Hà Nội – based Scott Harris, our U.S. columnist, responds to a Chicago Tribune article in which Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, labels Việt Nam “an aggressive country” simply because the people here eat meat.
Harris, like many other Vietnamese and international readers, disagrees with most of what was written in that piece of writing published February 1 on the news site.
Tastes like chicken
As the Year of the Snake slithers in, my thoughts turn to a true tale that always grosses out of folks back home – about the night I dined on snake and washed it down with vodka red from the serpent’s blood.
Didn’t want to lose face with my macho companions.
But perhaps I should call those Vietnamese guys “aggressive,” the term employed in a bizarre essay by American journalist Joel Brinkley that is generating sharp criticism for portraying Vietnamese culture as barbaric.
If you haven’t heard about Brinkley’s commentary, let me fill you in:
After ten days of travel in Việt Nam, this journalism professor at Stanford University essentially declared that Việt Nam’s “aggressive” history of warfare stems from its carnivorous ways – particularly the appetite for thịt chó (meat of dogs) and thịt chuột (meat of rats).
Brinkley should know better – yet seems to know just enough to be dangerous.
His report embarrassed its distributor, a syndicate that now says the commentary “did not meet our journalistic standards” and blamed its release on a lapse in its “rigorous editing process.”
Brinkley’s former colleagues at the New York Times and present colleagues at Stanford University must be shaking their heads.
He should be embarrassed himself – but in responding to criticism that he made matters worse, insulting the people of Cambodia and Laos as well.
I sort of feel sorry for him.
On Wikipedia, somebody altered the first sentence of his biography to say he is “known for his xenophobic, anti-Vietnamese views.”
Yet as a foreign correspondent, Brinkley won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his coverage of the genocidal horrors of Cambodia.
But some 33 years later, he concludes this essay by saying he “could not agree more” with “a Western blogger” who described Việt Nam’s culinary practices as “the most gruesome thing I have ever seen.”
More gruesome than “the killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge?
There’s trouble from the start:
“You don’t have to spend much time in Việt Nam before you notice something unusual.
You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage.
No dogs out for a walk.”
“In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all.
Where’d they all go?
You might be surprised to know:
Most have been eaten.”
My first reaction was puzzlement, thinking about how often I saw rats scurrying in the alleyway near our first home in Hà Nội, and how I loathed the Vietnamese neighbor’s yippy pet dog that barked at all hours.
Understand that I grew up loving our dachshund Heidi and our mutt Fanny, so I would say no thanks to barbecued dog.
At any rate, there are plenty of Vietnamese who take their pet dogs out for walk–but, yes, also worry that their pets will be stolen for their meat.
Brinkley suggests that Vietnamese tastes are unique – but fails to mention that dog meat is also on the menu in China and Korea.
Brinkley is also correct in noting that the poaching of tigers, bears, rhinos and elephants for folk medicine and other uses have devastated these native species.
But wildlife protection experts say that poaching is, of course, not unique to Việt Nam and expressed puzzlement over Brinkley’s conflation of endangered tigers with commonplace dogs and rodents.
Brinkley goes on to make sweeping assertions that Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar (with a history more influenced by India) have been embroiled in fewer wars over the centuries because, essentially, they eat more rice and less meat than the Vietnamese (more influenced by China). So, ipso facto . . .
“Vietnam has always been an aggressive country,” Brinkley declares.
“It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979.
Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.”
So he mentions Cambodia in 1979, which he must have known well.
Yet, oddly, there is no mention of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and no context for Việt Nam’s intervention, which is widely credited with helping to end the genocide.
Nowhere does he cite the secret bombing campaigns by (meat-eating) Americans on Cambodia and Laos that contributed to the political conditions – or, for that matter, the widespread spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange and its damage to flora and fauna.
Yes, Việt Nam has been engaged in warfare with neighbors many times over the millennium.
Yet in Brinkley’s broad-brush shorthand, it’s all about those aggressive, dog-eating, rat-eating Vietnamese.
Now consider Brinkley’s response to criticism : . . .
On the issue of meat and aggressiveness, perhaps that was not as well phrased as it should have been.
But eating a diet rich in protein will make you more robust than others, in Laos, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian states who eat rice and very little else.
After all half of Laotian children grow up stunted, even today.
In Cambodia the rate is 40 percent.
That means they grow up short and not so smart.
Would it also follow that they would be less aggressive than Vietnamese?
I think so.
So, do protein imbalances between neighboring cultures lead to warfare?
The theory, perhaps, might be advanced by a passive-aggressive vegan cult who believes prehistoric humans took a disastrous turn when they stopped just gathering sustenance and started hunting.
Perhaps Brinkley was just riffing the outline on a provocative manifesto that inspires a global movement from meat to veggies.
Give peas a chance.
In defending his reporting, Brinkley shared a photo he took in Đà Nẵng of some skinned rats being prepared for cooking – which, I confess, made me think: ewww…
But I pulled myself together to seek the perspective of a Vietnamese guy I’ve known for 20 years.
He grew up in Sà Gòn, moved to the U.S. as a young man and is now in Hà Nội to visit his daughter and grandchildren over the Tết holiday.
My father-in-law laughed.
The Vietnamese taste for meat, he told me, is one of those cultural differences between north and south.
Thịt chó, he explained, appeals more to northerners.
But down south, he said, field rodents fatten up on the endless rice.
“It tastes like chicken,” he said.