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Channel Esther: Southeast Asia, or, What We Look For

Esther Cohen
March 8, 2015

Part One

by Esther Cohen

Ho ChiI THOUGHT ABOUT Jewish Currents while we were in Southeast Asia. And Jews.

Even though I am Entirely Secular, I look for Jews when I travel anywhere (I do not look for Jews where I live, a second Jerusalem, on the upper west side of Manhattan). I was interested when a man on our group (we have never traveled in a group before), a South African Jewish gastroenterologist from Kfar Saba, in Israel, said with certainty that l,000 Jewish ex-pats live in Vietnam now. (He looked for Jews too.)

What we look for, and what we see, has been one of my obsessions all my life. We leave where we are for so many reasons. Sometimes they’re simple: sun, or water. A hill to climb.

And sometimes they’re not so simple: to understand what life might mean somewhere else than home.

We went to Vietnam because we’d never been there, because the war was so much a part of our history, and because we heard it was beautiful, full of people and life. And it was. Ninety three million people in a long strip of land, building and rebuilding their lives.

It took us thirty-six hours to get home after twenty days in Southeast Asia. But our trip seemed even farther away than that.

Our first ever group travel experience. Peter and I have wandered a fair amount, whenever we had a little money, and a little time. (Both of those have been in short supply.) Vietnam and Cambodia have been on the Big List since the '70s, since the anti-war movement, when I worked, for some years, with Clergy and Laity Concerned, organized around ending the war with Rabbi Heschel, with Dr. King, with John Bennett, and with so many others.

Many people, when they travel, describe beauty, or food, or the facts of a place: politics, history, religions and wars. I look for a way to understand what life is, what life looks like, how land and history shape what we know, and what we do with that knowledge.

In Vietnam, I looked for myself too, a self I lose too often in my own small bubble of life, where the world I live in seems so absolute, a world of Netanyahu conversations, Birdman arguments, Elizabeth Warren and labor unions. Where this world seems to be all there is.

Our tour guide Veng’s mother, a peasant from a small village in the North, believed she knew what the world was, too. She told him with absolute certainly that the world consisted entirely of Vietnam, then China, and then, an amorphous mass of White People.

I worry that my own world has become that small, which is a very good reason to leave it.

WE FLEW TO HANOI, where our trip began. The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is a big city of about 3 million people, with 6 million in the Hanoi suburbs. A few years ago the city celebrated its 1,000-year existence.

For people who love cities, Hanoi is wonderful. Thousands of people are in all the streets. Charming old buildings, very old buildings, are in the city’s old quarter, packed with life. It’s a city where its inhabitants appear to be perpetually eating, from early morning to late at night. Much of the food is wonderful. The influence of the French is in the bakeries, and in the Bahn Mi sandwich, a long baguette with pork, mayonnaise, and peppers.

UnknownOur tour began at Ho Chi Minh’s memorial park. Uncle Ho, as he was called, the president and prime minister of Vietnam, lived from 1890-1969. A Communist with an enigmatic life (we heard a lecture about his secret children, his marriages, his personal life), he is the father of contemporary Vietnam. And like all fathers, he was problematic. The park that is a tribute to his life, entirely jammed with tourists from all over the world, is regulated with an endless series of rules. Visitors must walk in single file. There are areas where we weren’t allowed to speak.

The centerpiece of the park is a large mausoleum where Uncle Ho, embalmed and frequently re-embalmed, is displayed in what looks like an upside-down fishtank. He is flanked by dour-looking soldiers dressed in formal uniforms. We were not allowed to photograph him or the soldiers. But we could buy an infinite number of Uncle Ho paraphernalia in the gift shop. We bought refrigerator magnets.

Here's one of the poems I wrote shortly afterwards:

TOURISTS, OR OTHER PEOPLE

How would I feel
if 18 small brown tourists
from Vietnam
came to see
how big white people
lived entered
my rent stabilized
apartment watched me
eat a bagel schmeered
with cream cheese I would
offer them some
if they examined
my shoes particularly my
red suede sandals
pink laces if they
saw my Big TV
home to Bob’s Burgers
opened my refrigerator
to examine Paul Newman’s
salad dressing asked me
what I think about war
and duty and governments
and love. I wonder
what I’d want to say.

Esther Cohen works with Jewish Currents on arts-related projects and public events. Her books include Book Doctor, a novel, and God Is a Tree, a poetry collection.