diaCRITIC Linh Dinh has been traveling to various parts of America for his project Postcards from the End of America, a compilation of photos and texts to document America’s economic and social unraveling. Much of his travels are recorded on his photo blog, State of the Union. Here’s his latest installment.
Kansas City—Seeing a squatting man, I immediately knew he was foreign, but only after we started talking, did I realize he was Vietnamese. We then switched from English to our native tongue. Of mixed race, Tung likely had American blood in him from the Vietnam War, though there were Aussie and New Zealander troops there too, as well as contractors and reporters from dozens of other countries. A mild man, Tung sported a moustache and donned a cheap-looking, dun baseball cap featuring an eagle perched on the stars and stripes. Forty-three-years-old, he had been in the US 11 years, and was working as a boner at a pork processing plant in Greenbush, MN, making $16 an hour, for $400 net a week. Previously, he had been at a beef plant in Sioux City, Iowa, but that place only paid $300 per week.
Greenbush is near the Canadian border, and the region is almost entirely white, but from Tung I learnt that 80% of the workers at this pork plant are non-white, with many Africans, Mexicans and Asians, with the Burmese so adept at this grueling work, they’re allowed to chew betel leaves on the job, with trash cans nearby to catch their spittle. Saving what he could from his modest pay, Tung had returned to Vietnam eight times, with six months his longest stay. Back in tropical Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, he would eat and drink well, and idle his time away, but that too would get tiresome, and his dollars would evaporate, so back to frozen Minnesota he would fly. Recently he passed out at the slaughter house and woke up in an emergency room, but since it happened just before he clocked in, even before he had a chance to put on his gloves, it wasn’t considered a work place incident. Tung spoke wistfully of a fellow Vietnamese who had gotten clipped by a forklift. The lucky man broke his chin, so thereafter was assigned the easiest tasks, on top of his medical compensation.
Oakland—Chased by the sky-high rent in San Francisco, not to mention Berkeley, yuppies and hipsters alike are fleeing to Oakland, fueling a mini boom in select neighborhoods, but much of the city is still a desolate mess, with homeless people everywhere. Pushing shopping carts, they scavenge for plastic and aluminum. Outside the Alameda County Administration building, they set up tents each night, and remove them each dawn, with their area hosed down by custodians, before the first clerks and secretaries arrive. Overflowing from San Francisco’s Chinatown, Asian immigrants, mostly Chinese, have also given Oakland an economic boost, with hundred of stores and restaurants opening. Oakland’s Chinatown’s cheap eats have naturally attracted the homeless. I saw a man bought some lo mein, with bits of vegetables and pork, for just $1.50, haggled down from 2 bucks. The owner, a Vietnamese woman, said that at the end of each day, she’d give food to three homeless guys, one black, one white and one Chinese. At another dirt cheap joint, I saw a homeless man enjoy rice gruel with traces of chicken and preserved egg, plus a decent pork bun, for just $1.75 and 55 cents, respectively. The self-served tea was free and unlimited. On three chairs at his table were trash bags holding his possession.
El Paso—Seeing the back of my head outside the famously haunted De Soto Hotel, he addressed me first in Spanish, before I turned around. “You don’t speak Spanish?” In his 60’s, he had on a blue felt cowboy hat, and a bucking cowboy bolo tie. He lived in the spooky, low rent building, with his son and a shared bathroom, he said, and not only that, he was Pancho Villa reincarnated. The general had returned to straighten out a few things. Villa will take all the money from the US government and give it to people who actually deserve it. To make up for them being destroyed during World War II, he will bring all Japanese to the US. America paid 37 countries to bully Japan, Villa informed me. He will also relocate the entire Vietnamese population to America and Chihuahua, and ship all Americans to Africa. He will do all this as soon as he can get rid of a foot tumor planted by an evil loan shark, witch doctor. It shouldn’t be a problem.
Atlantic City—There’s a Sidney Pho, with an image of the Sidney Opera House on its sign, but Vietnamese do that. Walk into a Viet joint, and you may greeted with a mural of the Eiffel Tower or even Florence, Italy, so why not Sidney? Why not have a Vietnamese eatery designed as a Bavarian beer hall? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Riverside, NJ—I asked Joe, “When were you in Vietnam?”
“Sixty-seven and sixty-eight. I was just eighteen years old. Just got out of high school. I fought in the Tet Offensive,” and Joe just stared at me, his cloudy blue eyes clearly seeing what wasn’t in Riverside, New Jersey, that day or ever. After the weightiness of it all had settled again, Joe continued, “My father fought in World War I and World War II, and four of my brothers were in the service. I was a baseball prospect, you know. After high school, I had sixty scholarship offers.”
“Six?!” I interrupted him.
“Sixty! You must have been great!”
“I was. I was a catcher, and I hit .400 in high school. I could probably make it as a professional, but my father said, ‘We have a war now,’ so I enlisted. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a small life. We were into bebop and Elvis, and next thing I knew, I was killing people. Your people!” Joe started to tear up. I put a hand on his shoulder and moved it back and forth. The red-eyed vet continued, “The government put us into this terrible situation. All of a sudden, we were there. Our first day, we saw two American corpses, and they had their genitals cut off and stuffed into their mouths.”
“What?! I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
“But that’s what we saw. And now, I’m thinking I’m not sure who did this. I’m thinking maybe it’s our own government that did this, to get us riled up. They did it so we would hate the Vietnamese.”
Marcus Hook, PA and Gloucester, NJ—Just to the side of the elementary school, there are two pieces of artillery, and by the river, there is another big gun next to the Delaware County Vietnam Memorial. Beneath 183 names, there is a curious inscription, “THIS MEMORIAL IS ALSO DEDICATED TO THOSE VIETNAM VETERANS THAT WERE KILLED IN VIETNAM, BUT WHO DIED AT HOME.” I’m assuming that this is a reference to Agent Orange and suicides, but what else? There are so many ways to die years later from a war. As for Agent Orange, it was manufactured primarily by Monsanto and DuPont, with the latter headquartered in Wilmington, DE, a 10-minute drive from Marcus Hook. Your brother could work for DuPont, as DuPont killed you.
Altogether, there are nine war memorials in Marcus Hook, and this is hardly unusual in small town America. Across the river, the center of Gloucester, NJ, is dominated by a cluster of war memorials, with a large slab commemorating the death of just one soldier, Corporal Marc T. Ryan, who died in Iraq at the age of 25. On the polished granite are three images of him: as a football player, then soldier in full combat gear, plus a smiling head shot. Ryan’s father and grandfather were Marines, and Ryan was only killed on his second deployment to Iraq. He had also spent a year in Afghanistan. Before his last mission, Ryan had applied to be a state trooper, but was not hired.
For much of 2013, dozens of banners hung from utility poles on Gloucester’s Broadway Street. On each is an image of a native son lost in a war, going to back to World War I. The portraits are large and mostly in colors. William Bernard Hamacher was only 18 when he was killed in Quang Tri, South Vietnam. Daniel Gilbert Booth was buried at sea in World War II. On and on it went. Next to Gloucester, tiny Brooklawn, with less than 2,000 souls, has three pieces of artillery in its center. In many towns, you may even find a tank or two. Such a militarization of the landscape is so common in America, many may even assume that it is a universal tendency.
The water tower in Gloucester has the familiar POW/MIA flag painted on it, and in Marcus Hook, this image flutters outside the post office, the idle Sunoco refinery and at some private homes, among other places. Inside a circle, a large Caucasian head is seen in profile, with a watchtower in the distance. To indicate captivity, there is a strand of barbwire, and beneath everything is this caption: “YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN.” To make sure his neighbors don’t forget about America’s many wars, Mark Lane has even set up a military museum inside his wife’s thrift store, Andrea’s Attic. I had called ahead to make sure it was open, and before I walked in, I noticed a sign in the window, “I SUPPORT HELPING THE NEEDY. I OPPOSE FUNDING THE LAZY,” then in the vestibule, I was greeted by the photocopied faces of about 40 local criminals, with transgressions ranging from child sexual molestation to burglary, to assault. As far as crimes go, Marcus Hook is a very tame place now, a Mr. Roger’s neighborhood or petting zoo, as compared to when it was dominated by the Pagans, a 1% motorcycle gang that cooked meth, warred with the Mafia and chased the Hell’s Angels out of Philly. They also provided other useful social services such as making sure pharmaceuticals were available to penned-in and pent-up Amish kids, and babysitting teenaged girls rounded up from the MacDade Mall in Ridley Township. After school activities included bareback buckling, mattress swimming and (sort of) synchronized gymnastic. In honor of Shakespeare, perhaps, there was also the two-backed beast relay “drill” team, which broke out at frequent intervals in between beer runs. Seeing a middle-aged woman at the cash register, I assumed that it was Andrea, but she introduced herself as Lesley, then warmly said that her husband, Mark, would show me the museum.
In a space no bigger than a reasonably large bathroom was crammed military uniforms, helmets, bayonets, swords, newspaper clippings and, most interestingly, panoramas featuring toy soldiers, with some housed in small aquariums. There were no tags, so the viewer had to decipher each scene by himself, although Mark was right there to answer questions. A depiction of the Cu Chi Tunnel showed a GI, tiger and snake above ground in a jungle setting, then below the earth’s surface, here made of cardboard, I saw a Viet Cong and an American “tunnel rat.” Suffering frightfully high casualties, tunnel rats were small, slim men who had volunteered to go underground to flush out the VC. Their motto was “Non Gratum Anus Rodentum,” “Not Worth a Rat’s Ass.”
“Were you in the service?” Mark asked me.
“No, no,” I smiled. “How about you?”
“Actually, no. I registered, but never enlisted, and then the draft was over.”
“There are lots of Vietnam vets in this town. Do they ever come in here?”
“How about kids? Do you have classes in here?”
“Well, sometimes a kid or two would come in, but this space is really too small for a class. I can’t keep an eye on them all, and these little kids might just break everything.”
“This museum is fascinating. This is, like, the highlight of Marcus Hook! Do you want more people to come in?”
“Well, I’m not sure, because I have to be here to show anyone around. I work a regular job, you know, in Chester.”
“What do you do over there?”
“I work for a paper company. We make cardboard stuff.”
Mark never rushed me as I looked around, and I took my time examining everything. Inside a bombed church, a wounded Nazi clutched a wine bottle. Above him, pigeons nestled in the destroyed ceiling. Wearing a keffiyeh, bandolier, rope belt and armed with made-in-China plastic M-16 and scimitar, an Arab soldier had been plopped in front of an American Hummer with a bullet hole in its windshield. Barely hidden lampshades kept parachutes abloom as paratroopers dangled. Sporting a mohawk, a member of the 101st Airborne spied on a Nazi and a Japanese soldier. When Mark asked if I was Japanese, I said, “No, Vietnamese,” so he brought out a Vietnam-era ammo belt, “I’ve been meaning to ask someone about this. Can you read this for me?”
“This is Chinese, Mark. It’s not Vietnamese.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, Vietnamese use the alphabet, with these accent marks on them. This is definitely Chinese.”
“This is from the Vietnam War, so I thought maybe it was used by the South Vietnamese.”
“The South Vietnamese would use American gear, and since this is Chinese-made, I’m pretty certain that it was used by the Viet Cong, so this is a Chinese belt used by either the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese.”
Marcus Hook doesn’t even have a Chinese restaurant, much less a Vietnamese one, so there’s no Vietnamese writing on any local menu for Mark to detect should he want to try a bowl of rice vermicelli with grilled lemongrass beef, etc., and in many Hollywood Vietnam movies, Vietnamese writing has been erased from the landscape. I’ll get to that later, so hang tight! Meanwhile, Mark responded, “Hmmm, I think you’re right! Boy, am I glad you came in today. You taught me something, so thank you!”
Tacoma—Though this may sound like a joke, it’s certainly no joke, for I’m not a joking type: When I came to the US in 1975, the very first American song I learnt was “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Though I could not properly pronounce any of the words, and understood only half of them, at most, I sang along with all the other kids in Miss Dogen’s class at McKinley Elementary in Tacoma, Washington. To this day, I remember one kid cracking up at me, and if I should ever see his laughing face again, I’m sure I’ll recognize it even after many decades. I’ll confront my adversary, “Hey, man, it wasn’t very cool of you to laugh at me, like, a century ago!” Anyway, as I was swaying back and forth and mouthing along, “And on that farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O,” I was thinking in Vietnamese, “Cute, the natives here are peasants at heart, for they love to sing stupid songs about cows,” but I was wrong, wrong, wrong, of course. It’s remarkable, and risky too, that only 2% of this nation’s people produce food for the rest, and doing any sort of farm work is about the last thing most Americans want to do.
Kennewick, WA—I crossed the street and entered Players, which from a distant I had misread as Prayers. What is this, a born again bar? It was Sunday. Inside, I quickly made the acquaintance of Pablo, a natural ham, “I have the smallest dick in the world, but women love me, because I know how to listen.”
And to prove it, he showed me three beat up cell phones, “Each phone is for a different girlfriend.” I still don’t get it. He also had two lollipops in his pant pocket, so the man must suck.
Born in Mexico, Pablo has been in the Tri-Cities area since he was three, so he’s basically a native. In 1966, Pablo was sent to Vietnam, and though he signed up for an extra tour, he insisted to me he never shot anybody, “Everyone has a mother. I love human life! I don’t want anyone’s mother to cry. I’d rather be shot at than to shoot anyone! I didn’t kill nobody.”
“Where were you stationed in Vietnam?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember! When I came home, my father asked me about Vietnam, and I said, ‘It has become a part of me!’ Every place you go becomes a part of you, so Vietnam has become a part of me. It’s inside me!”
Before Pablo left, he ticked off for me a list that’s all too common among men, “I’ve been with a German, a Bosnian, a Russian, many white women, one Mexican but never an Oriental woman, a Vietnamese woman.”
At 62, Pablo’s trophy hunting expedition can’t last much longer, for it doesn’t matter if his mind will age or not, his carcass will be stricken down before he knows it. Already, every other front teeth is missing, with the remaining barely anchored in his eroding gums. No orange juice guzzler, this pirate look-alike, although with a black cowboy hat instead of a tricorne. Scurvy or no, Pablo will continue to forge ahead for there’s no time to lose!
Philadelphia—The elevated train rumbles above Kensington Avenue, so riding on it, you can see all of these desolate windows on the upper floors, many of which are boarded up, bricked over or hollow. Ruins of factories loom nearby. Until recently, there was an open coffin in the yard of The Last Stop recovery center. Lying inside it, a wide eyed, pink faced dummy stared up. At ground level, you can shuffle pass these cheap hoagie joints, Chinese take outs (with bullet-proof order windows), pawn shops, bodegas, discount clothing stores, used appliance dealers and a church of the Black Israelites, who believe that only blacks, Latinos and native Americans can enter heaven. Many store fronts are empty, many lots trash-strewn and weed-infested. Here, most of the barbershops are owned by Vietnamese immigrants, and with competition so fierce, they all advertise a 5-buck haircut. Revealing their primary clientele, American and Puerto Rican flags grace their signs. On side streets, there are all these “abandominiums,” which serve as shooting galleries, but the biggest one of all are the wooded flanks of the railroad tracks running along Tusculum Street. Shootings follow illegal drugs, so here, there and everywhere are death shrines with their candles and stuffed animals. At Ella and Cambria, there’s one housed in an old TV cabinet, of the type made 50 years ago. “R.I.P. BUM,” it mourns. In Camden, I have seen one that said, “R.I.P. CUNT.”
When I first strayed into Kensington 25 years ago, I thought the people rather misshapen, their faces dull, but between the poor diet, cheap alcohol and abundant drugs, it’s hard to appear otherwise. (To be fair, they’d probably deem me a gargoyle also.) Much has been written about the illegal drugs and sex that plague Kensington, and hardly a week goes by without a shooting or two, but normal families also live here, and beneath the bloody headlines, there is also resilience, dignity and beauty. Three years ago, for example, I was invited by Emily Diefendorf to address her 6th grade class at the Visitation School. Before my talk, we met at the Thang Long [Rising Dragon, Hanoi’s old name] Restaurant, and had pho. Most of the kids were Dominicans or Puerto Ricans, and though many had never had this dish, with one or two never having even used chopsticks, they all behaved exceptionally well at the meal, then afterwards in the classroom. Respectful and attentive, they were a tribute to their school and teacher, a transplant from Indiana who had majored in journalism and history. Kids being kids, though, they did ask me some goofy questions. My favorite, “You told us you can’t sing and you can’t dance, and you weren’t any good at sports, so, ah, what are you good at?”
On that occasion, I also met Tung Nguyen, the school’s handyman. In 1981, he survived a boat escape from Vietnam to wash up in Indonesia, where he stayed for a year in a refugee camp. Finally admitted to the US, Tung first found work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Three weeks on the rig, then one at home, so he saved much, though the pay wasn’t all that great. The 27 men on the rig ate really well, though, but they weren’t allowed to drink. When idle, they fished. After this company went bankrupt, Tung tried to find work in Spokane, Seattle and Kansas City, before arriving in Philadelphia, where he was hired by a steel processing plant. He remained there for 13 years before it shut down. All four of Tung’s kids had attended or were at the Visitation School, with the oldest ready for college. She was being offered a full, eight-year scholarship to four different schools, including Temple and Penn. I asked Tung what it was like to have kids in Kensington, and he just shrugged, “You don’t let them out after dark, that’s all. They basically just go to school, then come home.”
Tacoma—Christmas in Saigon, people spill onto the streets to stroll around the main cathedral. My first Christmas in the US, in 1975, my father drove me and my brother into downtown Tacoma. Giddy with excitement, we thought it would be super festive, but once there, found it practically empty. Christmas in the US is an occasion for families to gather, not a public celebration. Driving around, my father finally noticed a hitchhiker, so picked the man up and took him to his house, about 3 miles away. Saying thanks, he got off and walked into the darkness. “We drove him all that distance, and he didn’t even ask us to come in!” my father lamented. In Vietnam, people would immediately drag a new acquaintance home to jabber or eat and drink, but in the US, you can know someone for decades but only meet in public, as at a bar.
Already, it’s nearly 40 years since I left Vietnam, though as an adult, I did return to stay for 2 ½ years. Having lived in the States for 35 years altogether, I’ve clearly become American, and so can pretend I haven’t been deracinated, like so many people worldwide.
Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House(Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), four books of poems, All Around What Empties Out (Tinfish 2003), American Tatts (Chax 2005),Borderless Bodies (Factory School 2006) and Jam Alerts (Chax 2007), and the novel, Love Like Hate (Seven Stories Press 2010). His work has been anthologized in several editions of Best American Poetry and Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, among other places. Linh Dinh is also the editor of the anthologies Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (Seven Stories Press 1996) and Three Vietnamese Poets (Tinfish 2001), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (Tupelo 2006). He has also published widely in Vietnamese.
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