In all my stops in London, Zurich, Cote D’Ivoire, Monrovia, Ghana, Hong Kong, Manila, Mexico, Montreal, I formed good impressions of each locality and people. When I came back to Vietnam in 2000 and on subsequent trips, I did the same even in the worst of scenes e.g. how could that guy without legs drag himself on the street selling lottery tickets!
But this kind of lens Joel Brinkley did not wear on his trip to Vietnam last month (I was still there then). He came back, and wrote that Vietnamese ate anything that moved “birds and domesticated animals are rarities on city streets” and that he saw one lady in Da Nang sell field rats..” this rich in protein diet drove the Vietnamese to attack peaceful neighbors e.g. Cambodian whose diet had less meat.”
Now he made me paranoid! With the same observation, his steady Big-Mac diet could turn out to be a threat to his journalist students at Standford (who could be 100 per cent sure what’s in the “rich in protein” fast foods).
Our Canadian neighbors to the North love eating quails. French, horsemeat. Even in IKEA products.
Regionally, people responded to scarcity and starvation differently. If he had read Guns, Germs and Steel, he would have known that it’s the lack of anti-bodies (against invaders’ germs) in the native population that killed them more than all the aggressors’ guns put together.
I know what Vietnamese drinkers do and look for. They call it “moi”. It could be appetizers such as roasted peanuts or fried tofu, from escargo (French) to eel (Korean). Vietnam explores and incorporates many strands of culture and cuisine (recent article showed wider adoption of wine, but still not the cheese – due to lactose intolerance).
On the day Joel Brinkley published his opinion piece on the Tribune Media site, by a stroke of luck, the editorial oversight was asleep at the wheel. I was saying goodbye to a friend over a beer (E European) and fish. Luckily, the joint did not serve dog food, or else I wouldn’t be writing this piece of cultural defense in good conscience.
I helped circulate Mr Brinkley’s piece to a network of friends, but did not sign the petition as many did (petition for his removal from post). It said he should have practiced what he preached i.e. fack checking before forming an opinion, observe before conclude, and learn the difference between cause and correlation.
People in Korea, China, Vietnam country side did eat field rats in hard times. Perhaps they want to go back in times (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) bonding over beers (therapeutic more than ritualistic). I once shared a meal with Filipinos over the weekend. We ate without utensils, the native way. It’s their “letting the hair down” time, away from the monotonous rhythm of the Western style cafeteria. And I was glad to be included. Felt like Margaret-Mead then.
I would not fall into a trap to argue that, yes, I saw rats and heard birds in the city while I was there. It would not be cool if I am pressed about where (in the alley, because I took a short cut to shield myself from the scorching sun).
But for someone who wrote a scholarly piece on Cambodia, then to make a 10-day stop in Vietnam, all the while living in a group-think bubble (expat cocoon riddled with colonial jargons) just to write-up a piece that stirred up controversy and resentment, was uncalled for. I remember my Communication professors at Penn State. They earned their stripes and their respects. Joel has to earn the prizes he had already received. In the beginning, was the Word. Noble and enabling word, that builds up not tears down. He probably is tasting a spoon full of his own medicine these days, and wishing he did not make those comments. Teachable moments for both prof and students. Just as we thought we could put Vietnam to rest. BTW, a friend in Ghana who took me to his home offered me foods full of tomatoes and hot chillies. And their dark skin was quite shiny and healthy. I don’t think Ghanaian attack any of their neighbors either. Most wars I read about involved McDonald eaters. Or hit and run Or drive-by shooting. Want me to open the box? P.S. In Talk Vietnam, there is a parody in which the author took a tour in the US and couldn’t find any livestock here either. All eaten!