From Thailand I reflected on what it means to be an American in America. In Vietnam I've learned more about what it means to be an American elsewhere in the world. This obviously includes the expected confrontation with the Vietnam war. And traveling with a group of backpackers for a few weeks, I also got a clearer view of how much of the rest of the world sees the US today.
I justified this trip in part by my desire to seek new and different perspectives, and one that I came in expecting to find was that others in would not see America (and so Americans) as the exceptional, unique, central country to the world the way we often think of ourselves. Some patterns piqued my curiosity early that challenged this though. And moving through Vietnam with our ‘vietfam,’ a tight-nit group of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians let me ask questions and understand other nationals’ view of the US more clearly.
What were those early observations that made me wonder?
I wasn’t surprised at “so how about Trump” questions from most folks, but I was really impressed with how informed other nationalities are about key US issues, candidates, voting and demographic stats, and everything else surrounding the election.
I knew the dollar was the international standard, but was shocked how fluidly others convert prices to USD as well as the local and their home currencies.
Of course English is the international language, but things are often written for American English even though we are dramatically outnumbered by Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Germans and many others (Germans everywhere!). People are genuinely surprised to meet American travelers.
I should probably have remembered this from previous trips, but with some exceptions (India) fashion, movies, music and other pop culture abroad is so heavily American (often a few months or years behind).
So I was starting to wonder, is America actually that important to everyone after all? Not really, no.
Yes, America is the leader of the free world. Yes, people are very aware that US trade and decisions have real implications on economies and geopolitics and global opportunities. But not that much, not compared to each country's’ own politics and culture, and that is not why they follow the US so closely. As one Brit said, “US decisions can hurt us. But German decisions can hurt us more and I don’t know jack shit about Germany.”
So why the omnipresence of US knowledge and culture? We aren’t just the world’s superpower (for now), we are the world’s entertainment. Said one Canadian friend: “It’s like America: The Reality Show. Like, ‘did you see what’s happening with this crazy Trump character over in the US? This is such a good season of America.’” That kind of confirmed something Nik and I have been musing for a while: the US has really shitty culture, but we’re damn good at exporting it.
I don’t see this changing in the western world anytime soon. But will we continue to be a cultural beacon in cultures like Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia? When we met a group of students in Ho Chi Minh City
it was clear that travel to the USA was their dream, and that US pop-culture and trends played a heavy role in their adolescent lives. With a more isolationist policy under Trump, do we still export our culture as broadly? If not (and say China slides into that gap, as they and Russia both want to do), what impact does it have? I won’t pretend to know on a macro scale. From a traveler’s perspective, there is currently a very real privilege of being from the USA. Everything from the small delights people get from meeting an American to particularly easy Visa/immigration requirements, things are just a bit exceptional for Americans. If we’re giving up our view as “America the world’s exceptional country” at home to focus inward, I think we can expect the globe to stop treating us as exceptional as well.
Speaking of how others view us...
Veterans, protests, amputations, warnings against escalating involvement in Iraq, the fight against communism, Apocolypse Now and Deerhunter, Nixon and LBJ and political disaster, the memorial in DC. A few months ago, these were the images I conjured when I thought of “The Vietnam War.” Those aren’t gone, but they are overwhelmed by the images from Vietnam itself, where the war took over the whole country, not just the military.
"The War of American Aggression" is the most common name for what we call the Vietnam War. And official (government-run) displays, museums, and explanations is flowing with anti-American rhetoric. The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh follows images of death and disfigurement with quotes from the US admitting our fault and stats showing the scope of our damage.
The prison in Hanoi (the famous "Hanoi Hilton") displayed the inhumane treatment of Vietnamese prisoners juxtaposed with American prisoners-of-war (including John McCain) playing basketball and card games during their captivity. After a lifetime of US-centric histories of the war, the propaganda of the other side jumps out and screams at you to question how much of what we've learned and remembered about this war (and others) is our own sides' propaganda.
While some of the language suffers from blatant bias (made more prominent by crude translations to English), it's easy to step past that and still face a new reality posed by viewing the same result from a different perspective: the impact the war had on Vietnam and its people dwarfs what it had on our own. And we probably hold most of the blame.
The stats are staggering (left), of course. Also of course, statistics aren't what drive home the impact and tragedy. Human stories do that.
Outside Vietnam is the Cu Chi Tunnels, a tourist destination that shows you the tunnels, living situations and fighting methods of the Viet Cong guerrilla fighters. On the way we stopped at one of many workshops selling crafts made by handicapped people whose disabilities stem from Agent Orange.
This was my first glimpse of the impact our chemical warfare had, and I was embarrassingly ignorant. So I sought more. A quick glance at wikipedia back on the bus told me the toxin sprayed literally millions of Vietnamese and infected millions of acres of the country. Again though, statistics only go so far.
The lasting imprint came at the War Remnants Museum back in Ho Chi Minh City, where one of the largest rooms is dedicated to the impact of Agent Orange. Pictures, stacked 3 high across maybe 100 feet of curved wall, show handicaps and disfigurements not just in those directly sprayed but in their children and grandchildren. Captions tell their heart-wrenching stories, but most don't need it. The mother caring for the son born with no limbs requires little background to leave an imprint.
Every picture is harder to look at than the last (and I couldn't bring myself to take any photos). A mixture of pain and guilt and sorrow and sympathy makes you look long and hard at each one, making sure to absorb the detail of this new ailment you've never seen or imagined. I spent more than an hour in the small room, moving in a trance from picture to picture. At the end a graphic shows you the scale of the impact through the generations and reminds you these few human stories you've absorbed are but the tip of the pyramid of many others.
I was still dazed from the museum when we visited the old post office and were approached by the Vietnamese students above. I asked them what they thought of America. In broken English they exclaimed their love for all things American, the desire to learn English and visit or move there (not an easy thing to do for Vietnamese). With the children of course I didn't ask how they could look positively on a country that did so much damage to theirs.
I didn't come to any dramatic revelations from other conversations on that topic. Considering it made me appreciate, maybe more than I ever have, how terrible war is. So much so, that people seem to write off war-time as a completely separate reality from peace. The things you do in war - that you have to do - seem inconceivable outside those circumstances but seem unavoidable at the time. The Vietnamese (outside government language) seem largely to have moved on: the war and all things done in that context were before, and now America represents opportunity not terror.
I've never known the feeling of being in war to compare it personally, and have grown up in an environment where the prospect of being forced into war without choice is basically inconceivable. The constant back-and-forth all month between war reminders and friendly locals made me grateful for that stroke fortune with a bit more understanding than I've ever had before.