Watching a little bit of Jon Stewart interviewing Russel Crowe on The Daily Show the other day made me think about my own upcoming jaunt to Vietnam, a country that was once, for me, simply the repository of Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone get-em'-back-alive POW movies and has now become, within the blink of an eye, a place I can actually, physically enter.
Let me explain.
Crowe somehow got Stewart to admit that he (Stewart) didn't have a passport. Which I found surprising. And troubling. And not that it should even matter, because Stewart is, after all, just a comedian, yes, absolutely, but he's also a comedian who's a sharp and witty commentator on foreign events and policies and politics; the fact that he's never been out of the country, and that only 14% of Americans actually have passports, troubles me for some reason.
Maybe it's because I often feel that I didn't know anything about the world, anything, until I exited my world, Canada; I often think that everything you read in a newspaper or a magazine has little, if any, resonance unless you've actually been there, done that.
(That's why the idea of foreign policy 'experts' like Condoleeza Rice has always troubled me, too; a Soviet expert she is, supposedly, and yet, how much time has she actually spent there? She's never lived there; she's never worked there. Never hung out in a corner pub and shot the shit with a bunch of drunken Siberians. The same goes with the people who so nonchalantly rearrange geographical history and priorities; call me crazy, but I don't think Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld had ever spent all that much time in the Middle East before deciding to do a little bit of bombing. I'm not saying this is essential, this first hand knowledge; I am saying that it's illuminating, that's all.)
Not that this is an exlusively American issue; I would bet that most Canadians don't have a passport either, and I think, by and large, on the whole, with the understanding that there are always exceptions, the majority of Canadians haven't travelled out of the country all that much.
Don't get me wrong. Travelling abroad, living abroad, doesn't necessarily make a you a saint, or a prophet, or even a good person. You don't have to leave your homeland to have a satisfactory life, a fulfilling life, a generous and useful life. You can be happy and healthy and wise merely by living down the street from where you grew up. I believe this. I do.
But I also know that I loved, absolutely loved all of those 80's Vietnam flicks that dealt with American POWs being held behind enemy lines: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Uncommon Valor (starring Gene Hackman as a dad who goes to Vietnam to find his captive son), the Missing In Action trilogy featuring Chuck Norris. (And I am a firm believer that Missing in Action II: The Beginning, is a rockin' prequel, and that Braddock: Missing In Action III, has its moments, few and far between as they admittedly are, and I will fight to the death anyone who says otherwise, anyone who is judging Chuck Norris firmly on the legacy of Walker: Texas Ranger, without even considering how he once gave Bruce Lee a good cinematic run for his money. Chuck is good people.) These films, in a sense, got me thinking about Vietnam, about foreign countries, about the globe. Not in any kind of intellectual way or even, I guess you could say, sane way, if a nine year old even can be sane, but they did get me thinking about something beyond Canada. But not enough to make me want to explore; not enough to make me want to escape my own childhood comforts. I would have to wait for that.
And, come to think of it, practically everything I knew about Asia pretty much descended from the above mentioned flicks. (Which, also come to think of it, is pretty freakin' scary.) My image of the Vietnamese was basically: somebody who Stallone killed to bring to the Americans home. Which worked perfectly well for me at nine, but at twenty-nine, well, it leaves something to be desired.
And now I've read a lot of books about Vietnam, and I've lived next door to the country in Cambodia going on two years now, but I've never, you know, been there. Never seen the traffic. Never slept in a bed within its borders.
So really, truthfully, in actuality, I don't know diddly-squat about the place.
When we allow our knowledge of the world and all its shades and textures to come from a little box in the corner of the room, something happens, as Joseph Heller might say. We substitute uninformed opinion for direct observation. We become cocooned in rationalizations that we have not discerned for ourselves. We become lesser people. We shrink rather than expand.
So, Wednesday I'll take the bus to Vietnam for a few days. I'll pass through the border. I'll be nervous and scared and wondering what the hell's going to happen. What I once knew only from Hollywood action movies will now, at last, twenty years later, have the weight and ferocity of life. The boy inside of me will hope that Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris will, against all odds, be around to come bail me out should the shit hit the fan -- but I will also be ready, alert and aware and curious, above all, curious to see what will happen to me if their rescue mission fails and I'm left alone (albeit with a friend or two) to try to comprehend this brave new world on my own.