Monday, May 7, 2007

souvenirs from the province of Vietnam

I teach English in Taiwan. A month ago, I was assigned by my boss to teach Eric, a 14 year old son of rich parents. Eric will be going to the U.S. soon, to a private boarding school called the Athenian School, where he will become American enough to go to college there and qualify as a member of the new global elite. Right now Eric only cares about the NBA finals and hanging out with his friends. But his mother knows what must be done to ensure his future success. “I hope you can choose a topic for each class, so Eric can prepare it,” she said to me, in English, the first time we met. I nodded. Eric sat at her side wearing an Orlando Magic basketball jersey.
Something in me sneered: at the obsessive planning involved in getting and keeping status, at the power of this mother to dictate the life of her nearly-grown son, at the self-effacement implied in reaching out for mastery in a hegemonic language and culture. It is easy for me to sneer: I am a born member of the global nobility. I need not concern myself with the heroic efforts and capital required by others to lift their status. The sneer is half pointed at myself. I have come to Taiwan to earn a wage from my status as a born member – to trade my identity for 18 dollars an hour spent in training others how to hold polite conversation in this noble speech.
I biked to the apartment building where Eric lives and told the security guard who I was. He gave me a number to call and Eric came down to escort me in. We sat in the family multimedia room for class: a big TV came down from the ceiling, hanging over one end of the business-like table. I had photocopied a story on David Beckham, the British football idol. Eric preferred the NBA, but the June edition of Studio Classroom magazine had nothing on it. I soon took a liking to Eric. He had a boyish eagerness to talk about Shaqille O’Neal and Karl Malone, to tell me who he liked and who he disliked. It was easy to converse with Eric. He would say, “Do you know Jerry Stackhouse?” and I would nod vaguely, knowing nothing whatsoever; his face was already full of excitement. “Stackhouse is very bad!” he would say, “The first year at Boston he think he is so good, better than Hamilton, but his shooting was so bad, very very bad, so Wilson didn’t want him!”
“You think Hamilton is better?” I would parry, “Are you sure? Isn’t he faster?”
The second class there, there was a soft knock at the door just as my sweat from the ride over was drying off. The door opened, and a young woman with bangs straight across her forehead stood there, handing a plate of delicately reddish lychees and a glass of water to Eric. I had seen her in the kitchen, and Eric had told me she was Vietnamese. She had nodded mutely seeing me pass, a soft smile with the nod. As a guest I suppose I was a temporary master. As she was about to back away and close the door I asked her, in Chinese, pointing at the plate, “How do you say this in Vietnamese?”
She looked at a loss. I asked again. She had to think, reaching back into her native tongue, into the closed closet of her past, and rummage around. She had only been in Taiwan a month, but it was a long time already. Then she had it, with an air of triumph, pronouncing the word: Yiayi.
“What?” I asked, caught off-guard by the odd sound.
“Yiayi,” she said emphatically, “Yiayi, yiayi.”
“And this?” I asked, pointing at the water.
Nuk,” she said, “Nuk.”
“Nuk,” I said, “Nuk.”
Then suddenly she was pointing, urgent and eager at the notebook, at the table, at the pen in my hand word word word and I was scrambling after her, repeating her sounds, and a dam had cracked in her head, a dam of silence and forgetting, and water was sluicing out. Then she caught herself. But she was still grinning. Eric was regarding the scene quizzically. She closed the door.
“That’s interesting,” I said to him. He nodded noncommitally. I returned quickly to Karl Malone’s foul shot trouble.
The next week there she was again, with watermelon, and I learned the word for thank you: Gam Eng. It was hard to put enough stress on the Eng, though. It kept slipping out too quickly. I repeated it several times. She said the word again, with emphasis on the Eng, her head bobbing a little to show the importance of not letting it come out too weakly. I said “Gam eng”; she smiled and closed the door.
She has brought herself here, and in addition to all her other duties, has taught an American three words of Vietnamese. She has let herself be taken into servitude. But it is calculated. Her measly wage will build her mother a house back home, one to replace the hovel left her by the war. Here she hovers around the edges of this household of rich exiles from the mainland. She can never straighten her back and throw off the subtle dispositions of her servitude, at least as long as her masters are around. She silently pours her own thoughts and needs into the fissures left over between the needs of others, like tea into a cup not seen by others. An old man, Eric’s grandfather, gazes at me beneficently when I enter and leave. He was a high-level functionary in who knows what nationalist government ministry; he booked a spot on a ship in 1948 with his wife and furniture, and never went back. At least, this is what I imagine in his past.
Our war ended decades ago. The plain facts of our meeting, as noble and servant representing 2 global classes, tell the truth about that war. From the U.S. side, it was a war justified ideologically, meant to help the national geopolitical interest. From their side, it was a national and nationalist war of survival, ornamented with a different internationalist ideology. The lie my government told (the government of Camelot, no less!) – that a Vietnam united under Communism threatened the world – is exposed simply by the facts of my meeting with the Vietnamese woman. I am a master, and she is not. She has come to work in an American satellite, Taiwan. After the war, Vietnamese navies did not threaten California, or even Hawaii. Vietnamese intercontinental ballistic missiles did not aim at American targets. The very notion of Vietnamese nukes makes us laugh, until we realize that very recently one of our leaders persuaded the media and public that a similarly small, impoverished country threatened our superpower country with destruction. The Vietnamese fought us with rifles and bamboo stakes, for god’s sake. Her country finally was united, and freed from foreign occupation.
Now I meet this woman in a rich Taiwanese home. We both serve the family. The difference is that I serve their son as a model of nobility they wish to become. She serves the family as pure labor, whose cultural background is not only irrelevant, but a positive obstacle to keeping her in her place: to turning her from a person into a servant with no story. Maybe her smile was awkwardness at her human past being pulled into the spotlight. Our places in the global economy are as a nobleman moonlighting for quick cash and as a poor woman whose highest aspiration is to be a maid.
If the story my government had told were true, then their victory would have meant a domino-like collapse of capitalist nations. If my government’s story were true, then it would have been me softly knocking on the door and handing lychees in to Eric, where he sits learning Vietnamese from the well-paid Vietnamese woman with straight bangs. And maybe she asks me an English word or two, as a curiosity. But it was all a lie told to justify a massive military complex capable of making the world safe for “free trade” (i.e., for the profits of Western elites). They lost 3 million people fighting for the simple right to be left alone within their own borders. The number 3 million turns up nowhere at our Vietnam War memorial. Their dead are silent to us.
We lost the war and still took over the world. They won the war and decades later find themselves losing sovereignty within the borders of their own nation to our economic and ideological regime of “free trade” – the name of our new empire. In this empire, US companies go to Vietnam and make money for the US elite. The US working class does not win, certainly, from the loss of their jobs, though cheap imported goods can now be bought at WalMart with their reduced wage. This Vietnamese woman is given the shining opportunity to leave her own nation to make money from a Taiwanese family. In the 90’s, this empire was given the neutral-sounding euphemism of “globalization” by Bill Clinton. Clinton established diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese government in 1995, effectively giving Vietnam permission to serve as a cheap labor source for the American empire. The media coverage at the time was typically “human interest,” which essentially means that hard realities are not discussed, in favor of individual stories of an inspiring and always positive nature. For example, prominent American veterans were shown returning to the Hanoi Hilton. The expansion of the Empire – THE story – intruded not at all into this fluff. Clinton’s rhetoric used not economic terms, but words of religious meaning, expressing mutuality and forgiveness. The Vietnamese would be allowed to sell their cheap labor, as long as they did not bring up any unpleasantness like the number “three million.”
Nine years after diplomatic relations were established, the strange feel of the three words she taught me linger in my mouth: yiyai, nuk, gam eng; lychees, water, thank you: souvenirs from the newly opened frontier province of Vietnam. Of course, the American men who were sent to fight there so uselessly did not have the privilege or luxury of enjoying those queer sounds as novelties, as I do. Rick Ballard, the gruff-voiced ex-sergeant in my parents’ church, told me once, “I hated the sound of the language. I couldn’t stand it – high, whiny, tricky.” Who knows how differently my 3 words would’ve sounded if heard in the fog of a morally ambiguous war. But I am lucky. As someone witnessing the empire’s final victory in Vietnam, they are valuable curiosities. She gave them to me for free. They are like glistening wet stones I cannot help collecting from a beach and taking home, so enchanted am I by their colors in sunlight. Except that as memories stored in the muscles of my mouth, these words do not lose their shine the way rocks do when they dry out.

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