Saturday, February 03, 2007

An internal clash of cultures

Okay, humor me for a minute. Let’s play a little word association game.

I say


You say: War.

Right? Then maybe Iraq (contemporary word association).

Okay, stick with that theme. Then I say


You say World War II. Now I say


You say Germany. Good. There, we’ve just sketched out our relatively modern history – or at least the baggage that we are hauling around with us today.

I am sure that some of you, when you thought of me moving to Vietnam as an American, had to wonder about what it would be like to live in a country that worked so hard to kick us (and our democratic or whatever ideals) out, physically and diplomatically, for so long. Would the experience be uncomfortable for one or both sides?

The short answer to that is, frankly, no. This issue really is subtle enough that I need more time in this country before I can fully express it, but let it suffice for now to say that the Vietnamese have been very preoccupied with protecting their homeland for the last couple of thousand years – sometimes from Cambodia and other Asian dynasties, more often from China – and these have all been very serious threats. The American War, for them, was a very brief blip, if a somewhat nasty, chemical-y blip. Really, the only blatant effects of the American War was to solidify Ho Chi Minh’s place in Vietnamese history and the warrior-poet’s place in karaoke music (more on that in a minute). The Americans went away to some place far over there, and the Vietnamese continued on in their lives to normalize relations with their more threatening neighbors.

Still, it can make for interesting moments. Like the karaoke nights I mentioned above. The Vietnamese are a very romantic people and all of their karaoke songs are dreadfully slow and sappy, usually involving lots of slow-motion shots of people walking through the rain looking like their lives are about to end, mourning the loss of or the inability to win their heart’s only love. Really, it makes Malagasy music videos look like the MTV music awards in comparison. Such as, most of the songs can’t even come up with their own original footage, but have to steal the same clips of men walking depressed through the rain or women waiting in vain at the bus station for their true love to come and rescue them.

But the Vietnamese also have a long history of glorifying the poet-solider. The man (or woman) who spends all day clawing their way through the mountains/forest/jungle teaming with unseen foes, and then nights around the campfire composing songs or poems or inspiring speeches that give their fellow soldiers the courage to face another day of death and hardship. Several of these songs are very popular, and several of these songs specifically refer to "America” and the “Americans.” Hey, whatever – we have our own counterculture of songs from that era (though most were about stopping the war and not soldiering on), and some may even specifically mention Vietnam. And some of them might even be sung by the Vietnamese at karaoke nights without them really realizing the song’s origin. What bothers me more is simply the concept of the soldier-philosopher glorifying the war and the cause when frankly, war sucks, in any form, “necessary” or “unnecessary” (and we can debate that point at a later date).

Yet it is funny, and occasionally a bit awkward when my staff and Vietnamese friends are busy singing their hearts out to one of these songs – and all of the sudden realize they have an American sitting in their midst. They get this look of momentary horror on their face (and usually I haven’t even been paying attention – I don’t understand what’s being said after all!), and look at me to make sure that I’m not about to disown them. I always just laugh and the singer looks relieved and they continue on; the feeling is remains for me – there is baggage there.

So, there’s my everyday contact with the Vietnam/American War in my life here. But now let’s add another dimension. Japan.

I have been to Japan – I loved it. Same story as far as culture clash WWII:present-day goes – the Japanese have let go and moved on; at least in the few weeks that I was there, I certainly wasn’t bothered by any outward signs of ill-favor. I have had several Japanese friends, most recently in Madagascar. Now this week our Japanese co-worker from ADRA Japan who is doing a year-long internship to help us write and fund a safe motherhood project in our office returned from her Christmas holiday home and a training in the Philippines. Tomoko is great – she’s smart and sweet and hard working. We get along fine. But there came another one of those awkward moments (for me) tonight when we decided to watch a movie: Memoirs of a Geisha. Neither of us had seen it yet, and I haven’t had a chance to read the book either (I know Tomoko has it but no idea if she’s finished it). It’s a fantastic movie.

Yet, then came the scene, right after WWII ended, with the occupation by American forces and the Osaka city streets and okiya filled with American GIs – and that sudden uncomfortable feeling of sitting next to Tomoko and watching this play out. Not with the faces of the stately and ordinary elderly veterans than we’re so used to seeing, but with the faces of people our age, that made it look like it could have been yesterday. Maybe Tomoko didn’t even notice, but I sure did.

Now, a final dimension:

This dimension may have had more weight with Tomoko because it started when Tomoko first saw my family name: Brewster. She asked what ethnicity it was. I explained that it was English, but that I’m half German. Silence. With Tomoko there is a lot of silence, so it may have meant nothing. But later, while watching the movie, they played soundclips from radio reports about “our friends, the Germans” and other WWII propaganda – and suddenly the concept had weight with me. So now we have made it full circle. We have an Austrian-German-American and a Japanese (who really didn’t have anything to do with WWII) sitting on a couch in northern Vietnam where both are working on a development project to benefit a people that spent decades in isolated poverty instigated by a war with the same country that had so much to do with the change in culture in Japan after WWII and is now affecting a large part of the capitalistic influence in Vietnam. Between the two of us and our connection to the Vietnamese staff, we represent so much of what has happened and what is currently happening (wrong or right, only time will tell) in the world. That is a lot of energy for one small place to contain.

It is moments like this, when all the pieces come together, that make me realize just what a small world it really is. You may think yourself as too far away from the opportunity for these things to coalesce, but there they are, waiting for you. You can go to the far corners of the earth, but history will always meet you there. God is history and history is God – you can climb to the mountains, run to the seas, go to the east until it meets west – but the earth, time, and God are a circle and you will meet your self both coming and going.

In the end, though, we represent another generation of energy – and I can only hope that this generation has truly learned from the experiences of the recent and not so recent past – and will be able to help direct that energy in a different direction. On a small scale, we are all people bridging differences to work together and share our skills to reach a common goal. Our goal must be based on history and in the future, but by stretching between the east and west it will bring both ends of history together. Finally, whatever that goal may be, it may be the act of working towards it that has the most effect in the end.

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