It’s Tet here. Public employees get nine days off, counting an unpaid weekend. Millions abandon cities for their home villages, leaving most of Hanoi and Saigon suddenly unclogged, so crossing the street is no longer a harrowing adventure. Prices are jacked up, including for long distance buses, hotel rooms, meals and even haircuts.
The week before Tet, buses arrived in Ea Kly several times a day with returning natives. At my usual cafe, I could see them disembark in the early dawn. The cafe owner’s husband and two oldest sons weren’t among them, however, and it was because they had to work over the holiday, or so Mrs. Ha said, and her daughter was stuck in the Philippines, where she had been employed for five months in a Chinese factory. Since Filipino wages were already low, the 27-year-old was only being paid $173 a month, plus room, board, the experience of living in another country and a chance to improve her English. She’s becoming worldly. The vast majority of people in Ea Kly have never been on a plane.
Hours before I boarded a bus for Saigon, I had coffee with several of our plastic recycling plant employees. We sat in a cool, spacious and fairly well-landscaped garden. Our waitress was a teenager in a white T-shirt, “West 14th Street New York / URBAN CITY,” that was lightly speckled with coffee stains. She had a bemused look on her face that was slightly deranged, especially when she started to goof around. “Please forgive me!” she’d cackle.
Twenty-two-year-old Tiny, real name Huong, brought her four-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, who came barefoot. Tiny’s husband had just returned from Saigon, where he spent ten days working as a housepainter, my old trade.
“So how much money did he bring back?” another woman asked.
“None,” Tiny evenly confirmed. “He bought a pair of flip flops for my daughter,” worth just over two bucks, “and a pack of candies for my son.”
“And nothing for you!”
“Nothing for me.”
“So why did he even bother going to Saigon?!”
Tiny just smiled. Her young man likely spent all of his earnings on women and booze. Though they live with his parents, they don’t eat with them, for Tiny doesn’t get along with her mother-in-law, a notoriously difficult woman.
It’s good to be back in Saigon, but I’d say that about any place, for I can’t remember regretting being anywhere. If I should wake up tomorrow lying on the sidewalk in front of the long shuttered Grandmas Tacos in Gary, Indiana, I would surely exclaim, “My, it’s great to be back in Jacko’s hometown!”
I’m glad to see old faces. I drop by Mrs. Yen’s cafe. For Tet, she’s going to Vung Tau with her two grown children, a daughter who works in a factory and a fat, good-for-nothing and likely retarded son who sits around all day, talking big to his buddies. What will he do when she dies?
She’ll pay $160 for two nights in a 3-star hotel near Back Beach. It’s a rip off, but that’s Tet for you. Mrs. Yen is a most lovely and gentle person. Charging 43 cents for a cup of coffee or can of soda, she makes money a few pennies at a time, with many of her customers the employees at a box making factory across an alley. One joked, “The service is slow here, and you don’t get to look at a young, pretty girl, just an old one!”
Six months ago, I profiled a domestic servant, Ỵ. Since then, she had bought herself a fancy phone for $345, on credit, which promptly got ripped from her hands a month later, as she stood yakking in some alley. Bereft, she must keep making those payments. For Tet, Ỵ has spent over $200 to buy her dead father an artfully crafted papier-mâché car, two chauffeurs, fistfuls of fake dollars and a “rental house,” so he could derive an income in hell, where even Ỵ admitted the wife-beating drunk belonged. Pious, she burnt.
Thinking he was going back to their home village, Ỵ’s 17-year-old-son got a stylish haircut, complete with blonde highlights, which looked great with his gold chain, then he changed his mind, for the trip would more than bankrupt the factory worker. As a returning city dweller, he would be expected to give all of his relatives money or gifts, and to pay for drinking bouts with old friends. The same dread likely prevents Mrs. Ha’s sons and husband from showing up in Ea Kly during Tet.
Sometimes, the kids don’t come home because they can’t stand their parents. Eleven months ago, I wrote about a woman who just had an eye operation. This morning, I saw her sitting in the shade, by three cats, so I paused to chat. Just out of earshot, a shirtless old man glared in our direction.
“Do you remember his dog, the big one?”
“Someone poisoned it.”
“A neighbor, certainly.”
“That’s exactly what I think,” she grinned.
“Only a neighbor would be so irritated by a dog to poison it. Did he bite?”
“No, but he barked at lot, even at night. It kept people up.”
“And he never tells the dog to shut up. Instead, he yells at people who complain.”
“That would do it.”
“When he was younger, he used to be pretty nice, but now he’s cranky all the time. After he got sick, the doctor said his personality would change, and it’s true, he has changed completely. He yells at everybody. When motorists honk, turning this corner, he yells. No one likes him.”
“Does he have a wife and kids?”
“He’s my old man.”
I wasn’t sure I had heard right. “He’s your husband?!”
“Yes. It’s very hard to live with him. I suffer a lot, little brother. He used to chase women and left me all the time. He was a soldier in the Fake Army,” what the current regime called the ARVN. “Ngụy” is fake, and not puppet, as it’s always translated.
“Was he jailed after the war?”
“No, he was only a sergeant.”
Her three children hate their father, so never visit, not even for Tet, though one daughter dutifully brings over rice and other groceries each month. Two of the old woman’s sisters also contribute $43 a month, each.
Finding a willing listener, she continued, “It’s just my fate, little brother. I owe him a debt from a past life. My family had picked out a decent man for me. He was good looking, successful and an only son, but my husband ruined my girlhood,” a euphemism for taking her virginity, as in rape, “so I had to marry him. Back then, that really mattered.”
My, my, so many cheerful Tet stories. In Saigon, I also see Vu, the manicurist who works in Ferguson, Missouri, ten months a year. Though I’ve written about Vu and his alcoholic housemate before, I get a fuller picture this time.
“Business has slowed down. There are days when I make hardly anything.” The scrawny, dark and sometimes stuttering man chuckles. “You know, Linh, a couple times, we had a customer who refused to pay, but when the cop came, he wouldn’t arrest her. He just said, you know, ‘You should try to pay these people,’ then let her go! The cop was black, and the customer was black.”
“So he was biased.”
“That’s, ah, right. It wasn’t like that before. Even the whah, whah, white cops have become useless. They don’t want to arrest black people anymore.”
“Not after the riot. It’s too much trouble.”
As for Vu’s housemate, the 62-year-old drunk makes $100 a day, under the table, cooking in a Chinese restaurant. He drinks daily, sometimes with a Vietnamese coworker. Together, they’d drain three cases of Heineken as they slur through a string of sappy songs. Paying just $350 a month for rent, the drunk can send a thousand a month back to Vietnam to support his 35-ish wife and their two kids. His previous wife, he had divorced in California. He has four grown children from that marriage. Going home for Tet, he’d stay and sate, finally, for three months.
As his youngish wife does whatever with whomever the other nine, he works that wok with two hands, knees the gas lever, splashes in soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar and MSG, then returns to his ghetto home to guzzle, warble and slump on the kitchen or bathroom floor as he wets himself, again.
The main aim of Tet is to gather the family for an extended reunion, and most Vietnamese still manage to do that. Wandering through alleys, I pass countless houses where boisterous parties are being staged, often with karaoke singing where a handful of popular Tet numbers are variously butchered. Food and hell money offerings are left on low tables to petition and placate the spirits. Already prone to gambling, Viets uses Tet to indulge in card and dice games, with people also betting on cock fights. Enormous sums can be lost.
When a dragon and lion dance troupe is hired by a family, the drums, gongs and cymbals beckon neighbors to come watch a free show, and the kids are especially mesmerized. A Monkey King chases a terrified boy. Carrying another man on his shoulders, a chubby, shirtless dude walks on broken glass as a young woman grimaces. Of course, many people simply pass by, minding their own business. Similar stunts are already seen year-round at funerals. It’s no big deal to stumble onto a sword swallower or some guy balancing a motorbike on his forehead as you go get some pho. In Vietnam, the bizarre is often inserted into the quotidian.
It is the Year of the Pig. With its rotund, gluttonous shape, noisy eating, wallowing in mud and seeming insolence, the pig is a larded symbol. In Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, there’s a striking pig character, Zhu Bajie, with a long, red and gaping snout, ending with a mouth smeared with slop. Lazy and lusty, Zhu Bajie is nevertheless endowed with a long list of magical powers, including the abilities to see through substances, shorten vast distances, flatten mountains, turn night into day, scale the highest mountains, dive into the deepest oceans, lift enormous boulders, turn paper into money and adults into children, all those things, in short, that modern man, the ultimate pig, has managed to do.
In Vietnamese, a pornographic film is called a “pig film,” for naked humans resemble pigs, a perception that’s more apparent in the Orient, where men tend to be hairless and round edged.
Aesop has a pig fatten on barley, then slaughtered, which prompts a stupid ass to refuse the leftover grains, for he fears the knife, though it’s not meant for him.
Orientals and Germans devour pigs, while Semites shun them, and in the Bible, the prodigal son reaches his nadir when he’s forced to be among pigs all day long.
Jewish Art Spiegelman depicts Germans as cats, Jews as mice and Poles as pigs. Jewish Kafka allegorizes Jews as jackals.
None of the above pig samples are as familiar, perhaps, as the term “capitalist pig,” first coined in the 1920s by Communists. In Orwell’s Animal Farm, however, the revolution itself is pointedly led by pigs, who end up just as brutal, predictably, as men, for there’s a pig inside each sentient being.
To have pigs supplant men as the best hope of mankind is the sickest historical joke ever, and it’s far from over.
Instead of piggy banks, we have pig banksters. Who are our biggest pigs, and what should we do about them?
Pig enough, I pig out when given a chance. My pig days are winding down. Welcome to another Year of the Pig.