During a late night layover in Minneapolis a decade ago, I found myself in a McDonald’s. Manning the cash register was a chubby black woman, and the ordering customer was a black flight attendant who was young, thin and pretty, how all American air stewardesses used to look, before the ageism lawsuits. In Asia, they’re still uniformly pleasing to the eyes. Help wanted ads in Vietnam often specify whether they want men or women, and in what age range. In this totalitarian state, people can hire whomever they want.
Under the harsh McDonald’s lights, the black women chattered. “You must have been many places!”
“Have you been to Las Vegas?”
“Many times,” she smiled.
“Wow! How about Miami?”
“I’ve been there too.”
At the adjacent cash register was another black woman. Looking in admiration at the air stewardess, she chimed in, “Have you been to Hawaii?”
“Yes, I’ve been to Hawaii. And what about you?” she asked both of them. “Where have you visited?”
“Well, I’ve been to Milwaukee a couple of times, and Chicago once.”
“I’ve also been to Chicago,” the chubby one said. “Your life is so exciting! I want to go to Las Vegas!”
“You will,” the air stewardess unconvincingly answered, took her Big Mac and walked away. Toiling for minimum wage, the other two looked on.
I was reminded of this airport scene when I talked to an Ea Kly woman this week. In her early 30’s, Hien is an employee at our plastic recycling plant.
Hearing me talk, she asked me, “Are you from Thai Binh?” All Vietnamese immediately try to locate your origin from your accent. How close are you to me? they want to know.
“No, but my father is from Nam Dinh,” one province over.
“I’m from Thai Binh, but I’ve lost my roots.”
“You don’t go back?”
“I’ve been there just once. The bus ride made me sick. I will never go back.”
“Never. I will never go anywhere again.” The mother of three smiled.
A Vietnamese would identify with his ancestral province or village, even if he’s never been there. Saigon-born, I still declare myself a person from Nam Dinh or, even more specifically, Bui Chu, as did a Philadelphian I met two years ago on Kensington Avenue. We established a bond.
A settler nation founded by immigrants, with thousands more arriving each day, the United States is populated by people who have forsaken their roots. Not only that, they’re reluctant to establish new ones, or prevented from doing so, in their new nation. Thanks to constant demographic upheaval across the land, hardly any American neighborhood, much less city, can retain its social identity for more than a generation.
Whitman sang of the open road, Kerouac free jazzed across America and the road movie has become an iconic genre in this seemingly endless land of mesmerizing mirages. Swooning, swaggering and flexing, Americans barrel down their once-well-paved, multi-laned freedom way, towards the always beckoning, sunset-lit horizon, right into an oceanic, paradisal grave, as Chinese belch, fart and laugh.
My hamlet, Ea Kly, is actually the United States writ tiny, for it was virgin land just four decades ago, according to the Vietnamese, although the Rade were already here, and it’s now overrun with outsiders. At our recycling plant, we have an old man, Cuc, who was among the earliest Vietnamese settlers. Since Cuc only makes eight bucks a day, one might expect the dark, wiry man to dwell in a simple shack, but no, it’s a well-built, high-ceilinged and reasonably spacious house for two, with a bit of land around it. The flat roof is an ample courtyard with concrete railing, and there’s a side veranda, though held up by just one pitifully thin Greek column.
Inside, the furniture is of a heavy wood. Invited into his living room, I stared at a framed photo of some impressive looking man in a military uniform, “Wow, who is this guy?”
“That’s you?! I thought it was some big shot!”
Laughing, Cuc flashed his many brown teeth.
“So where did you serve?” I asked.
“Right here. We fought the FULRO. We got rid of them all!” He grinned. “I’m lucky they didn’t send me to Cambodia. If a hundred men went, two came back. They killed us every which way, poisoned our food. I’m lucky.”
“So did you get land here for your military service?”
“Everybody got land. There was nothing here. If you were willing to clear the land, the government would give you a plot. I got extra land, though, because I had an uncle who was a colonel.”
Injuns vanquished, Cuc stumbles towards the grave in a place boasting nothing more than a dozen forlorn eateries and a newly opened plastic recycling plant. Three times a day, he sneaks into his funky bathroom to down quick shots of rice wine, away from his wife’s frown.
Sick of this no-horse town, his three kids have moved far away, and only return during Tet. In Cuc’s living room, their wedding photos angle down, crowding a framed, yellowing proverb, “A father’s labor is mountain sized, a mother’s love an endless stream.”
Ten years ago, Cuc parceled off two lots from his land, sold them to newcomers, but now knows he has jumped the gun. “Timing is everything,” Cuc rues, “and each man has his fate.” Long past his days of cradling an AK-47, pop popping away, Cuc stoops a little as he hauls bag after bag of plastic garbage.
Three years younger than Cuc, I look ancient enough, at least to the young, pretty women at our recycling plant. The current Miss Vietnam hails from a village just 20 miles away, and I can certainly attest that this area teems with lookers. Surrounded by plastic trash, one asked, “How old are you, uncle?”
“But your eyesight is pretty bad, right?” They have all seen me squint at just about everything.
“My father is three years younger than you, but he’s in great shape. It’s because he worked in the field all his life.”
Thinking too much doesn’t just wear down the mind, but body, soul and wallet, especially if done in 1984 America.
It takes centuries for a place to accrue gravity and resonance, where every stone remembers and every brick speaks, so Ea Kly is still very much an improvised frontier, but as new as this Vietnamese hamlet is, and it doesn’t get any newer, Ea Kly already feels more grounded than any American neighborhood I lived in, whether in Tacoma, Salem, San Jose, Annandale or even South Philadelphia, where I spent nearly three decades. One can easily spend a decade or two in an American place and not know anything about its past characters and anecdotes, so the only shared history one has is made up mostly of tales of exploits by corporate sport stars and favorite scenes from TV shows. Born into alienation, many Americans have never experienced anything but, so they bristle at mere suggestions that life can possibly be less virtual.
Instead of living locked-in lives drip-fed mostly by distant, brainwashing media, people in Ea Kly are constantly intertwined, whether at home, work or play, so all day long they rub against each other, and stories flow from each. Just parachuted in, I’ve heard confessions from the high school principal, a teacher, a driver, a cafe owner who used to sell insecticides and fertilizers, a wine distiller, a couple with a drink stand and a tiny tailor shop, and a bumbling plumber who’s just as inept at raising cows, etc. Thanks to the last, I was suddenly invited to a beef feast yesterday, for a calf of his had slipped down an embankment and choked on its own rope.
Each day, about five of us usually have lunch and dinner at the back of the recycling plant. Sitting on the floor, we share pork, fish and vegetable dishes, though last night, it was rice gruel with boiled chicken. After eating, I’d try to quickly sneak away, so I can type out my frazzled thoughts, such as made up this article, while everyone else watch television. If it’s a foreign movie, then they’re treated to fabulous scenes of wealth and glamor, such as, last night, dashingly beautiful people gambling in a San Francisco casino. (Never mind the fact that there are no casinos in San Francisco.) Next, the flick shifted to equally stunning Tokyo, where a man’s suit costs a year’s wage in dusty Ea Kly.
People here don’t know that folks in these advanced, slicked up places are more addicted to screens, gadgets, thumping noises, porn, pills, binge drinking and dope, and are actually more prone to suicide, for given a chance, many in Ea Kly would jump at a chance to be a manicurist in East St. Louis, or an old farts’ diaper changer in Nagoya. How can a much higher income go wrong?
Reprinted with the author’s permission.