Vietnam through New Eyes, part 2. A kaleidoscope of images

Coming from Boston, you’d think we’d be used to crazy traffic and pedestrian behavior.  Boston is an Eden compared to Vietnamese cities, where the intensity of the traffic takes your breath away. Most people ride motor bikes (due to the high cost of cars and huge taxes imposed on the purchase).  Many wear face masks to protect against pollution. Sometimes a family of four, or two people,supplies, and a dog, pile onto a single bike.  Other times, it’s a single rider, with an over-sized stack of product tied to the back of the bike, towering over him or her and extending two feet on either side.  Their balancing skills are prodigious.

Pedestrians are at a distinct disadvantage. There are few cross walks and even fewer traffic signals. Those that exist are ignored. Once you start crossing, you must walk straight ahead and assume the traffic will swerve to avoid you.  Traffic accidents and fatalities, I am told, are common. Changing your pace or showing trepidation is an invitation to disaster. There’s a constant tooting of horns, but we saw no expression of driver road rage or even swearing. With a guide on one side of me and my husband on the other, I practically closed my eyes and let them propel me across the street.

Walking through the Old Quarter of Hanoi, its narrow streets going back more than five  centuries, you pick your way among the street sellers, people young and old selling everything from spring rolls and dumplings they’re steaming or frying, to fruits and vegetables they’ve grown, to stacks of enough shoes to make Imelda Marcos envious.  Often they’re squatting on tiny plastic stools, eating a meal, paying little attention to passers-by.

The women farm in the countryside and come into the city to sell their produce, staying for up to two weeks in rooming houses, ten women to a room. They may have little more than $20 profit to show for their labor.  Private enterprise has been allowed by the Communist government only since 1986, and the people take advantage of the opportunity. They are industrious and entrepreneurial.  You are expected to bargain, but they earn so little it’s hard to feel right about haggling to reduce already-low prices.

When you leave the cities, the beauty of the landscape is inescapable.  As far as the eye can see are rice paddies, always being worked by farmers up to their knees in water, their bend-from-the-waist position an orthopedist’s dream in our country. Typically, they wear traditional conical hats (“Non la”) woven of palm leaves with bamboo.

Elsewhere jungle-covered hills and mountains are eerie reminders of wartime settings enabling Viet Cong guerrillas to hide and slip from one attack place to another. It’s wet and humid even in the non-rainy season.  American troops struggled in these conditions, getting supplies dropped in by helicopter whenever the dense cloud cover lifted. Even without the scars of defoliation, ghosts of the war are everywhere.

Rising from bays and narrow waterways are towering limestone karsts, looming peaks sometimes inhabited by birds and monkeys. Beneath the karsts, it was remarkable to explore caves in the Ninh Binh nature reserve in a tiny bamboo boat rowed by a hard-working woman of indeterminate age with sinewy hands and back, head protected from sun and rain by the ubiquitous conical hat.

The still-Communist country has lifted its ban on religious practices, which continued in various forms even during the darkest years after the North defeated the South. The Vietnamese are steeped in their founding mythology, dragons, sea monsters and evil omens. Even cosmopolitan young professionals believe in numerology and consult with seers for advice on good dates for events like getting married or launching a new business.

There are 54 ethnic groups in the country, many still practicing folk religions, but the dominant faith is Buddhism, honored in pagodas across the country. There, local people come to pray, light incense sticks and deposit offerings of fresh flowers and fruits.  More omnipresent than pagodas are temples, honoring guardian spirits, whether Confucian, Taoist, royal or personal.   Remarkable are the tombs in Hue, offering tribute to  kings and emperors from dynasties long ago. There are almost always steep stone stairs leading upward to the structures (in one I counted well over 130 steps), and rarely are there hand railings. That I survived that challenge was itself a kind of religious experience. (Caption this photo “grunt and groan.”)

Buddhism embraces non-violence and compassion, and I found myself wondering if that accounts for the friendliness  of Vietnamese people and even the benign attitude of drivers as they inexorably compete for space on crowded roads.

Consistent with their religious beliefs, the Vietnamese have deep respect for ancestors. Even the most modest private homes usually have small altars guaranteeing constant awareness of deceased family members, to whom prayers are offered.  Some cemetery plots in the countryside include structures resembling small temples, even in sodden rice paddies.

A Confucian tradition is manifest in respect for elders both dead and alive.  Extended families live together, with additions to homes built as each son or daughter marries and a spouse moves in.  Respect for elders is given far more than lip service, and it is taken for granted that, as parents and grandparents age and become infirm, the younger generation will take care of them.  One of our guides was perplexed that our grown children didn’t live close enough to care for us if we become incapable of being independent. That, dear reader, is a discussion for later. Much later.

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Vietnam through New Eyes, pt. 1: why we went

Thirty years ago, I stood with my husband on the banks of the Mekong River in Thailand, where that country comes together with Burma to the west and Laos to the east, and knew that we had to return someday, somehow, to Southeast Asia, to Vietnam.  At the time, the U.S.  embargo was still in effect, and travel was restricted.  Over the years, we traveled elsewhere, but Vietnam remained atop our bucket list. The country, its people and politics and relationship to America had lived long in our brains.

In many ways, the Vietnam era shaped our psyches. Our experiences, as for many of our generation, had a lot to say about who we are. Whether people fought in the war or against it, events of the era, as late brilliant writer David Lamb put it, signifies the time when we lost our innocence.

My husband Jim’s family had served in the military, and he had considered going to college on a Navy plan that would have had him in Southeast Asia in 1966-67, using his language skills in intelligence work. Instead, he came under the influence of faculty who taught him, long before teach-ins, the sordid history of the French in Vietnam and the extent to which the US had been playing a not-so-subtle role there even in the 1950’s. His first anti-war demonstration was a protest against the Dragon Lady, Madame Nhu, who had come to the US in October 1963 to win public support for her brother, President President Ngô Đình Diệm, and his repressive policies shortly before his Kennedy-backed assassination.

Later in the sixties, I was volunteering for anti-war candidates, marching in anti-war demonstrations, participating in local protests.  My young family was enduring constant television news reports of the war into which we were being drawn deeper and deeper.  (Years later I came to feel guilty about exposing my sons to wartime news videos at dinnertime.)

Prior to Vietnam, I, unlike Jim, had tended to trust institutional authority. I took our government at its word that it meant to do good in the world and would tell us the truth. Then it became increasingly clear they were lying to us. From Eisenhower to Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, they were out to “win” even while privately acknowledging the war was unwinnable. Despite that certainty, they sent more than 2.7 million of our young (mostly) men to Vietnam, 58,000 to die there.  Three million Vietnamese soldiers died, two thirds of them civilians; four million if you add in those who died in Cambodia and Laos.  I won’t even go into relitigating that wrong-headed reasons that our government used to justify the war.

Despite generations of strife and occupation, it is the friendliness of the Vietnamese people that impresses the visitor. Some have reflected that, well, the Chinese occupied Vietnam for a millennium, the French brutalized them for a century, and the United States was overtly there for just a little more than a decade.  But it was a brutal decade, and the residue of what the Vietnamese call the American War (and others call the Civil War)  is still present in the physical and mental disabilities caused by our use of defoliants like Agent Orange and the bodies maimed by land mines and cluster bombs.

After the war ended in 1975 with a North Vietnamese victory, there were the dark years of a repressive Communist regime. Many of those associated with the south were shipped off to “reeducation” camps in the countryside. Since 1986, the government has allowed private enterprise, but democratic political gains have not kept pace with economic ones.  Free market enterprise is everywhere you turn, from pig markets to restaurants to galleries and technology firms.  Vietnam has become the world’s second largest exporter of rice and of coffee. Construction projects are everywhere, as are tourists, especially from South Korea, China and Japan.

The same American government that had lied to those both supporting and protesting the war broke its compact with our vets, whose welcome home was anything but warm and who had to fight hard for benefits they deserved.  VA Hospital waiting lists endure; Vietnam vets’ suicides persist, out of proportion to the general population. And from Iraq to Afghanistan we keep sending our young men and women off to die, in countries many can’t locate on a map, for reasons that are never made clear while the truth is never told.

So off we went, on this  my husband’s and my 40th wedding anniversary, which turns out to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, a series of battles that helped turn American public opinion against our involvement, as well as the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre this March.

In upcoming blogs, I will reflect on how this history has evolved, the breathtaking beauty of Vietnam, the richness of its culture, the growing wealth gap of much of its population, and the complex spirit of its people today.

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Donald Trump an embarrassment everywhere

Just when you thought Donald Trump had already taken the Presidency as low as it could go, he asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?” Our esteemed President, according to credible reports, told a group of bipartisan legislators Thursday he didn’t want Haiti, El Salvador and African nations sending their foul and nasty immigrants here. At a meeting about saving the DACA program, Trump wondered why we just couldn’t have more (pure and white) immigrants from Norway.  Sounds like Adolph Hitler’s preference for Aryan types.

The timing of Trump’s disparagement of places with black and Latino populations couldn’t have been more telling. A day later he was issuing a Martin Luther King Day proclamation with MLK’s nephew looking on. Sadly, his racist remarks were predictable.  The specific language, crude as it is, is not the issue. We’ve heard his “locker room” style before and have come to expect his racist persona, manifest in his dog whistle innuendos, re-tweets of white nationalist propaganda, ignorant misrepresentations of fact and outright lies.  From his New York race-baiting days and discriminatory practices as a landlord, to the Obama birther calumny to his countless 2016 campaign ethnic slanders  to his Charlottesville white nationalist embrace, his record is clear and undeniable.

To his defenders I say, what’s in his heart is not the issue.  Trump is sullying our international reputation and besmirching such fundamental American values as diversity and inclusion. In diminishing our standing in the world and giving succor to our enemies, he is making us less safe.

Last night in Palm Beach, our august President proclaimed, “I am not a racist.” Kind of reminds you of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” doesn’t it?  Trump’s rhetoric is far less important that his policies and the need to provide a check on his powers by winning back at least the House in this year’s mid-term election.

Trump’s base was largely unmoved by the “shithole” episode, save for the David Duke, The Daily Stormer and their neo-Nazi soulmates cheering that their guy wasn’t going soft on immigration. Fox commentators provided an expected amen chorus, though some of their reporters acknowledged Trump’s language was disparaging and ham-handed.

Remember when Speaker Paul Ryan described candidate Trump’s assault on a Mexican heritage federal judge as a “textbook definition of racist comment.”  This time he could only muster that the President’s language was “very unfortunate, unhelpful.” Shame on Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP Trump-enabling leadership team.

Republican Utah Congresswoman Mia Love, whose parents came from Haiti, said “The president must apologize to both the American people and the nations he so wantonly maligned.” But will she prepare a resolution condemning the remarks? Democrats will try to do so, but will Ryan or Senate President Mitch McConnell permit a vote? The press should get on record, preferably on tape, the response of every targeted, and retiring House and Senate Republican.

I assume Trump has never been to Africa and seen the modern cities that belie his “huts” slur or the graduate students in STEM fields and medicine who chose to stay and contribute to their home countries.  I suspect he is also ignorant of data describing the reality of immigrants from his “shithole” countries who come here, many of whom do as well if not better than native-born Americans.

Since 1994, Presidents of both parties have participated in a day of service to commemorate Martin Luther King Day. Not Donald Trump. No, he took off for Florida for a round of golf. Better were he to attend a naturalization service for wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital and personally thank those from “shithole” countries who have sacrificed more for this country than he ever has.

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Trump trumpets economic performance: questions remain

The stock market is up “very, very big today” and the “tax cuts are really kicking in far beyond what anyone thought,” President Trump said last week, making an illogical cause-and-effect connection between the two. He also touted the latest jobs report. During the week, he claimed the gain in market value was due to his actions over the first seven months of his presidency and also asserted he was reducing debt. Fake news. Fake news.

Yes, the stock market hit new highs last year and every day of the first week of the new year. And, yes, according to one index, unemployment went down to 4.1 percent. But let’s pull back the curtain on the data that the President hails to create the world according to Donald Trump.

If you have money in the market, you doubtless feel pretty good about the Dow, up 25 percent for equities last year. And it’s not just the ultra rich who have a stake in the market. Thirty-two percent of workers have 401K’s through their employers and 15 percent have IRA’s.  However, some 45 percent of working households have no retirement savings.  And it’s the wealthiest ten percent of the population who own 90 percent of all the stocks and benefit from this metric of Trump’s self-proclaimed success.

Whatever President is in office, he will take credit for any good economic news. In 2016, candidate Donald Trump derided as “totally fiction” the five percent unemployment asserted by the Obama administration, claiming the real rate was 42 percent if you counted people underemployed or those who had dropped out of the workforce altogether. This was a wild exaggeration, but taking those factors into consideration, the real unemployment under Obama was probably more than 11 percent, more than twice the rate credited.

Now that Donald Trump is President, he is happy to embrace the announcement of 4.1 percent unemployment. Suddenly, underemployment (the “marginally attached”) no longer matters; nor do the many who have just given up looking for work. Including these numbers would push unemployment under Trump more than eight percent.

Labor force participation is now at 62.7 percent, slightly down from when Trump was inaugurated, and wages have grown just 60 cents an hour at a time when the economy is booming.

Trump campaigned on a pledge to increase manufacturing and coal industry jobs. Both of these are up 1.6 percent in the last year, not bad but definitely not great. Meanwhile, the trade deficit in the same period increased more than ten percent, and the budget deficit has also gone up. These two deficits have not made it into Trump’s tweets.

Many of today’s data points are trending in the right direction but point to a recovery that began under Barack Obama and is continuing under Donald Trump. When an inevitable market correction comes, perhaps later this year, will Trump embrace the downturn as his own. Let’s stick to the facts, Mr. President.

Most presidents bend the facts or use them selectively to shape their message. But, let’s remember, it was Donald Trump who proudly embraced the usefulness of mendacity as “truthful hyperbole” in his book The Art of the Deal.  And he has told an unprecedented number of outright lies (and here they are).

When Trump hears news stories he doesn’t like, it’s “lies, just lies” or “fake news.” To his unqualified self-congratulatory views of his role in the economy, I just say “it’s sad. so sad.”

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Headlines I’m looking for in 2018

My New Year’s gift to you is a list of headlines.  I have precious little expectation that we will see them atop newspapers, magazines,  newscasts or on social media in 2018.  Please send your own in the comments section below.

I won’t do something snide like: President receives heart transplant, develops empathy and humility. Perhaps the headlines will read: Trump’s annual check-up includes mental health assessment; family confirms President’s cognitive impairment; cabinet invokes 25th Amendment.

President Trump renames Affordable Care Act as Trumpcare, saying it’s the best ever; subsidizes premiums for millions forced out by tax bill.

President Trump defies Ryan, keeps campaign promise to preserve Medicare and Social Security, raises taxable base.

Red Sox go all the way with Alex Cora at the helm.

Court approves Mueller request for Trump tax filings.

Bipartisan group saves DACA and Children’s Health Insurance programs, unencumbered by wall.

Congress blocks Trump from putting himself on the $20 bill.

100 percent of Puerto Ricans back on electric grid, new arrivals in Florida turn state blue.

Celtics win first championship since 2008.

“Real” Mitt Romney elected Senator from Utah, leads GOP moderate movement.

Democrats win control of House and Senate.

Charlie Baker gets T running well, reelected MA governor with more than 60 percent of vote.

Bryon Hefner sells life story to Miramax, spouse Stan leaves Beacon Hill for Venice Beach.

Pot shops open in Massachusetts, grannies flash Mona Lisa smiles.

Jeff Bezos moves second headquarters to Massachusetts, funds affordable housing initiative.

Elizabeth Warren defies alt-right money to win reelection, supports younger Presidential nominee.

Gatehouse Media ups $$$ investment in Boston Herald, pledges commitment to its future.

Patriots win Superbowl, Bill Belichick smile linked to gas.

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Marty Walsh sounds right tone

The last inauguration I listened to was a little less than a year ago when the worst President of my lifetime was sworn in. This morning, with former Vice President Joe Biden by his side,  Marty Walsh took the oath of office for a second term as mayor of Boston, a stirring reminder of what happens when elected leaders speak to the best of our natures.

The ceremonies were a celebration of diversity and the driving mission of expanding possibilities for the middle class. “There’s not a mayor in America who better understands the importance of the middle class” than Marty Walsh, said Biden, who noted that mayors and governors are more important than ever as an antidote to the divisiveness coming out of Washington. (This past year, Walsh early on assumed a position of leadership among the nation’s big city mayors in denouncing Trump’s retrograde policies. When Trump launched his first assault on immigrants and cities that shelter them, Marty Walsh said that, if necessary, he would house them in City Hall.)

Boston established the first public school, the first public library, the first public transit. It was the birthplace of the American Revolution and the first state to legalize gay marriage (though it was one of the last to sanction birth control).  “Boston still owns the finish line,” said Biden, adding “The rest of the nation looks to you.”

Both Walsh and Biden spoke to the historical importance of Boston. “Since 1630, Boston has been a refuge: from religious persecution, from hunger and war and discrimination, and now, also, from climate change,” said Walsh. He spoke broadly about his long-term  Imagine Boston 2030 plan (developed parallel to the rightly failed Boston 2024 Olympics bid) and in great detail about rebuilding the school system’s infrastructure, linking BPS to local colleges and universities and jobs.

Walsh also spoke with passion about housing as the key to opportunity. His already robust housing plans will be amplified by a new regional approach, to be announced this spring. His history of addiction and recovery made all the more authentic his approach to the opioid crisis and homelessness, promising to rebuild the bridge to Long Island and creating long-term recovery programs there.  He pledged to become the nation’s first major city to end chronic homelessness.

Standard Democratic Party fare? Perhaps, but considering the Trump administration assaults we have witnessed, hearing someone paint an alternative to the politics of divisiveness, the assault on health care, rounding up of immigrants,  undercutting of environmental protections, and withdrawal from global leadership, that fare seems pretty sustaining.

Also pleasing were the shout-outs to Republican Governor Charlie Baker, listening attentively in the first row. Joe Biden praised him, saying “I am always proud to be with you. You’re a stand-up guy.”  Walsh spoke of the importance of collaboration with the state, especially around issues of education and universal pre-K programs. Bi-partisanship lives, at least in Massachusetts.The mayor wrapped up his speech smoothly and passionately:

“We are more than “a city upon a hill, with the eyes of all people upon us.” We are a city built by all the peoples of the world, as they turn hunger into hope, crisis into recovery, and conflict into community.

“We are one of the greatest cities of the world, and after nearly four centuries our greatest days are yet to come,” he said.

There’s no doubt that Boston faces many challenges, especially in the areas of race relations, housing costs, education and transit.  And inaugural addresses tend to be part self-congratulatory and part aspirational. But to do the right thing one must start by saying the right thing. At least Walsh and Biden, while acknowledging Boston’s challenges, today gave voice to the values of character, integrity, community, diversity, the development of individuals’ full potential, collaboration and  respect that have seemed far gone from the national scene.  This New Year’s Day pocket of resistance was reassuring and inspirational.

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Oh, what a year it has been!

Queen Elizabeth had nothing on us when she declared 1992 an annus horribilis.  All she had to endure were the respective marital difficulties of son Andrew and daughter Anne, a tell-all book by Princess Di about Charles and Camilla,  and a fire at Windsor Castle. We, on the other hand, in 2017 have had to endure Donald Trump.

This was a year in which I arose each morning with a knot in my stomach in anticipation of whatever the Trump administration was going to do that day  to roll back progressive policies of the last quarter century.  Despite media assertions that the tax bill was the “first big win” of the Trump administration, Donald Trump has had dystopic successes, win after win after win, as he has systematically rolled back regulations protecting the environment, health care and consumers. He has undermined the standing of the United States among other nations, named epically unqualified  candidates to the federal bench and other important positions. Through excess of ego and lack of discipline, he has brought us closer to war with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, a parallel nutcase if ever there were one.

Trump has disparaged the intelligence community and has consistently denied the Russians have messed with our election process.  How can we fix things if the Republican majority and the White House deny or underplay credibly identified of interference?

While painting the news media as the “enemy of the people,” Trump has shown little respect for truth and has garnered historically high numbers of “pinocchios” as he moves through an alternate universe, one of  his own creation.  Scientific fact has become optional at best, driving scientists out of government (especially at the EPA) and discouraging others from getting involved. In an Orwellian way, he has sought to eliminate evidence-based language from government communication, treating it as political correctness run amok.

He has been pitiless toward immigrants, threatening even those among them who are law-abiding, tax-paying individuals. He has fueled divisiveness among the American people, feeding his ever-shrinking (though not quickly enough) base with lies and still successfully deluding them that he is working in their interest.  In playing to their anger (something to which the Democrats were oblivious in 2016), Trump has degraded the level of public discourse, cultivating incivility and grievously harming the body politic.

Most, if not all, of his cabinet members have functioned as bobble-heads, obsequiously kowtowing to his need for constant doses of adulation, unable to stand up for principle or simply acknowledge uncomfortable truths for fear of setting off his juvenile, vindictive and hurtful tirades. The Republican Congress has followed suit, with one after another Senator or Representative caving on the inequitable tax bill because they’ve been bought off with special interest provisions or empty promises they may never see fulfilled.

Are there causes for hope? Some. Perhaps. Trump’s approval ratings float in the mid thirties.  The Democrats have, following early special election results in which losses by lower-than-expected margins  were touted as faux “wins,” actually did win the governor’s race in Virginia and the U.S. Senate race in Alabama, the latter the first such Democratic win in a quarter of a century. But, hypothetical match-ups almost a year in advance are meaningless.  I fear that, without much hard work, significant fund raising, zealous grassroots organizing and GOTV programs, hopes that next year’s mid-terms will shift the balance of power in Washington may not pan out.

One small piece of good news this year is that, although we seem to have a serial sexual predator in the White House, scores of women have felt safe in numbers and begun to fight back against sexual assault and gender-based abuse of power in all parts of the workplace. But Congress, despite bipartisan lip service to clean up its act, left town with Speaker Paul Ryan putting the issue on the back burner.  Regardless how widespread the transgressions have been, crossing  professional, partisan and economic lines, the MeToo movement may not be a voting issue in 2018.

So where does all this leave us when the President proudly asserted he had no regrets for anything he had done in his first year? I’m glad to put a terrible year behind us, but not at all sanguine that our democracy has not been changed forever, and certainly not for the better. Happy New Year to all, and to all a good fight.

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