I was eating Banh Cuon and staring at a pile of bricks across the street this morning while contemplating what it means to be a pangolin according to the Google Earth Day Quiz, when I remembered a conversation I’d had with a German man two days prior.
We were in District 1 on Duong Co Giang at a small but growing English language center. We stared at a map as we traded anecdotal stories about beliefs in America and elsewhere that reject science. He’d been to many, many countries. I have been to three, and Canada briefly, and didn’t bother counting the number he’d been to. An embarrassment, the difference in travel felt like a symptom of some lascivious disease passed down at birth by generations before me, though it is still hard for most people in previous generations to talk about, because other than a lack of mobility and general apathy towards preserving certain tenants of previous generations, people my age with basic, crushing money problems don’t necessarily show the fact, unlike herpes sores around a kid’s mouth or untreatable gonorrhea in their eyes.
So, this young German man, who’d previously taught in the school we stood in, had chased a love interest he’d met on a cruise through the Caribbean. He lived in Germany. She lived in Colorado and was from Michigan, if memory serves accurate. He gave the impression that they’d talked a lot on the phone, or at least a few times, but since Germany/US phone calls were not cheap at the time, have probably never been cheap, he found some way through an uncle to live with relatives for a few months in Colorado. After the summary of the reasons he wound up in Colorado, we talked Church.
“It was incredible,” he said. “I couldn’t believe he’d just said that in front of all these people who were like [He nods his head and smiles a cracked smile] just eating it up, you know? Incredible. I couldn’t believe it.”
He described how the preacher/priest figure told the crowd about his visit to the Middle East where an Iraqi or Afghani woman allegedly told him that she wanted Americans and foreigners all around to come and bomb her house and her neighbors’ houses and their land to drive them to Christ. Drive them to Christ! I laughed and shook my head. I’d heard that self-serving bullshit on TV, and had read about it, but here was a German man, probably no older than I, who’d traveled all the way to chase a girl and wound up politely agreeing to go to a church where he witnessed the true embarrassment of America – the seedy, disgusting underbelly of moronic assholedom that perverts the innocent, the uneducated, and the lost into thinking absurdly bad lies like the accuracy of Creationism or the sanctity of Chick-fil-A.
Hearing shit about your own country from complete strangers who seem reasonable and smart is hard to handle for someone like me, particularly when abroad. But, there isn’t much you can do. No good way to amend the transgressions of entire sections of a country in which you represent somewhere around three to the negative ninth degree. And, there are so many other problems as well. Today, the news flounders on deaths of young black men, and the greater story itself will get mangled and fridged like Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend. West Africa is struggling back towards a normalcy that is unacceptably below International par. Sierra Leone faces a contracting economy as Ebola struck at the same time the price of Iron ore dropped, which is a major resource for them. Guinea is at a standstill, while Liberia seems to be okay, even growing, except for the fact that they just dealt with Ebola for a year. And, some people even think Ebola is God’s will… but, they are likely more inhuman than not if their thought patterns deliver that rubbish to their tongues. For news junkies, going abroad can be a wonderful, opening experience, because you can remove yourself from your addiction for a while – but, you’ll binge, and hard.
As would likely happen with any country, when at a distant proximity to America, one tends not to think as often about the place. Friends and family are a constant, but the bigger pictures… not as much. So, when I hear a story like this one, or get into a conversation like this one, the end always seems to be a memory, vivid, of some time long ago when life was calm and happy and made more sense. Could be that the mind is literally attempting to maintain some semblance of sanity. Or, it might be that the mind is disjointed and tossing around ideas like someone trying to throw with a dislocated shoulder – all pain and shouting and confusion. You don’t know if you’re being precise, or accurate, because you’re shooting at a blank wall in the dark.
There are many days when vivid recollections perform their version of quantum entanglement and crash into past moments, lens blazing open with the heat of sudden impact. Sometimes, it’s pleasant, or at least tolerable. More often than not, it’s a reminder of what life had been, why it no longer is, and why you sprint away from it to any nascent and inchoate idea like a kid diving for what looks like a shiny piece of metal. You either want to repeat the good times, or avoid the bad. And, sometimes it doesn’t make any sense at all. One time, walking down the street I caught a whiff of that horrible chemical sour apple smell – probably from chewing gum – that shot the mind back to a memory of a girl cracking her chin open after falling a few rungs down a very old structure at a playground – it looked like a birdcage, but about fifteen feet tall and covered in rust and paint. That was next to a rectory my mother used to work at back when religion make any sense to me, good or bad. I hadn’t thought about that in twenty years, most likely. And only remember it now because I had a pad in my pocket when it happened.
Last fall, I repeatedly experienced moments in which I found all of my senses connected to moments in nature…. Sitting by a fire, hearing the wood crackle and incensed leaves brush… like thousands of jazz fans raking snares. Tucked in a coat walking seaside wandering through bad doggerel thoughts, wondering about the psychological aftermath of endlessly running interest and how-did-I-let-this-happen and in-the-name-of-all-things-even-remotely-smart-you-need-to-get-the-hell-out-of-debt calculations. Smells of dead oak and rotted and wet dark-purple maple leaves all stuck together like a stack of newspaper sitting in shallow water. And voices. The voices sweet and course of the people in your life who’ve been through bad and good with you. Those moments are the ones that will remind you of how long you’ve been away, and how long yet you still have before you return. And as occurred here in this column, those moments are the ones that lash together what you like about your past, and help you cope with what your land has turned into.
For many people out here in Vietnam who are not from here, to see their native land they either have to look from their orbit, or look back from their path.