Tuesday, January 17, 2012
This woman didn't want me to take her picture, so I snapped a quickie as I was walking away. What you can't see is a pile of sorted cardboard, soda cans, water bottles, plastic bags, and styrofoam - her "products."
This is private enterprise in Vietnam. Each morning this woman and others like her hit the streets of Saigon with their two wheeled carts looking for anything they think can be reused or recycled. In the afternoon, with her cart overflowing, this lady stakes out a piece of sidewalk near our apartment and begins breaking down boxes, sorting, and stacking the assortment of things she has collected. When she is finished with that task she neatly loads the cart and pushes off down the street. I don't know where she unloads and I don't know who buys the products but every afternoon she is there, kneeling on the sidewalk, sorting a fresh accumulation of items gleaned from street side trash containers. Her civil service counterpart is a corps of orange suited women who patrol the same streets with large orange carts picking up street side garbage in plastic bags from neighborhood door steps. Everything that can be recycled is separated out and given a new life.
I don't have hard data but I doubt that the trash/recycle woman makes more than $1 a day for her labor. I guess this is what American conservatives have in mind when they talk about dismantling Social Security, getting people off the dole, and exhorting the poor to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." In Vietnam there is no safety net. The family is their Social Security system and if there is no family there is no safety net. Men and women in Vietnam work until they no longer can. There is no expectation that at a certain age they won't have to work. They know that at some point they won't be able to and that is the age of retirement. Meanwhile, the streets are increasingly full of Mercedes, BMW's, Audi's, and Porsches. The wealthy in Vietnam are showy. The streets are so clogged that cars can rarely exceed 20 mph, but sleek, fast, luxury cars are everywhere and the people inside are wearing Gucci, Versace, and Jimmy Choo. There is a small emerging middle class in Vietnam, but the most noticeable change in recent years is how fast some people are getting wealthy while the poor continue to struggle.
Occupy Wall Street seems to be fizzling in the US but I think the point has been made. A society that tolerates huge disparities in wealth is an unhealthy one. The family may be a healthier safety net than programs like Social Security, but there must be a middle ground when the rich are increasingly self indulgent and the elderly are homeless and hungry.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
For three years I haven't read anything, fiction or non-fiction, that didn't have something to do with Vietnam. I was looking forward to reading about something or someplace new, but it wasn't a chore when I got sucked into reading Angie Chau's book Quiet as They Come. She's a new and compelling voice. It's hard to pull away once the Vietnamese bug catches you. Vietnam is a deeply fascinating place and culture. Working there made it even more so. It has a rich and complicated past, a messy, energetic, present, and a hope fueled future. In between, there is the Vietnamese diaspora. That is what Angie Chau writes about - the Vietnamese-American immigrant experience.
Angie is a child of the diaspora. She was born in Saigon, left Vietnam when she was 4, was raised in San Francisco, graduated from UC Berkeley and earned a Master's in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her book of short stories, Quiet As They Come, chronicles the life of a group of Vietnamese immigrants living in a house in the Sunset District in San Francisco.
I don't know Angie well. We've exchanged a few emails and we just missed each other in Saigon last month. I left for Seattle just as she arrived to promote her book, meet new people, and connect with the culture her family left behind. Andrew Lam, another terrific Vietnamese-American writer, introduced us. I was curious when I read her bio and bought the Kindle version of her book right away. It's compelling. There are echoes of Andrew's Perfume Dreams, and I was reminded of Robert Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.
I'm astonished at how resilient the people of the diaspora have been. They have made lives for themselves in other parts of the world - leaving their homes in Vietnam with nothing, risking everything to get somewhere unknown, and then building lives for themselves and their children in foreign places. I want to shake every child of privilege I know when I feel his or her complacency and sense of entitlement. I shouldn't be surprised; it's all they have ever known but I've come to know many children of Vietnamese immigrant parents who are stunning examples of how hard work and focus can deliver the American dream. It's only 37 years since the fall of Saigon and these families have relocated, learned new languages, found jobs, saved their money, bought homes and sent their children to college. I often wonder how I would do in their place.
Angie Chau reminds us of what it was and is like. I can't wait for her next book.