Saturday, November 21, 2015

Apocalypse Now, 1997: Jasmine and Saigon (Part 1)

This is a verbatim entry from an old paper-and-ink journal that I kept. The entry is dated March 23rd, 1997. I advertised it as "something gross about a Vietnamese whore" but in fact there's nothing all that gross about it. I present it it as an historical look at expat life and sex in 90s Vietnam.

This happened after I left Korea, where I had taught for ten months; I was 28 years old. 

I left here at about 10:00pm and took a cyclo towards a strip of bars on Mac Thi Buoi; it became quickly apparent that the only lively one -- indeed the only one that seemed to have any customers -- was the tritely-named "Apocalypse Now," which I'd seen advertised on t-shirts all over SE Asia.

I went in and ordered a BGI beer (18.000 dong / almost $2 -- outrageous by local standards) and was not terribly surprised to find that there was nothing much apocolyptic about the place. The decor was minimal -- dark walls, a long wood bar, thatched columns and a pool table and a small dance floor, with a little patio in the rear.

The crowd looked like a bunch of Yuppie Scum if ever I've seen 'em -- polo shirts, khakis, and cigars. Some were obviously local "expat" business people -- a lot of tourists, too, but even the tourists seemed like Yuppie Scum.

I had a few beers and then was ready to leave when I saw a cute Vietnamese girl in a really tight flowered minidress, kicking it good on the dance floor. And damned if she didn't give me the Long Lovely Look. My pulse raced.

However, I've been in Asia for quite a while. I began to think she might be a kratoey (or whatever they call transvestites / transexuals here) or at least a hooker.

I kept my eye on here and we smiled at each other a few times -- she knew a lot of people there, but seemed to be there alone.

Eventually, we ended up dancing together; she writhed coyly. I decided if she was a transvestite or transsexual, she was the greatest one I'd ever seen, and it was high time I tried one. I touched her waist while we danced.

We started talking. Her name was Jasmine. (Of course!) She was 22. After some introductory chit-chat, she was surprisinglyly frank. She said she'd been a whore a few years ago, but wasn't now. She had a boyfriend who lived in Hong Kong and he sent her enough money to live comfortably. She was studying art and graphic design now. (And taking piano lessons.)

Her English was completely fluent and bizarrely had a very thick Southern accent. She attributed this to her favorite film, Forrest Gump, but said that her boyfriend was from Texas, also.

This was all quite strange to me, this time / space warp Tennessee Williams accent coming out of this delicate young Oriental blossom. She was not what you'd call classically beautiful, though -- face a bit too round, maybe, teeth not particularly straight, and (I would later see) a scar on her forehead and another on eyebrow. She had long flowing black hair, though, and a great slim body, and her face had a lot of character, something often absent from Asian girls.

She told me about life in Saigon; said the government and police are all crazy and hassel the foreigners constantly. They'd once come to Apocolypse Now and arrested all the Vietnamese girls there and tried to get them to sign statements saying they'd worked as prostitutes there, wanting to force the bar to close (or pay a large fine) in this manner. All of the expat men had gathered outside the police station and sung "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" She refused to sign and was eventually released.

She said that the expats that worked for large international companies usually had it very good -- they were paid large amounts of money to do nothing, to be a "foot in the door" in Vietnam while deals were endlessly negotiated and formalized with the government.

Around 4:00 am, the bar closed. I asked her if she wanted to walk outside with me; she said she'd stay here for a while. I got her phone number and said I'd call her.

I got on a Cyclc and headed back home -- two whores on a moped followed me and offered me a massage, or a blow job. I said thanks, but I was tired.

When I got back to the guest house, the gate was closed. A voice said, "X!" and I saw a female head sticking out of a taxi cab. For a weird second, I thought it was Kun Jung Ah from Korea but of course it was Jasmine.

"Do you want to come back with me?" she asked quietly.

I nodded and got in.

End part one!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Actual Mechanics of Repatriation

Three months here already, geez!

All the actual administrative stuff involved in moving back to America actually turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be.

(To recap: I moved back to America accepting a decent-paying job in a small city in the Southwest, teaching Middle Easterners, mainly so that I could help my father, who has recently moved into an assisted living facility.)

Getting an apartment was a cakewalk. The first place I looked, a mid-range complex near my work, moved me in by the end of the week. After my experience amongst the hotel homeless, I was worried about potential problems with credit checks, references, leases, and deposits; but I moved into a furnished, $700-a-month place, utilities included, with just a three-month lease and a $200 deposit. I don't think they even bothered to call my employers. The apartment isn't exactly the Ritz-Carlton, but it's nice enough, quiet and roomy and gets a lot of sunlight.

It's one of the nicer places I've lived, though that's not saying much.

Phone? Also no problem. My unlocked Lenovo works just fine with the AT and T Pay-As-You-Go plan. I pay $45 a month for unlimited talk and text and 1 GB of data. No contracts for me.

Internet? Also easy enough. No contracts, no deposit. Just pay, plug, and play. $55 a month for that, also.

(I gather that catering to the transient and dubiously-documented is a growth industry.)

Of course I had to buy the first car I've owned since I was 24. (A 2013 Toyota Corolla.) My mother surprised me by gifting me the price of it, knowing that I would be paying most of my father's bills for the rest of the year. Unlike my father, she has managed her money well. "Think of it as money you're going to inherit eventually anyway," she said.
I sit under this tree near my apartment a lot and daydream about when my life was exotic

Getting car insurance was handled by my mother's insurance agent; getting the car registered here in the state I live now took a couple of trips to the DMV and maybe a half-hour of waiting. Relatively painless, if boring.

Now, health insurance?

The company that employs me had a seminar the other day to let us choose which insurance plan we wanted; most of us are TEFL lifers, and had no fucking idea what they were talking about. "Uh ... what's a premium? Who pays the deductible?"

I pay something like $80 a month for health insurance with a $3500 deductible. (Whatever the fuck that means.) That doesn't sound like the best deal in the world, but I can live with it.

So here I am! A tax-paying, documented, insured, 40-hour-a-week American citizen. I imagine they'll find me slumped over dead of heart failure in my Toyota Corolla, listening to NPR, any day now, so thanks for reading.

I don't have an excess of time to write, but in upcoming weeks, we should have at least some of the following:

Interview with a guy teaching English in Africa
Write-up on my trip to the Galopogas Islands
Preview of my next memoir, about my youth
The Accidental Pornographer, Part 5: Porno History X
Books About Drinking, Fucking, and Traveling: Bukowski, Thompson, Theroux and the 70s


Saturday, November 07, 2015

Interview with English Teacher SF

In honor of my own American exile, here's an interview with a guy who actually started teaching in America, did a few years overseas, and then resumed life in academia. He is also a writer and keeps a website at

How long have you been teaching?

I started teaching in the fall of 1979, so this shall be my 36th year in the profession.

Where have you taught?

I have taught at colleges and universities in South Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas and Illinois. I have taught middle school in Wisconsin and Illinois. As far as overseas goes, I taught in Japan for five years and in Saudi Arabia for one year.

Which places have you liked the most and the least?

The five years I spent in Japan were the best years of my life. The wages were good and there were plenty of privates for the picking. I loved going to Tokyo to hang-out. I saw George Harrison and Eric Clapton in concert there in 1990 or 91. I saw Buster Douglas knock-out Mike Tyson at the Big Egg. I was with the same lovely woman for the entire five years I was there. I wasn’t wild about the magic kingdom. The money was good but the place was dull and the culture meant nothing to me. I made it through a 1 year contract and that’s about it. It was a dog year: seven years for one. In the USA, I’m the happiest in South Carolina.

I loved Japan and the Japanese people but I thought they were very dull and unimaginative as students. I actually preferred the Saudi students because they were talkative and they had this goofball sense of humor. I remember students staying up all night during Ramadan and then sleeping in class. I was spat on and choked in KSA, but I liked the students overall. Over here I like the southern students from South Carolina and Texas more than the snotty and wise aleck students from the Midwest.

What kind of qualifications do you have?

My B.A and M.A degrees are in Communication. I also had a state of Wisconsin Teachers’ Certification. By the time I had gone overseas, I had about 10 years of teaching under my belt. The Celta wasn’t necessary for me to have on my resume when I was hired to work in Japan or Saudi Arabia. Now it appears to be a must in the ESL-EFL field. I have actually thought about taking a 3 month and 120 hour program here in South Carolina to have it in case I wanted to go back to English teaching after I retire.

How's your quality of life compared to your wages?

I am very happy with my quality of life right now. I have been teaching at a community college here in South Carolina for the past ten years. I make a good salary and I have the rank of Associate Professor. In two years I’ll be promoted to a full professorship which is not bad for a blue collar kid from a factory town. I also spend a great deal of time on my writing projects. I have essays, stories and reviews published on-line and with several glossy magazines. It took me a few years to actually re-adjust to the USA, but I now am back in touch with my roots.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m 61 and I hope to continue to teach here until I’m 66. I’d like to retire back to Wisconsin and just write. I suppose teaching English overseas is still in my blood, for I still check-out the job boards at Dave’s ESL to see what’s available. I have always wanted to teach in Eastern Europe and I suppose Poland is my first choice. I’m not of Polish ancestry but I guess I’m comfortable with the fact that they’re Catholics. I don’t think Americans can get visa all that easily in Europe anymore because of the European Union. I probably too old to be hired on for any decent job. To be honest about it, I don’t have the physical and mental toughness any more to adapt to a foreign land.

Do you recommend the ESL-EFL route to young Americans?

In my many years of teaching here in the States I only recall two students expressing an interest in teaching overseas. One ended up teaching in Costa Rica and New Zealand: she loved every minute of it. The other expressed an interest in Japan and Russia so I gave him two books by English Teacher X. He decided to go to China. Yes, I’d highly recommend it to the right type of person. Many people probably shouldn’t even try it, for they’ll be miserable or throw in the towel too quickly. I also would caution a person to make it a 1 to 5 year gig. I know some people score big in the field by starting their own school or by working for a big university. However, I think most lifers aren’t all that happy with themselves or their work after a certain point. I also would recommend to an American not to over-estimate or under-estimate our country, or to over-estimate or under-estimate any other country. You’re still an American and you should grow old and die in your native land.

Is there anything you would have done differently with your ESL career?

Not really. Six years was just about the right amount of time for me personally. I made very good money during those years overseas. More importantly, I traveled extensively: maybe I visited about two dozen countries. However, now I’m more than satisfied to be a ‘stay-at-home-pair of shoes.’ My idea of paradise is no longer an airport, a suitcase and a tour guide book. I also met all sorts of people from all over the world. I learned how to live with diversity before it became fashionable. I have become very capable at defusing obnoxious people who want to argue about politics or religion. Has anybody else ever noticed that many English teachers are closet social workers, aspiring crusaders and failed diplomats?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Atrocity Tourism, Part 3: The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas NV

In 2014, when I left my last job in Saudi, I flew into Vietnam to have a couple of weeks of holiday and see some friends there. Trying to find a cheap-ish one way ticket home, the best I could manage was a one-way flight into Las Vegas, Nevada.

I decided to stay a couple days, and when Expedia offered me a 2 day stay at the Hard Rock Hotel for $100, I jumped at it. What fun!

Of course, I had just turned 45 then. Old enough, right? But I thought it would be fun to check it out, especially at "Pool Party!" season was just ending.

Well, I was wrong.

It wasn't fun at all, and I wasn't even CLOSE to being the oldest, or the oldest-looking person there.

I arrived in the morning at about 10:00am, so I took a nap to ease my jet lag and then had lunch. It turned out I had to pay extra to use the pool and sports club, based on the $50 a night I was paying, but that's pretty typical, I guess. 

I went to the pool, where the pool party was just getting started at 3 or 4 pm. I'd been away from America for a while, but the first thing that always strikes me is how heterogeneous our society is; people are every shade of the rainbow.

 But then the other thing strikes me: my god, why does everybody look so weird? 

I mean, of course, in small town America, one is struck by the fatness. And it's not just fatness, bodies are actually changing into distinctly not-typically-human-looking shapes from the metabolic syndrome caused by all the soda people consume. 

But the other side of that coin is America's cult of health, fitness and plastic surgery, and in Vegas at the Hard Rock, I saw plenty of that. And they are ALSO starting to look not-typically-human. 

Most of the dudes were enormous, clearly jacked up on roids, covered with dopey tattos, wearing all that MMA / Tapout / Affliction crap smeared with logos, just in case you didn't notice how tough they were. And most of these guys were not in their 20s. A LARGE number of them appeared to be in their 40s. Or maybe they just appeared older from their sunlamp-damaged skin. 

Half the women had duck lips and fake tits, which didn't do much to distract one from their advancing years, gunts, brittle dyed hair, and tiny little eyes. The other half were girls you might have though were decent looking enough if you saw them dressed, but in bikinis and bright light, their huge cellulite-covered asses, cheap hair exensions, and awful tattoos could not be covered. 

(Although I'm aware big asses are a thing now, cellulite is never in style. Is it?)

I always notice how tiny white American women's faces are. Little face squished onto big heads, in most cases. 

Still, the room itself was pretty nice, with a great view: 

Attempts to go onto the Las Vegas strip itself revealed to me that the casinos are now mainly glitzy malls with a small area for gambling in the back. I was neon-light-flashed into a near epileptic seizure and the crowds were tremendous, all crowded into narrow walkways twisting around and above the street. 

I went back to the Hard Rock and lost $100 at the casino. Andrew Dice Clay was playing a show in the bar there, which I might have enjoyed, but I figured I could watch him just as well on YouTube for free.

So I did that.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Atrocity Tourism, Part 2: The Vietnam War Remnants Museum

So, you'd like to see a good museum about the war in Vietnam, but you're afraid it might skimp on describing tortures and atrocities, and might not have enough cool military equipment and pictures of children with the most horrific birth defects imaginable? 

Well, have I got a museum for you!  

I visited the Vietnam War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh (a.k.a Saigon) in July of 2014, with my erstwhile sidekick Crazy Bob. It was formerly known as "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes" and the "Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression." 

Outside the museum you get to see some military stuff that got left behind after Saigon fell: Tanks, planes, bombs, artillery guns: 

Me outside a Huey gunship. If I was 15 years older, I might well have firing that gun out the window at fleeing civilians in Vietnam.

There are also some dioramas that describe various tortures and atrocities, including this statue of a guy in a tiger cage, which is so realistic-looking I saw some young girls scream when they looked in and saw it:

There's also a French guillotine there, that most stylish and elegant of mass execution methods. Leave it to those French, eh? (It's not just the Americans who come in for a drubbing at this museum; the French atrocities in Indochina are well-considered.)

But it's inside the museum that you see the really mind-numbing horrors, if only in photos: the massacre at MyLai, the legacy of birth defects caused by Agent Orange, and the famous pictures of children burned by napalm running down the beach. 

But then, of course, what are you going to do afterwards? Enjoy some delicious Vietnamese food, get drunk on 50 cent beer, chase some Russian package tourists, or maybe get a $50 hooker. For all its horror, alas, the museum seems like nothing more than a trip to a Haunted House, or maybe at the best, something we can do to assuage our consciences and sense of history before we get back to our backpacking and sex tourism. 

The war in Afghanistan recently beat Vietnam's record -- it's now America's longest war. (Still, the death toll of American troops in Vietnam was 20 times higher.) Will Afghanistan someday be a popular tourist destination (again,*)  the years of atrocity compressed into a handy museum?

Well I guess that's better than the alternative. 

*Afghanistan was once an important stop on the overland Hippie Backpacker trail in the 60s; Kabul was considered the "Paris of Central Asia." 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Atrocity Tourism, Part 1: Chernobyl and Pripyat Nuclear Exclusion Zone

Most people think of Ukraine and slaver at the thought of juicy big-butted, thick-lipped white women who will sleep with foreigners for bargain-basement prices. Crazy Bob certainly was.


I wanted to go see Chernobyl.

Like a lot of Generation X kids, I was terrified by the prospects of nuclear war and nuclear disaster.

So how could I not want to go see the sight of the largest nuclear disaster in history?

You can buy a tour to Chernobyl -- I took the one-day variety, which ends up being about 10 hours. This will set you back a hundred bucks or so, and includes lunch. (There are 2-day options, but 1 day is plenty, in my opinion, unless you happen to have very specialized interests in radiation damage.)

I had visited the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev the day before, and had listened to the whole history of the affair on the headset; also highly recommended, if only to put your sex tourism in perspective to the country's relentlessly tragic history.

Bang Ukraine!

The drive to the Nuclear Exclusion Zone takes maybe an hour and a half. I went with about a half-dozen other people, all guys, all individual travelers.

Our guide was a guy in his early 30s, and he had been living in Pripyat when the city was evacuated in 1986. Soviet bureaucracy, foot-dragging, and the Cold War culture of secrecy and deniability led to the surrounding areas being warned much later than they should have been; even staying indoors for a few days would have saved a lot of lives. He approached the amount of radiation he'd been exposed to with typical Slavic aplomb, and he smoked cigarettes with gusto every time the car stopped.

About ten times normal background radiation levels

The amount of radiation you would be exposed to during a one-day trip is considerably less than an x-ray; nonetheless, of course, the guide loves to see the tourists jump when he puts the radiation detector near a "hot spot" and it starts dinging. (You have to go through several radiation detectors on the way in and out to make sure you're not bringing out any badass particles on your shoes or hands, of course.)

The tour will likely take you to a couple of scary abandoned places: a couple of schools, a youth center, and this abandoned radar facility. These are all brick buildings so they provided some shielding from the radiation and have low levels inside; all the wooden structures, which absorbed radiation, have been demolished.

Pool in abandoned Soviet youth center

Abandoned school Pripyat

I'm sure the mold, asbestos, and lead paint in these places were far more dangerous than any residual radiation. 

There's also a walk through the town square in Pripyat; this Ferris Wheel was set to open on May 1, 1986, and it never got the chance. 

Then of course you can see the reactor itself, but the radiation levels are highest here, so you don't get much chance to linger. I was surprised to learn that thousands of people still work in the zone and at the containment unit, and that the other reactors -- there were four, total -- continued to produce power up to the year 2000. They dragged away the contaminated topsoil and debris and resurfaced that lot, so the power plant itself and the sarcophagus surrounding it are surprisingly non-scary-looking -- at least, until your radiation detector starts clicking in overtime and beeping its warnings.

Highly contaminated cooling ponds, you can see the power plant behind it
The monument to the disaster outside Reactor 4, containment unit in the background

Then you can cap things off with various monuments to the dead and a stop at the small produkti that serves as the Chernyobl Nuclear Exclusion Zone's only restaurant, guest house, and souvenir shop.


Monument to the firefighters. Supposedly drinking vodka helped protect some of them from radioactive iodine.

"Granma went to Chernobyl and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!"

And how many people actually died directly because of the disaster? Well, it's difficult to say. 32 died in the actual accident itself. But indirectly? Somewhere between 5000 and 500,000, depending how you try to figure the numbers. Because when you start trying to count up all the birth defects, non-fatal cancers, and people who just plain drank themselves to death rather than die slowly of cancer, the issue gets pretty confused. 

Suffice to say it was "a fucking lot." 

But interestingly the wildlife and fauna in the area is really thriving, just because there aren't many people around to trouble them. And hey, what's a cheeky 500,000 people compared to the millions who died in the Soviet Era Famine? 

Next week on Atrocity Tourism: The Vietnam War Museum, Saigon

Friday, October 09, 2015

American Update: Panic at the Dollar Store

I had a bit of a panic attack at the dollar store a few days ago.

I've been keeping myself busy in America, if not particularly thriving.

My dad moved into an assisted living place, which he likes very much, and his condition seems better. (It's more like an all-inclusive hotel for old people than a hospital.)  I'm going to see him this weekend, and I also spent Labor Day there.

(It's a not-particularly-convenient eight hour drive.)

My apartment here in Bumfuck, Southwestern United States, is nice enough, and my job is bearable, if not great, and the salary flows in smoothly every two weeks -- although at the moment it also flows out smoothly to pay for my dad's assisted living place while they try to sell their condo. I'm doing well in my one class towards a master's degree -- currently have a 93 average.

But then I was in the dollar store buying a basket for my silverware.

And I suddenly thought to myself, OH MY GOD I'M IN THE DOLLAR STORE BUYING A BASKET FOR MY SILVERWARE! I don't belong here! I should be in like Rio or Belarus or Vientiene or somewhere! 

I began to sweat. To panic. I suddenly put my basket back and started to leave the store.

Then I thought to myself, well, that thing will cost twice as much at Wal-Mart. I came all this way, I better buy it, or that means I'll have to come BACK to the dollar store.

I walked in confused circles for a while. Then I looked around at the people in the dollar store. Lots of old people. A few visible poor people. A few hipsters student types.

Then the following song came on:

Numerous people in the store were like, "That's my jam right there!" and a couple of little girls started singing and dancing.

That cheered me up a bit. Everybody in the store had walked many roads and done many things, and well, sometimes life just takes you to the dollar store.

I got my basket. And a couple of other household items. And a book.

Then this song came on:

And I'm like, damn straight, man. Damn straight.

I walked out of the dollar store, head held high, facing the future confidently.