Written by João Cerqueira – Choosing the Sociology course was the best decision of my life. It was only then that I began to understand the complexity of the world, the invisible powers that decided the fate of humanity, and how information and the democratic system itself were being manipulated. Many teachers were important, but none can be compared to Alois Cohen. He opened my eyes. Conservative education given by my parents and the standardized education system had made me an uncritical citizen, a consumer. With Professor Cohen, everything changed. In less than a year, I thoroughly reviewed my way of thinking.
This afternoon, Professor Cohen gave a lecture at the university. The auditorium was crowded with students and other teachers. Everyone admired his erudition, his ability to relate facts, his courage – or almost everyone. This day he was going to explain the relationship between colonialism, the wealth of the West and terrorism. As usual, he was standing. The ceiling lights seemed to be all trained on him. Under that white light, his tall, thin figure, his silver hair, and his blue eyes almost made us feel as if we were in front of a deity.
“For centuries the West invaded, occupied, enslaved, robbed, and humiliated millions of human beings around the world. From the fifteenth century, England, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal were launched to conquer the world. The expansion of the Christian faith was an excuse. The need for slaves, raw materials, gold, silver and spices was the reason behind European discoveries. These are the roots of capitalism; it’s all related. The West’s wealth is based on the deaths of millions of human beings and the plundering of its resources. That’s why the Industrial Revolution intensified expeditions to occupy the interior of Africa. And, since the twentieth century, we, America, became the new world conqueror. Yes, my friends, even if in high school you have been taught to be proud of our history, the truth is this: the actions of America in the last hundred years are nothing but a crime against humanity. How many wars have we fought? How many countries have we invaded? How many dictators have we supported? And we did it because of democracy and human rights? Noble motives encouraged us? No! We did it for the oil and other natural resources. It is, therefore, normal that people who for so long were beaten and humiliated, first by Europe and then by us,now want to take revenge. Haven’t we done the same? Haven’t we bombed Germany and launched atomic bombs on Japan in retaliation for their aggression? So,because America was the biggest offender of the twentieth century, and remains this way in the twenty-first century, it is against America that the fury of those people turns back.
The nine-eleven …”
At that time I had to leave and return to my house. In fact, I had heard that theory more than once in Professor Cohen’s classes. And whenever I tried to discuss it at home, I ended up arguing with my father. When I entered, he and my mother were already seated at the table.
“Sorry I’m late, but there was a very interesting conference …”
My father interrupted me immediately.
“From that traitor who teaches you to hate America, I bet…”
Few things infuriated me more than insults against Professor Cohen. Especially when coming from people with little education and who had never traveled, as was the case of my father. What did he know about history and international politics? How could he understand the complex web involving economic interests and rulers’ decisions? How could he understand the importance of Sociology? The only thing he read was sports in the newspaper. I should have changed the subject, but I couldn’t.
“Do not speak about what you do not know. He is much more a patriot than you … ”
“Ah, ah, ah, good joke …” This was his technique to ridicule me when he didn’t have more arguments.
At that time, my mother intervened.
“Stop it right away, I’m sick of this conversation.” Her voice showed who indeed was the boss. At such times, her gray eyes looked like steel blades. Had she lived in Europe’s fifteenth century, my mother could have commanded an expedition to conquer new land.
But tonight my father dared to disobey. His strategy was to softly smile, while he lowered his voice. If he affronted her directly, the captain of our boat would put him in chains in the basement.
“My dear, this is not a strife. It is a conversation between father and son, and I love that you also participate. It is important that we transmit values to our children, right? I therefore ask you both to listen to me carefully as I will try to explain myself better this time.”
My mother gave him a wary look, while biting her lips. She felt she was being, somehow, cheated. However, she didn’t want to be responsible for a silent dinner and, perhaps, have to sleep alone that night. Eventually she released a sigh that meant she was washing hands like Pilate. The captain of our boat left the crew by itself. If there were a sinking, do not come to her for help.
I called the storm. “I know you’re going to talk about grandfather, how he died fighting the Nazis …”
My father interrupted me. “You bet, because it was thanks to him and other Americans that Europe was liberated from the Nazis. And after the war, without our help, Europe would have been again invaded by the Russians. Do you understand? Apart from that, we lent them money to rebuild their cities and, perhaps, they have not paid us everything yet. Europeans like to criticize us because of inequalities, racism, excessive crime, excessive prisoners, the death penalty, the Iraq war, this and that, but when they have problems, they come to us to ask help. They’re hypocrites. There is only freedom in the world because of America. And as for you, do not forget that if you are studying, have a car and can travel, something that most boys in the rest of the world do not have access, it is because you live in this country. So, do not be ungrateful. Wake up and do not allow yourself to be influenced by these communist teachers who have never worked in life. They hate America because they can do so. No one arrest them because of this and, unfortunately, they are even paid to teach their hatred to students. Let your professor try to go to a communist country and say such things. But that they didn’t teach you in college, did they?”
I would answer him, but my mother returned to the command.
“Well, for now that’s enough. Let’s change the subject. Do you like roast chicken?”
The rest of the dinner took place almost in silence, with not even a compliment for the delicious chicken, seasoned with spices from countries where we protected dictators. In the end, my mother looked at us, sighed, and went into the kitchen.
The next day, walking through the gardens of the university, I saw Giang. Her parents were Vietnamese who had emigrated to America after the war. She was born here and was the youngest of three sisters. She studied history and had obviously great interest in the Vietnam conflict and all issues related to Asia. She was very beautiful and I had already been tempted to ask her out, but there was a wall between us. Her ideas were bizarre: among other things, she, instead of considering that America had committed crimes against humanity in her country, tended to diminish this reality – “both sides committed atrocities, now most important is reconciliation” – and said she was grateful to this country for hosting her family. In my opinion, she thought so because she was a person who did not know where she belonged. Professor Cohen explained this once, for Cambodian refugees: they had lost their cultural references and tended to say what they expected Americans wanted to hear. They wanted to be more papist than the Pope. They were not a reliable source.
But that day, when I saw her smile at me, I could not resist. After all, it was enough to comply with only one rule: do not talk politics.
Giang was dressed in blue jeans, a green shirt and wore sneakers – she seemed embarrassed to wear Vietnamese clothes. Her straight hair streamed down her shoulders, her dark eyes sparkled, her pink lips contrasted with her dark skin. She never seemed so beautiful.
I invited her to sit on a bench under a tree and we started talking about the latest movies and books we had read, the best restaurants and bars; in short, about everything except politics. The conversation was lively. There actually were more interesting issues to address than the miseries of the world. And then, when Giang was telling me about a visit to an art gallery, Professor Cohen appeared.
“Giang, Peter, how’s your work?” He knew the names of all the students attending his classes.
I was so embarrassed that I could not even answer.
Giang stood up and just said, “Well,” and I imitated her then, like a child who is learning etiquette.
With a gesture, Professor Cohen told us to sit.
“Inform your colleagues that next week I will be away. I will be in Istanbul at a conference on Globalization.”
He turned his back and walked away.
In the following days I continued to meet with Giang and then she suggested that I enter into mined territory: she wanted to take me to her parents’ house. I should have known that she was not like the other girls. Until then we had avoided discussing politics,but now there was a danger of her parents speaking of Vietnam. It was very likely that they were still more obtuse than my father. Napalm bombs began exploding in my head.
Giang should have smelled the explosions as she hastened to reassure me. “Don’t worry, they are very reserved. The meeting won’t be long.”
Apparently, I could climb the Mekong River without having to shoot the Colonel Kurtz.
The visit to Giang parent’s home was on a Sunday afternoon. Knowing that they were a conservative family, I put on a suit, a tie and black shoes. I left my house singing The End and went to meet her.
When she saw me dressed like that, she laughed.
“Did someone die?”
They lived in a residential upper-middle class area, being owners of a house with a garden. Giang told me that they had started working as employees in a restaurant, but five years later, her mother became a secretary and her father an accountant. Her mother’s name was No Min; her father’s was John Min. This name change proved to me Professor Cohen’s theory that many emigrants forswore their origins to try to be accepted in the country that hosted them. It was clear that they had exercised a harmful influence on Giang, from which she could not break free.
They were both at the entrance of the house, dressed in Western clothes, and received me with great friendliness. I bowed and they seemed to be surprised by my greeting. Giang laughed and shook her head. The interior was similar to that of my parents’ house: a living room with a sofa and a TV; a dining room next door; and a kitchen in another room and I was no longer surprised to find no reference – a painting with tigers, a statue of Buddha, a golden carpet – to the Vietnamese culture. They were truly lost people. What would we talk about? Reality shows? Weather forecast? Karaoke?
When Giang said that she and her mother were going to the kitchen to prepare us something to eat, I wasn’t surprised. The Vietnamese culture ruled over the American one. That house had a patriarchal system where women were reduced to the status of housekeeper. And worse was that Giang and her mother seemed to be proud of their roles. I looked at them with some pity.
Meanwhile, her father invited me to sit on the couch. We were a meter apart and he gave me a goofy smile and said nothing. My hands were fighting against each other like two animals in a cage. The tie was choking me. The shoes pressed my feet. At least my dad just said what he thought at once. I was about to invent an excuse to go away when he spoke.
“Why do you study sociology?”
The question caught me off guard. The fight between my hands ended. I tried to explain in a simple way.
“I study Sociology to better understand humanity. This discipline teaches us that there are no superior or inferior cultures. There are no good or bad. Sociology promotes the meeting of civilizations and helps us build a better world. I do not know if I made myself clear…”
He heard me attentively, rubbing his chin. He no longer smiled.
“I have read something about it. The appreciation of ethnic minorities and equating her voice to the dominant cultures is what interests me in sociology. I consider it very important to be taught that my opinion is as important as anyone else’s opinion. I do not know if I made myself clear.”
At that moment, Giang returned from the kitchen with an apron. Her cheerful expression became serious. I realized that something had happened. Had her mother burned herself at the stove. Giang approached, asked permission to interrupt us, and showed us a news item on the screen of her tablet.
There was a suicide bombing attack in an Istanbul hotel. More than twenty people were killed, including four Americans.
João Cerqueira is the author of eight books.
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Best Book Awards 2013, the Beverly Hills Book Awards 2014, the Global Ebook Awards 2014, was finalist for the Montaigne Medal 2014 (Eric Offer Awards) and for The Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards 2014 and was considered by ForewordReviews the third best translation published in 2012 in the United States.
The second coming of Jesus (A segunda vinda de Cristo à Terra) won the silver medal in the 2015 Latino Book Award.
The short story A house in Europe won the 2015 Speakando European Literary Contest, received the bronze medal in the Ebook Me Up Short Story Competition 2015 and an honorable mention in the Glimmer Train July 2015 Very Short Fiction Award.
His works are published in The Adirondack Review, Ragazine, Berfrois, Cleaver Magazine, Bright Lights Film, Modern Times Magazine, Toad Suck Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Danse Macabre, Contemporary Literary Review India, Open Pen Magazine, Queen’s Mob, The Liberator Magazine, Narrator International, The Transnational.