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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged. “Five or six.”

“And how old are you?”

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

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

I smiled.

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

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

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

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

See: Magical. #nofilter

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

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

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

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

“Totally,” I said.

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

Jacob nodded. “He’s right.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

A Year and Counting

The good ole’ lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, but in 115 degree heat

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

Yeah well, that shit blew up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that’s who.

He said my name and gave a little wave.

Which was totally, 100% NOT like dating.

Things To Consider Before Trekking Fancy Pants Mountain

1. It is not actually called Fancy Pants Mountain. If you are unable to stop calling it Fancy Pants, because you cannot either remember or pronounce its real name, take this a sign.

2. Fansipan Mountain is the highest peak in Indochina (which sounds totally colonialist, but what the hell do you call the Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos region: “the region formerly known as Indochina”? RFKAI?) As such, you’ll be trekking up. As in, UP UP. It’s only a 15km trek up and you’ll probably think, “I’m back to jogging 10km a few times a week, I can toooootally handle it.” Kilometers are for suckers anyway.

It may be worthwhile to listen to your own bullshit detector.

3. Everything you read prior to the trek will use grandiose-sounding verbiage such as “conquering Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is an overly zealous translation. You’ll also read that at the trek’s completion, you’ll receive a certificate verifying that you’ve “conquered Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is a product of the Vietnamese affection for paperwork.

But consider this. Really consider this.

Fool’s Journey

4. As the highest peak in RFKAI, Fancy Pants Mountain will be cold. They’ll tell you this: “It’s cold up there.” Remember you haven’t been in anything close to “cold” in a nearly two years. Briefly consider the fruitless time and effort you’ve invested in finding clothing that fits you in this country. Decide not to bother trying to get real hiking boots or weather-resistant clothing. Borrow some long pants from your roommate, and put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

5. Consider the fact that you are not a good trekker. You don’t even really enjoy trekking. Remember La Ciudad Perdida? Yosemite’s Half-Dome? All those Muir Woods day hikes your parents took you on as a kid? You have never for one second liked trekking, or been any good at it.

Despite this, “getting out of the city” will seem like a good idea. Consider briefly of the itinerary: an overnight train; arrival at 6am; trek beginning at 9am; the trek; sleeping in a “longhouse”; trekking back; overnight train back to Hanoi at 7pm.

Consider that this is your weekend.

Or don’t. Buy some bottled water and a granola bar, put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

Comfy on the train

6. Dream about Roberto Bolano on the overnight train. Dream you’re sitting around a table at a youth hostel, freestyling short stories; dream that he is staring at you across the table.

Wake up giddy and in a puddle of your own drool. Consider how many times people must have woken up in puddles of their own drool ON THIS VERY PILLOW, whether or not they were dreaming of Roberto Bolano. Rinse your face; chug from the plastic bottle; swish the water in your mouth and spit it out; look at yourself in the foggy scratched mirror, your reflection foggy and scratched.

Think: “Let’s Do This Shit.”

7. Doing This Shit:

i. The trail will be muddy. Like, mad muddy. Shlup, shloop, gloop, glup, ankle-deep and sliding around, falling-in-the-shrubbery muddy. The porters will hand you a walking stick; this stick will become your best friend, despite the little blisters your own clutching causes.

ii. The trail will be foggy. You won’t be able to see shit, not more than a few meters in front of you or behind you.

iii. The trail will be rocky. It will not really be a trail so much as a series of rocks to climb up. Really, it should be called The Fancy Pants Mountain Rock-Climb, not a trek because you don’t actually get a good stride going very often.

iv. Your feet will get wet and muddy. It’s better to just accept it and slosh through than try and fight it. It’s faster too.

On the mountain with my “waa” face

v. The porters won’t speak English, so it’ll be best to go with a group of people who speak Vietnamese. Though Vietnamese won’t be the native language of the porters; they’ll speak Hmong. The porters will speak Hmong because they’ll be Hmong, and it’ll be the only trek you’ve been on with a female porter.

She will be a bad ass. Like, the definition of a bad ass: big phat tribal earrings the kids in SF would pay $300 for; knee-high rubber rain boots; skirt tied with a sash; sturdy-ass legs from doing this trek a minimum of TEN TIMES A MONTH, your friends will translate. All your food and gear will be stowed in a whisker basket she totes on her back. She’ll smile and have three gold teeth; you’ll think about how you miss gold teeth, seeing just a few as opposed to a whole goddamn grill the kids are sporting these days. Her fingers will be stained, black-rimmed nails, and she’ll never be out of breath.

Consider that she will be the coolest part of the trek.

Girl crush

vii. After seven hours you’ll arrive at the 2800 meter point. Consider you won’t know what this translates to in feet; consider that you won’t care.

You’ll go into the longhouse where you’ll be sleeping and it will no shit be one of the most squalid places you’ve ever seen. Consider that you’ve slept in some squalid situations, both urban and rural; consider that an old boyfriend lived in a West Oakland punk house called Dead Rat Beach. Consider that this longhouse will be worse than that.

Consider: the walls made of aluminum, a material that traps and magnifies the cold; the gaping hole in the door of the aluminum, through which a howling wind straight from the cold chest of China enters; the muddy-ass walkway; the raised wooden sleeping platform, damp from the cold; the trash beneath the sleeping platform; the scurry of the rats beneath the sleeping platform; the thin sleeping bags they’ll give you; the fact that the sleeping bags don’t zip; the fact that this trek has become mega popular with Vietnamese young people and that a group of sixteen with enter the house a couple hours after you do and that they will, in full Vietnamese fashion, talk and point and shout at each other for 6 of the 8 hours you attempt to sleep, and that this will annoy even the Vietnamese people you’ve come with.

In the longhouse with my cold face

Consider that the dinner will be nice, quite tasty really, more Chinese than Vietnamese, and that you’ll gorge yourself by the candlelight and that one of your trekking mates will have brought a bar of Toblerone and that he’ll break you off a chunk and HOLY SHIT that’ll be the best piece of Toblerone you’ve ever tasted.

Consider that you don’t even really like Toblerone. Consider that.

viii. Consider that the toughness-to-reward ratio of the trek will be low enough to inspire you skip the “conquering” bit. You will not get up at 5am will the others in your group and carry on to the top, but cuddle up and clench your eyes against the swimming of the flashlights, clamp your ears against the shouting of the other trekkers, and shiver inside your unzipped sleeping back, inside your roommate’s pants and the leggings you haven’t changed out of.

Your trek-mates who made it

You’ll head down the mountain around 8am with another girl in your group who has also bailed. Only now will you consider that the whole “I did it!” thing has never been a motivation for you. Only now consider that on the treks you’ve done in that past, you’ve never felt the swoon of accomplishment, victory over a physical challenge, but more of a “Now why did I put myself through THAT?”

Consider that you’ve always felt life was hard enough without CLIMBING A FRIGGIN MOUNTAIN on your weekend. Consider that the real “I did it!” for you is and always had been the everyday survival—the existing in the world—not this outdoor mountain shit. Consider that the real victory for you is the fact that you’ve damn near made it to 30 without killing yourself.

Consider that as you slip and slide and crawl on your ass back down the mountain.

Consider that the way down is always harder than the way up. Consider how that’s a metaphor. For all of it.

8. The best part of the trek will be when it’s over. You’ll get back to Sapa, a lovely little town you wish you had the energy to explore, and you’ll feel like you’ve been gone longer than 30-some hours. Since your friend arranged the whole thing through a tour agency, you’ll have access to a hotel room with a shower. It’ll be a dingy little hotel room with the same faded pink paint as your apartment in Phnom Penh, but the water pressure will be strong and the water will be hot and HOLY SHIT it’ll be the best shower you think you’ve ever taken. Consider that you like hot, strong showers, and have taken a lot of them.

Stagger across the road to a touristy cafe and order a burger, fries and a chocolate shake. Consider the last time you indulged in this trifecta; consider that you won’t be able to remember and that you won’t care. Consider that the shake will be a literal interpretation of a shake—milk and chocolate powder that were seemingly stirred together—and that it’ll still taste goddamn amazing.

9. Consider the train ride back. Despite the fact that the AC in your cabin won’t be working, you’ll konk out at 8pm. You will not dream about Roberto Bolano, and you will feel slightly ripped off by that.

You’ll arrive back in Hanoi at 5am, all matted hair and lip crust, everyone in your group too tired and sore to give proper goodbyes. You’ll hop on the back of a xe om, whiz through the sleepy pre-dawn streets.

You won’t have conquered Fancy Pants.

You won’t have conquered shit.

But goddammit, you’ll be on your way to conquer your own friggin bed.

You’ll pay the dude, slither down the alley, yank open the gate, crawl up the stairs and HOLY SHIT you will.

*

If you’ve considered all this and still want to do the trek, check out Mien’s much more informative and much less whiny post on the expedition.

Three Year Bloggiversary, Two Weeks Late

Party time. Clearly.

The three-year anniversary of this blog snuck up on me. Which really it didn’t; the “domain expiring” warnings kept appearing at the head of every page until, two days before the whole shebang was to be shut down, I finally renewed.

I debated doing some reflective post about what’s happened to me in the three years since I started this thing, when I was about to leave on a trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, my first sola backpacking trip in a few years. I thought about doing some list of things I’ve learned, clips I’ve garnered, other writers I’ve connected with, favorite posts, most popular posts, blahblahblah. But the laziness got the better of me (you noticed how infrequently I’ve been updating as of late?) and I decided to let the anniversary come and go without any fanfare. Cause who really cares anyway?

Then good old Pam Mandel at Nerd’s Eye View wrote me, asking for a pithy quote about travel blogging to be included in her TBEX workshop on creative travel story telling. I was honored but a bit baffled; the folks over at TBEX are doing good things, but their things seem to be on an entirely different end of the spectrum than my things, with different goals and objectives and measurements of success. I frankly didn’t think I had much of value to say to them.

But I gave it a good think, as I cruised around town sucking exhaust and sunlight and other carcinogens. This is what I came up with—far more than the pithy quote requested, but my unfiltered, unadulterated thoughts of travel blogging, gleaned from my three years in the mix.

It was actually quite nice to sit down and get them out. I debated crafting this, or at least even editing it, into a proper post, but again with the laziness. So, a little cut-and-paste action:

I think I’m kinda a strange person to give advice on travel blogging, since I don’t have a terribly successful travel blog. I mean, my stats are decent (I think, I haven’t ever thought to compare them to anyone else’s), but I’ve never made a dime off my blog or gone any press trips. Or even been offered any press trips. Or offered anything besides link swaps and vague “business transactions” that are probably money laundering scams. Nor have I really tried to get those things, so there you go.

My background is in literary writing and I think that’s really shaped my approach to blogging. I think of my blog as an electronic zine. Does anyone remember zines? Collaged, Xeroxed, DIY affairs? I used to make them in high school, sell them at local book stores and record shops or else just directly out of my backpack. Mmore than anything I made zines in order to get my voice out there, in order to be heard—because there was something in me that could not be still (to paraphrase Sylvia Plath), that compelled me to write and publish, and the only means available to do that for a 15-year-old kid in public school was a zine.

I started my blog almost exactly three years ago; non-fiction was a new genre for me and no one was gonna publish my work. Largely because it wasn’t very good yet. But there were still things I wanted to say, conversations I wanted to start or be a part of, questions and insights I wanted to share, so I went back to my DIY roots and started blogging. It’s really not so different for me, just a more expedient, less messy and time-consuming version of what I did as a teenager.

Maybe that’s not encouraging, but blogging has given me a lot of intangible rewards. One, it keeps me writing regularly, even if it’s just a short, funny thing I whip out in less than an hour. Blogging has also shaped the way I travel and even live. It’s kinda like keeping a daily gratitude list; because I’ve been doing it for so long, there’s a part of my brain that’s always on the lookout for something to blog about. Keeping a blog has provided me with a reason to do things I normally wouldn’t, because they’re expensive or hard or weird; for instance, I was able to justify flying to a random town in Southern Italy for a street art festival, where I had one of the funnest weekends of my life and met someone who’s become one of my closest friends. Blogging has also put me in touch with other writers and helped me build a community of like-minded individuals (again, not so different from zine-making).

Perhaps the most gratifying thing, as I move more and more into publishing, is having the space to write exactly what I want to write. I don’t have to worry about editors or marketability or anything on my blog; I can say totally and 100% what I want to say. Strangely, I think that’s where the “success” of my blog comes from, if you can say there is any. I’m convinced that the most important and precious thing a writer has is his or her own voice. The craft can be learned, and should be learned, must be learned—but the thing that makes great writers great (at least the ones I love) is the strength and conviction of their voice. No one wants to hear the same old stuff, the nicey-nice. Or maybe they do, but there isn’t any longevity in that. When I read, I want to feel something. I don’t even necessarily want to agree with the writer; sometimes it’s better when I don’t. But I want to believe them, if that makes sense.

Of course, it can be a trap, self-publishing. It’s easy to fall into a groove where all you get is “wow, that was great” feedback; where you’re not getting any constructive criticism that pushes you further and deeper; where you become mad self-reflexive and exist inside your own little feel-good world. (“There’s a reason people such as Miss Quinn publish in the zine format,” a Letter to the Editor of my first published piece proclaimed. “They lack the talent to do anything else.”) And I’ve definitely felt myself falling into that at times. It’s a fine line to walk, between utilizing the rejection and criticism of the publishing/literary world to help yourself grow as a writer, and comprising your voice to that world; and similarly between using your blog as a platform for unrestrained self-expression, and using it as a masturbatory oversharing sesh. I think exactly where that line is is different for all of us, but it’s crucial that we each identify that line and stay mindful of that line, traverse it like tight-rope walkers and use that community we’ve built as our safety net.

None of which may be very good travel blogging advice, but is nonetheless what I’ve gleaned from my three years blogging, seventeen years self-publishing and twenty-five years writing.

Now gimme my party hat and my cake.

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.

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.


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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