A new book by another Hawaii resident, Craig Stevaux, is something of a cousin to “Hustle the East.”
Stevaux’s book, “Harvest of A Quiet Eye,” is also a memoiristic novel that takes place in the same timeframe just across the river and down the road in Udorn, Thailand. The author, a Peace Corps volunteer, was teaching English in Udorn about the same time as Benny Bendit, the American narrator in Part 1 of “Hustle” is teaching English in Vientiane, 50 miles away.
In some ways, Vientiane is far more sophisticated than Udorn, by dint of its French colonial background, but in other ways, Udorn is more culturally challenging. due to the rural and conservative character of the people. (Many Issan families trace their roots back to Laos, which was conquered more than once by Siamese, with the result that some of its land and population became Thai.)
Thailand’s social and education systems were and still are far more evolved than those of Laos. On the other hand, in the 1970s, many Lao students in the main cities still took secondary education in French language.
As new arrivals in their respective Buddhist kingdoms, the fictional Benny Bendit and Stevaux’s hero the Belgian American Malcolm Jossogne are equally confounded by the cultural differences they encounter on a daily basis, and amused by what they learn about language teaching, language learning and local customs.
However there’s a huge difference between the two teachers from the American heartland, having to do with the strength of their moral character. Benny Bendit arrives in Laos as a semi-idealist, hoping somehow to erase the image of the Ugly American but he is soon corrupted by the lotus-eating lifestyles of expat Americans. Malcolm, the Peace Corps volunteer from Wisconsin, remains true to his ideals. As F-4 fighter jets and Air America planes operate out of Udorn, he stands alone as a voice against the American wars in Vietnam and Laos. What’s more Malcolm is steadfast in rejecting the westernizing influences and general Ugly Americanness of G.I.s who disrupt the cultural norms of the local populace.
When it comes to romance, the apple of Malcolm’s eye is Orawan, a chaste student teacher, obsessed with being riaproy, behaving properly. Meanwhile with her country falling into the hands of Communists, “Hustle’s” Chansamone liberates herself from cultural norms, and couldn’t give a damn about what others fthink about her.
Given their differences, it’s a sure bet that Benny and Malcolm, Chansamone and Orawan, will come to very different ends.