Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Hanoi is turning me into my mother

It’s hard to know how to follow last week’s blog post. If you ever want to see your inbox filled with hundreds of messages sending you warm, fuzzy feelings, then I recommend getting engaged. Nathan has been riding high on the glory of the proposal all week, and me on the unbridled smugness of being snaffled by someone who would propose so well.

My mind has been on weddings and shared futures and families. These thoughts lead to one blog topic, and one blog topic only: mothers.

There’s an anecdote about my mother that goes like this. Once, when she was being introduced to someone for the first time, she said hello, then paused, and then said, for absolutely no reason, “I had salad for lunch”.

This wasn’t particularly out of character for her. She raised me to believe that it’s better to say something strange, than say nothing at all. 

Until now, I have always been lucky to work in jobs that don’t seem to mind me saying strange things at inopportune moments. In fact, I noticed that this was often characterised in the corporate workplace as “shooting from the hip”. Excellent, I thought. If inappropriateness is valued here then soon I will be CEO.

Here in my current role of Trailing Spouse, however, I think this particular skill might not be in the job description. At my first official function I stood dutifully alongside Nathan, as someone important from somewhere important made her way along the meet-and-greet line, shaking hands as she went, until she got to me.

“And where are you from?” she said, meaning “What fancy job has landed you at this event?”
So, naturally, I said, “Oh. I’m from… Nathan’s… wife… closet…”.

She looked alarmed and swiftly moved on to the next, probably much more appropriate, person. Nathan then said he’d like to put me back in the “wife closet” and swap me for a less weird model for the evening.

And thus continues the inexorable march towards becoming my mother.

My agedness is definitely playing a significant role in this, but I think living here is making it worse. This also complies with the first rule of being an expat: above all else, and against all evidence to the contrary, blame your personal problems on Vietnam.

Here are my symptoms.

I have started making loud observations about people within earshot, arguing that it’s okay because they can’t understand me, and they’re probably talking about me too. It’s not okay. I’m sure that one day I will happen upon a taxi driver who speaks fluent English and I will get my comeuppance.

But it’s not just with Vietnamese people. I’ve also started doing running commentaries about Tays. These are the kind of tedious, stream-of-conscious thoughts that don’t actually need to be spoken out loud (at least, that’s what I’m always telling my mother), but I need to take all the excitement I can get here.

One time Nathan and I saw some very familiar looking Tays buying some ice-cream at Fanny. “I think we know them”, I said, and smiled accordingly. They smiled back. Then they left, thankfully, because I immediately realised how I knew them, which is to say, not at all.

They looked so familiar because I had spent an entire evening at a pizza restaurant watching them at a nearby table having an argument, and relaying a running commentary to Nathan. “Now he’s got that what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it face and she is shaking her head. I’m seeing a lot of contempt here. And now he’s eating garlic bread. But she’s pushed her plate away. She’s playing with her phone. Ooh, the silent treatment…” You probably haven’t dined with my mother, but I can assure you from years of personal experience, that this is exactly what it’s like.

My mother doesn’t like to leave the house, and if she has to, she doesn’t like to go very far. Considering this genetic make-up, maybe I shouldn’t have moved onto an island. My realm in Hanoi shrinks by the day. I talk about going to the Old Quarter like it’s a day trip: it’s a ten-minute bicycle ride away. I hesitate over social engagements that involve crossing a bridge. I fantasize about being flooded in.

Central Hanoi is just so geographically small and so easy to traverse that is has skewed my sense of scale. If you’re not averse to leaving the house, you can call a friend on the other side of town and say “Meet you in 20 minutes”. In Sydney, you don’t have friends on the other side of town. I don’t like anyone enough to change trains twice. So, Hanoi, it’s your fault. You’re too small, and you’ve shrunk my dominion right down to your size.

One of my mother’s favourite pastimes is meteorological one-upmanship. She lives in the Blue Mountains so she gets great pleasure from scoffing at what lily-livered Sydney-siders call “the cold”. Hanoi winters have provided me the material to beat my mother at her own game. “At least you have heating!” I can say. Or, “You wouldn’t understand what it’s like here! It’s cold and HUMID! I am MADE OF MOULD”.

Disappointingly, this summer hasn’t been very hot, so I’ve missed the opportunity to poo-poo anyone in the northern hemisphere crying warm.

I have also become a Nervous Nelly. I wasn’t exactly what you’d call “risk averse” before coming to Vietnam, but now I’m like a skittish little poodle; like, for example, my mother’s skittish little poodle Susie (need I say it’s true that dogs come to resemble their owners?).

The longer I stay here, the more I think that Susie might have been right. The world is a terrifying place filled with mantelpieces that could launch objects onto you from great heights, and gaps in footpaths that you could fall through, and children with sticky fingers who could pull at your tail.

The longer I stay here, the more horror stories I accumulate about amputations and electrocutions and infections and knocked heads and poisonings and airlifts. The longer I stay here, the more anxious I am not to feature in one of these stories myself.

I now take wide berths around construction sites; I avoid cycling at night-time; I have developed phobias of unstable concrete sewer coverings and of the wobbly power-points in our house; I tut-tut at friends who ride motorbikes in thongs; I’ve become paranoid about bag snatchings; and every day, more and more, I flinch and startle at car horns. There are a lot of car horns in Hanoi. Not long now until I start using expressions like “My nerves are shot”. And then it’s just one short step to: “My sciatica is playing up”.

Well, at least Nathan can’t say he wasn’t warned.

PS. Hi mum!


  1. Lest anyone (especially other mothers out there) think my mother was offended by this post, I'll show you her response:

    I loved your blog, I am not the least bit ashamed of being strange. Having more than one social engagement in one day is something that still amazes me. Book club was at my place yesterday and several people went on somewhere else

    I find the british comedian Miranda v. amusing- at a social gathering when she was introduced to some-one she said, "I've got a pimple on my bottom that looks like a spaniel"

    Love you, M xxx

  2. I am now waiting for Nathan's post on this very same topic - in horror!!!!! (Dad)

  3. lucky for you it's raining today! :)
    I wouldn't leave either if I didn't have to.

  4. i probably imagine very different things then you do when I picture people riding motorbikes in thongs...

  5. Wee tears in the corners of my eyes

  6. Buster: Are you worried that Hanoi is turning Nathan into his mother, or you? I actually think he might have skipped a generation and is turning into his pop.

    Maddy: You're a hermit in the making! And you know I'm keeping a close eye on your genetic tendency to hoard. If it gets out of hand I'll write a blog post called Hanoi Is Turning Maddy Into Her Mother.

    Anonymous: You definitely shouldn't ride a motorbike in those kind of thongs either. The seat gets too hot for starters.

    Karen: I know that you're laughing mostly at my mother's response, but I'll still take some of the credit for myself.

  7. A comment like 'Oh. I’m from… Nathan’s… wife… closet…' sounds suspiciously like something Nathan would say. Are you sure you're not actually turning into Nathan, hmmm? Weird.


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