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July, 2019:

When my Mom spoke Vietnamese

“The Best We could Do” by Thi Bui is a graphic novel that tells the story of her family’s journey. The story spans four generations, from pre-war Vietnam, though their experience as refugees, and finally as immigrants in America. The book won several awards, and it Bui deserves them all. The book also revived a strange childhood memory for me, of my mother being able to speak Vietnamese.

I don’t like graphic novels, but the medium really brings Bui’s story to life.

Bui’s family, like many people from the South, saw that they had no future in the new Vietnam, so they took their chances and left by boat. We will never know how many people drowned when their boats sank, or were killed by pirates, or died of other causes during their flight. The lucky ones made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia or other Southeast Asian country. The very lucky ones had family in the United States, and were sponsored by their relatives to go to America.

My family was on the other side of the Vietnamese refugee crisis. We were the part of American society who helped the refugees to find a new life in America. My church “adopted” a Vietnamese family.

I think their name was Mai (I now know that Mai is a family common Vietnamese family name). They were a married couple with some children, I don’t remember how many. My church rented a house for them, donated clothes for the kids, and tried to help them adjust to life in chilly Michigan. Of course it was hard. Their English wasn’t good at all, and everything was new for them, from the weather to the food to the schools. We tried to communicate, but it was a huge challenge. But to my amazement and confusion, my mother could speak a few words of Vietnamese with them!

One Sunday afternoon we went to their house for a visit. I remember my father was talking with Mr. Mai about gardening. Mr. Mai’s English was better then the rest of the family’s. But they still had trouble communicating. Every once in a while, Dad would call out an English word to Mom, who would tell him in Vietnamese. Dad and Mr. Mai managed to have a conversation, thanks to Mom’s knowledge of Vietnamese(?!).

But how did my mother, born and raised in Michigan, ever learn Vietnamese? I remember being really amazed and confused. I wanted to ask her how the heck she learned Vietnamese. But I got distracted, and then forgot to ask her later.

As I started to learn Vietnamese, and to learn more about Vietnamese history, I learned that through the 1950s, French was the colonial language, so it was the language that a Vietnamese person would be educated in. The Mais, as part of the upper crust of Vietnamese society, would have spoken French. My mother also speaks French. So to my disappointment, I had to accept that my mother wasn’t speaking Vietnamese with Mr. Mai. Rather, they had found a literal “lingua franca” in French.

Mom couldn’t speak Vietnamese after all. Too bad, a little disappointing. She’s still awesome, of course. But man, she really blew my 8-year-old mind that day.

Good-bye for now, Vietnam

“It’s probably too much to hope that my next tour will be as memorable as this one.” I wrote that at the end of my first tour in China. I really thought that a tour couldn’t be as eventful as that one. Boy, was I ever wrong. Not to discount my adventures in China, but my two years in Vietnam were so much more action-packed than my time in China. By a huge margin.

I didn’t write as much while I was in country, mainly because of the nature of the job. A lot happened, and it all happened so fast. I still have a lot to say about my tour in Vietnam. But I need some time to process it first. Like I wrote more than two years ago, I’m still not sure what the hell happened, and how to understand it all. But there I know some things already:

You can never really prepare.

I spent a year in D.C., learning job skills and Vietnamese language. Even after so much time in training, I didn’t feel prepared for Vietnam. I was right. I wasn’t ready. Toward the end of my tour, I mentioned to my boss that I felt incompetent and useless. He smiled. “How many years until you retire?” he asked. I told him I was planning to stay in the job until mandatory retirement at age 65. “You’ll feel that way until then,” he predicted.

We work in a country for two or three years, then move on. The Department doesn’t allow us to stay in the same country for a long time. That means that we are always investing time to learn about the country we serve in. There’s a ramp-up time before we hit our stride and get efficient. Then it’s time to move on to the next country. There are good reasons for this system. We should keep our perspective and always advocate for the United States. I’ve personally seen the loss of perspective in officers who stay in country too long. The huge investment in time and resources to train us can seem inefficient. But it’s like what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst form of government except for all the rest. Maybe our system has problems, but it does work. We just have to get comfortable with some inefficiency and feelings of inadequacy.

Loneliness is built in to the job.

They read this book to us during A-100. It’s all true, every word.

Because of some family issues, I was at post by myself for a year. It sucked. It’s hard enough being separated from your family, being alone in a foreign country is harder. They warned us about this. It still sucked.

I “celebrated” my birthday while on a business trip in Hanoi. The hotel noted my birthday when I checked in, and left this cake for me in my hotel room. Nice gesture, but it actually made me feel worse.

Friends help with the loneliness.

The locally-engaged staff at post are great. They are dedicated, professional, kind, good people. I will never forget them.

I worked with some friendly, kind, funny, loving people. They are like family to me.
I got to interact with the next generation of Vietnamese leaders. They made me feel optimistic about the future of their country.

Unlike my last tour, when I felt uneasy about making friends with the local people, this tour I made some life-changing friendships with Vietnamese people. One friend introduced my to the writings of a quiet Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. I have a complicated relationship with religion, and don’t agree with everything about his religion, but his writings about mindfulness touched me deeply.

Maybe the purpose of life is the good that you leave behind.

Not to get too philosophical, but this job is like human life: we arrive at a place that was there before we got there. We’re there for a short time, do some things, meet some people, live, love, then leave. After we go, the world goes on. What’s important is to leave the world a little better than how we found it.

Me and Mr. Phi.

I wrote before about Mr. Phi, who works in my apartment building. He once told me that he wanted to work in the Consulate, and has applied several times unsuccessfully. The next time the Consulate posted a job opening for a local staff, some other officers and I helped him polish his resume, and helped him with his application. Just a few weeks ago, he received a job offer. I might have been as happy as he was.

My tour is over, I’ve left Vietnam. My replacement has arrived and will take over for me. The work in Vietnam will go on. The Vietnamese people will live their lives. I will miss my dear friends. I hope that I did some good.

Coconut Guy

I have been admiring Coconut Guy’s hustle for two years now.  It’s not a scam, there’s no crime, it’s soft-sell, everyone wins, nobody gets hurt, and it’s like that famous cologne: 60% of the time, it works every time.

Coconut Guy works the street in front of my apartment building.  Actually, there is more than one Coconut Guy.  There have to be at least ten different guys who work my street.  And that’s only on my street. There are Coconut Guys all over town, near every touristy place.  But for the sake of convenience, I call all of them Coconut Guy.

Here’s how his shtick works.  He spots a group of tourists (they aren’t hard to find).  It has to be a group, it won’t work with a solo tourist.  He saunters up to them with his yoke of coconuts, as if he’s taking care of business, without really noticing the tourists.  He looks like he’s just another working stiff delivering his coconuts.  You know, like when you order coconuts for delivery, and they’re delivered by a guy carrying them on a yoke, like coconut delivery guys have done for a thousand years  Someone has to deliver the coconuts, right?

I’m just Coconut Guy, doing my Coconut Guy thing.

As he passes the group, he makes some friendly chit-chat, like “where are you going?”  He points out the way to the local tourist site.  Just in passing.  He might also help the tourists cross the crazy Saigon traffic. Just a harmless guy, living his life, delivering coconuts.

“Museum’s just up that street, you can’t miss it.”

Then he starts to interact with the group.  Usually he points at the man in the group, and makes the muscle gesture, like: “wow, you look strong!”  And then offers to let the tourist carry his coconuts.

And of course he takes Coconut Guy up on his offer.  Of course he would!  What a great Vietnam experience!  They’ll never believe this back home!  I carried coconuts!

“Have a taste of my coconut-carrying life!”

Hurry, honey, get a photo, he says.  And look at that, Coconut Guy is posing for my photo!  This is great!

See why this only works if there’s a group of tourists together? Someone has to take the photos!

Then, after the charming photo opp, Coconut Guy takes back his coconuts, and goes on his merry way.  Bye-bye, tourists, have a great day!  Enjoy your vacation is Vietnam!

Thanks for the memories! I enjoyed meeting your charming foreign selves!

Then, as an afterthought, he turns around, reaches into his cooler, and pulls out a coconut.  Oh, by the way, he says, would you like a coconut?  No pressure, you don’t have to buy, but they’re cheap, it’s a hot day, they are cold and refreshing, and besides, it’s another Vietnam experience for you!

Try it, honey, they’re really good!

And of course most of the time, the tourists take him up on his offer.

“Price” is such a relative term, isn’t it? Can you put a price tag on a true Vietnam moment?

This is where Coconut Guy wanders into morally fuzzy territory.  You see, coconuts are really cheap in Vietnam.  In fact, this year the crop is so plentiful that the price of coconuts has fallen to almost nothing.  Sure, Coconut Guy shaves the husk down to carry-size, and sure, he chills them, and even supplies a straw to make it easy for the tourists to enjoy.  Still, he’s paying a max of 25 cents for a coconut, and he’s getting anywhere from $2-$10 from each tourist.  One of my friends at post said that her brother paid $25 for a coconut (she really let him have it when he told her that).

But Coconut Guy isn’t just selling coconuts.  He’s selling the Coconut Guy experience.  The tourists seem to enjoy it.

Smile for the camera!

No one walks away feeling cheated, and they actually get a Vietnam Moment.  Of course, it isn’t a unique Vietnam Moment.  The scene is repeated over and over, every day, following the same script, with the same outcome.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

As hustles go, this one is pretty harmless.  Rich tourists pay way more than they should for a coconut, which keeps Coconut Guy employed.  The tourists can afford to pay what they’re paying.  The coconuts are fresh and perfectly good.  Coconut Guy isn’t lying to anyone, everyone is free to walk away at any time.  Some do, but enough people buy coconuts that there are more and more Coconut Guys on the streets.

Good hunting, Coconut Guy!

And lately, Coconut Guy has taken on a sidekick with this own shtick. But Shoeshine Guy is another story for another day.

I ‘Scaped

So now I know how to survive. At every post around the world, we are issued “‘scape masks” when we arrive at post. They are for escaping a fire or other scary scenarios where the air might become dangerous. It’s a plastic mask that fits tightly over your head, and has its own oxygen supply. We put them in a desk drawer and forget about them.

Yesterday the security office at post conducted an evacuation drill. We were told to put on our old masks and evacuate the building.

I guess it’s nice to know that we have equipment that will keep us alive in the event of a nerve gas attack or whatever. But it’s disconcerting to be reminded that I work a job where I might be attacked with nerve gas or whatever.

But life goes on.