I first came to Thailand on a month-long teaching assignment. Surprised to find that I had four days off over the New Year, I decided to get out of Bangkok and see something of the countryside. After asking around, I decided on a bus to the border of Cambodia. There’s a casino there, as well as a huge market. Foreigners go there to check out and back into the country, thus prolonging their tourist visas.

At the Cambodian border I found a dumpy guest house near a strip of tourist-related bars and massage parlors, and since I don’t drink, retired before that tedious countdown to the new year that is the bane of anyone with a mental age older than thirteen. I managed to doze off for a few moments, but then with all the noise found myself unable to sleep. I noticed that I could hear multiple bar bands from the strip nearby. As the evening wore on, every band at each club played Hotel California by the Eagles, always with the same note-perfect copy of Joe Walsh’s signature guitar solo. In every rendition the singer was phonetically trying to copy the vocals, but without knowing what the words meant. As I lay there, I must have listened to eight different versions of the song, punctuated at midnight by fireworks being set off in a nearby field.

I suppose the Eagles are quite aware of the strange popularity of this song, and how it has become a staple of bar bands all over the world. Here in Indochina I thought it odd that I was forced to listen to a song that was popular back when I was in my twenties and living in California. At no time did I hear an original Eagles recording, but I did hear a variety of Cambodians singing “you can check out any time you like but you can’t never leave.”

Now that I live with a Thai woman and have made Thailand my home, I see more clearly the depth of the United States’ cultural domination of the globe. Wipa likes to watch action movies, and these are almost always made in the United States. The story is simple enough to understand even by reading subtitles, as explosions, gun battles and car chases don’t require translation. Living on the other side of the world, we watch America every day, on TV.

America has won the culture war, and dominates the world of entertainment, but when I was last home I saw an awful lot of angry, frightened and chronically frustrated people who were curious about my life in Northern Thailand. I spent three weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the average rent for a studio apartment is $3,000 a month. All I had to do was tell people that I rent a little house here for $110 a month. That gave them pause. Often people would exhale as if they had been kicked in the stomach.

I’ve heard that sound before. When I was in college, a few of us went to the cinema to see a new documentary film about the Vietnam War. Hearts and Minds included a scene so shocking that the audience around me made that same exhalation. Here’s Wikipedia’s entry:

A scene described as one of the film’s “most shocking and controversial sequences” shows the funeral of an North Vietnamese soldier and his grieving family, as a sobbing woman is restrained from climbing into the grave after the coffin.The funeral scene is juxtaposed with an interview with General William Westmoreland telling a stunned Davis that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

There is another scene in the movie where a man in North Vietnam shows the camera where his house was before the American bomb hit. He had just lost his wife, son and daughter. He shows the camera where each family member was at the moment of impact, and then finds a scrap of fabric in the rubble. “Look,” he says “this is my youngest daughters shirt. She was feeding the pigs when the bomb hit. Now the pigs are alive but she is dead. Why don’t you take this and show it to Nixon, murderer of civilians? Throw this in his face!”

You can see the film on YouTube

Since I’ve been in Southeast Asia, I’ve journeyed to Vietnam and Laos, the places on which we dropped three times more bombs than were dropped in all of World War II by both sides, and I still don’t know what I can do to meaningfully react to this fact. Nobody wanted to kill me in those places, though I don’t know why.










  1. A very moving commentary, Dan. Why have so many Americans thought, over the years, that we are somehow superior to others. Such arrogance makes me sick. By the way, how long have you been living in Thailand (excluding your sojourn in Dubai, and weren’t you also back in South American for a while)?

  2. I also found this a very resonant blog Dan. As you know, I was in Vietnam with my wife in March of 2012 after visiting you for a week in Chiang Mai. That trip had a profound impact on me and I still can’t get several of the impressions of that trip out of my head. We were in Hanoi first for about 3 days, then 2 days by train (2 overnights) to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), where we stayed another few days. We spent one day in Hue — right on the former border of N and S Vietnam (essentially the former DMZ) in between the two overnight trains. Some superficial observations: the country is only officially communist — indeed it is one of the most capitalistic places I’ve ever seen in reality with almost everyone trying to buy or sell something from/to you; the scooter traffic was astounding. Virtual rivers of Honda 125s filled the streets sometimes literally overflowing onto sidewalks leaving absolutely no place to walk. Food was cheap and delicious. Saigon far more modern and “advanced” than Hanoi, and the countryside still covered in rice. It was generally uncomfortably humid, but in that month it wasn’t too terribly hot.

    But beneath these superficial obviousnesses, was something I had never known or considered. In every museum or park where there were remnants of the US-Vietnam conflict were signs describing that war in a way I never imagined — the US was always described and the “imperialist occupier” of their country. We weren’t the only ones. The French, Russians and Chinese were just as unappreciated. Ho Chi Minh (a ardent communist) still cared much less about ideology and far more about getting any and all foreign occupiers the hell out of his country! I had always thought of this war as a battle zone of ideologies — communism vs capitalism (incorrectly dubbed democracy). To the majority of Vietnamese, we were all just unwanted occupiers and they wanted us all out. It made perfect sense when seen from their eyes — If two countries or groups of countries arrived in the US and started fighting each other and wiping out small towns in the process, wouldn’t that be our reaction too? Why do Americans have such a hard time seeing ourselves the way the rest of the world does — and more profoundly why do Americans simply assume everyone else wants to emulate us, or worse yet, want to live in our country instead of their own. I travel a lot and it’s strange being an American in many places. The welcome ranges from very warm and friendly to contempt. The latter is usually from people who have actually been to America, or who have been educated enough to know that America, while a great engine of technological and artistic innovation and creativity, is also a creator and exporter of a self-centered and unhealthy culture. As Dan has said more than once in his blogs, we didn’t just win the cold war (possibly a good thing), we are winning the culture war. The evidence is the epidemic spread of fast-food restaurants in places where the indigenous cuisine is far better tasting and healthier than what we are bringing in under the “golden arches”.

    The other very significant impression I was left with on our visit to Vietnam was the way the people didn’t hate us. I don’t know whether this was due to a superior capacity to forgive, or a huge acceptance of reality and a need to move on. Hating Americans (who, judging by the way the country now actually operates WON the Vietnam War) would simply be prolonging the pain of the end of that war. Not only did the citizens we met not hate us, many of them were eager to meet and talk to us, and show us kindness and helpfulness. One story tells the whole thing — on our last evening in Saigon, we were returning to our guest house from dinner and walking through a large city park with benches. Some benches were empty, but some had people sitting on them an in every case it was the same. There were some western-looking people sitting on the bench surrounded by young people talking to them … and in English! We couldn’t resist. We picked an empty bench and sat down. Within seconds we were meeting young people who were happy to be talking to us about anything we wanted. Were they just trying to improve their English and perhaps network with Westerners who might help them leave their country? Perhaps, but in fact what we felt was a genuine desire to connect with people to learn more about our impressions of their city/country. They were (intentionally or unintentionally) being goodwill ambassadors for their country. Which is one of the things we try hard to do when we travel. An occasional experience we have when traveling (usually when staying for months in the same place and making long-lasting friendships), is that someone who was only in our presence because I worked with their spouse or something like that, would finally confess to liking us, despite their prejudice of Americans.

    All in all, traveling to just about anyplace in the world will show you new and different things to be sure, but if you stay long enough, or perhaps if you just look carefully enough, you will see that we have far more in common with “foreign” people than we have differentiating us.

  3. Ho Chi Minh had been to America, he’d also been to Europe and China and he greatly admired American democracy. He was shocked to see that America did not come to Vietnam’s aid in overthrowing the French. He quoted our Declaration of Independence in a speech celebrating a victory over French forces in the 1940’s.

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