My Communist Romance
Should I be surprised that Ho Chi Minh made an appearance while I was on a few weeks ago? Perhaps not, given the fact that I always talk politics on a first date and that the Vietnamese revere the man. More than revere, actually. They love him. A sixth-grade student in my English class at one of the schools I work for proudly boasted, “My great-grandfather used to play with President Ho Chi Minh when they were children.” He is referred to as Uncle Ho and that fact actually influenced the Vietnamese language, according to my teacher Hoa. Ho Chi Minh was childless and referred to the Vietnamese as his children, which is why they use the age pronouns “Anh” (older brother), “Chi” (older sister) and “Em” (younger brother or sister).
He is one of Tien’s favorite Communists, along with Karl Marx*. And it turns out that Ba Dinh Square is a pleasant place to stroll at night with your date, although if you try to teach her to ride your motorbike the military will chase you away as fast as they’ll shoot you for walking on the grass. I’ve been told that Vietnamese men are romantic (until marriage) but politics is about as un-romantic as squat toilets so either a) romance is totally dependent on its cultural context or b) Vietnamese men are not romantic.
Personally, I have no emotion regarding Ho Chi Minh. The more I learn about him, the more admirable he seems. He worked hard. He taught history in Vietnam after graduating high school, worked on a ship, in Escoffier’s pastry kitchen in Paris, as a servant in London. He spoke French, English, Chinese. He presented a peaceful plan for Vietnam’s independence to President Woodrow Wilson during the Versailles Peace Conference in France in 1919. The man worked hard for what he believed.
I think, however, that given the bias I may hold toward the subject and the complete lack of emotion I feel toward him, it’s better to let Andrew X. Pham, author of the memoir/travelogue Catfish and Mandala, have the last word. (Andrew Pham is Vietnamese-American. His family, hailing from Phan Thiet and Saigon in the south, was imprisoned during the Vietnam War/the American War. They escaped on a fishing boat and he grew up mostly in California. He cycled from Saigon to Hanoi sometime in the 1990s).
“I think whatever Vietnamese–Northerners, Southerners, or Vietkieu [Vietnamese raised in foreign countries]–feel about this man and his ideologies, they respect him as all the underdog countries of the world do. For here was a man of inconsequential beginnings who crept through the land of the white man as a menial laborer and returned to wrestle his homeland from empires.”
“At the age of twenty-one, Ho signed on to a French ship as a cook’s apprentice, the first step of what would become a thirty-year journey that would take him to North America, Africa, and Europe. He settled in London, then Paris, earning a living as a gardener, snow sweeper, waiter, photo finisher, and mastered several languages, including English, French, German, and Mandarin. It was in his tenure in the racially prejudiced Western world that led Ho to examine his roots and nurture his sense of patriotism.
How many “Yer, sir!” “Oui, oui, Monsieur!” “Yes, sahib!” did he utter, head bowed submissively? How many times did he long to stroll the cobbled byways of Paris and the marbled corridors of London as an equal of any Frenchman, and Englishman? How often did he gaze upon a white woman and wish for the pleasure of her company, the faintest possibility of her caress? Maybe patriotism has always been at the core of him. Maybe not.”
“Uncle Ho died unmarried and without children. Maybe he was gay. Maybe he was in love with the loveliest of all females: Vietnam. They say Vietnam is like a beautiful woman wooed first by the Chinese, then the French, then the Japanese, then the Americans. The men always say this with undisguised pride–not anger or outrage–but pride, followed by a glint of zealousness when they say Vietnam is now ours. Ours. Though it is clear to me, ours doesn’t include Viet-kieu.
Ours is those who believe in Uncle Ho. Those who believe in thousands of photos of Uncle Ho preserved in museums throughout the country. His visage is old but strong and benevolent. Uncle Ho, the peasant irrigating rice paddies by hand. Uncle Ho, the teacher chalking history on the blackboard for his good students. Uncle Ho, the poet painting Chinese calligraphy. Uncle Ho, the worker shaping the earth witha shovel. Uncle Ho, the protector standing before the children. Uncle Ho, your uncle and mine.”
Given that, is it any surprise that I was taken to Ba Dinh Square on a date?
*I spoke entirely in Vietnamese to find out which Communists Tien likes. He does not like Lenin. Unfortunately, my Tieng Viet has limitations and does not extend to, “Why don’t you like Lenin?”