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Cultural Dissonance aka Stomach Vs Food

In preparation for writing the novel, Uprooted, my wife and I visited Mai Dong in the fall of 2010. A lot had changed since Tung's family left in 1954. The village has electricity. It has better roads which mean it doesn't get cut off by the floods each year. And there are fewer young people tending the ancestors' graves.

Still, cricket chirps blanket the air, chickens bicker in the dirt, and the old ladies sit around talking as they chew their betel leaves. We met some distant relatives and childhood friends of Tung and his wife Ngoan. I tried not to stare too hard at their mouths stained with purple juice, as we asked some questions.

“He was very handsome,” they each said with warm chuckles.

And that was all I could coax out of them. Communicating was a challenge when every question led to a five minute discussion between the women and our interpreter. Each time I received a similar one sentence answer. The circumstances under which Tung's family left the village were pretty sour to say the least, so I wasn't entirely surprised.

We were soon steered towards a low table where a large plate of sticky rice was put before us for lunch. It was decorated with a dozen flies that danced just out of swiping distance. The ladies smiled and nodded for us to eat.

I felt like Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom. “Eat it!” I heard him whisper.

No. I wasn't Indiana Jones. I was Willie Scott, nightclub singer and squealer at all things icky, goggling at the flies while stealthily pushing away the food. “This is more than these people have to eat in a month,” Jones hissed.

This was of course not true. And after the meal I'd had the night before, eating rice graced by the odd fly or two was no challenge. But more of that ordeal later.

The women successfully deflected my inquisitiveness. I would have to return with a case of rice wine and a full command of the language if I hoped to broach those defenses, and successfully talk about why the village turned, as one, on Tung's father.

For centuries, Westerners have failed to comprehend Vietnamese manners and social codes. This problem stymied the American advisory effort in the 1950's and 60's. While, in almost a hundred years, the French never assimilated more than a small, urban, middle class into their “civilized” behaviors and tastes. Most of the population went on trying to grow rice as they had done for a millennia.

“Your country belongs to the western seas and ours to the eastern... As the horse and the buffalo differ, so do we – in language, literature and customs. If you insist in putting the torch to us, disorder will be long.”

In the earliest stages of their conquest, this proclamation was addressed to French sailors on the Saigon River. While Tonkin, or Northern Vietnam as it is now, was never truly pacified, the effect of French rule during the first half of the twentieth century was staggering.

Pre-colonial Vietnam had a literacy rate of 80%. By 1920 there were three times as many jails as there were schools, and literacy in the countryside had plummeted to less than 10%.

Between the French settlers who controlled the economy and the layer upon layer of bureaucracy, Paris saw little return on its colonial holding. In 1897 a new Governor General took the reins of the economy from the bankers and merchants, and instituted the first of an ever increasing set of taxes that were eventually to push the countryside towards widespread revolt.

This Governer, Paul Dourmer, had grand ideas that would create debt and disaster for years to come. He rushed through plans to link Indochina's major cities to Kunming in China by rail, before proper surveys had been carried out.

In a country dominated by vast mountain ranges and wetlands interlaced with rivers, canals and waterways, the folly of his adventure became a long-term burden on the country. The cost to those actually doing the work was greater still.

“Of the 80,000 Vietnamese and Chinese employed in building the less than 300 miles of the Yunnan-Fou line, more than 25,000 died in the course of construction.” - Joseph Buttinger

There were positive aspects to France's mission civilsatrice. The meeting of French condensed milk and Vietnamese coffee is now a staple of breakfast in the cities; particularly tasty if you tear off a piece of baguette and dip it in the sweet caffeinated gloop.

Local meat and cilantro sandwiched in baguette rolls became Banh Mi.

French crepes with bean sprouts, shrimp, pork and diced vegetables became Banh Xeo.

And of course there is the quintessential beef noodle soup, pho. It's origin is disputed, but the French certainly helped turn the local northern dish into national phenomenon.

My delicate English stomach was dealing fine with these foods. Then one night during our stay in Hanoi, our hosts treated us to a Vietnamese meal with all the trimmings. It was a generous spread, worthy of a meal at New Years. While I tried to load my bowl with rice, vegetables and tofu, our friend's father added some meat for me.

I did everything I could to consume it. I popped it into my mouth and imagined crusty bread as I tried to crunch through what I began to fear was knuckle, bone or beak, fried for disguise.

Two things saved me from abusing our hosts too visibly. The noise of Vietnamese enjoyment over food cloaks most other sounds, including my retches. And my wife, who deftly swept the offending items into her bowl. I chugged my beer and refilled my rice wine.

Our host looked up and I gesticulated toward the liquor and my coloring face. “It's strong isn't it?”

That phrase is an easier one to mime than, “I apologize for my hair-trigger gag reflex. It's a psychological affliction that has nothing to do with your delicious food.”

The French didn't sit down with the Vietnamese in any meaningful way. By alienating their subjects, the French sowed discord that made revolt inevitable. A thousand years of Chinese occupation had not quelled the Vietnamese people's fierce desire for independence. The French occupation was one they had the patience to endure, albeit at great cost.

Next week's Uprooted blog will focus on how the Vietnamese view themselves. Their strength, their resilience and their contradictions.

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