The 4th in Foreign Lands

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus

Happy Birthday America!

238 years old. Quite a respectable age.

You’ve managed to stay intact through a Civil War which nearly ripped you in half.

You fought on behalf of liberty in two World Wars which enveloped you from across the globe, and even in victory, you magnanimously invited the vanquished back into the global community with open arms.

You’ve welcomed, albeit occasionally with gritted teeth, the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” of immigrants unwanted in their native lands and assimilated them into a society which has grown to be the richest in the world.

You faced down the threat of nuclear annihilation and the dehumanizing spectre of Communism largely with soft power instead of the destruction that total war brings.

For nearly two and a half centuries, you’ve held true to those most sacrosanct of ideals espoused by your Founding Fathers, “who brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and in doing so have been a source of hope for freedom loving people everywhere.

This isn’t to say that you’ve been blameless. No institution, no matter how grand its codified ideals can stay blameless forever. The stain of slavery, the dehumanization of those we found on this continent prior to European discovery, and the wars of choice fought over the past 60 years have fallen short of your commitment to those high minded ideals in favor of “realpolitik.”

***********

I should quit saying “you.” This isn’t a professional sports team I’ll never play for, this is America. This is the institution which has from my first breath, blessed me with the freedom, safety and mobility to be whomever I choose to be.

I cannot pick those attributes of America with which I agree a la carte, leaving the less desirable remainders for others to choke down. I cannot look at my neighbor and say, “Oh no, this is YOUR President. I didn’t vote for him.”

Men and women who came before me gave their blood, sweat, tears and lives to vouchsafe my ability to make this MY America, one where each voice, no matter its wealth, social status, or color of skin has an equal part to play in maintaining the greatest engine of human freedom and prosperity that the world has ever seen.

But today, another 4th of July abroad, I find myself tired.

I am tired of trying to explaining away the past 14 years of leadership so comically unenlightened that our political system has devolved into a shouting match incapable of legislating.

I’m tired of trying to explain to the Europeans, Vietnamese and everyone else who doesn’t share my passport cover that the policies of my government do not reflect Americans as individuals.

I’m tired of seeing my government encroaching further and further into the lives of its citizenry, of spying on even our allies, and systematically limiting the rights of the individual.

I’m tired of being called “brainwashed” because I believe in the fundamental American right to bear arms, even as another mass shooting occurs.

I’m tired of seeing my fellow Americans try to pass themselves off as Canadians to attempt to shirk a history that while imperfect, is still as proud or prouder than any nation the world has ever seen.

For all the chest beating talk of “American Exceptionalism” I hear at home, I am tired of being in a room of foreigners and seen as the idiot because I am not “properly embarrassed” of my homeland.

I am an American, and God help me if even for a fleeting moment that I deny that enviable truth.

I stand here today embracing the fact that the problems of the nation which has given me so much are inseparable from my own.

************

I look to the members of the so called “Greatest Generation,” who sacrificed lives by the millions against a tyrannical force as twisted and corrupt as any seen in the course of human history, for guidance.

They fought with a single mind against an enemy armed with weapons engineered to make the slaughter of innocents magnitudes more efficient than ever before. They had the same right to vote that I do.

They did not shirk from their duty, or try to hide behind their broken political system. They stood and took the mantle of liberty upon their own shoulders and said, “Liberty will prevail, and America will ensure it.”

What happened to that America?

Why is my generation different from that of my grandparents? Has our democratic right to vote been taken away? Has our voice been silenced by statute or dictat? Do we find men with guns at our doors waiting to silence opposition?

No. The answer is much more humiliating.

We’ve merely disengaged. We’ve taken the spoils that our forebears won for us and squandered our inheritance on iPhones and TVs. On houses that would’ve made even the richest in generations past blush with the embarrassment.

We’ve taken “conspicuous consumption,” once a behavior to be avoided at all costs, and made it into a virtue.

We excoriate politicians for the slightest misspoken word, while giving our hours and eyeballs to such enlightened television as “Teen Mom,” “Honey Boo-Boo,” and the brand Kardashian.

We’ve taken capitalism, an engine of growth designed to reward the hardest working and most creative among us, and corrupted it into a rigged game of three card monte through cronyism and financialization.

Americans have inherited a system which requires constant maintenance, and we’ve left it on autopilot. The adverse results were completely predictable.

Our education system, once envied as the best in the world, now languishes along side such countries as Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, and Russian.

Our middle class has been systematically gutted, our rural communities left to wither on the vine both economically and socially, and our political class has partitioned themselves away from the people whom they are elected to represent, happy to bicker from their DC perches rather than associate with the lower classes in anything more meaningful than a photo-op.

The America that we live in and the freedoms we enjoy are not ours by divine right. It is, and will continue to be an ever evolving experiment, the results of which are determined daily by the diligent effort of those citizens who continue to maintain it through their individual efforts.

It is the sacred duty of each of us to ensure that that inheritance is worth receiving.

America I haven’t given up on you. Your struggles have galvanized my belief in that responsibility George Washington entrusted to Americans 227 years ago.

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair

Generations of great men and women have both raised and maintained that standard, handing it to their sons and daughters in turn. It is the hallowed responsibility of mine to repair it to its former glory.

Happy Birthday America.

We’ve got work to do tomorrow.

Sleeper Buses and Hooker Swarms

And I’ve gotten behind in my blogging since we got to Nha Trang. No worries, plenty to write about.

We got to Nha Trang Saturday morning via a “sleeper bus.” This was my first foray into this…economical means of transportation. Ben and I, along with our friends Claire, Lydia and Josh, all piled into the back of a 40 person sleeper bus for the 14 hour drive from Hoi An to Nha Trang. We managed to get the back, which was basically a 5 coffin cave with about 2.5 feet of headroom for each of us. To say we were close was a slight understatement. I didn’t exactly inherit my mother’s claustrophobia, but I was pretty close.

We did plan ahead though, as Claire had taken this means of transportation before. Since prescription drugs are more of a do-it-yourself free for all here in Vietnam, we got ourselves some Valium all had a modified “desperate housewife.” We joked and horsed around in the back of the bus for the first 2 hours, but by the end of my whiskey and coke, I was down for the count, and managed to wake up just about a half hour north of Nha Trang.

Thank god, because it would’ve been a tense 14 hours otherwise.

Upon arriving in Nha Trang, I thought that the Valium had put me down for far longer than 14 hours. It appeared to be as Russian as anything. Apparently there are direct flights from several locations in Russia, including Siberia and Irkutsk. Russians, being the warm cuddly types, tend to flock to vacation spots together, so someone after the Vietnam War realized that Nha Trang was a beautiful place to escape a Siberian winter, and there have been massive flocks ever since.

Ben and I tried to check into our hostel, Mojzo Inn at 7AM, only to be told by the most delightful trio of Vietnamese women you could ever hope to meet that our room wouldn’t be ready until 2. So we dropped our bags and went in search of breakfast.

Just around the corner from Mojzo Inn we found a large bar which was playing the NBA playoffs and the Bruins-Canadiens game. They had large English breakfasts on the menu so we decided to go grab a seat. We were basically the only fools around, other than an older gentleman at the end of the bar. He saw that I was trying to watch both games and asked if I wanted the TVs turned. I noticed his Minnesota Twins polo, and away the conversation went.

Turns out that he was the proprietor of this bar, known as “Booze Cruise.” A process engineer by trade, he was sent by his employer to Saigon 7 years ago. After spending 6 months, he flew back to Minneapolis and told them he quit. He then moved back over to Saigon, married his Vietnamese girlfriend, and went about trying to start a business.

They started out in Saigon, where his wife was finishing her masters, but came up to Nha Trang for a weekend getaway. After 3 days, John looked at his wife and told her to head home and finish her degree, but he was going to start a business in Nha Trang. He started networking, and combing the beach for backpackers to talk to, and realized that there was a seriously underserved need in this town full of tourists and backpackers. So he rented a boat for $25, filled it full of booze, charged $10 a head and the “Booze Cruise” was born. He made $500 on his first cruise, and has been building an empire ever since.

Those humble beginnings are now the root of a 5 bar empire, completely with several apartment buildings. He goes “home” to Minnesota once a year for about a month, but he said that when he is there, he starts getting the itch to get back to Vietnam. John and the bar are the center of the Nha Trang expat community (at least the Western delegation) as he has every Western sporting event you can imagine, from Aussie Rules, to soccer, to NBA to tennis.

I’ve taken my breakfast over there every morning since we got here, blissfully able to watch the Pacers (until this morning) and watch my Blackhawks advance against John’s Minnesota Wild.

Getting to talk to John every morning has really opened my eyes to a few more issues in Vietnam that I was unaware of. I can now identify the classic Vietnamese “hooker swarm” pickpocket method, as well as which Nha Trang bars are most likely to serve the old “roofie-colada.” Beyond helping me safely navigate a city which certainly has a seedy underside, we broached more serious issues of geopolitics.

John told me that he hasn’t been able to have a booze cruise in over a year since the Chinese started encroaching upon Vietnamese maritime rights. He’s got the bars, so he’s fine financially, but it is just another case of foreign aggression against this land. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also been a big issue here given the large Russian expat community.

John was able to put me onto Ocean’s 5, a dive shop here in town run by Westerners where I decided to get my SSI Open Water certification. I figure since my brother is a Navy diver, it couldn’t hurt to be able to have another activity to share if we ever get on vacation together.

Today was my first day of open water diving, and again I was shown the real world ramifications of the Chinese aggression. Our boat, along with a few fishing boats, were escorted from the Nha Trang harbor out the 8 km to the diving locations. China has declared all water further from 10 km from shore to be theirs, mostly for the oil and gas rights, but they are encroaching on the traditional fishermen of Vietnam as well.

My dive instructor Will, had been working out of Nha Trang for 2 years, and had never seen destroyers be dispatched to escort boats like ours. He was amazed, but at the same time I could see the worry etched on his face. Events like this are most certainly not good for business.

This is yet another instance where Vietnam is realizing that the lack of American influence in the Far East is making a place where the rule of law counts for less and less. America has made commitments to many countries in this part of the world, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines coming to mind first, and if we don’t peacefully project influence through both diplomatic and naval power, China will continue to run roughshod over its less powerful neighbors.