Sunday, 31 July 2011

This is what happened today

Nathan is not a morning person, but this morning he woke up uncharacteristically chipper. We went out last night with his brother Heath, who is visiting, and some friends. We had drunk rice wine at Chim Sao, and then beers at GC and then more beers at whatever that place is called next door to GC, and then cocktails at Southgate. And yet this morning Nathan leapt up like a sprightly little liquor-loving deer. More precisely, he was like a sprightly little liquor-loving deer concerned with home cleanliness: he got up, got dressed and said he needed to put the rubbish out, at 9am. He disappeared out the door, assuring me the bin was "very smelly" and needed seeing to immediately.

He came back upstairs to tell me that it seemed today was "a special day", and that there were exciting things happening at the pagoda. I suggested that I would celebrate the "special day" by continuing to lie in bed. 

And then we both heard the sound of a boisterous brouhaha lion on the street.

My favourite Vietnamese tradition is the lion dance. You can hear them coming thanks to the drums and cymbals that parade along with them, luring people out of their houses to watch the performance and feed the lion lucky money. The dancers endow the lion with so much playful personality that this furry, bedazzled and pom-pommed creature really does seem alive. Last year, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the lions dance through the streets almost every night, there were information display screens along the road near our lake explaining their significance to Vietnamese culture. They referred to them as "boisterous brouhaha lions", which is just the most perfect description. They do create a brouhaha, and they are boisterous. Umm, and they are lions, yes. That too.

And so, knowing I could not resist the lure of a boisterous brouhaha lion on our street, Nathan bundled me out of bed. "Quick!" he said. "Get dressed! We'll miss it!" I threw on some clothes and with bed-head and hungover eyes, said I should have just done as the Vietnamese do, and wandered out in my pyjamas. As we made our way out, I told Heath he was pretty lucky to witness such a perfect little cultural vignette on only his second day in Hanoi. 

Our neighbours were gathered in the street, coaxing the lion over to them by waving 10,000 dong notes, which he'd snap up in his flapping mouth like the Cookie Monster. 

He was a delightfully playful kitty, this one, rushing towards you then lowering his big fluffy head for a scratch behind his ear. 

As Nathan manages to do when presented with any child or animal, he made the lion particularly frisky. If there was an information display sign written about Nathan it would probably describe him as a "boisterous brouhaha Nathan". He teased and tousled it, and the lion responded by prancing around him, leaping in the air, creeping backwards, and then barreling towards him; I was reminded of how on windy days our family cat used to work itself up into a frisky frenzy by running up and down the hallway and then rolling itself up in the rug. Laughing too much to take any decent photos, I was also reminded of how much I love boisterous brouhaha things, be they lions or Nathans.

The lion then stepped away from us, and pulled his big head close into his body, arching up. "Uh-oh", I said to Heath. "It's like when cats do that backwards wretching thing before they vomit". 

And then the lion vomited. 

He vomited a diamond ring into Nathan's hand. 

An enormous cheer went up, and applause; there was a crashing explosion of cymbals and drums; and the lion threw his head back and danced wildly. Nathan got down on one knee, and I was half-blind from the tears and half-deaf from the sobs. He picked me up and twirled me around and around and around, and all I could see was a blur of red fur and gold sequins and all I could hear was the brouhaha and all I could think was "yes".

Our neighbours came to congratulate us and shake our hands, always using both their hands to clasp ours so firmly. A teenager who could speak English translated their well wishes for us. They all said they had never seen anything like this happen before to anyone else. I agreed that it was a most singular thing to happen to a person before breakfast on a rainy Sunday.

The crowd dispersed, the lion undressed and while still reeling from it all, a family across the road invited us to their house for tea. We sat in their loungeroom, me with Nathan's grandmother's ring on my finger, drinking cups of green tea and glasses of this indescribable drink of sour fruit that the Vietnamese so love, and eating longans and yoghurt, listening to the story of the happy, twenty-year marriage of our hosts, both born in the year of goat, just like me and Nathan.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Wanna live like common people

My greatest legacy to WWF Vietnam was the introduction of the concept of “Stuff White People Like” to the Communications Team.

For example, when redesigning a brochure promoting national park tourism, I pointed out that unlike the Vietnamese version, the English version must contain no photos of Tays partaking in fun adventure activities.

“Tays don’t want to think that other Tays are in this national park already. They want to be the only Tays”, I explained, in an excellent example of Australian Government-funded capacity building.

The photo was replaced by one of pristine, Tayless wilderness.

I also removed all photos in which you could see that the ethnic minorities were actually wearing jeans under their traditional garb.

“Tays want to believe they’re the first foreigners that this remote tribe has ever seen”, I explained. “They want the ethnic minorities to be completely isolated from the modern world”. I suggested a photo of a woman with a baby strapped to her back instead.

“But these people are dirty! They look poor!” my colleague accurately observed.
“Exactly”, I said. “Tays love seeing poor people on holidays. It makes them feel more authentic”.

My colleagues looked confused, and rightly so.

I was met with the same look after I organized to have some large street banners, which WWF had produced, turned into bags to give as gifts to office visitors. You know, like the type you can buy at any Oxfam shop:

My colleagues, upon seeing the bags, looked horrified. 

“Do you know what this is? This is rubbish!”
“Yes, that’s the whole point of it”, I explained. “It’s recycling. Tays love recycling.
“Why would you want a bag made of rubbish? It’s not nice!”
“People will want them”, I promised. “People buy them in Australia.”

The rubbish bags were set aside as gifts strictly for Tay visitors only. Naturally they were extremely well-received, completely confounding my colleagues. One of them wrote “Stuff White People Like” on a post-it note and stuck it to her monitor, like a riddle which she would need some time to mull over.

Vietnam is a country that’s on the up. It’s focused on fast development and a bigger, brighter, shinier future. The trend in the already developed West is to look back. The Vietnamese want cars, and the more expensive, the better; Westerners want bicycles. Vietnamese want supermarkets and clean, hygienic mass-produced food; Westerners want farmers’ markets, or even better, to pick their own fruit. Vietnamese want enormous plasma TVs and all the mod cons; Westerners love bragging that they “don’t even own a TV”. Vietnamese want brand new houses and brand new furniture; Westerners want vintage.

Retro tastes are a luxury: being retro in Vietnam is basically being poor. If your family acquired the convenience of a motorbike in only the last ten years, why would you go back to bicycles? Why, if you could afford not to, would you eschew new things in favour of the old?

Vietnamese people wisely don’t want to be poor, and they don’t want to look poor either. Yet White People (ironically) spend buttloads of money on doing just that. To us, “old” is valuable, timeless, unique, and here, it’s… just old.

I’ll take Nathan to illustrate my point, as usual. When Nathan bought new glasses here, he disappointed the optometrist greatly by choosing some of the cheapest frames in the store. Here they are:

She scrunched up her face at his choice. While glasses like these are sported by hipsters all over Australia, in Vietnam, they're popular mostly only with old men. It’s fine wire frames which are all the rage here. Our Vietnamese teacher, who wears fine wire frames, set him straight. “I don’t like them”, he said. “They are old style. And they make you look old”.

So Nathan showed him a thing or two about style:

Now when someone tells him he looks old, he punches them in the face. And then does the YMCA dance routine.

It’s the same thing with motorbikes. Vietnamese people want stylish, reliable new motorbikes, with as many bells-and-whistles as possible.

Tays want this: 

Or even worse, this: 

Image from Horizons Unlimited

And then they break down all the time, and being less common than your average Honda Wave, they’re harder to get repaired. That’s right. They go out of their way to not buy a new, reliable motorbike in favour of an old motorbike that breaks down and is hard to get repaired. You can see how this might be baffling.

While going about my daily life in Hanoi, I often note to myself, “Hipsters would love that” (and trust me, I know, because no-one – I repeat, no-one – could be a more clichéd manifestation of Stuff White People Like than me).

For example, hipsters would like this old, cheap aka "old-school, vintage" enamel cup: 

Hipsters would like this old, cheap aka "funky, retro" ceiling fan:

Hipsters would like this old, cheap aka "rustic, industrial" light:

Hipsters would like this old, cheap aka "antique, shabby-chic" thermos:

That thermos was in the dirt-floor shack of an 80-year-old couple who lived in Ba Be, raising buffalo. If only they knew they could sell their thermos to hipsters on Etsy and make enough money to live off for six months.

Also, see these shoes that this Forest Protection Department Ranger is dousing with leech-repellent?

They’re cheap, regulation-issue army shoes. A friend of ours who works in a national park here was wearing them in Newtown while visiting recently and was stopped on the street by a hipster asking where he got them. Rangers are so hot right now. You read it here first.

Living in a country where they don't have boho, they just have rising damp, and they don't have rustic, they just have rust, it does draw attention to how ludicrous some of these trends are in the well-off West. I see images like these designer interiors on Apartment Therapy and think Vietnam is unwittingly ahead of its time:

I feel much better about our mouldy corner now I know that mould is in this season.

And then I think of these photos, which I took at a friend's family home over Tet:

And how beautiful their home was, in exactly that way that White People Like. But if they want to knock it down, and build something more modern, with proper wiring, and an indoor toilet, and glass in all the windows, then I would be the first person there with the sledge-hammer.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Happy Bastille Day

Back when I was a whippersnapper, I lived in Paris for a year. I even kept a blog about it, which I repeatedly referred to as a “web-log”. How quaint the early 2000s were.

As it was the early 2000s, my "web-log" didn't have any photos. So I did a Google image search on "early 2000s Paris" and got this.

One thing I learned from living in Paris is that you can’t ever complain about living in Paris. 

Say, for example, you express mild disappointment that, en route to the airport, you rolled your wheelie suitcase through a mountainous dog turd on the train platform. Your friends “back home” will respond “But you’re IN PARIS! At least you’re rolling your suitcase through a mountainous dog turd IN PARIS and not stuck in your boring office LIKE ME!!!!!” 

They always used a lot of exclamation marks.

This doesn’t happen when you live in Hanoi. I don’t think many of our friends “back home” are queuing up to swap places with us.  I don’t know why, since I always make it sound so awesome here, what with my constant references to rats and sewerage. But the funny thing is, I often find myself reflecting on how much happier I am here in stinky old Hanoi than I was IN PARIS!!!!!

Paris has rats too. They call them "les rats".

There’s a very pervasive misconception held by Francophiles that if they move to France, wear silk scarves and buy artichokes from the local market, they’ll be just like the French. But a foreigner living in Paris stands out just as much as a Tay in Hanoi. I had studied French for close to ten years when I moved there. I had read Proust in the original. I figured I was going to fit in just fine.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Instead, I discovered there were all these little social mores that were so ingrained in the French culture and so subtly executed that I couldn’t even work out what they were. All I knew was, I was doing them wrong. Wherever I went, whatever I did, you could hear a chorus of little tut-tuts in my wake.

 Sure, this is nice, but it would be better if it spelled out "Chúc mừng năm mới" in potted colour.

My finest hour was when I was invited to have a coffee by a French girl in my class. Excited by the possibility of securing a real, live French friend, I was on my best behaviour. I probably wore a silk scarf. And maybe, thanks to my excellent conjugation and knowledge of the classics of French literature, she thought, for a moment, that I might be worthy of her company. Just for a moment. Right up until the point when I got my little finger stuck in the handle of my espresso cup. 

That is correct. I got my little finger stuck in the handle of my espresso cup.

First, I had to ask her if she had any hand-cream in her bag. She didn’t, so I had to put my hand, with cup attached, into my coat pocket and take it to the bathroom, to work it off using soap.

I didn’t hear from that girl again.

This is Nathan in France a couple of years ago. He is gripping the pain au chocolat so tightly in case he slips and gets that cup stuck on his finger.

French people don’t get their fingers stuck in the handles of their espresso cups. And they don’t think it’s very funny when other people do, either.

And that, right there, is why I am happier in Hanoi. Here, every waking moment I am massively and spectacularly inappropriate. When I try my absolute hardest, I am at best ham-fistedly inept. It’s not so much like I have my pinkie stuck in the espresso cup; it’s more like I have shoved the whole thing up my nostril. And the Vietnamese don’t get embarrassed for me, or cringe, or tut-tut. No, they point and say, very loudly, to anyone that’s listening, “That fat Tay has such an enormous nose it can fit a cup inside”.

Because you can say whatever you like about being a foreigner in Vietnam, but at least you always know where you stand.
Coming from a different culture, without the weight of Vietnam’s traditions and long history behind me, I’m never going to fit in here, just like I was never going to understand How Things Are Done in France, even if I bought the whole market out of artichokes. So if I’m going to be floundering in a foreign culture, forever putting my foot wrong, I’d rather do it in a country that can laugh about it. A lot. If I’m going to look ridiculous, which I do, all the time, then I want to own it.

I probably should mention that France is actually my favourite country in the world, and the site of some of my happiest moments in life. I have been back many times since living there, and find myself physically yearning to return all the time. And yet the chances of me coming back to Hanoi after we leave: pretty much less than zero. Go figure!

I remember, in Paris, a fellow-Australian expressing exhaustion at trying to constantly maintain composure, second-guessing her every move lest she attract the dreaded tut-tuts. We compared notes on how many parties we had left in tears, and realised that “faux-pas” ain’t a French word for nothing. “They look at me” she said, “like I’ve just FARTED”.

I’m yet to fart in any Vietnamese social settings, but if I did, I know exactly what would happen: we would all laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

When two blogs collide

I was going to write a blog post called “Nobody told me there’d be days like these”. It was going to be about how stepping outside your door in Hanoi is like going down the rabbit-hole.

You’ll be on your way to Sunday brunch and you’ll see this:
A husband-to-be and his homies (and their mums) bearing gifts for the in-laws.

One gift was a whole pig:
If that doesn’t win them over, nothing will.

Or you’ll be cycling to the pool and you’ll pass these:
They're sacrificial offerings to be burnt as part of a Mother Goddess ceremony.

(If I made something as awesome as this, I would not allow anyone to set it on fire. Given the choice between eternal wealth and prosperity, and keeping a large, paper elephant in my loungeroom, I would choose the elephant.)

Or you’ll meet your friend in the park for a sandwich and discover this:
That the park has been turned over to marquees, stages and loudspeakers to mark World Milk Day. I hope you didn’t forget to celebrate World Milk Day.

Look! Milky Sydney Opera House:
This blog post was going to be about the wonder, the excitement and the otherworldliness of living and travelling in exotic places. The strange days, indeed.

And then I said, “Tabitha! Get a hold of yourself! Doesn’t that contradict one of your most firmly-held life philosophies? The one that says it’s unimaginative bunkum to equate the exotic with the noteworthy? That if you’re curious enough, you’ll find the most wonderful things right under your nose?”

“Bugger me sideways, Tabitha! You’re right!” I said.

“In fact, didn’t you used to write a whole blog dedicated to opening your eyes, appreciating your own neighbourhood, and seeing the beautiful in the familiar?”

“Oh Tabitha, it must be hard being so right all the time”, I said. “By celebrating the spectacular and the extraordinary, I’m overlooking the splendour of the little, everyday things. And I love the little, everyday things! I mean, not every day can be World Milk Day, can it?”

And with that dressing down, I picked up my camera and went off to the market to buy a kilo of tomatoes, following the same route I do every day.

I noticed for the first time, that people use the hollows in the concrete telegraph poles to store things:
 I saw still lifes:
This one is Morandi, when he graduated from bottles to saucepans:
I saw an office being renovated, and I felt a little pang for the old, unwanted things:
But then I wondered how many people in the world have a photo of computer towers with a tree stump (according to my Google image search: none), and I felt pleased with myself.

And then I thought of this shop I had just passed:
And remembered that nothing is unwanted in Vietnam.

And while gloomily reflecting on how criminal it is that these beautiful old tiles will be replaced with sparkly faux-granite atrocities, I noticed that paper aeroplane lying there, and I suddenly felt only positive things about all of humanity:
I pondered how concertina grills are somehow more 3D than everything else in the world:
I noticed that half of this window has been intertwined… with twine:
I was satisfied in a way I haven’t been since in France when I saw a hedgehog… in a hedge.

I looked up:
I saw buildings I never even knew were there:
I guess I've always been too focused on scanning the street for my favoured flower- and fruit-sellers to notice them.

But I saw the sellers too:
It seemed this could be an advertisement for washing powder. Tide: Making your chrysanthemums blindingly yellow.

I noticed for the first time that practically on my doorstep I could buy a fighting fish if I wanted to:
Or a Ming vase:
If anyone's stuck for gift ideas, I would like the first one on the second shelf. So iridescent!

I turned around from looking at a fish in a jar, and I saw a cat in a box:
The cat’s owner noticed that I was photographing it, so came rushing over, heaved it out of the box and preened at its face to make sure it looked its best for me:
She then stood behind me while I took this photograph, clicking her fingers to make the cat look at the camera:
I don’t know how to say “Work it, baby” in Vietnamese, but she was probably saying that too.

I ambled home with my tomatoes, Vietnam’s Proudest Cat Owner leaving me with a smile on my face. When I got to our door, I noticed that the three apartments in our building have three different species of doorbell:
For the sheer joy of it I rang ours, even though I knew no-one was home.