I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you— that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.
His ambitions had hardly ever been thwarted, except in his desire to procure an excellent bottle of Bourgogne and to drink it with companions who knew better than to put ice cubes in their wine. He was an epicurean and a Christian, in that order
(Nothing, the General muttered, is ever so expensive as what is offered for free.)
and his flat nose bent hard right, the same as his politics.
How those two concocted a child as cute as Duc was a mystery, or perhaps simply as logical as how two negatives when multiplied together yield a positive.
“consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Nothing Emerson wrote was ever truer of America, but that was not the only reason I underlined his words once, twice, thrice. What had smitten me then, and strikes me now, was that the same thing could be said of our motherland, where we are nothing if not inconsistent.
We were not a people who charged into war at the beck and call of bugle or trumpet. No, we fought to the tunes of love songs, for we were the Italians of Asia.
What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me.
So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
Upon selecting me for his staff, the General said, The only thing I’m interested in is how good you are at what you do, even if the things I ask you to do may not be so good.
These passengers murmured among themselves, complaining of this or that, which I ignored. Even if they found themselves in Heaven, our countrymen would find occasion to remark that it was not as warm as Hell.
it’s hard to find honest men when men have families to feed.
It is always better to admire the best among our foes rather than the worst among our friends.
My weakness for sympathizing with others has much to do with my status as a bastard, which is not to say that being a bastard naturally predisposes one to sympathy. Many bastards behave like bastards, and I credit my gentle mother with teaching me the idea that blurring the lines between us and them can be a worthy behavior. After all, if she had not blurred the lines between maid and priest, or allowed them to be blurred, I would not exist.
Not even families with a daughter of mixed ancestry welcomed me, for the daughter was herself usually frantic to squeeze into the elevator of social mobility through marriage to someone of a pure pedigree
I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.
Our country was overrun by acronyms, with the ICCS otherwise known as “I Can’t Control Shit,” its role to oversee the cease-fire between north and south after the American armed forces strategically relocated. It was a smashingly successful cease-fire, for in the last two years only 150,000 soldiers had died, in addition to the requisite number of civilians. Imagine how many would have died without a truce!
I was impatient to arrive at the inevitable end game, but the middle had to be played, to provide me with the same moth-eaten moral covers he had already pulled up to his chin.
We did our best to conjure up the culinary staples of our culture, but since we were dependent on Chinese markets our food had an unacceptably Chinese tinge, another blow in the gauntlet of our humiliation that left us with the sweet-and-sour taste of unreliable memories, just correct enough to evoke the past, just wrong enough to remind us that the past was forever gone, missing along with the proper variety, subtlety, and complexity of our universal solvent, fish sauce. Oh, fish sauce! How we missed it, dear Aunt, how nothing tasted right without it, how we longed for the grand cru of Phu Quoc Island and its vats brimming with the finest vintage of pressed anchovies! This pungent liquid condiment of the darkest sepia hue was much denigrated by foreigners for its supposedly horrendous reek, lending new meaning to the phrase “there’s something fishy around here,” for we were the fishy ones. We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers wore cloves of garlic to ward off vampires, in our case to establish a perimeter with those Westerners who could never understand that what was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese. What was fermented fish compared to curdled milk?
This is one of the drawbacks to communism that I hope will eventually pass, the belief that every comrade is supposed to behave like a noble peasant whose hard hoe is devoted only to farming. Under Asian communism, everything but sex is free, since the sexual revolution has not yet happened in the East. The reasoning is that if one has enough sex to produce six or eight or a dozen offspring, as is generally the case for families in Asian countries (according to Richard Hedd), one hardly needs a revolution for more sex. Meanwhile, Americans, vaccinated against one revolution and thus resistant to another, are interested only in free love’s tropical sizzle, not its political fuse. Under Ms. Mori’s patient tutelage, however, I began to realize that true revolution also involved sexual liberation. This insight was not so far off from Mr. Franklin’s. That sly old sybarite was well aware of the importance of the erotic to the political, wooing the ladies as much as the politicians in his bid for French assistance to the American Revolution. Therefore the gist of the First American’s letter to his young friend was correct: we should all have older mistresses. This is not as sexist as it sounds, for the implication was that older women should also bed younger studs. And if subtlety was not always present in the Old Goat’s missive, the randy truth was. Thus our fine man’s second point, namely that the gravity of age worked its way from the top downward with the years. This commenced with the facial features, then crept south to the neck, the breasts, the tummy, etc., so that an older mistress was plump and juicy where it counted long after her visage was dry and haggard, in which case one could simply put a basket on her head.
The only thing that could have made me happier was a companion for Bon, who, so far as I knew, was also practicing his solo stroke. Always a shy one, he swallowed his pill of Catholicism seriously. He was more embarrassed and discreet about sex than about things I thought more difficult, like killing people, which pretty much defined the history of Catholicism, where sex of the homo, hetero, or pederastic variety supposedly never happened, hidden underneath the Vatican’s cassocks. Popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and monks carrying on with women, girls, boys, and each other? Hardly ever discussed! Not that there was anything wrong with carrying on—it’s hypocrisy that stinks, not sex. But the Church torturing, murdering, crusading against, or infecting with disease millions of people in the name of our Lord the Savior, from Arabia to the Americas? Acknowledged with useless, pious regret, if even that.
As for me, it was the reverse. Ever since my fevered adolescence I had enjoyed myself with athletic diligence, using the same hand with which I crossed myself in mock prayer. This seed of sexual rebellion one day matured into my political revolution, disregarding all my father’s sermons about how onanism inevitably led to blindness, hairy palms, and impotence (he forgot to mention subversion). If I was going to Hell, so be it! Having made my peace with sinning against myself, sometimes on an hourly basis, it was only due time before I sinned with others. So it was that I committed my first unnatural act at thirteen with a gutted squid purloined from my mother’s kitchen, where it awaited its proper fate along with its companions. Oh, you poor, innocent, mute squid! You were the length of my hand, and when stripped of head, tentacles, and guts possessed the comely shape of a condom, not that I knew what that was then. Inside, you had the smooth, viscous consistency of what I imagined to be a vagina, not that I had ever seen such a marvelous thing besides those exhibited by the toddlers and infants wandering around totally naked or naked from the waist down in my town’s lanes and yards. This sight scandalized our French overlords, who saw this childhood nudity as evidence of our barbarism, which then justified their raping, pillaging, and looting, all sanctioned in the holy name of getting our children to wear some clothes so they would not be so tempting to decent Christians whose spirit and flesh were both in question. But I digress! Back to you, soon-to-be-ravished squid: when I poked my index and then middle finger inside your tight orifice, just out of curiosity, the suction was such that my restless imagination could not help but make the connection with the verboten female body part that had obsessed me for the past few months. Without bidding, and utterly beyond my control, my maniacal manhood leaped to attention, luring me forward to you, inviting, bewitching, come-hither squid! Although my mother would return soon from her errand, and while at any moment a neighbor might have walked by the lean-to of our kitchen and caught me with my cephalopodic bride, I nevertheless dropped my trousers. Hypnotized by my squid’s call and my erection’s response, I inserted the latter into the former, which was, unfortunately, a perfect fit. Unfortunate because from then onward no squid was safe from me, not to say that this diluted form of bestiality—after all, hapless squid, you were dead, though I now see how that raises other moral questions—not to say this transgression occurred often, since squid was a rare treat in our landlocked town. My father had given my mother the squid as a gift, as he himself ate well. Priests always had much attention lavished on them by their starstruck fans, those devout housewives and wealthy congregants who treated them as if they were guardians of the velvet rope blocking entrance into that ever so exclusive nightclub, Heaven. These fans invited them to dinner, cleaned their chambers, cooked their food, and bribed them with gifts of various kinds, including delectable, expensive seafood not meant for the likes of a poor woman like my mother. While I felt no shame at all for my shuddering ejaculation, an enormous burden of guilt fell on me as soon as my senses returned, not because of any moral violation, but because I could hardly bear depriving my mother of even a morsel of squid. We had only a half dozen, and she would notice one missing. What to do? What to do? A plan instantly came to my devious mind as I stood with the befuddled, deflowered squid in hand, my blasphemy leaking from its molested vulva. First, rinse the evidence of crime from the inert, abused squid. Second, cut shallow scars onto the skin to identify the victim squid. Then wait for dinner. My innocent mother returned to our miserable hut, stuffed the squid with ground pork, bean thread noodle, diced mushroom, and chopped ginger, then fried and served them with a ginger-lime dipping sauce. There on the plate reclined my beloved, forlorn odalisque, marked by my hand, and when my mother said to help myself I seized it instantly with my chopsticks to forestall any chance of my mother doing so. I paused, my mother’s expectant, loving eyes upon me, and then I dipped the squid into the ginger-lime sauce and took the first bite. Well? she said. De-de-delicious, I stammered. Good, but you should chew it rather than swallow it whole, son. Take your time. It will taste better that way. Yes, Mama, I said. And, bravely smiling, this obedient son slowly chewed and savored the rest of his defiled squid, its salty flavor mixed with his mother’s sweet love.
Like a shark who must keep swimming to live, a politician—which was what the General had become—had to keep his lips constantly moving.
Thus smartly dressed, I made my way through the men, all of whom I knew in my capacity as the General’s aide. Many once commanded artillery batteries and infantry battalions, but now they possessed nothing more dangerous than their pride, their halitosis, and their car keys, if they even owned cars. I had reported all the gossip about these vanquished soldiers to Paris, and knew what they did (or, in many cases, did not do) for a living.
Most successful was a general infamous for using his crack troops to harvest cinnamon, whose circulation he monopolized; now this spice merchant lorded over a pizza parlor. One colonel, an asthmatic quartermaster who became unreasonably excited discussing dehydrated rations, was a janitor. A dashing major who flew gunships, now a mechanic. A grizzled captain with a talent for hunting guerrillas: short-order cook. An affectless lieutenant, sole survivor of an ambushed company: deliveryman. So the list went, a fair percentage collecting both welfare and dust, moldering in the stale air of subsidized apartments as their testes shriveled day by day, consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation and susceptible to the hypochondria of exile. In this psychosomatic condition, normal social or familial ills were diagnosed as symptoms of something fatal, with their vulnerable women and children cast as the carriers of Western contamination. Their afflicted kids were talking back, not in their native language but in a foreign tongue they were mastering faster than their fathers. As for the wives, most had been forced to find jobs, and in doing so had been transformed from the winsome lotuses the men remembered them to be. As the crapulent major said, A man doesn’t need balls in this country, Captain. The women all have their own.
He was likewise a scholarship student at a college in Orange County, an hour away by car. It was the birthplace of the war criminal Richard Nixon, as well as the home of John Wayne, a place so ferociously patriotic I thought Agent Orange might have been manufactured there or at least named in its honor.
Sonny’s subject of study was journalism, which would have been useful for our country if Sonny’s particular brand were not so subversive. He carried a baseball bat of integrity on his shoulder, ready to clobber the fat softballs of his opponents’ inconsistencies. Back then, he had been self-confident, or arrogant, depending on your point of view, a legacy of his aristocratic heritage. [Mocking conviction]
Sonny inherited the utter sense of conviction that motivated his honorable grandfather, who I am sure was insufferable, as most men of utter conviction are. Like a hard-core conservative, Sonny was right about everything, or thought himself so, the key difference being that he was a naked leftist. He led the antiwar faction of Vietnamese foreign students, a handful of whom assembled monthly at a sterile room in the student union or in someone’s apartment, passions running hot and food getting cold. I attended these parties as well as the ones thrown by the equally compact pro-war gang, differing in political tone but otherwise totally interchangeable in terms of food eaten, songs sung, jokes traded, and topics discussed. Regardless of political clique, these students gulped from the same overflowing cup of loneliness, drawing together for comfort like these ex-officers in the liquor store, hoping for the body heat of fellow sufferers in an exile so chilly even the California sun could not warm their cold feet.
Left alone, Sonny and I traded brief synopses of our recent lives. He had decided to stay after graduation, knowing if he returned he would likely receive a complimentary airplane ticket to the tranquil beaches and exclusive, invitation-only prisons of Poulo Condore, built by the French with characteristic gusto. Before we refugees had arrived last year, Sonny had been reporting for an Orange County newspaper, making his home in a town I had never visited, Westminster, or, as our countrymen pronounced it, Wet-min-ter. Moved by our refugee plight, he started up the first newspaper in our native tongue, an effort to tie us together with the news that binds.
most of our fellow exiles had been shrunken by their experience, either absolutely through the aforementioned maladies of migration, or relatively, surrounded by Americans so tall they neither looked through nor looked down on these newcomers. They simply looked over them. For Sonny, it was the opposite. He could not be ignored, but for different reasons from those in the past, in our college days. I could not remember him being as gentle or generous then, when he pounded on tables and ranted the way the Vietnamese foreign students in Paris in the twenties and thirties must have done, the original crop of communists to lead our revolution. I, too, differed in behavior now, although how so was subject to the vagaries of my memory. The historical record had been expunged, for while I kept journals as a student, I had burned them all before returning, fearing to bring with me any incriminating traces of what I really thought.
I didn’t get over that until Duc was born. At first he was just this strange, ugly little thing. I wondered what was wrong with me, why I didn’t love my own son. But slowly he grew and grew, and one night I noticed how his fingers and toes, his hands and feet, were perfectly made, miniature versions of mine. For the first time in my life I knew what it was to be struck by wonder. Even falling in love was not like that feeling, and I knew that this was how my father must have looked at me. He had created me, and I had created Duc. It was nature, the universe, God, flowing through us. That was when I fell in love with my son, when I understood how insignificant I was, and how marvelous he was, and how one day he’d feel the exact same thing. And it was then I knew I hadn’t betrayed my father. I cried again, holding my boy, because I’d finally become a man. What I’m saying, why I’m telling you all this, is that my life once had meaning. It had a purpose. Now it has none. I was a son and a husband and a father and a soldier, and now I’m none of that. I’m not a man, and when a man isn’t a man he’s nobody. And the only way not to be nobody is to do something. So I can either kill myself or kill someone else. Get it?
Those words even succeeded in making him less ugly than he objectively was, if not handsome, emotion softening the harsh features of his face. He was the only man I had ever met who seemed moved, deeply, not only by love but also by the prospect of killing. While he was an expert by necessity, I was a novice by choice, despite having had my opportunities. In our country, killing a man—or a woman, or a child—was as easy as turning a page of the morning paper. One only needed an excuse and an instrument, and too many on all sides possessed both. What I did not have was the desire or the various uniforms of justification a man dons as camouflage—the need to defend God, country, honor, ideology, or comrades—even if, in the last instance, all he really is protecting is that most tender part of himself, the hidden, wrinkled purse carried by every man. These off-the-rack excuses fit some people well, but not me.
Now he’s the one doing the seducing, Stan said, squeezing the professor’s hand, a sight that made me squirm just a little. For me, the professor was a walking mind, and to see him as a body, or having a body, was still discomfiting.
Do you ever regret being a communist, Professor? No, I do not. Only by making that mistake could I be what I am today. What is that, sir? He smiled. I suppose you could call me a born-again American. An irony, but if the bloody history of the past few decades has taught me anything, it’s that the defense of freedom demands the muscularity only America can provide. Even what we do at the college has its purpose. We teach you the best of what was thought and said not only to explain America to the world, as I have always encouraged you to do, but to defend it. I sipped my scotch. It was smoky and smooth, tasting of peat and aged oak, underscored by licorice and the intangible essence of Scottish masculinity. I liked my scotch undiluted, like I liked my truth. Unfortunately, undiluted truth was as affordable as eighteen-year-old single malt scotch. What about those who have not learned the best of what was thought and said? I asked the professor. If we can’t teach them, or if they won’t be taught? The professor contemplated the copper depths of his drink. I suppose you and Claude have seen more than your fair share of those types in your line of work. There’s no easy answer, except to say it has always been thus. Ever since the first caveman discovered fire and decided that the ones still living in darkness were benighted, it’s been civilization against barbarism . . . with every age having its own barbarians.
We Marxists believe that capitalism generates contradictions and will fall apart from them, but only if men take action. But it was not just capitalism that was contradictory. As Hegel said, tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right, a dilemma none of us who wanted to participate in history could escape.
The airing of moral doubts was as tiresome as the airing of domestic squabbles, no one really interested except for the ones directly involved
The point of writing this is that the crapulent major was as sinful as Claude estimated. Perhaps he had even done worse than simply extort money, although if he did it did not make him above average in corruption. It just made him average.
Weddings often exacerbated the abuse, aggravated by the sight of a happy, innocent bride and groom. Their marriage might lead to alienation, adultery, misery, and divorce, but it might also lead to affection, loyalty, children, and contentment. While I had no desire to be married, weddings reminded me of what had been denied to me through no choice of my own. Thus, if I began every wedding as a pulp movie tough guy, mixing laughs with the occasional cynical comment, I ended each wedding as a watered-down cocktail, one-third singing, one-third sentimental, and one-third sorrowful. It was in this state that I took Ms. Mori to the dance floor after the wedding cake was cut, and it was then, near the stage, that I recognized one of the two female singers taking turns at the microphone with our gay blade. She was the General’s oldest daughter, safely ensconced in the Bay Area as a student while the country collapsed. Lana was nearly unrecognizable from the schoolgirl I had seen at the General’s villa during her lycée years and on summer vacations. In those days, her name was still Lan and she wore the most modest of clothing, the schoolgirl’s white ao dai that had sent many a Western writer into near-pederastic fantasies about the nubile bodies whose every curve was revealed without displaying an inch of flesh except above the neck and below the cuffs. This the writers apparently took as an implicit metaphor for our country as a whole, wanton and yet withdrawn, hinting at everything and giving away nothing in a dazzling display of demureness, a paradoxical incitement to temptation, a breathtakingly lewd exhibition of modesty. Hardly any male travel writer, journalist, or casual observer of our country’s life could restrain himself from writing about the young girls who rode their bicycles to and from school in those fluttering white ao dai, butterflies that every Western man dreamed of pinning to his collection.
We were strange aliens rumored to have a predilection for Fido Americanus, the domestic canine on whom was lavished more per capita than the annual income of a starving Bangladeshi family. (The true horror of this situation was actually beyond the ken of the average American. While some of us indeed had been known to sup on the brethren of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, we did not do so in the Neanderthalesque way imagined by the average American, with a club, a roast, and some salt, but with a gourmand’s depth of ingenuity and creativity, our chefs able to cook canids seven different virility-enhancing ways, from extracting the marrow to grilling and boiling, as well as sausage making, stewing, and a few varieties of frying and steaming—yum!
When the anthem finished, the Congressman was mobbed by well-wishers onstage while the rest of the audience members sunk into their seats with postcoital smugness. [ha ha]
Typical white man behavior, Ms. Mori said. Have you ever noticed how a white man can learn a few words of some Asian language and we just eat it up? He could ask for a glass of water and we’d treat him like Einstein.
So what do you think of our Congressman? Are you going to quote me? You’ll be an anonymous source. He’s the best thing that could have happened to us, I said. And that was no lie. It was, instead, the best kind of truth, the one that meant at least two things…No, Madame, I said, I wouldn’t want to marry that, also the two-faced truth, for marriage was not the first thing on my mind when I saw her onstage.
She was the domestic equivalent of her husband, an anti-communist warrior housewife to whom nothing was just an isolated incident but was almost always a symptom by which the disease of communism could be linked to poverty, depravity, atheism, and decay of many kinds. I won’t allow rock music in this house, she said, gripping Madame’s hand to console her for the loss of her daughter’s virtue. None of my children will be allowed to date until eighteen and, so long as they live in this house, will have a curfew by ten. It’s our weak spot, this freedom we allow people to behave any way they please, what with their drugs and their sex, as if those things aren’t infectious. [Made me think of the conservative mindset of purity (which leaves them vulnerable to claims of hypocrisy) and how everything is a slippery slope]
The emotional residue of that night was like a drop of arsenic falling into the still waters of my soul, nothing having changed from the taste of it but everything now tainted.
The performance was so insulting it even deflated my fetish for Audrey Hepburn, understanding as I did her implicit endorsement of such loathsomeness.
I was flummoxed by having read a screenplay whose greatest special effect was neither the blowing up of various things nor the evisceration of various bodies, but the achievement of narrating a movie about our country where not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say.
Screams are not universal, I said. If I took this telephone cord and wrapped it around your neck and pulled it tight until your eyes bugged out and your tongue turned black, Violet’s scream would sound very different from the scream you would be trying to make. Those are two very different kinds of terror coming from a man and a woman. The man knows he is dying. The woman fears she is likely to die soon. Their situations and their bodies produce a qualitatively different timbre to their voices. One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual. In this country, for example, someone fleeing for his life will think he should call for the police. This is a reasonable way to cope with the threat of pain. But in my country, no one calls for the police, since it is often the police who inflict the pain.
How could I be so dense? How could I be so deluded? Ever the industrious student, I had read the screenplay in a few hours and then reread and written notes for several more hours, all under the misguided idea my work mattered. I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. The ancillary benefit was strip-mining history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead, doling out tiny sparkling diamonds for audiences to gasp over. Hollywood did not just make horror movie monsters, it was its own horror movie monster, smashing me under its foot. I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit. I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.
But the exigencies of exile had made it necessary for Madame to cook, as no one else in the household was capable of anything more than boiling water. In the General’s case, even that was beyond him. He could fieldstrip and reassemble an M16 blindfolded, but a gas stove was as perplexing as a calculus equation, or at least he pretended so. Like most of us Vietnamese men, he simply did not want to be even brushed with domesticity.
This is why—and here the General picked up Sonny’s newspaper—even talking about the war being over is dangerous. We must not allow our people to grow complacent. And neither must we let them forget their resentment, I added. That’s where newspapers can play a role, on the culture front. But only if the journalists do their work as they should. The General tossed the newspaper back on the table. “Resentment.” That’s a good word. Always resent, never relent. Perhaps that should be our motto. [The irony of this passage as well as the Orange County congressman who think of censorship as "advice with teeth" when it is used in service of their ideology]
The red envelope is a symbol, he said, of all that’s wrong. It’s the color of blood, and they singled you out for your blood. It’s the color of fortune and luck. Those are primitive beliefs. We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do. They take advantage of things, like your cousins, and they don’t question things. As long as things work for them, then they support those things. But you see the lie beneath those things because you never got to take part. You see a different shade of red than them. Red is not good luck. Red is not fortune. Red is revolution. All of a sudden I, too, saw red, and in that throbbing vision the world began to make sense to me, how so many degrees of meaning existed in a single color, the tone so potent it must be applied sparingly. If one ever sees something written in red, one knows trouble and change lie ahead.
I reported on my decision to take the Auteur’s offer, a job I characterized as undermining the enemy’s propaganda.
I was careful, then, to present myself as just another immigrant, glad to be in the land where the pursuit of happiness was guaranteed in writing, which, when one comes to think about it, is not such a great deal. Now a guarantee of happiness—that’s a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.
Its refugee members were hobbled by their structural function in the American Dream, which was to be so unhappy as to make other Americans grateful for their happiness.
Let me play devil’s advocate. There are many good causes to which I, for example, might donate. But to be frank, there is only so much money that I, for example, might have. Inevitably, self-interest comes into play. Self-interest is good. It’s an instinct that keeps us alive. It’s also very patriotic. Absolutely. So: What is my self-interest in this organization of yours? I looked at the General. It was on his lips, one of two magical words. If we possessed the things these words named, we would propel ourselves to the front rank of American citizens, able to access all the glittering treasures of American society. Unfortunately, we had only a tentative grasp on one. The word that identified what we did not possess was “money,” of which the General might have enough for his own use, but certainly not for a counterrevolution. The other word was “votes,” so that together “money votes” was “open sesame” to the deep caverns of the American political system. But even when just one-half of that magical combination floated from my aspiring Ali Baba’s lips, the Congressman’s eyebrows rippled ever so faintly. Think of our community as an investment, Congressman. A long-term investment. Think of us as a small, sleeping child who has not yet awaken and grown. It is true this child cannot vote. This child is not a citizen. But one day this child will be a citizen. One day this child’s children will be born as citizens, and they must vote for somebody. That somebody might as well be you.
As you can see when I attended the wedding, General, I already value your community. With words, I said. With all due respect, Congressman, words are free. Money is not. Isn’t it funny that in a society that values freedom above all things, things that are free are not valued? So please permit me to be blunt. Our community appreciates your words, but in the process of becoming American it has learned the expression “money talks.” And if voting is our best way of participating in American politics, we must vote for those who deliver the money. This would hopefully be you, but of course the beauty of American politics is that we have a choice, do we not?
That is indeed a tricky situation. But what you are speaking of is official money that must be accounted for to the government. What we are speaking of is unofficial money that circulates to us, which returns to you in all officialness as votes delivered by the General. That is correct, the General said. If my country has prepared me for one thing, it’s dealing with what my young friend describes so imaginatively as unofficial money. Our performance entertained the Congressman, we the two little ingenious monkeys and he the organ-grinder, watching us hop and beg to a score not our own. We were well trained in this show from our previous exposure to Americans in our homeland, where the plays were all about unofficial money, i.e., corruption. Corruption was like the elephant in Indian lore, myself one of the blind wise men who could feel and describe only one part of it. It is not what one sees or feels that is confusing, it is what one does not see and does not feel, such as that part of the scheme we had just laid before the Congressman that was out of our control. This was the part where he found ways to funnel unofficial money to us via official channels, that is to say, foundations that had on their boards of trustees the Congressman, or his friends, or the friends of Claude. These foundations were, in short, fronts themselves for the CIA and perhaps even other, more enigmatic governmental or nongovernmental organizations I did not know of, just as the Fraternity was a front for the Movement. This the Congressman knew full well when he said, I just hope this organization of yours doesn’t engage in anything illegal when it comes to its patriotic activities. Of course he meant that we should engage in illegal activities, so long as he did not know about them. The unseen is almost always underlined with the unsaid.
I had sat on exactly such a splintery toilet seat throughout my childhood, and remembered very well the catfish jockeying for the best seat at the dining table when I assumed the position. The sight of an authentic outhouse stirred neither any sentimental feelings in me nor any admiration for my people’s environmental consciousness. I preferred a flush toilet with a smooth porcelain seat and a newspaper on my lap as reading matter, not between my legs. The paper with which the West wiped itself was softer than the paper with which the rest of the world blew its nose, although this was only a metaphorical comparison. The rest of the world would have been stunned at the luxurious idea of even using paper to blow one’s nose. Paper was for writing things like this confession, not for mopping up excretions. But those strange, mysterious Westerners had exotic ways and wonders, symbolized in Kleenex and double-ply toilet paper. If longing for these riches made me an Occidentalist, I confess to it. I had no desire for the authenticity of my village life with my spiteful cousins and my ungracious aunts, or the rustic realities of being bit on one’s behind by a malarial mosquito when visiting the loo, which might be the case for some of the Vietnamese extras. Harry was planning to make them use this toilet in order to nourish the catfish, while the crew would bask in a battery of chemical toilets on dry land. So far as I was concerned, I was one of the crew, and when Harry invited me to be the first to bless the latrine, I regretfully declined, softening my rejection with a joke.
They were too hungry to turn up their noses at the wages I was mandated to offer, a dollar a day, their desperation measured by the fact that not one—let me repeat, not one—haggled for a better wage. I had never imagined the day when one of my countrymen would not haggle, but these boat people clearly understood that the law of supply and demand was not on their side. What truly brought my spirits down, however, was when I asked one of the extras, a lawyer of aristocratic appearance, if the conditions in our homeland were as bad as rumored. Let’s put it this way, she said. Before the communists won, foreigners were victimizing and terrorizing and humiliating us. Now it’s our own people victimizing and terrorizing and humiliating us. I suppose that’s improvement.
I painted her name and her dates in red, the mathematics of her life absurdly short for anyone but a grade-schooler to whom thirty-four years seemed an eternity.
Although I was neither one of the extras nor one of the boat people, the tide of sympathy pulled me toward them.
The current of alienation simultaneously pushed me away from the movie people, even though I was one of them. In short, I was in a familiar place, the place of feeling unfamiliar, which I responded to in my usual fashion by arming myself with a gin and tonic, my first of the evening
Not surprisingly, Yoon was an alcoholic. [Loved how the preceding paragraph lauded Yoon's versatility to play any type of token Asian over a wide age range in shows and movies and commercials and then presumably shows the cost of this ethnic negotiability]
His face was an accurate thermometer of his condition, the mercurial redness an indicator that the liquor had worked its way up from his toes to his vision, tongue, and brain, for he was flirting with the actress playing his sister even though neither was heterosexual. Yoon had made his intentions known to me over a dozen raw oysters at the hotel bar, their moist, open ears cocked upward to eavesdrop on his attempted seduction. No offense, I said, his hand on my knee, but I’ve never been so inclined. Yoon shrugged and removed his hand. I always assume a man is at least a latent homosexual until proven otherwise. In any case, you can’t blame a gay for trying, he said, smiling a smile utterly unlike my own. Having studied my smile and its effect on people, I knew it had the value of a second-rate global currency like the franc or the mark. But Yoon’s smile was the gold standard, so bright it was the only thing you could see or look at, so utterly overpowering in person it was understandable how he had won the role of the Sheen actor. I was happy to buy him a drink to show that I was not bothered by his advances, and he in turn bought me another, and we bonded that night and almost every night that followed.
before I could go any further she laid down her copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and said, You’re lovely, but just not my type. It’s not your fault. You’re a man. Yet again flabbergasted, all I could say was, You can’t blame a guy for trying. She did not, so we, too, were friends.
As always, money solved the problem. After some strong persuasion on my part, Violet agreed to double the wages for those extras playing Viet Cong, an incentive that allowed these freedom fighters to forget that playing those other freedom fighters had once been so repugnant an idea.
how you wouldn’t want anyone for your friend who actually wanted to be your friend. Deep down you suspect only fools and traitors would believe your promises.
This was what few people realize—it’s hard work to beat somebody. I have known many an interrogator who has strained a back, pulled a muscle, torn a tendon or a ligament, even broken fingers, toes, hands, and feet, not to mention going hoarse. For while the prisoner is screaming, crying, choking, and confessing, or attempting to confess, or simply lying, the interrogator must produce a steady stream of epithets, insults, grunts, demands, and provocations with all the concentration and creativity of a woman manning a dirty-talk sex line.
We’ve spent millions to prove it in the lab. The principles are basic, but the application can be creative and tailored to the individual or to the imagination of the interrogator. Disorientation. Sensory deprivation. Self-punishment. These principles have been scientifically demonstrated by the best scientists in the world, American scientists. We have shown that the human mind, subject to the right conditions, will break down faster than the human body. All this stuff—again he waved his hand in contempt at what we now saw as Gallic junk, the tools of old world barbarians rather than new world scientists, of medieval torture rather than modern interrogation—it will take months to wear the subject down with these things. But put a sack on the subject’s head, wrap his hands in balls of gauze, plug his ears, and drop him in a completely dark cell by himself for a week, and you no longer have a human being capable of resistance. You have a puddle of water.
Perhaps the Movie itself was not terribly important, but what it represented, the genus of the American movie, was. An audience member might love or hate this Movie, or dismiss it as only a story, but those emotions were irrelevant. What mattered was that the audience member, having paid for the ticket, was willing to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart.
Unlike Man and Ngo, I was never much of an organizer or agitator, which was one reason, Man would say later, that the committees above decided I would be a mole.
To think of a mole as that which digs underground misunderstands the meaning of the mole as a spy. A spy’s task is not to hide himself where no one can see him, since he will not be able to see anything himself. A spy’s task is to hide where everyone can see him and where he can see everything. Now ask yourself: What can everyone see about you but you yourself cannot? Enough with the riddles, I said. I give up. There—he pointed at the middle of my face—in plain sight. I went to the mirror to see for myself, Man peering over my shoulder. There it indeed was, such a part of myself I had long ago ceased to notice it. Keep in mind that you will be not just any mole, Man said, but the mole that is the beauty spot on the nose of power itself. Man had the natural ability to make the role of a mole, and other potentially dangerous tasks, seem attractive. Who would not want to be a beauty spot? [Brilliant disambiguation of 3 kinds of "mole"]
I kept that in mind when I consulted my English dictionary, where I discovered that a mole could also be a kind of pier or harbor, a unit of measurement in chemistry, an abnormal mass of uterine tissue, and, if pronounced differently, a highly spiced Mexican sauce of peppers and chocolate that I would one day try and very much enjoy. But what caught my eye and has stayed with me ever since was the accompanying illustration, which depicted not a beauty spot but the animal, a subterranean, worm-eating mammal with massive clawed feet, a tubular whiskered snout, and pinhole eyes. It was surely ugly to all except its own mother, and nearly blind.
Everyone on the crew had been waiting for this moment, the greatest blowup ever in cinematic history. It is the moment, the Auteur proclaimed to the massed crew during the last week, when we show that making this movie was going to war itself. When your grandchildren ask you what you did during the war, you can say, I made this movie. I made a great work of art. How do you know you’ve made a great work of art? A great work of art is something as real as reality itself, and sometimes even more real than the real. Long after this war is forgotten, when its existence is a paragraph in a schoolbook students won’t even bother to read, and everyone who survived it is dead, their bodies dust, their memories atoms, their emotions no longer in motion, this work of art will still shine so brightly it will not just be about the war but it will be the war. And there you have the absurdity. Not that there was not some truth to what the Auteur claimed, for the absurd often has its seed in a truth. Yes, art eventually survives war, its artifacts still towering long after the diurnal rhythms of nature have ground the bodies of millions of warriors to powder, but I had no doubt that in the Auteur’s egomaniacal imagination he meant that his work of art, now, was more important than the three or four or six million dead who composed the real meaning of the war. They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. Marx spoke of the oppressed class that was not politically conscious enough to see itself as a class, but was anything ever more true of the dead, as well as the extras? Their fate was so inane that they drank away their dollar a day every night, an act in which I gladly joined them, feeling a small part of myself dying with them, too. For I had an encroaching sense of the meanness of my accomplishment, that I had been deluded in thinking I could effect change in how we were represented. I had altered the script here and there, and incited the creation of a few speaking parts, but to what end? I had not derailed this behemoth, or changed its direction, I had only made its path smoother as the technical consultant in charge of authenticity, the spirit haunting bad movies that aspired to be good ones. My task was to ensure that the people scuttling in the background of the film would be real Vietnamese people saying real Vietnamese things and dressed in real Vietnamese clothing, right before they died. The swing of a dialect and the trim of a costume had to be real, but the truly important things in such a movie, like emotions or ideas, could be fake. I was no more than the garment worker who made sure the stitching was correct in an outfit designed, produced, and consumed by the wealthy white people of the world. They owned the means of production, and therefore the means of representation, and the best that we could ever hope for was to get a word in edgewise before our anonymous deaths.
The Movie was just a sequel to our war and a prequel to the next one that America was destined to wage. Killing the extras was either a reenactment of what had happened to us natives or a dress rehearsal for the next such episode, with the Movie the local anesthetic applied to the American mind, preparing it for any minor irritation before or after such a deed
that haze was my life flashing before my eyes, only it unreeled so fast I could not see much of it. What I could see was myself, but what was strange was that my life unreeled in reverse, as in those film sequences where someone who has fallen out of a building and gone splat on the sidewalk suddenly leaps up into the air and flies back through the window. So it was with me, running madly backward against an impressionistic background of blotches of color. I gradually shrank in size until I was a teenager, then a child, and then, at last, a baby, crawling, until inevitably I was sucked naked and screaming through that portal every man’s mother possesses, into a black hole where all light vanished. As that last glimmer faded, it occurred to me that the light at the end of the tunnel seen by people who have died and come back to life was not Heaven. Wasn’t it much more plausible that what they saw was not what lay ahead of them but what lay behind? This was the universal memory of the first tunnel we all pass through, the light at its end penetrating our fetal darkness, disturbing our closed eyelids, beckoning us toward the chute that will deliver us to our inevitable appointment with death. [Description of life passing before your eyes]
Remember that the best medical treatment is a sense of relativism. No matter how badly you might feel, take comfort in knowing there’s someone who feels much worse.
My eyes welled up with tears as they raised their glasses to me, a fellow Vietnamese who was, despite everything, like them. My need for validation and inclusion surprised me, but the trauma of the explosion must have weakened me. Man had already warned me that for the kind of subterranean work we did, there would be no medals or promotions or parades. Having resigned myself to those conditions, the praise of these refugees was unexpected
Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment. Beethoven’s Ninth was the opus for Nazis, concentration camp commanders, and possibly President Truman as he contemplated atomizing Hiroshima, classical music the refined score for the high-minded extermination of brutish hordes. Country music was set to the more humble beat of the red-blooded, bloodthirsty American heartland. It was for fear of being beaten to this beat that black soldiers avoided the Saigon bars where their white comrades kept the jukeboxes humming with Hank Williams and his kind, sonic signposts that said, in essence, No Niggers.
I laid out the charges against him of subversion, conspiracy, and murder, but emphasized that he was innocent until proven guilty, which made him laugh. Your American puppet masters like to say that, but it’s stupid, he said. History, humanity, religion, this war tells us exactly the reverse. We are all guilty until proven innocent, as even the Americans have shown. Why else do they believe everyone is really Viet Cong? Why else do they shoot first and ask questions later? Because to them all yellow people are guilty until proven innocent. Americans are a confused people because they can’t admit this contradiction. They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent. You can’t have both. You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do. I was impressed with his understanding of American culture and psychology, but I could not show it.
You’re a bastard, and like all hybrids you are defective. In retrospect, I do not believe he meant to insult me. Like most philosophers, he simply lacked social skills. In his graceless way, he was merely stating what he and many others thought to be scientific fact.
One night in my quarters, after my rage had cooled and hardened, it struck me that I, the bastard, understood him, the philosopher, with perfect clarity. A person’s strength was always his weakness, and vice versa. The weakness was there to be seen if one could see it. In the Watchman’s case, he was the revolutionary willing to walk away from the most important thing to a Vietnamese and a Catholic, his family, for whom the only acceptable sacrifice was for God. His strength was in his sacrifice, and that had to be destroyed. I sat down immediately at my desk and wrote the Watchman’s confession for him. He read my scenario the next morning in disbelief, then read it again before glaring at me. You’re saying that I’m saying I’m a faggot? Homosexual, I corrected. You’re going to spread filth about me? he said. Lies? I have never been a faggot. I have never dreamed of being a faggot. This—this is dirty. His voice rose and his face flushed. To have me say I joined the revolution because I loved a man? To say this was why I ran away from my family? That my faggotry explains my love for philosophy? That being a faggot is the reason for my wish to destroy society? That I betrayed the revolution so I could save the man I loved, who you have captured? No one will believe this! Then no one will care when we publish it in the newspapers along with your lover’s confession and intimate photographs of the two of you. You will never get me in such a photograph. The CIA has remarkable talents with hypnosis and drugs. He fell silent. I continued: When the newspapers cover this, you realize it’s not only your revolutionary comrades who will condemn you. The road back to your family will be closed forever, too. They might accept a reformed revolutionary, or even a victorious one, but they will never accept a homosexual no matter what happens to our country. You’ll be a man who sacrificed everything for nothing. You will not even be a memory to your comrades or your family. At least if you talk to me this confession won’t be published. Your reputation will stay intact until the day the war is over. I stood up. Think about it. He said nothing and did nothing except stare at his confession. I paused at the door. Still think I’m a bastard? No, he said tonelessly. You’re just an asshole.
The sartorial impression was to make them, like many American adults, look like overgrown children, the effect enhanced when these adults were spotted, as they often were, sucking on extra-large sodas.
One way to forget a certain kind of pain was to feel another kind of pain, as when the doctor examining you for mandatory military service (an exam that you never fail, unless you are afflicted by wealth) slaps you on one butt cheek while injecting you in the other cheek
Later that afternoon I drove to Monterey Park, where, amid that city’s suburbs, soft and bland as tofu, I had an appointment with the crapulent major’s widow. I confess that my plan was to give her the money in my pocket, money that I admit could have been used for more revolutionary purposes. But what is more revolutionary than helping one’s enemy and his kin? What is more radical than forgiveness? Of course he was not the one asking for forgiveness; I was, for what I had done to him.
We would all be in Hell if convicted of our thoughts.
even now gazed at me from the altar on the side table. There in full cadet uniform was the young crapulent major, photographed at that phase before his first chin even dreamed of grandfathering a third chin, dark eyes staring at me as I comforted his widow. All he had to eat in the afterlife was a navel orange frosted with mold, a dusty can of Spam, and a roll of Lifesavers, arrayed in front of his photograph and illuminated by the incongruous, blinking Christmas lights she had hung on the altar’s edge. Inequality ruled even in the afterlife, where the descendants of the rich feted them with heaping platters of fresh fruit, bottles of champagne, and cans of pâté. Genuinely devoted descendants burned paper offerings that included not only the usual cutouts of cars and homes, but also Playboy centerfolds. The hot body of a pliant woman was what a man wanted in the cold, long afterlife, and I swore to the crapulent major I would make him an offering of the fantastic, pneumatic Miss June.
Weapons I professionally admired, but vodka and novels I loved.
What did I expect? I had been missing for seven months and had never once phoned, the extent of my communication a few scribbled postcards. As for Ms. Mori, she was dedicated to neither monogamy nor man, much less to any one man in particular. She declared her allegiances through the most prominent furnishings in her living room, bookshelves bowed as the backs of coolies with the weight of Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Angela Davis, and other women who had wrestled with the Woman Question. Western men from Adam to Freud had also asked that question, although they had phrased it as “What does woman want?” At least they had considered the subject. It occurred to me only then that we Vietnamese men never even bothered to ask what woman wanted. I had not even a germ of an idea about what Ms. Mori wanted. Perhaps I would have had a dim sense if I had read some of these books, but all I knew of them were the summaries found on their dust jackets. My intuition told me Sonny had actually read some of them in their entirety, and taking a seat next to him I could feel an anaphylactic reaction to his presence prickling on my skin, an eruption of hostility inflamed by his genial smile.
Vodka was good for honesty, especially on ice, as mine was. Vodka on ice was so transparent, so clear, so powerful, it inspired its drinkers to be the same. I swallowed the rest of mine, preparing myself for the bruises sure to come. [Prepping for a verbal fight]
I had hit him where it hurt, in the solar plexus of his conscience, where everyone who was an idealist was vulnerable. Disarming an idealist was easy. One only needed to ask why the idealist was not on the front line of the particular battle he had chosen. The question was one of commitment, and I knew, even if he did not, that I was one of the committed.
After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.
I photographed them from several different angles, these men who had been humbled by what they had been turned into here in exile. In their working outfits as busboys, waite7ujrs, gardeners, field hands, fishermen, manual laborers, custodians, or simply the un- and underemployed, these shabby examples of the lumpen blended into the background wherever they happened to be, always seen as a mass, never noticed as individuals. But now, in uniform and with their raggedy haircuts hidden by field caps and berets, they were impossible to miss. Their renewed manhood was manifest in the way their backs were stiff and straight, rather than slouched in the refugee slump, and in the way they marched proudly across the earth, rather than shuffling as they usually did in cheap shoes with worn-down soles. They were men again, and that was how the General addressed them. Men, he called out. Men! The people need us. Even from where I was, I heard him clearly, though he seemed to exert no effort in projecting his voice. They need hope and leaders, the General said. You are those leaders. You will show the people what can happen if they have the courage to rise up, to take arms, and to sacrifice themselves. I watched the men to see if they would flinch at the idea of sacrificing themselves, but they did not. This was the occult power of the uniform, of the mass, that men who would never dream of sacrificing themselves in the course of their everyday lives waiting on tables would agree to do so while waiting under a hot sun. Men, the General said. Men! The people cry out for freedom! The communists promise freedom and independence, but deliver only poverty and enslavement. They have betrayed the Vietnamese people, and revolutions don’t betray the people. Even here we remain with the people, and we will return to liberate the people who have been denied the freedom given to us. Revolutions are for the people, from the people, by the people. That is our revolution!
But don’t be fooled, I warned Man in my coded notes. Revolutions begin this way, with men willing to fight no matter what the odds, volunteering to give up everything because they had nothing. This was an apt description of the grizzled captain, the former guerrilla hunter who was now a short-order cook, and the affectless lieutenant, sole survivor of an ambushed company who made his living as a deliveryman. Like Bon, they were certifiably insane men who had volunteered for the reconnaissance mission to Thailand. They had decided that death was just as good as life, which was fine for them but was worrisome for me if I was to go along with them.
I didn’t need to write in my letter to Paris that these men were not fools, at least not yet. The minutemen were not fools in believing they could defeat the British Redcoats, any more than the first armed propaganda platoon of our revolution was foolish as it drilled with a motley assembly of primitive weapons. From that militia eventually arose an army of a million men. Who was to say the same fate did not await this company? Dear Aunt, I wrote in visible ink, These men are not to be underestimated. Napoleon said men will die for bits of ribbon pinned to their chests, but the General understands that even more men will die for a man who remembered their names, as he does theirs. When he inspects them, he walks among them, eats with them, calls them by their names and asks about wives, children, girlfriends, hometowns. All anyone ever wants is to be recognized and remembered. Neither is possible without the other. This desire drives these busboys, waiters, janitors, gardeners, mechanics, night guards, and welfare beneficiaries to save enough money to buy themselves uniforms, boots, and guns, to want to be men again. They want their country back, dear Aunt, but they also yearn for recognition and remembrance from that country that no longer exists, from wives and children, from future descendants, from the men they used to be. If they fail, call them fools. But if they do not fail, they are heroes and visionaries, whether alive or dead. Perhaps I shall return with them to our country, regardless of what the General has to say.
For only the second time since I had known him, he embarked on a speech that was, for him, an epic. What’s crazy is living when there’s no reason to live, he said. What am I living for? A life in our apartment? That’s not a home. It’s a jail cell without bars. All of us—we’re all in jail cells without bars. We’re not men anymore. Not after the Americans fucked us twice and made our wives and kids watch. First the Americans said we’ll save your yellow skins. Just do what we say. Fight our way, take our money, give us your women, then you’ll be free. Things didn’t work out that way, did they? Then, after fucking us, they rescued us. They just didn’t tell us they’d cut off our balls and cut out our tongues along the way. But you know what? If we were real men, we wouldn’t have let them do that.
I’m hard on myself. Don’t call me a man or a soldier, either. Call the guys who stayed behind men and soldiers. The men in my company. Man. All dead or in prison, but at least they know they’re men. They’re so dangerous it takes other men with guns to keep them locked up. Here, no one’s frightened of us. The only people we scare are our wives and kids. And ourselves. I know these guys. I sell them liquor. I hear their stories. They come home from work, yell at their wives and kids, beat them once in a while just to show that they’re men. Only they’re not. A man protects his wife and children. A man isn’t afraid to die for them, his country, his buddies. He doesn’t live to see them all die before him. But that’s what I’ve done.
If something is worth dying for, then you’ve got a reason to live.
Our lungs had achieved smoky equilibrium with the stale air, while on the coffee table the ashtray silently suffered its usual indignity, mouth crammed full of butts and bitter ash.
leave him the tip, the typically grand sum of one dollar, our nod to what we considered a ludicrous American practice.
he leaned forward at his desk, tapped the newspaper, and said, Did you read this? Not wanting to deprive the General of the opportunity to fulminate, I said I had not.
Of course, I said, reaching for the bottle of scotch. Like me, it was half empty and half full. Newsmen are always troublesome if they’re independent. [Half empty and half full]
Persuading Bon to go to Fantasia to hear the songs and sounds of our gone but not forgotten country was less of a struggle than I thought it would be, for Bon, having decided to die, was finally showing signs of life. [Great observation]
The Brylcreem and our cologne lent my car an intoxicatingly masculine atmosphere as we listened to the Rolling Stones, the car transporting us not only west to Hollywood but back to the glory days of Saigon circa 1969, after my return from America. Then, before Bon and Man became fathers, the three of us had wasted the weekends of our youth in Saigon’s bars and nightclubs, exactly as one was supposed to do. If youth was not wasted, how could it be youth?
Perhaps I could blame youth for my friendship with Bon. What drives a fourteen-year-old to swear a blood oath to a blood brother? And more important, what makes a grown man believe in that oath? Should not the things that count, like ideology and political belief, the ripe fruit of our adulthood, matter more than the unripe ideals and illusions of youth? Let me propose that truth, or some measure of it, can be found in these youthful follies that we forget, to our loss, as adults. Here was the scene of how our friendship first became established: a football pitch of the lycée, myself a new student surrounded by older, taller ones, the prancing steeds of the school. They were about to repeat a scene rehearsed by man from the dawn of time, the moment when the strong turn on the weak or the odd for sport. I was odd but I was not weak, as I had proven against the village comedian who called me unnatural. Although I had beaten him, I had also been beaten before, and I prepared myself for a losing fight. It was then that another new boy unexpectedly spoke out in my defense, stepping forward from the ring of voyeurs and saying, This isn’t right. Don’t single him out. He’s one of us. An older boy scoffed. Who are you to say who’s one of us? And why do you think you’re one of us? Now get out of the way. Man did not get out of the way, and for this he received the first blow, a slap on the ear that sent him reeling. I drove my head into the older boy’s ribs and knocked him down, landing astride his chest, from where I commenced to land two blows before his fellow oafs hurled themselves on me. The odds were five-to-one against me and my new friend Man, and even though I fought back with all my heart and rage, I knew we were doomed. All the other schoolboys surrounding us did, too. So why, then, did Bon jump forth from that crowd and take our side? He was a new boy who was as big as the older boys, true, but even so he could not beat them all. One he slugged, another he elbowed, a third he rammed, and then he, too, was brought down by the horde. So they kicked us, and hit us, and beat us, and left us bruised, bloody, and elated. Yes, elated! For we had passed some mysterious test, one that separated us from the bullies on the one side and the cowards on the other. That very night, we snuck out of our dormitory and made our way to a tamarind grove, and under its boughs we cut our palms. We mingled our blood once more with boys we recognized as more kin to us than any real kin, and then gave one another our word…A pragmatist, a true materialist, would dismiss this story and my attachment to it as romanticism. But the story says everything about how we saw ourselves and one another at that age, as boys who knew instinctively that their cause was to stand up for the weaker. Bon and I had not talked about that incident in a long time, but I sensed that it was in his bloodstream as well as mine as we sang songs from our youth on the way to our destination at the Roosevelt Hotel. [This instinct to stand up for the underdog and deflect bullies stands feels like a bright line between people. It confronts fear. It's a fundamentally pure sign and stands in contrast to authoritarian bullies whose are respond to fear with yet even more insecurity. The way a lie cannot stop at just one but multiply geometrically as each new lie creates new holes requiring the putty of even more lies to plug them.]
These questions required either Camus or cognac, and as Camus was not available I ordered cognac.
holding the microphone with the care one reserved for a stick of dynamite.
Nobody talked and nobody stirred except to raise a cigarette or a glass, an utter concentration not broken for her next, slightly more upbeat number, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” Cher sang it first, but I preferred the Nancy Sinatra remake, if only for the rather shallow reason that I thought Nancy Sinatra to be more attractive. Even so, I knew she was merely a platinum princess whose only knowledge of violence and guns was derived secondhand from the mob friends of her father, Frank. Lana, in contrast, had grown up in a city where gangsters were once so powerful the army fought them in the streets. Saigon was a metropolis where grenade attacks were commonplace, terror bombings not unexpected, and wholesale invasion by the Viet Cong a communal experience. What did Nancy Sinatra know when she sang bang bang? To her, those were bubble-gum pop lyrics. Bang bang was the sound track of our lives. Moreover, Nancy Sinatra was afflicted, as the overwhelming majority of Americans were, with monolingualism. Lana’s richer, more textured version of “Bang Bang” layered English with French and Vietnamese. Bang bang, je ne l’oublierai pas went the last line of the French version, which was echoed by Pham Duy’s Vietnamese version, We will never forget. In the pantheon of classic pop songs from Saigon, this tricolor rendition was one of the most memorable, masterfully weaving together love and violence in the enigmatic story of two lovers who, regardless of having known each other since childhood, or because of knowing each other since childhood, shoot each other down. Bang bang was the sound of memory’s pistol firing into our heads, for we could not forget love, we could not forget war, we could not forget lovers, we could not forget enemies, we could not forget home, and we could not forget Saigon. We could not forget the caramel flavor of iced coffee with coarse sugar; the bowls of noodle soup eaten while squatting on the sidewalk; the strumming of a friend’s guitar while we swayed on hammocks under coconut trees; the football matches played barefoot and shirtless in alleys, squares, parks, and meadows; the pearl chokers of morning mist draped around the mountains; the labial moistness of oysters shucked on a gritty beach; the whisper of a dewy lover saying the most seductive words in our language, anh oi; the rattle of rice being threshed; the workingmen who slept in their cyclos on the streets, kept warm only by the memories of their families; the refugees who slept on every sidewalk of every city; the slow burning of patient mosquito coils; the sweetness and firmness of a mango plucked fresh from its tree; the girls who refused to talk to us and who we only pined for more; the men who had died or disappeared; the streets and homes blown away by bombshells; the streams where we swam naked and laughing; the secret grove where we spied on the nymphs who bathed and splashed with the innocence of the birds; the shadows cast by candlelight on the walls of wattled huts; the atonal tinkle of cowbells on mud roads and country paths; the barking of a hungry dog in an abandoned village; the appetizing reek of the fresh durian one wept to eat; the sight and sound of orphans howling by the dead bodies of their mothers and fathers; the stickiness of one’s shirt by afternoon, the stickiness of one’s lover by the end of lovemaking, the stickiness of our situations; the frantic squealing of pigs running for their lives as villagers gave chase; the hills afire with sunset; the crowned head of dawn rising from the sheets of the sea; the hot grasp of our mother’s hand; and while the list could go on and on and on, the point was simply this: the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget.
The hardest thing to do in talking to a woman was taking the first step, but the most important thing to do was not to think. Not thinking is more difficult than it sounds, and yet, with women, one should never think. Never. It simply won’t do. The first few times in approaching girls, during my lycée years, I had thought too much, hesitated, and, as a result, flailed and failed. But even so, I discovered that all the childhood bullying directed at me had toughened me, making me believe that being rejected was better than not having the chance to be rejected at all. Thus it was that I approached girls, and now women, with such Zen negation of all doubt and fear the Buddha would approve.
I merely followed my instincts and my first three principles in talking to a woman: do not ask permission; do not say hello; and do not let her speak first.
I leaned close to be heard over the music and to offer her a cigarette. Fourth principle: give a woman the chance to reject something else besides me. If she declined the cigarette, as any of our proper young women should, I had an excuse to take one myself, which gave me a few seconds to say something while she focused on my cigarette. But Lana unexpectedly accepted, giving me the chance to fire up her cigarette with a suggestive flame, as I had once lit up Ms. Mori. What do your mother and father think of all this?
I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold. But whereas women could look at us as much as they wanted, and we would appreciate it, we were damned if we looked and hardly less damned if we didn’t. A woman with extraordinary cleavage would reasonably be insulted by a man whose eyes could resist the plunge, so, just to be polite, I cast a tasteful glance while reaching for another cigarette. In between those marvelous breasts bumped a gold crucifix on a gold chain, and for once I wished I were a true Christian so I could be nailed to that cross.
Care for another cigarette? I said, our gazes meeting once more as I offered her my pack. Neither of us acknowledged my expert appraisal of her cleavage
If a man survived the time taken to smoke the first cigarette, he had a fighting chance on the beachhead of a woman’s body
Let’s go to the bar. Principle five: statements, not questions, were less likely to lead to no. She shrugged and offered me her hand.
I was overwhelmed by a great, aching love for my best friend and this woman whose divine figure was the symbol of infinity turned upright onto its rounded bottom. I yearned to prove the hypothesis of my desire for her by empirically examining her naked curves with my eyes, her breasts with my hands, her skin with my tongue. I knew then, as she focused all her attention on the weeping Bon, who was so insensate with grief he seemed unaware of the enchanted valley exposed to his view, that I would possess her
Our teachers were firm believers in the corporal punishment that Americans had given up, which was probably one reason they could no longer win wars. For us, violence began at home and continued in school, parents and teachers beating children and students like Persian rugs to shake the dust of complacency and stupidity out of them, and in that way make them more beautiful. My father was no exception. He was simply more high- minded than most, working the xylophone of his students’ knuckles with his ruler until our poor joints were bruised purple, blue, and black. Sometimes we deserved to be whacked, sometimes not, but my father never showed any regret when evidence of our innocence surfaced. Since all were guilty of Original Sin, even punishment wrongly given was in some way just.
Perhaps I would glimpse infinity when I lit her up with the spasmodic spark that came from striking my soul against hers. Perhaps I would finally know eternity without resorting to this: Q. Say the Apostles’ Creed. A. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth . . . Even these two thieves had likely heard of this prayer, Christian ideas being so important to the American people that they had granted them a place on the most precious document of all, the dollar bill. IN GOD WE TRUST must even now be printed on the money in their wallets.
At least these cretins knew fear, one of the two great motives for belief. The question the baseball bat would not resolve was whether they knew the other motive, love, which, for some reason, was much harder to teach.
The invitation did mention a country club, and I, too, had pictured that we would drive through winding roads bereft of vehicles and roll up a gravel driveway to a valet waiting in a black vest and bow tie, the pastel prelude to entering a hushed den carpeted with the hides of black bears. On the walls, among the picture windows, would hang the antler- crowned heads of deer, gazing with mordant wisdom through clouds of cigar smoke. Outside sprawled an expansive golfing green that demanded more water than a Third World city, where quartets of virile bankers practiced a sport whose swinging skills required both the brute, warlike force necessary to disembowel unions as well as the coup de grâce finesse of tax dodging. But instead of such a soothing haven where one could always count on an undiminished supply of dimpled golf balls and self- congratulatory bonhomie, the address we arrived at was a steak house in Anaheim with all the charm of a door- to- door vacuum salesman.
The maître d’ possessed the mannerisms of an ambassador from a very small country, a careful blend of superciliousness and servitude.
I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.
He was the king of this affair, but he wore his paper crown lightly.
He had complicated our task of being pleasant dinner companions by mentioning famine, something that Americans had never known. The word could only conjure otherworldly landscapes of the skeletal dead, which was not the spectral image we wanted to present, for what one should never do was to require other people to imagine they were just like one of us. Spiritual teleportation unsettled most people, who, if they thought of others at all, preferred to think that others were just like them or could be just like them. [Powerful statement about our [non] ability to empathize with cultures from which we share no collective memory]
So, he said, are you happy? It was an intimate question, nearly as personal as asking about my salary, acceptable in our homeland but not here. What was worse, however, was that I could not think of a satisfactory answer. If I was unhappy, it would reflect badly on me, for Americans saw unhappiness as a moral failure and thought crime. But if I was happy, it would be in bad taste to say so, or a sign of hubris, as if I was boasting or gloating.
I said I was not unhappy. The fat balloon of my double negative hung in the air for a moment, ambiguous and vulnerable. Presumably, Dr. Hedd said, you are not unhappy because you are pursuing happiness and have not yet captured it. As we all supposedly are, correct, gentlemen? The men murmured an assent through mouthfuls of steak and red wine. Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity. Not only did Dr. Hedd have a measure of both, he also possessed an English accent, which affected Americans the way a dog whistle stimulated canines. I was immune to the accent, not having been colonized by the English, and I was determined to hold my own in this impromptu seminar.
happiness, American style, is a zero- sum game, sir. Dr. Hedd slowly turned his head in an arc as he spoke, making sure that he saw every man in the room. For someone to be happy, he must measure his happiness against someone else’s unhappiness, a process which most certainly works in reverse. If I said I was happy, someone else must be unhappy, most likely one of you. But if I said I was unhappy, that might make some of you happier, but it would also make you uneasy, as no one is supposed to be unhappy in America. I believe our clever young man has intuited that while only the pursuit of happiness is promised to all Americans, unhappiness is guaranteed for many.
Gloom descended on the table. The unspeakable had been spoken, which people like the General and myself could never have uttered in polite white company without rendering ourselves beyond the pale. Refugees such as ourselves could never dare question the Disneyland ideology followed by most Americans, that theirs was the happiest place on earth. But Dr. Hedd was beyond reproach, for he was an English immigrant. His very existence as such validated the legitimacy of the former colonies, while his heritage and accent triggered the latent Anglophilia and inferiority complex found in many Americans. Dr. Hedd was clearly aware of his privilege and was amused at the discomfort he was causing his American hosts. It was in this climate that the General intervened. I’m sure the good doctor is right, he said. But if happiness is not guaranteed, freedom is, and that, gentlemen, is more important.
even Dr. Hedd, smiling enigmatically at the General’s redirection of the conversation. Such a move was typical on the General’s part. He knew how to read a crowd, a crucial skill for raising money.
But once the Dollar Bill was dispatched abroad to Thailand, some extraordinary hocus- pocus called the exchange rate happened. The Dollar Bill might buy a ham sandwich in America, but in a Thai refugee camp the modest green Dollar Bill transformed into colorful Baht, ready to feed a fighting man for days.
As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite. Even with liberal white people, one could go only so far, and with average white people one could barely go anywhere. The General was deeply familiar with the nature, nuances, and internal differences of white people, as was every nonwhite person who had lived here a good number of years. We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist’s office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. We were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion, and awe. Although the Congressman was joking, we probably did know white people better than they knew themselves, and we certainly knew white people better than they ever knew us. This sometimes led to us doubting ourselves, a state of constant self- guessing, of checking our images in the mirror and wondering if that was really who we were, if that was how white people saw us. But for all we thought we knew about them, there were some things we knew we did not know even after many years of forced and voluntary intimacy, including the art of making cranberry sauce, the proper way of throwing a football, and the secret customs of secret societies, like college fraternities, which seemed to recruit only those who would have been eligible for the Hitler Youth. Not least among the unknown to us was a sanctum such as this, or so I reported to my Parisian aunt, a hidden chamber where very few of our kind had appeared before, if any.
mental tiptoes, careful not to offend.
Of course it was actually I, in preparation for this meeting, or audition, who had summarized for the General these claims in Hedd’s book. Now I observed Dr. Hedd closely for his reaction to my prescription, but his expression did not change. Still, I was confident that the General’s comments had affected him. No author was immune from having his own ideas and words quoted back to him favorably. Authors were, at heart, no matter how much they blustered or how suavely they carried themselves, insecure creatures with sensitive egos, as delicate in the constitution as movie stars, only much poorer and less glamorous. One only needed to dig deep enough to find that white, fleshy tuber of their secret self, and the sharpest tools with which to do so were always their own words.
After three of these libations and two glasses of red wine, I felt full of insight, the air of truth having expanded my mind and needing to be let out.
Even as I thanked him, I knew I could not accept it. I was venturing into a wilderness many had explored before me, crossing the threshold separating those who had killed from those who had not. The General was correct that only a man who had received this rite could be allowed to return home. What I needed was a sacrament but none existed for this matter. Why not? Who were we fooling with the belief that God, if He existed, would not want us to acknowledge the sacredness of killing? Let us return to another important question of my father’s catechism: Q. What is man? A. Man is a creature composed of a body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God. Q. Is this likeness in the body or in the soul? A. This likeness is chiefly in the soul. I need not look in the mirror or at the faces of my fellow men to find a likeness to God. I need only look at their selves and inside my own to realize we would not be killers if God Himself was not one, too.
You’re always wanting to learn things, he said. Well, there’s no greater knowledge than in killing a man.
when guys like me go and kill, everyone’s happy we do it and no one wants to talk about it. It would be better if every Sunday before the priest talks a warrior gets up and tells people who he’s killed on their behalf. Listening is the least they could do. He shrugged. That’s not ever happening. So here’s some practical advice. People like to play dead. You know how to tell if someone’s really dead? Press your finger on his eyeball. If he’s alive, he’ll move. If he’s dead, he won’t.
Here’s the shopping list. Go and bag some. So we’d go into the villages at night with the shopping list. VC terrorist, VC sympathizer, VC collaborator, maybe VC, probable VC, this one’s got a VC in her belly. This one’s thinking of being a VC. This one everybody thinks is VC. This one’s father or mother is VC, therefore is VC in training. We ran out of time before we got them all. We should have wiped them out when we had the chance. Don’t make the same mistake. Take out this VC before he gets too big, before he turns others into VC. That’s all it is. Nothing to feel sorry about. Nothing to cry about. If it were all so simple. The problem with killing all the Viet Cong was that there would always be more, teeming in the walls of our minds, breathing heavily under the floorboards of our souls, orgiastically reproducing out of our sight. The other problem was that Sonny was not VC, for a subversive would not, by definition, have a big mouth.
Breathing mindfully was a lesson Claude had taught me, learned from the practices of our Buddhist monks. Everything came down to focusing on the breath. Slowly exhaling and inhaling, one cleared away life’s white noise, leaving one’s mind free and peaceful to be one with the object of its contemplation. When subject and object are the same, Claude said, you don’t shake when you squeeze the trigger.
Above the armchair, a blotchy, amateurish painting in the style of a demented Monet illustrated an interesting principle, that beauty is not needed to make a milieu more attractive. A very ugly object can also make an ugly room less ugly by comparison. Another affordable way to add a drop of loveliness to the world was not to change it but to change how one saw it. This was one of the purposes for the bottle of bourbon that Sonny returned with, a third full.
I gave her my number at the wedding and asked for hers, because, I said, wouldn’t it be great if I could write an article about how a Japanese sees us Vietnamese? Japanese American, she corrected me. Not Japanese. And Vietnamese American, not Vietnamese. You must claim America, she said. America will not give itself to you. If you do not claim America, if America is not in your heart, America will throw you into a concentration camp or a reservation or a plantation. And then, if you have not claimed America, where will you go? We can go anywhere, I said. You think that way because you weren’t born here, she said. I was, and I have nowhere else to go. If I had children, they, too, would have nowhere else. They will be citizens. This is their country.
I confess that I do not know what brought me to make my confession to him. Or, rather, I did not know then, but perhaps I do know now. I had worn my mask for so long, and here was my opportunity to take it off, safely. I had stumbled to this action instinctively, out of a feeling that was not unique to me. I cannot be the only one who believes that if others just saw who I really was, then I would be understood and, perhaps, loved. But what would happen if one took off the mask and the other saw one not with love but with horror, disgust, and anger? What if the self that one exposes is as unpleasing to others as the mask, or even worse?
My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air- conditioning; a well- regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.
Your problem isn’t that you think too much; your problem is letting everyone know what you’re thinking.
the book that went under the name KUBARK. It had definitions of several character types the interrogator was likely to meet, and unbidden, the paragraph about the guilt- ridden character rippled before my eyes. This kind of person has a strong, cruel, unrealistic conscience. His whole life seems devoted to reliving his feelings of guilt. Sometimes he seems determined to atone; at other times he insists that whatever went wrong is the fault of somebody else. In either event he seeks constantly some proof or external indication that the guilt of others is greater than his own. He is often caught up completely in efforts to prove that he has been treated unjustly. In fact, he may provoke unjust treatment in order to assuage his conscience through punishment. Persons with intense guilt feelings may cease resistance and cooperate if punished in some way, because of the gratification induced by punishment.
I had to admit to the Auteur’s talent, the way one might admire the technical genius of a master gunsmith. He had hammered into existence a thing of beauty and horror, exhilarating for some and deadly for others, a creation whose purpose was destruction. As the credits began rolling, I felt touched by shame for having contributed to this dark work, but also pride in the contributions of my extras. Faced with ungraceful roles, they had comported themselves with as much grace as possible.
All was reconciled with the speedy return of the corpses to their graves and a substantial donation by the Auteur to the policemen’s benevolent association, otherwise known as the local brothel.
By the time the sound track and film stock credits had passed, my grudging acknowledgment of the Auteur had evaporated, replaced by boiling murderous rage. Failing to do away with me in real life, he had succeeded in murdering me in fiction, obliterating me utterly in a way that I was becoming more and more acquainted with.
Well, what did you think? He finally looked at me, his gaze a mix of pity and disappointment. You were going to make sure we came off well, he said. But we weren’t even human. A rattling taxi pulled to the curb. Now you’re a movie critic? I said. Just my opinion, college boy, he said, climbing inside. What do I know? If it wasn’t for me, I said, slamming the door shut, there wouldn’t even be any roles at all for our people. We would just be target practice. He sighed and rolled his window down. All you did was give them an excuse, he said. Now white people can say, Look, we got yellow people in here. We don’t hate them. We love them. He spat out the window. You tried to play their game, okay? But they run the game. You don’t run anything. That means you can’t change anything. Not from the inside. When you got nothing, you got to change things from the outside.
I had failed at the one task both Man and the General could agree on, the subversion of the Movie and all it represented, namely our misrepresentation.
the kind of meal I had forgotten was reserved for those who ranked among the meanest.
the admiral quizzed us on our years in America and we quizzed him in turn on how he had come to be shipwrecked in the forest.
A lot of the people they went to save didn’t want to be saved, Uncle, Bon said. That’s why they ended up dead. My son, the admiral said, no longer smiling, it does not sound like you are a believer. If by that you mean a believer in religion or anticommunism or freedom or anything with a big word like that, no, I’m not. I used to believe, but not anymore. I don’t give a damn about saving anybody, including myself. I just want to kill communists. That’s why I’m the man you want. I can live with that, the admiral said.
Next to one of the gates in this fencing, on the interior side, was a pavilion for family visits. The prisoners had become emotional cacti in order to survive, but their wives and children inevitably wept at the sight of their husbands and fathers
I can’t help but feel that our own culture, and not Western culture, tells us something about your difficult situation. “Talent and destiny are apt to feud.” Don’t you think Nguyen Du’s words apply to you? Your destiny is being a bastard, while your talent, as you say, is seeing from two sides. You would be better off if you only saw things from one side. The only cure for being a bastard is to take a side.
But the only thing harder than knowing the right thing to do, I went on, is to actually do the right thing.
If spirits are so bad for me, then why do you drink, Commandant? I don’t drink to excess, unlike you.
Don’t you see we live in a sensitive time? It will take decades for the revolution to rebuild our country. Absolute honesty isn’t always appreciated at moments like this.
attempts to digest it. Subsisting on a diet of manioc not only was culinarily unpleasant, it was also no fun
Compared to To Huu, you are a communist only in name. In practice, you are a bourgeois intellectual. I’m not blaming you. It’s difficult to escape one’s class and one’s birth, and you are corrupted in both respects. You must remake yourself, as Uncle Ho and Chairman Mao both said bourgeois intellectuals should do. The good news is that you show glimmers of collective revolutionary consciousness. The bad news is that your language betrays you. It is not clear, not succinct, not direct, not simple. It is the language of the elite. You must write for the people!
The foot would keep me awake until I died. The foot was slowly, ever so slowly, killing me. The foot was judge, guard, and executioner. Oh, foot, have sympathy for me. Foot, whose whole life is one of being stood upon, of being made to walk the dirty earth, neglected by all above, you of all living things should understand how I feel. Foot, where would we, humanity, be without you? You delivered us from Africa to the rest of the world, and yet so little is said about you. Clearly you got a raw deal as compared with, say, the hand. If you let me live, I will dedicate words to you and make my readers realize your importance. Oh, foot! I beg of you, nudge me no more. Stop rubbing your calluses on my skin. Don’t scratch me with your sharp, uncut nails. Not that your calluses and nails are your fault. They are your negligent master’s fault. I confess that I am just as heedless in the care of my feet, your kin. But I promise if you just let me go to sleep, I will be a new man in regards to my own feet, to all feet! I will worship you, foot, as Jesus Christ did when he washed the feet of sinners and kissed them.
Foot, you should be revolution’s symbol, not the hand holding hammer and sickle. Yet we keep you hidden under the table, or shod in a shoe. We abuse you, as the Chinese do, by binding you. Would we ever inflict such an injury on the hand? Stop prodding me, please, I beg of you. I recognize that humanity poorly represents you, except for when we spend copious amounts of money in dressing you, because you, of course, cannot represent yourself. Foot, I wonder why I never thought about you before, or hardly ever. The hand is free to do whatever it pleases. It even writes! No wonder more words have been written about the hand than the foot. We share something in common, foot. We are the downtrodden of the world. If you would only stop keeping me awake, if only [The passage about the foot being a remarkable display of desperate pleading, like when one is hungover, earnestly swearing to abstain from booze in a bargain that everyone knows is a mirage despite its solemn profession.]
It is not me who needs convincing. It is the commandant. You do not write in any way a man like him can understand. You claim to be a revolutionary, but your story betrays you, or rather, you betray yourself. Why, you stubborn ass, do you insist on writing this way, when you must know that the likes of you threaten the commandants of the world
You frighten him. You are nothing but a shadow standing at the mouth of his cave, some strange creature that sees things from two sides. People like you must be purged because you bear the contamination that can destroy the revolution’s purity.
Man had introduced him to the science of history in the study group, its chosen books written in scarlet letters. If one understood history’s laws, then one could control history’s chronology, wresting it away from capitalism, already intent on monopolizing time. We wake, work, eat, and sleep according to what the landlord, the owner, the banker, the politician, and the schoolmaster command, Man had said. We accept that our time belongs to them, when in truth our time belongs to us. Awaken, peasants, workers, colonized! Awaken, invisible ones! Stir from your zones of occult instability and steal the gold watch of time from the paper tigers, running dogs, and fat cats of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism! If you know how to steal it, time is on your side, and numbers are, too. There are millions of you and only thousands of them, the colonizers, compradors, and capitalists who have persuaded the wretched of the earth that capitalist history is inevitable. We, the vanguard, must convince the dark peoples and subterranean classes that communist history is inevitable! The exhaustion of the exploited will inevitably lead them to revolt, but it is our vanguard that speeds up the time toward that uprising, resets the clock of history and rings the alarm clock of revolution. Ticktock— ticktock— ticktock—
As we can neither see nor touch his mind, all we can do is help the patient see his own mind by keeping him awake, until he can observe himself as someone else. This is most crucial, for we are the ones most able to know ourselves and yet the most unable to know ourselves. It’s as if our noses are pressed up against the pages of a book, the words right in front of us but which we cannot read. Just as distance is needed for legibility, so it is that if we could only split ourselves in two and gain some distance from ourselves, we could see ourselves better than anyone else can.
He had nearly died already from the syphilis given to him by a prisoner’s visiting wife, who had paid her bribe with the only resource she had.
Of course you cannot sleep. Revolutionaries are insomniacs, too afraid of history’s nightmare to sleep, too troubled by
Don’t make excuses! We didn’t whine. We were all willing to be martyrs. It’s only pure luck that the doctor, the commissar, and myself are alive. You simply weren’t willing to sacrifice yourself to save the agent, though she was willing to sacrifice her life to save the commissar’s.
I saw myself admit it then. I heard myself acknowledge that I was not being punished or reeducated for the things I had done, but for the thing I had not done. I wept and cried without shame for the shame I felt.
just as my abused generation was divided before birth, so was I divided on birth, delivered into a postpartum world where hardly anyone accepted me for who I was, but only ever bullied me into choosing between my two sides. This was not simply hard to do— no, it was truly impossible, for how could I choose me against myself? Now my friend would release me from this small world with its small- minded people, those mobs who treated a man with two minds and two faces as a freak, who wanted only one answer for any question.
I am the commissar, but what kind of school do I oversee? One in which you, of all people, are reeducated. It is not because you did nothing that you are here. It is because you are too educated that you are being reeducated. But what have you learned?
If anyone besides you knew that I had spoken the unspeakable, I would be reeducated. But it is not reeducation that I fear. It is the education I have that terrifies me. How can a teacher live teaching something he does not believe in? How do I live seeing you like this? I cannot. Now pull the trigger.
I was so stupid! How could I forget that every truth meant at least two things, that slogans were empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea? The suits depended on how one wore them, and this suit was now worn out. I was mad but not insane, although I was not going to disabuse the commandant. He saw only one meaning in nothing— the negative, the absence, as in there’s nothing there. The positive meaning eluded him, the paradoxical fact that nothing is, indeed, something. Our commandant was a man who didn’t get the joke, and people who do not get the joke are dangerous people indeed. They are the ones who say nothing with great piousness, who ask everyone else to die for nothing, who revere nothing. Such a man could not tolerate someone who laughed at nothing. Satisfied?
Some might say I was seeing things, but the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus.
Because I bought your escape. I’ve sent money to the right officials, who will make sure the right police officers look the other way when the time comes. Do you know where the money comes from? I had no idea. Desperate women will pay any price to see their husbands in this camp. The guards take their portion and leave the rest to the commandant and myself. I send some home to my wife, I pay my tithe to my superiors, and I used the remainder for your escape. Isn’t it remarkable that in a communist country money can still buy you anything you want?
The only benefit from his condition was that he could see what others could not, or what they might have seen and disavowed, for when he looked into the mirror and saw the void he understood the meaning of nothing. But what was this meaning? What had I intuited at last? Namely this: while nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom! These two slogans are almost the same, but not quite. The first inspiring slogan was Ho Chi Minh’s empty suit, which he no longer wore. How could he? He was dead. The second slogan was the tricky one, the joke. It was Uncle Ho’s empty suit turned inside out, a sartorial sensation that only a man of two minds, or a man with no face, dared to wear. This odd suit suited me, for it was of a cutting- edge cut. Wearing this inside- out suit, my seams exposed in an unseemly way, I understood, at last, how our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power. In this transformation, we were not unusual. Hadn’t the French and the Americans done exactly the same? Once revolutionaries themselves, they had become imperialists, colonizing and occupying our defiant little land, taking away our freedom in the name of saving us. Our revolution took considerably longer than theirs, and was considerably bloodier, but we made up for lost time. When it came to learning the worst habits of our French masters and their American replacements, we quickly proved ourselves the best. We, too, could abuse grand ideals! Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom— I was so tired of saying these words!— we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same.
a revolution fought for independence and freedom could make those things worth less than nothing.
we find ourselves facing more questions, universal and timeless ones that never get tired. What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing? We can only answer these questions for ourselves. Our life and our death have taught us always to sympathize with the undesirables among the undesirables. Thus magnetized by experience, our compass continually points toward those who suffer. Even now, we think of our suffering friend, our blood brother, the commissar, the faceless man, the one who spoke the unspeakable, sleeping his morphine dream, dreaming of an eternal sleep, or perhaps dreaming of nothing. As for us, how long it had taken us to stare at nothing until we saw something! Might this be what our mother felt? Did she look into herself and feel wonderstruck that where nothing had been something now existed, namely us? Where was the turning point when she began wanting us rather than not wanting us, seed of a father who should not have been a father? When did she stop thinking of herself and began to think of us?
Now that we are to be counted among these boat people, their name disturbs us. It smacks of anthropological condescension, evoking some forgotten branch of the human family, some lost tribe of amphibians emerging from ocean mist, crowned with seaweed. But we are not primitives, and we are not to be pitied. If and when we reach safe harbor, it will hardly be a surprise if we, in turn, turn our backs on the unwanted, human nature being what we know of it.
We remain that most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution, although we will not dispute being called a dreamer doped by an illusion.
Interview with the author: Anger In The Asian American Novel
it is not translating or explaining Vietnamese culture to Americans. It is translating American culture or South Vietnamese culture to the Vietnamese. That was a really critical move for me because it allowed me to adopt this critical and satirical approach towards American culture. I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese. Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start from a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time. Everybody in this book, especially our protagonist, is guilty of some kind of terrible behavior. For me, the ability to acknowledge that we are all both human and inhuman at the same time is really critical because that acknowledgement also characterizes dominant culture. For example, in American movies about the Vietnam War, Americans want to be on screen regardless of whether they have to be villains or antiheroes. It’s much better to be able to do that than to be the virtuous human extra in the margins. Dominant culture is perfectly willing [to feature], and often claims, inhumanity as part of subjectivity. It makes for a great movie and it makes for great art. And that’s part of what I felt I needed to do in this book as well: claiming humanity was an insufficient and condescending gesture. Being able to present a narrator who’s both human and inhuman was my way of challenging
In the American imagination, it is typically Vietnamese women who serve the same function that film does in The Quiet American, which is to represent the country, to be raped, or to become the lover of foreigners, especially American soldiers. We see that repeated time and again on screen: the Vietnamese woman is made to suffer for the love she has for a foreigner and that is part of her tragedy, what makes her so attractive to the West. So in this moment in the novel, I wanted to show that this was something that wasn’t simply happening in terms of what the West was doing to Vietnam but what Vietnamese were doing to themselves as well. In other words, the rape of Vietnamese women was also being done by Vietnamese men. The Vietnamese are at least partially responsible for what they did to themselves. I didn’t want to turn away and put the blame squarely on the Americans or the French, although that blame is there. I wanted this to be very specifically a moment of Vietnamese‐ on‐ Vietnamese confrontation and responsibility because, again, this is part of how we reclaim our subjectivity: we aren’t just victims but victimizers as well. This is a part of our history that we all find very difficult to confront. We would much rather blame other people or other sides. That’s important, but we also need to look fully at how “we fucked ourselves,” which is one of the key lines at the end of the book.
I didn’t want to present a binary between the revolution and the individual. I was thinking really explicitly about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which influenced me a lot. Ellison’s book traces a similar narrative of someone coming into consciousness, becoming a revolutionary, and then, discovering that the revolution has failed, turns back to individualism. And I was with Ellison all the way up until that point. The ending of the novel is my disagreement with Ellison, because even though the revolution fails our protagonist, he doesn’t feel the need to go in the opposite direction and claim that now all that’s left for him is to be the individual. The individual who is nothing might still be more important than the failure of the revolution. And so the individual continues to assert the importance of being revolutionary and practicing solidarity. Your question is pointing at something that I think is right, that in one aspect even an individual who is nothing has a great degree of value in this revolutionary society. But at the same time, turning only to individualism is not going to be the answer to the failure of the revolutions, something I was partially trying to express at the end of the book. There’s not really a solution that the book offers at the end, because for me the adventures— or misadventures— of our narrator haven’t been completed yet. He simply reaches one moment of terrible revelation and is then left with an opening which the novel doesn’t close at the end.
I think he is just barely beginning to understand himself and the person that he is. Throughout the novel, he’s very torn by things he’s witnessed and endured while he writes the confession. He thinks he knows who he is and how the world works because he’s a revolutionary. He comes into political consciousness, which has allowed him to make sense of himself and what he’s feeling. But that confidence is taken away from him throughout the course of the book. So he’s left unmoored at the end, and he needs to discover how to reconstruct himself after this re‐ education. I have some ideas about what that might entail, but part of the pleasure of writing was not knowing exactly how he would change as a person. I might have to actually write the sequel to discover how his self‐ education will unfold.
I don’t want to put any burden of expectation on him in terms of what we as Asian Americans are supposed to want from our children, which is an Ivy League education and professional success and all that. That to me is not important. I look at him and I see someone who is happy, and loving, and kind, and a joy, and I want him to retain all those qualities as he grows and lives. That to me is more important than any kind of external success that he might achieve. I think what I want for him is an outcome of my own experience and what happens to my narrator in the book. I certainly wouldn’t want my son to grow up like me or my narrator; and the last thing I would want him to do would be to become a writer!