A small-town boy and Asian culture

It can be quite dramatic when you are first immersed in a 'foreign' culture.
You grew up quickly in Vietnam.

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When our commercial charter jet arrived at Tan Son Nhat, I was nervous. I mean REALLY nervous. I had heard that guys were dying over there! So as I exited the plane, I headed straight for the restroom. I had to take a 'nervous pee'. I approached the urinal and began the process. Looking over my shoulder I could see a Vietmanese woman enter the 'men's restroom'. She seemed indifferent to my presence. She strolled over to the center of the room. Her slacks, typical for Vietnamese women, were very wide at the bottom of the pant leg and extended down -- almost covering her shoes. With not even a moment of hesitation the woman rolled up her left pant leg and pee'ed into the floor drain! I knew -- right then and there -- that this was going to be a *very* long year!

Viet Nam held many surprises for America's young sons.  Being reared in a small town in Pennsylvania, I was used to thinking that everyone was basically a good person.  Some of the guys from larger cities had already been exposed to situations and beliefs totally foreign to a back-water, hometown boy...  some of the time these attitudes and beliefs involved the darker side of people.  It never dawned on me -- prior to entering the service -- that some people just don't give a damn about others.  It never dawned on me that life isn't always as it appears.  A case in point...

I did not get into Da Nang often.  Even when I was assigned to Company C (Headquarters) Commo Section, I seldom went into town. Once in a while I tagged along when someone went to the PX (Post eXchange -- the Army's on-post department store). I do remember going into Da Nang one day. I was sitting in the jeep... just looking around. There -- walking down the street -- were two Vietnamese men. They had to be 'of a different persuasion' because they were holding hands. Well... not exactly. As they walked side-by-side they had their little fingers intertwined. I was surprised by this display. 'Back home', I had heard rumors that some guys were... 'different'. Here were these two -- 'different'... and in public!!

I quickly recovered from my surprise. Perhaps there had been earlier examples of the 'alternate lifestyle'... if so, I don't remember them. But I remembered this scene. Maybe it made me more aware, because I saw many more instances of this behavior -- interlocking the 'pinky' fingers. I began to form an opinion: seventy percent of the Vietnamese men were gay!

It wasn't until much later that I learned the truth. These men were not gay. It is an old Vietnamese custom for men who were good friends to interlock their little fingers as they walked. This was quite similar to one of us putting an arm over our buddy's shoulder as we walked.

Another custom, which appears to be common throughout the Far East, is eating dog meat. On another page in the web site, I relate how this became readily apparent. Still another example is recounted on another web page...  a case where what is 'normal' for them seems so outrageous to us. Of course, do we really have to travel halfway around the world to find examples of this disparity? No. A common dish in the 'Pennsylvania Dutch' areas of Pennsylvania is "hog maw" -- an actual pig stomach stuffed with fresh sausage, potatos, onions, and peppers and then baked. How many New York or San Francisco restaurants feature hog maw?? It is actually quite good.

I adopted another custom as a silent sign of times past... a benign symbol of Viet Nam duty:
Many of the Vietnamese left the fingernail on their 'pinky' (little) fingers grow long. I thought this was rather odd, but also recognized it as a symbol of their culture. When I returned home, I began this practice... allowing the fingernail of my little fingers to grow quite long. This was quite a feat for someone who had 'bitten their fingernails' for the previous 20 years! I reasoned that anyone who had been to RVN would recognize this practice as unspoken evidence of time served in RVN.

Time has a habit of mellowing things. In the years since I returned from RVN, I have extended this practice of long fingernails to all fingers. There are times when I notice 'raised eyebrows' when people see my long fingernails. In the past I tried to quickly explain the reason for the long nails... No, I'm not gay... No, I don't use them to clean my nose... Yes, they are a variation of an old Vietnamese custom. But now accept 'the looks' as readily as my brothers with the 'pony tails'... it is part of who we are. RVN, for better or worse, shaped all of us who were there.