Honored, Anchored Meanings Pissed On?

[funeral in Saigon on 12/27/18]

On 3/30/22, The Namibian quoted Jeremia “Low Key” Nakathila, “Las Vegas is the city of boxing, when you just enter there it's an achievement. Seeing myself on top of buildings and billboards motivated me a lot […] If you go to Las Vegas now, people are talking about Windhoek and Namibia.”

Nakathila, you see, had just beaten Mexican Miguel Berchelt, an ex-champion.

Who the hell cares about Nakathila, Berchelt or even boxing, you might say! Low Key, though, claimed Vegas was buzzing about Windhoek and Namibia. Maybe twelve people there were. What really mattered, though, was that Namibians were awfully proud of Nakathila for drawing international attention to their tiny country, if only from a coterie audience, for an hour or so. Nakathila mattered to his people. Meanings are local, above all.

Last week, Vietnam’s U-23 soccer teams, male and female, beat Thailand twice on consecutive days. After the men’s victory, Vietnamese cities went mad, with people storming [đi bão] onto streets, to ride around, honk, scream, bang on pots or even flash their boobs, the last a curious phenomenon among soccer fans worldwide. Mass exuberance erases borders, merges you into the collective body and is orgiastic.

From Saigon, a reader wrote me, “Sitting in my hot room right now at 9:42PM, I can hear people racing their motorbikes, blowing their horns and shouting wildly to celebrate the victory. The city will not sleep tonight and if they don't sleep, I don't sleep, even though I don't give a rat's ass about soccer and this victory. How could they do that to an insomniac?”

Who cares about some U-23 match in Southeast Asia, the weakest soccer region on earth, but people in Vietnam and Thailand certainly did, and it’s all that mattered. Significances must be grounded, above all.

Next up is Vietnam vs. Afghanistan in a soccer friendly. You’ve got to be kidding?! Bet you didn’t even know Afghanistan still had a soccer team, not after the USA wrecked their land and stole billions from them, but life goes on. Just like Vietnamese, Pashtuns predated Americans and will outlast them.

To survive as a distinct nation, you must preserve your distinctiveness, no shit, so “rat’s ass” marks the sleepless reader as an American, but language preservation alone isn’t enough. You must guard your best institutions and habits. Moreover, you must identify and honor your best men. A country that confuses he, she and they, and idolizes Hillary, Trump, Caitlyn Jenner and Jimmy Fallon is beyond cornholed.

What’s best about America? To me, it’s the America as defined by Whitman in Leaves of Grass, but beyond that, I’d include the diner, dive bar, garage band, Edward Hopper and the Butthole Surfers.

As for Vietnam, it’s the culture of sidewalks and alleys, of teeming life out in the open, among your kind.

No TV watcher, I wasn’t aware of Vietnamese commercials until last week, when I saw some at a cafe during the Vietnam/Thailand soccer game. Searching for more on YouTube, I noticed a series of KFC commercials mocking Vietnamese street life. Why sit on a low stool on the sidewalk and expose yourself to motorbike exhaust and splashing water from passing trucks, just to eat some dubious meal, when you can go inside an air-conditioned room to enjoy American fried chicken? To suit local taste, it’s also served with rice.

Having tried KFC chicken with rice, I found it inferior, yet more expensive, to most chicken and rice dishes on sidewalks. Yes, the low stool isn’t for every body, especially if it’s fat from eating too much KFC fried chicken, and I speak as one who loves American fried chicken! In fact, I’ve written a fried chicken poem that’s gotten some attention.

There’s an intriguing commercial from Dầu Nóng Thiên Thảo [Celestial Grass Medicated Oil]. Beautifully filmed, it depicts a future Vietnam of monstrous skyscrapers, flying cars and tiered sidewalks. Anachronism abounds, however. People are dressed in Saigon fashion from the Vietnam War. The music, however, is “On The Road of Victory” by Đinh Thìn, who played it on his flute for NVA soldiers near the front line. There’s a large sign offering tutoring in math, physics and chemistry, with its language also from wartime Saigon.

In it, a purse snatcher is tripped and defeated by a man sitting on the sidewalk. Hurting himself, he needs Celestial Grass Medicated Oil. With his funnel on a brick, he’s identified as a seller of gasoline by the bottle, and there are electric signs near him, “FIX VEHICLE” and “FRESH BEER.” In his tank top, open shirt, shorts and plastic flip flops, he’s further marked as a sidewalk character, so even a hundred years from now, Vietnam’s essense is preserved.

All these clues endear this commercial to viewers. Again, meanings are localized. The medicated oil itself is rather backward, thus timeless. Rubbing his leg, he sits on a low stool, though one that’s not just mechanized, but smart, for it knows how to shuffle sideways to await its owner’s ass.

That’s a lot to pack into 30 seconds, but in real life, each moment is also loaded with significances, piled up over millennia, at the cost of your ancestors’ blood, oceans of it, so don’t let your enemy destroy a single book, painting or sculpture, slander a single great man, or pervert a single syllable of your magnificent language, or you’re castrated, pissed on then fucked a million times over! Comprende?