Hainan Island, Part Five, Mr. Shi and the Vietnam War

I was a kid when the Vietnam War started and it followed me into young adulthood. It was an insoluble problem which, as it happens, my dad was involved in solving. He was a wargamer with the Department of Defense which is why we lived in Nebraska for six years. His job was at Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base. Basically, my life was paid for by the Vietnam War. My dad hated the war, and as his job was using game theory to predict various outcomes, and none of the outcomes were good, he was constantly advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff (under JFK) that getting out was a good idea. Good idea, but not very “politic.” It was during JFK’s reign that the US became entrenched in a losing battle.

This went on for years and years and years. We moved to Colorado, dad went to work for NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) and I went to high school, joined speech club (which included debate) and, naturally the topic was whether the US should get out of Vietnam. It wasn’t just debate. There were protests everywhere against the war. Young men left the country to avoid the draft. Others came up with medical conditions to get out of it. Others were legitimate conscientious objectors. Many got a deferment by going to college. Some joined ROTC so they could be officers when they went. Others just joined up. Many more were drafted. The war split the country, alienated family members and changed the nation. Why do we have an all-volunteer military now? So no one can bitch about a war. That’s why.


After the opera we all went to Mr. Shi’s new house. The smoke holes flanking his front door were Chinese characters (featured image), two characters for each smoke hole. They said, “Self-Reliance.” I, of course, heard Ralph Waldo Emerson, but apparently he was quoting Chairman Mao. The explanation for this was very interesting and complicated. Mr. Shi was sending two messages with those smoke holes. One, “I am a good Chinese” the other “I don’t trust any of you. I will take care of myself.”

Mr. Shi was a Malaysian Chinese who’d come back with his family to Hainan when Chairman Mao sent out a call for overseas Chinese to return to rebuild the Fatherland. During the 50’s Mr. Shi worked hard to rebuild the village of All Beauty and worked as a teacher. He had a good education and he spoke English. While English wasn’t desirable at the time, there were times when it was good for the Party to have someone around who could speak and read it. Then came the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and anyone who spoke English or had an overseas background was suspect. Mr. Shi was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. His wife died.

A common story, but continually shocking to me how people spoke of it matter-of-factly because it was an experience shared by so many. “Yes, yes, those were hard times.”

Mr. Shi took us inside, lit the kerosene lamp and offered us coffee. Hainan Coffee is incredible, and I wanted it, but not at night. He made it anyway. Like Vietnamese coffee, it’s usually drunk with sweetened, condensed milk. I was already not sleeping because of the rat and my nausea, but OH WELL. I’m very happy now for each opportunity I had to drink Hainan Coffee. There are some good stories just about the coffee, and I wish I had some now.

We sat around the table and talked. Mr. Shi told us his story (which I’ve just related) and then the topic went to the problem of the Vietnam War.

China invaded some Vietnamese cities in 1979. The situation was incredibly complicated and even after doing some research into it, I can’t follow the players. It’s enough to say, I think, that it was partly a result of the split between Moscow and Beijing. It involved several Cambodian tribal factions and the Khmer Rouge with whom the Chinese were allies, a relationship that had at least to appear to have been abandoned when China decided to normalize relations with the United States. But for years following, there was a Chinese presence in Vietnam and deadly skirmishes on the border. (The linked article is excellent and says everything I didn’t know back in 1983)

It was also something no one was supposed to talk about. But we were on Hainan Island only a few hundred miles away from the border where the action was taking place.

I sat at Mr. Shi’s table in the lamp light and listened to the same arguments I’d heard growing up, in high school, on the news, from anti-war *peers and I thought, “What? I’ve traveled so far to hear THIS conversation?”

“What do you think, Ma Sa?”

“There’s no answer to Vietnam,” I said. “Except leaving them alone.”

My response was shrugged off as typically irrelevant foreigner non-comprehension, and I returned to appreciating the irony.

This song says it all…


*Since my dad was working for the DOD, and Vietnam had paid for my life, put food on my table, paid for my education, and because I believe humans are intrinsically belligerent and power hungry, I had no position on the war other than I believed that if a person was old enough to be forced to carry a gun in defense of whatever, that person should be able to vote. At this point in my life, I think the cleverest thing our government has done is make an all-volunteer military and market it as a “job.” It is no longer reasonable to protest a war since the people fighting it joined up on their own free will.

2 thoughts on “Hainan Island, Part Five, Mr. Shi and the Vietnam War

  1. If I had been a couple years younger, I would have avoided the draft by going to college. I still ended up joining the National Guard quite voluntarily a few years later. I mustered out just before the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. Dumb luck I guess.

    Ever seen these folks?


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