Over There is the third volume of Stan Nguyen’s comic memoirs. For a man who, in the course of this book, celebrates his fortieth birthday, that’s not bad going. Socrates said famously that the unexamined life was not worth living. If he were alive today, he might have said that the unlived examination is not worth much either.
This new book focuses on a period of less than a month in which Nguyen, now teaching in a prestigious independent school that he calls Grace Grammar, accompanies a group of about a dozen senior students on a ‘justice tour’ to South Africa and Kenya. Nguyen was a reluctant participant. He notes that Africa had enough problems already without adding him to the list: Mandela had only recently died. I hoped they weren’t looking to me to fill the gap.
He treats his students in the same dry manner:
There was an application process. They were all pretty good at this because they all had part time jobs, usually in the fast food industry. One of the boys most anxious to join the trip, Andy, had a proven record of working hard to feed the hungry. In three years, I had never seen him without food in either his hand or his mouth or, most of the time, both.
After a few skirmishes of this kind, Nguyen settles down to deal with some real concerns. He writes about a girl he had taught who landed an internship with a large accounting firm because she had been on a trip to Africa, a fact that gave her an edge, a kind of X factor, in a competitive market: I reckon this is the colonial experience all over again. Go to Africa, get what you can for yourself, come home and make a profit out of it.
He also tells a story of being at a school assembly soon after his arrival at Grace Grammar. Some of the students had recently returned from a trip to Cambodia, where they had visited an orphanage and spent three days painting the main building. One after the other, they had said how good they felt because they had made a real difference in the lives of people who needed their help. Nguyen was bemused that young people could step into a desperate situation and come away in high spirits because they had played a few games and painted some walls.
Surely to Zeus, if you are going to run these trips, you at least want privileged students to feel muddled up about the way the world works or doesn’t work or only works for a few. If the situation is bad, we need them to feel bad.
When Nguyen writes about such things, there is pepper in his ink. The second volume of his memoirs, Over Here, describes the poignant journey of his parents from Vietnam. His father, Aloysius, trained for a time to be a Catholic priest but, in an illicit romance, had already fallen in love with Teresa, a girl from his village. The couple married in secret and had two sons, Noel (born on Christmas day) and, ten years later, Stanislaus.
In June 1976 they left Vietnam and crossed the South China Sea on what was little better than a raft, coping with hunger, thirst, sunstroke and the threat of pirates. After seven tense days, and two years in makeshift detainment facilities, they arrived in the refugee camp on Palawan in the Philippines. For the whole voyage, Teresa and Aloysius took turns holding their two-year-old son, Stan, whom they protected from the sun with a broken umbrella. They had left Noel behind with an uncle and never saw him again. Over Here is a beautiful book because it shows a brash young writer struggling to express the grief of his parents. It marked a leap beyond the crusty gags of his first book, Over It, a shallow account of working in real estate. That book was so bad it sold like crazy; Auction Arnie became a minor cult figure. Over Here, on the other hand, had the gentleness of honesty. Re-reading it allows you to see why Nguyen is suspicious about those who have the luxury of choosing where they go.
Yet Nguyen also writes with compassion about the quest of the young people with whom he is travelling. He knows that quest himself. In Over Here he speaks with both humour and affection about the Catholicism of his parents, about their rosary before sex and the way they always boiled the holy water they brought home from church just to give God a hand in keeping any germs at bay. They believed that if holy water wasn’t going to perform miracles, then at least it shouldn’t cause any harm either.
But, underneath the jokes, there is at least a pale green envy in Nguyen’s portrait of his parents. They held the same pair of rosary beads all the way across the South China Sea. It’s a wonder I wasn’t strangled to death by them.
Over the years, until they died, each of them prayed daily for their son Noel, kneeling before a plastic crucifix. Nguyen writes that if he could have one prayer answered, it would be to share something like that view of the world. His second prayer would be for next week’s winning Lotto numbers. Deep down, he says, he knows that his students want to go to Africa because they, too, want to believe in something other than themselves.
Over There is a long book. It carries a lot of baggage and the narrative is heavily populated. If this were a novel, Nguyen would need to have chosen a smaller cast of characters and given them more space to develop. Fourteen people in a mini bus is, by crude reckoning, 182 separate relationships, and that’s before anybody starts to notice the thousands of people on the other side of the window, leaning in, trying to sell stuff, trying to catch a glimpse of another world. One of the myths Nguyen denies is that travelling as a teacher overseas with teenagers is some kind of junket. It’s hard work.
Nguyen often adopts an attitude of superior bewilderment. The best of the book takes place when his uncertainty defeats his powers of irony and disengagement and he gets tangled up in the lives of people he’d rather watch from a safe distance. He is never sure why he goes to Africa. A colleague pulled out of the trip and the principal put the hard word on Nguyen to take her place; Nguyen wanted his contract position to be made permanent and thought a few brownie points would help. Even then, Nguyen may have stayed home except for the fact that the trip organiser, Imelda Yorac, swept him up in what he calls a ‘tsunami of enthusiasm’. Yorac, a bundle of energy even in her late sixties, is an enigmatic figure throughout the story, a cross between Mother Teresa and Hillary Clinton. Nguyen has a deep admiration for her and she becomes a kind of mother figure for the expedition. He also notes that some people have such a powerful vision that it can be blinding. It’s not clear what he means by this.
Nguyen lets us know early in the story that he has split up with Lauren, the partner he met at the end of Over Here who challenged him to write about his parents. He never says much about the split up but he thinks a trip might distract him from himself. Lauren is mentioned a few times but she is mostly powerful in her absence. You get the impression that after a while she found Nguyen remote and hard to reach.
‘Sometimes people need to leave home to find home,’ says Imelda Yorac when Nguyen finally signs on. Yorac often speaks in the pithy language of greeting cards. But she means every word she says, even the clichés. Nguyen enjoys that. He never seems able to find words he can wholeheartedly believe. For him, the words yes and no have always meant maybe.
In some respects, the hero of Over There is Andy, the boy who has sat for a year at the back of Nguyen’s English class with a plastic bag hidden somewhere, trying to sneak food into his mouth like contraband. ‘Have you ever thought of trying to let the poem feed your hungers,’ Nguyen once suggested, but Andy just picked his teeth.
Andy is the younger brother of a girl who was the champion athlete at Grace Grammar, breaking many of the school records and going on to knock on the door of the Olympic team. Andy decided he could never match those achievements so, rather than fail, he has never really tried at anything. Nguyen had seen some of the artwork he did in the margins of his English texts and thought that he might have a career as a cartoonist if he could put his mind to something other than drawing Lady Macbeth in lingerie. When Andy was lining up for the third time at the counter of a burger chain in the international airport, Nguyen was surprised. Not that Andy was in the hunt for junk food. More that he was on the tour in the first place.
On the plane, Nguyen sat beside Andy, who vomited and blamed it on the African water, even though they hadn’t yet set foot on the continent. Andy reduces Nguyen to some of his worst one-liners: Andy being sick was far worse than Lauren being sick of me.
During the next few days, Andy’s head keeps poking out of the narrative. The group found themselves in Soweto. Nguyen knew the story of these streets back to front and inside out because of his parents. They fled Vietnam in 1976 in the very month in which the 13-year-old Hector Pieterson was killed in protests about education, marking the start of a new wave of uprising against the apartheid regime. The famous picture of Pieterson’s body being carried by a friend hung over the Nguyen family altar, beside a baby snap of the missing Noel:
Throughout my childhood, I could have been forgiven for thinking that Mandela was Vietnamese. Mum and dad adopted the apartheid struggle because South Africa was always on the news whereas there was never any real news for them from home. So they barracked for Soweto against Pretoria.
Nguyen was expecting or hoping to find a connection with the streets in central Soweto. Vilakazi Street in Orlando was home to both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, a man so good that Nguyen’s parents excused him for being an Anglican. The street was violent enough to have created two winners of the Nobel Prize for Peace. He felt a shiver of something like reverence as he saw familiar names starting to appear through the windows of the mini-bus as they approached the area; he became quiet as Imelda Yorac shared facts and figures with the group about its brutal history.
The reality troubled Nguyen more than he would have imagined. Across the street from Mandela’s modest former home was a row of prosperous bars and cafés, full of tourists, paying their respects now that everything was safe. There were buskers and endless souvenir sellers. Three or four doors from Mandela House, he noticed a car wash specialising in luxury cars, mostly imported from Europe.
The group sat down for a meal in a place that felt just like any pizza joint back home. They had a perfect view of the Mercedes and BMWs blocking the road outside Mandela’s former bungalow as they waited to be shampooed, perfumed, waxed and buffed.
Once again, Nguyen found himself next to Andy, who was busy with the calculator on his phone. ‘You know something,’ he said. ‘A pizza costs exactly the same here as it does back home.’
Yorac explained that there were still plenty of ‘informal settlements’, and they had arranged to visit some of the families who lived in them.
‘Informal settlements are slums,’ she continued.
‘That’s called a euphemism,’ added Nguyen, the teacher.
‘Indeed, “good neighbourliness” was a phrase sometimes used for apartheid,’ she continued.
‘Another euphemism,’ stressed Nguyen.
Andy wasn’t listening. He was googling. Googling, says Nguyen, is the deafness required to hear what the whole world has to say without tuning into anyone in particular. He wonders if any of his students ever left home; they always need to know exactly what’s happening at every party on every weekend back in their suburbs.
‘You know there’s a huge shopping mall near here,’ said Andy. ‘It’s called Maponya Mall.’
‘It’s built on the site of what used to be informal dwellings,’ said Yorac.
‘They have a food court with free wi-fi,’ replied Andy.
If this entire expedition could be summarised in a single day, that day might well be Nguyen’s fortieth birthday, a Saturday near the end of the trip when the group has reached the small city of Eldoret north of the equator in Kenya. Everyone is tired. The students, to be fair, have been forced to think about the great lottery of life. In Nairobi they encountered kids who got a meal at school on Friday and then didn’t eat again until school on Monday. One of the successes of the book is the way Nguyen documents microscopic changes in Andy’s attitude, small changes being more believable than impassionate slogans about the unfairness of it all. Even better are the changes in Nguyen. As Andy becomes less focused on himself, Nguyen finds a freedom to move in the other direction, to mention things that matter to him.
In Eldoret they spent time in a community supporting people living with AIDS. Here they divided into small groups to visit people in their homes. Andy, Imelda, Nguyen and a few others were taken around by a tall volunteer called Oliver, a lanky gentleman with a winning smile and a colourful wardrobe. Oliver explained he was 51 years of age, the proud father of six children and had been living with HIV for ten years. He caught the virus from his wife, Angel, who, in turn, contracted HIV when she was out collecting firewood and was raped by three strangers. The offenders were arrested but used bribes to ensure their release. Both Oliver and his wife had TB to start with and it wasn’t long before Angel passed away.
‘Oh,’ said Andy. He seemed to be listening now.
Oliver was left with six young kids and the stigma of an illness that is bad enough even before it gets loaded with the moral judgement of others. Oliver found that potential employers all demanded a health check and would not take on anyone who was HIV positive. He was out of work. So he began as a volunteer at the community, paying home visits to the sick and helping people with their medication. He was particularly concerned about a number of evangelical churches in the area that do damage by convincing people they are able to perform miracles and cure them of HIV. This was good for church business but dreadful for the people who get conned and stop taking their medication. East Africa was a religious supermarket. Nguyen wondered aloud how Oliver can still believe in God when so much fraud was committed in his or her name.
‘I guess he has to do something,’ says Andy.
Oliver takes the group to meet Melody, who is dying at home but still welcomes visitors. With support of the community, she was able to afford the antiretroviral medication, but kept giving what food she had to her four children. This meant the drugs were not nearly as effective as they could have been. She lived in a shack that measured three metres by three, a place that reminded Andy of his family’s shed, the place they put stuff that was in the way but too good to get rid of. With children, grandchildren and others, there were eight people in the space, for which Melody paid about $35 a month. She was two months behind with the rent and the family was about to be evicted. One daughter had to sit at the door of the classroom because Melody was behind with the school fees as well. Melody was now 39 years of age and too weak to stand on her own. Oliver didn’t think she would live to see her fortieth birthday.
‘See, sir,’ said Andy. ‘You need to stop complaining about growing old.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, getting old is better than not getting old.’
Nguyen says that he wasn’t aware that he had been complaining. Nor that he was getting old.
That afternoon the group had the opportunity to drive for about an hour to a place called Iten where they could meet some of the most famous runners in the world and watch them train. The world 800 metres champion, David Rudisha, was going to be there and they had been promised the chance to meet him and ask him questions. The students were really excited.
‘Can we take selfies of him?’ someone asked.
‘I thought a selfie was just of yourself,’ said Imelda.
‘Oh, don’t be silly. You can take a selfie of anyone as long as you’re in it.’
‘They’ll be perfect for the school website,’ said someone else.
‘Is it compulsory to go?’ interrupted Andy.
‘Why?’ asked Nguyen, suspiciously. His fatigue was making him sarcastic. ‘Are you hungry? Would you prefer to stay here and eat something? I’m sure they have food at Iten.’
‘I’ve seen plenty of runners,’ replied Andy. ‘I grew up with bloody runners. I never understood why one second should make the difference between misery and happiness. I’d prefer to visit Melody again.’
‘Yes, really. I want to give her something to help with the rent.’
Imelda thought this was a great idea. She had wished Nguyen a happy birthday, telling him that forty was too old to run and too young to slow down. Once again, Nguyen wondered if he should be writing down the things she said. The collected wisdom of Imelda Yorac.
So Andy and Nguyen spent a long afternoon sitting in Melody’s shack and took turns holding her grandchildren and trying to remember jokes to share, no matter how corny, because the attempt to be funny would make Melody smile more than any punchline. Nguyen noticed that there was a plastic crucifix on the wall beside a calendar with a picture of the Eiffel Tower. The crucifix was almost the same as the one his parents used to have. There must be millions of these things, he thought.
Andy was quiet. He didn’t eat anything. The eldest daughter helped Melody get to the toilet in the pit outside. One by one, Andy did a drawing of each of the children and grandchildren and handed it to Melody, who kissed the page, then laughed, then cried. Andy pinned them around the crucifix.
As the evening closed in, the house was blanketed by shadow. There was no electric light to compete with the darkness, just a single candle in an old tin. Before long they could no longer see the walls. The room felt suddenly bigger because there was no knowing where the shack ended and the night began. The space became as big as the whole world; they could even see stars in the gaps in the unlined tin roof. When he thought no-one was looking, Andy took Melody by the hand and held it softly. She smiled again.
Out of nowhere, Nguyen began in his mind to compose a love poem for Lauren.
Over There is more a personal essay than a memoir. Nguyen sets out to write about what is called ‘volutourism’: The ultimate consumerism is to shop for meaning or purpose in the suffering of another.
At the start of the book he cites research that suggests orphanages in countries such as Cambodia are expanding because Westerners need to ‘add value’ to their travels. An increasing number of parents are leaving children in them and one of the reasons is the money and attention that come from overseas, especially from well-meaning schools. Furthermore, students visit the so-called ‘orphans’, form bonds that are then broken at the end of the week or fortnight. So the orphans live in an unending churn of attachment and abandonment. Yet after a month, Nguyen is having more than second thoughts:
There are some people who simply need to meet each other. And sometimes those people happen to be a long way apart. But unless they meet, nothing in the world is going to change and, even worse, no-one is going to change.
Young writers used to start with short stories, graduate to novels and, at the end of a distinguished career, feel entitled to produce a memoir. Now it’s the other way around. People start with memoirs and, if they become very successful, they may eventually reach such an eminence that they can publish short stories. The assumption of too many writers is that the whole world needs to be interested in them.
Stanislaus Nguyen has been a bit like that. There are people he needs to thank for his rescue. The list would include his parents and Lauren and Andy and Imelda Yorac, who we last see giving every item of clothing in her bag away, and then the bag itself, as she travels to the airport for the flight home. Somewhere along the way, Nguyen became bored with himself and interested in the world. This book is a hymn against narcissism. It took him three books, but Over There shows how one man finally got over himself.