Monday, May 11, 2009

Cold War caress, from Vietnam with love

by Chris Moses

Travel can take you to unexpected places. In January, sitting at a bar in Ho Chi Minh City, watching a Manchester United football game, and variously entertained and disconcerted by the red-sequin-clad prostitute trying to make some headway with an overly awkward middle-aged Brit, I found myself at home, seven or eight years old, on the couch in our basement family room. No magical spaceship or surreal time-warp had enfolded me - hardly even the haze of over-priced beer. A song did the trick.

Highway to the Danger Zone: I hear the electric echo of those final two words as I write now, just as they were impressed upon my childhood memory. My older brother obsessed over the movie Top Gun, this song offering a pivotal refrain in the film's adventure of love and war. I can't count the number of times it played on our TV, almost like a loop each day after school. In the mid-80s of Reagan-leavened cold-war glory, this was the prime stuff of adolescent boyhood: sexy fighter pilots and willy Commie enemies. Too young to understand more than the fact that this was alluring stuff, I watched my brother in awe - he offered a bridge one step closer to the real thing if only by his greater age, strength and conviction about the importance of our worship.

In Vietnam, as the bar-goers chanted along with this ballad of military glory I couldn't help escape an overwhelming sense of irony. Here, tourists - very few Americans, mostly Europeans and Australians - chorused with their once Soviet-bloc allied servers in tribute to an archetypal production of US anti-communist propoganda. Portable and pliable yet not at all free from its imperial intonations, the music brought a somewhat softer cultural imposition, a little part of the larger wedge of capitalism in still socialist but eagerly developing Vietnam.

Whatever the romance of individual excursion or storied adventures that feature human actors - ideas travel too. Like institutions and material things, ideas get carried and they carry us as well - to and fro, whether at home or abroad or both. Indeed going away is as important for what we leave behind as for what we carry with us and the relief created by distance for identifying which is which. On the whole, however foreign or disconcerting or utterly strange a place may be, I think our baggage colossally outweighs anything that remains at home. Habits, prejudices, tastes, curiosities - combined with the thick, thick lenses through which we see: these make travel all the more than planes, trains and automobiles. So too the sense of irony itself.

The most familiar most often makes the point. A song and its memories, reminders of past vacations, comparisons and descriptions offered on postcards to friends - connections built to understand, however imperfectly. Such is the frustration that arises from what should be second nature - something as globally homogenized as Starbucks or Coke tasting different, not offering what you want, or standing behind a barrier or language or currency.

Along the way the seduction of risk and the risk of seduction plays a pivotal role, just as with a highway to the danger zone. Be it in a movie, or a song in a bar, amidst this cacophony the portability of manhood resonates with power both singularly and varied. However benign a backdrop lyrics may provide to the seedier elements of 'exotic' travel, from sex tourism to exploitative labor more generally, there's another irony mirrored back upon a first world righteousness about proper relationships, gender expectations, and development initiatives. How easily we can extract the best from the rest, a particular making of a singular West, and carry critique without cognizance of its original co-mingled causes of ill-consequence. Such baggage arrives with an ease and regularity the envy of any airline's lost luggage department.

So back in a bar I try to imagine how to sing with greater possibilities. What might be of Walt Whitman more than aircraft's penetration of enemy air space? Back through my own childhood I see what has been accrued, a reminder that discovery at home takes me as far abroad as anywhere around the world. Back in time as a way forward -- Top Gun in Vietnam, these are but some of the things we carry.

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