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The Unquiet Americans (and Chinese)

The Unquiet Americans (and Chinese)


The titular character in Graham Green’s The Quiet American is noteworthy partly because Americans abroad—or anywhere, really—are not known for their quietude. I read the novel in Saigon, where much of the story takes place, during the waning days of my own seven-month trip throughout Southeast Asia. It provided an interesting glimpse of Vietnam as it was in the 1950s, during the end of the French colonialist occupation, as America was gearing up for its own war in Vietnam. The American in the novel is reticent and well-mannered on the surface—although surprisingly upfront about his intention of stealing his British colleague’s beautiful Vietnamese mistress. Behind the scenes, he's working to fight Communism—and in his mind, colonialism too—via a so-called “Third Force” (democracy? capitalism? I was never quite sure). In reality, he just ends up getting himself—and plenty of Vietnamese—killed.

It’s impossible to visit Southeast Asia as an American, especially Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, without reckoning at least on some level with the amount of damage our government/military did to that region in the 1960s and ’70s. This history is well documented, obviously, but here are a few numbers for consideration (some of these numbers are debated, but no one can dispute that they are huge).

  • 1,921,000 Vietnamese killed
  • 200,000 Cambodians killed
  • 100,000 Laotians killed
  • 58,000 Americans killed
  • 3,000,0000 victims of Agent Orange, including children of the second and third generations (severe birth defects persist to this day)
  • 7,800,000 tons of bombs dropped by the U.S. on Indochina
  • 7,500,000 tons of ground munitions used by U.S. forces
  • 200,000 tons of munitions fired by U.S. naval forces from ships at Indochina
  • $168.1 billion USD spent
"One of the most bombing area in Lao." A U.S. bomb casing at a trailhead in Muang Ngoi.

"One of the most bombing area in Lao." A U.S. bomb casing at a trailhead in Muang Ngoi.

It's important to separate the people of a nation from the policies of its government, but perception of one is certainly colored by the other. With Donald Trump in office, the goodwill that Americans accrued overseas during the Obama administration—especially in Southeast Asia, which Obama visited several times, including separate trips to Vietnam and Laos in 2016—is dissipating. It is not an exaggeration to say that just about anyone you speak to in the region smiles at the mention of Obama’s name and frowns with distaste at Trump’s.

No major surprise there. But it’s interesting to observe the way China is regarded by its much smaller neighbors to the south. If Americans citizens have an international reputation for being rude, oblivious, ostentatious boors, the Chinese are viewed much the same way. They travel in large groups, dressed in gaudy new-money fashions, don’t speak the language or follow the local customs—and their government/military is easily the most formidable in the region. Economically, they wield tremendous power as well, on both sides of the supply-and-demand equation—simultaneously plundering places like northern Laos of its natural resources, timber in particular, while flooding the region with cheap cement and other materials for "modernization."

Trucks in northern Laos clear the way for the future. 

Trucks in northern Laos clear the way for the future. 

Many Southeast Asians we spoke to—like our gregarious, drunk taxi driver in Myanmar—had no qualms about making broad and often negative statements about their neighbors.

The Burmese dislike the Thais, for instance, and vice versa (not surprising given the centuries of war the two countries waged against each other). Malaysia has too many Muslims (Islamophobia is by no means a distinctly American, or even Western, phenomenon). And the Chinese, well, they’re just generally tacky and abrasive…

So it was with some amusement that I observed a "Please Keep Quiet" sign in a hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, written only in English and Chinese. No Thai would ever deign to cause a disturbance in a hotel, apparently.

“Thai” literally means “free man,” and indeed Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that has never been colonized by the West—and its people have a reputation for being, yes, quiet and decorous. This despite the country’s well-documented love affair with prostitution and longstanding reputation as a playground for drunken tourists. Indeed, one hotel in Bangkok specified that the only visitors allowed in the place were Thai prostitutes—for a price, of course (100 baht is about 3 dollars). The "farang" riffraff can go back to whatever godforsaken hole on Khao San Road it stumbled out of.  

But certainly Americans and Chinese don’t have a monopoly on uncouth behavior (Russians, I'm looking at you), which is why I was relieved to see the Laotians include their own script on this amusingly direct sign in the mountains near Vang Vieng, thereby implicating their own countrymen as potential offenders as well.

That said, I'm going to assume the guy ignoring the sign below is Chinese... (Not pictured: The American just yonder "doing feces" into the foggy white abyss. OK, not really, but would you be surprised?)

Buying Valium in Cambodia

Buying Valium in Cambodia