Posts Tagged 'culture shock'

“You Don’t Have To Like It But…”: A West Oakland Story About Vietnamese Culture

Still waiting for someone to explain this one

When I moved to Hanoi, there was this refrain I kept hearing the long-term expats say: “You don’t have to like Vietnamese culture, but you have to respect it.”

Which makes sense, you know; you don’t have to be a historian to know that these are the folks who beat the Chinese, beat the French, beat the Americans. It’s not a touchy-feely, graceful, charming culture; it may be abrasive and loud and pushy, but as they say, you’ve gotta respect it.

Well, I do like Vietnamese culture, at least so far, so it’s a two-for for me. But the longer I stay here, the more I realize that there’s some stuff I already knew about Vietnamese culture, if only in brief glimpses. Now I just have a larger context to put it in.

For example: there’s this story my mom used to tell that keeps rising up out of the fog of childhood memories as I’m walking around Hanoi. It’s one of the many my mom has from her years teaching kindergarten in West Oakland during the 1980s.

For the uninitiated, West Oakland is a kind of urban no-man’s-land, a place where “the rules of normal society don’t apply,” my mom always said. It was the kind of place where you’d see things you normally don’t see in the developed world—packs of stray dogs, unsupervised three-year-olds walking around, shootings in broad daylight, junkies lined up for their morning fix.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about West Oakland too, been working on this monster piece (that currently falls apart right at the climax) about the neighborhood, which I never lived in but had a consistent relationship with my whole 28 years living in Oakland. My dad worked in a fire station there; my brother worked at a swimming pool there; an old boyfriend lived in a notorious punk house there.

So there’s no shortage of stories, and seeing as though I don’t want to spoil what may eventually turn into a workable piece, I’ll keep them to myself for now. Except the one I keep thinking of, the one of a little Vietnamese girl in my mom’s kindergarten class.

In the 1980s Oakland’s working class neighborhoods were flooded with Southeast Asian refugees, from Laos and Cambodia (“We had a bring a translator in to tell the Cambodian boys they couldn’t piss on the playground”), but mostly from Vietnam. Oakland had always had tons of Chinese people, but these new Asians were a different breed; we didn’t really know much about them.

It’s a funny thing to grow up around immigrant communities, because you get these whiffs of a culture. It’s different, a culture in diaspora; everything is cut through the prism of the American immigrant experience, which skews things, makes them not-quite-actually-how-they-are. But you get these glimpses, these insights; you get a vague understanding of what people from Vietnam are like—“tough as shit” was the usual way we summed it up—and while these glimpses are incomplete and reductionist, they aren’t entirely inaccurate.

So. My mom’s in West Oakland, teaching to a population that’s the dictionary definition of At-Risk Youth: majority African-American, low-income, single-parents, high prevalence of drug use and criminal activity in the household. Now sprinkled with fresh-off-the-boat war refugees. #nottheshittheytrainyoufor

In those days the Oakland Public School curriculum had a heavy focus on African-American history and culture. Maybe it still does. I went to a different school in a different neighborhood, but it was still the same jam—teaching subject matter that related to the students’ lives. It wasn’t a bad idea and could have worked, if it’d been supplemented with other curriculum, like say science.

So my mom is teaching away—Follow the Drinking Gourd; Go Tell It On the Mountain; Honey I Love,; “The people walked walked walked / Till their feet were sore inside / Till their shoes split open wide / But still they would not ride”; “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff / Wasn’t scared of nothing neither / Didn’t come into this world to be no slave / And wasn’t gonna stay one neither.” Every month was Black History Month, an attempt to counter the Euro-centric narrative that dominated most public school education. Except it wasn’t exactly inclusive; except it left out all the other kids in the classroom who were also of color.

So one day, towards the middle of the school year, when all those immigrant kids were starting to get conversant in English, a scrappy little Vietnamese girl looks up from her Montgomery bus coloring sheet or some shit and announces, “I’m tired of learning about black people.”

There was a dead silence in the room.

“You know,” my mom would say when she’d tell the story, laughing and shaking her head. “You kinda had to hand it to her. There wasn’t a scrap of grace or tact in there, and you knew her life wasn’t gonna be easy in Oakland—but you know, you had to respect the guts it took to say it.”

The longer I stay in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, the more this story seems to encapsulate a fuck of a lot about Vietnamese culture. It’s not soft. It’s not gentle. It’s not palms-pressed-and-bowing subservience. #fuckthatanyway

But you’ve gotta respect it.

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“It’s a Real City!”: Hanoi Through Cambodia Goggles

Tourist time with Uncle Ho!

“Hanoi: Refreshingly Free of Prostitutes”

This was the tagline that ran through my head my first few weeks living in Hanoi. Which perhaps isn’t most people’s dominant first impression of the city. Which perhaps says a helluva a lot more about me and where I was coming from, my Cambodia goggles, than it did about Hanoi itself.

I’ve been talking a lot to one of my friends here about first impressions of places, whether there’s any clout in them or if they’re all just superficial and uninformed and in the long run say more about the viewer than the place itself. (We’ve reached no verdicts but I’ll get back to you if we do.) Particularly we’ve been discussing the tendency of certain travel writers/memoirists to put places into what feels like a pre-determined box—the exotic romanticism of a place like Hanoi.

For instance, if a writer talks about the smells of “verdant green” and “incense wafting” in Hanoi, it makes you stop and think: “Really dude? Are we talking about the same Hanoi?” (“In Hanoi I just smell trash,” another writer friend said.) It’s like some people have already decided what a place is gonna be like and then goddammit, they go out looking for things that confirm that belief, bolster that vision, and seem to block out every other damn thing that may challenge or contradict their predetermined notions.

Which doesn’t actually tell you a whole lot about Hanoi, but does tell you a lot about the person experiencing Hanoi. For instance: last week I had two friends from Phnom Penh in Hanoi. It was another one of those long weekends that riddle the Cambodian calender like bullet-holes, a great excuse for them to bus-it and plane-it up to Hanoi to soak up some autumn breezes, street food and much-need kick it time.

I miss the hell out of my Phnom Penh friends, so it was great to catch up and roam around playing tourist. But one of the funniest things about my friends visiting was listening to their impressions of Hanoi, cause they were the exact same as mine when I arrived here. Which basically amounted to: “Holy shit, I’m in a developed country!”

Cambodia’s really gotta be one of the few countries you could come to Vietnam from and be impressed with the level of competence, wealth and infrastructure. Every time I saw the garbage collectors when I first came here—a mini-phalanx of women with rubber gloves and masks and UNIFORMS—I wanted to cry. When a xe om driver could read the address of where I was going, I nearly teared up. When my landlord installed a new stove top, with actual gas burners, I instagrammed that shit.

Both of my friends had been to Hanoi before, one more recently than the other, but their remarks were basically the same, including:

“People are so fat here!”
“Wow, a mountain bike!”
“Wow, a city bus!”
“Hanoi is like, a real city.”
“It feels like there’s so much more to explore here.”
“The beef is so good here.”
“People are kinda mean.”
“You can really feel that it’s a middle-income country.”

Comments like that made me feel good, made me laugh a bit too—when we stood on the corner and perused the poncho selection, the ones with the clear plastic in the front so you can put it over the front of your bike and still have the headlight visible (what I call the Teletubby Poncho). “The ponchos here are so nice,” running their fingers over the sturdy plastic. “How come people in Cambodia haven’t thought of this?”

All of which is great cause you hear a lot of bullshit about Vietnam—such as this god-awful post lamenting the deformed beggars (??) and fragile (haha!) Vietnamese women—shit that makes you think, “Are you sure you were in Hanoi and not Phnom Penh? Or did you just decide that Hanoi was gonna be a third-world shitshow and look for examples to confirm this belief? And when you didn’t find enough examples, you invented them?”

When I moved here there was a number of people I met who wanted to Tell Me How It Was In Vietnam. Sigh. I suppose they had good intentions, but it all chalked up to “Vietnam is so crazy!” And I just kept thinking, “Puh-lease. You clearly haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” So much so that I tuned out a lot of the lingering dysfunction and insanity of Vietnam, was so enamored with the functionality that it took me a few months to notice the things that really still weren’t developed.

All of which makes you wonder if you ever really see a place clearly, or if it’s all just an endless shifting of projections, in a Jacob’s Room sense. Which is bullshit—of course you can see a place clearly, it’s just a lot harder to do, takes a lot more thought and insight and care, and maybe only comes in fleeting moments of sensory assault.

Either way, it was great to spend a few days trolling around Hanoi in tourist-mode, seeing it again through Cambodia goggles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged. “Five or six.”

“And how old are you?”

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

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

I smiled.

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

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

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

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

See: Magical. #nofilter

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

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

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

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

“Totally,” I said.

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

Jacob nodded. “He’s right.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

The 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.

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?

First-World Problems in the Second World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. My moto driver wants an extra dollar.

6. Searching for an address in the heat.

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

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

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

I leave the clinic, squinting through my glasses.

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

9. I cannot nap well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice that my contact lenses case is missing.

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

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

And flights to Thailand.

And workmen that lose contact lenses.

And landlords that repair your house.

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


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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