Before & After
Meditations on Vietnam and the Five Remembrances
Last month for my Medium archive piece I posted a Buddhism-inspired short story that had disappeared off the interwebs as online literary journals practice the Buddhist property of impermanence, so this month I will follow with an essay in the same spirit that suffered the same fate. This was written in and largely about Vietnam and was originally published in 2016.
And what, friends, is the unwholesome, what is the root of the unwholesome, what is the wholesome, what is the root of the wholesome? Killing living beings is unwholesome; taking what is not given is unwholesome; misconduct in sensual pleasures is unwholesome; false speech is unwholesome; malicious speech is unwholesome; harsh speech is unwholesome; gossip is unwholesome; covetousness is unwholesome; ill will is unwholesome; wrong view is unwholesome. This is called the unwholesome.
— Sammaditthi Sutta (4, 5)
My grandfather killed here, saved lives too, one would imagine. Who can say how many on either side of the ledger, or if one can balance out the other. My dad rode in helicopters above the rice fields firing a machine gun towards the ground. Perhaps only water buffalo were felled by the metal from the sky, perhaps more and other species. I came to Vietnam to teach English, killing in my own way. Killing culture, commodifying a people towards their best interest: success in school, business, life. I have little doubt they will earn more money as a result of my, and their, efforts; I have little doubt about the wisdom of my decision. I am a rich man here, gainfully employed, endlessly diverted; they will be able to enjoy The Fast and the Furious subtitle free. Sometimes I think I came here to balance my family’s ledger; it is a feeble penance I make for my tribe and nation.
I am standing in a field near Cu Chi. This is where tunnels were dug during the war and used as a retreat and hospital for Viet Cong soldiers. The tunnels also enabled them to sneak in and out of occupied Saigon.
The tunnels have been substantially widened for tourists and still they are cramped and dark and frightening. There are insects; this is the jungle; I can’t imagine what it would be like during the monsoon, not to mention forty years ago. Above ground, there is a gift shop and an AK-47 shooting range. A screen showing an informational video detailing the manifold atrocities of the American killers on the one hand and celebrating the killers of Americans on the other. Where I am, standing in a field kilometers distant from the tourist tunnels, there is a fluorescent Buddha and a wall of frog sounds. Cricket sounds. A gecko scurries across the alter, stops and stares. “Have you reached Samadhi?” he asks. “Are you Arhat?” Wild dogs titter at the lizard’s lazy presumption.
A slasher movie plays in the home across the field from the temple. Light flashes from the window and drowns in the thick air. Screams are muffled across the rice. A young boy whips ducks in circles. The sun sets.
Burnt out wands of incense like so many punji sticks — the Viet Cong dug pits and filled them with sharpened sticks rubbed with frog venom and feces. They covered the pits with grass and sticks waiting for the unfortunate step of a South Vietnamese or American soldier. The grass and sticks fell through, the enemy soldier with them, spearing the American boot, the Vietnamese sandal or bare foot. A Midwestern boy’s anguished screams in the malevolent jungle; this ain’t Kansas anymore. The stakes aren’t meant to kill, only maim. The helicopter that would be forced to respond to the wounded (American) soldier a much richer target for Viet Cong rockets than the lost and crying child.
The devout are trapped — I only know of punji sticks from the movies.
Xe Om (motorbike for hire) drivers collect outside my house like so many mewing kittens. Crossing over the bridge to work, I hug (Om) the man’s back; the unmistakable and powerful smell of shit suffocates the perimeter of the canal, mixes with the driver’s musk; watch another man dive into the shit-choked river, do a little turn and spit up a fountain of water like a statue of Cupid.
I remember the airport when I first arrived: the gaggle of well-wishers and taxi-drivers jostled and pushed into each other, speaking strange and shrill to me, my first encounter with Tieng Viet, a looping cacophony like dying birds and bleeting sheep; dozens trying to gain purchase with elbow and shoulder, enter the front lines, be first to truly see their disembarking loved one. Amidst this throng stood several weary faces, necks tilted, one or another with a cigarette drooping from between his lips — the smokers were all men, though there were women too — placidly holding signs against their chests. Those from the nicer District 1 hotels printed in large black letters, even with laminate covers: “Welcome to MR AND MRS SIERIDSSONS from CARAVEL,” “SHERATON MR WILSON.” Others written in marker or thin, barely legible ballpoint on ripped scraps of paper: “Tim,” “Mr. Wes….” dissolved into a smear.
Finding a taxi without getting scammed (too badly); staring out the window as the driver maneuvered through the hundreds of motorbikes, some carrying three, four people, that weaved through the streets like a swarm of insects, each individual motorbike acting as a discrete element in a larger body, opening and closing around each car or truck. Spinning and buzzing and honking through each intersection, without regard for any rules of the road that seem to be natural, but following their own chaotic path and surviving, thriving. The streets full of people even late at night, restaurants set up on the sidewalk with dozens of people sitting at low plastic tables on low plastic chairs eating and drinking and talking. Open air shops lit by glaring fluorescent light, carts with vats of soup parked in front, helmed by women wearing pointy hats like in the movies. People lying prone on the street, sleeping or drunk amidst the din.
We are throwing knives at empty beer cans in a yard in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We drink to mask our pain; the knife throwing is only accompaniment. We do not realize the truth that remains underneath the beer and whiskey. If we did, we would collapse to the ground in tears, a collection of jelly, puddles on the lawn. We raid the kitchen for more ammunition. The lawn is littered with silverware. The next day the owner expresses dismay.
We play videogames or read Derrida. We go to Red Lobster and ironically drink cloying frozen concoctions.
A lonely girl is standing on the ledge of the roof of a new condominium building. Like all high-end real estate geared towards a tax break for wealthy parents of University students in Tuscaloosa, it promises a stadium view and delivers. Dad gets to ogle coeds from the balcony on game day visits. The girl on the ledge is very beautiful and is threatening suicide. Nobody cares, though no one wants to deal with the police either — we are trespassing. “Get the fuck down.” She now lives in the Mid Atlantic and has a baby, one hopes is less lonely and has forsaken high drama. We are all elsewhere.
“Toi dang di baw.” (My rough approximation of “I’m walking here.”)
“Sorry pal, you’re talking into my bad ear. Shards of skull rendered this ear useless nigh 20 years back when the car I drunkenly piloted collided with a parked van. Had there not been a medevac helicopter flying directly overhead at the time I would be dead and you could not offer your motorbike services to me… By fortune and fate I survived, but lost this ear… If you are speaking in English I have no idea what you’re saying.”
“Jkjkh…kkjk..jj..Marijuana, massage, boom boom, blow job.”
“Ah, got that part. Well sir, I’m walking home from work and while a massage and a blow job is a lovely thing, I am not of the mind to hop on the back of your motorbike and be shuttled off to some shady back alley apartment to be massaged and blown by some 16-year old girl with a plaster face and an outreached palm. The cockroaches tickle my toes. I will however be stopping for a late dinner of broken rice and chili and salt rubbed pork, after which I will return home and shower and sit for half an hour and breathe and go to sleep. The massage and marijuana and blow job and boom boom will have to wait for another day. Thank you for the kind offer, but I have been reformed by our Lord Shakyamuni sir. I sing his name, even as I now walk. Jaya jaya. I sing his forebears Ganesha and Krishna and Hanuman too — not because I want to, but because my mind has been grooved by kirtan: the songs have been looping in my skull for days. This is called Sanskara. Nonetheless, I doff my cap to you and gesture you on your way.”
I had four new students start my class tonight. A tall stunner walked in wearing jeans and a tight sweater over her small breasts. Her face as white as notebook paper from her daily regime of chemicals. (The women of Vietnam are pathological about the whiteness of their skin, when I first arrived I kiddingly asked if it was a Muslim country, so much they covered from the darkening sun.) The student’s hair is long and black. I notice after a moment that her hands and feet seem rather large for her build and I begin to wonder if I am teaching my first ladyboy or kathoey — it’s the vernacular here; I have rarely heard the word transgender in Asia (though it’s a far more common identification). Something about the vagaries of reincarnation perhaps — anyway, it’s difficult to tell. At the end of class one of my male students gives me a look and jocularly nods to the new lady/boy in class. I cannot read his meaning. Is it a “Yeah, hot stuff” look, or a “That’s a dude” look? I’ve been fooled by my predilections before. I miss tall women — it just happens that most of them here are men.
The Five Remembrances:
1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
2. I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
I am a single high-heeled black shoe with a horseshoe of rhinestones decorating the toe. I am laying in the dirt on my side next to two dropped bags of produce in a market in Ho Chi Minh City. I can smell leather belts and wallets, meat and fish, the omnipresent choke of exhaust. I can see a crowded Pizza Hut next to a row of busy fabric sellers.
The city, the motorbikes are me. The bags of produce are me. The spinach is me. The dirt on the spinach is me. The insects crawling in the bag are me. I am the Wicked Witch of the East. I am the Scarecrow. I am the Cowardly Lion.
The sound of the rain outside, beating on the corrugated roof. It is in the background, but thoroughly so, filling every spare space in our minds. The water pooling and running into the cracks and crevices we had forgotten or had never even known existed. There is a saying in Vietnam about rain and June, but I do not know it, I only know of its existence, but despite this not knowing can well vouch for its veracity. It is the 11th of June and it has rained, torrentially and emphatically, every day of the past eleven.
The bells of the church tower are chiming for three o’ clock now and it is a pleasant sound to go with the rain and I am happy and glad to be here and for us to be alive. Thank you.
There is a large rock tumbling towards the earth. It smolders; it steams. Could it do these things in the vacuum of space? That is unimportant at the moment but the question irks me. I do not understand the physics. The rock is bringing life to earth in the form of air and water and fire and earth. The space rock is us. We are this rock. Everything we know, everything we have ever seen is contained on this rock in space. It is all we are. We are only this. Could we be that much more?
Originally published in Gravel Magazine in 2016