In the mid-nineties, when the series was still good, I wanted to be Dana Scully. She was a 5’2”, gun-toting, physics and medicine knowing, red-headed alien-chasing Federal Agent. And I was a 5’2”, physics knowing, Vietnamese-American young lady in college.
This summer I may take my first step toward agenthood. I have been offered an unpaid internship with the Bureau of East Asian Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, assigned to the Economic Affairs department. I do not know the dates and nature of my assignment, but I will be living and working in Hanoi for about two months. With an eye on not being thrown out of the Embassy or the country, I will be sharing with the web world my findings on politics and economics in Vietnam. I also plan to visit Kyoto, Japan, where development is in a vastly different stage and yet some cultural and economic dilemmas are shared. This would be my first time in that region of the world since I left Saigon as a refugee in 1980. My travels so far have been brief: hiking with a friend and almost dying in the Swiss Alps, studying Spanish in Guatemala, and organic farming in Ireland.
While in Vietnam and Japan, I will be undertaking a self-made project to look at some of the more rigid behavioral patterns in Southeast Asian men. Last summer, my (step)dad left my mom. They had been married over 20 years and this was a pretty bad blow for her and for all of us. Though there were several reasons for his departure, my dad had always been dismayed by my choice not to take a defined career path and I suspect this contributed to his final decision. He cut off communication with me then, over seven months.
I do not have reliable information on what goes on with my dad. My mom tells me stories about sexual frustration and debilitating jealousy on his part. Shortly after he left he began seeing other women who, my mom claims, are prostitutes. Strangely, this phenomenon is not unique to my family. Middle-aged Vietnamese men are leaving their wives for younger, or just other, women in large numbers. In fact, to cope with her pain, my mom found some new friends, through church no less, and they were all middle-aged Vietnamese women recently divorced. This is not merely a sign that traditional marriages are going out of style. There is something here about emotional isolation and insufficient outlets for expression and I am taking this hypothesis with me to Vietnam to probe and hopefully come away with more information than I have now.
I remember how bowled over I was when I started reading Murakami. It was Wild Sheep Chase. Murakami writes about sexuality in a relaxed manner, nothing flowery or bitter. It flows. He is Asian, he is articulate, he has a great imagination, and his protagonist can have sex and not be troubled by it! Murakami challenges my impressions of Asian men and I expect this trip to open my eyes further. It will be a challenge to keep my anger and disappointment about my dad from coloring my study, but I do hope to gain a more balanced viewpoint. My project will include research through experiences, books and people. I will conduct interviews and with permission, publish them online.
On a less serious note, I will also be sharing my adventures in food tasting and preparation. Cooking and eating are serious hobbies of mine. I filmed the first episode of a cooking show last fall and will be teaching a class on vegetarian Vietnamese food next month.
Finally, I will also explore culture in Japan. I have wanted to visit Japan ever since I started Underground. I am intrigued by the day-to-day choices Japanese people make and their attitudes toward work and the future. Along with the first person accounts of the day of the sarin attacks, this book feels more surreal than Murakami’s fiction.
I hope to post entries online every week or twice a week while on the trip. These entries will include reports on my insider view of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam, interviews with Asian men and women, pictures and recipes. I will be bringing a digital camera. This trip requires me to quit my current economic development position in Boston, but I am looking forward to it. It will be especially meaningful if I come away with fewer misconceptions and fewer self-imposed restrictions on movement and activity.