The changing lives of Saigon’s sidewalks

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hen he first visited Saigon in the late 1940s, the writer Norman Lewis made this observation of the sidewalk life he saw here, after a short amble through the city:

“It was clear from the first moment of picking my way through these crowded, torrid streets that the lives of the people of the far East are lived in public… The street is the extension of the house and there is no sharp dividing line between the two. At dawn, or, in the case of Saigon, at the hour when the curfew is lifted, people roll out of bed and make for the pavement, where there is more space to perform most of their toilet. Thereafter they eat, play cards, doze, wash themselves, have their teeth seen to, are cupped and massaged by physicians, visit fortune-tellers; all in the street” (Lewis, 22)

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A motorbike ride to Vung Tau

Halfway on the road from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau you turn from highway 51 onto Hoang Sa road, and the land opens up on both sides. You come upon salt marshes, with their mixture of sky, island clusters, waterways, briny sea and pungent drafts of dried fish. Views here are expansive: tufted grass, mangrove clumps, an occasional boat docked next to makeshift homes, become dots upon a larger canvas of sky and marsh water.

It took two hours to get you here on motorbike. Two hours splitting the road with careless cars, packed buses, delivery trucks loaded twice their heights with wood, metal shutters, construction sand and pebbles that bounce out their useless tarp covering and pelt you and motorbike the entire way there.

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A tour of Saigon’s pagodas, and my mother’s year of living in one

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n a warm, humid Saturday in February, two American friends and I drove our motorbikes west of the city to visit some Buddhist and Taoist temples in Cho Lon. Cho Lon, or “big market” in Vietnamese, is Ho Chi Minh city’s massive Chinatown, noted as possibly the largest Chinatown in the world, in fact, and has been here for as long as the main section of the city has been. Even before the French made of this slice of Vietnam its Cochinchina, building up Saigon’s most emblematic buildings, Cho Lon was already a separate Chinese township, its homes packed together like any dense section of Hong Kong, existing in its own particular sphere of culture and housing the many immigrants from China living, trading, and setting down roots here.

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Where I live in district 4

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ong known as the poorer, more dangerous sibling of district 1, district 4 in recent years has been shedding its reputation as repository for thieves, pickpockets, and gangsters of the city, or as a thoroughfare between its more prosperous neighbours, D1 and D7. Now, it has picked up noted prestige as a place to go for the best street foods, to shop in busy markets, a location to find every imaginable necessity sold cheaply and in bulk. District 4 is more true to Saigon’s old pace of living than D1, and its profusion of pastel painted, closely packed low rises reminds visitors of a different city and time, even as high rise behemoths and razed plots of tufted grass and gravel demarcating future apartment complexes appear ever more frequently.

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Refugees in America, then and now

T
hirty years ago, the United States, then under the leadership of president Ronald Reagan, gave my family refuge. We settled in Toledo, Ohio, with help from the UNHCR and through a policy decision to shelter refugees of special humanitarian concern, the refugee act of 1980. Years later, my parents relearned their craft of medicine. I grew up to become a teacher of English literature. My brother, born one month after we settled in the States, is now a programmer for Google.

It’s worth noting, to any Republicans out there reading this, that the exemplar of presidential leadership your party always allude to, during every election, would have had strong words for what your party, under Trump and the silent acquiescence of its members, is doing now. In 1981, President Reagan said this about America’s relationship to refugees:

“We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”

He said this during a time when sentiment towards Vietnamese was worse than what’s felt against Syrian refugees now. And towards those drug addicted rapists from Mexico, no mention of walls. Far from it:

“We have a special relationship with our closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Our immigration policy should reflect this relationship.”

An American couple took my family in and hosted us, helped us to settle into the culture and find basic jobs to support ourselves. As mentioned, my mother gave birth a month later to the first American citizen in our family, my little brother. We named him after the American man who hosted us, William, or Bill. Bill and Cathy were generous with their home and Cathy, herself an immigrant from Germany, cooked us the German version of hamburger. My first taste of this “American” meal was made in its German form. My mother, in return, made caramelized pork chops, and we shared the space, and broke bread together, and felt we were one family, in Toledo, Ohio.

We stayed with our hosts for three months until we could get on our feet, and, remaining in the U.S. on our green cards, learned to live, and thrive. I became a citizen automatically years later, when my parents took the citizenship test and passed.

Ohio, as we know, voted for Trump this election. It’s part of the Rust Belt coalition of states that swung the election in his favor. It was also where I spent my childhood, where I learned to bowl, to turkey bowl, drink soda pop, get into Thanksgiving food comas, where I played hoops and watched the Pistons on tv, where I pledged allegiance to the flag every morning in school.

In light of what has been going on with this un-American, unconstitutional, horrifyingly destructive presidency, I wish to offer my memory of a past when cooler, calmer heads in government prevailed, when the country that adopted me, my country, honoured the age old code of kindness and civility towards exiles and refugees, sad sojourners whose homes were destroyed by war or who uprooted for fear of oppression or political reprisals.

Hospitality, or “xenia” in Greece, has as its root, xenos, the word for guest, or foreigner. The fear and mistreatment of such peoples now compose the current state of affairs in my country. This fear is directed by the president, amplified by his tweets and executive orders, and allowed to take on further shape and form by the silence of politicians who refuse to denounce such direct, brazen, oppressive racism. Misdirected anger and outright xenophobia are the current spirits of the day. They should not prevail.

Edward Said once wrote that exile from one’s country is… “strangely compelling to think about, but terrible to experience. It is the un-healable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” America, and its leaders, acknowledged this sadness thirty years ago, and gave the Vietnamese boat people, adrift and rudderless, a chance to make of her a new native abode. Thirty years ago, my parents and I were amongst the war weary, the tempest tossed, huddled masses, feared and distrusted around the world. America gave my family rest and solace. Eventually, she took a chance and embraced us. We made of her a new home.

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Humans of District 4

C
hu Hong works with his wife selling Banh Mi in district 4 in a hem next to my apartment complex. This morning he made a banh mi thit nguoi (cold cuts baguette sandwich) and fried me an egg to add to the filling. It was delicious and cost 75c, would have been about 60c, but the egg added to the price. I sat on his stool and he talked a little about his life.

IMG_0397.JPG“I’ve lived here since I was a kid, in that house over there (points down the alleyway). Haven’t ever moved.

Yeah this neighborhood changed alot over the years. You can see construction right around the corner from you. High rises everywhere. Used to be helter skelter houses built everywhere instead of these complexes, hahaha.

My wife sells banh mi too, you might know her (I do). She sells right outside your apartment complex. She gets her cart there in the evening to late at night, and I sell during the day. At 2 AM she sells to all the construction workers on their break.They take the night shift and work throughout the night so my wife and I take shifts too. Or she’ll sell to the college students early in the morning, too. She sleeps during the day and I sleep at night, and work during the day.

I had a brother who escaped the country just like you did. He left and went to California with his wife. All the Vietnamese are there. Whenever his wife gets lonely they come back here and visit. It’s not easy there, he tells me. It’s really hard, they put in a lot of hard work. They worked at a car wash for many years to make a living. Now they work in an office, much easier work, so it’s better now. I see them come back every once in a while.

Come by a little later in the day next time and I’ll show you our place!”

What Work Is

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
– Bertrand Russell

Work work work work work. -Rihanna

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If I were to do a breakdown of where my allotted cash for my sabbatical gets spent this year, the bulk of it went to leisure drinking: coffees and cocktails. I suspect that besides my rent, iced Vietnamese coffees, happy hour visits to cocktail bars and hipster craft beer bars, “…for malt does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to man” all drain the coffers much more than food or other necessities.

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The sabbatical year, half way finished

2016
was… a sad year of losses. In music, in civility and grace, in sanity. 2017, may you be just a little bit kinder to this world.

The flip side of this gruesome year in politics and the arts, is that I had a chance on my year off to be with family. I was able to hang with my father in Vietnam, a place where he is his most amusing, generous self. I got to spend valuable time with my mom, who is halfway across the world but always a skype call away. I got to see my brother and his lovely wife marry under the awning of colorful autumn leaves in college town, New England.

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The Viet Kieu Casanova – a short story

Absurd, crazy stories of love in the new Saigon provide inspiration for this short story: The Viet Kieu Casanova. This is a section of that story:

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Section 1: The Shopkeeper

This Viet Kieu comes into my cafe and store usually three, four times a week. He’s in his 30s I think, and he brings with him a new girl each time he comes, buys her a gift. Then, they leave. It’s an old routine. The girls are always 20 something, freshly made up, with the new bodies I see now on Vietnamese women, a little fitter, bigger, firmer butts. They’re the ones I always see on instagram, or in cafes taking selfies, or at the gyms in the city barely breaking a sweat, flirting with the trainers, also taking selfies. Many of them are part time models, I’d guess.

How exhausting it is to be young and single. It was different in my days, and I met my husband when we were young and in school together. It all feels so different now.

I think this guy made some money from living abroad. Or he’s here on a long holiday, because it takes a lot of effort and work to take a different girl to the shop each time. Think of the planning that goes behind it. Imagine having to remember all that you’ve told to each girl, and all that you’ve done, all of your different stories, and with whom you said and did these things with. It must get exhausting!

My shop is on a busy stretch of Saigon’s new walking street. When I started it with my business partner there was construction all over the street to turn it into a pedestrian friendly zone, so we didn’t have many customers then. The rare people that did come, would sit down, sip their coffee, complain about the noise, and leave. But we stuck with it because I knew, once all this work on the street was finished, we’d get plenty of visitors.  The trick was to figure out when construction would get done, because the government always promises quick completion times for their projects but they always get delayed, so the date keeps stretching into the unforeseable future, and we all wait, all of us in limbo. Everyone waiting. Like the girls and this Viet Kieu, each one of them waiting to see if their investment leads to some return.

Who ever knows when you can get what you put into your business back? Who knows when you can make some money finally.  You just keep working and hoping for the best. That’s what my partner and I did.  Continue reading