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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

An email exchange with A.

[with links inserted by me]


When I went to Philadelphia for a conference, I leaped at the chance to drop by Friendly's and see a favorite writer's haunts. (About me: I'm a down-and-out wannabe academic with a PhD and no damn job!) So on a cloudy afternoon in late February, I used my lunch break to walk from the Delaware River down to Friendly's. When I arrived, I feared it was closed but a glance in the window corrected that misapprehension.

I entered to the sounds of a conversation between Phil and a gentleman of Chinese origin, deep in a discussion about capitalism and communism. Or to be more exact, Phil was talking about communism while the Chinese businessman bragged about the value of his watch. I settled in, ordered a beer and inquired to the assembled patrons and bartender whether Linh had been around recently.

Of course they all remembered you -- in some cases with a real fondness. I wound up speaking the most with the teacher. He and I agreed that your work was important -- particularly the Postcards from the End of America series. Your writing gives voice to the voiceless, he said: the ordinary, down-on-their-luck people that the fake media culture writes off as invisible, or whom it caricatures and instrumentalizes to serve the interests of rich and powerful people. Yet these people's stories, often sad, are rich in texture and exude life's savor. As for me, I agreed with the teacher: your postcards have long been fascinating and instructive reading (I've read your work since 2014, I guess?)

Talking with the teacher, I soon learned more about your whereabouts. And since the means of existence are on most writers' minds, it was natural for the teacher to tell me you'd moved to a smaller city in Vietnam to work with your wife's family's recycling business. We both hoped you'd earn a good living there and continue your writing. (This information was not exchanged in the spirit of gossip-mongering, but genuine interest in your life). Of course, in the intervening months, I've been delighted to see you carrying on your work abroad. If anything, a new life experience could provide heightened international dimension to your oeuvre: there are plenty of scraping-by people in Southeast Asia! Speaking of your recent work (a delight to read!), the reader gets a sense of the sights and scenes of your Asian abode. Yet a contrast seems to be emerging between your US and Asian work: at Friendly's, you chronicled the stories of people wrecked by life, hanging on and scraping by. In southeast Asia, your interviewees seem to be workers whose lives aren't easy, but less demolished by chaos. So less lumpen, more proletarian, less American, more Asian -- but this is a major simplification that doesn't really summarize your US or SE Asian writing fully.

After fifteen minutes, my time was running out. I left Friendly's for a long walk back to the world of successful academics and their presentations, a world I'm trying to enter. On the way out, I gently exhorted the bartender to consider writing his mémoires. He may not possess your gift for acute observation and engaging prose, but he's gotta have some real stories to tell! He politely demurred.

I wish you well. Keep up the good work.




Hi A.,

Many thanks for you email! I'm very happy to hear you were able to talk to a few people there. Sometimes that place is completely empty.

The bartender is Dominic, the teacher is Terrence and the Chinese dude is George. Though a millionaire now, he had a very rough beginning, and for a couple weeks or so, lived in a tent in a state park. He made his fortune in insurance.

You observe that the people I depict in Asia are less "demolished by chaos," and it's true, for even when very poor, they're more grounded. They're more connected to other people, thus to life. Most Americans, though, would find the living conditions of the poor here appalling or even repulsive, and conclude that life in the States is infinitely better.

Carrying my nephew around two days ago, I passed a stranger who gushed, "Oh, what a sweet baby! You know, brother, I've been married for more than a decade, yet I still can't conceive. Oh, how I suffer! Just look at him! Oh, how sweet!"

Today, I overheard a woman yell at her crying baby, "When the trash cart comes, I'll dump you into it, so you can go wherever you want!"

Here, one always has the option of being immersed in life, which is how it should be.

Oh, as for that recycling plant job, it won't start for a few months yet. My wife and I are still based in Saigon.




I’m happy you enjoyed the update from Friendly’s.

I remember their names now. Incidentally, Phil was an interesting character with whom I’d have gladly spoken more, had my time not been so limited. And what striking contrasts: George’s miserable beginnings and eventual wealth offer him a novel perspective on life.

As you note, the experience of being poor in Southeast Asia sure isn’t pretty: the living conditions of modest Vietnamese are indeed appalling compared to US standards. Yet life in the US is hard in many ways an outsider wouldn’t suspect.

I agree: atomistic life in the US makes for a groundedless existence, the cause of psychological misery for millions, not all poor. This is a complicated problem, but my take is that high-octane individualism works better with money. Thus when loose interpersonal bonds snap in upper-middle-class lives, people have many resources to draw on, both material and social.

So when a consultant or lawyer in Manhattan invariably divorces, he or she has a lot to fall back onto amid the pain. First, friends and acquaintances, the spoils of years of networking, provide a psychic cushion. Then psychologists soothe and listen, while culture and money provide lots of activities for connecting with new people. The interpersonal bonds of the top 10% of US earners are still fragile, but these unmoored atoms link back up more readily: new connections form better under these comfortable circumstances. So lavish resources – material, cultural and social – dull the pain of family chaos and facilitate ultimately re-forming a family.

The story is altogether more bleak with little cash, connections or culture. Interpersonal bonds fray more readily at the bottom of the income scale, under the strain of paying for the high-cost lower-middle class existence: American life is expensive! Mediocre wages do cover housing, clothing, gadgets, health care, and education – but there’s little margin of error. Economic precariousness – endemic in America – supercharges the general precariousness of interpersonal bonds. And when the bonds break, it’s harder to make new connections without money and certain social habits. Anyway, that's my two cents on this complex problem where culture and economics intermingle. I am not offering a general theory for this key problem that I honestly don’t entirely understand. I'm wrestling with the problem.


Your two anecdotes about children really speak to immersion in life. The first perspective is beautiful: the second, all too human.

I hope that your recycling plant job works out great when it starts! I hear China is taking less garbage to recycle: maybe you can import some trash from Western Europe or the US! Either way, your readers will enjoy your keen eye for human experience wherever your life takes you.




Rudy said...

What an interesting exchange.

Thanks both A. and Linh.

Dan said...

I really enjoyed (and agree with) A's insights on the precariousness of social bonds here in the U.S. I struggle mightily with it myself.

Thanks Linh and A.


About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I lived mostly in the US from 1975 until 2018, and have returned to my native Saigon. I've also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), a novel, Love Like Hate (2010), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six collections of poems, with a Collected Poems soon to be released from Chax Press. 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 Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in Tokyo, London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.