Tourism is invasion by other means. It’s a battle for leisure-time territory fought between armies in Hawaiian flowered shirts and standard bellhop issue. Where no tour package has yet feared to tread and every new hotel is but another “strategic hamlet." In this conflict, the casualties are sunburned, the POWs condemned to hard labor in souvenir shops.
One side seeking authenticity as the other side seeks a tip, conquerors and conquered are often in conspiratorial cooperation. No wonder travel writing can lead to distortions greater than the most propagandists reports from the front. In a war like this, there is no way to get an accurate body count.
I will tell no lies about Vietnam. Too many have already been told. At least, I can present a single, indisputable fact: In preparation for the full lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in place since the end of the war, American travel agents have been free, since the end of 1991, to book passage to Vietnam.
Our former free-fire zone is now one of the world’s “hot” destinations. Crude brochures have already been printed in Hanoi, touting the beaches, mountains, and temples of “Vietnam, hospitable land!" Somehow, I don’t think that’s the adjective most Americans would use.
With all the reasons any ex-peacenik might have for visiting the country disguised as a cause, I would not be making the journey were it not for a family that had come the opposite way. For two years now. I’ve been a volunteer English tutor to Ha Dai Tsan, her cousin Phang, son Ma Hung, and assorted cousins and uncles of a Vietnamese-Chinese family. As the grandchild of refugees from Czarist Russia, I had been drawn to the idea of aiding and observing this random sampling from the Bay Area’s latest wave of immigrants. Passing on the survival skills of supermarket shopping or small claims court did wonders to sharpen the awareness of my own acculturation — suddenly I was not just any Joe, but their “Teacha John.”
Never mind that their “land of freedom” happened to be my land of freeways, free-floating identity, and “no free lunch.” Or that while I was in demonstrations chanting “Ho-ho-ho Chi Minh,” my students’ parents were imprisoned by the very same Communist Santa Claus. After all the years spent pounding the drums on behalf of the glorious people of Vietnam, these are the first Vietnamese I’ve actually known.
Suddenly, this escaped manicurist, sweatshop worker, and aspiring car mechanic transformed far-off Saigon into a place where most people live sleepily and unhappily through a measured chronology of weddings and epidemics, a series of stalled longings and fruit-stand assignations. Their lesson for me has been that war is a rather ordinary business, which most of humanity has always managed to live with, and live through.
My pupils take my plans to visit their homeland in their usual impassive stride. In their minds, Saigon is but a distant suburb of California — and perhaps they’re right. On the other hand, they insist that their ancestral home in the sprawling, ethnic Chinese district of Cholon will be difficult for me to find. When I pass around my notebook, each of them laboriously scrawls the same address until I have four versions in kindergarten script.
Still, I am certain that I will soon be proving them wrong. After all, it takes an American to know that there are two sides to every American story. That the place escaped looms just as large as the refuge found. That the journey forward is never as straightforward as the journey back.
The flight to “Ho Chi Minhville" is the last leg on Air France’s Paris-Dubai-Karachi-Bangkok milk run. James Taylor sings through the headphones. I munch on microwaved Chateaubriand alongside businessmen in slightly rumpled Cardin suits. Shouldn’t I be coming in the back of a C-130 transport? Whither the Green Berets or contrabandists of yore? Nothing is as we imagine it: I have not decided if this is the bane of traveling or its only salvation. At least, the airport is still called Tan Son Nhut, the mammoth base from which American air power once flowed. Then why is there just one creaky baggage carousel? Why are the customs guards peevish schoolboys in oversized uniforms? One stops frowning his bureaucrat’s frown just long enough to ask, “You know where is the Long Beach of California? My cousin, he live the Long Beach.”
After changing a single hundred-dollar traveler’s check, my satchel is loaded down with a Brink’s truck’s worth of rubber-banded Vietnamese dong. As soon as I get outside the gates, it becomes clear that it’s not my money, but my compassion, that may run out. If Saigon’s red-light Thu Do was once known as the “Street Without Joy,” then Tan Son Nhut should now be called “The Terminal of Tears.” The street is always crammed with families arriving or departing — the U.S. State Department’s “Orderly
Departure Program” flights still drain the country of manpower twice weekly. After so many years of waiting for their number to be called, it’s hard to tell whether this final fulfillment is a moment of gain or loss. Children about to lose their fathers circle in a daze; tiny grandmothers tremble, plump aunts huddle to weep in unison into hand towels the saffron color worn by Buddhist monks. And I am just arriving where so many want to leave. I have made a career of going in the wrong direction.
If history is written by the victors, so are the holidays. Hoping to be liberated from the usual idea of a vacation, I have arrived in Saigon on the anniversary of the war’s end, officially celebrated as “Liberation Day.” Can you say where you were on April 30, 1975? I can visualize that date more clearly than the Kennedy assassination or Nixon’s resignation speech. That’s because it is the day that my youth ended. Remember how the pro-war media used to say that more people were killed in automobile accidents on American highways than in combat? An uncle of mine became one of those auto casualties that week in April. His death, the first of a close relative, would forever be linked for me with the war’s end. After all, my cousin, this liberal academic’s son, had so shared my precocious radicalism that at age 12 he slept with a poster of a North Vietnamese gunner over his bed. The flight back East to the funeral was crowded with the first flood of war refugees — among the first Vietnamese I’d ever glimpsed in the flesh. And it was even more appropriate that the images that greeted my grieving cousin and me at the first moment when it became appropriate to turn on a television should be the Vietcong tank crashing through the gates of the South’s Presidential Palace, crashing down the gates to our adulthood.
Exactly 15 years later, I am being carted in a bicycle ricksha to the scene of our American crime and punishment. Just at sunset, I arrive at our former embassy and recognize the rooftop from which the Marines and their oh-so-dependents scurried into hovering helicopters. But the kid in ragged shorts and thongs who pedals me has obviously got another picture in mind. “Hang ten, man!” he addresses me in outdated Gl slang. “I be your groovy cycloman. I hate Communist. VC they kill my father. Mother work for American. Brother and sister go Florida. You come Florida? How you like my English, pardner? America best. You must be very happy. Hey, dude, you give me T-shirt?” I’m not surprised that he literally wants the shirt off my back. This demented, half-starved teenager is in far better repair than most of those craven beggars on wheels who provide much of Saigon’s public transportation. They pedal alongside every foreigner they find emerging from a hotel, dogging them all day if they have to. “You ride with me all Saigon, okay? You likee girl, mister?” If that approach doesn’t work, they try and appeal to the loyalties of the Cold War. “If you walk, everybody think you are Russian! Vietnamese no like Russia. Don’t be Russian. Don’t be an American without money!”
What’s more remarkable about any foreign country is not what the natives want to know about you but what they never bother to ask. For example, nobody here cares if I fought as a soldier in the war. So much for my brownie points in anti-imperialism! To the Vietnamese, I’m just another free-spending, free-screwing Yank. And the people I encounter show even less curiosity about my past conduct than they do about future intentions. Not a single soul in Saigon approaches me with the attitude, “What does the American want this time? What more can we give him that he didn’t already take?”
None of the traffic lights work in Saigon, yet somehow the thousands of Honda motorbikes magically merge without a hitch. This is how Asia works. This is how the Vietcong must have got the job done. On every street corner, with each set of handlebars draped with boxes and babies, there is a miracle of faith.
Travel is taking our ambivalences to a world scale, plastering our divided loyalties across a map already crammed with artificial divisions. On my first night in Vietnam, I am without a doubt the only U.S. citizen at the vast outdoor fair dedicated to celebrating the defeat of U.S. imperialism. At one carnival booth, I am handed a toy pistol so that I can try my hand at shooting down tiny model U.S. Army helicopters dangling on strings. I wander amidst a hundred barkers crowing through amplified echo effects, a hundred stands dishing out frothy bowls of pho noodles; I view the longhouses of hill tribes recreated in matchsticks, an obligatory exhibit on the life and works of Uncle Ho; I settle down before a bandstand to enjoy a local pop band whose crooning female vocalists wear the pointy, glittery crowns of Khmer headdresses. This is the closest I have ever come to feeling like a man without a country and the closest I ever came to being an American.
Everyone else seems to know exactly what I am. Before I know it, I’ve acquired an honor guard in the form of a young English teacher and his class of eight students. They don’t just want to practice speaking with me, they want to touch me, pinch me, and take turns holding my hand. Both boys and girls are eager lovers. They fetch me sodas, sour suckers, cane juice. One sweet, dimpled girl named Thuy showers me with the adoration of a pre-adolescent crush. The teacher swoops me off in the night on the back of his motorcycle, and we go for a dinner with Thuy’s family. “Make yourself at home!” For the first of many times, I will hear these same words. “Please give our regards to your mother and father!" I have entered the first of a hundred concrete sweat-boxes that, to my eyes, are decorated like bric-a-brac shops: busted wicker chairs beside surplus hair dryers next to incense sticks before ancestral photos. I am given the seat of honor at a folding table covered with a flowered plastic sheet. I glimpse a half-dozen barefoot women squatting to their toil of producing a meal in a kitchen that’s just a back alley with a single faucet and open drain straight out into the general sewage. I try to look grateful for being served exactly those items that foreigners are not supposed to touch: unsterilized ice, raw jellyfish, contaminated crab.
I do my best to ignore the tubercular cough of Thuy’s father, the teenage girl’s stroking of my beard, or her tear-jerking dream to one day afford piano lessons. At the end of the meal, she implores, “Forget me not!” On the back of her smiling photos, Thuy’s father writes, in perfect English, “Please adopt my daughter.”
The contradictions pile on so fast, they should make this a video game. Call it “Cyber Saigon,” or “Puppet Regime.” No Pac Man or Ninja or wizard could make it through such a maze of mixed loyalties, such a geopolitical juggernaut.
The derivation of Saigon’s name is a local cotton tree. The place was a swamp until the 17th Century. And it’s now a pleasantly habitable beehive of unpaved back streets and giant outdoor markets that would be better off if international business had no pitiable foothold at all. Foreigners are here in just enough numbers to attract the worst of society, not enough to stimulate the best. If you can bluster your way past the pestering cripples, the vendors of stamps and Annamese coins, the Amerasians and former camp followers, a five-minute walk is enough to cover all the sights of downtown Saigon: time enough to hit the veranda of the Continental, where Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham once mused on the mysteries of the East; to cross the square to the Caravelle, where U.S. Army briefings made for a wilder set of fictions than either of those British masters could spin. From the rooftop bar of the Rex, the former American officers’ club, you can survey every building over five stories and see easily to the far side of the river where the jungle takes over.
Saigon’s scale makes me wish our former prize was more prized, the plunder more plundiferous. After approximately six to eight hours in new ol’ Ho Chi Minh City, dual revelations strike with emphatic, countervailing force. Each simultaneous and apparently contradictory fact seems so evidently true that only a blind man — or a member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff— could not have seen it. First, that this was a most unpromising and incomprehensible place to make our great anti-Communist stand. But wait a second: what’s just as obvious is that we could never lose. Given any efficient combination of dollars and firepower descended on such humbleness, we should have cleaned up in an hour.
I always wondered how the four members of the Tsan family, my English students back in the Bay Area, could be so cheerful about sleeping together on wall-to-wall cots in a grimy studio apartment on the sixth floor of a downtown San Francisco tenement. Now I can fashion my own response to the perennial “Compared to what?” Compared to six people sleeping in a single room with one electric light and no indoor plumbing behind what was once a beauty salon in a concrete storefront with blue metal shutters on a dirt street lined with piles of scrap wood. A rugged, nut-brown grandfather eyes me warily. A hundred or so neighbors, mostly excited kids in short pants, have come to observe my arrival from Mars. The mother of the clan lies prone on a bench, dying of uterine cancer. Not knowing the C-word in English, her daughter back in California had first told me it was hemorrhoids. Offering to help, I had been unable to get her to the U.S. on a humanitarian visa. In how many ways, on how many continents, will I disappoint these experts in survival?
At least, I make the old woman happy for a moment or two by delivering Polaroids of her offspring strolling in their best Sunday clothes and momentary approximation of prosperity on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. But a dishwasher in Bellingham, Washington, has arrived a day ahead of me. He zips up in a motorcycle wearing his Seattle Seahawks cap, a big man on campus parting the gawkers. In a back bed-room/kitchen without electric lamps, toaster, blenders, stove, or refrigerator, he plugs in his video camera and shows home movies of my students. What use is my presence in the video age?
The American presence here was like some powerful virus. Once the fever is gone, it is like the mortal threat was never there. Yet the memory of your vulnerability remains, supplying anew the chills and the thrills.
The dude from Bellingham spirits me away to the house of another cousin down the block. On the way, he shows me the neighborhood’s most intriguing sight: a funeral in the upstairs hall of a Buddhist temple. The mourners kneel before the coffin and clap their hands like they’re expecting the deceased to break into song. They are all dressed in white — so much wiser than black as a color for nothingness — and wear white head-bands that make them look like a pack of radical Korean or Japanese students. But there is no protest here, only gentle acceptance. There is more of that to go around in the front parlor of the lean, mustachioed cousin who has been waiting nine years for his immigration application to be processed. “I don’t like Communists and they don’t like me,” says this former employee of the U.S. military. “Americans are so polite.” (Like the polite fellow who put him through a screening interview five years ago and hasn’t written since.)
The cousin’s house also doubles as a beauty salon. No wonder this economy is in such trouble — nearly all the Vietnamese I know in the States or here are either hairdressers or manicurists. At a certain point, they must run out of fingers and scalps. But grooming is a major activity here. The idea, it seems, is that even if you live in dust and squalor, you can have dazzling fingernails. This room is filled with yet another odd assortment of pomades, combs, incense, porcelain elephants on stands, calendars featuring the Golden Gate Bridge. The cousin asks me if there really is such a thing as an “Old Faithful.” I teach him the word “geyser,” not exactly a handy household term. He cannot remember the name of Yellowstone Park, but he boasts, for the sake of his fantasies as much as for me, that in America there is a garden as big as from Saigon to Bien Hoa. “My friend, Lieutenant Jim, he talk about the big garden.” The cousin totes out an electric floor fan so rusted that its blades could not have turned for a decade. “Lieutenant Jim, he give to me. My prize possession.”
How many times in ten days will I go through the same drill? I am even lured to the house of two peanut-vending, bookmaking sisters at the newly reopened Saigon racetrack, where the jockeys are children and the thoroughbreds smaller than Shetland ponies. In vain hopes of increasing their odds of leaving the country, they, too, serve me mounds of the greasy egg rolls called cha gio. They go for a cookie tin and take out a sheaf of faded papers that prove they once worked for the U.S. Army, that they have applied numerous times for an exit visa, that they were interviewed by someone from some international relief agency five, seven, ten years back. They beg me to put in a good word with the Orderly Departure Program, with the U.S. ambassador in Bangkok, with the president.
And yet, for all of this, I feel that Vietnamese culture is based on the indestructible inviolability of the common human being. Every identical set of wedding photos, each bowl of noodles with crab, each pile of rejected applications carries an equal and immense weight. It doesn’t matter if people go about in pin curlers or a pair of rubber sandals worn to the width of squashed bubble gum. Or even if they have to beg. Nobody is worrying about losing their dignity because that is something that simply cannot be lost.
To travel in the world is to uncover gradations of poor: very; somewhat; awfully; desperately. Poverty is the greatest dictatorship. But I can no longer remember who said that first, Karl Marx or Ronald Reagan? Perhaps this is the natural state to which all things tend, something like the way gravity wears down our organs. Dreadfully, hopefully, unwittingly poor. I suppose everything is relative, as long as these are not your relatives.
What a world, where you may now book your very own Atrocity Tour. See! Deformed Agent Orange babies preserved in pickle jars at the War Museum! Photos of Marines bearing impaled heads on a stick! See! Colonel Ky’s collection of stuffed elephant feet! World’s greatest collection of bomb casings; an exhibit hall disguised as an ammo dump! Stuffed lynxes and Uncle Ho busts in hideous souvenir shops! The puppet’s pool table abandoned in mid-game! Madame Nhu's boudoir looking just like an annex to some Vegas casino! Witness Amerasian outcasts, the “floating girls” of the moored Australian-built, four-star “floating hotel,” selling their bodies just like their moms did! Skip lightly over the land mines on your way into the surf! Pay a thousand bucks to crawl through the burrowed levels of Cu Chi, a city of underground tunnels, pretending to be a mole, hiding from the Americans, hiding from yourself! Shoot from a real North Vietnamese rifle! Only a dollar a cartridge! In coming back to this place, are we merely saying that there is no other place left? Is this our attempt at spiritual salvation or just the ultimate symptom of another symptom of our boredom?
There is something odd about the group of relatives assembled to meet me one afternoon at an amusement park an hour’s cab ride from tourist-land. Seated in low wooden chairs around a long picnic table at an outdoor bar, there are eight cousins, every one of them with new coiffures, hiding intentions behind wraparound sunglasses. Each bears a familial resemblance: round cheeks, freckles, and chunky smiles. They do not dare look at me directly but chat nonchalantly amongst themselves. Except for the cousin from Bellingham, they are all women.
“Many girls, my family. Vietnamese girl make good wife." It’s four in the afternoon, and we seem to be the only ones on the grounds of the park. To get away from an increasing feeling of discomfort, I suggest we take a few rides. We end up in a funhouse where the ladies can’t help breaking into merciless laughter at the sight of my overblown Western features, bug nose, pointy beard, and out-of-control hairiness, further distorted in the full-length mirrors. I am not having fun.
That’s when I realize what is afoot. One of my students back home had written to alert the family that I am respectful, and if not rich, then kind. Best of all, I am still single. Is this my students’ description or a recommendation that I can be readily used? Perhaps I can be convinced to help this family in a far more concrete way than merely teaching them the difference between “there” and “their.” I am ticketed to become one lucky cousin’s ticket to America. I am made to follow the clan home so this anointed one cousin — an identical twin except that she’s changed into a showy black dress covered with appliqued butterflies — can show me how she cooks up a heaping bowl of crabmeat and noodle soup. The fastest way to a green card is through a man’s stomach.
I should just tell these people that I am engaged or have even tied the knot just before leaving. Instead, I waste my breath trying to explain the vagaries of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization laws. A couple has to prove they live together, I tell them. They have to at least speak the same language. But you are English teacher, the cousin comes back. No problem! “Vietnamese girl learn fast, everything you want to teach. Make very good wife." In the end, I agree to pose in several photos with her. Perhaps all she wants is to show them to her friends and dream. I do not look very comfortable in the resulting prints. I want the matchmaker from Bellingham to join us, but he is emphatic about remaining out of the picture. In Vietnam, they take very seriously the expression, “Three’s a crowd.” Nobody takes photos of people posed in a trio. If so, you are tempting fate, willing the death of the third man out. The only number that matters is two.
Is this, then, how the British felt during their Raj in India? After Liberation Day, I am experiencing a certain liberation from the weight of individual conscience. It doesn’t matter to any of these people if I shot their cousins or was at My Lai or held flowers of peace on the Pentagon. All that matters is that I am one of the race that holds the promise of riches. And I could not escape that fate even if I went about dressed in a straw hat and rags. This must be what it means to belong to a culture: the feeling that you are, inescapably, a representative of all the things you do not believe in.
On guided tours, there is also such a thing as “the hostage syndrome." I have begun to sympathize with my humorless government minder, straining to make banal sights spectacular and maintain his nationalism while pandering for dollars. This, after all, is only my vacation. For my guide, this is his life.
Miss Hahn, secretary for a French drug firm, is recommended to me as someone who can expedite a change in my airline reservations. In return, this firm bundle of energy, packed into the tightest pair of Guess jeans, shyly asks a favor of me. I meet her at sunset for a supposedly romantic cruise on the Saigon River. A dilapidated steamer chugs upriver for an hour and then turns back before the mosquitoes get too awful. Miss Hahn and I are practically the only ones on deck. I am soon relieved to learn that she has no matrimonial designs. This former English teacher has taken a side job subtitling a series of Grade-B British detective flicks. She has one entire soundtrack on tape and hands me the earphones of her oversized, battered Walkman. I have to try to decode and decipher various cockney colloquialisms that I can barely hear over the din of a Vietnamese rock band, which has started its cruise serenade of early-’70s hits. As if that wasn’t distracting enough, I notice harbor rats, big as mops, waltzing across the dance floor beside our table. Miss Hahn plops egg rolls into my mouth, hand-feeding me so I’ll continue through the entire movie. But how do I explain such phrases as “chatting up a bird” to a girl who can’t possibly have been chatted up in her life?
Afterwards, she pumps me for information about the heroes of her childhood reading: Jack London, Willa Gather, and Ernest Hemingway. She trots out all those big, term-paper questions that can never be answered: Who are the giants of American fiction today? Is American culture a vital force for world peace? Has the American soul been redeemed? Miss Hahn still believes in correct answers, while I trust only in misinformed guesses. She is the one who should travel the world free as a bird, this tiny, lash-fluttering sparrow, as she so longs to do. I am the one who should be confined to the familiar until I’ve regained my faith in the purpose of seeing.
Where I had expected my trip to confront the evidence of a society utterly corrupted by my own culture, this encounter with Vietnam has proved a confrontation with innocence. In the end, however, we are still more innocent than they. Because their innocence is the kind in which everything counts and ours is the kind in which nothing counts.
On the way to the beach town of Vung Tau, the speakers on our De Soto bus rasp out music from the Eagles and Led Zeppelin. We stop at a charming roadside compound offering a harvest of huge breadfruits, pork buns heated on open fires and balanced in triangles of dough as peaked as the peasant vendors’ straw hats. “Don’t buy anything, sir,” whispers the passenger beside me in clear English. “In this place, there was a recent outbreak of typhoid!” The man who sells me my beach chair is eager to discuss the end of the Cold War. When my Polaroid photos of his helpers nearly set off a riot on the beach, the worldly attendant warns me with the voice of experience, “In Vietnam, you must have open hands but very long arms!”
At every turn, I’m offered direct access to the “hearts and minds" that our military had such difficulty wooing. Everywhere I’m told that America is “the beautiful country.” As usual, I decide not to take it personally.
What really matters in other countries, as with other people, isn’t what you want to see but what they deem important to show you. Take my day trip to the Mekong Delta. I enter this former free-fire zone to the music of Lawrence Welk on the tape deck of a mint-condition cushiony blue Citroen. My driver says he is taking me for a “snack,” but he’s mispronounced the word “snake.” Our first obligatory stop is a private jungle zoo where various local cobras are baited and milked. Bears, panthers, and komodo dragons exist in various states of misery, and packs of monkeys are chained to each available tree.
I’m hoping to catch a smaller boat at Vinh Long and head upstream through overgrown rivulets teeming with indigenous folklore. Once more, my guides have other plans for me. The driver delivers me directly into the charming but inescapable care of a moon-faced, French-speaking, and dishearteningly sincere woman guide for the newly formed Cuu Long Province tourist bureau. She must accompany me on my water journey, even provide me with a planters’ straw hat against the sun to match hers. It seems that the powers-that-be have determined that the designated “scenic spot” of interest to foreigners is an especially renowned garden on one of the islands in the midst of the delta. The ride on the river lasts only ten minutes, and that’s just because our outboard engine keeps stalling. “The motor has AIDS,” my guide jokes, leaving me amazed once more at how small shared disasters make the world.
"Voila, mango! “ shouts my charming guide, like she’s spotted the first one known to man. “Papaya! Jackfruit! Rambutan! Ici, les pommes du lait, pommes du Mekong!" The garden where we’re heading houses an exotic assortment of potted bonsai with trunks twisted to the shape of strained biceps or biblical serpents. Before I get to make an inspection, I must stop in the immense gazebo of the famous gardener, introduced to me as the venerable Doctor Giao. Several party-cadre types in gray Uncle Ho jackets are also hanging around to share in the tea. The whole place is a shrine to Doctor Giao's otherworldly wisdom. I’m shown glass cases filled with seashells and cigarette lighters, key chains and lots of foreign currency from Oman and Mongolia.
At the end of this “rural idiocy” tour, I treat Miss Nga to a Coca-Cola on the balcony of the single, half-completed hotel overlooking the river. Here, she can finally take off her straw hat, explaining with a giggled appreciation of the irony the Vietnamese women have "peur du soleil. ” Her name, she explains, means “le cygne bleu." A pale white but not-at-all sad blue swan. This true and unconflicted daughter of the Mekong, so proud of her native terrain, admits to the dream of one day studying in France. Without foreigners and the nouvelles they bring, she confesses, life would be “monotone.” And was I a soldier? Miss Nga is the first to relish my antiwar declaration. “Merci, merci!" She even lets go the grip on her Coke to reach for my hand and kiss it. Yet like so many others I’ve met, she appears to have put all of that behind her as completely and contentedly as one would the memory of, say, one’s high school prom. All memories are equal, the Vietnamese seem to be teaching. “Heureusement la guerre est passe!" She’s baffled when I complain that the war put an end to all meaningful struggle for social justice in the United States. Isn’t it preferable to live in a country without struggle, where life is as tranquille as the muddy Mekong? “La guerre," she repeats her mantra, merry as a Parisian schoolgirl, "c'est passe, c'est passe!"
I always said that I wanted peace in Vietnam. I never thought that I’d actually have to go to Vietnam to find it.
On my last visit, the relatives of my pupils have given up on the marriage plans. But they ask for one favor. Lovingly, they hand me three scraps of green paper badly in need of restoration. At first, I can’t even see that these are true-blue American greenbacks, these hundred-dollar bills that have been buried in their back yard since
- They look like they’ve been nibbled at the edges by snails and moles. They are about to break into halves. Their green hue is specked with brown. No official money-changer in Saigon will accept them, nor will anyone on the black market have anything to do with such dubious cash. They implore me to try at the tourist hotels. I assure them that I’ll do my best at this mission of redemption. But they never even bother to call my hotel to see if I’ve managed to patch together their disintegrated American dream. I suppose it’s because they trust me to give the money to their relatives upon my return. Either that, or they have lost all hope. I carry their scraps of pride back to the States. I’m not sure any bank in the world would take in these refugees. These dollars are as tattered as their hopes, as shredded as their pride, as devalued as their lives.
Perhaps all of this is just the relief of being in a country where the worst has already happened. All you have to do here is breathe and inhale survival.
An hour’s delay in my departure affords me another lifetime’s worth of psychodrama. I take photos of aged women with traditional blackened teeth, exchange the “peace” sign with teenage boys camped on the street, check the airport newsstand where they stock the sayings of Uncle Ho but the most popular seller is English for Vietnamese. A cassette drones on, sorting out useful phrases: “Garbage can...can of beans.... what can you do?" I have never been anyplace where I have less reason to stay, and I have never been anyplace where I feel more reluctant to leave.
Back in the Bay Area, Wells Fargo is willing to accept the deposit of two out of three of the hundred-dollar bills. I bring the money to my students, along.with Polaroids of their dying mother and disappointed cousin. If they are sorry that I have not obliged to marry anyone, they never let me know it. They still call me “Teacha John,” though they seem less and less in need of any lessons. But when I whip out my snapshots, I find once more that I’ve been outdone. The brother from Bellingham has already mailed them a videotape of our stroll through the amusement park. My students are still sleeping four to a room, but I notice that they have purchased a bigger TV. More inches of Sony than I’ll ever own.
Since she said that she wanted to learn the piano, I send Thuy an electric keyboard. She writes back to fell me that she will never forget my “glorious beard” and to insist that I cable her a thousand dollars to cure her sister’s "brain fever.” I do not think I am the first she has asked. The letter seems to have been written by someone much older. My “faithful daughter” has even enclosed a handy payment envelope to a Vietnamese shipping firm in New York, stamped and self-addressed.
I still correspond with Miss Hahn, who asks for all the things I cannot give. “Okay, you are deeply drawn in your great works,” she writes.
“For the time being, I have been wondering of the idea which is the usual question of life: ‘What is the meaning of life? One was born, lives for sometime and will die? What’s his life meaning to him and the world?’ Maybe this is the common question to everyone, but people try to express it in different ways. Do you thinly this can be good for writing about?”
This is enough of a reason to have gone. When I hear the word “Vietnam,” I no longer think of Graham Greene or General Giap, Dean Rusk or Bernard Fall or Colonel Ky or Brando as Kurtz. Now I think of Miss Hahn, and the dying Mrs. Tsan, of the racetrack jockeys and the ricksha drivers, of Thuy the adoptee and Nga the blue swan and even the one I could have married.
Everything you know about Vietnam is wrong. If so, then so is everything about Asia, politics, left and right sides of the aisle or the brain. Instead of the billions we spent on bombs, we could now pick up this country for the price of a couple of Burger Kings. So clearly, we must have been fighting for something else. But what did we really want, if not what Americans always want, which is anything we can never have?