Archive for the 'Expatify' Category

A Small Kind of Gift: Dancers Behind the Glass

Skyline, sunset, nine stories up.

Sitting in a glass room that doesn’t feel entirely dissimilar to a cage. An antiseptic cage, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, white crisp lines, a little terrace landscaped with rocks and moss in a manner vaguely Zen. I’m early for tutoring, or rather the girls are late, and I’m sitting in the office of a penthouse apartment in Hoan Kiem, a brand-spanking highrise in the heart of the Old Quarter. The city is a muffled din, a streak of smog rising like…

It’s okay, to just be sitting there, killing time. I stare out the window: construction cranes and skeletons, buildings wrapped in that green-mesh scaffolding that moves a little in the breeze. There’s a breeze today, outside that glass; it’s been the most goddamn beautiful day I’ve seen in Hanoi so far, one of those days that makes your heart hurt, that after the months of suffocating heat and before the months of demoralizing cold is so perfect it makes you wanna cry.

There’s a building across the way. It’s taller than the one I’m in, big sign “Office Space For Lease” draped across the tinted glass at my eye-level. A co-conspirator.

There’s this one corner that catches my eye—the way the light hits, the building is all black except for this one corner on this one floor, shot through with a stab of pink. I sit there staring at it, swiveling a little in my swivel chair.

Then I see it—a flash of black. In the window of that one corner, two black bodies move. They turn, dip, step, recede.

They’re dancing.

I lean forward, smile.

It happens again: two silhouettes, arms held, hands clutched, backs stiff and legs sweeping. Like ballroom dancing.

They come in and out, the black of the bodies appearing from the black of the building, cast against the sky.

I count: appear, step, recede. Appear, step, recede.

I smile. I grin. I lean forward in my swivel chair; I want to call out to them. I want to tap on the glass and wave my arms and say something. What? That I see them? That we’re both up there, trapped in glass above the city? That from where I’m sitting they look stunning and mysterious and hypnotic, like a small kind of gift?

Then I see more. I see six bodies, three couples, all backlit; I see ponytails and a pork pie hat, the way a girl’s dress is tied around her waist in a big loose bow. It’s some kind of class, I think; there were six all along and I’d just been seeing the spin of them, one at a time, circling past the window.

The light shifts. It’s sinking and it sucks some of the black off the building. I can see more of their outlines—someone’s wearing a white t-shirt. I can see two of those cardboard filing boxes stacked against the window, by what looks like carpet, what looks like those long plastic Venetian blinds that make a little clacking noise when you brush against them. I imagine brushing against them. I imagine the beaded cord in my fingers, or else just hanging there, half-pulled.

The bodies all stand there, no longer dancing. Their backs are to me, looking out through the glass at the skyline.

I don’t want to tap on the glass anymore. I don’t want to call out to them, say whatever it was I didn’t know how to say. It’s enough that they’re there, ballroom dancing in an empty office building nine stories above the city, flashing black at me like a peek-a-boo, like a light charade, like one of those spinning lanterns you’d see at the science museum gift shop, with the racing horses or zooming rocketships, going round and around in an optical illusion that would always stop eventually, sag to a stop and take the magic with it.

I sit in the swivel chair, waiting for the girls. Downstairs in the kitchen, I can hear something frying, hissing as it hits the oil.

“You Don’t Have To Like It But…”: A West Oakland Story About Vietnamese Culture

Still waiting for someone to explain this one

When I moved to Hanoi, there was this refrain I kept hearing the long-term expats say: “You don’t have to like Vietnamese culture, but you have to respect it.”

Which makes sense, you know; you don’t have to be a historian to know that these are the folks who beat the Chinese, beat the French, beat the Americans. It’s not a touchy-feely, graceful, charming culture; it may be abrasive and loud and pushy, but as they say, you’ve gotta respect it.

Well, I do like Vietnamese culture, at least so far, so it’s a two-for for me. But the longer I stay here, the more I realize that there’s some stuff I already knew about Vietnamese culture, if only in brief glimpses. Now I just have a larger context to put it in.

For example: there’s this story my mom used to tell that keeps rising up out of the fog of childhood memories as I’m walking around Hanoi. It’s one of the many my mom has from her years teaching kindergarten in West Oakland during the 1980s.

For the uninitiated, West Oakland is a kind of urban no-man’s-land, a place where “the rules of normal society don’t apply,” my mom always said. It was the kind of place where you’d see things you normally don’t see in the developed world—packs of stray dogs, unsupervised three-year-olds walking around, shootings in broad daylight, junkies lined up for their morning fix.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about West Oakland too, been working on this monster piece (that currently falls apart right at the climax) about the neighborhood, which I never lived in but had a consistent relationship with my whole 28 years living in Oakland. My dad worked in a fire station there; my brother worked at a swimming pool there; an old boyfriend lived in a notorious punk house there.

So there’s no shortage of stories, and seeing as though I don’t want to spoil what may eventually turn into a workable piece, I’ll keep them to myself for now. Except the one I keep thinking of, the one of a little Vietnamese girl in my mom’s kindergarten class.

In the 1980s Oakland’s working class neighborhoods were flooded with Southeast Asian refugees, from Laos and Cambodia (“We had a bring a translator in to tell the Cambodian boys they couldn’t piss on the playground”), but mostly from Vietnam. Oakland had always had tons of Chinese people, but these new Asians were a different breed; we didn’t really know much about them.

It’s a funny thing to grow up around immigrant communities, because you get these whiffs of a culture. It’s different, a culture in diaspora; everything is cut through the prism of the American immigrant experience, which skews things, makes them not-quite-actually-how-they-are. But you get these glimpses, these insights; you get a vague understanding of what people from Vietnam are like—”tough as shit” was the usual way we summed it up—and while these glimpses are incomplete and reductionist, they aren’t entirely inaccurate.

So. My mom’s in West Oakland, teaching to a population that’s the dictionary definition of At-Risk Youth: majority African-American, low-income, single-parents, high prevalence of drug use and criminal activity in the household. Now sprinkled with fresh-off-the-boat war refugees. #nottheshittheytrainyoufor

In those days the Oakland Public School curriculum had a heavy focus on African-American history and culture. Maybe it still does. I went to a different school in a different neighborhood, but it was still the same jam—teaching subject matter that related to the students’ lives. It wasn’t a bad idea and could have worked, if it’d been supplemented with other curriculum, like say science.

So my mom is teaching away—Follow the Drinking Gourd; Go Tell It On the Mountain; Honey I Love,; “The people walked walked walked / Till their feet were sore inside / Till their shoes split open wide / But still they would not ride”; “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff / Wasn’t scared of nothing neither / Didn’t come into this world to be no slave / And wasn’t gonna stay one neither.” Every month was Black History Month, an attempt to counter the Euro-centric narrative that dominated most public school education. Except it wasn’t exactly inclusive; except it left out all the other kids in the classroom who were also of color.

So one day, towards the middle of the school year, when all those immigrant kids were starting to get conversant in English, a scrappy little Vietnamese girl looks up from her Montgomery bus coloring sheet or some shit and announces, “I’m tired of learning about black people.”

There was a dead silence in the room.

“You know,” my mom would say when she’d tell the story, laughing and shaking her head. “You kinda had to hand it to her. There wasn’t a scrap of grace or tact in there, and you knew her life wasn’t gonna be easy in Oakland—but you know, you had to respect the guts it took to say it.”

The longer I stay in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, the more this story seems to encapsulate a fuck of a lot about Vietnamese culture. It’s not soft. It’s not gentle. It’s not palms-pressed-and-bowing subservience. #fuckthatanyway

But you’ve gotta respect it.

Today I Spent $9 on Muesli

It Takes A Village (Or At Least Two Teachers and a Slew of Advice Givers)

I live inside an archway. Do YOU live inside an archway?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But how many people does it take to teach one giant terrified Westerner to drive a motorbike?

So I’m back to trying to learn to drive. I hope people reading this from other locations don’t think driving a motorbike is actually that challenging. It’s really just that I’m mildly retarded when it comes to physical things (or regular things); that I’m a big fucking terrified baby; and that I don’t have a whole lot else going on in my life here to talk about, a life that is small and cozy and pretty darn good.

My first shot at driving was right when I got here. I’d been in Hanoi all of a week; it was 115 degrees; my life was in shambles/3 bags. And I’d still never ridden a bicycle. Given those circumstances I did pretty well. I met an OG expat who offered to give me lessons, one of those weathered old dudes you know has about a million stories hidden in the folds of their baggy clothing and leathered skin (such as, oh, hitchhiking from Paris to Katmandu in 1972).

After the first “lesson” I got demoted from motorbike to bicycle. We borrowed a bike from the neighboring fried fish stall and wheeled it over to the temple across the street, right on the lake—one of those little pockets of stillness in this big crazy city.

It got to be a thing, those first few weeks—meeting for coffee, going to the temple, Daniel clutching the seat and running behind me like I was five. I was equally into the lessons for the bits of stories that would leak out (“The ship docked in Cairo and my mother went out, hawked a ring to buy medicine for me”) as for the bike riding. I’d let the stories distract me from my fear as I tried to pedal on my own—wobbled and fell over as Daniel strolled pensively, snapping photos and smoking cigarettes and remarking, “Six meters!” when I finally started to get it.

There were a bunch of vendors at the temple, selling bottles of water and gum and candies, those little single packets of rice crackers, and they got to know us. They all thought I was Daniel’s daughter, he told me, which was funny cause I was a different race and about a foot taller. They were all quite liberal with the advice too, which they shouted out to me in Vietnamese as though I’d actually understand, in a way that I was beginning to understand as totally characteristically Vietnamese. It didn’t seem so different from the way the ladies at the Vietnamese nail salons in Oakland would bark at me when I’d walk in: “Ok, manicure, you pick a color!”

One lady in particular would get real into it, walk up to the handlebars and gesture and point and rattle on, then stop and smile at me, laugh a little.

“She’s right,” Daniel would say. “You need to look up.”

She was the lady who leapt up and applauded when I finally made it 20 meters by myself. I wobbled past and grinned.

“How old are most people in America when they learn to ride a bike?” Daniel asked later over coffee.

I shrugged. “Five or six.”

“And how old are you?”

“29.” I looked into my coffee, ashamed.

Daniel nodded, took a long drag. “So today you have grown 26 years.”

I smiled.

It was all going great, going just swimmingly, until the next lesson when he’d decided I was ready to go back on the motorbike. It was an especially hot day; I’d come over to his house and he was fighting with his girlfriend; we’d gone to a different temple and I’d fallen over about ten times, shaky from the heat and the frustration, my legs bashed by the foot pegs so many times they’d looked like bruised bananas the next day. I’d also gotten three jobs and a private student by that point, all scattered in a fucked-up hodge-podge of hours. I decided to go on motorbike-driving-learning hiatus until my schedule mellowed and the heat broke.

Which would be about now. I’ve got my regular dude I use—a whole crew of xe oms, actually, who all live on my peninsula, who were mean and yell-y and mad-dogging at first but who now smile and wave at me when we pass, in another way that has started to seem characteristically Vietnamese to me, like I had to earn it.

But not driving in Hanoi sucks. It’s expensive and you can’t fucking go anywhere and you’re reliant on your friends and you get stuck places and it gets even harder to motivate yourself to ever leave the air-conditioned comfort of your bedroom.

Daniel’s busy working as a personal tour guide for eccentric wealthy people, so I’ve nominated my roommate as my new teacher. He seems okay with the role, though I guess he doesn’t really have a choice. I rented an automatic bike—”retard-proof,” Jacob calls it—and for a week now we’ve gone out, toodling around the peninsula in the evenings or the afternoons.

See: Magical. #nofilter

Our peninsula is kinda a magical place, like a little village smack in the middle of Hanoi. It’s got those rural rhythms, the expectedness of things: the bun cha stall that’ll be smoking meat in the mornings; the boys that play football in the road in the afternoons; the evening drink stall; the woman who rolls her clothing and bra cart out at exactly four o’clock everyday. It’s got the village characters too—the homecoming king and queen, who are the proprietors of the cafe we go to, always smiling and graceful and classy; the fat babies; the deranged rooster who shits on the cafe tables; the zealous young woman always kneeling at her altar (“like Carrier’s mom”); the woman who boils her stinky herb tea in the alleyway cause it’s too stinky to boil in the house; the four old military men who march around, “their evening constitution,” with straight backs and high knees, wearing their old army-issued socks.

My favorite person on the whole peninsula is the little water-brained dude. He’s really little, like under five feet and scrappy too. His facial features are a bit squished and his hair is stringy, bald on top cause I see him sitting there, on the bench or leaning on the railing, staring into the lake as he picks at his hair. It’s not so common to see mentally disabled people in this part of the world; they’re usually shamefully tucked away, out of sight, so I like seeing him. I also just like him; he’s got a good sweet vibe to him. We started smiling and waving to each other and when I come down the block I always kinda look for him, get bummed if he’s not sitting there.

We see all the characters as we toodle around, chatting and bullshitting, Jacob giving me pointers that my brain understands but my body can’t follow. Complicated stuff like, “Don’t put your foot down” or “Don’t yank the handlebars.” The neighbors here have also begun to chime in with advice and encouragement—one man making throttle motions, sliding his hands together in a way that indicates that at any moment, any moment he expects me to just soar off in competent confidence. Right, I think, smiling and looking away.

So the other day we were at it, putzing slowly, when we came around the bend and I saw my water-brained friend. He started waving to me. “He’s totally you’re homie,” Jacob remarked as we approached.

“Totally,” I said.

We inched up and my homie started to say something to me in his garbled Vietnamese.

Jacob nodded. “He’s right.”

“What?”

“He says you need to put your feet up.”

I turned to my homie, shrugged my hands in the air. He grinned and laughed.

“This is great,” I said to Jacob as we eased down the alleyway back towards our house. “Like, if you’re ever busy one day, I could just get my homie to give me lessons.”

We laughed, shook our heads at the bumbling ludicrousy of me as we rumbled past the trash bags and kitten cages, the pot of stinking tea boiling beside the gate.

A Year and Counting

The good ole’ lake

A year ago today, I laced up my running shoes and walked down the steep cement slant of my parents’ block for one final run around Lake Merritt.

It was a drizzly cold day, nothing like Indian Summer is supposed to be in the Bay Area, all crisp skies and fogless mornings. It was brisk but in a good way, a way that makes your run better, that invigorates you—that, when you come around the bend to the intersection where you usually cross the street and go back up the hill, you keep going. You go another lap, dodge the geese shit and dinging bells of the bicyclists, pass the cackling dreadlocked dude always posted at the bridge; the patch of trees that smell like maple syrup; the playground you used to go to as a kid; the boathouse you used to drop off time sheets at; the hedge maze they planted when you were a kid that never grew, all the geese eating the seeds so that it’s still just a mossy stump, raising like a ringworm in the ground. Know every step, every inch of gravel, the tree roots to avoid cause they’ll twist your ankle.

Stop back at the intersection, your hands on your knees and breathe. It’s the first time in all your 28 years that you’ve ever ran twice around the lake.

Switch back to the first person: I left my home a year ago today. After that run, I went back to my parents’ house, showered under that gloriously high-pressure nozzle in that green bathroom they remodeled when I was 12 (time capsule letter still nailed to a stud inside the wall somewhere). I said goodbye to the cat (who was so old I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see again, and I was right), and carried my bags to the car.

We went for lunch at a neighborhood sushi joint; I had a seaweed salad; we walked over to Boot & Shoe where I got a cappuccino and a pastry for the plane and said one last goodbye to my co-workers. Hugged my mom. Drove across the bridge with my dad. Looked out the window at the familiar landscape: the skyline of San Francisco, the row of billboards, the bend in the road, the traffic tangling then loosening, roadside giving way to the clapboard suburbs of South San Francisco. Planes arching, Airport Parking and shuttle buses—knowing again every inch, each sign, a route I’d taken a thousand times, it felt like, on a thousand trips but this time I wasn’t coming back.

Hugged my dad on the curb. Walked into the airport, alone.

I was rereading the posts from a year ago, all the commotion and to-do leading up to my leaving. It could have been worse, could have been a lot more dramatic and I think if I’d decided to run off and be an expat any earlier in my life, it would have been. I was struck by the anxiety of those posts—I didn’t remember being that anxious. I’d already edited that out, made my leaving and my last summer in the States into something more bittersweet and stoic than it was actually was. It was hard.

The whole time I knew I was making the right decision, knew that for whatever reason I had to go; I’d grown all I was going to grow in that life there, as good as it was. I felt this kind of bell tolling. I thought the bell was Cambodia, I thought the bell was supporting myself as a freelancer while writing a book on a subject that terrified me. That didn’t turn out to be it at all, but I still believe there was a bell.

I was thinking a lot about what I wanted my one-year post to be about. Nothing is how I’d envisioned it’d be a year ago, when I stood in line at the check-in counter, my three ridiculous bags strapped to my body at various angles. The freelancing dream lasted four months before I had to start teaching. The book project crumbled just about the moment I reached Cambodia. Cambodia, well, that’s another story, one I don’t even know how to tell yet. And now Hanoi—four months and starting to feel like home, starting to get it dialed in to this perfect, almost-cocoon-like existence. A city I hated the first time I visited—who’d have thought?

So I’ve learned a lot. A fuck of a lot. I’ve learned I’m a lot happier working a job that pays my bills and writing for the love. I’ve learned that I’m a shitty freelancer. I’ve learned that I’d rather tell people I meet that I’m a kindergarten teacher than a writer. I’ve learned that you have to deworm every six months, that boiling tap water doesn’t necessarily make it safe it drink, that there’s a kind of humidity that’ll sprout mold on your clothes in two weeks time.

But I think the most important thing I’ve learned in this year is that there’s this placeness, this center at the center of me. Does that make sense? Like, all those posts from a year ago, I was so mad anxious about leaving home for the first time. About not having a base, a place to come back to, my familiar people and places all waiting. Of course I was—I’d never really moved out of Oakland. It was a big leap.

But I’ve learned that there’s a stillness in me. It’s hard to get there and most of the time, I don’t think it shows; I’ll catch myself picking at my nails or digging at the scar of an old wart in a way that I know makes me look nervous, unsettled, like a goddamn lunatic. But there’s this other me, underneath that me, that’s always kinda been there. It’s the me I sink into on long bus rides, staring out the window and thinking about nothing. It’s the me I write from, in the best of times which isn’t very often—when the buzz of that other me dims, turns thin, goes away and my fingers move on the keyboard, almost independent of me, as though one part of me were telling another me a story.

And it’s the me that was sitting in the departure terminal of SFO a year ago, bags checked and pastry greasing up the thin bag, watching a guy in a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass shirt chase his tangle-haired toddler around. There was the surface me, sitting there tweeting some dumb shit, but there was also the center me, ready and waiting to board. A year ago today.

The Xe Om Saga, Part Two: Exactly 100% Like Dating

This, but in 115 degree heat

Remember that humorous, uplifting and vaguely life-affirming post I did a few months ago about finding the dream xe om driver?

Yeah well, that shit blew up.

The funny thing was I kept relating the search for a xe om to dating. Cause it’s totally similar. Which is NOT Vietnam specific; a far wittier and more insightful friend in Phnom Penh correctly surmised that having a regular tuk-tuk driver was always like having a boyfriend—the jealousy, the controlling, the weird reliance you have on them and the even weirder, unspoken power dynamics. (She told a hysterical story about getting into a fight with a tuk-tuk driver that culminated in her screaming, “You are not my boyfriend!”)

So, Hanoi: same jam, different mode of transit. The situation with Da devolved for a variety of reasons, which you can explore here (you’ve all been reading your Vela regularly, right? Riiiiight?!)—but the thing I didn’t get into in the piece is the way in which it was totally, 100% just like dating.

1. Suspicion: “He can’t possibly be interested in me.”
2. Disbelief: “Okay, so he’s interested but there’s gotta be a catch.”
3. Honeymoon: “Holy shit! He’s interested in me! And he’s not crazy!”
4. Settling In/Cracks Emerging: “Everyone’s human, no big.”
5. Ignoring of Flagrant Red Flags: “That’s totally NOT alcohol on his breath.”
6. Increase in Frequency of Red Flags, Combated with an Increase in Denial: “That’s not indicative of scary anger management issues! That’s not indicative of scary anger management issues!”
7. Realization: “Fuuuuuck. That’s indicative of scary anger management issues.”
8. Breaking Up: “But why do I still feel guilty?”

(Here it should be noted that while I’m completely powerless to stop this cycle, I do still have some shreds of self-preservation and have thus not dated in a long time. Like, a really long time.)

The only way in which my relationship with Da was not like dating was in the end: we only exchanged two texts after I dumped him. He didn’t show up at my work unannounced, didn’t harangue me on various forms of social media, didn’t leave sobbing messages on my phone at 4am (cause I don’t have voice mail, thankyouverymuch). And also dissimilar to real dating, I found a new dude the next day; it’s been two months and he has yet to show any signs of mental/emotional instability.

This isn’t just a haha funny thing. I remember when I realized that my patterns in relationships didn’t just apply to the romantic sphere but tentacled out into every relationship in my life: my work, my friendships, everything. Of course the same pattern would hold true for a motorbike driver, right? It’s not like I get to move across the planet and escape this shit.

I guess the crazy thing to me is how much we sniff each other out, without even knowing it. How much we communicate our various forms of brokenness and the compatibility of that brokenness, in some animal part of our brain we aren’t even aware is at work. How much we keep finding different versions of the same people, all over the goddamn earth. Who knew a 50-something Hanoian xe om would evoke the same emotions in me as a 22-year-old Oakland punk? It’s kinda remarkable, really.

But of course the real crazy thing is, after I’d been working on this piece for a few hours last Friday, I headed out to my meeting. I was walking up Xuan Dieu, listening to my headphones and dodging the blinding streak of headlights when whooooo should I see drive by?

Yeah, that’s who.

He said my name and gave a little wave.

Which was totally, 100% NOT like dating.

The World’s Worst Traffic Jam, or Back-of-the-Bike Cultural Reflections From a Non-Driving Coward

Since I am a complete and utter coward (no, traveling sola, moving across the planet to a developing country and regularly publishing uber personal essays DOES NOT count as “brave”), I’m still not driving a motorbike. I was working the whole I-just-arrived angle, then moved on to the I’m-working-6-days-a-week-and-it’s-115-degrees angle. But, after three months and with the seasons about to change, these excuses are expiring and leaving me with the stone-hard reality of my own cowardice.

Which I was contemplating on Wednesday when my xe om driver picked me up from my private tutoring gig over in the high-rise housing complex and was whisking me down around West Lake to the Old Quarter. I was on the back of bike, the day was sliding off like butter and it was perfect, you know—one of those pink glowing moments Hanoi gives you, when you’ve had your ass beat by the heat and humidity and exhaust all day, and suddenly there’s a softness, a breeze off the water and a sigh in the air, and suddenly the weaving of the bikes doesn’t seem like a haphazard plot to maim us all but like some crazy intricate dance choreographed by a mad man, or else like electrons buzzing and twitching and not colliding anywhere near as often as you’d reason they should, as they would if all there were was a human consciousness behind it.

Which is to say I was vibing hard with Hanoi, gazing out across the lake and feeling the breeze on my greasy-ass skin and thinking to myself, “It’s really time I learn to drive one of these things.”

And then we came around a bend, grinded to a stuttering halt and snared into the worst traffic jam I’ve ever been in.

You know that REM video? Hanoi puts that shit to shame. Instead of silently staring out from our own little isolated boxes of alienation, Hanoian traffic jams are pointing, honking, careening shitshows where the overarching MO seems to be Find Any Possible Space To Shove Your Bike And Ram It The Eff In There. Which is pretty much the MO for all the traffic here; it just gets intensified in a traffic jam, in fact makes the traffic jams worse because instead of negotiating the situation, teasing it apart like a hairball, more and more bikes get jammed into the situation, more and more aggressively.

The problem appeared to be two cars. There were coming down the same narrow street in opposite directions, attempting to pass one another. In theory, there was enough room for the maneuver; in actuality, since none of the surrounding bikes were willing to wait for the cars to pass each other and had instead tried to force their way between, around and alongside the cars, the situation had tangled and frozen into a gridlock.

People pointed. People sighed. People honked and idled and then cut their engines off. People drove up on the sidewalks, inched their way between each other until you could heard the crunch of bike parts tapping.

I for one was stoked to be not driving, not responsible for negotiating the mess. Like the small children wedged between their parents’ bodies, I got to space out and contemplate life and culture and the cool way the light shot off those reflective windmills.

Expats always complain about the traffic in Hanoi. It’s one of the hardest parts of living here; more than just aggravating, the traffic is loud, dangerous, life-threatening and lacking in much that resembles Western notions of order and safety.

So it’d surprised me when I’d heard my adult Vietnamese students complain about the traffic as well. “So noisy,” one man had said, pinching his eyes shut and shaking his head. “People very rude,” another woman had agreed. “Crazy. Like they want to die.”

This had struck me as funny, cause they were basically the same complaints expats have. And the first thought I’d had was, Well, it’s your city, why don’t you change this shit? Visions of Driver’s Ed courses and traffic lanes danced in my head, the same way visions of some take-charge traffic director with a clear grasp of spatial relationships and problem-solving skills floated in the air above the mammoth jam, in which my xe om and I had now been stuck for fifteen minutes.

But here’s the thing being an expat has taught me: you can’t get rid of your culture. Even the parts you hate, the parts you logically understand to be irrational, counterproductive, inhibiting, etc. It’s the same way people look at Americans and say, gun violence and lack of universal health care; they can shake their heads and ask, “How on earth can you let that go on?” Granted, there’s powerful lobbies behind anti-gun-control and health care as a private for-profit industry; while I can certainly point to those as reasons, at the end of the day I feel like that doesn’t account for all of it.

At the end of the day—the pink end of the pink day, which would be enjoyable if you weren’t mashed into an exhaust-sucking gridlock—the US’s oddities don’t feel that different from the Hanoian traffic: life-threatening phenomena that a lot of other cultures simply wouldn’t tolerate. There wouldn’t even be a debate around them, you know? And all I can do when people ask me about them is shrug and say, “It’s our culture.”

And it’s a funny thing, to watch yourself be a part of a culture, both independently aware of it but unable to stop yourself from being it, doing it, perpetuating it. I’m working at an international kindergarten these days; there’s some 30 nationalities present at the school and one of the craziest things is watching how even in two year olds, you can already see the cultural programming—the differences in the Koreans and the Israelis and the Australians. It’s given me a greater appreciation for the depth of culture, how it shapes every way we operate and function—or don’t operate and don’t function, how we get stuck in a completely avoidable gridlock on a pleasant autumn evening. I mean, how many times have I caught myself being the big, loud, ignorant American?—caught myself but been unable to stop myself?

And I guess it’s an even funnier thing to be completely outside of a culture, to sit on the back of a bike and watch all these Hanoians sigh and point and honk and know, you can tell, know that mashing themselves into every imaginable free space isn’t helping anything, but being unable to stop. Cause that’s the culture. And if you don’t do it, you’ll get run the eff over.

We made it out eventually. It only took thirty minutes. I said, “Yay!” and my xe om driver laughed, and the breeze came up off the lake again, the faster we moved. The bats dipped and the fishermen leaned on their poles and while I felt a certain degree of tolerance and understanding for the social programming that had created the jam, I did not in any way wish I had been the one driving, the one to have to negotiate that mess. Because I am a coward.

Bumrungrad, 8th Wonder of the World

Look closely—that security guard is SMILING

I’ve got a new travel activity to recommend to all Americans: getting a friggin medical check-up at friggin Bumrungrad.

Okay, so maybe not all Americans, just those who aren’t Congressmen or insanely wealthy. But for the rest of yous, the 99%ers—you need to get on this. It’s more mind-blowing than Machu Picchu, more culturally enlightening than the Vatican, steeped in more WTF-age than riding reliable, affordable public transit in fill-in-the-blank Western European city, when you begin to realize what’s actually possible in the world and how your Americanness has caused you settle.

Behold Bumrungrad: 8th Wonder of the World.

Bumrungrad Hospital is a big glittery hospital in Bangkok and the first place most Southeast Asian expats with medical insurance hope to get whisked off to in the event of one of those horrible, limb-mangling accidents that seem to come along with living in this part of the world. It’s the stuff of expat folklore: gleaming facilities, attentive doctors, phalanxes of nurses, fucking fresh-cut flowers in your private hospital room and on-site Starbucks.

Friends had recommended going there for a comprehensive health screening, the Big Mac of annual physicals, and seeing as though I both worked like a motherfuck this summer and hadn’t had an annual physical in like four annuals, I decided to treat myself. I booked a Regular health check-up package, though with a liver function panel, chest X-ray, stool exam AND a PAP, there was nothing really “regular” about it. For shits and giggles and an extra $30, I tacked on a thyroid level test, another thing I’m supposed to do every year but hadn’t in several.

It was my first morning in Bangkok. After Malaysia, I was more prepared for the plunge-into-wealth-and-consumerism that trips to the developed world now entail. I sat outside a money exchange house, waiting for it to open (it was only 7:30; did Bangkok not get the memo about the Asian world opening up shop at 6am?), before giving up and grabbing a motorbike across town. We weaved through the law-abiding, lane-driving, car-ridden traffic (ah) and the air felt cold and dry (ah) and I thought, Shit, I must really be living somewhere intense if Bangkok feels like a mellow, comfortable city.

After twenty minutes of high-rises and stoplights people actually stopped at, we pulled up in front of what looked like a 4-star hotel—valets and mirrored pillars and pruned shrubbery. I giggled.

I rode an elevator up to the Welcome Center, where a man pressed his palms together and bowed while another man whisked a big rolley chair out and seated me behind this massive desk, the Bangkok skyline stretching out in the floor-to-ceiling windows behind. I felt like a millionaire about to open a bank account. The man behind the desk asked me a few stock questions, clicked my photo, asked me to please wait just a quick moment while they printed my health card. He returned in about two minutes, apologizing graciously for the delay.

Yes, that’s a koi fish pond.

Things got more ridiculous when I rode the elevator up to the next floor, where smooth-voiced receptionists confirmed my information, directed me to the cashier (who accepted US dollars), and whisked me back to start my blood work. What was happening? Why wasn’t I being ignored? Where were the surly receptionists with mile-long fingernails who couldn’t tell me how much my co-pay was? Where were the screaming children and tired single moms and the junkie freaking out and the random bleeding dude who wasn’t bleeding bad enough to be triaged and so was whimpering mournfully like a dog in the corner?

It reminded me of the first time I went to a non-Oakland-public-school and had an actual PE class. Like, with equipment and uniforms and planned units on specific sports and activities I was expected to partipate in. Wasn’t PE sit-on-the-bench-and-kick-it hour? I’d been confused but intrigued by this sudden plunge into functionality. Like, was this how the rest of the world acted?

I had the same kind of thoughts in Bumrungrad. Why wasn’t I waiting? Why was I at all moments being accompanied by someone, some smiling nurse who was answering my questions and efficiently-but-not-hurriedly directing me this way and that?

After I finished my blood work, the nurse handed me a juice box, “You can finish your fast now.” How nice, I thought. I’ve been fasting for 12 hours, so yeah, I could really go for a juice, thank you.

But the real kicker came when she led me to the next room where there was no shit a breakfast buffet. Like, bananas and yogurt and sweet buns and coffee and tea and more juice and a choice of whole or skimmed milk. I stocked up. I stocked up like a fucking white trash kid who’d snuck into Sizzler. I’d like to blame it on the fasting but that’s bullshit—in moments like these, our true natures emerge, and there I was balancing two bowls, a steaming cup of coffee and another juice box.

After scarfing down my breakfast, I got poked and podded by an OB-GYN who talked like a female version of the oh-sexy-girlfriend exchange student from Sixteen Candles (“vagina feel very gooooood“) and instructed me to do twenty Kegel exercises per day (“very good for the woooooman“). By the time they led to the next room, where they gave a key to a locker in which there was a little linen suit and slippers, I was semi-hysterical with giggles, in that way that trashy people who suddenly find themselves in un-trashy environments are. I used to work in a fine-dining restaurant that attracted a lot of these types and I was only mildly embarrassed to feel that same shit-eating grin stretching across my own face—only mildly because I was so damn happy.

So after the chest x-ray I went back to the breakfast buffet room to wait for my test results. As in, the test results that would be ready in ten minutes as opposed to FOUR FUCKING DAYS, if I called this automated number and successfully navigated the maze of prompts that seemed to lead in a tail-eating circle. I poured myself another cup of coffee and surveyed all the other patients—wealthy Asians with milky skin, wealthy Middle Easterners with scarves and iPhones, wealthy Westerners with blue jeans and bemused expressions. And me.

I started humming—”Blood checked, stool checked, everything checked, Oh you fancy huh? You fancy huh?”

Like any proper World Wonder, Bumrungrad is a testament to what the human will and intellect can execute when properly harnessed. It opens your mind, expands the possibilities, takes your breath away then checks to see that the breath is recovered in a healthy and age-appropriate interval.

But I’m no fool—this was health care for the 1%, which I happen to be a part of in Thailand. Maybe health care is this good in the States, if you’re like the President or Bill Gates. But still, it’s a fucking experience to step on to the other side, to feel what things could be like—to feel fancy, huh?

Typhoons Vs. Monsoons, Hanoi Vs. Southeast Asia

Like this


So here’s something I never needed to know the difference between before moving to Asia: monsoons and typhoons.

Both big-ass storms, right? I must have learned what they were at some point, in some half-assed curriculum from some out-dated textbook during my laudable California public school education. But seeing as though this knowledge had zero relevance in my life, I conveniently siphoned it off to the mental slush pile along with all the other useless shit that had no impact on my life, such as Civil War dates, the metric system and the geography Midwestern states.

Well I’ll be damned if suddenly some things from that slush pile are not now extremely relevant, with extremely immediate impacts on my life (NOT Civil War dates or Midwestern geography). One, the metric system. Do you know how tall you are in centimeters? I didn’t for the longest time, despite it being an easy conversion for which there’s now an app. I also know how much I weigh in kilos (NOT telling) and how far my morning jog is in kilometers.

The other thing I now know the difference between is a monsoon and a typhoon. Cambodia has monsoons. A monsoon season, in fact, which they’re now in the middle of: big daily rains where it’s like the heavens have unleashed, like someone slashed a cut in the sky and a million silver coins come thundering down, plodding on your tin roof like they may as well be metal. They’re pretty predictable, usually striking some time in the afternoon, so that you can structure your day around them. It’s almost kind of nice, as long as you’re not stuck in it—an hour or two, like dusk or dawn, a way to divvy up the day and mark the passage of time. Like a really long, wet cigarette break.

Monsoons come like this: clear mornings and bright skies. Slowly over the course of the day the clouds thicken, the humidity gathers; you feel the heat press down like a big invisible hand. At around 3 or 4, you see these dark-ass clouds march in, like horsemen of the fucking Apocalypse. The branches start flailing, trying to snap themselves off their trunks and look for shelter; the wind becomes a living thing with a high, howling voice. And just when it feels unbearable, all this tension about to burst, like being inside a big-ass bubble—boom, snap, pow, the pressure pops and the skies open up and it does its thing for a few hours and then it stops, leaving everything flooded and blinking-eyed and with a pleasant little evening breeze that almost makes it all worth it.

I was just starting to get the hang of it, the rhythm of it, when it was up and time to move to Hanoi. Hanoi is tricky cause it’s secretly not Southeast Asia. It’s not Northern Asia either—it’s own little pocket of Something Else, Chinese and French influences toppled on top of its own defiant culture that I can’t quite classify yet but love the hell out of.

The people here don’t really look Southeast Asian; they’re lighter skinned, got none of the trace Khmer brown. They don’t play that smiley, welcoming, submissive thing that often gets associated with Southeast Asians. (How many times during my arrival did I get yelled by motorbike drivers for not knowing my way around the city?)

They’ve got a coffee culture to rival Italy or shit, even the Bay Area. The French brought it over, but the Northern Vietnamese high-jacked it and turned it into their own strangely unique, immensely caffeinated, sugary and DELICIOUS concoction. I mean, who the hell else in the world puts yogurt in their coffee? But then you taste it and the question changes to why the hell has no one else thought to put yogurt in coffee?

And another huge friggin difference is that there’s seasons in Hanoi—real seasons!—with a proper summer and an even more proper winter that I’m totally and completely dreading.

During the summer months, it rains a lot here. Like Cambodia. Cool, I’d thought, I’ve been living where it rains; I’ve at least got this part down.

Well, no. Like everything else, I’ve been surprised by how different Hanoi really is from the rest of Southeast Asia. And I’ll be goddamned if even the way it rains isn’t yet another example.

So, in case you missed the unit in school or tuned it out (which you’ll probably do again unless you suddenly find yourself in Hanoi; don’t say I didn’t warn you…), typhoons are completely different monsoons. Technically speaking (okay, I Googled it), monsoons have to do with wind patterns, while typhoons are storms that rip through the Pacific and the land fringing it. Instead of everyday, they occur once every few days or every weeks. The basic rhythm is that same, the slow build up of pressure and heat, but the tempo is stretched out, elongated, and it varies, skats like a goddamned jazz singer and while I can appreciate the unprediactability and ingenuity, I’m often left in a plastic poncho with my sandals in my hands, wading down my flooded alley wondering what the hell happened.

Wading home

The biggest difference for me is the way the pre-storm pressure gathers. Monsoons feel like something pressing down on you, while typhoons feel more like a thickness, like the air literally gets thick with charged particles, buzzing around like mosquitoes and damn near humming as loud. You can feel this kind of electricity, moving down your spine, and you swear everyone else can feel it too, the way they zip around when a big storm is about to hit—”like pouring water into an ant hill,” a friend says.

I don’t remember it ever drizzling in Cambodia either, but here the rain will strike and recede, drizzle for a bit then start up again. Sometimes I’ll think it’s over but it’ll just keep going; other times I’ll put my poncho on and be sweating under the sheath of plastic like a jack ass. (Hanoi seems to get a private kick out of making a jack ass out of me, and I’m only too happy to oblige.)

So I’m still working on getting the timing and rhythm of this whole thing down. I’ll probably have it just about figured out by the time the season ends and the cold sets in. In the meantime I stare out of my bedroom window at the sliver of sky between the buildings and try to ascertain what in the hell the weather is gonna go. For the sport of it, I take a guess and invariably I’m wrong. Which is secretly another thing I love about this place—that it’s not so easy to figure out.

So I try to never leave the house without a poncho and not get too bummed when I’ve gotta slosh through the flood water to get in my front door.

Cause you’ve gotta hand it to Hanoi—it’s a city that’ll keep you humble.

Home sweet home

Ways In Which Subbing At a Vietnamese High School Is Similar To and Different From Attending American High School: A Compare and Contrast

Bang a gong

1. Different: Instead of a bell, they bang a gong.

2. Similar: The alarm goes off at 6am. I’ve picked up a couple days subbing for a friend of a friend at an elite Vietnamese secondary school, teaching literature classes.

I’d seen the job posting a few weeks ago and had considered applying – the pay was great and I was beyond qualified and I loved the idea of teaching literature, but the hours were long and the commute longer.

I’m out of the house by 7:30. Why does high school always involve such early mornings? No wonder I was depressed.

3. Different: Forty-five minutes sucking smog on the back of a motorbike and twenty minutes in a van provided by the school, shuttling me to a further campus that the one I ventured to.

So I’m bleary and hot and already covered in that thin layer of pollution Hanoi coats you in and it’s not even 9am. The van bounces down a bumpy road as the school rises before me: a new structure in a new part of town, surrounded by lotus fields and shanties and, in the distance, the outline of half-constructed highrises.

The school is massive and stark: six stories of cement-block austerity locked inside a tall metal fence. There’s nothing but gray – no trees, no lawns, no hand-drawn banners for homecoming or Glee Club or whatever the fuck it is high school kids are supposed to do.

It looks like a prison to me. (Similar)

5. Different: I wander around the halls for a while, unsure of where I’m supposed to go. I default to the stand-there-and-look-foreign tactic and eventually someone who works at the school comes over and shows to me to my classroom.

When I walk in, all the students stand up. “Hello teacher,” they say in unison. But they say it like something they’re forced to say, with that particular adolescent drone of boredom and annoyance (similar).

They stand there, staring at me. I stare back. They’re wearing white button-up shirts and these little red sashes tied around their necks, sailor style (different).

Finally I figure out that I’m supposed to tell them to sit. So I blush and motion my hand, “sit, sit,” feeling an embarrassed grin stretch across my face (similar).

6. Similar: The morning goes by in a blur, reading off the hand-written lesson plan notes: comparing and contrasting fables. I ask questions; they shift in their seats and mostly look bored. But there’s a few kids that keep raising their hands, that know the answers and even make little leaps, little connections that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. For a moment I wish I’d taken the job.

They’re an upper-class demographic; you can tell by the sneakers they wear and the watches they have and the iPhones I confiscate. You can tell by the references to films they make, by the fluency of their English, but most of all by the easiness with which they carry themselves – a confidence that verges on entitlement, the universal marker of privileged youth.

Maybe that’s what starts bringing up the thoughts of my first high school, what starts sending these little slivers of electric memories through my tired brain. I rarely think about that school, usually remember (or disremember) high school as a weed-induced blur in the back of a portable, a town an hour and a half bus ride form Oakland where I don’t remember doing any homework but was still on the honor roll. That’s where I spent three of my four high school years – zonked out on pills and water-bottle vodka, making zines and only skimming the surface of consciousness when I needed to. I forget about the other year, the other place.

The pangs of it keep coming back all morning and I keep pushing them away, until it’s lunch and I’m sitting in the cafeteria alone (similar), apart from all the other teachers (similar) who are Vietnamese (different) and smile at me (different) but don’t seem particularly interested in engaging (similar). I hunch over a metal tray of rice and duck and pickled greens (different), nothing to listen to but my own damn brain babbling (similar) and I’ve got no defense for the flood of it coming back.

Not my pic but pretty fitting, eh?

Bishop O’Dowd: I hated that school. I only spent one year there but it was the worst goddamn year of my life. My first time at a private school, my first time at a Catholic school (exposed to any organized religion, really), my first venture into middle-class white society. Though really, now you could change “first” to “only.” Fucking hell, no wonder it went horribly.

I remember thinking it was like a movie, just like one of those goddamn movies about the big suburban high school, which someone somewhere must think captures a universal adolescent experience but really only captures one version, one narrow sliver of the experience. And even though the school was in the East Oakland hills, it was still all there: the football players, the cheerleaders, the mean girls, the token scholarship kids, the Asian math geeks, the queer Drama kids – like a stereotype of a stereotype, like a movie set and everyone was pretending and no one was saying how fucking fake and soul-sucking the whole thing was.

My fourth day, one of the Alternative Rebellion kids was sitting behind me in class. She had spikey hair and a dog collar and the smooth glowing skin only access to quality health care and a lifetime of good nutrition afford. She leaned forward and hissed in my ear, “You think you’re so cool with your dyed hair, but me and my friends think you’re lame.”

She kept on all period – “Loser, poseur, wanna-be, fake” – and I lowered my head and felt my cheeks burning red as I tried not to cry, every single zit on that flush of acne I had ignited with the searing shame of it. I didn’t understand – where I came from, kids didn’t talk shit so carelessly; there were real-world consequences for that. Hadn’t someone ever jumped her? Well, no.

I wanted so much to not care; I wanted so much for this girl to think I was cool. I’d always wanted to fit in and never had, the weird white kid at the Oakland public schools. I’d always wanted, I thought, to escape into a world of suburban comfort, where everything was nice and easy and manicured and clean and everyone looked like me. Because the people on TV and the people in the movies, they all looked like me and they were happy and life was easy, aside from easily solvable comedic exploits.

But this wasn’t an easily solvable comedic exploit; this was my life. My shitty, shameful, desperately yearning, 13-year-old life. I was relegated to the Untouchable class after that day; for the rest of the year, I had three friends who would talk to me, three girls that would throw trash at me in those gleaming hallways, and a whole school full of kids who ignored me.

I hadn’t thought about any of it in a long-ass time. The incidents, maybe, but not the feeling, the real burning shame of it. The hungry awfulness. It was my last year of relative sobriety before I switched schools and the Pandora’s box of addiction opened. In a lot of ways, that was better than that freshman year I spent at O’Dowd, depressed and isolated and miserable with no way to escape it. Trapped in a landscaped prison.

The bell gongs (different) and I go back out, to wander the hallway and find my next class.

But now that the gate has been opened, I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t keep the memories neatly compartmentalized. They flood and tangle, the rest of the afternoon – when I see the ugly awkward girl hunched in the back of the classroom (similar); when the cool girls in front roll their eyes and giggle (similar); when the bell gongs (different) and the kids stand up and chime “Goodbye teacher,” and watched me walk out (different). When I go to the next room and I stand in front of more kids in sailor uniforms (different), who guess I’m American because I “talk loud” (different), and I keep talking loud (similar) and I look up and see the day outside – a day that looks sweeter and gentler and clearer than it really is – cut into the size of a classroom window (similar) and I have that trapped feeling (similar) rise in my gut all over again (not similar: same) – memories of shit I thought I’d gotten over, wasn’t angry about anymore, suddenly rearing back up like raving stallions, and I’m still angry (same) and I’m still awkward (same) and I’m still ashamed (same).

I should have punched her, I think.

I’m glad I didn’t take the job, I think.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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