You’re a Better Man Than I Am, Ho Chi Minh


I’m in Udon Thani, Thailand, the first city in Isaan you get to heading east from Chiang Mai. It would have been a twelve hour drive, but we flew for exactly an hour. Udon is oddly prosperous, and belies the general attitude toward Isaan one find in the rest of Thailand, which portrays Isaan as Dogpatch, the place where nothing happens more exciting than rice farming, and all the young women take the bus to the resort cities of Pattaya and Phuket in order to snag aging foreign husbands.

From the few hours I’ve spent on the streets and the gleaming new mall, there does indeed seem to be a surfeit of old Caucasian men being led around by much younger Thai women. The girls sitting in front of massage shops are not the least bit shy about grabbing a tottering geezer has he hobbles down the uneven sidewalk and steering him towards a massage with a happy ending. But Udon is also where a man who was already hooked in Pattaya goes with her back home to be near her family. Maybe that partly explains much of the apparent prosperity of this city, which only twenty years ago was quite a backwards place. As we flew in I saw many subdivisions with American-style newer homes, perfect for a retired foreign husband and his young Thai wife.

But there must be more to this place than simply that, because there are huge, modern condos springing up. I smell industry and private enterprise, those two paths to real prosperity that Vietnam seems so comfortable with and which Thailand has just started to embrace.

We rented a motor scooter and took off looking for something that would be different than the downtown, with its many massage parlors and bars. After driving into the setting sun for about twenty minutes we saw a sign “Ho Chi Minh historical site, 6 kilometers.” Ho Chi Minh? As in Uncle Ho? As in “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win!” which we chanted as we Vietnam war protesters circled the White House in 1969 to yell the name of a dead serviceman at Nixon, who had wisely decided to not be at home.

Sure enough, they had built some old-timey buildings on a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, and even though we arrived after the place was officially closed, we were able to enter through the closed but not yet locked gate and look around. Apparently Ho had found the time to spend a year or two in northeastern Thailand with a young Thai wife, in between his travels to more spectacular locations, like New York, Boston, Moscow, London, Paris and China. Born in 1890 to a family of school teachers, he traveled the world first as a cook’s assistant on ships, and then as a rising star in the Communist party. He spoke six languages fluently, and some Thai.

By the time the United States got our boots on the ground stuck in the quagmire, Ho had already defeated the French and was ready to retire, but he had to stay on a bit longer, although in a more symbolic role than training troops for battle. Heck, he was my age in 1955, and still terribly active, whereas I am most definitely out to pasture. You’re a better man that I am, Ho Chi Minh.

A couple of years ago when we toured Vietnam, we stopped at a marble factory in Danang, and I got dangerously close to buying a life-sized marble statue of Uncle Ho. They promised to ship it to Thailand for no extra charge. I thought “where else could I buy such a thing? And what a conversation piece!”

My little journeys have impressed upon me that Indochina really is a place of its own, sort of like the American Midwest is neither the East nor West Coast, and even though the countries of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia don’t share a common language, nor do the citizens of those countries resemble or trust each other much, Indochina is not China and it’s not India. To strain my metaphor a bit farther, the distance from Udon Thani to Hanoi is about the same as from Chicago to Memphis. Even a hundred years ago a determined traveler could make the journey in two or three weeks.  And Ho did just that.

 

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a recording of the author reading this essay can be found by clicking the link below

 

 

 

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DISCOURSE REVIVED


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Social media is not designed to promote debate. The audience one finds there is hand-picked, pre-selected. It’s preaching to the choir. Because Facebook is the way most people interact with others at a distance, its very popularity has come to diminish the role of discourse in what we imagine to be a free society. Indeed, many young people do not understand the role of argument or discourse, imagining that their manufactured beliefs and shopping preferences define them and their peers.

In much of the developing world free speech is at a minimum and a free press almost nonexistent. Democracy can’t function because loyalty is the supreme virtue, and extreme fidelity doesn’t allow much room for divergent opinions.

The country I came from used to pride itself on being a democratic republic, but today most people hate politics and would rather submit to a benign dictator if they could only find one.

Because I’m an expat and far from home, my main contact with others online is via Facebook, which was developed as a way to help college students find like-minded friends. It is all about peer groups, and finding your “peeps.” If you express an opinion that sets you apart from your peers, you will eventually be “unfriended.”

One of the explanations for Facebook’s financial success is that by being structured in this way, it can deliver advertisements to targeted groups, about which much is known because the members volunteer tons of information about themselves with every post and every reaction to a post.

This is fine if that’s all we want from communication, but I suspect that many of us, especially the more mature members would enjoy discussing complicated issues without the onus of being “popular.”

Could Facebook be modified to encourage rational discourse about complicated issues, rather than encouraging superficial and infantile reactions? Maybe this could be done with specific pages that would serve as forums to address specific issues. Politics. Banking. Theater. Literature. Music. Art.

Despite the trivial nature of most Facebook posting, its dominance could be tapped for the greater good. Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty word, and the lowest common denominator in the Arts doesn’t always need to command the greatest amount of attention. Facebook is just a tool, one that could be modified to be more effective for the greatest number of people. It could facilitate real, complex communication instead of simply pandering to the herd.

Legitimate Excuses for Failure


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When I was fifteen, I desperately wanted to learn the play the guitar, but had no money to buy one, and my family was so hard-pressed that I couldn’t ask my parents for a guitar or lessons. I imagined that I could build a guitar on my own, and reasoned that since I had never shown much aptitude for following instructions, I should invent my own system of tuning. From that thought came another, “why not have only one or two strings, which would greatly simplify things, and result in much dramatic sliding up and down the neck, which is the cool part of watching someone play the guitar?”

My cousin Steve, whose family was just as strapped financially as ours, agreed and we built a prototype out of plywood, with a phonograph pickup amplifying the twanging of the two strings. After horsing around with it for a few hours we realized our folly and gave up.

Five years later, when I was in college, Eric Clapton was God and seemed to have no shortage of girlfriends, so I went through another guitar phase. This time I bought an extremely cheap electric guitar from the Katz drugstore in Columbia, Missouri. I think it cost less than fifteen dollars. This is the same store I used to buy beer from, for eighty-eight cents an eight-pack. I didn’t have an amp, but I could sort of hear the strings as I noodled. The neck bowed immediately, and it became increasingly difficult to form chords. I taught myelf the ten-second lead to the Beatles’ song “Day Tripper” before giving up.

Over the years of my youth I went through similar spasms of wanting to learn the guitar, but each time the humiliation of the previous episode talked me out of it. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I realized that the boys who had stuck with it from when I first started were already proficient and so far ahead of me that I would never be able to catch up. So I never learned to play the guitar. I believed I couldn’t and dammit if I didn’t prove myself right.

The experience proved valuable, in that it taught me to recognize the voice of rationalization and justification in my own head. Now I don’t quite buy my own bullshit as easily, and I can see it in others as well. After forty-five years of practice, I play the piano almost as well as many seven-year-old Asian girls I see ripping through the classics on YouTube, but I still play well enough to sometimes engender envy in others. Someone watching me play will sigh and wistfully say “I wish I could play the piano.” I’ve tried saying “I’m sure you could learn if you really wanted to…” but then that person always counters with a legitimate excuse. “It’s too late, I’m tone deaf, my sister was better at that sort of thing than I was…” So now I say nothing.

Most of us who have enshrined self-limiting beliefs in our deepest inner sanctums are loathe to expose those beliefs to the light of day. Once we could no longer believe the legitimacy of our excuses, then where would we hide? Here in Thailand, most of the men my age are married to Thai women. These women speak various degrees of English, but the men have never learned any Thai. Some of these guys have lived here for fifteen years. To a man, they all offer the same excuse. “I have no ear for that sort of thing.” As far as I can see, the real translation is “I pay the bills, why should I have to learn her damn language?”

Whatever you believe to be true will be so.

here’s a link to the author reading this essay