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Having one of those days when the purposeless of my life is dragging on me. Here in Vietnam having trouble finding a job that fits me, trying to write a novel more on momentum than faith that it would ever get publishing, feeling I'm too old to get married. Ten years ago I had plenty of patience with life, twenty years ago I had plenty of confidence, but it just never sorted out and now I look forward and wonder, is it all too late?

I know intellectually that it isn't, but I feel my options narrowing. I know intellectually that there's no predicting the future, but on an emotional level I'm stuck with this "learned helplessness," that nothing I do will work out so why do stuff?

Jan. 30th, 2016

A friend of mine invited me to the Tet festival market place for all your festival shopping needs. Google maps said it was a half hour walk, but it turned out to be forty minutes, but my friend was stuck in traffic so she was late, too. It was built around a regular open market where you bought nuts, spices, and dried fruit in bulk and gift shops. Lots of red and gold decorations.

I kept looking around the buildings trying to imagine what the neighborhood was like when it was newly built; tall, narrow townhouses (now divided into apartments), no power lines, fresh paint, etc. An Aussie came up with some old coins he had just bought and he was trying to figure out if they were real antiques or not. I'm pretty sure at least one of them was fake, since it had "French Republic" in French stamped on it but was dated 1825, smack in the middle of the Bourbon Restoration (I admit to using wikipedia when I got home so I could give you the right name).

So when my friend and her friend showed we walked around a lot. I almost bought what I thought would be really cool Vietnamese wrapping paper for gifts but it turned out to be the tube for fireworks. That would have been embarrassing to get through customs. Then we sat down to eat wrap your own spring rolls, which was a nice experience even if my paper folding/rolling skills are rudimentary.

By the time I was walking home the sun was going down, so decorative lights were coming on, which made the same forty minute walk back just as interesting as the walk there.


Rain Rain Go Away...

I've had another day when most of my exercise was walking. I had a job interview but it was very unsuitable. Twice as far as the other options, boring work, and the didn't want to pay until the end of the nine weeks of twice weekly lessons. Pretty much a three strikes you're out sort of situation. I was almost lost coming home, but pushed on and after 90 minutes of walking in light rain I made it home. I guess I shouldn't be to down on the weather. It's been raining harder before and after I was out there, so overall I got lucky.

On the other hand I'm making great progress with my novel about college life in China. I'm filling out the characters and have figured out the endings of most of the plotlines. I've been dividing some of my life experiences among the western male characters and my Chinese women friend's stories among the Chinese women characters. I believe I can have the rough draft finished by the end of February, barring horribly bad luck.

Getting back into the swing of things

I'm back in Vietnam, but the professional opportunities that I thought I had lined up evaporated. One of them has changed management and the other hired someone else. But I have enough money to tide me over for a couple of months so life goes on.

It is quite chilly today with strong gusts of wind. It feels more like an Iowan autumn than the normal, Floridian weather. I did my push ups, etc, and hustled over to the grocery store to stock up for two or three days in case this turns into a real storm.

My Chinese college life novel is finally taking off; I've finally been able to define the characters' problems. When I write about life in America, it's always been satirical, probably because I think most of our daily problems are self-inflicted. People in other nations have much greater problems than we do.

Which is probably why I find their literature more interesting.

There and Back Again

I went back to the States for the holidays. As always, I visited with family, hit the gym, and watched too much TV; naturally this led to regaining five or so of the pounds I'd lost in Vietnam. I've also recommitted myself to not just writing but pushing my fiction on agents.

But it is good to be back in Hanoi with friends to hang out with, a pedestrian lifestyle (which I credit for much of my weight loss), and no distracting television. I binge watched "Arrow" and "Awake," both of which hooked me for different reasons but slowly lost their touch. The more complicated their worlds, the more I could nitpick their reasoning. "Awake" went from a great SF premise to Freudian psychology, unless the break from SF to Fantasy represented the character's psychological breakdown. "Arrow" turned inwards and thus slowly into what my father calls "a soap opera with weapons."

This morning I walked to the grocery store and the crowds and noise of Hanoi streets didn't bother me at all. I felt more at home than annoyed.


Lost Battalions

In “Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality,” Richard Slotkin examines a fundamental contradiction within American history, the reality of America as a discriminatory, multi-cultural society and the ideology of America as a white, Christian nation and land of equal opportunity. It also reminds me a lot of today’s politics, with both racial and religious bigotry (just different religions) and the abandoning of veterans once the government didn’t need them anymore.

The Lost Battalions are an African-American battalion and a battalion of mostly Catholic and Jewish immigrants and sons of immigrants, both from New York and shipped over to France to fight in World War One. Both of them were promised that proving their manly worthiness and willingness to fight for America would lead to political reforms at home, which obviously didn’t happen. During the war, hyphenated American war heroes were trumpeted by the press to create a sense of national unity, yet after the war African American veterans were lynched for wearing the uniform, MPs were instructed to bully black soldiers in France to remind them that they were returning home to Jim Crow laws, and Jewish veterans found themselves treated more or less the same as before the war as well.

The political elites had spent over a century using race and religion to justify white, Protestant rule, even going so far as to refer to themselves as “Nordic” instead of white so they could discriminate against Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. But then faced with a war they could not win, or even participate in, without unprecedented levels of manpower, they had to figure out how to recruit the very peoples they had not allowed into the military before, mostly because they didn’t want to train blacks and immigrants in the use of weapons and tactics or admit to themselves that hyphenated Americans could be real men. So the Roosevelt Progressives and Wilson’s administration had to come up with a temporarily color blind way of defining American national identity, one that harkened to previous standards of vigorous masculinity represented by Teddy Roosevelt, but once the war was over all pretense was dropped.

But when WWII came around and the nation again needed to prepare for total war, lessons had been learned. Jewish and African-American leaders demanded reforms up front, not promises for later. And after the war, veterans were not so readily abandoned or even cheated out of benefits.

One of Slotkin’s more interesting theories is about how blacks and immigrants were forced to justify themselves as citizens in the language of the oppressive upper class. They had to adapt the negative stereotypes and turn them into positive images. Jews talked about how the hardships of their history had prepared them to be tough soldiers, or African Americans used jazz to improve French-American relations. Despite the best efforts of American officers, the French accepted African American soldiers as colleagues and probably awarded them more medals for valor than our own military did.

Heading home for the holidays

I've been in Vietnam for almost three months and tonight, just after midnight, I fly back to Iowa.

After spending nine of the last ten years in academia, if you count the year as a student, I just wasn't ready for the chaos of the private sector schedules. And after years of teaching college and high school kids, I wasn't ready for the chaos of teaching younger students. It might take more knowledge of the subject matter to teacher older kids, but it takes more knowledge of human psychology and multi-tasking to teach younger kids. They are separate skill sets, but unfortunately private ESL schools in China and Vietnam don't really care because there aren't enough foreigners to go around. In Korea and Japan they are more careful, at least according to the requirements of their job boards.

The lack of resentment towards me as American over the war still surprises me, but then the US is allies with Germany and Japan, even if Japan makes it very tempting to cut them loose sometimes. Making friends has been the easiest part of living in Vietnam. I'll never quite understand the Westerners who mostly hang out with each other.

I still like Chinese food more than Vietnamese food, but Hanoi is a much prettier city, with all its ponds, trees, and bluer sky. The French influence is obvious in the architecture, bread, and pastries. Vietnam should do more to show off its culture abroad. Maybe make a movie about kicking the Chinese out of their country 1000 years ago. That would make a good martial arts flick.

Speaking of which, I lost five or six inches around my waist while I was here, mostly due to a non-American diet and walking almost everywhere. I didn't even belong to a gym; my other exercises were body weight exercises, yoga, and martial arts. I rotated eight different kinds of push ups.

"Dumb Luck" by Vu Trong Phung

“Dumb Luck” by Vu Trong Phung is the novel Vietnamese most often tell me to read when the subject comes up, so I did.

It is about a guy named Xuan who stumbles into fame and fortune by repeatedly being in the right place at the right time. He just happens to be there when someone needs a likely body to fill a space in their life, from hawking STD cures on the street to helping a rich, young woman, Miss Snow, break an arranged marriage by pretending to be her lover. When her parents become convinced of the story, they force Xuan to marry her, which is certainly no hardship for either of them. Even the skills he does have come from jobs he lucked into.

It’s often a funny story about many problems in French colonial Vietnam, from police desperate to make their ticket quotas to a man who owns both a brothel and a STD clinic, but he spends most of his time on the overlap between feminism, capitalism, and westernization. Vu Trong gives the impression that the only men who promote feminism are those trying to have pre-marital sex or trying to sell women endless new fashions, but those men certainly don’t want the women in their own families to be modern. The women in the novel mostly come across as confused, bouncing between the contradictions of a man’s world like the ball in a pinball machine, but Miss Snow comes across as crafty enough to get what she wants, using Xuan since his reliance upon luck for success makes him the weaker partner when they disagree.

My Boss

I think I finally figured out what really, really bugs me about my boss.

It isn't just that her constantly giving me information late has interfered with my doing my job or even being paid on time. It's just this look on her face that says, "You're an errant child because you don't do your job." And I just want to chew her out and point out that every mistake I've made can be traced back to her not doing her job.

And just as everything finally got straightened out and I finally got paid four days late, they drop a dress code on us so strict that now means I only have one day's worth of clothing out of the four that I work. :P I can't blame my boss for that because it came from above, but I keep going back and forth on if I want to sign a long term contract with them. I like most of the kids and I like some of my co-workers but not a week goes by when the management doesn't piss me off.

Sense of Direction

I didn’t have much sense of direction when I was a kid because it wasn’t really necessary. My hometown was pretty much a grid, and when my parents drove around I was sitting in the back of the car reading a book. When I finally earned a driver’s license, I realized I didn’t know where anything in my hometown was. I had been to plenty of places, but never paid attention to the streets along the way.

My first year at my small college, which I often referred to as the feminist Mecca of the Midwest, the set up was simple. We had north and south campus, and the sun always shone through my window in the morning, so that was east. The remaining direction was west. For years afterwards to know my directions I just had to stop, pretend I was back there, and then I knew which way was which.

I suppose this conditioning started weakening when I moved to Portland, Oregon, because there the streets are in alphabetical order and designated SW, SE, NW, and NE. Each section of town had a reputation for where it stood on the artistic/activist/economic scale. Even the buses were color coordinated for those four parts of town. A sense of direction wasn’t needed. Clues were everywhere.

Then I moved to China, where the streets were laid out organically often before the United States even existed, and I had trouble reading street signs. I had to pain stakingly build a map of Taizhou in my mind based upon landmarks. Then I moved to Nanjing, and rather lazily organized my life around the subway lines. If I couldn’t take the subway or walk somewhere, it didn’t last in my world. But the subway is devoid of cardinal direction, you are cut off from normal considerations. The map of Nanjing in my head is uncoordinated and disparate, sections of city connected by lines. My mental image of Chongqing is even worse, because unlike Nanjing the subway map is misleading about where the physical center of town is in relation to the subways.

Then I moved to Exeter for graduate school, and my world shrunk down to where my feet could take me. Taxis in England are cost prohibitive for students and the university was close enough to downtown that more often than not I could walk to the grocery store in the time I would be waiting for the bus. I knew that area between the university and the city center really well by the time I graduated, but I never quite relearned directions. My orientation points were the university, the famous cathedral, and the grocery stores.

Now I’m in Hanoi, the least organized city I’ve ever lived in. I’ve used Google maps more often in a week than the rest of my life together. The first month I spent about two hours a week lost. I have to draw little maps to get anywhere as I again slowly put them together into a map in my head, but the disorientation is rather constant because when I am on my computer, north and south, east and west, appear to be in certain directions, but when I hit the streets they are exactly the other way around. So now as my life settles into a comforting routine, my orientation points are my job, my grocery spots, West Lake, and all points on the #9 and #34 buses.



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