Archive for November, 2009

From Danang to Pho 99

Posted in History on November 12, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

It was 1975, the war was coming to its awful conclusion, and I was in my junior year of high school. We’d been watching newscasts from Viet Nam for as long as I could remember. There were daily body counts, stories of skirmishes and battles and peace talks and protests and war crimes. It went on and on and on, year in and year out. Finally there were those awful television images of helicopters making their last departures from Saigon, desperate refugees hanging from the runners. There were scenes of Navy men pushing helicopters over the sides of their aircraft carriers. The mission had changed; we needed room for our new passengers.

Three years later, in college, I met my first Vietnamese refugee. He was Hmong, actually, and couldn’t speak a lick of English. Not one word. My friend and I did our best to communicate with him, but we didn’t have even the smallest fragment of common language to share. Nonetheless, we managed to get across to him that he was welcome at our school and that we were glad to have him.

As the years went by and our new Americans came into Southern California in increasing numbers, they began to fill the colleges and start businesses. Today Vietnamese Americans are moving out of their little Saigons into the suburbs just like any other Americans on their way up. They are an impressive people, having achieved more in a half of a generation than many native born Americans will achieve in their entire lives.

Today, I make it a point to stop in to Pho 99 from time to time. Pho 99 is a Vietnamese restaurant chain in Southern California, and my particular haunt is not much different than any other Vietnamese restaurant. After eating there ten or twelve dozen times, the food no longer seems exotic or foreign. I look into their faces and can’t imagine the warriors of a generation ago.

A couple of days after September 11, 2001, I was at Pho 99 having lunch, reading a Newsweek recount of the mayhem in New York. The manager came over to me, and seeing what I was reading, looked into my eyes and said in a quiet voice, “It’s so sad, isn’t it?” Her accent faded away.


The American Healthcare Debate

Posted in Healthcare on November 12, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

In high school, Pete was an athletic, gregarious and outgoing student. In college he sustained a major back injury that was never treated properly and caused him continuous pain. But Pete managed, and went about his life with his wife, children and career. As his pain became a larger and larger obstacle, his use of pain medication turned into abuse. Thus began Pete’s slow decline, first with marital separation, then job loss, then divorce, then more job loss and then the loss of his health insurance. When Pete’s struggle with pain meds became too great to bear, he visited the emergency clinic at his local hospital.

But on his most recent visit to the clinic Pete appeared to be OK. After some testing there were indications that Pete might need help, but it was also discovered that he had no health insurance. Instead of admitting him for additional testing, Pete was sent home. Two hours later his sister found him dead in his apartment.

There is a great debate underway in Congress to solve this serious problem. But when discussing the subject of health care in America, it is as if our political landscape is defined by caricatures. Democrats will have you believe that Republicans are selfish individualists, interested only in riding around inside the well-lined pockets of pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers. Republicans, on the other hand, see Democrats as wild-eyed socialists, intent on using their President to marshal through an anti-capitalist healthcare system that will ruin Medicare and bring down the entire economy, or what is left of it.

The result is a stagnant debate that objectifies the most vulnerable Americans into broad categories of either the useful or the costly.

One common protest is that our government is incapable of designing and operating such a complex system as national healthcare. But there are many examples of efficient, well-run systems without which our public life would come to a screeching halt.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly called the Interstate Highway System, was developed in the mid-1950s. This system of roadways is both the largest integrated highway system in the world and the largest public works project in history. Besides its unquestioned usefulness as a transportation system, our interstates have become a unifying factor in our national life, making neighbors of distant strangers.

Similarly, our public school system ensures that a consistently high level of education is available to all Americans. This government requirement makes education affordable for the needy and even provides a kind of egalitarian mask that makes most students look like each other, regardless of their economic background.

These are not impersonal systems designed by a bureaucracy. Our schools, our highways and many other national initiatives were painstakingly built by Americans who wanted a better future for themselves and their families. These systems draw our nation together and unite us in ways that are often invisible.

Those who see only politics in the healthcare debate do so at their own peril. While we like to believe that we are masters of our own destinies, calamities can get the best of anyone, requiring more from the individual than he or she has left to give. At what point will we realize that our humanity – this living, American organism – requires vigilance? When will it become clear to us that our national health depends on the health of all of our citizens?

Die Mauer, Zwanzig Jahre Weg

Posted in History on November 9, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

The Wall, Twenty Years Gone

I’ve always been fascinated by the whole Berlin division thing. Yesterday my friend had a conversation with a woman who grew up in East Berlin. She described for him what it was like to drive back into her neighborhood after being gone for 15 years, seeing avenues where there had been only dead ends.

In contemplating this anniversary, I found myself musing on a similar thing morning. I wondered how many Ossis had a sense of vertigo and agoraphobia on their first visits to the West. After living in a society with so many understood and expected privations, and then to wander headlong into a place where anything goes, everything is available, and it is all out of reach financially would be really disturbing. You live this compact lifestyle, totally connected to the state, and then suddenly, it’s just not good enough — and in fact, in no time at all, it’s not even there.

I think a lot of people must have struggled with coming to terms with materialism and consumerism. I’ve lived in a consumer society my whole life and am becoming more irritated by it every day. Imagine the culture shock of being plunged into it in one fell swoop.

You grow up thinking that the Wall is the end of the world. Like the ocean. . . something that defines the edges, something you can’t enter. . . and then that barrier is lifted. Dead-ends become avenues and all the new avenues lead AWAY from your home.

My guess is that a lot of quiet contemplation happened as East Berliners reprocessed their places in the world. . .