Archive for the 'Places' Category



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.

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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.

Thai Beach Resort Pool Deck Flashback

I was sitting in a lounge chair of a cheesy beach resort, sipping a fruity drink with a twisty straw and a flower AND a friggin umbrella, resting my sun-scorched skin and listening to my ipod and generally doing everything one ought to do in a Thai beach town, when I looked across the pool deck and saw this father and daughter. Real pink, real British, having a conversation straight off the Friends and Family ESL book companion CD: “Have you got on your sun cream?” “Yes, I put it on this morning.” “You ought to reapply; ask mum for the bottle.”

And I kinda smiled to myself, staring out and thinking about nothing really, watching this dad rub sun block across his daughter’s shoulders and back, when I had a flash of, “Man, I remember that.” So I wrote this—which is far more introduction than one ought to ever give a poem, let alone one written on an iPhone.

Can you remember the feel
of your father’s hands?—
When you were young,
they’d close around yours,
their massiveness a cave
of callouses and rough patches
that turned dark
when you flew inside.

You could live there,
you’d thought,
blind against that rock
when you crossed the street,
when he’d reach behind the driver’s seat
of that tin-drum car
and click your seatbelt shut;
when he’d rub on the sun block,
all those hardened places
scratching against
your smooth
unblemished
in the summertime,
on the swim deck,
where you’d laid on your belly
with your friends and he’d said,
“These are the happiest days of your life,”

You’d felt something small
and crushing coming.

And it’s not so smooth now, is it?
It’s sun-spotted and speckled
with moles they want to scrap off
and biopsy;
it’s red and wrinkled
like deep drought ditches
in the morning,
in the mirror,
all of the mirrors of the world,
all the cheap hotel rooms
that have become your homeland
and you can’t believe it was ever smooth,
that you were ever young.

You can’t remember the last time
you held your father’s hand
and felt like you could get lost inside—
a bat flapping
its song against the rock.

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.

The Coming of the Storm

It was coming. The way it’s always coming, except for just after it’s came: a big-ass storm that’ll flood the alleys and clean the air and give the mosquitoes new pools of water in which to hatch.

I wake up exhausted—6:30am, out on the bike by 7:30, class at 8. A string of kids who won’t listen, a little boy who cries three hot angry tears when I kick him out for talking. It’s worse than if he sobbed, those three tears, worse in their restrain and fury—maybe at me but also at something else it seems, at whatever that thing in him is that can’t listen, can’t sit still, can’t stay in his fucking seat.

Hour break before I’ve gotta be back across town for tutoring—a private lesson for a Korean teenage boy about to start at the international school in a few weeks. His English isn’t great but he’s smart as a whip and well-mannered and tries hard, even when I can tell he doesn’t want to. Sometimes I suspect it’s just to humor me but it’s trying nonetheless, making a difference nonetheless, so I pretend not to notice.

Order a coffee, review my notes, brain too foggy, give up. Feel like my eyelids are weighted, sleep like a big mouth wanting to yawn around my forehead and take me back with it. Wish I could let it, sip my coffee, resolve to take a nap later.

Get on the moto, space out as I feel the humidity gathering, growing thick in the air like a cloud of bugs. Arrive at the apartment complex: one of four high-rises you can see clear across town. The building’s on this housing development, tacky and landscaped, with really crisp sidewalks and these massive sculptures of wild white stallions at every round-about—the kind of place a foreign company will put its workers up in, which is what my student’s family is.

I’m early so I go sit on the big foofy sofa in the foyer. It’s going for a French aristocrat look—tassled pillows and little clawed pegs, a faux-Impressionist painting on the wall that seems to dominate, overtake the room in way I haven’t ever quite seen another painting do. The effect is something other than what’s intended, almost Murakamian in its alienation, in a way that makes me feel like I’m in a novel instead of someone else’s real life.

Sit there and listen to the elevator ding and the security guard pacing in her clicky shoes and military cap. Try to read a bit of the book I downloaded last night, have a hard time digging it—get lost in the sentences, fend off that same feeling of all-consuming sleep. Have a brief pang of homesicknesses for Flannery O’Connor, homesick for my fat old Collected Works—not that I miss her but that I crave her, crave that line in Wise Blood about how Jesus was a wild ragged figure in someone’s mind, “motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

Resolve to Google the quote when I go home.

Check the time, ride the elevator, struggle my way through the hour and a half, dim brain and dull eyes. The boy does well today—write down what he says and show it to him, compare it with what he’d said a month ago, note the improvement. He smiles.

Drink the milk his mother gives me, the donut holes she fried in the kitchen while we were working. Eat them with a little fork. We don’t say much but smile a lot. She pays me, I thank her, she thanks me.

Get on another bike; the first few drops start, not light and misty but in heavy, deliberate plops. Stop, put on my plastic poncho that I don’t leave home without, strap my helmet back on.

Ride back but the rain doesn’t come, it peters out and receedes and I’m the only one on the road wearing my poncho. Feel like a jack-ass.

Get home, down some water, crawl up the stairs. Flip on the AC and collapse into bed without taking my dress or my leggings off.

It’s one of those sleeps that seems to kidnap you, to hit you like a dump truck, turn your limbs to lead and your brain into a pile of black at the front of your skull. Go thick and dreamless; roll over once, gasp, return.

Have a dream, a crazy lucid dreams where I’m completely cognizant, completely myself, but don’t know I’m sleeping. There’s a girl. A phantom really: pale skin and fangs. She might be a vampire. Sometimes she’s chasing me and I’m running—I go up on a ledge and she meets me there, hisses. But then it’s me who wants her, almost as though I want to seduce her, like something is compelling me to seduce her, and I knock her over and I grab at her ankles, draw her close to me. The world spins steeply beneath us.

I lose my grasp on her and she’s gone again, goes back to chasing me and I’m terrified. I feel her around me all the time; I “wake up” in a house (which isn’t waking up at all, and isn’t a house at all, more of a skinny hall of mirrors) and there’s a little girl there. She’s sweet and I’m trying to talk to her, to listen to her talk about Barbie’s or whatever—trying to be normal when really I feel that other girl, that vampire girl, everywhere, lurking around the house, trying to get in.

I squint as though my eyes were fogged. I have to write this, I think in the dream, write down what happened before it’s gone. But every time I try the pencil smudges and my vision blurs and something distracts me, some question or task, until I can’t see the fucking paper in front of me.

I wake up then. For real wake up, just long enough to roll over and wipe the drool off my chin. My head feels like a block of cement on the pillow and the room is black, blacker than it should be at 4pm. The sliver of sky I can see through the window is ripe and swollen.

What was she? I ask in my half-awakeness.

Writing, my black brain answers. She was writing.

Feel myself getting sucked back into sleep, quicksand-sucked, as the rain finally starts outside my window.


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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