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

Colonial era Da Lat

M
y aunt shows me a photograph in a popular Da Lat travel book called “Old Langbiang…Da Lat”, a nostalgic black and white compilation of old homes built by the French during colonial era Vietnam. Most of these homes were taken down or has been altered beyond recognition after war’s conclusion.

“This was our home.” she says. “And there, standing at the front door, that’s your grandfather.”

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I follow her finger, and can pick out a dim figure leaning against the shadow of the house. He’s in a western suit, with baggy trousers, and he is standing with his left hand in his pocket. I can’t make out his face, and I suppose I wouldn’t have recognized the face of my grandfather anyway, from my brief, limited childhood interactions with him. The figure is slight but the house is grand, its roof a lengthy sloping side descending from a tall third floor to cover the top of one side of a ground floor. Sturdily built of stone, with vines on its walls and a chimney jutting through the sideroof, the home feels remarkably like a Swiss house in the Alps; I could have been looking at an old photograph taken from the European countryside.

After pointing out the bedroom where my mother lived as a child, and where she herself lived, right next door, my aunt said to me: “I’m trying to find the photographer and get the negative for the picture. If I can get this photo’s negative, I can ask him to develop it again, but larger. Maybe I can see my father more clearly.”

The house is gone now, thoroughly razed to the ground. After the war, all these colonial homes in Da Lat, these stone constructions of Swiss houses built to last in the inclement weather of the mountainside, were turned into communal spaces for work, or housing for large numbers of people. Eventually, many of them were simply razed for new constructions. This is what finally happened to our particular home.

When I asked my aunt if she would take me to come see the site, she said that there’s currently construction all around it, and we wouldn’t see behind the construction posters to glimpse what was being built anyway. Even before construction started, the house was battered to its foundation, flattened completely to make way for something larger. As it was raining heavily during my visit, I thought it best not to insist, and just not to come back to see what’s happened to our home.

I can’t imagine a Vietnamese city more conducive to nostalgia making, to dreaming and the cultivation of interiority than Da Lat. Keats’ lines describing autumn seems most fitting for this highlands region, “Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness/close-bosom friend of the maturing sun”. And Nabokov’s curt description of Ithaca, New York, in his novel Pnin, could just as easily refer to the lush vegetation of Da Lat and its temperamental weather: “It was a fair fall night, velvet below, steel above.” Perhaps these childhood trips to Da Lat were what made me love the autumns in New England so much. They were the precursor to my time in the cool northeast of America, even before my family had moved. It was in Da Lat that I wore woollen sweaters for the first time, that I clambered up and down hillside marketplaces for the first time, watching the women selling stuffs on the street. The hill tribes and their colorful clothes too, thrilled me and remained firmly in my memory.

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Humans of Saigon’s district 4

I
n my childhood, Saigon’s district 4 was dangerous, full of crime and violence. At least that’s what everyone tells me, from friends to family; I was too young to know much about it. My family lived on the other side of district 1, in Binh Thanh.

District 4 happens to also be the area undergoing the most major change and gentrification as Saigon booms and expands. New high rises and cranes have appeared on Ben Van Don, the thoroughfare that lines the main canal that distinguishes district 4 from the center of the city. District 4 also happens to be where I’m moving to this month, to finish up my year of living funemployed.

Below are brief talks with two of my new neighbors who’ve lived in D4 a long time and seen it go through all its changes.

Co ban nuoc mia, the sugarcane juice seller

I’ve been selling sugarcane juice here for thirty img_9656years. The city has changed alot since then! I have a son who drives a taxi for a living and a daughter who does nails. She’s very good, can do all kinds of colors on your nails. My son drives people for a living and makes 350usd a month, he makes a good living for himself.

Price for sugarcane juice: 30 cents per cup
Nuoc Mia, sugarcane juice, is made from crushed sugarcanes, and you can see it made in front of you as the canes are pushed through a set of steel rollers, to come out as pulp on the other side.

Anh Van, motorbike driver:

van-motorbike-driverI’ve lived here on Ben Vân Don for twelve years, before that I lived on (another street in district 4) for another ten years. It used to be really dangerous here. Alot of gangsters and criminals. A lot of robberies. It’s safe now and it’s changed a lot, but it’s more expensive too.

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Kiet, whose brother was a refugee: conversations with uber drivers, part 4

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Kiet, whose brother escaped the country in 1987
Chevrolet Spark. 58 minutes. 8.5 km.

Kiet (not his real name) is a 48 years old driver who has driven a taxi for twenty four years. We were stuck in horrendous traffic going from the airport back to my flat, and he told me his life story, from his attempt to escape the country in the years that my family did, to his time in the army. He is easily excitable, emphatic with his gestures, a rapid conversationalist. I honestly couldn’t follow all that he said.

Below is a bit of Kiet’s story that I’ve composed as well as I can from memory:

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o you, little brother, left the country in 86? Me too, I tried to leave multiple times.  My little brother and I tried to escape together, then I kept trying on my own after he made it.

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Conversation with uber drivers 3: Vinh, experienced taxi driver

V
inh is about my age, (which meant that both of us awkwardly called each other “older brother” for the duration of the chat) with an 8 year old kid and a family to raise. I took a twenty five minutes long ride to the airport in his Honda City. It was early in the morning and he had driven since 5 AM. He drives daily until late at night, but was glad to chat with me.

How long have you driven an uber Anh?

14 years.

Oh that’s longer than how long I’ve taught. I’ve taught for 12 years.

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Conversations with uber drivers 2: motorbike driver Sang

Read an earlier posting on uber driver conversations here.

Sang drove me from district 4 to district 2, a total distance of 8.3 km. He drove a Yamaha Exciter 150, and he had a real helmet for me to wear (this is not always the case for motorbike drivers in Saigon. My anecdotal experience is it’s been about 50, 50 for getting a real helmet vs. fake). The conversation is translated from Vietnamese to English to the best of my admittedly limited ability.

Cost: 37,000 VND. 1.5 USD.
Time: 20 minutes. half of it in tough traffic.
Rated: 5/5 for the conversation, timely pickup, smooth ride, sense of direction.

How long have you driven a motorbike for a living, em (little brother)?

Just one month now, anh (older brother).

And you do this full time?

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Four Voices from the Diaspora

These days, when the plight of refugees so often make the news, the Vietnamese diaspora seems to be experiencing a literary renaissance. Foremost is the celebration of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, with its deserved Pulitzer Prize for fiction (read my review here).

Alongside Nguyen, we have Nam Le’s collection of stories The Boat, Qui Nguyen’s new play Vietgone, Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection, all appearing in the last year or so. Are there suddenly more assured voices, or is it that the reading public has become more interested in the stories offered by the Vietnamese diaspora?

It might be a combination of both. Narratives written by immigrants have always spoken to the transient lives of people in the world, but it is just now that we see a mature collection of thoughts regarding the people who left Vietnam for even more uncertain lives abroad. The stories of the displaced, or those with multinational identities, are stories that speak to us of these particular times. The first refugees and their children, uprooted by America’s bloodiest war, seem especially able to speak of this displacement, of describing the shifting, tenuous foundations of home, of war’s wounds and shrapnel that rests embedded in the psyches of one’s offspring, years after its conclusion. The more the earth beneath us shifts, the more we listen to such voices.

The recommended works below by writers from the Vietnamese diaspora encompass four major genres: the personal essay, short story, poetry, and play. They all share fragmentation, loss, and a longing for home as recurring themes.

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The apocalypse is here, may it be short-lived

Well, America, I thought you were just curious with those dystopian films and tv shows you loved to watch: zombie plagues, Nazis winning WWII, a post nuclear disaster earth. It wasn’t just curiosity, though. You really wanted to see it all blow up. And so here we are, observing our elected prime snake oil salesman ascending unimpeded to the presidency. These are the dark days of Joffrey Baratheon, let’s not kid ourselves. The man we’ve placed at the helm of the mightiest military industrial machine is megalomaniacal, thin skinned, with no actual, actionable policy to speak of, unless they be disastrous ones. He will react, and he will react horribly, to the smallest slight, to perceived challenges and criticism.

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