I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.
Their afflicted kids were talking back, not in their native language but in a foreign tongue they were mastering faster than their fathers. As for the wives, most had been forced to find jobs, and in doing so had been transformed from the winsome lotuses the men remembered them to be. As the crapulent major said, A man doesn’t need balls in this country, Captain. The women all have their own.
Do you ever regret being a communist, Professor? No, I do not. Only by making that mistake could I be what I am today. What is that, sir? He smiled. I suppose you could call me a born-again American. An irony, but if the bloody history of the past few decades has taught me anything, it’s that the defense of freedom demands the muscularity only America can provide. Even what we do at the college has its purpose. We teach you the best of what was thought and said not only to explain America to the world, as I have always encouraged you to do, but to defend it. I sipped my scotch. It was smoky and smooth, tasting of peat and aged oak, underscored by licorice and the intangible essence of Scottish masculinity. I liked my scotch undiluted, like I liked my truth. Unfortunately, undiluted truth was as affordable as eighteen-year-old single malt scotch. What about those who have not learned the best of what was thought and said? I asked the professor. If we can’t teach them, or if they won’t be taught? The professor contemplated the copper depths of his drink. I suppose you and Claude have seen more than your fair share of those types in your line of work. There’s no easy answer, except to say it has always been thus. Ever since the first caveman discovered fire and decided that the ones still living in darkness were benighted, it’s been civilization against barbarism . . . with every age having its own barbarians.
Typical white man behavior, Ms. Mori said. Have you ever noticed how a white man can learn a few words of some Asian language and we just eat it up? He could ask for a glass of water and we’d treat him like Einstein.
I was careful, then, to present myself as just another immigrant, glad to be in the land where the pursuit of happiness was guaranteed in writing, which, when one comes to think about it, is not such a great deal. Now a guarantee of happiness—that’s a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.
Its refugee members were hobbled by their structural function in the American Dream, which was to be so unhappy as to make other Americans grateful for their happiness.
Let me play devil’s advocate. There are many good causes to which I, for example, might donate. But to be frank, there is only so much money that I, for example, might have. Inevitably, self-interest comes into play. Self-interest is good. It’s an instinct that keeps us alive. It’s also very patriotic. Absolutely. So: What is my self-interest in this organization of yours? I looked at the General. It was on his lips, one of two magical words. If we possessed the things these words named, we would propel ourselves to the front rank of American citizens, able to access all the glittering treasures of American society. Unfortunately, we had only a tentative grasp on one. The word that identified what we did not possess was “money,” of which the General might have enough for his own use, but certainly not for a counterrevolution. The other word was “votes,” so that together “money votes” was “open sesame” to the deep caverns of the American political system. But even when just one-half of that magical combination floated from my aspiring Ali Baba’s lips, the Congressman’s eyebrows rippled ever so faintly. Think of our community as an investment, Congressman. A long-term investment. Think of us as a small, sleeping child who has not yet awaken and grown. It is true this child cannot vote. This child is not a citizen. But one day this child will be a citizen. One day this child’s children will be born as citizens, and they must vote for somebody. That somebody might as well be you.
As you can see when I attended the wedding, General, I already value your community. With words, I said. With all due respect, Congressman, words are free. Money is not. Isn’t it funny that in a society that values freedom above all things, things that are free are not valued? So please permit me to be blunt. Our community appreciates your words, but in the process of becoming American it has learned the expression “money talks.” And if voting is our best way of participating in American politics, we must vote for those who deliver the money. This would hopefully be you, but of course the beauty of American politics is that we have a choice, do we not?
That is indeed a tricky situation. But what you are speaking of is official money that must be accounted for to the government. What we are speaking of is unofficial money that circulates to us, which returns to you in all officialness as votes delivered by the General. That is correct, the General said. If my country has prepared me for one thing, it’s dealing with what my young friend describes so imaginatively as unofficial money. Our performance entertained the Congressman, we the two little ingenious monkeys and he the organ-grinder, watching us hop and beg to a score not our own. We were well trained in this show from our previous exposure to Americans in our homeland, where the plays were all about unofficial money, i.e., corruption. Corruption was like the elephant in Indian lore, myself one of the blind wise men who could feel and describe only one part of it. It is not what one sees or feels that is confusing, it is what one does not see and does not feel, such as that part of the scheme we had just laid before the Congressman that was out of our control. This was the part where he found ways to funnel unofficial money to us via official channels, that is to say, foundations that had on their boards of trustees the Congressman, or his friends, or the friends of Claude. These foundations were, in short, fronts themselves for the CIA and perhaps even other, more enigmatic governmental or nongovernmental organizations I did not know of, just as the Fraternity was a front for the Movement. This the Congressman knew full well when he said, I just hope this organization of yours doesn’t engage in anything illegal when it comes to its patriotic activities. Of course he meant that we should engage in illegal activities, so long as he did not know about them. The unseen is almost always underlined with the unsaid.
The Movie was just a sequel to our war and a prequel to the next one that America was destined to wage. Killing the extras was either a reenactment of what had happened to us natives or a dress rehearsal for the next such episode, with the Movie the local anesthetic applied to the American mind, preparing it for any minor irritation before or after such a deed
Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment. Beethoven’s Ninth was the opus for Nazis, concentration camp commanders, and possibly President Truman as he contemplated atomizing Hiroshima, classical music the refined score for the high-minded extermination of brutish hordes. Country music was set to the more humble beat of the red-blooded, bloodthirsty American heartland. It was for fear of being beaten to this beat that black soldiers avoided the Saigon bars where their white comrades kept the jukeboxes humming with Hank Williams and his kind, sonic signposts that said, in essence, No Niggers.
I laid out the charges against him of subversion, conspiracy, and murder, but emphasized that he was innocent until proven guilty, which made him laugh. Your American puppet masters like to say that, but it’s stupid, he said. History, humanity, religion, this war tells us exactly the reverse. We are all guilty until proven innocent, as even the Americans have shown. Why else do they believe everyone is really Viet Cong? Why else do they shoot first and ask questions later? Because to them all yellow people are guilty until proven innocent. Americans are a confused people because they can’t admit this contradiction. They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent. You can’t have both. You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do. I was impressed with his understanding of American culture and psychology, but I could not show it.
The sartorial impression was to make them, like many American adults, look like overgrown children, the effect enhanced when these adults were spotted, as they often were, sucking on extra-large sodas.
Western men from Adam to Freud had also asked that question, although they had phrased it as “What does woman want?” At least they had considered the subject. It occurred to me only then that we Vietnamese men never even bothered to ask what woman wanted. I had not even a germ of an idea about what Ms. Mori wanted. Perhaps I would have had a dim sense if I had read some of these books, but all I knew of them were the summaries found on their dust jackets.
After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.
Our teachers were firm believers in the corporal punishment that Americans had given up, which was probably one reason they could no longer win wars. For us, violence began at home and continued in school, parents and teachers beating children and students like Persian rugs to shake the dust of complacency and stupidity out of them, and in that way make them more beautiful. My father was no exception. He was simply more high- minded than most, working the xylophone of his students’ knuckles with his ruler until our poor joints were bruised purple, blue, and black. Sometimes we deserved to be whacked, sometimes not, but my father never showed any regret when evidence of our innocence surfaced. Since all were guilty of Original Sin, even punishment wrongly given was in some way just.
Perhaps I would glimpse infinity when I lit her up with the spasmodic spark that came from striking my soul against hers. Perhaps I would finally know eternity without resorting to this: Q. Say the Apostles’ Creed. A. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth . . . Even these two thieves had likely heard of this prayer, Christian ideas being so important to the American people that they had granted them a place on the most precious document of all, the dollar bill. IN GOD WE TRUST must even now be printed on the money in their wallets.
So, he said, are you happy? It was an intimate question, nearly as personal as asking about my salary, acceptable in our homeland but not here. What was worse, however, was that I could not think of a satisfactory answer. If I was unhappy, it would reflect badly on me, for Americans saw unhappiness as a moral failure and thought crime. But if I was happy, it would be in bad taste to say so, or a sign of hubris, as if I was boasting or gloating.
I said I was not unhappy. The fat balloon of my double negative hung in the air for a moment, ambiguous and vulnerable. Presumably, Dr. Hedd said, you are not unhappy because you are pursuing happiness and have not yet captured it. As we all supposedly are, correct, gentlemen? The men murmured an assent through mouthfuls of steak and red wine. Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity. Not only did Dr. Hedd have a measure of both, he also possessed an English accent, which affected Americans the way a dog whistle stimulated canines. I was immune to the accent, not having been colonized by the English, and I was determined to hold my own in this impromptu seminar.
happiness, American style, is a zero- sum game, sir. Dr. Hedd slowly turned his head in an arc as he spoke, making sure that he saw every man in the room. For someone to be happy, he must measure his happiness against someone else’s unhappiness, a process which most certainly works in reverse. If I said I was happy, someone else must be unhappy, most likely one of you. But if I said I was unhappy, that might make some of you happier, but it would also make you uneasy, as no one is supposed to be unhappy in America. I believe our clever young man has intuited that while only the pursuit of happiness is promised to all Americans, unhappiness is guaranteed for many.
Gloom descended on the table. The unspeakable had been spoken, which people like the General and myself could never have uttered in polite white company without rendering ourselves beyond the pale. Refugees such as ourselves could never dare question the Disneyland ideology followed by most Americans, that theirs was the happiest place on earth. But Dr. Hedd was beyond reproach, for he was an English immigrant. His very existence as such validated the legitimacy of the former colonies, while his heritage and accent triggered the latent Anglophilia and inferiority complex found in many Americans. Dr. Hedd was clearly aware of his privilege and was amused at the discomfort he was causing his American hosts. It was in this climate that the General intervened. I’m sure the good doctor is right, he said. But if happiness is not guaranteed, freedom is, and that, gentlemen, is more important.
As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite. Even with liberal white people, one could go only so far, and with average white people one could barely go anywhere. The General was deeply familiar with the nature, nuances, and internal differences of white people, as was every nonwhite person who had lived here a good number of years. We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist’s office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. We were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion, and awe. Although the Congressman was joking, we probably did know white people better than they knew themselves, and we certainly knew white people better than they ever knew us. This sometimes led to us doubting ourselves, a state of constant self- guessing, of checking our images in the mirror and wondering if that was really who we were, if that was how white people saw us. But for all we thought we knew about them, there were some things we knew we did not know even after many years of forced and voluntary intimacy, including the art of making cranberry sauce, the proper way of throwing a football, and the secret customs of secret societies, like college fraternities, which seemed to recruit only those who would have been eligible for the Hitler Youth. Not least among the unknown to us was a sanctum such as this, or so I reported to my Parisian aunt, a hidden chamber where very few of our kind had appeared before, if any.
I gave her my number at the wedding and asked for hers, because, I said, wouldn’t it be great if I could write an article about how a Japanese sees us Vietnamese? Japanese American, she corrected me. Not Japanese. And Vietnamese American, not Vietnamese. You must claim America, she said. America will not give itself to you. If you do not claim America, if America is not in your heart, America will throw you into a concentration camp or a reservation or a plantation. And then, if you have not claimed America, where will you go? We can go anywhere, I said. You think that way because you weren’t born here, she said. I was, and I have nowhere else to go. If I had children, they, too, would have nowhere else. They will be citizens. This is their country.
My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air- conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.