more than walking money bags, the power goes out all the time, it's hot as hell, and humid to boot. Vietnam's pitfalls are our favorite topic, because it is the only thing that we all share in common. Yet, no matter how much we complain about it, none of us seem to be able to leave. We go home for a vacation and can't wait to get back to the dirty streets and death defying traffic. In other parts of the world we are not special, we are not important, we have no real affect on anything. Here, we are movers and shakers, we give speeches to the National Assembly and get drunk with ambassadors. I don't think any of us can accurately describe why this hypocrytical dynamic exists, but the truth is, many of us would be lost without Vietnam.

While going through the process of posting all of my past letters on this site, I had the opportunity to read them all. Oddly, I find that, as they read in chronological order, it seems like the longer I stay here the less positive I write about this place. Sadness and satire saturate some of my most significant submissions, seemingly saying that such sorrow and silliness seeps through the spores of my soul and seeks to seduce me into spirals of sinful, solitary insanity.

So, I find that as I read my past letters I am angry at myself for portraying this place somehow inaccurately. The truth is I have had opportunities here that I could never have had anywhere else, I have met people here that have shaken me to my core, and everything about this place has challenged every principle I have, demanding that I doubt even my most basic beliefs. This process, while both difficult and demanding, has not turned me into something I am not, it has laid bare for the world that which I can not conceal, both my weaknesses and my strengths. I no longer feel that my confidence in anything is of such paramount import, I am no longer worried about what I will do with my life, or what life will do with me. Come what may, I will do my best, and that will be good enough.

Until next time...


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dear Twos, 3-7-07

Dear Twos,

Has it been five months since I last wrote? I think half of me would have guessed less, and the other half would have guessed a lot more, but I never would have guessed accurately. I have no excuse for such negligence, no witty way of weaseling out of my wesponsibiwities. I have simply been part lazy, part busy and part absent, both in mind and body. Regardless, for the moment I am none of those things, and will now attempt to remedy my silence with more blather I have traditionally hoped to call pathetically poetic reporting.

Today I nearly laughed out loud at myself. I have written much about Vietnam, some to all of you together, some to a few of you individually, and some just to myself. Though now I realize that, as an American in Vietnam, it is somehow absurdly fitting that I have never once written about the Vietnam War, or of any presence that war has on my presence here. Why? Well, I suppose on some strange level it never occurred to me, on another I wasn’t really sure what I could possibly say that might mean anything to anyone, here or there. But, looking back at the past 9 months, I guess I would say that my main remark would only ever be how surprisingly little tangible presence the Vietnam War has on my daily life here. By and large people have no special reaction when I tell them I am from America, or, at least, if they do it usually has nothing to do with the War. There are no bullet holes in concrete walls, no craters, no old women yelling obscenities at me for their lost child. Just a few monuments here and there, some museum’s that I refuse to go to (such as the tunnels in Cu Chi, where I hear a chirpy tour guide takes you into tiny little tunnels and tells you all about how exactly the Viet Cong killed your uncle), and the occasional kid in the country that dies because the rock he thought he was throwing to his friend turns out to be a grenade that never exploded.

Having said that, I should not like to imply that I have not had interesting or meaningful experiences with regard to the War while I have been here. The earliest example of this was about six weeks after I got here when an American friend of mine and I finally worked up the courage to go to the War Museum here in Saigon. Upon entrance, the place actually seems kinda cool, it’s got all kinds of tanks, jets, helicopters and artillery pieces spanning nearly thirty years of warfare against both the French and the U.S. (the Vietnamese consider them to be kind of the same war). Further inside is a bit of comic relief where they list each American army division that fought in Vietnam and lists the number of soldiers each one lost, which somehow adds up to about three times the total number of American soldiers that died in Vietnam. I’m not quite sure how that works, but the communist party says it so it must be true. After that is a pretty interesting collection of pictures by western war correspondents that died during the war, with brief descriptions of the difficulty some of them faced in deciding whether or not to join the fight in the moments before they died. Then comes some evidence of atrocities by the Diem Regime, the government in charge of South Vietnam during the War. Then they show some captured Agent Orange delivery units, with some deformed fetuses in jars next to those, kind of a before and after display. After that is a number of pictures of the fighting, followed by some drawings made by school children depicting bombs dropping on villages and people losing limbs and heads. The museum ends with a display of a prison that the Diem regime used to torture political prisoners, along with the actual guillotine that the French government gave to the Diem regime (the obvious though unasked question being, why did the French government think the Diem family needed a guillotine?). This marvelously depressing place (it made me feel a little bit like a German at Auschwitz) made a turn for Kubrick when a cell phone began ringing to the tune of Jingle Bells, and for some unknown reason the owner of the phone decided that it was better to just let the phone ring rather than admit it was their phone. This way we could all sing Christmas carols while we looked at pictures of dead bodies and deformed babies.

Another random moment was when I was walking on the street with a friend near her house and an older guy walked right up to me and started speaking to me in Vietnamese. I understood nothing of what he said so, once he had finished and walked off, I asked my friend what he said. “Nothing that made any sense,” she said, “he’s a veteran of the war and I guess his whole unit was killed from an American bomb except for him. Since then he hasn’t made any sense when he talks, too upset I guess.” Later on we saw him again, and he said nothing but offered me a cigarette, which I politely took, thanking him, even though I don’t smoke.

The next time I was significantly confronted with the War was during Tet (the biggest holiday here in Vietnam, just a couple weeks ago). I was in a small village out near the border with Cambodia, staying at an old man’s house and “eating tet”, as the expression goes, with his many sons. Tet celebrations consist of extended family getting together and eating and drinking nearly non-stop for four days. The amount of food consumed during this time is kingly, and the amount of alcohol ungodly. Each night the family went to the chicken coop to choose which chickens they would kill for the next day’s feast, each night new bottles of whiskey were opened, and each night new 24-packs of beer were dumped into buckets of ice, all to be consumed before the sun rose the next morning.

On one night in particular, as the night wound down and we all began to lovingly rub our stomachs and produce smiles that only happy stupors can produce, I sat down in the living room with the old man, who I was instructed to call Om (which means “grandfather”), and a couple of his sons, who were in their early forties or late thirties. As we drank hot tea, Om asked me if anyone in my family had fought in Vietnam. I replied that yes, actually two of my uncles fought in Vietnam, one of which still had a piece of shrapnel in his heart that was given to him while he was here. Om asked me in what way they fought here, I told him they were both Marines. He nodded and said that he would not have had any contact with them. He had been a general in the North Vietnamese army. He was in charge of the SAM missile batteries whose job it was to shoot down American airplanes. He told me about how he lost 31 men in a single night from a bombing run by American B-52s. He also said that during the war his men shot down 52 American airplanes.

It was at precisely this moment that my drunken stupor suddenly vanished. My only thought was that, my brother is a pilot, so this man was responsible for killing guys exactly like my brother. He then quietly got up and walked into his bedroom, a moment later returning with some small plastic boxes in his hands. He then began to show me all of the medals he was awarded for his service during the War, of which there were many. He spoke with pride, for he was quite obviously deeply proud of the service he had done for his country, but was never bragging, not even when he told me how many American planes his men shot down. This was not a desire to exert dominance or pride over an American, this was just him telling me what I had to know, whether I wanted to or not. He needed to tell me, and I needed to know, and that was it. It seemed quite obvious to me that this act of telling me all of this was as much or more for him than it was for me.

Nonetheless, as he spoke a deep sadness grew within me, a sadness that was beyond politics. I did not blame one side or the other, I did not regret America’s entrance into Vietnam, nor did I support it, I was just terribly and utterly sad that it had. Sad for the 52 men that were shot down, sad for the 31 men that died in that one night, sad for the deformed babies and dead photographers, sad for Saigon, sad for kids who thought grenades were rocks, sad for the kids just like me who had been sent to this terrible place to fight terrible people for terrible reasons, but, most of all, just sad for the whole damn thing.

I suppose it’s cliché to talk about the “effects of war” and how terrible it is, but that’s partly because just talking about it is meaningless. But seeing those effects, seeing how they are somehow muted and yet somehow so utterly rooted in the fabric of the country around me, that holds meaning beyond what any words could possibly hold.

Hell, I don’t know what more to say.


Dear Twos, 10-8-06

Dear Twos,

I don’t feel I have been entirely fair with my previous beliefs and assumptions about this country. Up until now I have focused perhaps too much on the evils that seem to seep and pour from the cracks and crannies of the poorly paved streets of Saigon. I’ve talked at length with friends and family about the abundance of prostitution and womanizing, about how things like corruption are not just an everyday occurrence, but an integral part of the culture. I read an article in an English-language magazine today about a teacher who blew the whistle on the principal of his school for taking bribes to fudge the scores of final exams, not just for a few students, but for nearly all of them. The principal was promoted to the director of life-long education for the same province in which he worked, a job with better pay and easier hours, and he didn’t even have to change offices. Since then the PhD-educated teacher can’t get a job as an insurance salesman because he has a reputation as a slanderer; he still keeps a shoebox full of evidence in his closet, waiting for someone to come and examine them. This is not an isolated incident, this is reality.

Having said that, there is a certain Lord-of-the-Flies innocence to this country that is both scary and endearing with almost equal veracity. I went for my weekly walk through the city today, this time with a friend from Vietnam. It was a lovely day, beautiful, though hot, weather, it’s the full moon festival this weekend (which, oddly enough, comes once a year, don’t ask why, I couldn’t get a clear answer) so the red paper lanterns lined the street and glowed in the sunlight. We saw Buddhist temples and back alley markets, bands played in parks while we drank fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice for twenty five cents a glass and enjoyed the light breeze. Late in the walk near sunset, we walked by a bunch of stores with cages full of puppies, kittens, and white bunnies. Not a single animal there was more than about twelve weeks old, mutts and mixed breeds to the last one, all happy, playing and yipping while small children danced around the cages and poked their small fingers through the cages to try and get a touch of the heavenly soft fur inside. I smiled at the spectacle, turned to my friend and said, “I love pet stores, they’re such happy places.”

She frowned at me and asked, “Pet stores? What pet stores?”

I nodded at the ten or twelve stores and the perhaps hundreds of small furry animals lining the street, slightly perplexed as to how she didn’t notice them.

She kind of smiled a little at my naiveté. “Those aren’t pet stores,” she explained as though I were a half-retarded five year-old, “those are butcher shops.”

This dynamic of horror and happiness mixing like a martini is present all over Vietnam. A little while ago I was invited to the German Business Association’s celebration of Oktoberfest here in Saigon. When I arrived I felt like I had been transported into the Twilight Zone. I was handed a mug and plate and told to help myself to all the sausage and beer I wanted. There was a huge room full of gigantic picnic-tables and a band of German guys in lederhosen in the middle singing what I assume were old German folk songs, and every once in a while leading the crowd of about a few hundred in the obligatory Zicke Zacke, Zicke Zacke, Oi, Oi, Oi! I kind of nodded and thought, maybe this will be pretty cool, people seem to be into it. That’s when I heard it, popping up here and there like whack-a-moles, “Moat, high, bah, YO!!”

This chant is one that you can not spend more than about twenty minutes in Vietnam without learning to recognize as just about the only form of toast the Vietnamese seem to know, and use every time they take a sip of alcohol. It means something like “1, 2, 3, IN!” and consists of a bunch of Vietnamese (usually guys, though not always) standing in a circle with mugs full of watery beer with ice in it, clinking glasses while staring at their beer with all the fervor of a male juvenile dog staring at the first bitch of his life. They count in unison “Moat, High, Bah…” at the top of their lungs like a high school football team (never QUIT! never QUIT!) and then yell “YO!” even louder, and drawn out like the sound of a Japanese dive-bomber, before downing at least half their beer.

“Moat, High, Bah, YO!” “Zicke Zacke Zicke Zacke, Oi Oi Oi!” “Moat, High, Bah, YO!” was all you could hear above the din of party-goers in the hotel conference room turned beer garden. This was awkward enough, but then I looked around and nearly choked on my bratwurst when I saw that, in addition the German band on stage, there were a number of short, skinny Vietnamese guys dressed from head to toe in lederhosen. Many of them dancing like Vietnamese men do, with that rhythm-less knee-bouncing, two-hammer arm flapping we’ve all seen our four year-old nephew sporting at weddings. “Moat, High, Bah, YO!” Where am I? “Zicke Zacke Zicke Zacke, Oi Oi Oi!”

By the end of the night the hotel staff were wheeling out the wounded and “resting” (Moat, High, Bah, YO!) drunks in wheelchairs like the vultures in Disney cartoon sports games. The Vietnamese men that weren’t being carried away by the vultures were stumbling all over each other as they wandered toward whatever door they thought was the exit. Meanwhile the foreigners (and a fair number of their all-too young Vietnamese “dates”) were all calmly standing around and talking, having a good time, looking at their watches and noticing that, Hell, it’s only 10:30.

This team-style drinking seems to be the only way most Vietnamese men will drink at all. I have rarely, if ever, seen a Vietnamese man have just one beer, or drink anything at his own pace. Uncle Lawnin described it well when he said “take the worst drinking habits of the French, Americans, and Russians, mix them together, then tell everyone they can’t drink. Thirty years later you give everyone a bunch of money and say, ‘Oh yeah, go ahead and drink now,’” I would only add to this the Chinese tradition of toasting someone else to drink with you every time you want a sip of alcohol, and you get a team of 15 year-olds pushing each other to drink. The ironic part of all this is that most Vietnamese believe that foreigners have bad drinking habits.

I could go on but I think I should end this before it gets too much longer. Suffice to say I survived the Twilight Zone and have been having fun trying to reconcile these strange dynamics of extremes in this culture. More recently this has included going to a Vietnamese wedding (don’t worry, not mine). I think trying to explain my experience there will make this letter too long, so I will save it for my next one, which I think will likely come sooner than any of us expect.

As always, I love hearing from all of you, and I hope this letter finds you happy and healthy. Until next time…


Dear Twos, 8-12-06

Dear Twos,

Living abroad is a strange twister and twirler of emotions. Before I left the US I was confronted with many questions, some voiced by others, some that glared at me like headlights on the road ahead. The only one of these questions that fell (and still falls) into both of these categories, however, is why? Why am I doing this, why am I leaving, why not stay in the US? When asked this out loud I always answered “why not?” to diffuse the question. Of course, I rationed, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, one that anybody in their right mind would gladly take if they only had the chance. But, of course, I know that isn’t precisely true. When I have confronted myself on this issue my thoughts on the matter sound a lot less confident than my voice does. The truth is I don’t really know, it was just something I had to do.

When I lived in Spain a few years back I had a brief discussion on a similar matter with a friend of mine. At some point in the conversation she said to me, “Y’know, on some level, all of us, every ex-pat from any country, we’re all running from something.”

I don’t know if this is true, but it does, to a certain extent, make sense to me. Living abroad is the closest thing someone like me can come to feeling like a husband who loves his wife dearly, and yet somehow finds himself with a mistress half his age. Your home culture is so comfortable, so honest and understandable you can not help but love it dearly, and yet there is something so fresh and seductive about someone else’s culture that you can easily forget the comfort you once felt at home. This was true for me in Barcelona and it is equally true here in Saigon. Every time I eat a meal, slalom around the human feces on the street, learn a new word in Vietnamese, or marvel at how I can spend a night drinking with friends and wake up in the morning only five dollars poorer, I feel a twinge of terror, some slight sorrow, but above all a certain leash of guilt that I am not in New England, watching the temperature drop and the leaves get ready to turn. Somehow my brain knows what should be happening, and I dream of wandering through the woods with my dog, eating turkey with my family, and bitching about the Sox. And just as I feel I can not bear it any longer someone takes me to a restaurant where they put a mini grill on the table and hand me a bag full of live shrimp, then proceed to teach me how to cook the shrimp on the grill while they are still alive, redefining my understanding of “fresh” for the rest of my life. Yesterday someone took me to a restaurant that specializes in food from central Vietnam. It was here that I learned to like spicy food for the first time, I could never have done that in the comfort of my own home.

But I’m also different than most of the ex-pats here, and perhaps anywhere. When my friend said that we are all running from something what she meant by that was that we all had a reason to leave, something that, in one way or another drove us out. When I was 18 it was the fear of ignorance. I had grown up in the definition of “sheltered community,” and I knew that I was ignorant of the diversity I would be facing in the rest of the world, so I decided to meet it head on. I made my first none-white friend when I was 18, in Spain. Of the ex-pats that I’ve met here the same is true, whether they share it or not you can see they no longer feel the same love for their home they may once have felt. And the thing to remember is that home cultures, like wives, do not just simply fade into the night, if you want to separate you have to divorce. Divorce, whether of culture or of lover, is never a simple or slight decision, and there is almost always something that drives you to it. The difference for me, however, is that there is nothing that drives me away from my home on that level anymore. Saigon is fun, it is fresh, it is seductive, but at some point (not yet) the motel rooms will no longer satisfy me, and I will go home to my family, my friends, my life.

But of course, for those of us who stay, it is not quite so simple as to say they were driven away, there also must be a reason to stay. That is an easier thing to identify here. In both China and Vietnam, foreigners, specifically white men, are rock stars. People in Vietnam see lighter skin as a sign of affluence. If you have a tan it means you’ve been working in the fields, i.e. a poor country bumpkin, if you have no tan, you are rich enough to stay inside all day, for this reason you walk outside and see women covering themselves from head to toe. It’ll be ninety degrees and humid and these women will be wearing hats, masks, gloves that go over the elbow, long-sleeve shirts and pants, all because they don’t want any sun to touch their skin. This stigma bodes well for white people, I have had more compliments on my skin here in Vietnam than the sum of my entire life prior to arrival in Asia.

Plus, the modern history of white men in Asia is far better now than it once was. In the original days white men in other countries were missionaries and imperial colonists, i.e. men looking to conquer everything in and out of sight. Luckily for Asians, we were not able to fully accomplish either one, and at some point we (white men) were kicked out of Asia for anywhere from 10 to 50 years (depending on the country in question). Once these countries finally reopened their doors to white men, and especially in the case of China and Vietnam, we returned to Asia with open arms and fists full of cash. Missionaries and colonists were replaced with businessmen and backpackers.

So, what does this mean for the white men in Vietnam? When we left America how did people see us? In America white men, and especially WASPs (like me), are rich (though not always), pompous, and uncool, we can’t jump, can’t dance, can’t make love and have no idea how to talk to women. In addition, we have conquered, converted, enslaved, oppressed, tortured, raped, killed, and ethnically cleansed everyone else. Not a very good way to start a conversation, is it? But in Vietnam. In Vietnam we are rich, we are good looking (yes, universally) and we are exotic. Every country has its list of questions it asks foreigners first. In Vietnam, to white men, the first questions out of everyone’s mouth is not, “Do you have a girlfriend?” it’s “Do you have a girlfriend, yet?”

But it’s not all roses for single white guys in Vietnam. Well, okay, it’s mostly roses for single white guys in Vietnam, but there is a common complaint. The complaint is that in Vietnam there are three types of girls, there are formal prostitutes (sex for cash, straight trade), there are, as I call them, informal prostitutes (they’ll be your “girlfriend” so long as the “gift” supply doesn’t run out), and there are nice girls that want to get married (now). How guys react to this depends on the guy, some of the guys don’t mind spending their money on women (in either form), whereas others don’t mind throwing around the “L” word (no, not “lesbian”) for a while and then turning their phone off as soon as the parents enter the picture. The problem for me and others like me is that some of us aren’t really into either of those things, but we are, however, a severe minority. Which is why I’m faced with people now who, after explaining that I’ve been here for two months, don’t believe me when I admit that I don’t have a girlfriend yet.

In any case, that’s life here so far. As usual, I apologize to those of you who did not get a response to your e-mails, and as always, I do still love getting them, so please don’t stop. I hope this finds you all healthy and happy. Until next time…


Monday, October 15, 2007

Dear Twos, 7-9-06

Dear Twos,

They say that half of life is being lucky, if that’s the case then I am off to a good start. I am pleased to say that I have found a job, and it’s far better than I ever dreamed of before I came here. At least, I think it is. I told many of you that what I would probably end up doing is teaching English, at least at first, until I could find a job that was a little bit more interesting. Well, one of the things that I did when I got here is I met with a guy named Ben Wilkinson, he works for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government by being the associate director of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program here in Saigon (Harvard is an associate school that helps to fund the program). He did me the courtesy of letting me borrow his copy of the American Chamber of Commerce’s Membership Directory for here in Vietnam. So, in addition to applying to a few of the English schools in the area, I went through the directory and sent resumes to all of the interesting looking companies I saw. A day later I get a response from a guy named Fred Burke, he’s the head of both the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh offices of a multinational law firm named Baker & McKenzie. I looked them up on the internet before going to the interview, they employ over 3000 lawyers in 70 offices in 38 countries. When I mentioned to my uncle that I had an interview he just kind of looked at me and said, “really?”

Anyway, the interview went really well, and by the way Mr. Burke spoke it was sort of assumed from the beginning of the interview that I would be offered a position, which made things easy. Then, towards the end of the interview Mr. Burke said, “Oh, and if we can get this sorted out by the 7th we’re having a professional development seminar in Hoi An we can send you to, that’ll help you get acquainted with the office and what we do.” I had no idea where Hoi An was, I had never heard of it, but it sounded good to me. I said okay and the next thing I know I’m getting e-mails from his secretary telling me when to come in and pick up my plane tickets and, at the same time, sign my offer letter, oh, and don’t forget your bathing suit. Uh, okay, sure, I won’t.

So, my first day of work is tomorrow, the 10th, and on the 7th I’m boarding a plane with about 25 people I don’t really know to go to a town I’ve never heard of. But it’s all free, so who cares? I get to Hoi An and am relieved to find out I’m not the only new person, there’s a Vietnamese woman about my age who spent the past year studying in Dallas who’s in the same boat as I am. We take a bus to the hotel, which is named the Golden Sands Resort. This is a bit of a clue. I walk in to the five star hotel lobby, with fountains and a bar easily accessible, and look out at a gigantic outdoor pool with, as a backdrop, one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Maybe sixty yards wide of pure white sand that felt like silk on your feet, except burning hot of course. The ocean water was about 80 degrees, I would guess. The waves were small, admittedly, but, well, who cares? Given the hostel I stayed at in Kunming, with cockroaches the size of my thumb and a toilet that doubles as the shower drain, I think I can handle the hardwood floor rooms bigger than my apartment in Boston that overlook the pristine beach. I mean, I suppose if I must, I don’t want to anger my boss before I even start, of course. You understand, I’m sure.

The people I’ll be working with are very nice. I made fast friends with a couple of Kiwis and a German guy from the Hanoi office. Our friendship revolved around our mutual love of all things alcoholic, which perhaps is not necessarily the healthiest basis for a friendship, but when options are limited the picky get weeded out real fast. In any case, on Saturday night the German guy got a few of us together to stay up until 2 AM when the Germany-Portugal World Cup game started. To pass the time we drank at the hotel bar and played pool behind it. At about 11 PM the bar closed, which was bad, we didn’t have our own alcohol and 2 AM was a long ways away. We prayed they would leave the bottles behind the bar. Unfortunately, they were not that stupid and we watched mournfully as they packed all the bottles of liquor into a big crate and wheeled them off. All the bottles, that is, except one. Way up on the top shelf there was a large clear bottle that resembled a wine decanter more than a liquor bottle. Inside was a clear liquid that one of the guys told me was a highly alcoholic liquor made from rice, which I had had before and didn’t mind. This was a little different, though, because, inside the bottle was not just the clear liquid, but a few roots as well, and then also was the curled up and remarkably well preserved body of a snake. In life, the snake probably would have been about 8-10 inches long, and more than likely would have been poisonous. It looked like someone had, for some ungodly reason, put the snake in there when it was alive and left it in there, just to kind of spice things up.

What happens when you put four guys in a room, wait for them to become desperate for more alcohol, and then give them a bottle of the strangest, scariest liquor any of them had ever seen? I’ve been the youngest child for long enough that I knew exactly what happens next long before I heard one of them say, “Hey new guy, come here for a sec.” I took a deep breath and resigned myself to my fate. They handed me a glass of clear liquid with a slight green hue. I looked at it and noticed small fleshy bits of… something floating around inside. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, well Hell, can it really be as bad as silk worm larvae? In case you’re wondering the answer to that question is an emphatic yes, oh dear God, yes it can. I only took a small sip, but what I tasted could only be described as turpentine mixed with urine-soaked rotting flesh. My eyes bulged and I gave a slight cough, then one of the Kiwis asked, “how is it, mate?” I looked up at him, blinked, and replied, “I think it’s probably one of the best liquors I’ve ever had, seriously, you should have some.”

For the next five minutes or so the four of us took turns taking tiny sips, cringing, coughing, and saying things like, “well, it’ll keep us going, anyway,” and “the Vietnamese have a lot to learn about alcohol,” then, a few of our Vietnamese fellow employees walked in and greeted us, including the new girl, Hang. As soon as they walked in one of them told us it was Hang’s birthday. We all cheered and handed her the glass of the snake whiskey, as we had started calling it, and said “Happy Birthday!” The glass was about a third full, which would have taken us about another fifteen minutes of consistent sipping to finish. She looked at the glass in her hand with a bit of a perplexed look on her face, then she sniffed the glass. She cringed and coughed a little and looked at us like we had just handed her a glass of gasoline and a match. We assured her it was good and good for her. She just kind of shrugged, and then, without a word, downed the whole glass. She slammed the glass down upside-down on the pool table, and at the same time four jaws hit the floor. She coughed and pushed out, “Oh, that’s bad.”

“That’s amazing!” I said.

For the rest of the night the Kiwis, the German, the American and the three Vietnamese all played pool together, with the loser of each game having to drink a glass of the snake whiskey. At some point in the night somebody asked the Vietnamese why on earth their countrymen would make such a thing. The Vietnamese kind of shrugged and said that foreigners are usually the only ones stupid enough to drink it. We laughed but then I observed that that may be true, but somebody in Vietnam was still the one to bother to figure out how to make it, which means they thought it was a good idea.

The job sounds interesting enough, I suppose. Baker & McKenzie does all kinds of things ranging from handling mergers and acquisitions to Intellectual Property Rights (enforcing trademarks, it’s big business in this part of the world) to advising the Vietnamese government on what laws need to be fleshed out and improved, and how to do it. There’s also a lot of translation work done in the office as well as helping Vietnam become a member of the WTO. My job is officially labeled as a proofreader/ researcher/ paralegal. My salary is about what I was making in America, and is due to go up in six months. That means that I make relatively little compared to the other foreigners here but a bloody fortune compared to what the Vietnamese make, even Vietnamese with a higher ranking position (not necessarily in my office, but in general this is true), this is a sad truth, but one that one has to kind of accept. It is the physical manifestation of what many would call economies of scale. To put things in perspective, I have one of, if not the, lowest ranking position held be a foreigner, but one of my co-workers politely informed me, “Oh yeah, and you’ll have a secretary.” “A what?” “A secretary. Don’t worry, she speaks English.” “Oh, you mean like a secretary for the portion of the office that I’ll be working in.” “No, I mean like she’ll be working directly for you.” I don’t really know what to do with a secretary, in my last job the only secretary in the office was technically ranked higher than me. I suppose I will find out tomorrow.

Well, that’s all for now. I hope you are all doing well, and I must say that I have really enjoyed hearing from all of you who have replied, even if I have not been able to reply to you individually, I do receive your e-mails and love reading them, so please know that you are all in my heart. Until next time...


Dear Twos, 6-20-06

Dear Twos,

Some of you will recognize this letter, others will have forgotten, but most of you will have no idea what the hell I’m doing, so I feel that an explanation is in order. The subject of this letter is a play on words that only the Grays receiving this will understand. This is not the first time I have written letters to “Twos,” but it is the first time in a long time. Basically the idea behind these letters is to keep those who I care about informed on what is going on in my life overseas. I wrote a series of these letters while I was living in Barcelona, and now that I am living in Saigon I feel it is time to resurrect the old habit and tell all of you what has been happening to me. You will get more of these, I make no promises on how often, and I do not hold anyone accountable for reading them. I will be the first to admit that I can, at times, be a little long winded, so I am warning all of you that these e-mails are by no means short notes, and if you choose to actually get some work done I will be the last person to be offended. In truth, I write these letters as much to satisfy myself as to satisfy the curiosity of others. So, one last piece of housekeeping before I begin, if those of you who do not wish or do not have the time to read on wish to see pictures of my time in China, I am going through the process of uploading them to Shutterfly right now and you can view all of them at the following page:

Another warning, I have a lot of pictures, and have not yet put them all up, so if you go look now you will likely only see the first week or so of shots. In any case, to more important matters.

What have I been doing for the past five weeks? Well, ostensibly I’ve been traveling through China and Vietnam. I spent four weeks in China, the vast majority of the time with a group of Northeastern students and professors on a mission to learn Chinese culture. It was my last class at Northeastern, so as soon as I finish my research paper for the class, I am officially done as a college student. And as if that weren’t scary enough I decided to land myself in a country where I am a giant and I don’t understand a word of the conversations around me, even (perhaps especially) the ones directed at me. A complete change of my life, apparently, was not enough, I needed to change the world around me too. Though perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, the big picture is great unless it is too big, so I will focus things a little and tell you about China.

In America, China is our next fight. They’re the kid that suddenly found the weight room and now thinks the football captain ain’t so tough. They have 1.3 billion people, an economy that dwarfs its neighbors (and a good portion of the world), the largest military in the world, and the largest production economy in the world. Oh, and they’re Communist. What’s to fear, right? Well, one thing I learned in studying international politics is that nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever clear. China has a lot of problems too. For one thing, they have the largest production economy in the world, which means their economy is dependant upon the economy of others, if there’s a recession, guess who bears the brunt of it? For another thing, they have the largest military in the world, that’s not cheap, especially for a country that still has trouble feeding its people. For another thing, they have 1.3 billion people. Billion, with a B for Big. Providing for these people is, shall we say, difficult. Any mother will tell you that caring for a human being’s every needs is kind of a pain in the ass, and this comes through in their culture. The people of China don’t give world affairs half a thought, they care about dinner, they care about their family, they care about their friends, and they will trample the stranger in front of them without thinking to make sure they and their loved ones will be okay. One of my professors in China tried to explain to us that the reason that the Chinese had no problem pushing others out of the way when their clearly was a line was that “it was a subsistence economy not too long ago.” That’s a nice way of saying that not too long ago you had to push people out of the way to make sure you didn’t starve.

On a lighter note, some of you have asked me about the food in China. Think of the best Chinese food you’ve ever had, now make it good. At some point fairly early on in our trip, myself and my fellow students stopped asking what exactly it was that we were eating, because most of the food did not translate, either in language or in appearance. Lots of vegetables, lots of spicy food, lots of bones still in the meat, lots of things that were still looking at you or still giving you the finger, some things that were doing both. Spending a month in China teaches you to put it in your mouth and ask questions later, or, better yet, never. You learned to have a sense of humor about your food or you starved, it was that simple. A friend of mine on the trip admitted on the plane to Beijing that she had grown up a vegan, and that now she just considered herself to be really picky. She lost 15 pounds in the course of the trip, but she never complained, she merely laughed as the people around her used tiny straws to suck the marrow out of cow femur, or grabbed another grasshopper-on-a-stick. But it was not all strange, outlandish food, there was rice.

Admittedly I may have a biased opinion, some people did not like the food. When polled I think I was the only one on the trip that enjoyed every single meal we had. I was also one of the few that did not get sick, unless you count the eye infection that I had on the train from Shanghai to Kunming, waking up and not being able to open your eyes is a little disconcerting, especially when you don’t know how to say hospital, medicine, sick or even ow. I was lucky though, I only had to rip my eyelashes out one morning, and it was pretty much cleared up by the time I left Kunming.

I guess that if I had to sum up the last five or six weeks of my life, I would say that it has been a life of extremes. Whether in the bars of Beijing, the Taoist temples of Anhui, the cockroach-infested hostels of Kunming, or the beaches of southern Vietnam, I have dealt with pimps, pinheads and other perils, but between these moments of madness come whispers of paradise. The greatest tea I’ve ever had in my life was used to wash down silk-worm larvae (very dry, and spiced oddly), I spent fourteen hours with a woman who spoke no English so that I could sit on the beach and eat crab that had been crawling on the ocean floor no more than twenty minutes earlier, the greatest sunrise I’ve ever seen was seen through puss-covered eyes on a train in the middle of China, the most beautiful mountain road I’ve ever seen was witnessed while three people within five feet of me were simultaneously vomiting. I wanted new experiences, and I think I got them.

Back in Boston I spent my time thinking about a lot of things, what am I doing? Where am I going? What am I going to do with my life? I had a lot of problems, and the worst part was I had to wait for all them. Now, I don’t think about these things, I’m too concerned with trying to figure out how to say bathroom to worry about where my life is going. My problems now are right in front of me, I can see them, hear them, or worse, feel them. Some people don’t like this way of life, some people love it, I’m not sure which I am but for now I am happy with what I’ve got. One perfect moment on my trip came when I woke up the morning I left Beijing. I was still wearing my clothes from the night before, I reached into my pocket and found a napkin, on one side was a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein that said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and on the other side was a Chinese girl’s phone number.

In any case, that’s where I’m at these days. I hope you are all well and happy. I love news from everyone so please feel free to e-mail and tell me what you think and what you’re up to. Until next time…