Postcards from the End of America
Friday, January 30, 2015
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
just a short question from a reader in Deutschland (thats me): Do you have a link for me with a photograph of some ad or sign with this slogan "if you see something say something" - would like to show this to some friends, who don't believe that THAT is the thinking in america [...]
Keep up the great work - it's inspiring to me.
There are so many of these signs, and they are on buses and inside subway stations as well. The first one is of a "See Something" sign on a huge backpack inside a Cambridge, Massachusetts subway station:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
I've just read your article, "Escape from America" on the Intrepid Report web site, and since I'm an ex-pat and am approaching seventy, thought I'd send along a few thoughts on the subject.
Yutang's childhood food memories certainly ring true, but growing up in the fifties and sixties in rural southeast Michigan (Romeo, population 600, where Detroit, while only officially 32 miles south, seemed like a foreign country for me), where we never locked anything up, all I thought about was baseball and how my piano lessons kept me from playing it, if only for a few hours a week. And how I loved listening to the radio broadcasts of the Tigers' games, keeping my scorecard, and seeing the game in my head. How I used to eat wild asparagus on my way home from school, listen to Mr Reese's cows as I drifted off to sleep, spend nights in my circle of pine trees on a high point in Mr Sheets' apple orchard gazing up at the stars, watching the moon arc across my circle of sky, ride with the milkman in his dripping, ice-cooled truck, four distinct seasons, and lots of fresh air. It's a bedroom suburb now.
Then one day I asked my father why we couldn't pay a fair price for our coffee or bananas or why a Russian farmer would want to fight with an American farmer, as I gazed northwest, figuring that's where a nuclear missile might come from and where Bobby Dietrich and I used to launch our home made rockets from an old gravel pit we called Gravel Canaveral. I suppose you could call that moment my "loss of innocence" or a lack of patriotism or my first subversive thought.
A few years later I stopped watching television, stopped reading the newspapers and magazines and began to read books recommended by upper classmen eggheads and the old guy in my hometown who sold used books, much to the detriment of my grades but they certainly got me to thinking about seeing a bit of the world. That and the encouragement of my Spanish teacher and one of my history teachers who presciently warned me of economic and proxy warfare.
So encouraged was I that upon high school graduation I spent nearly three months wandering around mid-sixties Europe, and even though '68 and '69 were slowly reaching the boiling point in France, I fell in love with the villages and the farmers, the small scale way of doing things, the traditions and the food, and in '73, giving up any thoughts of joining the family business or continuing graduate work, took off for Greece and the hope of finding a teaching job. The thought of having maybe two or three weeks of time off to go somewhere had become ridiculous. No. I was going to go for years, learn the languages, get to know the people, actually live there. And that's what I did. Greece, France, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Italy, Morocco, and now back to France, where I've been since '03 and where I'll die.
I did spend a while in the States during the eighties and then again in the nineties, but it just didn't work for me. I couldn't adjust and it seemed that my country was drifting so far from reality, had become so insular and homogenized and third worldly (Dubya as president? Twice?), I sold all the shit I had accumulated and took off without any definite destination in mind, thinking maybe Crete, a vegetable garden, and maybe a small fishing boat. Obviously, it didn't work out that way, and I'm living in Paris with a wonderful woman, and dealing with the Hebdo phenomenon, the trans-Atlantic trade treaty, Sarko-Hollande as the equivalent of Bush-Obama, and the slight glimmer of hope that the recent Greek election might offer. And cultivating a bio garden we have in the country.
As I wrote to Joe Bageant some time before he died, one's arrival in a foreign country is usually full of promise. We want it that way. A new beginning, the novelty of it all. The novelty inevitably wears off and we're left with who we are.
All the best,
Monday, January 26, 2015
How long have you lived overseas?
Its been 10 years. I am 68 and I am making a little money from the coffee I am growing, a little money from renting out pasture, and I am living off the proceeds from selling my house in the U.S. My original plan was to develop this farm to the point where I could earn a bare bones subsistance income from it, maybe $3000 a year. Not there yet. The 1500 mixed native hardwood trees I have planted I consider to me my Social Security. I can sell them for lumber one at a time when I am old, or mill them myself and sell the lumber. And in the meantime I get to enjoy their company!
What made you decide to leave the US?
Mostly it was Dubya either winning reelection or stealing it in Nov 2004, and the refusal of my fellow anti-war , anti-imperialist activists to look at the overwhelming evidence that 9/11 was an inside job. And the wimpiness of the anti-war movement in thinking that marching around some abandoned city streets on a weekend when nobody was in town was the best they could do to stop the invasion of Iraq.
I should mention that I have been spending winters in Mexico and Central America since 1977 and I was involved , during the U.S. wars on the poor in Central America, in solidarity work and voluntary accompaniment work in Guatemala and El Salvador from 1986 to 1996,when the Peace Agreement was signed in Guatemala. International accompaniment is where foreigners use their white skin privilege to accompany folks who are threatened with assassination or disappearance, mostly indigenous leaders, or human rights leaders or labor union leaders, or entire indigenous communities. I have also lived in a Zapatista community. So deciding on Costa Rica was not a big, abrupt thing for me as it might be for others, I have experience in Central America..
I chose Costa Rica because land ownership by foreigners is more secure, though some still do get ripped off through fraud.
What do you miss about not being in the US?
Mostly I miss nutritional yeast for popcorn, tamari soysauce , whole wheat blueberry pancakes and real maple syrup and good turkey for sandwiches. And good roads, the road infrastructure here in Costa Rica is one of the worst points. And road signs, and street signs in towns and cities, and house numbers. I miss a sense of cause and effect which my very rural neighbors seem to lack. I miss bookstores and libraries and intelligent conversation. Or did I really have that much intelligent conversation in the U.S. ? I miss good live music. I miss drivers who know how to drive.
What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?
I picked a somewhat remote rural area in the mountains. I have a small coffee farm . I like the altitude of 900 meters, it is not hot like the lower elevations are. But it is the wild west out here and I had the bad luck to buy a farm in between two psychopaths. How are you going to know how your neighbors will turn out to be when you are a newcomer? I found out years after buying the farm that the reason the owner was selling it was due to credible death threats from my east side neighbor, who has also threatened me and fired shots when I caught him on my land. Go to the law? Ha ha ha. Been there. It might be that the threats towards me were to make me want to sell my farm cheap, because maybe one of the two neighbors, who are related, wants to buy it. I was told that a local who came to ask about buying my farm was actually acting on behalf of the neighbor who threatened me with the machete. Or the threats could be because I agreed
to be a witness against him for the Environmental Agency here for illegally cutting trees right down to the stream.
I had a really good Tico (Costa Rican) family living nearby but they moved.
The hardware and farm and building supply stores drive me crazy. You have to wait in three lines to buy something. First you wait in line to order it, then you get in line to pay, then you get in another line to receive what you are buying. The cashier is always a family member. There are no self service stores because everyone is so dishonest that the owner would be robbed blind by both customers and employees. I am not the first to remark that apparently the Catholic Church does not teach such basic concepts as don't lie, don't steal, honor the Golden Rule.
For further discussion of what is wrong about Costa Rica, google “Moving To and Living In Costa Rica. The Dangers and Pitfalls” by an anonymous author (not me).
What are some of the pleasant surprises you've encountered in your new home?
That I could learn how to be a tropical farmer and specifically a coffee producer. That I could overcome my fear of the fer-de-lance, the most poisonous snake in the Americas, which are everywhere in rural and wild Costa Rica. Oh, the Department of Tourism forgot to tell you about those?
Very low taxes, almost makes you feel like you actually own your place instead of renting it from the government, as you do in the U.S.
Bananas and plantains in various parts of my farm, there for the picking. And little wild tomatoes. And mangoes and avocados. And some fruit drinks that are new to me: guanabana and cas.
The police are friendly! Can you imagine? They may not be especially competent in investigations but they are well meaning and courteous, at least in my interactions with them.
The blue morpho butterfly. The scarlet macaw.
And it is stone cold QUIET where I live. As I write, I hear a bird singing, now a different one, I hear a low insect buzz in the distance, I hear creek water flowing. I hear NO internal combustion engines. Praise the Lord.
This morning I heard the loud raucous call of scarlet macaws and went outside to see two fly over . I have planted two types of tree they like.
Something else I like here. The traditional hardworking rural farm life here has no problem with gender roles. There were logical reasons in the development of human civilization why the man went out and did the grunt work and killed the beasts (and snakes) and the women stayed home to nurture the young and tend to the house.
The local bar and pulperia a few miles from here has NO TV ! I haven't watched TV in 45 years and I can't stand eating in a restaurant or visiting a bar that has the TV on. So this 6 stool bar (and 5 seats outside) is good by me. People actually talk to each other, have conversations ! And there is this wonderful custom. As a new man enters (unfortunately its all men who go to this bar, but that is also why there are almost never fights), he makes the rounds and shakes everybody's hands and exchanges a greeting. I love it. And they include me, even guys from out of the area extend the same courtesy to me of shaking hands and saying hello. On the other hand, when someone has the flu, everyone else gets it from handshaking real fast.
I have a horse! That’s a pleasant surprise. I think of her as my emergency solar powered (photosynthesis grows the grass she eats) transportation.
What are some of the unanticipated problems?
As mentioned, bad luck in having two very bad neighbors.
The police and judicial system do not function very well.
The constant pressure from Costa Ricans to apply chemicals with abandon to the farm, as they do. They are so accepting of chemical agriculture that I fear the knowledge has been lost amongst them of how to farm without chemicals.
Cultural isolation. I chose to NOT confine myself to a community of ex-pats, though many do that. I wanted to immerse myself in authentic Costa Rican culture. Well, I have. Including being threatened by my western neighbor with a machete. I had fantasized a happy, honest, egalitarian society, when in reality Costa Ricans are out to take advantage of foreigners and will lie and cheat and overcharge you almost every time. And they don't have “friends”, they have relatives. And you ain't one. And they therefore have a whole clan to support them and to plot against you, while you have no such clan. Out where I am they are just as Capitalist as back in the U.S., always trying to screw someone, even a relative, to get an advantage. The small farmers here are just as uncaring to the health of the land and the community as , on a larger scale, the big corporate demons back in the U.S. are. This could be because Costa Rica has so little indigenous blood, it's very Spanish. It could be Catholicism (I always try to offend as many groups as possible). The nastiest guys in my area, the ones who also are the worst destroyers of the environment, are the ones who are getting rich and are gaining power. Sound familiar?
What are some advices you have for Americans who also want to get out?
Knowing or learning the language is a must unless you want to hang out with fellow ex-pats at the McDonald’s. If you are a collapsenik or back to the lander like me, you want to live on rural land where you can produce food. Land is a hell of a lot cheaper here than in the U.S. Maybe you should rent first and get to know what the real prices for Costa Ricans are so you don't pay gringo prices, for land and everything else. Also maybe travel til you find an area you like then rent for awhile. Trouble is if you want to live the back to the land homesteading lifestyle, you can't really apply yourself to land you are renting.
A successful transition is part personality (yours) and part luck. But you will seldom hear the negative stories because those people who would tell them want to sell their foreign homes so they can get out. Maintaining Real Estate value or maintaining one's income from tourism is a strong incentive for those of living here to always talk up Costa Rica. When a Tico asks you if this is your first visit to Costa Rica, grab a hold of your wallet. They ask that to determine how stupid and gullible you are, to determine if they can play the “tropical paradise” card and pretend that this is the happiest place in the world and it can be yours if you just sign here.
Anybody can sell real Estate in Costa Rica, there are no rules or licensing. So a broker can mark up the property you are looking at as much as he wants. And he can lie that he is doing so.
Where do you want to be as we head for the worldwide collapse of industrial civilization? I have to say that North American forests seem a lot more hospitable to me than Central and South American jungles ( newly repackaged as “rainforests”). I mean it's hard to sell a snake infested malarial jungle, but just call it a rainforest! You won't find me outside my house here after dark, that's when the fer-de-lance pit viper comes out to hunt . I can't ever walk outside without shoes or with flip flops due to the likelihood of ant bites. Black rubber boots are the everyday wear on farms here. Not very sexy.
But the U.S. is full of guns and TV addicts who have watched a zillion hours of violence on the tube, and the majority think that torture is O.K. And they have zero interest in U.S. foreign policy ( a euphemism for who the U.S. is torturing and slaughtering this week, and which “rebel” group the U.S. is training to later become the next bogeyman who will justify yet more incursions in oil rich lands or where there are potential or actual pipeline routes), as long as the TV works and they can drive to Walmart.....
And it's warm here year around, no struggle with winter. No need for either heat or AC where I live.
Perhaps the ultimate question is : do you leave your friends and kinship group behind to strike out for a new land? On different occasions local people here have asked me, incredulously “You live here without family? '' They cannot imagine living without family. They are right, it's nuts.
So far I still return to U.S. for 2 or 3 months in the summer. Last year, flying from Costa Rica to Newark Airport, I was talking with a young woman seated next to me. I don't usually get into political or other deep conversations with new acquaintances, but she seemed smart and from our conversations I thought she might be open to what I had to say. I told her that actually I was afraid to be back in the U.S., afraid of the police state, afraid that another false flag attack like 9/11 would happen while I was in the U.S. and there would be martial law and I would not be able to get out. As we exited the plane, there was immediately a gauntlet of 6 black uniformed police with German shepherds we had to walk in between. I nudged her with my elbow, and whispered “see what I mean?”
A little later, after going through Customs we passengers were walking fast down a long hall when we came to a 90 degree turn to the right. All of a sudden all passengers were halted, we were being questioned aggressively by black uniformed police who asked questions to catch people off their guard. As my turn came, the cop asked “where were you, what countries were you in, what were you doing there?” I told him, in answer to the last question, “it's what I do”. I later thought a more complete answer would have been “it's what I do. You hassle people in airports, I go to Costa Rica” . A more appropriate answer would have been “What's it to you? This is a free country, ain't it?” But we all know where that would have gone. With me being led off to a room where there were no witnesses.
There are a high proportion of U.S. men living alone out here in the boonies because in general U.S. women (or Canadian or German or French, etc) can't take the social isolation . One newcomer seven or eight miles from me returned to the U.S. a few months ago after his wife moved back and refused to live here anymore. (see “friends and kinship groups”, above). Women can't take the social isolation, but I can't take the noise of close neighbors. Hell is other people and the noise they make. If one is lucky one might find a place a little ways out of a town that is quiet. Until someone new moves in nearby. Latin Americans love noise, they equate it with joy, or excitement, I think. I am an hour from town on a winding mountain road, the closest half of which is not paved. That is the price I pay for quiet.
But what do I or you expect? We of European heritage invaded the Americas inflicting catastrophic, heinous death and suffering on the native peoples. Destroying their exemplary, more-egalitarian-than-us , more sustainable than us, more fun than us lives. Yea yea I know about the Aztecs and the Mayas and the Incas. They were on the same trajectory, it's called civilization. It does not end well. Still, their waste was all bio-degradable. We of the U.S. discovered oil in Pennsylvania, we created a deathly industrial “revolution” that used the skies and the earth and the rivers and the oceans as waste dumps. Now we, with the help of Halliburton, ingeniously have figured out how to pump our toxic waste deep underground, polluting forever water reservoirs. We have created nuclear plants and nuclear wastes that will way out-survive us. We have spread death and suffering around the world with our military. Now the chickens are coming home to
roost, the planet is about to get rid of it's disease. Human industrial civilization is on the way out due to finite supplies of petroleum. Humanity itself may be on its way out sooner rather than later as well due to global warming. And what ? I expect , out of some notion of white entitlement, to find some happy land I can move to and avoid the cataclysm? I should not suffer like everyone else? At least I don't have children. To steal a line from Native American spoken word artist John Trudell : “We are the seventh generation”. And there is no undoing what our previous six generations have done.
Oh, right, one is supposed to end articles on an uplifting note. About how we can still lick this problem if only bla bla bla . Sorry. ( Guess I won't be getting that grant after all.)
If you're an American living abroad, please answer the questions above and send them to me: email@example.com . I'll post all of your answers on this blog, plus a photo or two if you feel like sending them, and please do tell how you're making money in your new country, and give me your age also. Many thanks in advance!
at Burning Platform:
My son’s been in the UK since a little over 10 years. He’s never felt at home in the US but once arriving in England via Europe he felt like he opened the door to his own home after a long journey. Of course it helped that he had a network of friends already established when traveling through Europe.
2004. Arrived in Munich as the World Cup was taking off. Was smoking a doobie whilst walking down the street. Cops tapped him on the shoulder and said “Wir möchten, dass Sie zur Polizeistation zu kommen.”
Once in the police car he asked if he could have picture taken with them. They obliged. He was let go after an hour or so and told not to smoke weed out in public again.
Son: “Ich werde nicht. Danke.”
If only our cops were so good-humored.
25th January 2015 at 6:59 pm
Having visited countless shanty towns and barrios throughout Latin America and Asia, I can vouch for the author’s view. Poor people in the Third World are far happier than Americans and seem to have a richer appreciation for the things that really matter.
I suspect that the economic collapse on the horizon will test America’s resolve. Americans have convinced themselves that they’re somehow exceptional and indispensable. We’re going to find out soon enough whether this is true.
25th January 2015 at 8:52 pm
Bea Lever says:
If you left this country, where would you go?? This time will be different as the shit will hit the fan globally. The EU, ME, SA, US and Canada etc will all be in the shitter at the same time.
On the other hand, the LAST place I would want to be is New York or New Jersey when it all comes down, so I agree with your consideration of relocation. Do you have the skills to make it in a remote area? When I say remote, I mean remote.
25th January 2015 at 9:20 pm
I actually sat and waded through this tirade…
Long Duck Dong or whatever his name is, can go suck a bag of hot dicks…. he makes a couple good points, but then just goes off his fucking axle…
I’m tired, it’s late… I might tear old Long Duck Dong a new ass tomorrow… might not… we’ll see.
25th January 2015 at 10:35 pm
Friday, January 23, 2015
As published at OpEd News, Information Clearing House and Intrepid Report, 1/24/15:
Lin Yutang wrote, “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” Born in Fujian, Lin also lived in the U.S., France, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where he’s buried. Whatever attachment Lin had to his childhood stews, fish balls, snails, clams and tofu, it didn’t prevent this remarkable author and inventor of the first Chinese typewriter from globetrotting to improve his mind then, finally, to save his own ass, as his favored Kuomintang got routed by bad-assed Mao.
Should I stay or should I go? Ambrose Bierce glibly defined an immigrant as “an unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another,” but between any two things, types of coffee, meat loafs, races, there is always a value judgment, so one thing is always better or worse than another, though the verdict is never unanimous, for some people are even fond of ingesting egesta, or watching television nonstop, even to the point of leaving it on through the entire night as they sleep, so they can hear it in their dreams, I suppose. My friend T.J. does this. To each his own, then, but since leaving one’s country is never an easy step, logistically or psychologically, let’s examine the reasons for such a radical departure.
Turning his back on all he has known, and his very identity even, an emigrant is fleeing from his inadequate or insufferable government. If hightailing from a war, he’s trying to save his own skin since the state can no longer protect him. At other times, he’s escaping the state itself, for it has become his overt nemesis.
Since Americans have never experienced a Pol Pot, Stalin or Hitler, they can be terribly dismissive of other people’s historical trauma, so on the left, you still have naifs evoking Communism, of the dictatorship of the proletariat variety, as an ideal, while on the right, you have buffoons who mislabel crony capitalism as communism. Some dream of an American reich. Far from objecting to an overbearing state, they only quibble about its objectives, and nearly all have come to accept endless war as a natural American condition, and it is, quite frankly, for when was the last time the U.S. wasn’t fighting or occupying an alien population? I’d say never, but don’t listen to me. Submit your answer for a chance to win an all-inclusive, extended stay at the world-renown restive encampment at tropical Guantanamo!
A totalitarian state is one that can do any damn thing it feels like to you, without you having any recourse to fight back, short of being suicided by cops, and since the U.S.A. can now arrest, torture or kill anyone without due process, and it has, aplenty, it qualifies as such a monstrously criminal state notwithstanding the fact that all appears reasonably normal, sane and civilized, for now. If the law allows, say, a husband to shoot his wife at any moment, then that society has entered into hell even before the first woman has had her brains blown out.
Another clue to the state’s totalitarian pivot is its heavy emphasis on travel restrictions, such as the secretive and illegal no-fly list, its perverted airport groping of infants and centenarians alike, its absurd and arbitrary ban on everything from baby formula to clam sauce, such as happened to me, seriously. Even with the image of spaghetti on the label, the TSA Einstein thought it was a beverage. He actually suggested I drink it.
Like any attacker, a terrorist is liable to hit you where you ain’t heavily guarded, so there’s no reason why he should consider airports when there is an infinity of other targets, and the more random, the more terror generated, for nowhere would be safe. In any case, the only terrorists we should fear are the ones who are recruited and coached or, at the very least, sanctioned by our sinister FBI or CIA. Since it’s no secret our government casually and habitually massacres, should we be surprised that it also butchers innocent Americans? Far from being victims of terrorism, the United States is the world’s leading generator of it.
The primary aim of our transportation security regiment, then, is not to thwart terrorists but to drum into your head that traveling is not a right but a privilege granted by the benevolent state, and if you don’t grovel all the time, everywhere, and not just at airports or train stations, this special dispensation can be abruptly withdrawn.
Chewing on Kim Kardashian’s pumped up derriere and Tom Brady’s deflated balls, most Americans ignore all alarming signs of their nation’s descent into madness, though some have already made the decision to jump ship. Recently, I posed some basic questions to a handful of Americans living overseas, and their candid answers have been eye opening.
Explaining his reason for leaving, Dave, a 38-year-old living in South Korea, confides, “Initially, it was a desire to be able to make a decent living, and an interest in experiencing life in other parts of the world. More recently, I have been thinking about collective guilt in the context of Washington’s foreign policy atrocities. The U.S. government’s support for Ukrainian Nazis and their genocidal campaign against ethnic Russians makes me think that at some point causing suffering will be the last remaining function of the U.S. government.” What a succinct indictment, and the more desperate this government becomes, the more it will massacre, for it’s no longer competent at anything else. With native grumbling exploding into active rebellion, blood baths will also splatter across the Homeland.
Writing from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Danielle Covarrubias states that she “always knew that the US was a sick society,” and “I remember the day in 5th grade (Westlake School for Girls--bubble within a bubble) when I read in the history book about Manifest Destiny. I was outraged! What? Who said? With what right?” Born in California to a Mexican father and white mother, Covarrubias “never, ever felt like an American or said ‘we’ about the US.” Covarrubias even felt more at home in Greece, where she lived and worked for many years, “I made wonderful, dear friends there. Actually, the time I felt most foreign was when I was invited to some middle-Americans’ house for Thanksgiving in LA. They were nice people, but I felt sooooo foreign there. I actually feel really strange around groups of white people, although I’m half white, look white […] I definitely feel that I don’t belong in that society; they’re just so...different.”
You can be entirely white and feel more at home, or at least more human, in Mexico. Fifty-seven-year-old Brent writes, “People in Mexico are much friendlier than most people in the US.” There, he’s “able to form nice friendships with people I never could have met in the US, both Mexicans and people from the US.” Also, “Families here are kind of like communes, good fortune is shared with less fortunate members. There are good and bad aspects of that, but outright destitution seems fairly rare.”
Several other respondents also point out this easier access to other folks. Writing from Damak, Nepal, Son Ha Dinh observes, “I get to meet and talk to people daily and spontaneously wherever I travel whereas in the States you have to make plan, arrange meeting, confirm time and location etc...Just extra layers we add to our lives that are really unnecessary.” Having moved from Cambridge to Istanbul, Mark and Jolee Zola share that “Turks (along with the country’s minority residents) are very warm, welcoming people.” Intending to stay for just a year, this retired couple have remained in Turkey for nearly seven, and it’s their home now. They’ve learnt the language. Considering that Istanbul is not cheap, its human attraction must be considerable to retain the Zolas.
Having lived in Hanoi for 5 ½ years, San Francisco transplant Jacob Evans relays, “Vietnam in particular is a very human place. People eat on the floor in rooms facing the street with their doors open. When a neighbor dies, black flags are hung outside and a tent is erected where funeral music is played all day and night. The grieving family are wrapped in white cloth and even later they wear black badges to let everyone know about this status. The Viets are constantly looking after one another. A regular greeting is, hi, did you eat yet? I go to the markets and see every part of an animal used. Sidewalks are transformed into eateries, places to drink and gossip. Time is marked by the consumption of rituals. I am constantly full of awe and wonder.” Arriving, Jacob knew just two Vietnamese phrases, “I don’t have any money” and “fuck your mother.” He has enough Vietnamese now for basic interactions.
Obviously, the longer one stays, the more complex or paradoxical any place becomes. Returning to Saigon as an adult, I had to relearn my birthplace, and this is what I said during a 2000 interview, “I think one of the misconceptions I had was that people related to each other better here. All superficial observations, I mean you can see how people live here: they live in close quarters and the neighbors know each other, they have time to talk, the conversation can drag on for three hours, so I thought people had more patience with each other, they liked each other better, sense of family, sense of community, all that shit. But I was also a little skeptical. I didn’t believe it fully. In the States, I didn’t know my neighbors. I hardly knew anyone. I had to go to the bar. I knew my friends at the bar but the people around me I didn’t know. But here, you see people chatting and talking. But after living here a while, I can see that people aren’t quite that social. They might talk, but there’s a lot of animosity, there’s a lot of mistrust, there’s a lot of underhandedness, you know.” Attempting to explain, I continued, “Maybe [it’s] just human nature, maybe people are like that anyway, they just happen to be physically close to each other, but not psychologically close to each other. One thing I’ve noticed is that haggling is a very bad custom. You’re always trying to get over the next person. You’re always haggling. In the States, you’re not worried about being cheated when you go to the supermarket, but here you’re always worrying about being ripped off when you buy anything. So this mind game that’s being played, haggling, haggling, corrupts people. But on the other hand, there’s a conversation.” Had I stayed longer than my 2 ½ years, my observations would evolve further, no doubt, for even with a spouse or, hell, with yourself to your own consciousness, a mask can crack over decades or peel off suddenly, with another mask underneath. Further, just as Atlanta is not Boston, Saigon is not anything like Hanoi.
Moving from sojourner to permanent resident, the immigrant gains gravity and roots, and this is what 47-year-old Joe has done by marrying an English woman and having two kids. Ferdinand Celine wrote, “When you stay too long in the same place, things and people go to pot on you, they rot and start stinking for your special benefit.” It has taken but four years in Great Yarmouth for Joe to sour on England, “i came here with the insane, very stupid idea that i could win over the whole damn town. wrong! and a waste of time and effort. the english will be the english. and they ain't impressed. and god they hate americans. am i a fanatic? yes! but many americans, bless them, loved me! the english love nothing.” And, “i try to make the most of things, so i do make some effort with these gormless, mean little dullards.” In Dickens’ David Copperfield, Peggoty gushes that Great Yarmouth is the ‘finest place in the universe,’ and having visited it often during my 9-month-stay in East Anglia, I’m very fond of this tacky seaside resort with its 14th century, anti-pirate wall, but of course I’ve never had to live there, least of all permanently.
Sometimes, though, your host community will simply reject you. Dave, “South Korean society does not really allow foreigners to become assimilated.” Dave’s social isolation became so agonizing, he turned alcoholic and finally had a psychological breakdown. Recovered, Dave stayed on in South Korea, for he appreciated “how easy and simple life can be,” and his being there “at least partially compensate for wasted years and decades spent in the United States.” It’s quite remarkable, this testimony about one’s native land, the self-trumpeted greatest nation on earth.
Dave, “It was refreshing, and a little intimidating, to be in a place where what might pass for average or even below average intellectual capabilities might generally be regarded as brilliant in the U.S. That is also true for West Africa, where it is no big deal to speak three, four, or even five (mostly unrelated) foreign languages -- and that is for regular people, not academics who specialize in linguistics. The sort of nationalistic chauvinism sometimes found in the U.S. – ‘We're #1!’ is not warranted.”
We’re too self-absorbed and self-infatuated to know that we’re ignorant. Living on a near continent-sized country, and the sick, dark heart of a bombastic empire at that, we see the rest of the world as ridiculous parodies of ourselves, at best. As we’re flung, one by one, from this mirthless roller coaster, however, each of us will come to a new understanding. Our skills and industry are not needed here. Like me, you’ve become a superfluous beggar.
As the criminal state expands, the little people are reduced to squashable ants. Brent, “In the US it’s hard to get any respect, even self-respect, unless you are economically successful. People tend to blame themselves for their failures more so than in many places, and often lose self respect as a consequence. When people lose self respect it causes all sorts of problems, and the media makes it worse with their constant idolatry of the rich, famous, and powerful, who are often just mediocre people with a flair for self publicity or making money. Just because somebody can make a lot of money doesn’t make them a good person or even intelligent, but that’s how the media portrays them. The Protestant Ethic always equated success with closeness to God, but until fairly recently there were a lot of nooks and crannies in the economy and the country where you could live quietly apart from the hustling and just have some tiny little business and live a quiet life. Those places are getting harder to find. Corporatism is out to monetize everything and everybody.”
Exasperated, Joe raves, “america, turn off your fucking tv’s, you are manipulated in ways you can’t imagine. give the indians their land back, fight the evil anglo-american government, take your kids out of school, re-start the sexual revolution, keep looking to the future (america’s greatest strength and uniqueness, this looking forward to a better world), but create the radical, beautiful society that you can and must create! […] i have no hope for america or the world (well, i do, but it’s not the place for that long conversation here). america is too big, for one. It’s now a police/military state. etcetera.”
With some of the world’s highest rates of divorce, teen pregnancy and children born out of wedlock, I’d say the sexual revolution is still (hard) on here, so though the concept of free love arouses me as much as the next guy, I’ve learnt to keep my loins in perspective, as has Joe, by the way, since he’s an upright husband and father. As for the United States being some kind of Utopian project, our opulence and license are a direct result of our unmatched belligerence and rapaciousness. Our open roads are paved over corpses.
As for our egalitarianism, it’s as superficial as this Andy Warhol observation, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” In spite of our jivey bonhomie among classes, this society is as stratified as any.
This country was built with slave, indentured servant, coolie and sweat shop labor, and after Africans were freed, new, much more powerful black slaves were found in the form of oil. Much of what passes for progress is no more than this petroleum bonanza, but sure, why not, the state will take all the credit for improving your life!
We sucked and we sucked, all over the world, not just here, and after the easy sucking was done, we tried sucking in deeper water or even sideways, into rocks. Our sucking days winding down, we will rediscover hard limits, even social ones, to our lives. As the world’s most indebted nation, we’re essentially the poorest, but thanks to our big guns pointing in all directions, we haven’t had to pay up, and don’t intend to. The rest of humanity, though, won’t let this farce continue much longer. Already intellectually and morally bankrupt, we will also be destitute in the most naked sense. During the next phase of our sexual revolution, a record number of us will be selling our nether parts. To chew and swallow, we will suck from Wall Street to China.
In this permanent war, all-seeing, robo cop state, hundreds of thousands of citizens are already internal refugees shivering in tents, under bridges and on sidewalks. Millions more have emigrated, with more to come in the turbulent years ahead. As for the rest of us, we’ll have to endure the worst of this rogue government in situ. We will die in this dying nation.
How long have you lived overseas?
I've lived in Hanoi, Vietnam since August 2009.
What made you decide to leave the US?
I was living in San Francisco in a rent controlled apartment and it was actually great in some ways. I knew a lot of creative people, artists, writers and everyone was doing something cool. I went to a lot of great shows and ran a small press and wrote and saw amazing poetry readings. It was a great time to be young and trying to make something. But, I also had a career that I hated and was bad at and felt stuck and lost and depressed the majority of the time. I was in debt and unable to pay my student loans. My boss at the corporate textbook publisher sat me down in a meeting and told me that I was a dreamer and that we had to figure out how to make it work for them. The corporate world was just not for me. Then I had a close call with a city bus on my bicycle and I went to my friend Truong Tran's for dinner and he said, "Jacob, you don't have a mortgage, you're not married, you don't have any major pieces of furniture. You could go anywhere. You could go to Vietnam." This planted the seed and after a short time, a weekend I think, I quit my job and started making plans to leave. I came to Vietnam with a backpack, a few books and a little bit of money. I initially came to Hanoi in August 2009 with the plan to teach English for six months and see where it took me.
What do you miss about not being in the US?
I miss people the most. There are friends who I see now only once a year if that and it's a bit sad to only keep in touch through things like Facebook or gmail. In the end it's only a simulation of the people I know and love. As much as we are psychic and mental, we are also physical and being in the same space as a person you love is important. There is really something vital to eating with friends, getting drunk together, talking in person, just being together. I also miss libraries, museums, used bookstores, and unpolluted air.
What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?
Hanoi is a city of 7 million plus people. There are practically no emission regulations and millions of motorbikes on the road coupled with a construction boom that is also largely unregulated and thus the air is DIRTY. The traffic is a nightmare. It's noisy. I have a smokers cough even though I quit smoking years ago. There's also arsenic in the water and food poisoning is a regular occurrence. I had a friend who got poisoned from wood alcohol in counterfeit vodka.
The challenges in particular for foreigners in Vietnam are in navigating the shifting legal status of being here. The government is constantly changing its policies on foreigners living and working here. The requirements for work permits and work visas are in constant flux. At some point there may be six month or year visas available at an embassy in Laos or a travel agent in Pnomh Penh, so expats working, running businesses, or even married to locals might take a flight to take advantage of these. At other times only three month visas are offered. If you are lucky enough to get a work permit (which requires a degree, medical check, police clearance and five years experience in your given field) this becomes much less problematic.
Also expat relationships are very transitory. People move in and out. Nothing feels stable. Nothing is permanent. It helps to not be attached and even better to be detached.
In terms of language, Vietnamese and English couldn't be more different. Vietnamese has a western alphabet thanks to the French and the communists, but for much of its long history Vietnamese was written with Chinese characters. Like Chinese the language is a monosyllabic tonal language. As a result small shifts in intonation and pronunciation can drastically alter a word. You could be in a market asking a seller how much for her pork meat and inadvertently asking her how much for her cunt meat. In English we intone contextually and rhythmically whereas in Vietnamese the tones are for meaning. When I first prepared to come here my friend Truong taught me to say, I don't have any money and fuck your mother. After arriving I took some lessons and wandered around writing down words into a notebook. Later, in my little old quarter hotel I would look up the things I had written in a dictionary and try to make sense of them.
There are so many beautiful things about the language. The sense of time and definition is much looser than English,mut the sense of community context is deep and rich. In Vietnamese there is not just an I and You, but a whole shifting ensemble of pronouns indicating age, status, gender, hierarchy and most of all relationship. English in comparison feels like a brain in a jar regarding other brains in jars next to the colorful family of aunts, uncles, children, teachers, fathers, sisters, babies, and friends in the Vietnamese pronoun lexicon.
My Vietnamese is still very basic but I can read and write and speak some. I can buy things in the market and answer the same basic questions about how old I am, where I am from, how long I've been here, am I married, will I marry a Vietnamese girl. Etc.
What are some of the pleasant surprises you've encountered in your new home?
Paul Bowles once said or wrote something like, I can think of no greater freedom than to be a foreigner. Coming to a place like Vietnam decontextualizes you. You become untethered from the dominant culture and the gap between self and other widens dramatically. As a result your identity becomes somehow freed from context. It's both alienating and liberating. Who knows if the things I do are weird, special, mediocre, or normal, because here I am a foreigner. It gives me a pass in a weird way. Maybe it's the remnants of the colonialism or decades of war or just due to being an other. Regardless it is an interesting position to be in.
Asides from that, Vietnam in particular is a very human place. People eat on the floor in rooms facing the street with their doors open. When a neighbor dies, black flags are hung outside and a tent is erected where funeral music is played all day and night. The grieving family are wrapped in white cloth and even later they wear black badges to let everyone know about this status. The Viets are constantly looking after one another. A regular greeting is, hi, did you eat yet? I go to the markets and see every part of an animal used. Sidewalks are transformed into eateries, places to drink and gossip. Time is marked by the consumption of rituals. I am constantly full of awe and wonder.
What are some of the unanticipated problems?
Arranging legal documents to work here was a bit of a hassle but not hard. When I first came, I got scammed and ripped off a lot. I had an employer not pay me a whole month's wages. Also having your friend group scatter across the globe is weird. Meeting the cultural police at poetry readings. Being checked up on by government officials randomly outside your house.
What are some advices you have for Americans who also want to get out?
If you want to get out and you can, do it. Get a TESOL or CELTA and teach English in Asia. Don't work for free in one of these scam volunteer programs. If you're a teacher go to an international school job fair and see if you can't get a job abroad.
--Jacob Evans (35-years-old)
All photos by Jacob Evans. When I was in Hanoi in 1999, my last time there, I didn't see people staring at cellphones in cafes, but the other images are familiar. The Hanoi of skyscrapers, including one of 70 stories, didn't exist, and there were no luxury shops downtown.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
U.S.S. city of washington
and Ten US Generals
unified combat command
President John F.
attacked by American
planes Dec 1941
June 6, 1967
Times of the Gentiles
September 11, 2001
Eight men out (Pilots)
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy and England. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, among other places. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (2006). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Reykjavik, Toronto and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.