Archive for the 'Learning the Ropes' Category

“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.

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.

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.

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

Revenge of the Long Nose, Eyewear Edition

I knew I’d been in Asia awhile when I passed a herd of European tourists—flushed from the heat, sun-twinged limbs gleaming in sweat, tall and robust and covered in what suddenly seemed like an ungodly amount of body hair—and thought, “White people: how uncouth.”

Just me? Maybe. But the longer I’m here, the more absurd white people in Asia become. We’re a delicate race and we really don’t belong anywhere that sees more than 3 months of sunshine a year. Put us in the Americas, in Africa, put a crapton of us in Australia, and it’s just kinda sad: sweating everywhere, dehydrated and sun-burnt, leathery necks and sun-spotted arms.

In Asia we stand out for other reasons too: we’re large, we’ve got facial hair (I’ve got more of a ‘stache than most of the men I see), our eyes are comparatively the size of dinner plates and our noses like some real-life Pinocchio shit.

Those of you who’ve spent time Asia might be familiar with the term “chang bizi.” It’s Chinese slang for white people and literally means “long nose.” (Check this forum discussion of long noses: “so long, it frightened me.”) And while I haven’t heard this term in my travels in other Asian countries, I have had people comment on the length and geometrical pointiness of my nose. I mean, my nose is pointy by Western standards; coupled with my round checks and Irish tendency towards redness, I look something like an ostrich. But good lord, get this thing out here, combine it with my blue eyes, curly hair and 177 cm of PURE WOMAN and I’m a show-stopper, really.

I mean, dang!

So you know, you get some looks out in this part of the world. (Not aided, as mentioned in the last post, when you go jogging in Spandex with visible tattoos.) You start to feel the offensiveness of your own body—your sweaty, ginormous, hair-and-sun-spot-covered body, of which the pointy nose is the icing on the cake.

In seemingly unrelated news, my contact lens debacle has continued: after the cleaner threw out my lenses and after I discovered I couldn’t get my particular lenses replaced in Vietnam, I contacted a couple clinics in Bangkok, where I’m headed next month for a wee holiday. The response: toric lenses are available in Thailand! Yay! Buuuut… not at the strength of my prescription. To get the lenses I require, they’d need to order them from overseas. “The cost will be between 20,000-30,000 Baht.” (Do the conversion, it’s not pretty.)

So. Glasses it is. It’s been a long time since I’ve solely worn my glasses. Because it’s inconvenient for exercise, meaning that I have to jog semi-blind (NOT advantageous with all the dangling wires and low-hanging tree branches in these parts). But secretly because I look really fly in a pair of big plastic sunglasses (byproduct of having come of age in the post-Kurt-Cobain era).

But if Asia thinks it’s got me beat, if it thinks my genetic inferiority with conspire with a lack of foreign products to take me down a notch in the realm of 90s-era style, I say NAY.

Long nose to the rescue!

Now you might not be able to tell in this picture that I’m actually wearing TWO pieces of eyewear: my 6-year-old eye glasses and my snazzy red shades from Malaysia. And the reason you might not be able to tell is that they both sit so comfortably on my nose. And with so much extra nose to spare.

Technically speaking, I’ve got room for another pair on there. I might just go buy some, solely to prove the supremacy of my pointy schnoz.

Would your average Asian nose wouldn’t be up to the challenge of two pairs of eyewear on one nose? I think not. Does this compensate for the fact that I can’t get contact lenses, can’t buy clothes that fit me, that I look like the fucking attack of the 50′ woman walking around this city? Not really.

But does it make me feel a wee better? Does it give me reason to walk around humming amended version of Smiths’ songs (two points for anyone who gets the reference)? Does it give me further reason to amend canonized poetry to fit my own particular circumstances and sense of personal triumph? (“From the ash I will rise with my long nose”—three points!)

Why yes, yes it does.

First-World Problems in the Second World

1. The landlords of the four-story house I rent have been doing repairs. For ten days straight.

They’re putting in AC and new light fixtures; they’re painting and putting a metal grating on the front fence that will in no way change how easy it would be to hop the fence.

As such, there have been men milling around my house for ten straight days. They arrive on a fleet of motorbikes at 8am and they sometimes don’t leave until 6pm. They aren’t particularly careful—they bash into Nick’s motorbike, they knock Jacob’s bedroom door off the hinges, they splatter paint and it drips down the gap in the stairs, on to the kitchen counter.

When I point this out to them, they clean it. With the sponge I use to wash dishes.

2. My landlord comes every day to supervise them. He wanders around shirtless, a cigarette dangling from between his fingers. I don’t like the way smoke smells in a house and by my Western estimations, as long as I’m paying him money, I should be able to ask him not to smoke in my house.

I don’t bother to point this out. Mostly because I only speak ten words of the language native to the country I’ve moved to.

3. On Friday the 13th, it is 95 degrees. The heat index puts the “feels like” temperature at 112. The AC in the classroom where I teach (for $24/hour, with no relevant qualifications) is feeble and wheezy. I feel nauseous.

4. I’m on the heaviest day of my period. The one box of “super” tampons I found were not in fact super, at least not by Western menstruation standards. This means that during the five minute break between classes, I have to run downstairs (in the heat) to use the one bathroom with toilet paper and soap.

While I’m on the pot, watching the mosquitoes twitch, I realize there isn’t a waste basket. I resolve to wrap my used tampon in a wad of toilet paper and carry it in my fist, to be deposited in the first waste basket I see.

5. My moto driver wants an extra dollar.

6. Searching for an address in the heat.

Since I never had vision insurance in the States, I rarely went to the eye doctor; when I did go, it’d always be over $300. As such, my toric contacts are now four years old. They’re filmy and make my eyes burn; I’ve been wearing my glasses instead and the prescription on those are even older.

I discover I can get a free eye exam at a reputable optometrist and I go, visions of clear vision dancing in my head.

7. During my free eye exam, I discover that toric lenses are not available in Vietnam. “Can I order them?” “No.” “Do you know where I can them?” “Yes.” “Where?” “Yes.”

I leave the clinic, squinting through my glasses.

8. I come home. The workmen have left and there’s a cleaner now. She’s thorough but zealous—she’s rearranged my bedroom, cut down the mosquito net and thrown away a rickety old table that I was too cheap to replace. I have to rehang the mosquito net before I can take my afternoon nap.

9. I cannot nap well.

10. I wake up and a big fucking storm has blown in. Everything is black and howling, and it feels like the world is pressing in against the windows. Finally it bursts and the thundering starts, a stampede of rain.

I notice water dripping down the stairs. I follow it up to the second floor, then the third floor. The stairs are slick and I slip on my way to the fourth floor. There I see the terrace has flooded and the water seeps in, underneath the door and into a filmy pool. I watch it drip drip all the way down to the first floor—into the kitchen, where the paint splotches are.

11. The rains dies down and I decide to drag myself out to a meeting. Because I am cranky and menstrual and obviously NOT WINNING at Vietnam today.

In the thirty minutes of torrential downpour, the alley has flooded. I wade through murky that laps against my shins, bits of garbage and food floating past. My flip-flop falls off and I have to reach in the water to retrieve it.

A morbid compulsion drives me to sniff my fingers. They do not smell nice.

12. Come home two hours later, legs splattered with bits of mud and belly full of homemade chocolate cake. Take a lukewarm shower and dry off. Apply my French moisturizer (it’s a toner not a cream, thank you), put the bottle back on the shiny new shelf the workmen installed that morning.

Notice that my contact lenses case is missing.

Search around for a bit, text the landlady, get a snarky text in broken English back.

13. Get on Google to figure out if one can get toric lenses in Bangkok, where I’ve already booked a trip for next month. Discover that one can. Also discover that it will be expensive, only be marginally less than in the States. The difference being, of course, that in Vietnam I’m actually earning enough to have disposable income for extravagant indulgences like medical care for non-life-threatening problems.

And flights to Thailand.

And workmen that lose contact lenses.

And landlords that repair your house.

Try to comfort myself with these thoughts as I climb under the mosquito net, the AC droning and the fan cutting the air into thick mold-smelling slices.


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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