My first book, Fake House (2000), was dedicated to "the unchosen," and by that, I meant all those who are not particularly blessed at birth or during life, just ordinary people, in short, with their daily exertion and endurance. Further, I've always considered losing to be our common bond and bedrock, for no matter how smug you may be at the moment, you'll be laid out by a sucker punch soon enough. Being born into a war-wracked lesser country undoubtedly made it easier to think this way.
Though I spent more than three decades in the shining city on a hill, the indispensable, greatest nation ever, I was still mostly surrounded by the unchosen, such as Tony, who died at 56, just months after being fired from his restaurant job, with his last apartment freezing from unpaid bills, or 66-year-old Chuck, who's carless and has but a tiny room in a group home, as he suffers through his divorce and alimony payments, or 55-year-old Beth, whose crepe restaurant has gone belly up, so for economic reasons can't dump a husband who chronically cheats on her with both men and women.
A 35-year-old Philly friend who's been semi-homeless for the last two years just told me she doesn't even have a phone any more, so must wait for up to an hour at the library to use a computer for 30 minutes, a predicament that severely limits her ability to find a job. She barely survives by cleaning houses.
Surely, all these American tales of woes must pale next to Vietnamese ones, you must be thinking, for it must be horrific to be poor in such a poor country, no?
Since almost no neighborhoods are strictly residential, poor people also show up everywhere as restaurant, shop or factory employees. Daily, they also swarm through to sell nearly everything, so in my Saigon neighborhood, for example, I often see the same fruit seller, with a toddler sitting in a basket on her pushcart. Buying a kilo of rambutans, a regular customer teased her boy, "I'm going to catch you, put you in my purse then sell you!"
At my morning coffee spot, I often sit near an old woman who makes about three bucks a day, selling lottery tickets. One of her relatives owns a box making factory, however, so she has a place to sleep, two meals a day, plus $22 a month from this relation.
A Teochew from backward Vĩnh Ch u, down the southern coast, Ỵ has ten brothers and sisters. Her recently deceased dad was a lifelong drunk who regularly beat her mother, sometimes with a piece of bamboo, to the point of drawing blood. The family has a bit of land, on which they grow rice, sweet potatoes and bananas.
When Ỵ was in second grade, her people got into a knife fight with some neighbors, which landed one of her brothers in jail for a year. "My brother thought they had killed my father, so he grabbed a meat cleaver, the kind you use to chop ducks, you know, and hacked a guy on the shoulder. His arm nearly fell off. There was so much blood, blood everywhere. Panicking, my brother dropped the cleaver, but then my father grabbed it to hack another guy, severing his Achilles tendon."
Too terrified to walk past these neighbors' house thereafter, Ỵ quit school, so she's basically illiterate. Though she can read numbers well enough to use a cellphone, Ỵ signs her name with an X. On top of her native Teochew, she's also fluent in Vietnamese and Cambodian, however.
Folks in Vĩnh Ch u are apparently quite comfortable with knives. One of Ỵ's uncles was jailed for killing his own mother, "He hacked grandma on the chest, and nearly cut her left breast off. In prison, the other inmates beat him nearly to death, because they knew why he was there. Although my uncle was allowed to go home, he died soon afterwards."
These rural donnybrooks are quite charming, no? Perhaps they can be packaged with local religious festivals, pseudo traditional music concerts, elephant or sampan rides and some jivey folkloric dances.
"But he fed you, no?"
"Yes, and he gave me a place to sleep."