April 30th, 2012

eyes black and white

Memories of my uncle Hùng: A Trip to Communist Europe

My uncle Hùng recently passed away. He was a great family doctor, a famous acupuncturist, a talented painter, and an all-around interesting character (though unhappily not such a successful husband or father). Despite having lived in France for about sixty years, he was still speaking with a noticeable accent, and with a strong aversion to conjugating verbs using anything but present tense (there are no tenses, or conjugations at all, in Vietnamese). In his defense, he had initially learned French in just one month (two? three? I don't remember), memorizing one hundred words a day in a scramble to pass an entrance examination to a French-speaking middle school — which he did, however barely.

I had the honor of living at his house for a year, and he taught me many things, including his colorful approach to cooking: always have a variety of foods so every color is present on your plate; also, clean the utensils as you cook. Sometimes, he would tell me stories over dinner, and so here is, to my best recollection, one of his stories, this one about practical Communism (with parenthetical comments I cannot help from adding). I don't remember whether the trip he told me about was to Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, or another country; but that could probably be determined by searching suitable archives. There might even have been several such events at which he was invited, so I may be conflating accounts of multiple trips; but the precise chronology and location of events is largely incidental to the story, so I'll tell it in such a way as for the events I remember from the stories to just succeed one another.

In the 1980s, my uncle had gained some international fame as an acupuncturist, notably after publishing his own treatise and translating some of the Chinese canons of the art. He had been invited to speak at a week-long international conference taking place in some Eastern European "Democratic Republic". (Indeed, communist countries were bankrupt, and could not afford modern Western medicine except for the topmost members of the Party; therefore, they were eager to seek a cheap substitute like acupuncture; furthermore, acupuncture had for it that its main champions were from China, a "brother" communist country. The promotion of acupuncture over Western medicine could thus be branded as another "victory" of Communism over Capitalism. And yet, China not being aligned with Russia means that Eastern European acupuncturists were eager to counterbalance their Chinese colleagues with contributors from anywhere but China to tone down the Chinese dominance.)

After landing, my uncle was received like a VIP by his personal political handler and a translator (who was willy-nilly doubling as KGB snitch when the political handler was absent), and was driven from the airport to his luxurious hotel by a chauffeur in a private limousine. (You see, just because everything belongs to the State and is accounted for as "public", doesn't mean that the "public" actually enjoys the limousine; despite communism, each and every single fragment of enjoyment or suffering in the country was still experienced by "private" individuals. The myth of "Public vs Private" is just an accounting fallacy.) Along the way, everything was beautiful: The roads were well paved, the streets were clean, the surrounding houses were pretty and freshly painted, the people they met looked healthy and happy; you were visiting a calm paradise of a country, if a bit drab and lacking in style. Yet, even at the onset you could tell something was off.

After they were installed in their hotel but before the conference, my uncle and other VIPs were invited to a party offered by some high-ranking government officials, in the VIP lounge of an imposing Olympic swimming pool. As feared, there were some long boring welcome speeches full of political propaganda, made slower by the need of translation; but finally, as some head honcho snapped his fingers, music started playing, and a group of young girls entered the swimming pool in an orderly fashion, then proceeded to give the attendants a show of synchronized swimming. After the show, the young girls were invited to mingle with party officials and VIPs to make friends, and maybe more, while champagne, caviar and other delicacies were served. Life sure was good in communist countries; at least, for the avant-garde of the proletariat.

Now, before, during and after the conference itself, there were ample opportunities to visit famous monuments in the city and the surrounding country. But my uncle noticed that they were always taking the same route, going through the same streets. He asked his chauffeur to use a different route, to see more of the city, but the chauffeur insisted that this was the fastest way, even though, looking at a map, it obviously wasn't very direct. Of course, the chauffeur had been instructed not to go any other way. And so, my uncle argued based on his taste for beautiful cars that the next time, he'd like to be the one to drive the limousine. One way or the other, he managed to go through different streets; it then became obvious why the chauffeurs were instructed to use the official route: because outside of these show streets, the roads were bad, the buildings were ugly and dirty, obviously mismaintained if maintained at all; everything was grey and dirty, and people did not look happy. Complacent tourists were being shown a Potemkin city, but poverty was everywhere else, for them to see if only they insisted in going beyond the places their handlers were taking them.

At some point, my uncle heard that there were fellow Vietnamese men working in this Eastern European country, with a large colony of them at some factory outside of town. He decided to visit them after the conference hours. After a long drive and some asking befuddled locals for directions, there he was, his luxurious official limousine parked in front of the pathetic building occupied by those foreign workers. The man in underwear who greeted him in was even more surprised than he was; but promptly, he welcomed my uncle to these communal barracks where many slept in the same room, with minimal comfort if any, and offered tea and whatever little food they had to this unexpected guest; in return my uncle offered his services as a doctor, which were a boon to these poor factory workers who weren't allowed to see one except in extreme cases. The workers and my uncle could speak in Vietnamese, a language not spoken by the translator, and so could speak freely without fear of government reprisals, and discuss everything: their personal stories, the situation in Vietnam, France, and that Eastern European country. These expatriate workers gladly accepted their miserable working conditions, because they were no worse than in Vietnam, and the pay was better: however poor was communist Eastern Europe, communist Vietnam was worse. These workers were closely watched and had very little freedom to visit the country in which they were working, and even less money to spend, for all the money they earned went back to Vietnam where remained the family they were sorely missing and for whom they were working so hard. Indeed, no one was allowed out of the country without a family staying home to serve as hostages in case they'd somehow decide to Go West. Eventually, this visit ended and my uncle left, to arrive back at his hotel late at night.

Arriving at the hotel, my uncle realized that some things were slightly wrong. There was more animation in the hotel than he expected that late; Russians from the KGB were present, orchestrating something. He was quickly ushered to his room; but as he kept hearing noise and could not sleep, he eventually sneaked out; and there he discovered that some spy game was being played in the hotel's interior court. Apparently, the KGB was having some kind of practice session of stealth fighting in urban settings (probably as part of the same program that Ion Pacepa revealed: training Arab and South American terrorists in satellite countries so as to conduct political assassinations with plausible deniability).

I wish I remembered more of these stories. I wish I had asked my uncle to write them down, or tell them in front of a recording device, while he was still alive. Oh well. I miss you, uncle Hùng.

PS: My mom has some complementary information on that story. The country where that conference took place was Bulgaria. One thing that struck my uncle was the difference in atmosphere as compared to Western countries, as soon as you crossed the borders: in Communist Europe, the air felt heavy and crushing; not just the men, but the earth itself, the buildings exuded oppression: the terror of the political police was indirectly affecting every gesture, every habit, even (or even more so) in the parts of the country that were for display to foreigners. Also, the lease by the Vietnamese government of cheap indentured migrant workers was a systematic large-scale operation, organized for communist Vietnam to pay in nature its large debt to "brother" communist countries, that had heavily financed its war of foreign conquest (however the Western media, after communist propaganda, try to paint the Vietnam War as a popular uprising). Vietnamese workers were paid well below the already little the local workforce was paid (which also explains why they couldn't afford to buy anything locally, lest they find some way to engage in criminal activities outside their long work hours); and from this meager pay, the government would confiscate the major part. And yet, Vietnam was so miserably poor that not only did volunteers abound to go work in these foreign countries in such unenviable conditions, but they were ready to pay officials big bribes to be chosen to go. There was also the hope of Going West after the end of the indenture contract, at which point the communist apparatchiks, possibly mollified by another bribe, might fail to harm the hostage family. Indeed, most of these workers did not return to Vietnam at the end of their contract, though few of them made it to the West; instead, they stayed more or less legally in their new country. There, apart from a few individual success stories, these workers constituted some minority group within the lumpen-proletariat; in that group, criminality was high and the Vietnamese mafia is notorious in Eastern Europe (I remember a Romanian friend just after the fall of communism asking me about Vietnamese immigrant criminality as the first thing that came to his mind as I told him I was half-Vietnamese). My uncle, when visiting Vietnam some years later, also met some distant cousins who made a fortune in Russia's Vietnamese mafia, and, visiting back their country of origin, were being admired and envied for the indecent display of their ill-begotten wealth. So much for the victories of Communism.