Yesterday I went to the San Francisco Department of Motor Vehicles, armed with all ID, to renew my driver's license. The female robo voice called my number and summoned me to "Window Number 21," staffed by an older Asian man. He opened my passport and stared at the only visa inside, from my March, Veterans For Peace trip to Viet Nam of two years ago.
"So you've been to Viet Nam?" he asked, looking up at me. "Yes, three times," I replied, "for a total of five months." He paused, clearly curious, so I went on to explain that the 2017 trip was an annual delegation of Veterans For Peace where each member of the group must bring at least a thousand dollars to donate to war victims of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance.
"So this is a company, Veterans For Peace?," he asked.
"No, it's a non-profit organization. We are all volunteers, no one is paid. I am an associate member, not a veteran, but most of the VFP members are Viet Nam war veterans," I explained. "You're from Viet Nam?" I asked.
"Yes, Ha Noi," he said.
Then, for some reason, I threw out the name of the most famous person that I knew of in Ha Noi, the writer Bao Ninh of "The Sorrow of War."
"He's a friend of mine, I'm a writer too," came the reply.
It turns out that this man who works for the San Francisco DMV has written 13 books, five of which have been translated into English. He's been in the U.S. for 20 years, lives in the East Bay, knows Southern California academic and Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Nguyen of "The Sympathizer" and will be visiting his home country next month "to have a drink with Bao."
I wrote down the name of Chuck Searcy, the president of the Viet Nam chapter of VFP who speaks Viet Namese, lives in Ha Noi for over 20 years, and definitely knows Bao Ninh.
All this conversation took place as I was standing at the counter and he was filling out forms, initialing documents and finalizing my papers so I could proceed to the written test and photo. He also took my thumb print and had me do the vision test.
He asked again about the fact that VFP was a non-profit, and I explained that we've gotten about a quarter of a million dollars to Viet Namese war victims in the last eight years.
"Do the Viet Namese people owe the American people?" I asked finally.
"No! It is we who have the responsibility."
He knew, of course, about the U.S.-funded clean-up of Dioxin from Agent Orange at Da Nang's former American military base, and we both speculated about the unlikely release of funds from the current regime in Washington to clean up the former base in Bien Hoa — three times more contaminated.
When my paperwork was concluded, I looked at him and said — with some anger in my voice — "America's use of Agent Orange was the worst chemical war crime in the history of the world." I then leaned over the counter, and said quietly, but forcefully, "Sometimes I hate this country. Hate it!"
"I understand," he said softly. Then we shook hands and I departed.