To all my U.S. readers: Have a happy and healthy July 4th holiday. In honor of this, our national day, I am taking a brief break from my ongoing Kenyan narrative to describe some rather unique experiences celebrating this holiday abroad.
Because I often work during summer vacation, my wife and I frequently find ourselves celebrating July 4th overseas, but never so dramatically as our Independence Day in Hanoi. Since I am in my mid-60s, I was of prime draft age during the Vietnam War era, and it was only good fortune in securing a draft deferrable job, followed by drawing number 322 in the draft lottery, that kept me stateside.
My memories of those contentious times run from sadness for those who perished to anger at what I believe was my government’s immoral and unethical behavior. Therefore, when I traveled to Vietnam in July 2001 to present a series of workshops at Hanoi University of Technology I was prepared to hear hostile diatribes about U.S. foreign policy and to be an apologist for my country’s military conduct. To my utter surprise, though, no one I met was angry or resentful about the war (in fact, they seemed to admire our economic and technical achievements), and everyone with whom I worked was willing to look beyond those horrible times and move forward.
During the stay my hosts took Ruth and I to a concert by the Hanoi Symphony at the impressive 100-year-old Hanoi Opera House modeled after the Palais Garnier in Paris. Midway through the evening the conductor announced, in both Vietnamese and English, that to honor our national day the
orchestra had prepared a special piece. Then they proceeded to play an energetic rendition of John Phillips Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever while the audience cheered and a giant American flag was unfurled from the rafters. All I could think was that this was happening in a country that only three decades earlier had been at war with us, a violent war that took 500,000 lives, destroyed tens of thousands of buildings, and denuded millions of acres of Vietnamese forest and farmland. It is a moment I will never forget, and an experience that provides me with a tiny glimmer of hope for reconciliation in those seemingly intractable and never-ending struggles in Palestine, Kashmir, Sudan, and Somalia.
In the summer of 2006 my wife and I were living in Ulan Bator, Mongolia where I was teaching computer science at Genghis Khan University under the auspices of a U.S. State Department Fulbright Grant. Ruth and I were invited to attend July 4th celebrations at the residence of the United States Ambassador where we had the privilege of meeting not only the U.S. diplomatic corps but also the President of Mongolia and high-ranking government officials from China, Japan, and Russia. We watched fireworks, listened to a Mongolian band dressed in period costumes play July 4th music on traditional instruments–imagine America The Beautiful on a horsehead fiddle–and dined on classic holiday fare, hot dogs, potato salad, and cole slaw. When I asked the Ambassador where she had purchased the food (trust me, hot dogs, potato salad and cole slaw are not standard Mongolian grocery items) she simply smiled and said “Now, you really didn’t think the diplomatic pouch was only for top-secret documents, did you?” Silly me!