Wednesday, 25 May 2011

We are one, but we are many

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a group of Vietnamese post-graduate students who are about to move to Australia to study. It was an event eerily similar - but exactly the opposite - to the pre-departure briefing I attended in Canberra before first coming to Vietnam on a volunteer programme. 
(Nathan gets to wear a pin like this for work all the time.) 
At that briefing, I hung intently, and a bit desperately, on the words of anybody who could tell me what my future life in Hanoi would be like. I can still remember every titbit of information and advice that we received: Bring a suitcase-full of tampons! Don’t wear sleeveless dresses! Never turn your back to the family altar! We were also shown how to transform your jeans into a life-jacket should your ferry be sinking. What we were to do with our suitcase full of tampons in this instance, I’m not sure.

At the exact opposite briefing, the students going to Australia were just as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I was eighteen months ago. They wanted to know all those little practical details which you focus on because you don’t want to ask the big question: what the hell am I getting myself in for?

Returned students spoke about their experiences, just as happened in Canberra, and, naturally, their advice was the same, but exactly the opposite to what we received.

For example, in Canberra we were told to take lots of clothes with us to Vietnam because we’d be too fat to fit into anything. This was sound advice. It’s a common experience here in Hanoi to be physically restrained by sales assistants from entering a shop because they don’t want your seam-ripping, button-popping fatness anywhere near their clothes. “Nothing for you!” they shout.

The returned Vietnamese students reported that when going to Australia you should also take as many clothes as possible, otherwise you would face the indignity of… having to shop in the children’s department. Was there a part of me – a big, fat part of me – that thought “SUFFFFAAAAAAH!”? Yes. Yes, there was.

Before coming to Vietnam, we were told to prepare ourselves for the noise. “Bring earplugs!” I dutifully wrote in my notes. Returned volunteers displayed photos of the motorbike traffic and we reeled in terror. Despite this, nothing could have prepared me for the near constant, bone-rattling, brain-addling noise. A friend here was recently trying to make the outrageous claim that he regularly experiences silence in Hanoi, supposedly in his bedroom. He was then forced to add, “I mean, until the printing press downstairs gets started.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese students advised their counterparts that Australia was silent. Not quiet, but silent. “It is very strange!” they said. They then showed a photo of what could be any suburban Australian street (houses, trees, footpaths, parked cars) and the audience literally gasped. “So empty! No people!” I admit that in comparison to Hanoi, the scene did kind of look post-apocalyptic. Chatting with the departing students over lunch, one girl told me that her biggest concern about Australia was that it would be too quiet, something she had never experienced. She was going to Adelaide, so I had no reassuring words.

In Canberra we were told to expect strangers in Vietnam approaching us and wanting to be our new best friend. Don’t give your mobile number to anyone you don’t know, they said, unless you want to be called at 6:30am and invited for pho every morning, until you either relent or change your number. Newly arrived in Hanoi, Nathan failed to heed this advice, cheerily supplying his number to a young man called Kenny whom he met in a coffee shop. What followed deserves an entire blog post in itself. Let’s just say that Kenny did actually call Nathan his “BFF 4 Life” in one of his several thousand text messages.

At the Hanoi information session, one of the returned Vietnamese students reported that at first Australians seemed to her to be rude and unfriendly. She then realised they weren’t being rude, but just valued privacy and independence. Very. Highly. I couldn’t help but wonder if she realised this after being charged with stalking. Very well-intentioned, Vietnamese-style stalking.

I have often thought about what it must be like to be a Vietnamese immigrant in Australia, concluding that I couldn’t possibly imagine how strange and difficult it is for them. It never occurred to me that I already knew. Of course the things I find strange or difficult here in Hanoi will strike a Vietnamese person in Sydney in the same way. No derr.

I left the information session feeling a real affinity for these exactly the opposite people and completely confident that in a few months’ time they’ll be starting blogs about the confounding and hilarious behaviour of Australians.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

A dose of gross

When our friends Iona and Stew came to visit us in Hanoi recently, Stew opened the door of the taxi outside our house, got out, and put his foot smack-bang into our well-appointed neighbourhood sewerage hole. Literally his first step in Hanoi was into the thick, black poo water:

You’ve got to laugh. Right, Stew? Right?

It was a fairly appropriate Hanoi welcome. It’s not actually that dirty for such a densely-populated city (hellooooo Dhaka), but Hanoi is still a place where Gross Things Happen To Good People. For example, me.

One time, I was eating lunch with a large group of colleagues at a pho joint, enjoying, as I always do, the magic combination of margarine and MSG in my phở xào không thịt. Then, with noodle-laden chopsticks midway between my plate and my pie-hole, the awning above us, which had collected in it a bulging pool of dank, brown, mosquito-infested water, spontaneously disgorged itself on my head. It was a deluge of gushing grossness that left me drenched down to my underwear. The rest of the table who received mere splashback from the cascade that specifically targeted my head alone – jumped back from their seats, while I sat, Pompeii-esque, still holding my chopsticks. The inhabitants of Pompeii would have been grateful they only copped molten lava if they had seen the funky shower I had just taken.

Vietnamese people often laugh when they’re nervous or uncomfortable, but let me tell you, in this instance there was a resounding silence, everyone’s wide-eyed faces clearly saying “Whoah, that Tây got OWNED”. I then had to walk through the neighbourhood and back to the office, wet t-shirt style, so I could cycle home, with fetid drips trailing behind me and bacteria invading my every orifice. Aah, good times.

I then went through a phase of discovering Gross Things in my food. There was the burnt match at the bottom of my iced coffee, and the half of a large cockroach which I found most of the way through a bowl of pasta. “My, where was the other half?” I hear you ask. Yes, well. Then, another time, I ate a mouthful of stir-fried shitake mushrooms that contained a bonus large clump of dirt that burst in my mouth like a little grit explosion. I say it was a clump of dirt because I’m not yet ready to face the truth that it was probably manure of human poo. But I do take solace in the fact that I’m yet to find a baby rat in my chocolate cake, like these Highlands Coffee customers from Ho Chi Minh City.

And then there was the time at a bar with a group of friends when we ordered fried onion rings which turned out to be entirely battered with cat fur. We discovered this when we ate some and were left literally coughing up a fur ball. The little black-and-white hairs were actually matted all throughout the batter as if a cat had fallen into the deep fryer. While this experience did lend itself to jokes about eating pussy, it was still not worth it.

But the Grossest Thing Of All happened to some friends of ours, a husband and wife who lived in - what they believed to be - the safety of a high-rise apartment that towered above the grossness below. One evening, they ate a late-night snack of cheese before hitting the sack. Then during the night, the friend in question felt movement in the bed, which he ignored, assuming it was his wife. After a while, however, our friend was woken by the - no doubt distinctive - sensation of a rat also partaking in a late-night snack… by nibbling cheese… from under his fingernails… in his bed… while he slept.

This, to me, is the almighty pinnacle of Gross Things. As it didn’t happen to me, I find it quite reassuring. Because even if I dive head first into that gutter of poo water, at least a rat didn’t dine on me while I slept. Touch wood. Well, touch anything but cheese.