Brooklyn Monk’s Last Days in Saigon
By Antonio Graceffo
For some reason, living in Vietnam always made me think of the TV show MASH. I found a video on youtube, with song and lyrics to the theme song, “Suicide is Painless” Man! Is that song depressing. You wouldn’t think a song about taking your own life would be cheerier.
I was teaching and studying in Saigon through the Tet Holiday in February. It was strange for me to learn to put the word “holiday” after Tet, because all of my life the word “offensive” followed the word Tet, as in “The Tet Offensive,” the turning point of the Vietnam War, when it became clear that the Americans would have to plan to “peacefully withdraw with honor.”
Tet was the beginning of my own defeat in Vietnam.
Tet is the Vietnamese New Year. In America, New Year is one day. Some small companies close between Christmas and New Year, but most businesses are open. During Tet, however, everything closed, for two weeks: my job, the gym, even restaurants. My tutor went back to the hills, and I had nothing at all to do. The hotel staff went back to their home towns, and there was no one there to do my laundry, clean my room or replace the toilet paper. At least I finally found an appropriate use for the communist newspaper.
Although there was no service in the hotel and I had to hand out keys to new guests, I still had to pay full price for my stay. The Vietnamese resisted capitalism for years. But once they embraced it, they picked it and ran with it, taking it to places we could only dream of.
As bad as the Tet-related boredom was, the worst part was that I couldn’t get food. All of the restaurants were closed. Family Mart, the Japanese convenience store, remained open, most days, but they didn’t receive any deliveries during the nearly two weeks of the festival. I was so desperate for food, I would go out scavenging. The streets of the normally vibrant city were devoid of people, and I walked those empty streets for miles, searching for food, like in some 1970’s movie about a post-apocalyptic dystopia, ala Mad Max or Planet of the Apes. “You bastards! They finally really did it. They blew it all up.”
For days, I lived on bao ze and vending machine sandwiches. Finally, my desire for meat became so desperate I was prepared to act out the plot of “Soylent Green” and start eating people.
Vietnamese men get really drunk during Tet. So, I followed a homeless guy around until he finally collapsed from drink. Just as I was dragging him into the kitchen, I heard a rumor that there was a restaurant selling chicken seventy-eight blocks away. I dropped the unconscious man… I mean, I’m pretty sure he was just unconscious…I didn’t hit him on the head hard enough to kill him… That will be my defense if it ever goes to court. Like Ted Kennedy, I will swear, I opened the door and watched him swim free.
Anyway, I gently returned the peacefully sleeping man to the concrete where I had found him. Then, like Frodo, I set out on the longest, most important walk of my life. When I finally got there, it turned out the rumors were grossly exaggerated. The restaurant was selling eggs, not chickens. It was still a break from my usual fair of day-old gas station sandwiches. So, I bought as many as my ration coupons would allow.
Two weeks of doing nothing can destroy a man. By the time I went back to work I was ready to explode. That was also the same night that I confronted a Brit who looked me right ion the face and said, “I applauded when the planes hit the World Trade Center. I said yeah Arabs. And I was happy all of those Americans died.” I chopped him in the throat. He collapsed in his chair, and I hit him with right hooks until he was lying on the ground bleeding.
I was in Manhattan on 9/11. That day was a very traumatic turning point in my life. 9/11 was the catalyst for me moving to Asia. This person knew that. He also knew I was bigger, stronger, and better trained than him. To this day, I am still confused about why this happened. And I wish I could contact him and ask him.
I lay in my bed for a few days, with Martin Sheen voice narration running through my mind. “Saigon! Shit, I’m still in Saigon. Every time I‘m here, I wish I were back in the jungle. When I’m in the jungle, I wish I were back here….I prayed for a mission. And for my sins, they gave me one.” (paraphrase)
I had been in the city, teaching and studying for too long. I needed to get back in the field.
The next day, I received an email from a representative of the Hmong soldiers, still hiding in the jungle in Lao. Along with their families, these poor retches have been hunted by the Lao and Vietnamese army since the end of the American War, in 1975. They desperately needed help and I flew out to the Thai/Burma border to meet with the representative and see what could be done to save these people.
The mission lasted a month. During that time I also met with my friend Hsai Tai Yai, a former Shan soldier and monk, now living in a refugee camp in Thailand. Together, we did some stories on the Shan migrant workers in Thailand.
I got back to Saigon and Tet was over. I had no job to go to, so I put all of my energy into studying Vietnamese language. My Vietnamese teacher took me to a boxing gym, in Cholon, and I began training again. Slowly, I was coming back to life. A week or so later, I received a call from Guru Mazlan, my Silat Kalam teacher, in Kuala Lumpur. He wanted me to return to Malaysia, continue studying the completion of the Silat Kalam syllabus, working toward black belt, and to help him teach Silat Kalam at the Royal Police headquarters.
My assistant, Sheung Di, and I shot videos and I wrote articles, sharing the story of Silat Kalam and other Malaysian arts with the world. During the ten days I was in Malaysia, I was given the award of Silat Kalam Warrior, in a large public event, full of dignitaries. I was the first non-Muslim to be given this honor.
I stole some time from my martial arts studies to go do stories on the Shan refugees in Malaysia. They had paid big money to be trafficked all of the way, from Burma to malaysia, in the often vein hope of being recognized by the UN and the resettled in a safe country. We also did a story on the Cham people, from Cambodia, who sought refuge in Malaysia during and after the Pol Pot Regime. They had formed their own villages, just outside of KL, and were living decidedly better than 90% of Khmer who remained in Cambodia.
After Malaysia, I felt like I had had a taste of the excitement of training, traveling, writing, and basically doing my thing. But now, I was back in my room in Saigon, watching TV. My tutor was away, so I couldn’t take Vietnamese lessons. I was too depressed to go to classes at the university. I just lay on my bed, breaking only to go to the gym one hour per day and to eat, which I did too much of.
They say the best thing about depression is that you catch up on your sleep. That is true, but I also got a lot of TV watching done. I watched the entire original Star Trek TV series, The Shield, The Wire, and about half of Simpsons Seasons 1-20.
Who says I don’t use my time wisely?
To get myself interested in life again, I began planning a trip to Indonesia, to study Bahasa Indonesia language. I also wanted to do stories on Indonesian Silat and on the recent anti-Christian riots that had erupted into violence. But the school charged $150 a week for accommodation, which is preposterous, in a country where the average person only earns about $330 a month.
My money was running out, and I was really worried about hitting zero in Indonesia, a country where I knew no one and had no idea how to survive. The cheapest thing to do was to remain on my bed, watching DVDs and trying to think of a productive and economically viable plan for my life. Going back to teaching English was the obvious choice, but with so much knowledge of southeast Asia, foreign languages, and being a published author, wasn’t there any other job I could do. Ten years of teaching basic English was driving me insane.
I watched Family Guy Season 8 on DVD.
On Good Friday, I was invited to a Passover Dinner with my church friends. It was a good experience, but during dinner I began feeling sick. As the night went on, it just got worse and worse. By the end of the evening I knew I was running a high fever. Like an idiot, I refused all offers of medicine.
I stopped drinking alcohol more than two years ago. And I don’t like to take medicine, especially pain medicine, or sleeping pills, because both of those could become habit forming, particularly if you are depressed. So, if I’m sick when I’m depressed, I say, “No, I can’t take pills when I’m depressed, because it would be setting a bad precedent.” Then, when I’m happy, I also don’t need pills, because I am happy. So, basically, I never have to take medicine.
By the time I got home, my fever was so high and I was shivering so badly, I almost collapsed going up the stairs to my room. I fell into my bed and hallucinated like mad for two days, drifting in and out of consciousness, disjointed dreaming in Vietnamese.
I don’t know why, but fever dreams are always nightmares, and these were made all the more impactfull because they were in Vietnamese. The dreams were endless spaghetti threads, bits and pieces of stories, which didn’t have beginnings or ends. They simply segued into the next bit of unrelated plot. I read somewhere that dreams are particles of memory and unfinished thoughts. This seemed to be the case with me. It felt like if my brain were a cutting board in a bakery where they had been slicing bread for 43 years and all of the little crumbs of story that fell off, had to be dealt with.
At times, I was standing apart, watching myself suffer through the fever. I remember telling myself that I could switch the language setting from Vietnamese to English. But I refused, saying this was excellent practice. Two days of fever was the closest I was going to get to total immersion in Vietnamese.
Actually, the strategy did pay off. When I came to, I was speaking Vietnamese way better than I had been before the illness. If I ever catch pneumonia, I’ll become fluent.
I’m still not sure if I would recommend this method to everyone, however. If I did, I would be subject to liability lawsuits.
What was strange about my illness was that I only had fever, body aches, and headaches. I didn’t have congestion, runny nose, sore throat… I had no cold symptoms whatsoever. When I was finally well enough to stand, I stumbled down the stairs and had my driver take me to the hospital.
Once, when I was living in Hanoi, I went into the foreigner hospital for a checkup. There was no blood work up, no testing of any kind, simply a visit with a Filipina doctor. And in spite of my medical insurance, that visit cost me $180 USD. Now that I could speak Vietnamese, I was able to go to a Vietnamese hospital and pay Vietnamese prices. My office visit, plus medicine cost me less than $3 USD.
While I was talking to the doctor he kept laughing at me. Finally, I asked, “is there something funny about my illness?” He looked a little embarrassed, then answered. “We never had a foreign patient in here before. And I never heard a foreigner speaking our language.”
“Do you understand me?” I asked, self-consciously.
“Yes, that’s why I’m laughing, because I understood every word. It just seems so strange.”
I was glad I was able to brighten his day.
I took fever reduction medicine and pain medicine for the body aches and ten days later, I was back in the gym. Being sick in bed had been a good reprieve. But now, I was on my feet again and needed to find something to do with my life.
I was offered a teaching job in the UAE which paid a six figure package. As much as I wanted the money, going there would end all of my writing and studying and adventuring in Southeast Asia. I turned it down. The friend who recommended me hasn’t talk to me since.
My Vietnamese teacher came back to Saigon and told me he found a Muay Thai gym for me. So, I began the slow, painful process of taking off the weight I had gained during months of inactivity. It was a step in the right direction. But what I really wanted was to get back out in the field. But I didn’t have money to get back out in the field. So, I needed a job, but what? And Where?
Every time I am down and out I wonder how it could be that I have published so many books and articles, done so many TV shows, and given countless interviews, and yet, I was still broke.
An old friend of mine from my Taiwan days, Pete, came to Vietnam looking for a summer job, to tide him over till he started teaching at a private school in the fall. Normally, I feel no need to go looking for work. My experience has been that even on the most-laid-back of Sundays, work will find you. Dave’s activity and optimism, looking for a job, motivated me to print out my resume, put on a tie and go for it.
We both landed jobs with some dodgy Turkish company that Pete thought was a front for money laundering or drug smuggling.
Peacefull Withdrawal with Honor (Part 2)
Antonio Graceffo is self-funded and needs donation to continue his writing and video work. To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on his website, www.speakingadventure.com
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE
Brooklyn Monk in 3D
Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)
Brooklyn Monk in 3D
Order the download at http://3dguy.tv/brooklyn-monk-in-3d/