Author Archives: Linh Dinh

A more colorful, diluted and dying Japan

Generally seen as highly homogenous, Japan is changing fast. In Tokyo, Kawasaki and Osaka recently, I encountered quite a few non-Japanese working at convenience stores and restaurants, and saw many more on the streets. Japan’s largest immigrant groups are Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Brazilians. Though the last are mostly ethnic Japanese, they maintain a separate culture, so are perceived as Brazilians. Continue reading

Kawaii, somber Japan

Before my recent trip to Tokyo, Kawasaki and Osaka, I emailed an American friend, “Japan contrasts so sharply with chaotic and dirty Vietnam. Unlike here, almost nothing happens on Japanese sidewalks, no eating, drinking or even smoking!” Continue reading

Oriental ways

Two years ago, I was having dinner in NYC with a group of Japanese writers. Next to me was Mieko Kawakami, who’s also known as a pop singer. Since her English was very limited, we conversed mostly through another person. Seeing that my beer glass was empty, Mieko filled it. Continue reading

Nation Above All

“Tổ Quốc Trên Hết” [“Nation Above All”] was a slogan of the defunct and much maligned Republic of South Vietnam, while the Socialist North rallied their populace with “Chống Mỹ Cứu Nước” [“Fight the Americans, Save the Nation”]. During the war, both Vietnamese sides stressed their nationalist credentials while discrediting their opponent as a foreign puppet. The common Vietnamese soldier, then, didn’t fight and die for capitalism, communism, democracy, internationalism, universal brotherhood, America, Russia or China, but only for Vietnam, for only nationalism could justify so much sacrifice, pain and endurance. Continue reading

Sunstroked observations from the Orient

First, the good news. To those who can’t stand my scribbling, it’s clear this pitiful, barely gurgling font is drying up quickly, for lately all I feel like doing is vegetate at a sidewalk café, or wander mindlessly for miles, so that I can be just another anchovy in this demanding, forgetful stream. Continue reading

Reading crimes

A foreign country seeps into one’s consciousness via large events and personalities, mostly, as in war, earthquake, tsunami, coup d’état, unprovoked bombing, Gaddafi and Assad, etc., but it’s the lesser turbulences that will begin to yield more revealing clues about any society. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Of ants and asskicking

Trinh Cong Son, the great song writer, poet and soul of Saigon, said that he got his heart and mind revving each morning by watching frantic life unfurling all around him, while sitting in a sidewalk cafe. Lesser Vietnamese do exactly the same, however, for to be among one’s own kind is practically an hourly necessity here. The second they’re free to do so, most head straight for the nearest café, eatery or beer joint, which is, still, most likely on the sidewalk, or open to it. Continue reading

Genitalia as social constructs

During a recent gay pride parade in Philly, a transgender woman was arrested for attempting to burn a Blue Lives Matter flag. The charges against ReeAnna Segin were arson, causing/risking a catastrophe and other misdemeanors. After Segin was released, however, her case smoldered on, for he/she claimed that his/her human rights and dignity were violated since he/she was locked up for four hours with male inmates, that is, with other humans cursed or gifted with a penis. Continue reading

Last Philly glimpses

Céline half joked, “If you stay anywhere long enough, everyone and everything will stink up, just for your special benefit.” Without this pungency, however, there is no real understanding of anything, and Céline knew this as well as anyone. With tremendous physical and mental courage, the man endured. He survived being wounded in WWI, a year in Africa, a month in America, being a slum doctor for decades, WWII and the consequences of being an anti-Semite, everything but his first marriage. Continue reading

Obscured American: Chang the owner of Jenny’s Place and Dollar City

The jokes about New Jersey keep coming. It has the third highest taxes in the country, yet ranks dead last in fiscal health. Its most successful residents flee. Continue reading

Postcard from the End of America: Lancaster County, PA

I’ve hung out with poet Hai-Dang Phan in quite a few places. Since our first meeting in Certaldo, Italy, in 2003, we’ve downed a few pints together in New York, Washington, Milwaukee, Iowa, Illinois, Philadelphia, Hanoi, Saigon and Vung Tau. This week, Hai-Dang flew down from Boston, and with his rented car, we spent two days visiting a handful of Pennsylvania and New Jersey towns. Continue reading

Postliterate America

I was just interviewed by two Temple University journalism students, Amelia Burns and Erin Moran, and though they appeared very bright and enterprising, with Erin already landing a job that pays all her bills, I feel for these young ladies, for this is a horrible time to make and sell words, of any kind, and the situation will only get worse. We’re well into postliteracy. Continue reading

Postcard from the End of America: Callowhill, Philadelphia

I’m sitting in a spacious bar, Love City, that was once a factory. Too slicked up, it’s not quite a ruin bar, of the kind you find in Budapest. The patrons are mostly hipsters and yuppies, but with a handful of Joe Sixpacks thrown in. Looking like contractors, they’re probably fixing properties in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Continue reading

Dreamers, opioids and involuntary celibates

I’m back in Philly to wrap things up, return my apartment, give a paid talk and say goodbye to my friends. With Felix Giordano, I’ve hit bars in the Italian Market, Point Breeze, Pennsport, Fishtown and Whitman. Soon, we’ll run over to Billy Boy’s in the Pine Barrens, where the owner/cook makes some of the best comfort food anywhere, and the hardy, friendly people soothe our souls. Mellowing in there, it’s hard to believe you’re only 30 miles from the mayhem of Camden. Even in the Piney, though, things have changed for the worse. “You can’t really smell pig shit anymore,” Felix pointed out. “It’s not like when I was a kid, coming here. There’s less pig farming now.” Continue reading

Tokyo dreaming

We landed in darkness. The last time I was in Narita was 18 years earlier. With a six-hour layover, I inexplicably didn’t leave the airport. “Can I possibly die without at least a glimpse of Japan?” I’d ask myself, cringing. Continue reading

War, wedding and wine in Nghe An

In Marseilles, I met an illegal immigrant from Nghe An. He said his boss and housemates in Paris were all from the same province. Long known for its poverty, Nghe An leads Vietnam in the ratio of people working overseas, with most never returning. In fact, so many have become illegal in South Korea, Vietnam is blocking 11 Nghe An districts from sending people there. Continue reading

Melting pots, new identities and flowering barbarism

In 1987, V.S. Naipaul was asked by Andrew Robinson, “Have the immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean changed British life?” Continue reading

National identity, great Thais and eyes rolling

History is primarily a chronicle of wars and invasions, most often among neighbors, so every inch of every border has been fiercely fought over, for that’s how any population maintains its autonomy, integrity and identity. Plus, you need land to prosper so, often, you grab your neighbor’s when he’s weak. Everyone has done this. Everyone. Continue reading

Alley culture, zoning laws and anomic Americans

Even more than eating for fun, the main pleasure of Vietnam is mingling, but that’s only if you enjoy being around people, which Vietnamese obviously do, and here, community life is most intense and intimate in alleys. Continue reading

Cambodia’s illegal immigrants

When the French ruled Indochina, they had a shortage of white collar workers in Cambodia and Laos, so solved it by bringing in many thousands of Vietnamese, which, understandably, didn’t please the Cambodians and Laotians too much. Most of these Vietnamese would be kicked out in waves, sometimes violently, as happened in Cambodia during the ‘70s. Continue reading

Language and empathy in Cambodia

Cambodia makes good, cheap beer, so I was sitting in some lunch place with yet another can of Angkor, after having polished off a plate of fatty pork with rice. Two tables away, a girl sat, doing her homework. She had a machine that sang out, “Old McDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O!” and so on. Suddenly, it switched to, “and girls . . . just want to have fun!” It’s all good, for it was all in English, and this girl needed a constant fix of the world’s master language, if she wanted to get ahead, that is, but what if English should wane as the lingua franca during her lifetime? It won’t matter much, as long as she can make a few bucks from her English skills. Continue reading

Rolling into Cambodia

Traveling, I prefer to be on the ground, for that’s how you get an overview of the countryside. The bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh took more than seven hours, but that included 30 minutes for lunch, plus 45 more at the border. My seatmate was a young fellow, Morris, from Halle, Germany, and we had a fruitful, wide ranging conversation. For a moment, I had mistaken him for a woman, for he had a pony tail and such a smooth, unblemished face. Continue reading

A common culture makes the nation

In Saigon, the foreign tourists stay mostly downtown, where they can patronize American bars, and restaurants serving Indian, Thai, Korean, Italian, Mexican and Middle Eastern food, not to mention McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, Starbucks and Lotteria, the last a Japanese chain. With English as the lingua franca, they can be overseas, yet somewhat at home, and with their smart phones, they can be anchored further in the familiar. Once, traveling meant having virtually no news from home, and no choice but to be immersed in the alien. How many still remember picking up an International Herald Tribune to find out, say, if the Phillies won three days ago? Continue reading

Tet offensives, hungry China and dumbed down Americans

With their brief existence, and dumbed down now by a degraded and warped education, most Americans have a telescoped and cartoony sense of history, so nothing matters, really, beyond the last two or three presidential elections, and each foreign country is represented, at most, by a caricature or two, so Germany is Hitler and Merkel, China is Mao and Xi, Russia is Lenin, Stalin and Putin, Japan is no-name-comes-to-mind, Korea is Little Rocket Man, Vietnam is Ho Chee Mann and Mexico, right next door, is, ah, Speedy Gonzales. Having no historical depth, many Americans will claim that China, for example, is a peace loving and fair-minded civilization that shuns invasions and genocides, but you couldn’t have become the most populous nation on earth without gobbling up many lesser ones, and China’s appetite will only increase as its girth balloons even further. To thrive, it will need a chain of vassals and colonies, same as it ever was. Continue reading

The Chinese in Southern Vietnam

In the 17th century, the Manchus conquered China, causing thousands of defeated Chinese soldiers and their families to flee to Vietnam, then divided between north and south. The Nguyen Clan, rulers of the south, granted these Chinese land in nominal Cambodian territory, paving the way for Vietnam’s annexation of a third of Cambodia. This obscure history is just another example of how immigrants are used to serve rulers, and how de facto borders are often fluid, to be contested over. Continue reading

Postcard from the End of America: Palmyra, NJ

When out-of-town friends visit, I like to take them to Camden. With its high crime, horrible government and general wretchedness, it’s the worst of America’s present and, if all goes according to plans, our stereotypical future. Soon as you cross into Collingswood or Gloucester, however, the graffiti, trash, abandoned houses, sagging pants and neck tattoos disappear. In fact, South Jersey is dotted with quaint boroughs featuring relatively active Main Streets. Continue reading

Scitan in mind

Indoctrinated for decades by relativism, we’re supposed to consider all life styles equal and never pass judgments. There must be legitimate reasons for a culture to embrace, for example, child marriage, bride kidnapping, female circumcision, Oprah Winfrey or universal, all day long access to pornography. Continue reading

Postcard from the End of America: Point Breeze in Philadelphia

Southerner Fred Reed writes about Yankee hypocrisy, “You’ve heard about white flight. In nearly about every city in the North, white people streak for the suburbs so’s not to be near black people, and then they talk about how bad Southerners are for doing the same thing [ . . . ] Fact is, you can see more social, comfortable integration in a catfish house in Louisiana than you can in probably all of Washington.” Continue reading

Communists vs. fascists

Two blocks from my front door, there are two signs in a house window, “FASCIST SCUM YOUR TIME IS DONE,” “WHITE SUPREMACY IS TERRORISM.” Seeing them, my 71-year-old friend, Felix, snarled, “I feel like throwing a rock through that window! How dare he comes into this neighborhood and calls us fascists!” Interesting, Felix’s immediate assumption that the man was a newcomer, that is, an outsider who had intruded to find the locals more than deplorable. Continue reading

Practical Vietnam, imploding America and China as beacon

At age 18, Theo volunteered for the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. Based near the demilitarized zone, he saw much fighting and lost most of his left arm in 1968. Post war, Theo learned karate, opened a dojo, married, fathered three children, got his college degree and became a high school teacher. The Philly native settled in Lafayette, Louisiana. Continue reading

Obscured American: Melissa the Iraqi refugee

With their vast parking lots and chain stores, strip malls may appear generic, impersonal and characterless, but each harbors an intense web of social interactions, with an infinity of stories to tell, but to even state this is redundant, for there’s no man, woman, child or dog who isn’t, by his lonesome, asshole self, a thousand-page novel. Continue reading