Hanoi High

Hanoi High Jinks

Xuan Bi Phan always looked forward to the first day of school. Since he strapped on his first crimson bandana for the Young Pioneers, he would always be charged to get back to school. While a lot of his buddies dreaded going indoors after a summer of excitement, Xuan was excited. Growing up a Vietnamese student leader was tough; enduring the hazing and abuse from the Upperclassmen for possessing foolish opinions and always being one of the young ones in the cool crowd. As he began establishing and solidifying his own personal goals. Xuan understood and generally agreed with Communist dogma and for the most part, it hasn’t caused him a lot of problems. A joiner by nature, Xuan liked the idea of school uniforms and team sports and he always felt a tinge of pride when a classmate would look him in the eye and call him "Comrade." Those were certainly good times and now, he was going back to Hanoi High School for his last year, confident that he could continue to garner respect while still quietly stretching his wings. There was a lot to be said for growing up in a dictatorial communist environment but there was a lot more to be said about growing up in a dictatorial communist environment and being a badass Senior. 

"That rocks," thought Xuan.

As a student leader, Xuan did much to capitulate to the different factions within his class. The hard-core right, in which no free thought was appropriate, liked how he was consistent and easy to predict. The smaller and more radical left, in which some individuality was condoned and some authority questioned, liked him as well for his balanced and thoughtful approach to party debates. Xuan didn’t embrace either the left or the right but he viewed the groups as part of the overall solution. He never went relied on the old and tired crutch of waving his little red book and copping old and tired Mao slogans to win over the room during one of the many debates in the school quad. Xuan felt that different perspectives weren’t harmful and discussions within cadres allowed for a stronger Communist vibe.

He was getting sick of the same old metaphors of shackles and the great serpent and he was trying to come up with new ones to try out with the group. Advertising and marketing were his longer-term goals but those departments were ill equipped and perennially under-funded at both his college choices: Hue Tech and the University of Hanoi. As a senior, Xuan had already begun the arduous application process, which included pre-emptive bribes to local party leaders and an optional essay about party greats Duc Bou Phan or Chou En Lai. Several of his friends were also applying to UH and he had made it clear that he wasn’t going to room with any of them. He felt that his college years were a time to meet people from all over the country and to limit himself to his existing platoon of friends was shortsighted. He wanted to cultivate relationships with many other students because that was the only way to get ahead: by establishing rapport and building passive consensus. Brainwashing and re-education camps could do wonders but the annual maintenance costs at those places were astronomical and he felt they were on their way out. He wanted to embrace the new ways within a very old system and so far, it was working well. He was viewed as a pragmatic centrist, tolerant of all sides but still toting the party line. The only line to tote.

"Xuan!" screamed a smallish girl already sitting in a student commons area. "Are you ready for a bitching and great last year?"

"Lo! You bet I am!" screamed back Xuan, "I am so looking forward to ‘Advanced Political Thought’ and ‘Class Struggles II’ this semester. Are you in those?"

Lo Bec smiled and said, "Absolutely, I have checked the class rosters and we are sitting together for both. In fact, we are in all the same classes including ‘Theories of the Proletariat,’ ‘Modern Vietnamese Literature’ and ‘Contemporary Social’"

"’Struggles,’" interrupted Xuan. They both laughed and hugged. Lo was gone all summer in country working on several field projects to make her more attractive as a candidate for college. Lo and many of the girls continued to fight sexism within the party and it was understood that any serious female had to do more to be seen as equals to the males. Things had gotten better but as they learned everyday, old ways died very hard at this school, especially with the faculty. Most of the teachers were ex-Viet Cong regulars that had backed the right horse during the middle 1960’s and they were now living nicely. They had tenure in their jobs, solid reps in the local and provincial parties and basically a license to do what they wanted when it came to the education of the next generation of leaders. They weren’t complete assholes but they were extremely quick to tell you who kicked the French’s asses (it was them) and who came back about ten years later and kicked the American’s asses (them again). The students also learned not to make eye contact with an Instructor during the Tet Offensive Anniversary or they would hear that old saw all afternoon.

Lo and Xuan were well known around the school and were solid allies in the constantly chaotic internal school political arena. Both were elected to the school parliament last year into senior cabinet roles, each making an effort not to risk the chance of running for Class Chairman. That gig was feast or famine and they had seen purges ad nauseum in the last two years to avoid that spot. They were content to work behind the scenes as powerful chairpeople for the key committees of Education and Propaganda. Xuan had staked out Propaganda very early in his political life, paid his dues as an advance man for most of the really cool demonstrations and by the time he was eligible for the chair, he got it. Propaganda was as close as he was going to get to Advertising and Marketing so it tied into his course of study goals and it also looked great on his college applications. There was one more thing about Propaganda, it booked the band for the dance and everyone knew it.

Lo got to the Education role in a more circuitous manner: her first goal of Intelligence was extremely political and one of the last overt bastions for chauvinism. She figured that one out late in her first year in High School and successfully switched committee assignments to Education. She played her cards right, aligned with true opinion leaders (including Xuan) and was slotted into the chair as the last acts of last year’s student government. Her nomination to Chair wasn’t surprising but it was still rare; there was only one to two female government leaders each year and usually not chairing such a key committee. Lo was a player, a friend and smart as hell. Xuan and Lo were a solid team and they liked each other. They had dated and would continue to date but they both were refreshingly realistic about a serious relationship at their age. They had seen true love blossom in several of their friends only to fall apart and injure both sides.

The air had enough tension due to the combustible combination of inherited insurgent tendencies in their classmates to risk it on a public display of affection. Raging hormones and inborn proficiencies in guerilla tactics made for a tricky school day and it didn’t take much to set off some faction from demonstrating or storming the snack shop. There was a time and place for a quick game of touchy-touchy and it wasn’t behind the history huts. Going steady successfully at Hanoi High was against the odds of success and since they both liked sure things, they concentrated on school issues between the bells. They did care for each other but the timing for two teenagers was always so poor, they just took it a demonstration at a time.

Xuan bopped through the morning classes with ease and familiarity of a senior party official and Lo was nearby working her half of the room. The instructors liked them both and cut some of the usual party line crap with the senior leaders. When walking out of Modern Viet Lit, one of the instructors said hello to Xuan in a sincere, fatherly manner. Xuan came forward and they clasped hands.

"How is your father, Master Xuan?" asked the Instructor.

Xuan smiled, "He is doing great, thanks for asking Instructor Po. I will tell him you said hello."

Po smiled and said, "Have you lost anything today, Master Xuan?"

Xuan smiled, but this time with a straighter face, and said, "Only my chains."

They both burst out laughing. They had been doing that joke ever since Xuan was a baby and it still worked. Po and his father were VC regulars together and Xuan had seen Po socially on many occasions. They would sit around and swap stories about the war days and share with the kids some of the less-gory stories. One thing was for sure; while in the Army, they suffered for years and wanted everyone to know. That suffering plus the usual message that the parents thought the kids had it significantly easier these days. Every time a meal began, some old fart would make a comment that this meal was sure better than "eating cold rice out of my helmet" or the soup was more flavorful than "that shit stew we ate everyday on the trail." The stories got more and more bizarre and became a weird combination of truth and hyperbole that Xuan began to archive away in his mind for future marketing themes.

Xuan gathered his book and scooted out into the hall, found Lo and went to lunch.

Lunch was a ritual and the seniors ate first. No matter what student was in line, any senior student could walk to the front and get served. Some underclassmen not aware of this ceremony would feign shock but they were quickly schooled in the way things were done at the school. Most of the juniors and sophomores would delay their arrival into the cafeteria until the seniors were fed. Even if a few stragglers came in late, putting up with them was far more pleasant than being passed by hundreds of hungry, impatient Upperclassmen. This rule applied to all and the frailest, most bookish female senior could push past any Underclassman without fear of retribution. Xuan hated the rule when he was the one to get pushed but he felt ten meters tall wading through the line of scared Frosh to grab a big, steaming bowl of rice. That was sweet.

The early weeks of the school year were pleasurable but Xuan’s desire to get an early college acceptance was growing. He was thinking about going out of the country so he could really start anew and Hue Tech was his ideal choice. Tucked away from all the large Southeast Asian cities, Hue was a college and church town and perfectly suited to his needs. They had a strong advertising department and the broadening he would receive from Laos was well within the party guidelines and the chicks in Laos were legendary for beauty and wisdom. Hue Tech also had a lot of influential alumnus with key connections in most of the hi-technology firms. Charted as a technology school, a Hue Tech diploma opened up a lot of thatched doors for successful graduates. Xuan could talk bits and bytes with the geeks if he had to but he felt that the creative bent he was going for was best balanced with a Hue Tech sheepskin. He could have the best of all worlds: creativity, religious chicks and technology.

The University of Hanoi was a safer and more realistic pick for Xuan. Being a local boy, he was pretty much assured of getting into UH but he wanted something a bit more exotic. If he went to UH, he would marry an UH girl, live in a Hanoi suburb, display an UH flag on his scooter, raise kids in the UH school system and they would go to UH as well. He would dutifully come back for Homecoming and discuss memories again and again. It would be fine but he felt that was a bit too much inbreeding for his liking. He didn’t want to publicly besmirch the University of Hanoi as he could easily end up there. Xuan was keeping an open mind about the whole process but if he had his choice, it would be Hue Tech.

His grades were solid and his activities rounded out an extremely strong portfolio to consider. He had a solid party rep, his dad and mom still could fit into their black pajamas and he had confidence about both places. He sent away his materials and requested an early decision from both schools. That was a small and calculated risk for Xuan but he felt he needed to know his options as soon as possible. What separated Xuan from a lot of his peers is that he didn’t get all sweaty while screaming the quotations of Ho and Mao. He read the teachings, dug most of them but balanced their insights with a solid assessment of how should things be done. He kept these ideas to himself, not writing them down or sharing them with friends. He could have shared them with Lo but felt that it would put her in a very tough position, as she would be duty-bound to report the heresy to the central committee. It wasn’t that big of a deal and he just kept his cards close. Telling secrets to anyone is a challenge and being a solid Communist didn’t make it any easier. Since he was still considered a little sprout, he was inundated with political rhetoric about the individual and the state constantly. There would be a time and place for this type of candor but it wasn’t in the middle of his senior year, so he just let it slide.

Time continued to drag by for Xuan. Much to his surprise, he was learning and the old fart instructors made it interesting. Lo was great and things were falling together for an outstanding senior year. The problem was the unknown, he knew he would get into at least one school so his trepidation was more focused on the next big step, an occupation. The suburbs of Hanoi was not exactly the place for a kid who wanted to research polling data and conduct usability trials and he knew that all too well. At least four years of undergrad work and perhaps a Masters would buy him enough time to help him figure out what he wanted to be when he finally grew up. Marketing was both an art and a science and that balance between the absurd and the absolute was what fascinated him.

Early in November, he got two pieces of excellent news on the same day. Both Hue Tech and UH accepted him early for the following year and being communist, everything was paid for by the state. Laos and Vietnam long had reciprocity agreements so that issue was a non-factor as well. He had the luxury of generous timetables to notify the schools, due to his early entry choice, which allowed Xuan to seek the wisdom of both his favorite instructors and his folks. Lo heard about the same time and was given the same choices as well as a third, Ho Chi Minh College down south. HCMC was a good school and Lo used it as a back-up option if she couldn’t get into UH and Hue Tech. That practice of covering their bets was very popular with the kids but drove school administrator’s nuts. An incoming freshman class count of 5000 would fluctuate wildly for months when kids began exercising their choice for the first time in their lives.

A year ago, when Xuan was a junior, asked his guidance counselor how should he approach the college game. The craggy veteran smiled and said, "Take your time and play the schools against each other."

"Please forgive me, wise counselor" said a na´ve Xuan, "but is that right?"

"Well," said the counselor drinking a ginger ale, "We could give you freedom to choose earlier in your life but that really cramps up the whole Proletariat thing. Jerking around a few colleges is a small price to pay to keep the team on the same page so, go nuts."

So, Xuan learned how to play the game from his older friends and this decision would finally be the fruit of his labor. He got the choices and had the time to make his play. Life was pretty sweet with his girl lined up to do her thing, the two schools that he wanted were patient awaiting his response and his folks were almost giddy with the thoughts of redecorating his bedroom. He was the last Phan in the brood to fly the literal coop and the folks were open with their fantasies.

"I think his room would make a great television room," said his dad. "We could move the set in there and watch it whenever we felt like it."

"Well, I think the room would make a nice library for our collection of cultural revolution propaganda," said his mom, "when your old roommates come over, you could blow them away with the stuff all laid out."

"That is a great idea," said dad, "and one we can think about for awhile." It was clear that the Phans were happy just with the choice.

Xuan was finally content with his future, as far as he could see, and decided it was becoming a bit to predictable to worry about things that didn’t exist so he was making a conscious effort to learn to enjoy his last year in high school. Lo was still his steady girlfriend and she always struck a nice balance of complimenting his moods; when he needed companionship or a friend to talk to, she made herself available and when he grew distant, she disappeared and went on with her life. Lo was not your usual Hanoi co-ed, she was independent and did what she wanted to do and Xuan admired her for it. Her independent streak was not willful as she was far too classy for that but it was politely independent, bordering on just being able to entertain herself. Her folks were both North Vietnam regulars with a strong Chinese ancestry that made her legacy rich without snubbing her Vietnam upbringing. She respected both the Chinese and Vietnamese cultures and picked the best from both of them.

Xuan and Lo were growing in love each other but there were not a lot of trappings of romance. They were officially a couple and if Hanoi had the winter season, they would be an outstanding choice for the King and Queen of the Snow Dance. However, no snow and little dancing made the two just a damn solid couple. Lo did not place Xuan on a pedestal in a way that many of the more submissive girls did with their boyfriends. Most of the other women were passive and finite and would do whatever their boyfriends asked them to do. If a non college-prep boyfriend was conscripted into the People’s Army early due to their lack of academic excellence, the girl left at the dock would have a new boyfriend in a day or so. Hopefully, one that did a bit better in Linguistics and Philosophy.

So, to pass the time until graduation, Xuan began contemplating pranks to pull off in the school to beat away the boredom. After settling on his choice for college, Hue Tech, and being a good student, Xuan was the perfect candidate and last suspected to plan a few harmless capers. He knew the sacred cows, like the temples and the armory, and stayed clear of them to make sure he risked little. He had to start as early as possible, well before the last weeks of the school when senior class jokes became the rule, not the exception. He wanted timeless pranks that would serve as standards for forward-thinking students that followed him.

His first little prank started with the school’s intercom system and he changed the radio frequency from the People’s Radio of Vietnam (920 AM) to the Voice of America Asian Service (1100 AM). It was a old Russian system and all he had to do was to slide the frequency labels around about ninety degrees to make the new station look the like the old. In addition to superior music selection, the VOA was far more effective in the simple things, such as the correct time and good weather. This lasted almost the entire rest of the year and was changed only the day before a compliance audit/inspection occurred from the State. Xuan assumed that everyone liked it better, including the teachers, but was switched back only due to the fear and retribution of a bad score. It was a good joke but he needed something a bit more overt.

The next escapade involved changing the posted school menus. He had subconsciously memorized the menus simply out rote consistency and it was easy to copy the format so it appeared the same to the uninterested. There isn’t much change in the menu anyway so to modify it just enough without getting caught was easy. As a rule, nothing changed in the administration of his school and this was also true about the menus. The school started on the same day every year (a few times it was on a Sunday), the school ended on the same day every year and everything in between was the same as well. Classes, books, assignments, instructors, projects, readings, announcements and every event imaginable occurred as it had done for decades. The only thing that every changed were the names of the students and they were painfully similar to make the whole school look like a never-ending tape loop of education.

So, with the unannounced change in the menu came chaos. Xuan added fish head stew and lilac cakes to Friday’s menu, causing the lower class to refuse to all the seniors to eat first. The novelty and love for the stew caused hundreds of the freshman class to rise up and refuse seniors their only true right of eating first. Seniors who had long since ignored the menu lists because of common sense clashed with the freshman, the only ones still na´ve enough to look at the menus. When the fish head stew was proclaimed via the posted menu, the freshman went absolutely batshit crazy and this selection was the final straw prior to the lunch revolution. The battle lasted almost the entire lunch hour with dozens of students suffering bruises from flying bowls and related injuries. It was only after the infirmed were toted off did someone realize that there was no fish head stew (as promised) but only rice-gruel casserole, as usual.

His final prank was to place toilet paper in the boys and girls bathroom. Toilet paper was considered a foolish luxury and was only used by high party officials and B-girls because of their sophisticated western ways. Xuan lifted two cases of it from an abandoned supply cache he had discovered as a freshman a few clicks past the soccer field. He could not bring it home, as the folks would pepper him with questions. And, because they were good soldiers, the possessions of a few always lost out to the collective good of the masses. In other words, Xuan was screwed either way: he could bring it home and get yelled at and lose anything of value or leave it for someone else to find it and lose the stuff forever. He had inventoried the stuff and over the years, and systematically stripped it clean over the years and all that remained on any value was the paper. There was first aid supplies that were quietly sold through black market for pocket money and a nice collection of ordinance that was sold out to the piece when Xuan needed a new bike, clothes, new pajamas or presents for the family. He had a school chum who was an effective intermediary that moved the stuff at good prices and total anonymity. Finally, other than the toilet paper, there was an impressive collection of Russian pornography that eventually burned due to its vile nature. Xuan didn’t know the various degrees of pornography but he knew it was not the typical stuff. Coming from a semi-Puritan (Vietnamese Puritan) upbringing, Xuan didn’t understand it and try as he might, he didn’t want to risk being caught with this crap so he torched it.

All the remained for the final prank was the toilet paper. The paper left Xuan in a strange paradox: the waste of manufacturing something that only the bourgeoisie could use versus the challenge of marketing it to the masses. To open up markets, he had to lower class boundaries that have been comfortable of wiping their asses with palm fronds for the last ten centuries. To open up minds, he had to devise a way to market and price the stuff that could be afforded by Mr. and Mrs. Ninh B. Nguyen and if he could find a way to move toilet paper in Hanoi, he could become a legend. However, that was easier said than done because no one could even imagine such a product because they were incapable of keeping their mind open for alternative solution to the accessible frond. Sometimes, as a special occasion, as ass was wiped with newspaper but for the most part, even that was considered wasteful.

After planning it carefully, Xuan snuck in the school early as the perimeter guards stood down after 4 am because no one broke into the school early, just at night. No sense risking his ride to Hue Tech for a silly prank so he took the time less involved and walked through the entire campus and carefully placed a roll near each dump hole and was careful not to walk through the standing puddles where he could leave a clue. Xuan did his job, placed the remaining dozen roles in the teacher’s elevated dump hole and left via the back soccer field. He arrived at school at his usual time and met with his friends briefly in front of the main struggle wall as he had been doing for the last four years. Nothing was going to be discovered immediately as people took care of business before heading to school. Because the only thing worse than your own dump hole was a community dump hole. Xuan knew that and surrounded himself with his usual friends, doing the usual things. Approximately lunchtime, a sophomore boy ran out of a nearby bathroom with a roll of toilet paper streaming behind him.

"Look at this!" said the sophomore. "I have toilet paper!"

"The little bug must be a prostitute or a pimp!" shouted one of Xuan’s buddies, "where is your Zil, American Pimp?"

The crowds converged as the boy explained that the stuff was not his but it was found in a bathroom. Many of the students had only heard of such a thing and reached out to touch it. The paper, many years past it’s ideal absorption date, tore easily and sheets littered the quad. Soon, others can out from different parts of the school with other rolls and the populace collectively demonstrated a confused mob mentality that was truly beautiful to Xuan. No one got hurt and rolls seemed to appear from everywhere, leaving the square encased in white. The first side to side toilet papering the town had ever seen.

Lo, sidled next to him and said, "It is a beautiful thing."

Xuan, smirking, said, "Good times…let’s go."

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