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Thoughts on American Gentrification, from the Absurd Location of Hanoi

Hipster girls make me say “awwwww’

So I’ve been thinking a lot about gentrification. American-style gentrification. Which is absurd, right? I’m living in friggin Vietnam, a developing country, and “developing” is not at all the same thing as “gentrifying.”

But, just as Paris was where David Sedaris moved to write about America, it seems as though SE Asia is where I moved to think and write about Oakland, about growing up in Oakland and getting sober in Oakland, in a time when Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole were gentrifying like crazy—the Dot Com Boom and Bust, when my brother and I got dinner in SF one night when I was 18, were walking down Market to the Church Street Station, down sidewalks lined with cute little shops and tons of white yuppies, and we turned to look at each other and exchanged this moment of “What the fuck has happened to SF?”

Of course it was different in Oakland. Oakland’s gentrification is kinda a fascinating beast (covered well here) cause it’s taken so long to happen, given Oakland’s geographic proximity to SF, but more because despite all the chi-chi restaurants (one of which I used to work at) and trendities (one which I used to be) and despite the rising rents and how clean and nice and urban-chic certain parts of town are, two of the biggest upshots of gentrification haven’t come yet: the public schools are still abysmal and the crime rate is, while better, still un-fucking-real.

You can blame a lot of this on the incompetent/corrupt city government. At least I do. There’s probably a whole slew of factors I’m not aware of, can’t be aware of cause I’m too close to it, have always been too close to it—how I stood on 40th and Telegraph every day during high school, waiting for my bus transfer, and watched the neighborhood change like a time-lapse photography project: first the junkies, then the punks, then the indies, then the yuppies, then the cafes that catered to the yuppies.

So. Some book came out. It’s called The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, and it’s by Robert Anasi, and I probably won’t read it. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to, not even because it’s not on Kindle (cause I just checked and it is) but because I have to be mad choosy about what I buy on Kindle—cause $10 still ain’t cheap and my Kindle account is linked to my US bank account, which is damn hard to get money into, cause it’s damn hard to get money out of Vietnam, cause all those $25/hr teaching gigs only pay in cash. #luxuryproblems

But it didn’t stop me from reading reviews of the book, this one more scathing than that one, and this one only tangentially a review. But it’s enough for me to decide that I’ll save my Kindle pennies for Bolano or Bissel or OMG will they ever get O’Conner or old Didion??

But the fact that I haven’t read the actual book hasn’t stopped me from having plenty of thoughts and opinions, perhaps not about the book, but about the questions raised in the reviews and commentary: the role of the gentrifier in relation to his (cause it’s mostly dudes who ended up writing about this shit) context. Or more specifically the gentrifier in relation the “natives.” I thought the more scathing Book Forum review addressed this pretty well, while the Salon review danced around the issue, mentioning it only at the end:

This sort of description, however, throws into relief the awkward relationship that such bohemian enclaves have with the destitute neighborhoods they nestle into — ebullient painters with their Jacuzzis who celebrate the surrounding grit and decay living side-by-side with people who probably don’t find the rubble so endearing.

I guess this is heart of it for me, since I straddled the line, had one foot in both worlds—always did, really, as I suppose you could say my family was pre-1st-wave gentrification, arriving in Oakland about 20 years too early. Or maybe that doesn’t count. The thing is, I looked like all the gentifriers: I had the tattoos and the skinny pants; I liked the expensive coffee (fuck it’s good); I went to the rock shows; I worked in one of the fucking flagship restaurants (great place, btw). It was the way I’d always looked like an outsider, mostly because of my race but also because I was prissy little white girl who, it turned out, really loved Nirvana and Johnny Cash. I was okay with that, cause I had to be—with the way other Oakland natives would be surprised at the fact that I was an Oakland native, and not one from the hills either.

Some of my best friends were gentrifiers. #winkwink Gentrifying doesn’t necessarily make you a shitty person, the same way that gentrification isn’t solely a bad thing—hell, look at the lakeside by my parents’ house these days. But there’s this way some people would talk about the neighborhoods, talk about Oakland or Williamsburg—this possessive, anti-yuppy way that in and of itself smacks of a certain starry-eyed colonialism. Like, most of the people arrested in the Oscar Grant riots weren’t from Oakland—had come to Oakland specifically to riot and break the windows of small, independent stores, had even spray painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight,” which had summed up everything. Cause it wasn’t just that night; for a certain breed, Oakland was their playground every night. Oakland was a game they played at and that they could leave whenever they wanted. It wasn’t their home; they weren’t invested; they hadn’t grown up with the gun shots and crackheads and street violence; they didn’t love Oakland. Oakland was an affectation.

But again, I straddled the worlds. There was this punk house I used to go to shows at on Apgar Street. It was in my dad’s old district, before he retired from the Oakland Fire Department. We were having dinner one night and he was complaining about a run he’d gone on, “some entitled fucking kids” in “some filthy old Victorian” who’d been having a party in the backyard, burning shit and making a ruckus. When his crew had arrived at the house, the kids had been hostile. “‘Look, man, we’re not bothering anyone,'” my dad had related. “‘Well, actually you are,’ I told him, ’cause someone called in a disturbance. We sure as hell didn’t feel like getting out of bed to come down here and deal with you.'”

But it’s that kind of attitude, right?—the no-one-cares, we-can-do-whatever-we-want attitude. The reviews of the book are right: it does create a sort of freedom. You can look at the art happening now in Detroit, or at one of my all-time favorite bands, Hickey, who grew out of the 90s Mission District. But fuck, there’s gotta be a line, right? A line between using the cheap rents and lack of police control to explore and create and do cool new shit, and using it as a venue for self-serving debauchery.

I suppose it’s not so different from all the Gap-Year backpackers tubing in Vang Vieng. Or from the way certain travelers will moan about a place being “touristy,” forgetting they themselves are tourists—they way they’ll talk about how fucking cool and real it used to be. As though they owned it. As though there weren’t some weird capital in having been there first, having seen this shit when it real.

Like this

Cause the truth is, sometimes “real” sucks. Sometimes “real” is walking past malnourished ten-year-olds huffing out of plastic bags in Phnom Penh. Sometimes “real” is the smell of the dead fish floating in the lake near your apartment in Hanoi, cause the lack of environmental laws means there’s arsenic and god-knows-what-else in the lake that’s literally killing the fish, and despite that fact the OG residents are still fishing outta the lake and eating those fish cause it’s free and what they’ve always done. Sometimes “real” is not being able to sleep at night when you’re a kid cause your alcoholic neighbors, whose apartment balcony is next to your bedroom window, are having another one of those screaming 3am fights where they throw furniture and break windows and it takes the cops till dawn to arrive cause they’ve been busy at some homicides a few blocks away.

Which of course, still happens in Oakland. But maybe doesn’t happen in Williamsburg anymore, which might be what everyone is so bummed about. “Everyone” being those with a mouthpiece: the privileged crusaders nostalgic for a by-gone grit that most of them only had a surface relationship with, didn’t have the deep-rooted conflicted relationship you have with a place you grew up in, that you love and that’s also robbed half of your friends at gunpoint.

Which is a totally shitty assumption to make, especially considering I haven’t read the book and am on the other side of the planet, in my bathrobe with the lights dim and the AC blowing, hiding out from another torturously hot Hanoian day, made slightly more torturous by the fact that it’s a holiday and the air is thick with the burning of offerings. #real And all of this might be an expat version of Mansplaining, since all I can really do is read free essays online and sit around and mouth off like I know what I’m talking about; since I’m surrounded by other expats who do the same thing, and who may or may not know if I’m full of shit or not.

Which I might not even know either.

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Post-Trip Detachment and Feeling Fictitious

Lately I’ve been feeling like a character in a novel. I don’t know the plot, I don’t know the name of the book, and I’m wandering around pages as though I do.

I go about my business, tell myself my stories, think I know what’s going on. There’s a basic plot, there’s characters, there’s a surface I skim. But I have these moments when I suspect some whole other story is going on, some narrative I’m not aware of, just beneath the surface—how really good stories, it seems, are never about what they appear to be about. Sometimes I think I’ve got it figured out, and sometimes I get glimpses of how little I understand what the hell is happening and where the hell I’m going.

I wonder if that’s what it’s like to be fictitious. I wonder if characters in stories go about their plot lines, pulled by the strings of writers’ typing fingers, thinking they know what’s up. But there’s got to be that moment, a terrifying moment, when they realize the story isn’t at all what they thought it was, and isn’t going at all the way they thought it would.

The writers don’t know either, I think. I remember, writing fiction, when I was younger—the exhilaration of the moment, my hair tingling, when a story would take a sudden unexpected turn, as though the story were revealing itself to me, as though I weren’t the writer but the conduit. I was younger then and I loved my characters.

I’ve been reading more and writing less, and that’s probably what all this is. “I thought I knew the narrative,” a character said, and Holy shit, I thought, that’s how I feel about my life.

It’s probably in part that detachment travel affords, when your life seems less your own and more like someone else’s, something you’ve fallen into—a play with no curtains or wings, or wings that are obscured at least, that you can’t see behind the glare of the lights. Maybe travel is the wings, or your life is the wings, or the wings are that big black mystery that surround everything and can never see, only sense sometimes.

I’ve been tired. And quiet. I wouldn’t say I have writer’s block, because I’ve got plenty of ideas—articles and stories, saleable and personal. But I can’t get myself to sit down and do it. I open a file, putter around for a few minutes, then wander off to make coffee. I want to nap, to hang out with friends, swim in rivers and read books in the sun.

I don’t know where any of this is going; I’m waiting for a plot to reveal itself and the right words to come. But in the meantime, I feel very, very quiet.

10 Thoughts on Being Back in the US

1. Riding in my dad’s truck, MLK:
“So what does it feel like to be back?”
Look out the window, lines of lanes and sidewalk. “Everything feels really sterile. And clean.”
“Sterile and clean? Not usually words associated with Oakland.”
Laugh. “Yeah, I guess not.”

Empty

2. Running around the lake, joggers in sweat clothes:
Everyone looks really healthy here—big and robust, cheeks flushed.

3. Whole Foods, walk around for an hour, confused—pick up food, put it back down:
How do you shop in a grocery store? Everything looks plastic.

4. Winter-like storm, long pants and a jacket:
Everyone else may be annoyed, but I’m tickled to death.

5. Waiting to make left turn, watching the cars:
The US feels like a video game, some kind of old-school Atari: little boxes moving through space. The object of the game is to stay between the lines, stay in the lanes, walk on the sidewalk, put trash in the bin…

6. Rapture billboards:
Why?

7. Waiting to meet Nhu and Jacobo outside Bette’s Cafe, watching family:
“But I’m huuuun-greee.”
“Well, we have to wait.”
“But I don’t wa-nnnna.”
American children are allowed to be really obnoxious.

8. Wine meeting for work, varietal characteristics and spit buckets:
This is my job. This is silly.

9. Drive to meeting, park; drive to yoga, park; drive to cafe, park:
My life feels like a video game. I’m not sure what the object is.

10. Waiting at stoplight. Car beside me: bass bumping, boy leaning out of the open window, shirt half-off, arms raised, dancing:
There is nothing, nothing in the world like African-American culture.

A Room of One’s Own, Phnom Penh

My mind is a land of contrasts. (How’s that for cliche?)

I love travel. I love the bag-and-purse of it, of having everything you need fit in a 18 kg bundle on your back. I love the not knowing, the pick-up-and-go of it, love arriving in a city dazed and cramp-legged, and I love walking new streets—the landscape of the unfamiliar. I even love the train-and-bus of it, the bump-of-the-road of it, looking out of a window at alien earth that sometimes seems a mirror to the alien earth inside myself, and thinking my nothing thoughts.

But I also love the notion of home—not a notion, really, but a feeling. I love running into people I know at the market. I love my favorite table at my favorite cafe. I love the comfort of routines, little rituals, the prayer inside the doing of everyday tasks. And I love the sense of having an anchor, somewhere deep inside you—that no matter where you go, there’s a place to go back to.

Which might be why I’ve never moved out of the US, or hell, even out of Oakland—some kind of magnetism that always pulls me back to my hometown, no matter how far I wander. Oh sure, I fantasize and I’ve plotted and planned, but when it’s come right down to it, I’ve never actually left.

I didn’t want to feel transient in Phnom Penh. I’ll be here for around six weeks of my 2+ months in Cambodia, and it’d be easy enough to just stay in a hotel. You can get a decent one for $10-13, with wifi and air-con and someone that comes to clean it everyday (an endlessly thrilling novelty for a budget traveler such as a myself). It would have been easier—everything pre-arranged, crisp corners and clean counters. It also would have been sterile.

I didn’t want to have to leave a key at reception every morning. I didn’t want the posse of motorbike drivers posted outside the door, waiting for Western customers. I didn’t really, when it came down to it, want someone else cleaning up after me everyday.

I wanted a room of my own.

I asked around about people looking to sublet, but didn’t come up with anything. So I just started walking around, looking for “For Rent” signs. I wanted to stay in the neighborhood my Couchsurfing host was in, slightly north of Center and a little mellower, where the pace is that of local folks living local life.

I found a place on Street 84. It’s not the nicest apartment—quite threadbare, actually, and it doesn’t have wifi. It’s not the cheapest either—not expensive, but if I’d spent longer searching, I’m sure I could have found a decent room for less. Once I pay for a month’s worth of electricity, it’ll end up only being slightly less than a midrange hotel.

But I have a room of my own.

I have a little vanity in the bedroom. It’s got small shelves and a mirror and a little drawer with a lock, a stool with a floral-patterned cushion that rolls out. I tenderly unpacked all my lady things—make-up and headbands and jewlery—arranged them on the shelves. I put my passport in the drawer. In the mornings I roll out the stool and open my jar of face powder and see my face in the mirror, looking back.

I have a small kitchen with a metal tub of a sink and a small tiled counter; I have a bathroom where the showderhead is beside the toilet and there’s no curtain to separate the two spaces, but it’s just enough room for one. Yesterday I went to the central market and bought toilet paper and dish soap and a sponge and a couple plastic plates and bowls, and I’ve placed them next to the handtowel the landlady supplied me with, which I folded into a neat rectangle.

There’s a fan in the other room that takes awhile to get going—I’ve got to pull the string cord four, five, six times to awaken it to its buzzing. There’s a metal table and a single chair and a TV set that I’ve left unplugged. There’s a refrigerator that must have come from some convenience store, a small, three-shelf thing covered in Pepsi logos. I’ve placed a container of Laughing Cow cheese inside, some yogurts, a mango the landlady gave me when I moved in. At night it beams like a fluorescent night-light, casting a glow throughout the apartment, and I hear it humming when I roll over in my sleep.

There’s big metal doors that I have to heave open and tug shut. Red contact paper has been placed over the thick glass, to make it opaque, and the light that shines through in the daytime makes the room look lurid. It’s got a big padlock that slides through the metal rings, and an old-fashioned skeleton-type key that was given to me on a shoestring and I keep it my purse, I carry it with me, all over this city—the key to my own room.

I love it. It’s barely furnished and virtually without windows and only mine for a month—but for that month it’s mine. My own room, my own sense of home, in Phnom Penh.

Saying Goodbye

People are trying to say goodbye, and I’m trying to let them.

I’m no good at goodbyes. Not other people’s, but my own. I’m uncomfortable with leavings, and, with my trip only four days away, I’m getting plenty of opportunities for unease.

Three months is just long enough to feel like A Long Time, just long enough to be not just a trip, but an absence, a leave of absence—not just from a job, but from my life. I keep noticing myself wanting to hide, to disappear, to tiptoe off into the darkness—which isn’t really darkness or even blankness, but a big unknown, unimagined and undrawn, the painter’s dream of the painting before he paints it.

I’m uncomfortable with attention. I don’t have birthday parties. I’ve never had an official last day at a job, have always chosen to just dwindle off, fade away, sneak out of the backdoor of a particular life, saying things like, “I’ll be back,” or “I’ll be filling in shifts,” or “I don’t know exactly when I’ll be leaving.” Which is never true, and I know it isn’t true, but I half-believe myself—which becomes full-believing, a believing I distract myself with so that I don’t have to feel sad or wistful or guilty or anything at all. I can push away people’s expression of attachment, their love and care, keep it all at a distance. By the time I’m gone, even I haven’t noticed.

People are trying to say goodbye, and I’m trying to let them.

It’s a different kind of leaving this time. It’s a temporary leaving, like all trips for me, but a more bittersweet one. Why? Because my life is good, and I’m sad to leave it, even if it is for a something positive, a project I believe in, a story I’ve wanted to tell. Because I’ve been working on building true relationships, on truly letting people in, on being vulnerable in a way I never have been. Because I’m letting myself acknowledge that I’m going to miss it all—my muay thai and my yoga, my bed and my backporch, the smell of my favorite coffee and of my roommate’s hair products. And most of all the people.

I’ve been feeling these strange urges to tell people things: “It’s been really rad getting to know you”; “I’m gonna miss our Saturday mornings”; “I really appreciate all your support the last few months.” As though I’m not coming back, as though some piece of me won’t be coming back, the precious little heavy thing I’ve carried and carried.

Is this what they mean by intimacy? Is this what they mean by being truly intimate with another person, by letting it in instead of keeping it all at arms’ length, all of it, always, withdrawing and sneaking off and disappearing into some blank place inside myself?

People are trying to say goodbye, and I’m trying to let them.

“Aw, I’m gonna miss you,” Benji said in the middle of the shift.

“Oh, I’ll be back,” I started in. “Three months isn’t that long.”

I paused, wiping the rim of the plate. I took a deep breath, and looked at him. “Thank you. Goodbyes are hard for me. But I’m gonna miss you too.”

Living With Vampires

It’s vampire season in Oakland.

We sit at the bar, piles of cash and cigarettes and half-drunk bottles of wine—another end to another shift. It’s past midnight, and we’re all tired, itching to get home. “Just another ten minutes, I swear!” JL calls from the loft.

We sit there—all four of us—off the clock and waiting. Because we can’t leave someone to walk out alone.

I used to wonder as a little kid which would be worse: to live with werewolves or vampires? Werewolves could pulverize through anything, but you only had to deal with them one night a month. Vampires, on the other hand, were tricky, the color of shadows, and out there every single night. As soon as the sun went down, the streets would become a different thing, sinister, a free-for-all, an anything-goes zone where at any moment a pale, hungry creature could leap out and attack. And you could harbor illusions about fighting them off, but really, what were the chances you could actually drive a stake through their heart? You’d be defenseless, and all they’d see would be your virgin neck and throbbing vein and they’d want a drink—a drink of blood that was now theirs.

I imagined the constant stress, the constant level of awareness, the little ways that living with such creatures would reshape your life (“I left something in my car. Oh well, I’ll have to get it in the morning; not worth risking it.”), and in the end, I’d always decide that vampires were worse.

And it’s a similar feeling in Oakland right now—that when the sun goes down, the shadows come alive, and go on the hunt. There’s been a rash of robberies and violent assaults among the circles I frequent, enough that I can’t discount it as the usual fifth-most-dangerous-city-in-the-country shenanigans. No one can.

I forget how much it’s there, this constant consideration in the back of my head. I won’t take the train into the city if it means I’ll be coming home after dark; I don’t want to risk the walk back to my car from the station. I don’t go jogging at night—or at least, I drive up into Piedmont to do it. I suck it up and pay for parking in order to park right outside the restaurant I work at, so I again don’t have to risk walking farther than I have to.

But it’s gone a step further this year. After two guys I worked with got robbed at gunpoint leaving the restaurant, we stopped walking out even in pairs—we all leave work together now. After a girl from another restaurant got abducted, robbed and tortured, we won’t even let our manager stay late, even if her car is literally 50 feet from the door. She rearranges her schedule so that she comes in early, gets her office work done, and can leave with everyone else.

It’s like being a prisoner in a way. There’s no comfort in the fact that the fear applies equally to men and women, or that it’s not even fear that drive you all, but rather a statistical likelihood. When a third guy you work with got his nose broken last week, the reaction was largely anger—at him. “What the fuck was he doing thinking he could walk three blocks by himself?”

I keep thinking about Tirana, about my first late night at a bar, when everyone I’d come with had left.

“Where can I catch a cab?”

“A cab? You can walk, you know, it’s only 15 minutes.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s late, and I’m alone…”

“Oh, but it’s totally safe.”

“I’d rather not risk it.”

A laugh. “Listen. In five years at the hostel, we’ve never heard of anyone ever having a problem.”

And it felt strange, walking through the two am streets, a foreign girl by herself. I couldn’t stop checking my back, walking briskly, staring down the few strangers I passed.

But eventually, I got used to it. And I almost felt giddy, elated by this strange sense of freedom—a sudden lightness and ease. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you get a taste of something better.

Just after one of the guys at work who got robbed, he posted a really telling Facebook status: “I knew it was bound to happen, living in Oakland caught up with me.” And it kind of broke my heart, because at times I feel the same way—like I’m just waiting for my number to be drawn. That I can be as careful and cautious as I’d like, but eventually, one day, I’ll let my guard down or take a risk, and it’ll be me, my turn, my time to get bitten.

When we finally walk out, it’s after one am. “That,” I sigh, “was not 10 minutes.”

“Nope.”

“But it’s not like we coulda left her there.”

“Nope.”

And we get in our cars and drive own separate homes, where we’ll circle to find the closest spot, walk briskly to the gate and slam it shut, tightly behind us.

Sunday Morning on International

Sunday morning on International Blvd. A sidewalk laced in fog, car exhaust, the sick-sweet smell seeping from panderias. Little girls in patent-leather shoes, dudes crouched and smoking and speaking in Vietnamese outside the street shop: “Good tattoo ain’t cheap, cheap tattoo ain’t good.” The rattle of shopping cart wheels, the bark of fenced-in dogs.

I’m running late. I’m going to the 11am meeting at the In Between, a beat-up converted barroom now filled with folding chairs and faded banners, where we sit and curse and laugh, talk about God and booze, “hmm-mm”ing and “uh-huh”ing and drinking cheap coffee that stains our teeth. I love that place, its dusty corners and dying plants, the sag of the window frames.

I pass the bright blue letters of Iglesia de Buen Sabor, a storefront church with white bars over its frosted windows. The tambourine rattle and exalted voices of its congregation pours out the open door, from a faceless place—always black inside, when looking in from the street.

I make eye contact with a man standing in front of the doorway. He has a look of well-groomed desperation: cheap suit, overly combed hair, shoes shining like little black teeth. He’s got one crippled arm, bent and with a tangle of underdeveloped fingers; he cradles it next to his body as though he were holding an infant, or a small injured bird. I give him the half-smile and nod of a hello in passing.

He steps towards me. “Hello,” he says. “My name is Juan Carlos…” he continues on with a couple more names, surnames and second middle names. He leans his small hand towards me.

I pause mid-stride, take his small hand. “Right on, man, good to meet you.” It feels limp and strange in my momentary grasp, and I try to amend my handshake, make it softer, let it fit the contours of his curled-in fingers. “I’m running late, though—” I start to step away.

“You have a lot of joy in your heart.”

I stop, look at him with a slightly cocked head. “Thanks.”

He nods, smiles, then steps back into the black swallow and tambourine roll of his doorway.

I cross the street and squeak my own door open.


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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