Postcards from the End of [the] America[n Empire]

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Obscured American: Helen the Writer and Aspiring Prepper


Millions of Americans still have ties to their ancestral country. Two years ago, I met an 54-year-old man who would periodically visit his family home in Abruzzo. Its grape vines and olive trees had been sold a long time ago, and the house itself was little more than a husk, thanks to thieves, “Locals, not gypsies, have broken in to steal just about everything. Each time they see me, they shout, ‘Ecco l’americano!’ They ask all kinds of questions about this country. I love Italy, but I love America more. Everything is better here. Everything.” Despite all that, he still owned the house, so Italy still held him.

My friend, Nguyen Qui Duc, had a successful career in radio broadcasting. He worked for the BBC and NPR. In his mid 40’s, however, Duc decided to move back to Vietnam. Now, he owns two houses and three businesses there, including a Hanoi bar, Tadioto, that has been featured in TIME Magazine, the New York Times and on CNN, etc. When I saw Duc a month ago, he was happy and relaxed, so it’s safe to say he won’t head back this way.

In Hanoi, I met several Vietnamese-Americans, including Helen, a 33-year-old Chicago native who had been living in Vietnam for three years. She told me about her ordeals in Vietnamese public hospitals, where you must tip each nurse and doctor to get decent treatment. Used to American standards, Helen had no idea.

My father is a very traditional Vietnamese man. He was born in the 30’s. He also had a really strange life, because he was an orphan. His parents both died when he was eight or nine.

His father's body was never recovered because he died on a mountain in a landslide caused by Japanese bombings. His mother's body was never found because she was on a train that was bombed by the Japanese. The last time he saw his mother, she came by the pho stand where he worked and they hugged, then she got on a train.

So, he grew up alone, and his whole goal was to have a family. He thinks a lot of security comes from family because he didn’t have it. He married my mother because she was, you know, a hot, traditional Vietnamese woman, and I think later in life, he realized that maybe you should get married to people for other reasons. They’re still together though.

My father doesn’t talk about it very much, but he was a part of the South Vietnamese Army. He didn’t see combat. He worked in logistics. He also taught English to other Vietnamese people because he had studied English at university. After his parents died, my father decided to become a poet and changed his name to Văn Sơn [Literature Mountain].

He was an extremely handsome young man and would juggle five to seven girlfriends at a time. I like the story of his first love: he was tutoring a beautiful rich girl who was a few years younger. They’d leave each other love notes in the tree outside her gate. One day, he went to go pick up the love note and it was a letter from her parents, informing him that they’d shipped her away to France and that they’d never accept a penniless orphan as a son-in-law.

In fact, I think of this often because I don't think I'd exist had there not been an exodus in 1975. Given the class distinctions, my parents would have never met. There was a big class difference between them. I think it was a big chip on his shoulder. He was like a Charles Dickens orphan or whatever.

My mother’s family has been, I think, always connected to the government, under the French, and before that, mandarins in the imperial government, way back. They were always very wealthy. My grandmother lived in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and her family owned a fish sauce operation. During World War II, my grandmother told me that people were starving, pushing dead bodies in carts on the streets. Her family made congee for everyone on the block.

In 1954, my mother was a year old when her parents decided to move to Saigon. They got into a car accident and flipped off the mountain road into a river. French soldiers heard her crying and helped them out. Everyone survived.

In the years leading up to 1975, my mother had been set up with the sons of rich families by matchmakers. She tells me that she didn't like any of them and would botch the tea ceremony to make herself look like an unacceptable candidate for daughter-in-law.

On April 30th, 1975, my father left on a helicopter from the US Embassy in Saigon, thanks to an American friend of his. My mother's family boarded a boat after a harrowing drive through the city, all 10 of them crammed into their luxury vehicle. She was narrowly missed by bullets on the boat. My parents met on Wake Island in the South Pacific, and then they met again in Chicago at a mah jong and pho party on Argyle Street. At the time, my mother's family was living in Milwaukee.

She was 22 when she came to the US. My father is much older. They’re about 20 years apart. They were married a year or two later. My mother moved from Milwaukee to the West Side of Chicago. She was terrified by all of the gunshots from gang wars in the 1970s, so my father moved them over to Elmwood Park, a suburb. They opened a restaurant. It started out as a hot dog stand in Oak Park, but my father thought, because he had learned how to make pho as a kid, “Why don’t we switch over to Vietnamese food?” It was one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in Chicagoland.

The Vietnamese community in Chicago loves my mother’s food. She once sold 2,000 eggrolls at $1 a piece to pay for my braces. She's the type of person who can identify every ingredient in a dish blind-folded and she can also recreate most dishes after tasting them once.

Growing up, I felt like my mother wasn’t the type of girl I would have been friends with. She was like a really hot, rich girl. I mean, she’s a kind person, but there are things she didn’t have to think about when she was growing up. She grew up rich, I grew up poor, so I didn’t connect with her very much when I was a teenager.

So, she grew up very, you know, in her own bubble, in her own wealthy bubble, and even when they moved to Saigon, she lived in a mansion of some sort. They employed a professional chef in the kitchen, someone who had mastered Vietnamese, Chinese and French cuisine. When I talked to her about what had happened during the war, she said she didn’t really experience much of it because she lived in a bubble and went to a private school.

When there are issues to solve, financial issues or whatever, my brother, father and I will jump on and try to figure out what to do, and she’s like, “Everything will work out!” She’s very optimistic in this way that, like, only rich people are, you know? Her big thing is, she really does believe in America. She’s like, “Well, you show up, you work hard, you help people, people help you and everything will be OK.” I think maybe, in some ways, it actually does get her far, like she has a lot of friends from different walks of life. She’s a social worker in non-profit. She’s a really caring and smart person.

My mother scrubbed toilets in a bowling alley, actually, her first year in the US. Then, after she moved to Chicago, she worked for a while for this travel agency run by Japanese Americans, which was really cool. They were old Japanese Americans, who had been interned, so they were really, like, for me, the first non-Vietnamese, Asian Americans I met as a kid.

The restaurant eventually went out of business, and my parents had to declare bankruptcy. My father got a job teaching ESL to new Vietnamese refugees. My mother spent most of the 90’s helping other Vietnamese who were new to the US, as a translator, and there was a lot corruption at that time, like older Vietnamese refugees would try to charge newer refugees a lot of money for services. There were guys who were like, “If you want me to drive you to the health department or welfare office, you’ll have to pay me a hundred bucks!” It’s like, “If you want me to translate this for you, if you want me to help you get your benefits.” My mother was the only one, she told me, who was doing everything pro bono.

She wasn’t around a lot when I was a kid, because she was out helping the other families. She had a lot of, like, I want to give back mentality. She’s a very kind and generous person. In some ways, she’s kind of naïve, maybe. I think I’m a lot more cynical.

Yeah, there was always a struggle with money. It was OK, we managed, but in my early 20’s, my parents were losing their house because of the housing crisis, so they kind of guilt tripped me into buying them a house. They were like, “We’re going to lose our house, but this is what we’re going to do. Since you have a job, and you have really good credit, since you’re, like, 23 and you haven’t fucked your credit up, why don’t you find a loan and we’ll pay the mortgage, right?”

I spent most of my 20’s as a homeowner, but I didn’t even live in the house. It was a subprime, 30-year mortgage. I was 23 and making $18,000 a year, working in a non-profit. So I got a mortgage at 23, which is absurd.

Eventually, my parents couldn’t pay the mortgage, so I had to pay most of it. When I was 29, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore, because I had spent most of my 20’s working and paying for this house, in the middle of nowhere, one of those weird new developments in a cornfield. I was like, “I’m going to get rid of this house, you guys have to figure something out, and I’m also moving to Vietnam. I’m done.” So my credit was so fucked, I couldn’t even, like, get an apartment. I couldn’t get a credit card. I couldn’t do anything.

It did cause a tension between me and my parents, but over the years, it has worked itself out. I think they realized that it was a big financial strain, but this is a part of, like, the whole thing where my mother just doesn’t understand how money should work, and my father was a little bit, like, OK, she’s very demanding and whatever, so he kind of went along with it.

I was working for a non-profit in Chicago, an alternative education program for students who are wards of the state. I worked with teenagers who had re-enrolled into alternative high schools after being expelled. Some students were homeless, and we had educational programming for them to get their HS diploma.

One of the students I worked with, Laquan McDonald, was killed by the police in October, 2014. You know, when you work in communities for a while, it’s kind of hard, it’s really draining, and although it was work that was, in many ways, rewarding, I felt I didn’t have any energy to do anything for myself. I wanted to write, and figure out what I wanted to do next. I did feel a little bit trapped.

I didn’t really get a chance in my 20’s to, like, explore what I wanted to do. Maybe I wanted to go back to school or do something else, travel. I was working basically from the time I was out of college until I was 31, and then I sold the house. When the house was sold, I felt like I was untethered, so I could move forward and do what I wanted, so I decided just to move to Vietnam. It’s cheaper to live here, you know?

It is the ancestral home, yeah. I felt I had enough Vietnamese to get by, that wasn’t really a concern. My Vietnamese has certainly improved since I’ve been here. You know, I can get what I want, talk to the landlady and have interesting conversations with people every now and then.

To me, it seems like there is a lack of diversity of thought here. I realize that people are educated in a single system, you know, a single party government, so it’s, like, not encouraged to debate. You memorize stuff. I taught two kids when I first got here, and there was no space for thinking outside what you’re told to think. You can tell many people are unhappy, but no one says much about it. It’s, like, they’re resigned. This is just the way it is.

That’s hard for me, because I was coming from a place where my work was actively trying to change policies in education. I started a student activism group before I left. It’s hard to come from a place where you think you can make a difference. Maybe it’s just an illusion that you can change things, if you try hard enough, but here, it doesn’t feel like there’s much trying to change stuff, you know?

The gender thing is really tough here. You know, women my age are married with four or five kids, so it’s already weird that I’m unmarried and I’m here writing a sci-fi novel. They think it’s weird that I would leave my family abroad. I get annoying questions all the time.

When people here meet me for the first time, it’s always the same questions. I get annoyed, because most conversations seem to go the same way. It’s not them – they’re meeting me for the first time, but for me, it’s always the same – Where’s your husband? Why are you not married? Is there something wrong with you?

Being here has made me feel more American than anything. You know, I never felt very traditional Vietnamese. I feel like in the US, you’re kind of put in a corner, because of the racism. Here, I feel so American. I disagree with everything, and I feel OK saying it, but it’s not OK to say stuff, so that’s really tough.

Body stuff. You’re supposed to be, like, 60 pounds, and you wear, like, white face makeup. I don’t do any of that, you know. There’s a whole beauty thing here where women want to whiten their skin. It’s like a look that you’re supposed to have. It’s sort of a status thing. I have a friend here who’s an accountant. She was told that she was too fat, so she had to lose weight or she’d lose her job.

The craziest thing that happened to me, though, was that a friend of mine, a white American guy, got this lead on a job where you record the voiceover for an English textbook. They were like, “Oh, we need a woman, an American woman,” so he’s like, “OK, I’ll bring my friend.”

When I got there, they were like, “Oh, we need an American!” He’s like, “She is an American.” “No, she’s not. She’s Vietnamese.” I was like, “Wait. I’m not Vietnamese. You’re looking at my passport,” and we got into this long argument, like a two-hour argument, that was mixed with Vietnamese.

I was like, “I’m not Vietnamese. Like, I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t raised here. I don’t speak Vietnamese very well, anyway. My mother tongue is really, at this point, English. And I was an English major in college. I did the voice over for the Vietnam Women’s Museum, in English. Like, I can record your shitty textbook, for three hours! I can read basic English!”

They were like, “No, no, we can’t. We can’t hire you.”

She started doing this thing when she was challenged, “Well, the thing is we need people whose grandparents were American.” And my friend was like, “My grandpa was in fuckin’ Auschwitz! He’s not American! I’m just white, right? If you want a white person, just put it in the job description.”

They were like, “No, no, it’s not about race. It’s not about discrimination. It’s just whether or not you’re American!”

I was like, “What is American? Sitting Bull is dead. English isn’t native to the US, you know.”

Oh my God, it was so fucked up. The conversation was absurd. Everything I said, she would come up with a new reason that I wasn’t an American. It was like every reason that you could think of, that like a birther in the US would come up with. Oh, no, no, no, I need to see your passport! I need to see your birth certificate!

The final thing was, “You have an Asian accent, so I can’t hire you.”

I was like, “You are the first person in the universe to ever tell me I have a quote, unquote Asian accent.” I sound like a fuckin’ Midwesterner.

In Chicago, in my twenties, we’d go to punk houses and, you know, they were rundown spaces where you would go see bands play and hang out with your friends. I really thought that would have prepared me for whatever was going to come my way in SE Asia, and I mean like, you know, needles on the floor and shit on the ground. Like human feces.

In Vietnam, sometimes, yeah, there’d be bits of shit floating. There have been bathrooms where there was, like, an inch of water, and there’d be, like, shit in there. Everything is covered in water. I guess I haven’t gotten used to it. Like, I’ve never seen a bathroom that has not been moist. I go to Tokyo and the bathroom is super clean, and you can piss in a convenience store in Tokyo and know you’re not going to get sick.

I went to the hospital after I had a motorbike crash, and there were doctors playing cards. This was like three in the morning, and they were like, “Hang on a second. I’ve got to play this hand,” and I’m like actually bleeding, like hemorrhaging, from my mouth.

They were like, “Fill out these forms,” and I’m like, “I can’t write on your paper because there’s blood falling from my mouth.” And they were like, “OK, let me take your X-ray,” and all the hospital lights were off, you know, because they were conserving energy.

The nurse got lost on the way to the X-ray, and then at the X-ray, I’m like, “Where is the jacket thing you’re supposed to put on me so that I don’t get, you know, poisoned by the radiation?”

She’s like, “You don’t need that.”

“No, I want the thing,” so I told her to go find it.

You know, you have to share hospital beds, so they put me in a room with, like, a bunch of old grannies, and the grannies were really mad at me because I didn’t take off my shoes. You’re supposed to take off your shoes. I’m like, “I’m not going to take off my fuckin’ shoes!” The floor was really filthy. I’m already bleeding, and I’m not going to take off my shoes.

My friend picked me up and took me home. They were like, “She’s fine. Just give her some cotton.” The next day, it started bleeding again, and my friend took me to the hospital again, and they were like, “Oh, we can’t treat you. You should have gotten stitches last night. Now, you’re infected, and we can’t treat you. We’re not responsible for that. Go to this other hospital.”

The first hospital they sent me to, there was a gang fight outside, so it was a mob fight, OK? Inside, there was a guy screaming on a bed because he had been thrown through a window, and they were pulling glass out of his back, and they were like, “We can’t treat you. You’ve got to go somewhere else.”

So they sent us to another hospital, and at that hospital, everyone was sleeping, and the nurses, when they saw me, they were like, “Argh! Ewww! Like, this is so gross!” Finally, the doctor did give me stitches, and it’s fine. Everything is fine.

This is why I’m writing sci-fi. It actually came out of my accident, that I’m working on this sci-fi novel.

Recently I took a friend to a hospital, and they sent him to this other hospital that was far outside the city. It looks like an evil villain’s high-tech facility growing out of the rice paddies. Taxi drivers were fishing in the stream out front. Inside, all the lights were off and not a single person to be found for six floors. It’s like the zombie apocalypse, like everyone’s dead.

Finally, upstairs, I found a nurse who was sitting in the middle of the hallway transferring blood between two bags, spilling it everywhere. This blood cocktail sat on the ground for six hours, I timed it. When they mopped the floors, they used ONLY detergent and no water, so when you walked down the hallway your feet slid all over the soapy film.

The nurses told me I should learn to change my friend's needle and drip when the medicine ran out because they might be busy. I said no.

They’re like, “Oh well, so here’s your room. You have to make your own bed.” Then, they give you an appointment where you have to go down yourself to get your X-ray. No one takes you anywhere. No one tells you anything. It’s really sad. I guess no one gets paid enough to do stuff.

When I got in a taxi to go home, the driver fucked with the meter and I ended up paying 3x the amount. I was like, “You just picked someone up at a hospital where I was with this sick person for, like, ten hours. Why are you trying to fuck me right now? Like, go do that to a tourist somewhere. Why are you doing that at a hospital?”

He did that thing where he lowered his head in shame but nevertheless demanded the money. It’s really depressing.

Well, I’ve stayed because I had to heal from my accident. Another part is that it’s very cheap to live here, so you get a lot of free time to do stuff. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve been to every Southeast Asian country except for the Philippines and, I think, Laos. I’ve been everywhere else, in three years, and that’s working on a salary that’s, like, you know, a third of what I used to make.

I’ve been able to travel, paid for surgery and dental work, and, like, travel every other month. Outside of Southeast Asia, I’ve been to Japan and Hong Kong. It’s been really amazing. I don’t know of a situation where I could have done that, any other way.

Before this, I wasn’t a big traveler. I would visit friends around the States, New York, LA, San Francisco, you know, different cities in the States. I went to Europe a few times, Germany and France and, like, Hungary.

I didn’t have preconceived ideas about what this part of Asia was like, so I’d just show up in places. I usually don’t do very much research before going to a new place, and I try not to do very touristy things. I show up and just wander around, and kind of hang out in places, so I haven’t seen many, like, major sites, but I’ve been to cities and hung out with different people. I’ve been in nature, jungle areas and stayed in home stays, that kind of thing, just hung out with people and talked, and it has been really cool. Like, you get a really good sense of how life happens in many different ways, you know. It’s very different from the American way of life, and what you’re told in the US, too, I think.

Asia is the future. I flew into Hong Kong last June, on a transfer to New York. Hong Kong Airport is phenomenal, a beautiful building, and I showed up in JFK, and, like, it’s a shithole. There are so many parts where you can see that the US is in decline, and there are parts of Asia that are building up, like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. You go to places in some parts of Asia, and you’re like, “Oh, these are functional, efficient cities with very new, you know, advanced infrastructure. And the US very much feels like old, 20th century. It feels behind.”

I think the US is too insular. It hasn’t had to… It’s like when you’re the popular kid in high school, who has the whole world going for you, and you don’t have to do a whole lot of work. You know, like you think you’re really awesome? The nerds work a little bit harder.

I think Asia has been trying to catch up, I think. It comes at a cost, but you see a lot of beautiful new buildings and, you know, access to a lot of things… You can get anything here. Like, I had an incredible Italian meal in Cambodia, you know, so it’s not not diverse.

When you have to work a little harder to catch up to the Western world, and you still have a lot of ground to build on, things are just fresher and newer, whereas it doesn’t seem to me like the US sees a need to change or grow. I haven’t been to Europe in, like, ten years, but it doesn’t sound great there right now.

If you don’t travel here, I don’t think you know what’s available here, like Bangkok has a really amazing public train system. It’s very fast. It’s very clean. It’s incredible. Then you go to New York, and you’re, like, in this shitty subway that was built in the 19th century, that got flooded during a hurricane. I mean, there are monsoons here. I just think that the American infrastructure is just old, and people don’t invest in it because they don’t feel like they have to. It’s functional, so it’s OK.

Singapore is so beautiful and clean. People respect the space they’re in. I don’t feel like there’s very much of that in Vietnam, or, actually, in the US. I don’t want to bash Vietnam, because I think Vietnam has gone through a lot, and I enjoy a lot of things about being here. I don’t know how to put it, I guess everything feels like it’s very present. In that sense, it’s a charming place to be because everything is very much in the present, but there doesn’t seem to be long-term infrastructure for, you know, the future.

It doesn’t seem like people really care, like you can see that in the bathroom, for example, where it’s like, “You know what? I’m just going to dump this water here or piss on the toilet seat and not care about the person who comes after.”

It’s like, “I take what I can when I can take it,” and I understand why that’s the way it is, but it’s kind of depressing. You see it on the street. The other day, I saw someone hit someone else on a motorbike, and you don’t even stop to help someone because, basically, they’ll just try to milk you for money. That was advice someone gave me when I first got here – don’t stop for anyone. It’s like, “Oh, you’re the one who hit me,” if you stop to help someone. Most people, their immediate instinct is to help someone up, but if you do that here, if you have that instinct, then you’re kind of fucked over.

I don’t feel like a hatred, but it makes me kind of depressed, actually, like I just get depressed a lot here. So you just get to see people at their most present, in a way. We already know that people are really selfish, and self-preservation is really important, so you just see it more so here, because there’s no padding, you know? Of course, I’ve also experienced moments of kindness.

I miss the US’s diversity of culture. I worked in mostly African-American and Latino communities before, in Chicago. I have friends that are from different places, different cultures, backgrounds, and here, in Vietnam, it’s very, for the most part, just Vietnamese. Still, I feel that there’s a lot of ignorance in the US. My motorbike taxi driver, during the hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico, asked me if I knew anyone there, and if everyone was OK? How are people dealing? Like, they read the news, and heard about it.

When there was flooding in Hoi An, or in northern parts of Vietnam, not a single person in the US asked me anything about it, like at all. It’s just not reported. Like, no one seems to care or pay attention to anything that happens in other parts of the world.

I actually turned off my Facebook newsfeed, so I’m out of the loop on what happens in the US these days. There have been a couple of shootings in the last few months, and, like, some guy in New York did something, I don’t actually know, but my friend mentioned it to me, and I was, like, “Stop! I honestly… I don’t care.” The US can do something about it, and they don’t.

It’s quite difficult being in your 30’s and making friends with Vietnamese people, because most of them have families and kids already, so I don’t meet many Vietnamese people my own age.

As for the foreigners, you meet other Westerners, mostly, English speakers. I’ve made a few good friends who are foreigners like me, but beyond my small group of friends, I’m really disinterested in most of the other foreigners. Lately I’ve had horrible conversations with, like, just shitty, white European men, like this Belgian guy who actually said that, “King Leopold colonized Africa because all these savages were infighting anyway, so he saw an economic opportunity.”

I was like, “It’s 2017. Like, do you really believe that? Like you believe, quote, people were savages? You’re dehumanizing people, because you expect them to work on your fuckin’ rubber plantations for free.” This guy really thought of it as just an economic opportunity, but refused to acknowledge racism.

These are conversations with, like, white European men here, who are, like, you know, guys who live here because they can’t get fucked in their own country, and they’re, like, just fucking young Vietnamese women because they come off as wealthy white dudes, you know. It’s, like, look at your fuckin’ life, dude. You’re doing meth, teaching English to to 8-year-olds, and fucking, like, a 20-year-old when you’re 55, and you have no idea how history works. I mean, these conversations are just so horrible, and I’m like, I do want to go back to my bubble. I don’t want to talk to these guys. I don’t like them, you know, but these are the options, when you’re out with your friends.

I met a Marine from Texas recently, who broke down in tears. I mean, it was a really sad conversation. He came to Vietnam because, quote, “It’s easier to fuck chicks here,” so we were like, “All right, so what did you do before this?”

He was in Afghanistan, and he went because he was the best shooter in his high school in Texas. He was also on the track team, he was the fastest runner. He honestly doesn’t think women should be paid the same as men. Like, his mother has a PhD in bio something or other, like his father. They’re both PhDs in whatever science field, and he believes his father should be paid more than his mother. Also, he thinks women shouldn’t work. They should be mothers.

I usually don’t encounter people like that, in my community, in Chicago. I’m not saying I want to be closed off to other people, but it’s just like, these conversations are depressing. I’m like, “I understand why you feel this way, this is something you grew up in, but you really think your mother should be paid less? She has a PhD like your father. Don’t you think people with the same skill level should be paid the same?”

He was like, “No!” He also started crying and ran away. He felt like I was asking him difficult questions, and he had PTSD, so he, like, couldn’t deal with it, but I wasn’t talking about combat. I was talking about his mother getting paid the same amount as his father.

I’m leaving here in two months. I’m gonna hang out with friends on the West Coast for a month, then go back to Chicago in February.

I want a Chicago-style hot dog. I miss the cold. There’s no cold here. I miss fresh air. The pollution index here was 390, or something like that, out of 800. You’re dead if you walk outside and it’s 800. Chicago is like 50, so that gives you some scale. I’m going to live in Uptown, which is near Argyle Street, the Vietnamese area. It’s mostly an immigrant community. I’m going to live with my brother, actually, because my credit is so bad, with my house stuff, so I can’t actually rent an apartment.

I want to just be in a quiet place with clean air. I know that I have privilege, that I can leave, and I know that people are suffering here, but there’s nothing I can do about it because if you speak out here, you go to prison.

I actually think I’m going to learn how to shoot a gun, when I go back, and I’m actually serious about becoming a prepper. I actually see myself, like, starting a prepper colony with my friends, and just hoard dry and frozen goods, for the impending apocalypse! That’s actually, like, a long-term goal. Actually, I went to Eugene last summer, and they have a whole grocery store of prepper stuff. They have, you know, like beef chili and enchiladas, so there’s diversity in prepper cuisine.

Vietnamese are hoarders. I learn from the best. My mother is a hoarder, so she has a lot of stuff, but all of it is expired. I don’t know how spices expire but, you know, they do. She has a lot of stuff that expired, like, a long time ago, but she’s hanging on to it. She’s just working through losing everything, you know. She just wants all that padding around her. She wants all her stuff.

The sci-fi novel takes place in Hanoi, in the not-so-distant future, after a climate crisis. Southeast Asia has frozen over because geo engineers have kinda fucked with, like, weather systems. Instead of cooling the planet down, they’ve caused a big freeze, so people living in Hanoi are trying to survive in a frozen tundra.

I think it was Margaret Atwood who said that when she writes speculative fiction, she doesn’t need to do a lot imagining. She just looks at the past, the oppression and the cruelty, and applies what people have done before in a future setting. So really, it’s just Hanoi now, but frozen, you know. Resources are gone, people are being exploited for labor, that kind of thing. There are rebels and revolutions, maybe. It’s a stereotypical, derivative sci-fi.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Postcard from the End of America: Pennsport

As published at OpEd News, Unz Review and Smirking Chimp, 11/19/17:

Drive-in theaters are practically extinct, diners are dying, but go-go bars are still common in working class neighborhoods across America. It’s wholesome afterwork entertainment for the sweating man.

When I was a housepainter over twenty years ago, our crew would hit The Office in Center City or Penn’s Port Pub, on Christopher Columbus Boulevard. After a long, hot day of scraping paint or standing on a 40-foot ladder, it was somewhat soothing to see lovelies pole dancing.

Yesterday, I went with Felix Giordano to Penn’s Port Pub to rekindle some old memories and, well, long lost sensations. “This may bring a dead man to life,” Felix joked before we walked in. He’s 71, and I just turned 54.

Yes, the doors to a movie theater also separate real life from fantasy, but entering a go-go bar, you’re really descending into your simmering, frustrated id. Of course, it’s bizarre to stare so hard at someone’s orifices, with all your clothes on, in public. Being in a go-go bar is akin to witnessing a public execution.

In the early afternoon, there were only six aging, contemplative gents in there. We chose a reasonable vantage point and ordered two Yuenglings.

Within a hundred yards, there were also Club Risqué and Show & Tel, but they’re gentlemen’s clubs, and Felix and I just don’t patronize such snobbish and exorbitant establishments. Once, a Club Risqué dancer did ask Felix for directions outside Wal-Mart, “She was stunning. I couldn’t believe such a beautiful woman would ask me for directions!”

All the Christopher Columbus Boulevard big box stores, Wal-Mart, Target, Ikea, Staples, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy, have destroyed most Pennsport mom and pops, but what are you going to do? Small businesses gone, the city tried to build casinos in Pennsport, but locals blocked the plan.

There are often beggars standing in the median on Christopher Columbus. Sometimes, you’ll even see a homeless person sleep within sight of the Penn’s Port Pub.

The SS United States is docked in Pennsport. Since its last vogage in 1969, all schemes to convert it to a casino, hotel, cruise ship, troop transporter or naval hospital have failed. The largest ocean liner to ever been built in the US, it molders and rusts on the Delaware River.

At Penn’s Port Pub, they show all and don’t bother with pasties, and it’s generally assumed that’s because it’s a cops’ go-go bar. Pennsport is still heavily Irish.

The Mummers are big here. They rehearse all year long for New Year’s Day, when they can finally wear sequins, colored feathers and/or some outrageous, custom-made dress. Strutting down Broad Street, they strum a banjo, blow on a saxophone or twirl a gay umbrella.

As a blonde lady jiggled, writhed, hung upside down or spread, a man stared at his smart phone. There were two televisions on, but with the sound off. On a cooking show, seafood was being seasoned. Felix recognized an older black man at the end of the bar as the cook, “He’s good. They have good food here.”

Trawling for tips, the ladies will walk on the bar, so be prepared for one to wiggle her assets over your plate of chicken wings.

As dark-haired Damiana squatted in front of my placid, resigned face, I confided, “Me and this guy haven’t been here in twenty years. I don’t think you were working then.”

“No, I wasn’t,” she giggled.

“Were you even born then?” I complimented her.

The man next to us was 50 and balding, “I have hair all over me, on my back, growing out of my ass and my balls. I’m Italian, you know. Maybe if I walked upside down, hair would grow from my head again.”

When Damiana came on, her nether shave reminded baldy of the most evil man, supposedly, who ever lived, “Do you know that Hitler had a secret train? It was used to transport gold, inside a tunnel!”

The blonde didn’t look older than 25, but she admitted to being 40, “I’ve only been doing this for five years. I’m going to quit next year.”

“You should look into art modeling,” Felix advised. “They don’t make bad money.”

“Hey, that’s an idea! I don’t have any problems taking my clothes off!”

“You can model for individual artists too, not just art schools,” I chimed in.

Leaving, we went to 2nd Street and had a couple beers at Shamrock. The dark dive bar had small American flags all over. A sign listed champions of a basketball league, with “Drop the Bomb” the winners for 1991. Going to the bathroom, I passed an image of a serious John Wayne in “Green Berets,” “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

On a bulletin board were death notices, dart scorecards and thank you notes for benefits staged. One example:

Words could never express how thankful I am to all of you for the beautiful benefit that you had for me and my family.

I am so grateful for all the good friends and family for all your love and support through out my journey.

I wish there were a more meaningful word then thank you. It dosen’t seem to be enough.

Again thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I truly appreciate it.

Love Paul, Renee, Justin and Jordan

For many uninsured, working poor, a medical emergency will send them to the local bar for assistance, for that’s their social hub. I’ve seen benefit announcements at many dives across America.

My friend, Ian Keenan, shares:

My grandpop spent much of his adult life in North Philly bars and would also say ‘never trust a man who doesn’t drink.’ He would seat the family at church on Sunday and then sneak out to hit the bar. He was a sort of ghost that imprinted my childhood even though he died before I was born and I didn’t form the view, especially after I created a suburban drinking club at 15 that met multiple times a week, that I could keep a secret from someone, repress a long held thought, or deceive someone.

Pubs in the British Isles (especially Ireland) are law courts, hiring halls, and everything else… you have to settle up with people and if you jerk someone over you’re going to see them again and again.

As a social glue and balm, then, the neighborhood pub was even more important than the church. Thanks to the zombifying television and internet, the pub has lost much of its grip on our hearts, minds and livers, however, for we can just ogle sports and nudes at home. Modern urban planning has also done its job. In his 1937 Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell explains:

Many a small shopkeeper is utterly ruined by some rehousing scheme which takes no notice of his existence. A whole section of the town is condemned en bloc; presently the houses are pulled down and the people are transferred to some housing estate miles away [...] As for pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor places fitted out by the big brewery companies and very expensive. For a middle-class population this would be a nuisance—it might mean walking a mile to get a glass of beer; for a working-class population, which uses the pub as a kind of club, it is a serious blow at communal life.

This day, the conversational topics at Shamrock never got more serious than the Eagles’ excellent play, the pros and cons of former coach Andy Reid and, strangely enough, the size of Horace Grant’s hands. Though Felix and I were clearly outsiders, we were warmly welcomed into the jive and bantering, for that’s how old school Philly rolls.

Recounting how we had just visited Penn’s Port Pub, Felix opined between chugs of Guinness, “God has fucked up everything, but he got the woman’s body right. It’s a work of art.”

No one could disagree.


Friday, November 17, 2017


Shamrock Pub--Pennsport 5

Shamrock Pub--Pennsport 5 (detail)

Shamrock Pub--Pennsport 5 (detail 2)

[Shamrock Pub]



Shamrock Pub--Pennsport 4

[Shamrock Pub]



Shamrock Pub--Pennsport 3

[Shamrock Pub]



Shamrock Pub--Pennsport 2

[Shamrock Pub]



Shamrock Pub--Pennsport

[Shamrock Pub]



Thanks for a $20 contribution from a long-time supporter in Lucerne, CA!


Saturday, November 11, 2017




Thursday, November 9, 2017


Chuck Searcy and I just happened to be in Nguyen Qui Duc's bar when he was filmed by CNN.



Naked male doll and Mickey Mouse--Center City


Saturday, November 4, 2017

Back to the USA

As published at OpEd News, Smirking Chimp, Unz Review, Intrepid Report and TruthSeeker, 11/4/17:

To go home, I had to take a taxi to Saigon’s airport, fly to Hanoi, then on to Hong Kong, where during a 5 ½ hour layover I’d take a train to Central to hang out a bit, then back to the airport to fly to JFK, then hop on two trains just to get to Manhattan, then two more to reach Philly’s 30th Street Station, from where I could, finally, take two subways to my South Philadelphia neighborhood. With so many legs to a trip, a thousand things could go wrong.

Riding through Saigon at 3:30AM, I noticed a bunch of restaurants were already open, with people sitting at sidewalk tables, eating noodles or drinking coffee. Tired, I said nothing to the driver. No jokes about a national homosexual policy, strictly enforced for half a century, to reverse the runaway population growth.

Before taking off from Saigon, the Vietnam Airlines stewardess warned us that to open any aircraft door during flight would result in a $880 fine.

A sign at Hanoi’s airport, “NO MOTORBIKES, BICYCLES OR PRIMITIVE MEANS.” During a month of hectic travel through urban and rural Vietnam, I saw just one ox-drawn cart and maybe a dozen pedicabs. SUV sales are surging, however, and there’s also a growing market for Harley Davidsons. They cost $16,000 to $52,000, twice as in the US. In Phan Thiet, I spotted a US Army jeep, meticulously restored, parked outside the ultra-trendy Ocean Coffee.

The express train from the airport to Central Hong Kong runs every 10 minutes from 5:54AM to 12:48AM, and takes but 24 minutes to cover 23 miles. Nearly every world-class city has a direct train to connect its international airport to downtown, but Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC simply don’t, and Americans just don’t give a flying, exploding cockpit! We’re number one!

Since the Washington Metro opened in 1976, politicians have talked about extending it to Dulles. Forty-one years later, it has crept within seven miles of the badly designed, unfriendly and decrepit airport, opened in 1962. It may even get there before the much welcome controlled demolition. In 2014, asked of Dulles, “Is this the world’s worst airport?”

Year after year, East Asian top airports rank as the planet’s best, with Seoul’s, Singapore’s, Tokyo’s and Hong Kong’s nearly always in the top five. In Europe, London’s, Amsterdam’s, Frankfurt’s and Zurich’s are also first-rate.

With twice the population density of Saigon’s, Hong Kong’s streets are nowhere nearly as clogged, thanks to its excellent subway system and a vast fleet of private buses. Like Singapore, Hong Kong is also a hundred times cleaner and more orderly than my native city. Most impressively, Hong Kong’s murder rate per 100,000 people was only 0.4 for 2016. With 7.347 million people, it had 28 murders. By contrast, Philadelphia tallied 278 homicides for a population of 1.568 million.

Year after year, American blacks commit murders at roughly seven times the rate of whites, a fact that’s blamed by many on socioeconomic factors, historical resentment and/or ongoing racism, while others attribute it to a low IQ, innate lack of impulse control and/or propensity for violence. A century from now, will blacks still be an underclass in any multicultural societies still existing? How about in five hundred years?

Without a significant black population, East Asian societies don’t have to deal with this debate or problem. I’ve wandered unfamiliar Saigon, Hanoi and Singapore streets in the middle of the night without any fear of being shot or stabbed, and I’ve done the same in many European cities, including Istanbul and war-time Kiev.

In recent years, Africans have started to emigrate to Vietnam, and in Saigon’s Gò Vấp District and on Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, there are even black male prostitutes, a phenomenon that’s particularly pleasing to certain middle-aged Vietnamese women. The Africans’ prices are high for local standards, around $25 for a quickie, $50 for an overnight. A recent police raid brought in 50 Africans for questioning.

Wandering around Hong Kong’s Central, I spotted a graffiti, “DESTROY RACISM.” Nearby, there’s a pretty, young, blonde model on an ad for a high-end real estate firm, Man Hing Hong. A few steps away was another blonde, this one merely a teenager, on an ad for an ordinary hair salon, mina dev’ wil. Noticing racial differences means having racial preferences. We will never be color-blind.

As an adult, I’ve had two 2-year stints away from the US. Living in Saigon from 1999-2001, I missed Mexican food, Seahawks games on TV and some jazz, so I asked a friend, traveling to Saigon with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to bring me Django Reinhardt, and Lester Young accompanying Billie Holliday. Returning to the San Francisco Bay Area, I asked my brother to drive me straight to a Mexican joint. Now, there are good Mexican restaurants in Vietnam, and you can listen to anything on YouTube.

Living in Italy from 2002-2004, I missed decent fried chicken, tolerable Chinese food, bullshitting in bars and watching the Seahawks on TV. The Italian ways were so wonderful, the people so hospitable and sweet, I had several nightmares in which I suddenly found myself back in Philly. Opening my eyes, I discovered, with tremendous relief, that I was still in Italy.

Flying into Dulles, I noticed how wide the freeway medians were. So much space wasted, I thought. The currency exchange girl gave me several hundred dollars too much. Catching her mistake, I returned the cash. “Whoa!” She laughed.

During my month in Vietnam, I checked Seahawks games in progress, answered a few emails from Philly buddies and knew I would be back to eating canned chili, baked beans and clam chowder soon enough.

The flight from Hong Kong to JFK took 15 hours 45 minutes. Most of the passengers were Chinese-Americans, a fact I discovered when all these Cantonese speaking folks took out their blue passports at immigration. On the plane, the stewardess kept speaking Cantonese to me, even though I had answered her in English the last time around. Vietnam’s eternal fear is to be blended into China. Two seats away from me was a young man in a yarmulke. Since he had his earphones on during each waking moment, we never chattered.

Recently in Spain, I met a Norwegian who swore he would never return to the US, “The immigration at JFK was so long, and the agents so unfriendly! After such a long flight, we had to stand in line forever, and there were children and old people. We were all trapped!”

Without a direct train to Manhattan, I took the AirTrain to Howard Beach, then waited at least 20 minutes in the cold for the sluggish A Train. Descending the stairs, I passed a portly black man in a burgundy suit. Staring hard at me, he made a sibilant fart with his mouth. “How are you doing, man?” I answered.

“Get on the A Train,” Ella sang. “Soon, you’ll be on Sugar Hill in Harlem!” Yeah, right. All around me were exhausted passengers with their luggage. After flying for countless eons from Dar es Salaam, Ulaanbaatar or wherever, they stood, shivering.

Unique in the world, the entire New York subway system runs 24/7 all year long, so at night, its stations and trains shelter hundreds of homeless. Well bundled and surrounded by bags, they slump on seats. The average rent for a New York one-bedroom is $2,895. If you think that’s astronomical, it’s $3,500 for San Francisco, thanks to a massive influx of Chinese money. Keep those borders open! No human being is illegal!

Since 9/11, American airports, train stations, bus terminals, buses and subway cars have been plastered with signs advising a cowed populace to report on their fellow citizens. In Cambridge, MA, I saw a 10-foot-tall backpack with this tag, “IT’S NEVER THIS OBVIOUS. Suspicious, unattended items don’t always stand out like this.” A new sign in NYC shows a well-armed, battle ready cop next to an ordinary schmuck, “Officer Greg Elkin is well equipped to keep our region safe. And so is Jason.” Arrows point to Jason’s eyes, ears and cell phone. “Your eyes and ears are some of our most important safety tools. So if you see, hear, or notice something suspicious, speak up.”

It was past 1AM when I finally arrived at Penn Station. Inside were several homeless people who slept while standing up. Had they sat or lay down, they would have been kicked out. I shoved $20 into a ticket machine, but nothing happened, and there was no one at the information desk to complain to. Like a Diebold voting machine, it did what it wanted and could not be held accountable. I had no choice but to try again with plastic and, miracle of miracles, it granted me a passage home.

An electronic ad showed a middle-aged woman sitting on stage, “New 3D holographic technology preserves Holocaust survivor stories in Illinois museum.” Then appeared a South Asian man at a podium, “Google CEO Sundar Pichai makes fixing hamburger emoji to have cheese on top a ‘priority.’” Just about everything an American hears, sees or notices is bullshit or propaganda.

With time to kill, I wandered outside to find a three-story-tall electronic ad for Justice League, a movie featuring a team of American super heroes, “NO ONE CAN SAVE THE WORLD ALONE.” Across the street was a young woman sleeping inside a Bank of America ATM terminal. Seeing several food trucks selling Middle Eastern food, I bought a plate of rice with lamb for only $7. Thank God for Muslims, I thought as I took my food inside to chow down.

Passing a convenience store run by Indians, I noticed the New York Times had a new, unintentionally ironic slogan, “Truth. It’s more important now than ever.” Hellish Rihanna was on the cover of Elle. In Vietnam, I had shown her extremely sadistic “Bitch Better Have My Money” video to a friend. Aghast, he asked, “Why do Americans put up with this?!”

The train ride from Trenton to Philly was so bumpy, I could have sworn I was on an ox cart, but as the familiar skyline came into view in the pale, morning sunlight, I happily reflected that I was only hours away from my Friendly Lounge booze mates. I was home.



Holocaust survivor stories--Manhattan

[Penn Station]



Google CEO--Manhattan

[Penn Station]



Halloween donuts--Manhattan

Spooky Sprinkles, Spider, Ghoulish Glazed, Boston Scream, Scary Strawberry, Wicked Chocolate and Purple Potion.



Truth. It's more important now than ever--Manhattan

Truth. It's more important now than ever--Manhattan (detail)

Truth. It's more important now than ever--Manhattan (detail 2)

[Penn Station]



About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.