It’s been interesting to note people’s reactions when I tell them I am moving abroad indefinitely, namely Vietnam (yes, I finally decided to say to hell with it all and take off for parts unknown — to me, at any rate — as my heart has been yearning to do for four years now). It’s an interesting reflection of people’s personalities and their fear, knowledge (or lack thereof) and prejudices. Having moved around a lot in my two decades as a more-or-less adult, and having traveled a bit abroad, it hasn’t been surprising, what some people are harboring inside their heads when tell them I’ll be moving to Saigon/Ho Ch Minh City at the end of the year with no specific plans to return in the immediate future. But that’s not to say it is not still an interesting and sometimes amusing window into people’s thoughts.
When the subject of your departure comes up you expect inquiries into why you are moving and when, of course. You expect people that have traveled there or similar places to share their own experiences, discussing the merits/drawbacks to moving to such a place and living in such a culture. These are generally the responses you get. But sometimes the people you least expect are the ones that have excellent advice or otherwise worthwhile observations to make about your destination or its culture, having been there themselves, or having had friends that have visited there or are even from there. Still others surprise you with envy — people you might not expect are harboring dreams of far-away lands and exotic cultures.
Then there are those who offer the odd non-sequitur or reveal a typical bias, the kind that boggles the mind that it still exists in this day and age. Those are the ones that are the most amusing.
When I moved to Arizona, for example, it was warnings about scorpions and rattle snakes. I’m serious. Tell people you are moving to Arizona, and a small-but-not-statistically-insignificant amount of the time you will get a response like “You know they have rattle snakes/scorpions there, don’t you?” Not, “Northern Arizona is so beautiful!” or “I’ve been Phoenix; it’s great if you like golf, but geez is it hot.” As if rattle snakes and scorpions are hiding in every nook and cranny, when they’re not falling from the sky.
In 18 months living in rural Northern Arizona, I saw a grand total of two rattlesnakes and three scorpions. And this was because I was often traipsing about in the wilderness, trying to achieve a brief mental respite from Hell on Earth, otherwise known as Sedona. Granted, they have more scorpions and such in the southern part of the state, but I never heard of anyone getting bit by one and having a serious reaction. As for the snakes, they hauled ass the moment they got wind of me and my mountain bike.
Similarly, when I moved to California, the bogeyman was earthquakes. “Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?” people would ask incredulously, as if they happened constantly and the corresponding death toll climbed with each shaky day. I would – usually to no avail, of course — point out that the odds were much greater of dieing in my native Ohio in a blizzard/tornado/thunderstorm/flood than they are from dieing in an earthquake in Northern California, even if one factors in the proverbial Big One.
In five years in the Bay Area I experienced one piddly 3.2-magnitude earthquake. By the time I realized what was happening, it was over.
Californians are not without their biases too. When I left Northern California for the wilds of West Virginia, many people were incredulous, and not a few brought up Deliverance — probably because I was going there for the whitewater. I must have explained a thousand times that this movie was set and was filmed in Georgia, not WVa, thank you very much. I actually liked living in West ByGawd a lot, and not once the whole time did anyone spontaneously play the banjo or offer to make me squeal like a pig.
When I went to China in 2005 for a month, the bogeyman was sometimes, believe it or not, communism, which seemed rather quaint. Didn’t we leave the fear of the Red Menace behind several decades ago? For others it was China’s growing economic power, which was – and is – arguably a more rational fear to have, if one felt one must fear China for some reason. Of course, one legitimate concern was China’s record on human rights and its tendency to throw journalists that run afoul of the Party in jail. I was traveling across China on a business visa though (a smart tip that came my way lead to my getting a business visa, rather than a journalist visa, which is easier to obtain), and semiconductor technology (which was what I was there to write about) was hardly the stuff of international controversy – not in the way that human rights are (and justifiably so).
Of course, for some China didn’t bring forth reflections on politics, human rights, or economics but food — I experienced this reaction most often upon my return, when I would tell people where I had been, and it still crops up to this day when it comes up in conversation. “Did you eat dog while you were over there?” Or better yet, the inquiry would be about monkey brains. Of course in some parts of China eating dog is not uncommon; monkey brains, on the other hand, is pretty much a myth (but it must be true, because they read it on the Internet). And yes, I did try dog while in northern China; I didn’t want anyone (including me) to lose face, particularly when I was determined to experience every aspect of Chinese culture that I could while I was there, and had said as much to my hosts in Shenyang. And while I understand why people here in the West fixate on that, it gets a little old when, of all the amazing experiences to discuss about month spent traipsing across China, that’s the one thing people always want to discuss, without fail, once it comes up.
Sometimes, when I sense it coming — “Did you eat a lot of exotic foods over there?” — I bring it up myself, just to get it over with; I know that’s what they want to ask.
So now it’s onto Vietnam. Reactions are a little different this time around, because I’m not just going there for business or vacation, but to live and pursue a career change. Some people are incredulous that anyone would leave everything they know and move some place where they don’t know anyone and have never even been there. Some people just can’t grasp why anyone would want to do this. I suppose that’s a reasonable reaction, although it’s not a concern I share, obviously. It has made me ponder at length why I’m driven to live in and experience foreign cultures – why living abroad has such appeal and has been in my thoughts since I came back from China four years ago (almost to the day) — not to mention the whole potential career change. But I’ll save that for another post and another day.
There are the usual concerns and biases people have here about Asians in general and Vietnam and the Vietnamese in particular; the subject of eating dog comes up, of course. That’s a big one, naturally. I like to point out that for most Vietnamese it’s considered a delicacy, from what I gather; not every-day food. If you’re interested, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Vietnamese cuisine. In any event, one thing I miss about the West Coast is Vietnamese restaurants; In the years since I’ve left NorCal I’ve often yearned for phở (see the photo at the beginning of this post). There’s another Vietnamese soup that I miss too, bún bò huế — I gladly fell off the vegetarian wagon for this stuff. If Vietnamese food in Vietnam proves as good as Chinese food in China does — ah, Chengdu (see the top of the map), my taste buds miss you still — I won’t have any problems finding good things to eat.
One casual acquaintance even made an outright racist remark when the subject of Vietnam came out while I was out with friends this past weekend. This one caught me off guard — maybe because I was the only sober one in the group – but it came from someone from whom I wouldn’t expect it. It wasn’t some hateful remark; rather it was more akin to some casual remark said in jest that many might not even consider racist; it was more along the subtle lines of Bob Griese’s “he’s out having a taco” remark. It might even well have been some pop-culture reference I totally missed (I’m hopelessly square); perhaps I should have asked. But I was so nonplussed, I didn’t know what to say (a rarity for me). Maybe in my travels domestic and abroad I’ve just become more sensitive to these things.
The Camo-Fatigue-Wearing Elephant in the Room
One topic that surprisingly hasn’t come up yet is the American War — that’s the Vietnamese name for what we American’s call the Vietnam War. But then I suppose most of my friends are my age or younger, and for those of us old enough to remember it at all, the Vietnam War was just a series of images on television with Walter Cronkite’s voice in the background – stuff I didn’t really understand as kid. When you’re six years old, it’s a lot to wrap your brain around and suss out: why the Commies were on our side in WW II but were the bad guys in the Korean War (M*A*S*H was big on TV then) and were the bad guys in this war; the Domino Theory; why the Vietnamese couldn’t just work it for themselves what kind of government they wanted (and for that matter, the Koreans, too, so all the doctors could go home). If they wanted to shoot at each other, that’s bad, but shouldn’t we just let ’em? Didn’t we fight our own Civil War to settle these kind of questions?
I remember getting really confused on this last part, as a child. After all, Vietnam used to be a French colony — but they booted the French out – just like we, the Americans, booted out the English. So, doesn’t that kinda make them good guys? I thought we didn’t like the colonial powers, after all (so why did we save them in WW II?) Okay, they’re communists, and commies are bad – Russians, nukes, Stalin, I grokked that (even a six year old can grasp Armageddon and blowing up the world) — but if a bunch of ’em want to be Communist, and they’re willing to fight a war among themselves and with us to be communist, after they all fought together to kick out the French … again, isn’t that kind of like how we fought the English back in the Revolutionary War? Because we wanted to have self rule? Because we didn’t think the English were giving us a fair shake, and we wanted to be our own country with our own, self-determined government? And wouldn’t we have gotten mad if someone came along and wanted to help in our Civil War?
And the Vietnamese don’t have nukes, right? Okay, but why does it matter if Russia gives them nukes? You already told me the Russians and the U.S. have enough nukes to blow up the world, so why does it matter to us if the Vietnamese want to be commies?
Well, that’s how my six-year-old self saw it back then (I was a bit of a precocious brat, as opposed to now of course). It didn’t make much sense at the time. Furthermore, the more I learned about the war as I got older, the more strange it got. For example, we supported the Viet Minh during World War II against the Japanese (which occupied Vietnam briefly); the Viet Minh being the alliance of Vietnamese nationalists including communists, and a direct precursor of the Viet Cong. Not that I was all that worried about it back then, to be honest; Star Trek reruns (this is pre-Star Wars, which came out in 1977, mind you) and the 6 Million Dollar Man were of much more concern. The only bad guys I was truly worried about then lived across the creek in the woods behind my neighborhood. The Kids Across the Creek — with whom my friends and I would engage in epic mud-ball battles — presented a grave threat that had to be contained. If they succeeded in taking our side of the creek, who knows; all of Rosetree Lane might have been next to fall.
Given what’s happened in the intervening years — the fall of the Soviet Union and China and Vietnam’s embrace of the free market and participation in the World Trade Organization — not to mention the fact that I can go there and live and people will pay for me to teach them English – I’m not sure it makes any sense now. The dominoes didn’t fall, after all.
But the Kids Across the Creek — who used to up the arms race by putting rocks in their mud balls — they are still bastards. No amount of time will soften my resolve against these mortal foes of my childhood. I’ll rush to the defense of Rosetree Lane at a moment’s notice from whatever far-flung corner of the world I happen to be in. Of course the woods are pretty much gone now, and all those kids are probably like the rest of my middle-aged brethren — worried about mortgages, dead-end jobs, and their own kids.
Fortunately I never got mature enough to get involved in all that sort of silliness; I wouldn’t be setting out for Southeast Asia, would I? But I digress.
It’s really tough to imagine what Vietnamese people my age experienced — many risked life and limb to flee Vietnam and make their way to America. I remember a Vietnamese refugee kid that was in my second grade class for a brief time: he spoke almost no English and when we would all draw with Crayons during class, his pictures were always of planes dropping bombs. Of course we kids all thought those pictures were pretty cool, but then gravel embedded in mud balls was the worst we were likely to face. I’m grateful that growing up my worst battle-related fears were of those mud balls, as opposed to bombs falling from the sky. Sure, there was the threat of nuclear war, but that was more of an abstraction; this kid and many others like him dealt with the reality and horror of conventional war. Funny, I haven’t thought about that kid in years until just now, but it was his appearance in class that made me try and understand a little bit more about what Cronkite was going on about whenever Dad watched the news.
I suppose it’s a sign of the times — a good one — that friends and acquaintances are more concerned that I might have to eat dog or learn to speak a funny-sounding (to us) tonal language when I move to Vietnam, rather than with the fact that I’m moving to a country and a people we were engaged in a bloody, brutal war with, not so long ago – a country that many were forced to flee out of necessity. Of course, I’m sure if I were moving to Afghanistan or Iraq to learn to teach English, it would be a different story. I have no plans to travel or move to either of these places any time soon – but come to think of it, one of my favorite restaurants in San Jose was Afghani House; that was some yummy food. I can only hope that I’ll live long enough to see the day when an American will be able to move to Kabul and eat palao and kebabs in their native setting.
In the meantime, I hope that I can do my part to educate my fellow Americans as to the fact that there is more to Vietnam than Commies, Apocalypse Now and canine main courses. Maybe I’ll even influence a few to step outside their comfort zone — and the borders of North American — and travel abroad.
“It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met — travel is the enemy of bigotry.” — Francis O’Donnell
P.S. Credit where credit is due. I snagged the phở photo (heh) at the beginning of this post from Wikipedia, which in turn snagged it under a creative commons license from one Andrew Dinh. Check him out on ye olde Flickr; it’s good stuff.