Karina is cornered at the kitchen table, hemmed in by a crowd of fellow party-goers and birthday well-wishers. Salsa music and the low buzz of conversation wafts in from the other room. I’m absolutely terrible at social whatever, squatting with my back against the refrigerator and petting the dog, while Gelani, the birthday boy, makes a pot full of rice and stirs the soup.
Everyone wants to talk to Karina about Cuba, nothing new. I’ve been in plenty of parallel situations with her before, listening patiently while she reluctantly plays native informant for an audience eager for revolutionary authenticity. It seems Afro-Cuban music is all the rage, and everyone inquires after Castro’s health, lets her know that they plan on visiting her native country soon. It’s a romantic vision of socialist Cuba they want her to affirm; because it’s a party and Gelani’s birthday, after all, Karina is polite, fielding their questions with a smile. She makes the occasional joke about government soap, but I don’t know that anyone quite catches on.
As we leave, I tease Karina about her popularity, faking a pout and looping my arm through hers. “Viet Nam is a socialist country, too, you know. We defeated both French colonization and big bad U.S. imperialism. Doesn’t that count for something? How come I don’t see Ho Chi Minh’s face on watches and t-shirts? Why do you get all the attention at parties?”
She answers, of course, in the spirit of solidarity. “Girl, you’re right, it’s not fair. Okay, next time someone wants to talk to me about Cuba, I’ll say, ‘Don’t you want to talk to Mimi, too? She’s from Viet Nam!'”
We laugh, imagining the stumbling responses and stuttering blank looks.
Karina and I have racked up a series of similar anecdotes, respectively noting the ways in which people approach “our” revolutions (we do get possessive sometimes) with the romanticized vocabulary of Third World insurrection. (We poke, uh, gentle fun at things like “solidarity” tours in which First World leftist tourists get to work on a Cuban sugar plantation –set up specifically for such tourists– for a day.) Both of us born in our respective socialist countries, we were counted as “political refugees” by the U.S. government when our parents chose to leave. We’re left-leaning but critical of leftist or progressive orthodoxies for a variety of trespasses; besides the usual (bad gender analysis, rampant heterosexism, et cetera), we’re none too fond of the two-dimensionality Viet Nam and Cuba are afforded in the U.S. leftist imaginary. No one seems much interested –at parties at least– about the difficult realities of running post-revolutionary societies.
(The government soap is a sign; the difficulties of running a national economy under all kinds of pressures –including U.S. embargoes– means that the black market makes a killing on bars of Dove, while the cheap government soap feels more like a kitchen scrub. I remember the care packages my mom would make for her brother –before we were able to sponsor his family to immigrate to the U.S.– full of Hershey bars, Levi’s, and boxes of Marlboro cigarettes to sell on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Karina tells me stories about women smuggling anything from toilet paper to medicines in their clothes, their purses, bringing these and other contraband items to relatives on the island.)
Viet Nam, but Cuba as well, if not more so (seeing how much popular Karina is than me at parties), too often exist within the orthodox Left imaginary as mere names or, as Vietnamese feminist filmmaker and theorist Trinh Minh-ha writes, as “exemplary models of revolution, nostalgic cult objects.” There’s no room for complexity there, for examining local patriarchal formations (as if the proletariat wasn’t also sometimes the patriarch?) or even socialist ones (the proletariat specifically defined as a masculine model should not be surprising). No room for exploring lingering ethnic and racial tensions, which, surprise, still exist “even” within socialist nations. (What’s happening in Yugoslavia is a fine, fine example.)
And there’s something decidedly unromantic about the bureaucratic details of post-revolutionary governments, and I wonder sometimes if Viet Nam’s been abandoned by the U.S. leftist orthodoxy because its economic impoverishment has required, by necessity, concessions to capitalist development by transnationals and foreign investors. (Yes, I am resentful.) That, or such conditions are ignored, so when a First World leftist academic notes that the Cuban national ballet company performs so beautifully —Swan Lake on his last trip there– Karina answers with a straight face, “Oh really? I’ve never gone; only tourists are really allowed in that area of Havana.”
And so the realities of revolution, how to radically reorder the economy, the administrative and judicial structures in a post-revolutionary society–?
No one’s asking.