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.