Category Archives: Consumerism/commodification

Andrew Cox Interviews Linh Dinh

Andrew Cox has a most thorough interview with Linh Dinh where the frank conversation covers topics from technology to poetry and takes us through Dinh’s perspective on the State of the Union.

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“I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough.”

Why did you start State of the Union?

In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, CO. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there.

State of the Union is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer.

Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.

I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case.

I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is 2/3 political essays and 1/3 poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.

Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?

Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible.

Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.

Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!

In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like the U.S., for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak.

Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.

A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for 2 ½ years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lust after brand names, though few could afford them.

None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems.

There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise, the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores.

Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.

When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?

The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms.

In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office.

If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!

By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about.

My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything.

You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.

My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.

Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had.

The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.

The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time.

My site, State of the Union, gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.

When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.

What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?

I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for 2 ½ years as an adult.

When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 80’s.

Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.

“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.

Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily.

I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, MT, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.”

My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.

You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?

Tyrone, a 45-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking.

In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.

If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.

Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?

Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets.

The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shoulders and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction.

On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!

In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.

In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?

Casinos are perfect emblems of our non-productive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.

Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?

If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible.

From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave $10 to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent.

In Detroit, I also gave an old man 10 bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring 24 large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.

When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.

Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cell phone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.

As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.

You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?

Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.

There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.

In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!

The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in American. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?

It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare.

In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, 76 years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency.

One time I went there and it was, like, 5 degree out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe 22, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.

That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing.

The official unemployment rate of Camden is 25%, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.

American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved!

In Hawaii, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.

To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

Well, that depression is here!

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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Mugged then Shot: Linh Dinh on American Corruption

Linh Dinh doesn’t think the USA is the greatest country on Earth. Here he lays out a powerful critique of American corruption. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world, so we’re delighted to have a chance to repost his work here. 

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Linh Dinh

“The United States has been a leader in the multinational effort to end bribery and corruption in international business practices.”
–Website of The U.S. State Department

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, why shouldn’t the United States be the most corrupt (and corrupting) country on earth? We’re number one! In America, each politician can be bought and absurd sums of money are routinely misallocated or missing altogether, with nary a peep from the complicit media. On the foreign front, America’s modus operandi is to bribe every dictator, and the ones she can’t bribe, she’ll undermine, overthrow or bomb back to Jesus. In exchange for this bribe, which can be disguised as loans or “foreign assistance,” said dictator will allow America to loot his country in perpetuity. If you don’t believe me, just strip any tinpot dictator and you’ll surely find “CIA” tattooed on one ass cheek, with a (pretty good) portrait of a recent U.S. president embossed on the other. Lovers always leave a mark, they often say. Sometimes it’s not a dictator, per se, but a dominant party that’s America’s hushed puppy. In any case, rapacious trade deals and unpayable loans are the bane of countless client states orbiting Washington.

Domestically, American corruption has been institutionalized as campaign contributions and lobbying, but that’s only the open, legal part. Perhaps these practices are allowed to trick us into thinking that American corruption only goes so far, but who really knows what goes on in the labyrinthine backrooms, basements and dungeons of Washington? In any case, us lumpen Americans are “represented” by millionaire politicians who are lint deep in the pockets of the fattest banks and corporations. The American politician is thoroughly corrupt, often from grassroots level, but the degree of venality and sanctimonious hypocrisy increase as he approaches Washington DC, that beautiful cesspool of martial madness.

No candidate who’s not heavily pro big business, overtly or covertly, can have any chance of being elected to national office. He won’t be funded, nor will he be seen on television. It’s not a democracy when all candidates are vetted beforehand, and only millionaires can be chosen by other millionaires and billionaires. In this setup, the average citizen doesn’t matter, as his vote or canvassing for a favorite are only charades designed to make him feel good and involved, as if his opinions and advocacy matter, but whatever he does, it won’t prevent the election of yet another tool who’s corrupt, pro war and pro big business, at the expense of all else. But don’t despair, all you earnest partisans, for even when your candidate does lose, the other guy, one who’s hardly different than your favorite man, wins! Those who voted for McCain, for example, got pretty much all of his policies through Obama, so it’s a win, win, lose, lose situation, see? Emblematic of this farce is the fact that American tax payers are even asked to contribute three bucks a year to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Though stuffed with cash from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Raytheon, etc., our candidates still panhandle from poor schmucks whom they will soon rip off anyway.

American politicians may differ on personal and ethical matters such as school prayer, gay marriage and abortion, but on all the major, lucrative issues affecting the military industrial complex or big business, they are remarkably uniform. Our senators and congressmen also behave like trained seals when it comes to Israel. Witness the 29 standing ovations a packed House gave Netanyahu recently. Whether Democrat or Republican, each was terrified to be caught sitting as his colleagues jumped up and barked.

Your rep sure knows who his daddy is, and it ain’t you, sucker! The primary job of the American politician, from Obama on down, is to spin and disguise an endless series of corporate and military crimes he’s enabling. Which brings us to the Pentagon. No other governmental organ is more gluttonously corrupt. The Pentagon’s main function is not defending America but to bleed this country dry to enrich Halliburton, Lockheed/Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and the rest. Over and over again, the Pentagon has put hundreds of thousands of Americans in harm’s way, just so its masters can make a handsome profit. To feed these insatiable ogres, the Pentagon is willing to destroy American itself, and it is doing so, right now.

Beside bloody business as usual, billions of dollars often go missing from the Pentagon cash register without any explanation whatsoever, and in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld even admitted that $2.3 trillion had disappeared, which he blamed on sloppy accounting. So it’s not thievery or corruption, but merely inept arithmetic. Tamping down this scandal, the mainstream media seemed to agree.

But perhaps we do have a math problem. We are a people who clip 25 cent coupons, drive (an SUV) a mile to save a buck, register with subtle satisfaction the missing penny from a $19.99 price tag, yet these stolen trillions leave us unfazed. One reason for this, I think, is that American corruption is not experienced directly, face to face, as it is in many other countries. Most Americans have never been browbeaten and shaken down by a corrupt cop, clerk or judge, so we can pretend that corruption doesn’t hurt us. Washington has also been waging wars without raising taxes, so it’s no skin off my back, many Americans are thinking, but our bellicose policy overseas is certainly bankrupting the homeland, even as it increases our insecurity in future blowbacks. The constant hike in our money supply, devaluing our dollars, is also a form of hidden taxation.

Another reason for our passivity in the face of widespread corruption is the state of our media, which routinely hype trivial stories while suppressing much greater outrages. Thus, the money John Edwards spent on his mistress, a million dollars provided by two private donors, was discussed for a week by television and newspaper “pundits,” but no one is concerned about the $1.5 million of tax money wasted each time Washington fires a Tomahawk missile at Libya. How many thousands have been launched so far in this three-month war? No one knows, and no one seems to care about the real flesh and bones on the receiving end of those weapons. “Bad guys” deserve to die, and so do “collateral damages.” Even as they mug us, our masters speak to us as if we’re morons. As they gobble up the entire world and everyone’s future, we get to nibble on catch phrases and slogans

Like Pavlov’s dogs, Americans have been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a home run, a Lady Gaga’s burp and the promise of hope and change comes election time, but when that fat, familiar hand reaches into our wallet, yet again, we feel nothing. We’re cool and blasé until it’s our turn to receive the pink slip, be evicted, then having to curl up in our car or on cardboard.

Interviewed by Stud Terkels, retired congressman C. Wright Patman said in 1970, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

I’m not sure that we have more knowledge, but with a presidency that can wage wars without congress or popular approval, and that can imprison or kill any American citizen without due process, a dictatorship is certainly here. Ditto, that Depression.

In a productive economy, corruption is less glaring because there are so many legitimate ways to enrich oneself, but in an increasingly non-productive one, such as what we have now, corruption becomes the primary means to riches. As we starve and kill each other, the mega corporations and their servants, our politicians, will continue to fatten themselves through their access to power.

In a ghetto with no stores, only drug corners, any bling-bling dude steering a loud Hummer is viewed suspiciously (or with admiration), so in this nation of fewer and fewer factories, save those that make bombs, tanks and high-grade weapons, who are our biggest death pushers and pimps, and what should we do about them?

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think of Linh Dinh’s argument? What is your opinion of the State of the American Union?

A Review of Le Thanh Son’s Clash (Bẫy Rồng), Coming Soon to the Vietnamese International Film Festival

diaCRITIC Jade Hidle takes a second look at Le Thanh Son’s action film, Clash, and raises questions of the Vietnamese woman in protagonist Phoenix/Trinh and the embeddedness of Vietnamese film production in the transnational.

Catch Clash at the Vietnamese International Film Festival, 7:30pm on April 14th at UCLA, or at a theater near you.

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If you’re looking for a conventional East-meets-West style of action film, then Clash, written and directed by Le Thanh Son, is a movie that will get you amped for the slew of popcorn summer flicks soon to hit theaters. Met with much success in Viet Nam last year and screened at film festivals in the States, Clash was reviewed by diaCRITICS guest blogger Lee Ngo after just such a film fest last month, but I want to offer my take on the movie as it will be screened on Thursday, April 14th, at UCLA as part of this year’s Vietnamese International Film Festival.

Clash Movie Poster courtesy of

Set entirely in Viet Nam, Clash opens on an open country road where a full- throttle action sequence explodes with bad-ass Vietnamese women battling with swords and guns, while Beemers and motorcycles collide. This immediate violence sets the tone for the rest of the film that relies on common tropes of the genre to move the plot along. The opening credits—flashing in quick MTV-style cuts to match the beats of Vietnamese hip-hop—introduce the members of the young, attractive cast headed by Johnny Tri Nguyen and Ngo Thanh Van (a.k.a. Veronica Ngo).

An Ocean’s Eleven-style round-up of outcasts, they are a group of renegade mob agents on a mission to retrieve a multi-million dollar laptop containing Viet Nam’s top-secret national security information. They wear cool aviator glasses, bear even cooler nicknames like Phoenix and Hawk (the token brawny fool character is, of course, called Ox), and work for a white suit-clad boss-man named none other than Black Dragon. Treated as mere pawns in Black Dragon’s chess game, the core characters have been in the business of bad-assness so long—a dramatic pause here so you can put your sunglasses on and light a cigarette—that they have trouble remembering their real names.

The cast of Clash. Photo courtesy of LA Asian Film Fest 2010.

The scenes build tension in expected ways, playing on questions of who knows the “truth” and who is worthy of “trust.” Tension is, as anticipated, broken with sudden eruptions of violence—cacophonies of gunshots and a surprising amount of the stereotypical martial arts calls of “Hay-ya!” in the hand-to-hand combat scenes. In these and a few other melodramatic moments in the film, I chuckle at the cheesiness of the genre. One of the other young audience members snickers when I do, but I notice that the older Co sitting behind me takes the action and violence pretty seriously, gasping a little each time a blade slices skin. Clash, though, is aware of its chuckle-worthy adherence to clichés, from both the Eastern and Western action movie traditions. At one point, Ox turns to Phoenix (aka Trinh), played by Ngo Thanh Van, and tells her she is “so cheesy like Hong Kong movies.”

And, indeed, watching Clash calls for a suspension of the critical eye searching for story and depth. It’s a film meant to be enjoyed on the surface—the “wow” factor of the martial arts choreography and Johnny Tri Nguyen’s handsome face. Never you mind that he only has one (well, maybe 1.5) default expression of model-esque brow-furrowing in every scene, every emotion that his character, Quan, experiences.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to unquestioningly accept Ngo Thanh Van’s Phoenix/Trinh as just another pretty face. The film’s heroine, she is introduced as the stoic, tight-jawed, no-nonsense leader of the group, unflinchingly tough even when an anonymous henchman cracks a bottle over her head. And she fights just as hard, if not harder, than the male characters in the film; her long legs kick high and do some extraordinary wrapping around bad guys’ throats. (The jiujitsu-style leg submission holds are among the most impressive stunts in the movie.)

High-flying kicks in Clash. Photo courtesy of

Yet, as empowering as Phoenix’s strength may initially appear, it is how she as feminized as Trinh that raises questions of how her character represents Vietnamese women and Viet Nam itself. We see Trinh’s “soft” side as she plays caretaker to one of her partners in crime who knew her before she became Phoenix, and when she mourns or seeks solace on the banks of what looks like the Saigon River, dramatic opera music swells. But her emotions reach their peak when the plot reveals that she is only finishing seven last jobs for Black Dragon in order to get her daughter back—a daughter whom Trinh gave birth to as a result of being sold into a Cambodian prostitution ring when she was fourteen years old. Here, and in other plotlines in the film, Trinh is caught between competing foreign interests.

In an attempt to retrieve the sought-after laptop, Phoenix dons a revealing silken gown to do reconnaissance at the Saigon Sheraton’s upper-crust club where the “Frenchies” who possess the laptop are hanging out. Later, she engages in a bullet-riddled showdown with the very same “Frenchies,” many of whom are caught pants-down with other Vietnamese women, wherein Phoenix/Trinh performs her leg-wrapping magic on the bald, muscle-bound, animalistic French mobsters. Even though she overcomes some of these Frenchmen in a seemingly feminist, decolonizing feat of strength, Phoenix/Trinh loses members of her gang as well (don’t worry, this does not give away the major climax or ending of the film). The battle is a win and a loss. And, in ensuing fight scenes, Phoenix/Trinh faces a one-eyed Triad and also battles her own countrymen.

Of course, most action films feature some kind of foreign enemy, but it seems as though their presence in Clash represents a sadder reality about Viet Nam’s past and present, always caught between other countries. Phoenix/Trinh’s tear-filled pleas for freedom sharpen the point of this underlying reality.

The same goes for the brand name logos of the film’s sponsors that intersperse the film’s end credits as they roll up the screen. This makes me wonder, is it this being continually caught between other countries and their markets that is required for Vietnamese-Americans like me to even see, in the theater (not on imported bootleg DVDs), films from the homeland?

-Jade Hidle

Jade Hidle is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego. She aims to write her dissertation on Vietnamese-American literature, with a focus on how narrative structures map struggles of the body–miscegenation, disfigurement, skin color–and identity.

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The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion (A Review)

Fashion, design . . . and critique? Catherine A. Traywick reviews Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s The Beautiful Generation, which offers a close examination of the fashion industry and how up and coming Asian American designers are changing the catwalks in the world of couture. This is a reprint from Hyphen Magazine.

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Fashion Illustrations Courtesy of Noemi Manalang.

Perhaps the most celebrated Fall collections to debut at this year’s Fashion Week were those that creatively incorporated technology. Several designers showcased computer-generated prints, retooling traditional craft textiles into computerized patterns comprising ultra modern garments. But even as fashion critics overwhelmingly celebrated this preponderance of technological innovation, most seemed similarly enamored of Ralph Lauren’s far less pioneering embrace of one of fashion’s oldest tropes: Shanghai Chic. Critics eagerly dedicated valuable column inches to the collection, which featured all the mainstays of Asian-inspired fashion: jade jewelry, golden dragons, cheongsams. While some candidly wondered whether the designer’s invocation of China was a statement about the nation’s growing economic competitiveness, others were simply happy to break out as many tired euphemisms for “Eastern” as possible. (Not only did the “Orient Express” make several stops but East, inevitably, met West.)

The familiar scenario aptly reinforces a key observation made by culture critic Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu in her newly published book, The Beautiful Generation: “Even when freed to dream and invent,” she writes, “[designers] seem only to return to long-held ideas about an exotic and erotic orient.”

The phenomenon Nguyen Tu describes, of Euro-American designers’ quixotic and cyclical infatuation with an often undifferentiated “East,” has for – literally – hundreds of years dictated Asia’s participation in one of the largest and oldest industries to date. Asia, in the deft hands of fashion industry titans, is at once a sumptuous fantasy and a convention in need of constant reinterpretation; both an inexpensive manufacturing site and – as one New York Times critic made a point of mentioning with regard to the Ralph Lauren collection – an expansive consumer market.

The Beautiful Generation, as much a fashion history as a cultural study, gracefully takes us through the many phases of that evolving dynamic: from Gaultier’s introduction of luxe Chinese coats in seventeenth century Paris, to American Vogue’s strategic establishment of “fashion designer as cultural anthropologist” in the mid-‘90s, and finally to the curiously successfully rise of Asian American designers in the present decade. While it’s all a good read, the last is arguably the highlight of the book; Nguyen Tu’s compelling examination of Asian American designers, whose precarious positions in the industry are plainly defined by their historic exclusion from it, is clearly a point of personal connection for her.

In one way or another, she’s been studying those designers since the 1990s when, as a grad student at New York University, she began noticing that a number of emergent downtown boutiques were helmed by Asian American women. Initially driven by her recognition of a unique cultural phenomenon (up to that point, Asian Americans in the fashion industry had been relegated to low-wage manufacturing jobs), she was eventually propelled by the realization that she shared a lot more with the designers than just a fine fashion sense.

Like many of the designers she interviewed, Nguyen Tu had emigrated from Vietnam as a child, and her family had settled in what she describes as “all-white working class towns in Connecticut … urban spaces where it was hoped we would assimilate faster.” Her working class parents, whose vision of acceptable work centered on the potential for financial security, expected her to become a pharmacist or, if she was really ambitious, a doctor. But her ostensibly poor command of the sciences eventually pushed her towards liberal arts and, to her parent’s dismay, a PhD in American Studies.

“It was like telling them I was going to join the circus,” she said. “And throughout my interviews with the designers I heard the same thing … the same story of how parental expectations enabled us to do the work that we did even as it constrained us.”

As she learned, familial ties and expectations figured prominently in the rise of Asian American designers, informing their careers paths and perspectives on the industry while lending them valuable human and material resources during their lean beginning years. Most of the designers she interviewed (including notables like Philip Lim, Derek Lam and Doo-Ri Chung) were the children of garment producers — the low wage sewers, cutters and pattern makers upon which the fashion industry relies. From an early age, the designers had assisted their parents with piecework, learning to cut, sew, and assemble. Yet few set out to become designers, influenced instead by their parents’ narrow views of acceptable work as much as by cultural stereotypes that depict Asians as industrious but inherently uncreative.

“The majority of people that I interviewed didn’t even go to fashion school,” Nguyen Tu said. “Instead … they went to dental school.”

While many told Nguyen Tu that sewing was in their blood, having been trained in the skill since childhood, most nevertheless pursued radically different careers – in finance, biology, anthropology, etc. – before circling back to the fashion industry as designers.

But unlike the prototypical American designer (who, according to Nguyen Tu, strives to distance himself from “unskilled” producers in an effort to elevate his own role in the creative process), Asian American designers have tended toward the reverse. Guided by their intimate connections to garment workers and familial expectations about the nature of acceptable work, they are more inclined to view fashion design as chiefly a business rather than an art, and tend to emphasize their close relationships with producers rather than eschew them. For many, this pays off. While fashion design is an unstable, financially risky, and resource-intense occupation for most, Asian American designers have benefited from their intimacies with producers, who can provide them with both labor and material resources at little or no cost. It’s a crucial advantage that has enabled many Asian Americans to stay competitive in an especially gendered and racialized industry.

And just as the American children of garment workers are increasingly crossing the assembly line – graduating from the industrial to the creative – so are Asian sites of outsourcing leveraging their manufacturing industries into more lucrative creative centers. Once the original locales of inexpensive labor, China and Korea have started dedicating considerable resources to cultivating home-grown design talent, sending scores of Chinese and Korean fashion students to New York every year to acquire skills and exposure. Though their fashion industries are fledgling yet, the transformative effort has plainly provoked anxiety within the Euro-American fashion industry; Nguyen Tu notes that the latter has subsequently striven to define itself as a global innovator by reinforcing the industry’s creative vs. “unskilled” dichotomy. Euro-American designers are embracing technology, ever-reinventing familiar motifs and further distancing themselves from the mass-producing masses in an effort to maintain their global dominance.

Indeed, the defensive posturing and industry angst to which she alludes were in full swing at this year’s Fashion Week – in the self-aggrandizing speech of designers, on the ultra-modernized backs of models, and even in laudatory mainstream reviews. Commenting on Ralph Lauren’s collection, for instance, the New York TimesSuzy Menkes repeatedly juxtaposed descriptions of the designer’s Shanghai-inspired aesthetic with disparaging references to the “fast fashion factories of today’s China” and Asia’s “Made in China”-quality mass productions.

Asian American designers don’t get off too easily either, falling as they do somewhere between artist and producer, American and foreigner. While critics extolled Ralph Lauren’s and Oscar De La Renta’s modernization of “tourist trap” Asian motifs, for example, they also repeatedly and simplistically categorized the commercial success of Asian American designers as the product of Asian consumption. Reviewing Anna Sui’s collection, Menkes patronizingly notes that “Ms. Sui may have had a big success in the Asia of her family origins, but her heart is forever in the England of swinging London, with its layers of history.” At Vogue, Hamish Bowles curiously remarks that Jason Wu’s “conservative” collection would never be as radically deconstructionist as those of the Japanese designer Kawakubo – notwithstanding the fact that their aesthetics are so radically different that they defy comparison; their only tangible similarity is their (albeit divergent) Asian heritage. Mark Holgale, also writing for Vogue, similarly makes much of Philip Lim’s connections to Asia, attributing the designer’s current and future successes to the voraciously consumptive Chinese – even as he notes that Chinese consumers are just as “familiar with everyone from Altuzarra to Rodarte.”

The stark differences between critical reception of Asian American work and that of mainstream, establishment designers seems to suggest that, while Asian cultures desperately require Western designers to modernize and retool their elements into something worth purchasing, Asian American designers nevertheless owe everything to their Far Eastern touchstones. In either case, the Euro-American fashion establishment wins … but perhaps not for long.

“I think the dominance of Euro-American fashion will eventually wane,” Nguyen Tu speculated. “They’ve held the monopoly for over 200 years, but I think there will be a radical shift away from the US and Europe as the only centers of fashion, and that China and India and all of these places will rise in a sort of global realignment of where we get our style … and in the production of fashion itself.”

The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion by Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu.  Duke University Press, 2010.  Pp. 272.

Reviewed by Catherine A. Traywick.

Fashion Illustrations Courtesy of Noemi Manalang.

Reprint of article from Hyphen Magazine.

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Meeting Strangers So Familiar: A diaCRITIC’s Dilemma over Selling the Faces of Viet Nam

diaCRITIC Jade Hidle offers a powerful meditation on history, memory, and imagery, by centering some photos ‘saved’ from destruction in Viet Nam and then purchased, with some ambivalence, in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the holiday break I took a short trip to Portland, Oregon, to visit family and friends. It was the first time I had been to the city since I was a kid, and what little memory I have of that prior trip is limited to fuzzy images of the Rose Garden Arena where, I am told, my family and I saw Hulk Hogan perform his great and glorious wrestling feats. Beyond that, I was returning to the city with fairly fresh eyes. I had been hearing, though, that Portland was the up-and-coming metropole of the Pacific Northwest—touted for its diverse range of cuisine of the booming food cart craze; heralded for its progressive green, eco-friendly recycling and biking movements; and known (whether fondly or critically) as a mecca for twenty-something hipsters sporting skinny jeans, flannel shirts, and knitted beanies pushed back to the crown of their heads just so. Indeed, upon my arrival and subsequent exploration of the city, I found that its different neighborhoods were organized to suit just such a crowd. The main drag of each neighborhood featured a Powell’s satellite book shop, vintage record stores, trading posts for Tibetan arts and crafts, and movie theatres serving pizza and beer.

It was on one of these streets that I came across a tiny hole-in-the-wall of a shop that sold an amalgam of randomness culled from the past six or seven decades—from dainty doorknobs to records and books to mannequin heads and packs of Garbage Pail Kids stickers with the dusty, toothache-inducing stick of gum still inside. Among these odds and ends, what was most pertinent to me as a Diacritic was the contents of a little girl’s suitcase from the ‘50s or ‘60s, lined with frilly pink and polka-dotted fabric. It was propped open and from its flimsy gold buckle dangled a handmade starburst of cardboard that read, “Vietnam Photos. $1.00.” And below this, in the bed of the suitcase, two overflowing piles of black-and-white photographs from Viet Nam.

Arrested by the dissonant combination of these items, I stood for a moment or two just staring at this suitcase of Vietnamese photographs for sale. I didn’t expect to see a handwritten price tag combining “Vietnam” and “$1.00” as if the country were in the glass case of a butcher shop, let alone on such a cutesy suitcase better for carrying dolls and footsie pajamas—a valise that probably belonged to a little girl who didn’t even know where Viet Nam was. At least not then.

Curiosity shouldered aside my initial awe and I began to sift through the piles of photographs. Flipping through them, I discovered many scallop-edged studio portraits of women and, judging from the hairstyles, these photos were taken from the ‘40s through the ‘60s. Some looked professional, as though they were publicity shots for singers or actresses. The majority of these portraits, though, were in the style of Glamour Shots or of high school senior yearbook photos—the subjects gazing poetically off to the side or longingly into the sky. I was reminded of my albums of my mother’s school-aged portraits, all embossed with the names of Saigonese photography studios and in which she is never looking at the camera, but always at some deep thought hovering in the distance. When I exhumed this album from a dusty box in the garage and showed it to my mom, she dismissed them, shooing me away with a “kỳ quá!” I smiled at this memory and enjoyed seeing that it seemed so many other adolescents in Saigon had to undergo the primping and awkward posing requisite to these formal portraits.

Then, a pang of sadness hit me, as I wondered how many of these faces had been afforded the opportunity to come to the U.S. and have the luxury my mother had of replacing old Vietnamese photos of herself with American pictures of her, and her U.S.-born children, staring right into the camera with big smiles and the occasional goofy face.

This sadness, this tangling of familiarity and uncertainty, sharpened when I got to the candid photographs. A few capture the streets—fruit vendors on corners, men smoking cigarettes in doorways, and blurs of passing motorbikes. Occasionally, whoever’s camera(s) took these pictures manages to click right as someone smiles, but most of the photos bear stern faces, or the suspicious sideways glance that I think we Vietnamese have perfected to an art. Within this flimsy child’s suitcase, there were so many faces and none of the photographs bore names or dates.

The skin on my arms and neck goosebumped when I came across a photo of a funeral altar, complete with pictures of the dead and smoking incense. I felt a heavy sense of guilt, echoes of my mother’s warnings not to display photos of the dead, especially if you don’t know them. Doing so might inappropriately anchor the person’s soul or, worse, incur some kind of haunting akin to the ghost stories my family told me about their homeland stricken by so much death. I felt guilty just looking at the photo, and then regretting looking at all of the other photos because I assumed the majority of the people in them must be dead now too.

But I still thought they were beautiful. They felt familiar, like home.

I lingered. Debated.

And then, before I could waffle again, I shuffled out the four of the photos that struck me most, limited to only one for each dollar I had left on my shoestring graduate student travel budget. With her sculpted bob and a perfectly fitted jacket, the cashier began ringing me up. As she slipped the photos into a flat brown paper bag, I asked her how so many Vietnamese photographs had been acquired. She first delivered some pretentious spiel about how she usually couldn’t disclose to customers the shop owner’s sources (as if I’m a jewel thief in a Bond film or something), but then, as if a favor or some special treat, she leaned toward me slightly to explain the origins of this particular batch of photos. According to her, the store owner was travelling in Viet Nam on vacation and met a man in Saigon who had a shed full of photos he was going to trash or burn. The shop owner protested, spending hours going through and boxing up the photos that ended up in that pink frilly suitcase. “Isn’t that great?” the cashier asked me.

“Uh, yeah, I guess. It’s just strange,” I said. “See, I’m Vietnamese—” Here the cashier pulls back to her original posture behind the counter, but I continue as if I don’t notice, figuring that she, as do most people when they learn my ethnic background, is merely trying to reconcile the Norwegian features mixed in my Vietnamese face. I continued, “So many of those photos look like pictures of my family.” Now, unless the ceaseless Portland rain had rendered me more ornery than I’d realized, I didn’t say this with contempt or in accusation. Nevertheless, the cashier responded a bit defensively, conceding, “Oh, yes, well. I know. Once a woman came in,” and here she made a subtle, inexplicable gesture that indicated to me the woman in question must have been Vietnamese, “and got very upset that we were selling the pictures.”

“Oh, I’m not—”

The cashier interjected, however cautiously, diplomatically, “I think it’s great that the owner saved all of those pictures. If she hadn’t, they wouldn’t have survived, you know.”

Though I am slightly bothered that her evident guilt manifested in a defensiveness that made me seem volatile, I didn’t bother attempting to return to my explanation that I didn’t ask about the photos’ origins to cause trouble or criticize. I merely thanked her and walked out, tucking the bag of photos under my jacket to protect them from the falling rain.

It is this idea of saving, of rescuing what could have been lost, that feels to me such an American virtue yet simultaneous arrogance. This compulsion to save, and pride in saving, seems to be a conceit of entitlement to trespass not just into another country but into another people’s history. The cashier’s invocation of such terminology echoes for me some of the justifications for the U.S.’s involvement with the war in Viet Nam, not to mention other wars since. Having purchased these photos, I feel critical of such an impulse, yet complicit in it as well. Yet, should this ambivalence spur guilt? After all, my mother herself has used the word “saved” when she talks about coming to America, and the date of her arrival in the States is a somewhat magical number in our family’s history. And is my purchase a saving of a different sort? Will others buying these photos understand and treasure their weight?

So, my feelings vacillate.

On the one hand, I wish the photos had stayed in Viet Nam. If the man who owned them didn’t think much of them, then no one else should get to say that they’re a dollars worth of cute or exotic or quaint or humorous black-and-whiteness, as I imagine many who purchase them are hipsters who get a kick out of what they see as alien Asian faces and tacky hairdos and bad teeth. And a deeper emotional kneejerk reaction made me want the photos to still be in Viet Nam because they are Vietnamese. Like many other second-generation Vietnamese-Americans, I have been instilled with stories of how much has been taken from my mother’s home country and its people. Taking even a discarded old photograph makes me feel the rawness of that wound.

On the other hand, these photos harbor an important power. As an American, I know all too well how Viet Nam and Vietnamese have been visualized in the U.S. From the string of big budget Hollywood films about the war to Nick Ut’s infamous 1972 photograph of a naked nine-year-old Kim Phuc running—mouth agape, arms flailing—from the napalmed village of Trang Bang (her story was later detailed in Denise Chong’s 1999 The Girl in the Picture), Vietnamese have been visually depicted as victims. Marita Sturken, in her book Tangled Memories, presents an accessible and cogent discussion of how this victimology in photos widely disseminated to the American public has served to assuage national guilt about the war and move on, feeling absolved, from the country’s past errors and atrocities.

Beyond this victimology, Vietnamese people are still treated as perpetual foreigners or refugees. I see this when someone speaks to my mother slowly, as if just because she looks Vietnamese (or any kind of Asian, for that matter), she couldn’t possibly know English, as if she must have just gotten off the boat. These slow-talkers don’t consider that my mother, along with so many others in the Vietnamese communities across America, has been in the States coming up on thirty-six years now.

These photos that I found in Portland, then, show different faces of Vietnamese, set in everyday life. America is not a post-racial society, and these photos show that we Vietnamese are people too, as simple as that may sound to some.

How many other photographs are out there, ones that this suitcase could not, must not, contain? Much work, and rightly so, has been dedicated to recovering and restoring the genealogy of the descendants of African-American slaves (I love you, Dr. Henry Louis Gates!), and similar projects are warranted for Vietnamese-American communities. Our paper trail has been destroyed much more recently. Birthdays of survivors are often approximations, while countless faces, names, memories, and histories have been lost.

Now I have these photos, along with my lingering ambivalence about them.

Until I find a (more permanent) home for them, I share these photos and my story here in hopes that, in them, you will recognize the sweet sadness of meeting strangers so familiar.

~ diaCRITIC Jade Hidle is a doctoral student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego

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True Laws? (thoughts on selling “Vietnamese-ness” in America)

I have struggled with how to use these tools – the endeavor of making art and the paradox of trying to share it with others…

Something in my instincts has never been comfortable with turning art into a commodity and all the “shoulds” we are advised to do, to be “successful” as artists, especially in our over-saturated consumer society. The basic philosophy of free market enterprise seems to be built on – foremost – a materialist conception of Nature – that survival is paramount and dependent on consuming, forging ahead, strength, physical superiority… & I can’t say I agree with this as an accurate or even close-to-comprehensive conception of what might be the true laws of Nature.

I was living in Juneau, Alaska, in 2008 when the idea first came to me that I might try writing songs that directly – in both form and content – dealt with the issue of “Vietnam.” This word is not just a country or a culture or a geographical location for many of us: it is an event, a debacle, a milestone & a marker….. a chasm & a chaos into which the world (temporarily, some think; still falling, others think) fell and witnessed awful truths about our Nature nearing the end of the 20th century. Vietnam was the first of our television wars. (& The mainstream media has since gained enough command of that mechanism – the eye – to  keep us now better shielded from the realities of present wars, it might seem). For whatever it is worth, though, “Vietnam” is a complex subject, a modern world relevant subject, not easy to articulate, for Americans and Vietnamese alike, I believe.

There is a translation of a line in a Sigur Ros song that I am told means ‘You suffer alone.’ And the line is repeated for much of the vocal part of the song. Of course, the concept of suffering is one I am drawn to – the long-suffering, desire and attachment as source of suffering, the Buddhist knowledge of suffering as a fact of human/material existence….. But what occurred to me was that I would like to write a line that said ‘We will suffer no more.’

In the context of the Vietnamese story (and history) – which is one of long-proud and necessary fighting – I envisioned that these lines – ‘We will suffer no more’ and ‘We will not carry your war’ – should be sung in the voices of the children.

My brother in 1975 in the refugee camp at Camp Pendleton

I am a child of wars. To varying degrees of separation, all of us are. For the Vietnamese specifically, war was a fact of daily life for nearly all of the twentieth century. But looking further back in Vietnamese history, if you ask any Vietnamese person, you will learn of how Vietnam since the beginning of the first millennium (and perhaps earlier) repeatedly fought off invasions from other nations – various emperors of China, notably. For over a thousand years, Vietnam had been fighting to call herself her own, to call herself (that other catch-word of modern thought) independent. The Trung sisters fought to their deaths against the invaders: at all costs, we would herald our cause of self-exaltation. You see how we were separatists and fatalists long before the West even arrived on our shores.

But when I try to ask ‘What is the character of Vietnam beyond her historical fighting self?’ — I do not get a clear answer. Even the mythological answer is an old legend of division: the mountain-mother and dragon-father dividing between them their 100 offspring, and each forgoing union (marriage) in order to abide in their separate/opposing territories.

So my answer – in the voice of one of the father’s children’s descendants (who are always depicted moving south – seaward) – is this: I will not carry on your myth. Of the fighting self, of noble suffering, of the efficacy or necessity of wars. Nor of self-definition based (largely) on that long history of wars — fought under the same banner even on different sides: Independence.

But too – I understand there is an idealism to the ‘exaltation of self’ that Independence represents. It is an ideal that can be profoundly human-e — as in: we actualize and exemplify the positive and powerful abilities of being human. But will we really arrive at this ideal through the means of our lower, instinctual – fight-or-flight – enactments of the laws of Nature?

The experiment of freedom – free market, self-invention, the self-made man or woman – that defines America and the West has the potential of that idealism of the “exalted self” behind it. It seems like a good idea. (This can be misconstrued as hubris or solipsism, but I think in a more positive light it can also be interpreted as the true manifestation of realizing “God is within” — we are powerful, self-realizing, and thus responsible for all that we create.) But in an atmosphere where anything is possible, anything becomes possible. The field is open. Some will fare better than others; some will manipulate and take more than they need, and for the wrong reasons. Many will cultivate envy in place of positive action or trust. Success and winning will often become measurable in only concrete – and not subtle – terms.

I am slowly trying to work myself back to where I began – the discomfort I have felt with the “shoulds” of how to sell oneself and one’s work as an artist. I am at soul an Easterner, I suppose, and not authentically a child of the West, just an inheritor of this position by circumstance. I became American, but I was born Vietnamese. I grew up being taught, as American children are, that you can accomplish anything, be anything you want to be, by sheer force of will and hard work (and, also, lesser admitted, possibly by luck, chance, exception/exemption), but that you have to fight for it to make it happen. These are the myths of the American dream and of the American dream-er. But I think that something of the Eastern concept of Nature — anti-materialist, self-annihilating, mind-before-matter? — has also still lived on in me. There is a sense that these things that we strive “to accomplish” do not in fact matter, might even be detrimental, even demeaning to, our survival — our integrity — on another level. (One of truer laws, perhaps?)

There is a part of me that worries, or at least wonders, whether attempting to write/express about “Vietnam” from within the American system of capitalism, using the American philosophy and “rules” and hopes – really – of “free market” success, is not somehow paradoxical to the deeper truth that the whole conundrum of “Vietnam” sought to introduce into the ‘debate’ of what our place/our roles in the world, as modern beings striving toward that ideal of “independence,” really ought to be.

In the most simplistic terms, I am wondering whether we have not unquestioningly entered the belly of the beast, in striving to turn our endeavors (esp. as artists) into sell-able, desired commodity. And if there is a way now that we can still take the tools that exist and use them yet conscientiously.

dao strom

(Editor’s note: Part two will follow, two days from now.)

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