Being American in Vietnam

In retrospect, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is so eerily prophetic that it would be forgivable to read it and believe it was a post-Vietnam War indictment of American involvement. Lambasted when it came out as “un-American,” the novel slams America’s imperialist urgency to alter a political course that it did not understand, and did not understand in an abysmally arrogant way.

This quiet American—Pyle—is hardly just a fictional archetype. As Graham’s protagonist describes him, “He has no more a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said, ‘Go Ahead, Win the East for democracy.’ He never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him.” Part of the description is still apt, just not for an American embedded in and trying to alter Vietnam’s future in 1954, but for an American visiting today, in 2017. I had no notion of how I’d be received. My primary education taught the War as if the bomb craters were never filled in, the cities still recovering, Vietnam’s people with all the right to be begrudged against me. These lessons, the American silence as to what I’d experience, made a fool of me.

SOME IN-GENERAL, NON-EXHAUSTIVE CONTEXT ABOUT AMERICANS ABROAD AND THE VIETNAM WAR’S LEGACY IN AMERICA

As an American, I am very aware of what turns out to be my accidental place in history. Where I go, countrymen my senior went decades before but with different purpose. My acquaintance with boys of certain cultures is much, much different: how many times have I shared beers with German boys and thought seventy-three years would convert this hostel table to a Belgian forest and this Tui to a Thompson.

I’m not convinced the above awareness is common. An American person abroad is about as parody prone as a caricature can get. You might have the image of one in your mind. I won’t make a picture of the generality, but know I see this American everywhere: in Melbourne it was a bombastic Texan who said Australian beef is incomparable with Texas sirloin; an Ohio couple in Venice complaining about the pasta being a bit too hard; at JFK an American frat bro in the direct-to-Berlin line and wearing a tank-top with an American flag graphic and the text “Back-to-Back World War Champs.”

You’d think travel would reduce our bluster. It strikes me as doing the opposite. Seeing the dynastic successes of our cultural exports affirms our worth. Coca-Cola, McDonalds, KFC, the great waist busting conglomerates, Ford, GM, Kanye West, Lynyrd Skynyrd. The names are our finger prints and so ubiquitous in some countries as to be domesticated (e.g. I overheard European backpackers who wore Levi Strauss and were listening to Janis Joplin discuss how lacking America’s culture is; and, e.g., the chicness of Americana in Australia at the moment: Mickey Mantle and Muhammed Ali framed on burger joint walls, PBR tall boys served by the bucket, the Los Angeles Dodger cap as a necessary fashion accessory).

Other cultures don’t particularly understand the pride or its source. Kiwis were genuinely curious about the origins. (Understand, first, that if humility had a symbol, it’d be stitched into every Kiwi family crest. Tell a Kiwi, “I think your country is the most beautiful place in the world,” and they might respond, “Sweet as, I’ll have to check it out one day.”) To explain, I had this story that’s quite apocryphal yet is the plausible and perfect embodiment of all the America-centric news, fiction, and financial matters we consume daily. “In school,” I said, “When your teacher pulled down the world map, where was New Zealand?”

“Lower quadrant.”

“America’s was smack dab in the middle. Enlarged.”¹

Vietnam was the first place I’ve visited where this pride doesn’t make it past customs. Before I departed Sydney for Saigon, someone suggested I pass myself of as Canadian. Ridiculous, I thought, but, prudent? I visited two thrift shops, asking at each one for their hockey apparel section or Tim Horton merchandise. Perhaps this thinking is common. We come in subdued, tail between legs, like last night we crashed the party, puked in the kitchen sink, then passed out in the kitty litter and ran off at dawn before the sober judgment of the host could wake and reign over us. The same uncertainty—shame—doesn’t exist for our other 20th century adversaries. Germany and Japan especially: We know they bend towards friendly. Iraq we stay out of. Mogadishu won’t make it onto Lonely Planet’s “Cities Millennials Love” list any time soon.

Our uncertainty towards visiting Vietnam is partly political. Not until 1995 did relations normalize. Twenty-two years is a blink, especially considering the second part of our uncertainty: America has done a poor job grappling with the war’s legacy: Americans hardly know the Vietnamese experience in America let alone Vietnam. This is (one reason) why the book The Sympathizer made such a splash and won the 2016 Pulitzer. The NYT’s review (penned, importantly enough, by Philip Caputo, a Vietnam Vet famous in his own right for a riveting—and brutal—account, A Rumor of War) had this to say: “…we, citizens of a superpower, have viewed the Vietnam War as a solely American drama in which the febrile land of tigers and elephants was a mere backdrop and the Vietnamese mere extras…In films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” the Vietnamese (often other Asians portraying Vietnamese) are never more than walk-ons whose principal roles seem to be to die or wail in the ashes of incinerated villages.”²

What type of reception I could expect to receive once in Vietnam I pieced together, mostly through word of mouth or Google research. Quora and Yahoo Answers type Q&As or columns from small town newspapers in states like Minnesota. The take-aways were banal: war scars are there if you look; people are friendly despite what happened; as an American I know my country did bad things, but it was unpopular at home too; it didn’t feel like there were grudges. And so on.

Each observation is true. Yet, like all platitudes, they are too abstract to translate into something useful. Had I known nothing except there was a war, I could have guessed each on my own. So I want to get concrete…

An internet comment will say: the scars of war are everywhere. I think of Dong Hoi. Before entering a town, I researched Vietnam Era pictures of it. Dong Hoi stands out. There is a temple by a river. A wall and tower are what’s left of it. Marks from shrapnel are cursive on the facade. A pleasant boardwalk is beyond, lamps illuminate walkers with tangerine light. Drowsy and dark hotel windows overlook boats moored in the water. Near to this spot a plaza is filled with children on bicycles. Dong Hoi is a few clicks north of the DMZ and during the war had a strong North Vietnamese Army presence. Our air force targeted Dong Hoi with concentrated and heavy bombing. In one aerial photo, bomb craters are all you’ll see, picture end to picture end. No particular deviation to how they’re scattered. Craters eclipse craters, ground is denuded of all vegetation. It’s all just obliterated earth. But, now, the town is quiet. There is that church, it’s fenced off. Parents and grandparents of those children are between thirty and sixty. During the war they were kids. Dong Hoi’s history is a photo to me. Those bomb craters were sounds and tremors to them.

A variation of this experience is true in every town, every city. Hanoi has a statue celebrating the capture of (now) Senator John McCain. Plaques commemorate small, violent acts. In Hoi An: “At this river, nationalist fighters killed a platoon of Americans.” Museums are not “museums.” They are exhibits of war crimes, examples of American atrocities. The pecuniary outlay and commitment the government has demonstrated to preserving the war and its memories suggests the victory is not just central to the country’s identity but is the country’s identity. No other country I’ve been to has so geographically and minutely spread out the shrines of its remembrances of a single era.³ It made me wonder: Am I welcome here?

SOME PERSONAL CONTEXT

The Vietnam War was never much in my home. At least not talked about. Kind of in the way a deceased child’s presence is more an aura rather than subject open for conversation. When information comes out, it does so haphazardly, not in sharp focus, with barely enough background for a child to arrange the jigsaw of personal histories to find out what in the actual fuck happened with your parents during the era. Pretty much all I got from my mom was that “Dad fought the Draft.” What fighting the draft means, from a legal POV, I haven’t the faintest idea.

Dad, for his part, didn’t talk about it. The whole episode is one of those Nixon-type tape scrubs on a personal history where some bad shit went down and the person just wants it erased from their legacy. But what I’ve pieced together is this: Dad was a Ph.D. student, Chicano, poor as a Dickens character but working through it, his draft number came up, and he was watching a 60 Minutes episode one evening in his attic flat in Boston and on came a nice looking white couple—attorneys—who ran a firm out of a strip-mall in the Greater Los Angeles area and were there, on a national television broadcast, bragging about how they get rich kids out of the draft. So Dad gets whatever greenbacks he can together, flies to Los Angeles, marches into this office and says, hi, I saw you on 60 Minutes, can you get me the hell out of this draft. This kind old lady, white, probably held on retainer by every American senator and congressman and corporate mogul who has a son of draft age or is coming of draft age, says, come to the back room. Back Dad goes, sits at this table with these weighty, big bound legal tomes in bookshelves around him, and the lady, very sweetly, asks, “Have you ever read the Draft statute?” Dad hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about. Lady pulls a Federal Register off the shelf, opens it up—maybe she’s got the thing dog eared or just knows the page like some blind kung-fu master knows the exact whereabouts of a fly to be caught with chopsticks—points to a paragraph and says, “That’s the Draft statute.” Then, using her fingers, she holds a big stack of pages, pretty much a quarter of the remaining Register, a few hundred pages, and says, “And these are the exceptions. What we need to do is find yours.”

I’m an attorney and I still don’t know how this case was adjudicated. Apparently Dad and one of his friends did this together—separate cases on similar timelines going through the system. Mom says Dad was so disgusted when the process ended that he tossed out the transcripts. Robert McNamara in our household was only referred to in the pejorative, from “that asshole” to “the man who tried to get me killed.” (His book In Retrospect and later appearance in The Fog of War were considered the mea culpa mumblings of a morally bankrupt human being.)

Long story short, he did not go.

Friends went. Later business associates went. Their service was treated like something suffered through. The description of their roles shared like one might a bad diagnoses. Once told, I never brought it up in their presence. Instructed not to.

Maybe what happened to my cousin qualifies as the Vietnam War making it “into” the house. During the War he was five or so and regularly watched those nightly news reports that nowadays we consume while segregating peas from our mashed potatoes but back then was very much a new sort of format: Stories like GIs too young to purchase beer igniting palm-hatch huts and A-1 Skyraiders and F4 Phantoms dropping canisters of napalm that somersault into bosky villages and then the entire screen like mushrooms with neon flames that turn black and totally envelop the lens of the trailing aircraft that is shooting (cinematically) the whole thing. Anyways, story goes, cousin is watching these Vietnamese kids who are roughly his age, bloodied up and crying, tugging at the dead bodies of their parents left on a road with tributaries of blood coming out of them. My cousin bursts into tears. Like he falls on the ground and commences one of those tantrums we better associate happening on a toy store floor, kicking and screaming on the carpet, pretty much hysterical, except what he is yelling is, “I don’t want to die in Vietnam.”

Point being, the Vietnam War did not result in direct, personal tragedy to immediate family.

Nor did we ever regard anything that happened in Vietnam as heroic. Of the Vietnam War films that came into our house from Blockbuster—and there were many—Platoon was the first and We Were Soldiers was the last. Anti-war ones came between: Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now. (The Green Beret, John Wayne’s pro-war propaganda piece, released during the Tet Offensive, did touch our VCR.) Yet, even if all one consumes is America’s anti-Vietnam War cinematic oeuvre, the thinking person that comes out the other end is still America oriented. While the point of many films was that we hadn’t a popsicle’s in hell right to be in Vietnam, they didn’t drop the point that fighting Charlie bonded the resolve of the American soldier. Our menace was a dual one: Washington politics, Vietnamese guerilla. “Hate the War, Love the Soldier,” is the post-Vietnam American indoctrination, but for a kid it’s difficult to separate the two. This isn’t a you can still root for Jeter even though he’s playing your home team. Love the soldier—a kid does—and so loathes the man trying to kill him. (One movie snapped me towards a fathomable, alternate truth—Good Morning Vietnam—and alone, I think, in having a North Vietnamese operative worthy of audience adoration. At movie end, this character has the screen to himself, crying face is all that is visible, background is blurred. He’s squared off to Robin Williams, the American protagonist, but really, with how the shot is framed, the kid is talking to you, the American viewer, when he cries, “We not the enemy. You the enemy.”)

Also, my dad made sure he imparted the individual, human cost of the war. I remember, on a cold and rainy afternoon in D.C., visiting the Vietnam Memorial. He worked his way through one of the name indices that flank the wall, then he led me to a specific panel and pointed to a name. Remember it, he said. LCP Art Henderson. Upon returning home, my dad rummaged around a drawer in my room where I kept trophies, baseball cards, trinkets of a boyish nature. He pulled a brown baseball. “Home Run off Art Henderson,” it had written on it. During a helicopter mission, LCP Henderson’s helicopter received enemy fire. The hydraulic system was knocked out, and the helicopter crashed west of Da Nang, killing every man on board. LCP Henderson was 21.

IN VIETNAM

The War as tourist attraction introduces itself almost as soon as you arrive in Vietnam. Saigon hostels and hotels, on their bulletin lists of suggested activities, highlight the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi tunnels. The former is considered a “can’t miss site” and the latter is a strange, living history exhibition that’s like a state run Disneyland military village.

The name of Saigon’s War Remnants Museum is a political kindness to the United States. In 1975 it opened as Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes. 1990 saw the next variation: Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. Once diplomatic relations resumed in 1995, the name changed to what it is today. If someone told me that the exhibits didn’t change with the name, I wouldn’t be surprised.

As far as museum buildings go, this one looks bureaucratic. A giant concrete box, impersonal, gray, a building you see and know you’ll be stuck in for hours getting things stamped. (True to form, the US Information Agency headquartered here during the War.) There are four floors. All of them have linoleum. Interior paint is basic beige. Air-conditioning is in a few rooms, most others have floor fans that nod back and forth. As for the exhibits (still talking about looks), it’s bare bones stuff: war memorabilia behind viewing plastic, photo reprints, maps, infographics. For a military buff concerned with impersonal tactics, this museum would be a let down. For someone raised on New York Natural History Museum displays, or exhibits in places like Gettysburg or Gallipoli this museum doesn’t compare. No industrial light and magic shows, no movie auditorium with a documentary that has CGI explosions and voice overs. The museum is without gimmicks. There is stuff and then descriptions of that stuff.

Once you buy a paper ticket from a booth outside, you go through a gate into a concrete courtyard. War remnants this place has, but the name doesn’t reflect the feeling. Trophy space is more like it. Amongst many other pieces of war machinery there are: a Huey, a Northrop Freedom Fighter, two Patton Tanks, an A-1 ground attack fighter, etc. Nothing is not American. The materiel is pristine quality too. The tanks gleam. The Huey looks like it lacks only a pilot for take off.

North Vietnamese materiel is conspicuously absent from the courtyard.

Inside, exhibits don’t pretend towards impartiality. Strong adjectives are the standard (e.g. Brutal American regime, Atrocious American war crimes, et al.) One exhibit—the war as seen by international photographers—is an exception. It doesn’t discriminate as to side or role. Citizen stories are as common as soldiers’. Americans in the midst of combat are well represented. Small description placards next to these photos give name and rank, so clearly there’s been a level of cooperation. Yet, on the whole, the bend is anti-American. That’s to be expected, so no complaints from yours truly. And Vietnamese stories branch into three themes: Vietnamese person as victor, Vietnamese person as martyr, Vietnamese person as victim.

A common display type is an infographic poster that lists statistics: bombs dropped, money spent, troops deployed, munitions supplied, etc. To be clear, the statistics are of American bombs dropped, American money spent, American troops deployed, American supplied munitions. I found no North Vietnamese equivalents. The statistics are not presented in a vacuum, either. The museum handily provides comparison charts of American investment in other 20th century wars. On the face, the infographics give insight into just how much America tried to flatten Vietnam—three times more bombs on this sliver of a country than in all of Europe during World War 2. Yet there is a message here, it’s so subtle that it’s missable unless every museum component is considered at once. The message conveyed is: “We beat this.” It’s not just remnants in the museum. Not only a box of remembrance. It’s pride.

If you’re American, I leave it up to you and your upbringing to make of this what you will. Possible feelings are: embarrassment, awe, resignation, apathy, a questioning of the wisdom of our military-as-%-of-GDP. For my part I wondered how. That our military and political minds missed defeat as a possible end result considering our expenditures seems like egregious incompetence. Mismanagement and miscalculation at an institutional, criminally reckless level. It is as if Washington’s best and brightest ignored a member of a top-secret project who predicted that this exact thing would happen.

At this point, I do not feel that any particular animosity is directed towards me. Nothing suggests that my Americanness offends. But, American defeats and deaths are glorified. Because of that aforementioned American-centered upbringing, this is jarring. Empathizing with the soldier whose name and home town are familiar is simple. That he was killed by a soldier whose name is unpronounceable to you makes the sides lose their equivalency. Yet, the effect is not that I’m put on the defensive. My reaction is to want to shake the American administrations of 1955-1975 and ask, “What was wrong with you?”

Cu Chi altered this.

The Cu Chi tunnels are forty kilometers from Saigon. A tour is essential, if only for the transportation. Our guide’s mannerisms were eerily similar to those of Barack Obama. I learned that mimicry is common when learning English here, so Barack had been his linguistic role model. I couldn’t tell whether the guide simply hated everyone in our group or said words too vociferously.

Historically, Viet Cong used a village here as a supply point and base for offensive incursions. Its nearness to Saigon made Viet Cong eradication a matter of strategic importance. First, we bombed it. The craters from this relentless campaign still mar the forest floor. Villagers went underground for protection. About 250 kilometers of subterranean tunnels were dug. People lived in them for weeks. Battle planning, wedding, births, surgeries, all took place in chambers meters below the red clay. Come the mid 60s, American and Australian forces tried to extricate the Vietnamese from their tunnels using flooding, smoking, fires, grenades, tear gas. Australian engineers mapped the extent of the tunnels, and corps level minds concluded that sappers hopping in with pistols was the best bet.

Hopping in, from a soldier’s perspective, was as close to Hell on Earth as a man could get. I’m 6’ 1” and even fitting into an entrance was difficult. Crabbing through fifty meters of tunnel was a claustrophobic labor. Sides get so narrow, ceiling so low that you fetal position to fit. Holding a flashlight and pistol would have been out of the question. Vietnamese, who are much, much smaller, wiry in form and flexible to the point where I wonder if they are made entirely of cartilage, make getting through the tunnels seem as easy as driving. And, aside from the tedious mechanics of moving, sappers dealt with booby traps. I’ll get to these soon.

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For all the grim history, the air at the village is festive. It comes across as more “Let’s send our kids away to military camp” than a place where people fought and died. There is a hut dedicated to showing tourists how rice paper is made. A hut that shows the process used to make sandals from rubber tires. There’s a still. The experience is half martial, half arts and crafts. Having the two mixed together keeps with the history though because, as stated earlier, people lived here. The war was in (or, rather, above) their living rooms. What was not there was a commercial shooting range, which is there now. For a few dollars, you can check-out (as in like a library book) an AK-47, M-16, M-1, put in a clip, and go to town on targets one hundred yards away. Jungle is not nearly as possessive of the land here as it is elsewhere, but the ammo blasts are jarring from anywhere in the park. They always sound to be coming from right there. You half expect to see leaves breaking, wood splintering, bullets slamming around you.

The park has a ticket booth and turnstiles. Once inside the park, tour groups divide into one of the many long huts near the entrance. At the front of ours is a small TV. Real small, like a 24 inch Zenith made in 1982. Two gigantic speakers are on either side. Bass and treble likely went out with the Reagan administration. Volume is at peak, broadcasting to rows of chairs about thirty deep, perhaps twelve across. A quarter are filled, and all in the first few rows. Sitting in the back would necessitate using binoculars. Being near the speakers just accosts your ears.

A film plays on a constant loop, and it possess all the hallmarks of propaganda: rousing music, patriotic poses, scene dissolves into waving battle flags, beautiful Vietnamese women setting up machine guns behind ramparts and firing on GIs. Very Riefenstahl. The narration goes on and on about the glory of the cause, the American menace, the triumph of Vietnam, the country that will outlast and thrive and, again, you have to be sitting in the first few rows to even see what is going on, and I doubt that even a Vietnamese speaker could understand every word slung through the mucked and garbled audio. Whether, at this point, a Vietnamese person would privately lament that their domino fell is something I considered momentarily.

After the tunnels, Cu Chi’s real memorable event is seeing Viet Cong war-faring methods in situ. If you will ever emphasize with the American soldier, it will be here. Take a look at a Viet Cong booby trap and you’ll be ready to mosey right out of the country in case any were left during the clean up process. Viet Cong shoved bamboo pit vipers and many-banded kraits into tunnel crevices for sappers. Soldiers called the latter two-step Charlies since they claimed that’s how many steps you had left after being bit. One odious contraption was a punji stick hole. Sharpened bamboo stakes anchored at the bottom of a pit then rubbed with urine, feces, or some microbial agent. The purpose was to increase chances of fatal infection. These were utilized throughout Vietnam. Our host said, with a bit too much sadistic pleasure for my taste, that the intent was slow death. Often the impaled soldier waited for hours with a stake pierced through his scrotum or anus. Most stakes went through calves or thighs, and the Viet Cong waited for the Army medivac to arrive for the wounded man before pouncing on the entire patrol.

It is worth noting here—since the park did not—that the Geneva Convention has banned the use of punji sticks in warfare. This oversight is typical since, on the whole, North Vietnamese atrocities are whitewashed or not mentioned while those committed by America or by the “American puppet south Vietnamese government” are granted graphic and gratuitous depictions. What minimizes the revulsion of Vietnam’s atrocities is that the brutish and overwhelming nature of American firepower is still evident even without government spotlighting. But, what I’m saying is that seeing the methods of war implemented against the American soldier makes you understand the internal justifications made at the individual, divisional, and army level that influenced American actions.

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And yet, guilt is an omnipresent feeling. There are a few triggers, but the one I want to focus on is Agent Orange.

My knowledge of the herbicide was limited. In high school we watched a documentary about it, and in law school I went down the Wikipedia rabbit hole while researching a professor who was general counsel of Monsanto. The very wrong impression I got was America used the chemical extensively, but its health effects were limited to certain geographic pockets.

The War Remnants Museum has an Agent Orange exhibit. No sign warns of disturbing images. American museums would have one, but that Vietnamese ones do not is an intentional message, I think: “What you see is not limited to museums.” The exhibit has pictures and formaldehyde preservations of the most pernicious cases: balloon eyed children, hands spurred out of elbow sockets, feet the size of ottomans, babies without faces, babies with spines exposed, bodies so contorted they look to be the product of metal annealed too quickly instead of birthed. Otherwise, go outside. Get on a train. Amble a street. Victims are there: a woman with seven fingers to a hand shows her train ticket to a conductor; a boy with feet like flippers assists his mother making food; a young girl with a concave head drags her torso across pavement.

Compensation for victims is paltry and slow coming. Lawsuits against America and the chemical companies are nonjusticiable, barred by sovereign immunity, and there appears to be an excessive dependence on tourist wallets. Tour buses on their way to major attractions make mandated stops at artist colonies. Ours to Cu Chi did. We were motioned through a narrow workshop. A man without arms painted using his toes. A woman with teeth that exuded from out her jaw prepared laminate. To exit we had to pass through a gift shop that displayed completed art pieces. A sign at the register noted that all major credit are accepted and that international shipping is available.

There is a distinction in Vietnam that should be realized about every country: the message of its government and the heart of its people. Not often are the two aligned, and in the case of Vietnam the two feel far apart. On streets, in businesses, in cars, waiting for rain to pass, I was on the receiving end of nothing but kindness. My height and skin color incited conversation, my country of origin the most well meaning questions. People wanted me there and asked why more Americans did not visit.

Why may be the War. Why may, too, be because other countries more ably lure Americans. Thailand (I hear) has opalescent beaches that Vietnam cannot compete with. China and Japan have urban and modern appeals. Mexico is closer. Europe is romantically picturesque. Vietnam remains at the periphery.

Also, the travel blogosphere has complained about Vietnam. Popular posts include claims of being hassled, overcharged, ripped off, or treated badly. I experienced the same twice. Granted, I have come into my own country and been accused of drug use, have had my car searched, and been told by a border patrol agent, “I can do whatever I want.” So Vietnam doesn’t have a total monopoly on this. Some market vendors will grab and pull you into their stalls. Vendors everywhere can be curt and dismissive during negotiations. But even as I walked away we bartered. Their attention was purposefully diverted. This is a ploy. But for a Western person, someone accustomed to retail companies fetishizing the perfect customer experience, the ploy is disarming and rude. Economic exchange is impersonal and capitalistic in the most raw sense, yet no one is impugning your sense of worth as a human.

Going to Vietnam is not a relaxing experience. I’ve tried to capture this sentiment here and in earlier essays: Vietnam will split your affection. Within minutes of arriving your shirt will be as wet as a sea cucumber. At times you think there is no purpose for clothing so hot is the sun. You will not be able to sleep for days. Trying to keep cool is Sisyphean. Cities smell horribly. There’s so much trash in waterways and streets that you will conclude Vietnamese people must disdain their own surroundings. Yet you will love Vietnam. You might go for a bike ride one evening and stop along a river. Cool air will flute from the water, the sky will turn purple, and pink will waggle from the horizon. Men will be out in a field, mud up to their ankles, flinging seeds. You can hear them breathing. You will hear the suck of mud and the cloven clump of water buffalo. The sun will pass and no one will pay it a moment of consideration. You will leave the country and then want to return because there’s no understanding life until you see how it’s lived without the inhibition of rules.

Cover_Being American in Vietnam

♦♦♦

¹ Two things: (1) This is not true of the Random McNally one my elementary school used; (2) these types of maps do exist, but not out of any imperialist urge. In Australia, for example, some pull down maps are Australasia focused. It says so in the legend, what geographical region is emphasized. This seems to me—the idea that you should be focused on you and your neighbors—more pragmatic/realist than imperialist.

² The irony of noting American ignorance of the Vietnamese experience in America and then spending 5,000 words detailing my modern American experience in Vietnam is not lost on me.

³ The American South and the Confederacy is a noteworthy exception.

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