A servant’s tale

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 anymore, 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?

In Vietnam, the rich and poor are generally not segregated, for if a family’s economic situation improves, they won’t move to a better neighborhood, but build a better house, right where they’ve always been. A ramshackle wooden shack may morph into a three-story brick building, then a five-story virtual palace, with an ostentatious wrought iron gate, while in the next lot, a modest dwelling has only gotten new paint jobs, if that, over decades.

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.

You’ll also find many poor people living in middle and upper class homes, as domestic servants. Long inquisitive about these servants’ plights, I’ve written about them in prose and poetry, in English and Vietnamese, so let’s meet one.

A Teochew from backward Vĩnh Châu, 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 Châu 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.

In 1998, Ỵ went to Saigon at age 16, “A bus ticket from Vĩnh Châu was only 40,000 dongs [$2.50 at the time], and I stayed in this room with four other people,” rent free, and where she was also fed, thanks to kindly “big sister” from home. “My big sister was trying to find me work. Each day, I went to Bình Phú Park, and just sat there. A man rode up and asked if I wanted to work in a restaurant, but I barely understood him. I didn’t really know Vietnamese then. Plus, I was afraid he was up to no good. I said, ‘You better talk to my big sister,’ and he actually did, so I was hired for 350,000 a month [$23]!”

“But he fed you, no?”

“Yes, and he gave me a place to sleep.”

When Ỵ reached 17, her parents decided she should marry a Taiwanese, for that would fetch at least $900, and though six Taiwanese actually wanted to marry her, something always went wrong, “With three of them, our age differences [in multiples of 3] didn’t work,” meaning they portend back luck. “One man was simply too fat. Another was probably lame, as he sat perfectly still and never got off his chair during our meeting.” Ỵ laughed. “The sixth, I agreed to marry, but then I changed my mind, for I’d heard too many horrible stories about Vietnamese women who had gone to Taiwan.”

With old, morbidly obese or crippled Taiwanese out of her life, Ỵ fell in love with a Vĩnh Châu lad, a dark, strapping Cambodian, which horrified her parents, but they married anyway. At the beginning, Ỵ’s husband worked hard enough, then he just sat home and sulked after his father yelled at him for always being a coolie, never a boss.

“We lived with his family. We had rice, but nothing to eat with it. His mom bought everything on credit, until no one would sell to her. Once, six of us shared one packet of instant noodles. I ate so little, I didn’t even have milk for our baby.”

While still pregnant, Ỵ worked in the rice paddies, for just 20,000 dongs a day [$1.25 in 2004], and she had to catch field rats so her husband and his buddies had something to munch on as they got trashed on the cheapest rice wine. After her son was born, Ỵ bought a stolen motorbike for just $40, and used it to drive around to buy and sell longans, rambutans and other fruits, whatever was in season.

At least Y’s husband never beat her, “He only fought other men when he was drunk. I beat him! I’d hit him on the head with my flip flop!”

Pregnant again, Ỵ finally left her useless husband to return to Saigon, where she’s toiled as a daycare employee, factory grunt and domestic servant, what she’s doing now at age 36.

“At this house on Hậu Giang Street, I was paid 11,500,000 [$496] a month, but I had to take care of two kids, and work until midnight. I worked until I trembled. It was like I was working and sobbing at the same time, and my mistress would suddenly accuse me of stealing, and it was always something ridiculous, a floor mat, a bra! If you’re going to steal, it might as well be something valuable, like a piece of jewelry. At other times, my mistress would cheer up and give me a bonus. I had to endure that household because I was raising two kids by myself.”

At her current job, Ỵ’s only paid $345 a month, but she’s much happier. Each day, she cooks, does a bit of laundry, looks after a baby and sometimes massages her mistress’ legs. As for food, she has never eaten better, and has even dined at a few upscale restaurants, with her mistress’ family.

From morning until night, though, Ỵ can’t do whatever she wants, beyond making a few quick phone calls, and she gets just one day off a month. She sleeps with the baby in an air-conditioned room that’s rigged up with a camera, so even in bed, Ỵ can be monitored. When her father died, however, Ỵ was allowed to go home for a week, with pay.

On her cellphone, Ỵ showed me a half dead man lying on a hammock, “My father ate so many dogs, he looked just like a charred dog at the end!” Ỵ grinned. Ever demanding, the dying son of a bitch insisted that Western, Vietnamese, Chinese and Cambodian music be played at his funeral, and 13 cars be hired to carry guests without vehicles.

You might expect someone with such a frightful biography to be rather sullen or bitter, but Ỵ is constantly cheerful and laughing. With so many stories of extreme hardship due to war, imperialism, idiotic ideology, bad government and/or, simply, the misfortune of being born into a wretched family, self-pity is just not indulged in Vietnam. In any case, Y’s happy that her 15-year-old son is working in a factory near Saigon, and her 13-year-old daughter has been a domestic servant for two years. The pretty, small-voiced and tiny girl is also apprenticing at the same factory.

Although Y’s son finished 6th grade, her daughter never made it past 4th, “She was afraid to go to school after her 11-year-old cousin was raped and killed!”

I grimaced, “How old was the rapist?!”

“Twenty something.”

“And how far was the school?”

“Four, five kilometers [thee miles]. These country roads are desolate. Like all the other kids, my daughter rode a bike to school. You don’t know how crazy it is down there. A guy would ride by, grab a girl’s long hair and cut it off, to sell her hair!”

Ỵ has many changes of clothes, tasteful fake eyebrows, persuasive false teeth and a used cellphone, bought for just $15. Two years ago, she purchased her second stolen motorbike, this time for $65. Most domestic servants can only afford bicycles.

Though Ỵ rarely gets online, she does have a Facebook page, and among her dozen virtual friends is some Nigerian guy, who has written her, “You are so beautiful,” “I’m in love with you,” “I want to marry you.” I’m certain Africa is not in Ỵ’s future.

Though still poor, Ỵ and her kids have seen their lives improved through the years, a development that gives them hope, and they have no fear of being homeless, unlike many Americans. With their extensive network of family and friends, somebody will always provide them with a spot to sleep, with a roof over it, even if it’s of rusting tin. Moreover, they won’t freeze to death should they somehow end up on the sidewalk, for it’s always summer in Saigon.

A Vietnamese factory worker typically earns between $260 and $300 a month, but his rent should be $43 or much less, depending on how many people he wants to share his tiny room with. Though earning and spending so little, he can still whoop it up fairly regularly with his buddies, as well as save. It’s this standard of living that American workers must consent to, if they want to compete globally.

About 25 years ago, I happened to sit next a corporate lawyer on an Amtrak train. From her, I learnt about an American toy company that had moved some of its production to Haiti, for its cheap labor, but this proved a total disaster. “Haitian workers aren’t as disciplined as you would like, and their education system is a mess.” Of course it’s all relative, but if you’re too expensive, slack, dumb, doped up, pissed off, mentally ill or disunited, then you’re fucked, relatively speaking, and that’s why the sun will rise tomorrow in the Orient. As Americans war against each other over their hidden masters’ latest decoy, Orientals will still have their jobs.

Everyone knows about the US’s runaway trade imbalance with China, but it’s also incurring a massive deficit with Vietnam, which in 2017 alone totaled $38 billion. As with so much else, Americans are oblivious to their nation’s true poverty, but this bankruptcy will hit them like a surprise roundhouse kick upside the head, soon enough.

In my Saigon neighborhood, there was an oddly dapper man who repaired and sold shoes, and I used to see him each morning, sitting behind his pitiful array of beat up loafers, wingtips and sandals. Suddenly, the man disappeared, and I thought he was just temporarily sick, but he’s really gone, for good.

“He owes so many people so much money, he had to run away,” I’ve been told.

If only deadbeat Sammy can do the same.

Linh Dinh’s latest books are Postcards from the End of America (non-fiction) and A Mere Rica (poetry). He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.

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