Friday, 28 October 2011

Topsy-Turvy World

In the middle of Summer, when I’m cycling down the road wearing a singlet top, skirt and thongs, and am surrounded by motorcyclists wearing hooded jackets that make them look like Kenny from South Park, long pants, and skin-coloured toe-socks, I do wonder who looks the more foolish (answer: them for now, but me, later, when I’m wrinkled and cancerous).

I wondered a similar thing when we were in Cat Tien National Park and found ourselves caught in a spectacular tropical thunderstorm. We Tays ran from the cracking lightning and crashing branches in fear for our lives. We huddled together under a shelter, from where we could enjoy the sight of local people wandering around, or cycling past, as if nothing much was happening.

Welcome to Topsy-Turvy World, where the sun is scarier than lightning (actually, I suppose the sun does kill more people than lightning after all).

Living in Vietnam certainly challenges your idea of universal truths. In fact, it’s a postmodernist’s paradise. If it were still the 1990s, and I was still enrolled in CUL100: Introduction to Cultural Studies, I could write a paper on it, and get a guaranteed High Distinction. 

For example, do you think you’ve got a pretty clear grasp of how to row a boat? Well, you don’t:
This photo was taken in Tam Coc. The serenity of the boat trip was somewhat marred by floating vendors constantly approaching our boat to spruik their wares, and this traditional boat captain of ours shouting to them in Vietnamese "Don't bother, they live in Hanoi", and the vendors then rowing away, dejected.

Not only is it common here to row with your feet (to free up your hands for texting, obviously), they actually move the oars backwards, pushing them through the water rather than pulling them. Why? Well, why not, I suppose. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, which, in Vietnam, is a saying which probably makes more sense.

More discombobulation comes in the form of fruits. In Vietnam it's common to eat many fruits in what we would call their unripe state. Sure, we all know about green mango and green papaya salad, but munching down on a crunchy green peach or a rock-hard guava? 

Not ripe! Don't eat it!

Just watching someone do it makes my mouth scrunch up like a cat’s bottom. There are plenty of Vietnamese tastes that are “acquired” to say the least, so that’s not the befuddling thing. It’s this: I was always led to believe that eating unripe fruit would give you a tummy ache. I’d go as far as saying this is a piece of received wisdom where I come from. But guess what? It doesn’t. It doesn’t at all! We have been fed lies by our mothers! Vietnamese people aren’t keeling over in the streets from unripe fruit! And they eat green bananas! With the skin on.

Want your mind blown even further:
Their oranges are green. And yet, like our oranges, they’re still called “orange” (“cam” in Vietnamese), like the colour (“cam”). The inside colour. And so I ask: are our oranges called "oranges" because of how they look on the inside or outside? I know. Really makes you think, huh?

There’s also the topsy-turviness of flowers, which I’ve mentioned before. In Vietnam, gerberas and carnations are some of the most expensive, highly valued flowers you can buy, while roses are common as muck. To me, a gerbera is an irrefutably butt-ugly piece of flora. If Nathan gave me a bunch of gerberas, I would assume only one thing: that I was in fact looking at Nathan’s long-lost identical twin, who had been reared in Vietnam. There would be no other explanation, as the Real Nathan knows better than to give any girl gerberas. I’m trying to open my mind to carnations, as now I’ve seen them liberated from their usual petrol-station surroundings, they’re actually perfectly nice:

 Carnations: Victims of the Western construct of beauty.

And then we have footwear. Everyone knows that in Asia you don’t wear shoes in the house; instead you go barefoot or wear house slippers. 
These are Nathan's house slippers. He loves them. I think they make him look like a creepy sexpat.

When it comes to most workplaces, this rule doesn’t apply, and you can wear your outside shoes around the office. With an exception: you are a woman sporting uncomfortable high-heels, in which case you don the heels for your motorbike ride to work, leave them under your desk when you get there, and then scuff about the office in stockinged feet and plastic slippers all day. Anyone who has watched Melanie Griffith in Working Girl knows that this is the exact opposite of what happens in the West, where women wear ugly, comfortable shoes to commute to work, and change into their sexy, career-advancing heels once they arrive at the office. All this has done is confirm for me that wearing high-heels is a mug’s game, in anyone’s language.

Lastly I present Vinawind, which is not only what you get after eating too much bun cha, it’s the name of our ceiling fan:

Looks perfectly innocent, right? No! Vinawind will mess with your mind. See the numbers on that dial? They don’t mean what you think. If you’re looking for just a gentle, fluttering Vinawind, do not trust your instincts and select “1”, the lowest number. Number 1 on the dial in fact results in a tornado of Vinawind howling through your apartment and rattling your poorly-sealed windows. Number 5, the highest number, is actually the lowest setting. I can’t tell you the number of times I have stood before that Vinawind dial and coached myself: “Right, Tabitha, you should go with the opposite of what you think it is. So if you think it’s 1, then choose… Hang on, do I think it’s 1? Would it be 1 in Australia? Do I really exist? Is Vinawind even real? What is real?” etc. 

In summary, if you’d like to feel like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, then you should move to Vietnam.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

How I became Vietnam’s most hated columnist

One of the best things about writing this blog is getting comments and emails from Vietnamese people saying that my foreigner’s perspective has helped them appreciate their own country in a new light, or pay more attention to everyday Hanoi things, previously passed unnoticed due to over-familiarity.

I know absolutely bugger all about Vietnam really, and exist here in an isolated expat bubble. I have zero expertise when it comes to this country’s history or culture, and no credentials to write about Vietnamese society. All I have to offer is my point of view: what Hanoi looks like and feels like to a complete outsider.

That this has any resonance with Vietnamese people is a great - and surprising - honour.

Also surprising and honouring is that this blog has spawned some amazing writing opportunities for me, including being invited to write regularly for Dân Trí’s online blog. Dân Trí is one of the country’s largest news sites (in fact, they say it’s the most popular of all), with 70 million hits a week. SEVENTY MILLION. That is 69,999,300 more readers than this blog gets, for example. 

My posts are written and published in the English edition, but they’re targeted at the paper’s primary readership - Vietnamese people obviously - who read the translated versions. This has meant that for the first time, my writing is being read by Vietnamese people who might not be able to read English. 

And do they find my light-hearted perspective on their homeland to be fresh and endearing? No. In fact, they cannot stand me.

My first column was about my personal experiences as a Western vegetarian in Vietnam. It was a toned-down version of the blog post which I later published here. To me, this was an inoffensive subject which, from my experience, many Vietnamese people seemed interested in. 

It generated 166 comments. Thanks to Google Translate, I was able to spend an entire dismal day reading all 166 comments as they came in. The first was:
Do not make such an objective opinion. I was really upset when I read your post because you really do not know about Vietnam.

Ouch. The next was along the lines of:
You should try to wade into fields such as agriculture every morning. I think you will understand what is POVERTY.

And on it went:

You live in Hanoi two years but true that you understand nothing of VIETNAM!
Obviously you do not know anything about Vietnam at all.
We hope that the next time you want to write about a certain topic, please do your homework on the subject and then write!

After about 112 comments along those lines, and some complicated arguments about whether or not vegetarians eat eggs, the comments did start to become more positive and supportive of the ignorant foreigner behind the article. I also received many emails like the following:

I think you understand Vietnamese because you are foreigner, you see Vietnamese is different from you and the rest of the world, but most of Vietnamese who don't agree with you, they only compare themself with other Vietnamese. Then they cannot stand when somebody told them that they are not good or something like that.

Nathan asked whether I was positioning myself as Vietnam’s Miranda Devine. It appeared that I was.

Worried that we might receive a Molotov cocktail through our bedroom window, I intentionally tried to win over the crowd with the next column. It was an ingratiating, innocuous ode to cycling in Hanoi. It was pretty boring, but it did seem to salvage my reputation. There were 50 comments, universally in agreement.

But I was still het up about the negative comments (maybe this is how Miranda Devine turned evil: it all started with one perfectly innocent, light-hearted column…). I didn’t care that people disagreed with my opinion (happens all the time), it was the constant references to my failure to “understand” Vietnam that really got to me.

You see, not understanding Vietnam is the whole point of me writing for the newspaper. It's supposed to be an opinion piece from a foreign perspective.
My goat well and truly having been got, my next column was, naturally, about exactly this. It featured narky nuggets like the following:

"I am a foreigner, so I won’t ever understand Vietnam like a Vietnamese person, but does that immediately invalidate any contribution I might make? If I do things differently or interpret situations differently to a Vietnamese person, does that make me ignorant, or foolish, or wrong, or simply different? And isn’t it at least interesting to hear a different perspective, even if you don’t agree with it?"

I emailed it off to the editor with the obviously humorous aside that it should probably be headlined “Ms Tabitha gets all passive-aggressive”.

Turns out you shouldn’t joke about things like that:

It garnered 62 comments, and in a clear piece of evidence that passive-aggressiveness actually works, they were almost entirely sympathetic:

Do not be sad, continue writing for people like us to have the opportunity to learn from you slightly. We become more wise than by learning from our differences rather than to eliminate it.

There are still people like me here to support you. Hope to read your next post. Always wish you well and find more fun in those days lived in VN.

You've opened a very exciting discussion but the topic is quite sensitive, it's a difference about the culture. Remember that some conservative people they believe that something is a truth, it cannot be changed and they won't accept the opposite ideas.

Not only loving your essay, I have to admit that after reading your essays I slapped my lag and said she was so true, I did not realize this before… Overall, I think you essay is too direct, that sounds like this essay want to teach people something. In my mind, most of Vietnamese people do not like this. So I anticipate this essay will receive a lot of negative feedback. Please go out more, discover my country more and then write more for us.

Unfortunately, Tabitha having too many ideas a bit "feisty."

A good portion of the comments were still directly referring to the fateful post on vegetarianism, a subject which seems doomed to haunt me for the rest of my time in the country.

And what since then? Well, the last column, about everyday practices in Vietnam that seem “mysterious” to me (in the same vein as this blog post) got 98 comments. They were mostly really interesting and insightful, even the devastatingly negative ones. And while I still get dispiriting comments about the invalidity of my opinions or my lack of understanding about Vietnam, there’s always a silver lining, or should I say, lightning:

Dear Tabitha. I've read some of your posts. And I feel as though you do not know much about Viet Nam, as well as the Vietnamese people. But I also thank you for the receipt of your personal lightning.

The whole experience of writing for a readership of tens of millions is one of the greatest capital-o Opportunities that’s ever come my way. Not just because I get to be Ms Tabitha, newspaper columnist, but because it allows me to interact with a whole swathe of the population who are usually shut off from me, due to my inadequacies in the Vietnamese language. If anyone can help me try to understand Vietnam, it's them.

And you know how I can always tell when one of my columns has been published? Because I immediately get inundated with Facebook friend requests from total strangers, and my inbox starts filling with emails like this:

Thanks to you because of things you have shared with Vietnamese people, I think you have a heart of gold, if not, you just smile at us and say nothing. For everyone over the world, think about opinions of foreigners, and views our own culture in many different ways always be nice to live, to come closer to each other. I love this way.

Hope to see you soon in Hanoi!

Suck on that, Miranda Devine.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Why you should move to Vietnam

Two years ago today I stepped off a plane at Hanoi’s luxurious Noi Bai International Airport. It will be two years tomorrow for Nathan, because AusAID payed for my Cathay Pacific flight and Nathan paid for his own China Certain Death Airlines flight that featured a 12-hour layover in Taipei. He was quite literally a trailing spouse.

I remember leaving a note in our hotel room for him for when he arrived. It said, “I think we’re going to be happy here!”

 Vietnam has a coastline of 3,444 kilometres. And it's all hedge.

Nathan and I had never been to Vietnam when we made the decision to move here. We have talked often about what a strange mindset we must have been in at the time to make such an ill-informed and reckless decision.

I honestly don’t know what we were thinking. We had jobs, and prospects, a great apartment, amazing friends living in the neighbourhood… We certainly weren’t running from anything, which seems to be an impetus for many expats, who might be avoiding anything from the aftermath of a bad relationship to high unemployment rates. All I remember is that our friend Sophie told us about the AYAD programme, where you could volunteer overseas for a year, but you had to be under 30 to apply. At the time, I was 29 years and ten months old. 

This is the first photograph I ever took in Vietnam. Wow! Look how many motorbikes are parked here! Stone the crows! Etc! It’s been a while since I thought the sight of ten motorbikes in a row was photo-worthy.

We have also often talked about how if we had visited Hanoi as tourists there is no way in hell we would have moved here. The city doesn’t show its best side to visitors, and I’m almost positive we would have formed the same opinion as all of our overseas guests: it’s a fun place to visit, but a bit too full-on for us. After our guests say this, they usually get their foot run over by a motorbike and that pretty much seals the deal for them.

But if you are considering moving to Hanoi and you are, unlike me, the kind of person who actually does background research before making a life-changing decision, then I offer you this advice: come.

I took this photo on the same day. This is, in fact, how our water gets delivered to us every week.

If we had spent the past two years in Sydney, our lives would have been splendid. I know this because our friends continue to have extremely good fun without us and then tell us all about it, which is insensitive of them, isn’t it? I can imagine the alternative past two years we could have had in Sydney all too easily: the grass underneath our toes, and the ink of Saturday papers on our elbows.

There was a low point some time in the last two years where Nathan and I wondered why we had willingly swapped financial security, good health, green spaces, and our loved ones, for an income below the Australian poverty level, intestinal worms, exhaust fumes, and only a bunch of relative strangers for company. When we laid it out like that, of course Sydney was always going to come up trumps. And so it should! It’s our home after all.

But the good thing about having a home is that it will always be there, almost always as you left it. While I really do look forward to the day we go back, and think about it often, there is something really invigorating about being away from it.

Our life in Hanoi’s got something that Sydney just can’t touch: every day is an adventure. Every day is unpredictable. Every day is bewildering, frustrating, exciting, horrifying, confusing and dazzling. Everything you think you know is challenged. Opportunities – and setbacks - appear out of nowhere. You find yourself behaving in a way you don’t understand. What’s important to you suddenly becomes extremely clear, even if by its absence. 

Some everyday sights are still worth photographing: I'll never get used to the flowers. I took this picture on our street last week.

On my first night in Hanoi, I walked around Hoan Kiem Lake with the other volunteers. I remember thinking, “Hmm, so this is supposed to be the ‘peaceful, tranquil, jewel of Hanoi’ is it?” and yet seeing only touts with photocopied Lonely Planets and hearing only honking.

My first impression of the lake was correct. It isn’t ipso facto tranquil; it is fluorescent with pollution; and it is, let’s face it, a traffic roundabout. But I’ve luxuriated in the shade of those lakeside trees in summer, I’ve jogged along its paths in winter, I’ve cheered with the Hanoians as the giant turtle surfaced, and during the Tet fireworks display there, I’ve witnessed the memorable sight of backlit rat silhouettes running startled from the trees into the crowd. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.

So happy Hanoiversary to us! It’s been an adventure. And we’ve learnt that actually it doesn’t hurt that much to get your foot run over.

Friday, 7 October 2011

My slapdash people

This post first appeared as a column in AsiaLIFE Ho Chi Minh City magazine.
I am a naturally slapdash person. I believe if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing quickly and with as little effort as possible.

I apply my “that’ll do” philosophy to all areas of life, including cooking (“Sift the flour? Sounds like a waste of time to me!”), home cleanliness (“The vacuum cleaner sucks up dust and pushes things under the bed!”), and personal grooming (“So long as I don’t raise my arms, there’s no need to shave my armpits!”).

When I arrived in Vietnam I immediately recognised it as my spiritual home, populated with like-minded souls who truly were my people: my slapdash people. Because if there’s one thing the Vietnamese love to cut, it’s corners.

My delight soon turned to concern, however, when I realised that some problems do seem to arise if you have an entire nation of people who are just like me. It’s all very well for me to take a laissez-faire approach to life, because I don’t actually do anything important, but I can assure you that you don’t want me to build any load-bearing structures for you.

Vietnam is where the slapdash chickens have come home to roost. And that chicken house is a little bit shoddy. Like, maybe the door doesn’t quite close properly and the chickens get an electric shock whenever they turn on the light.

But this isn’t a column about Vietnam’s iffy wiring and laidback approach to pernickety details like construction standards. It’s not about living in a country where your landlord sends you a text message when you’re having a house party to warn you against your guests all dancing at the same time because it will cause your building to collapse. Would I besmirch the good name of my slapdash brethren at the first sign of my house collapsing? No!

This is a column about Vietnamese negligenius: that fine line between negligence and genius. And I think you know I’m going to err on the side of genius.

For example, our upstairs neighbour asked the aforementioned landlord to replace her mouldy, disintegrating shower curtain one day while she was out. When she came home, she found a brand spanking new shower curtain hanging up. Unfortunately this one was a good 20 centimetres too short to actually curtain the shower.

She mentioned this small, but fairly important, problem to the landlord and the next day she came home to find… what do you think? No, not a new, longer shower curtain, nor a strip of plastic stapled onto the bottom of the old one (this is what I, in all my slapdash glory would have done).

Instead, the shower rail had been wrenched out of its fittings, and, using a number of probably inappropriate tools, reaffixed into some holes that had been whacked into the tiles 20 centimetres lower down the wall.

Sure, her bathroom now looked like a construction site, but she had a functional shower. That, my friends, is negligenius.

The same landlord, who has now been mentioned so many times that he is basically the star of this column, also once tended to a problem we were having with the light in our bedroom.

He stood on a chair, which he put on top of a desk, played around with the light for a while (with the power on, obviously), declared it broken and then removed the entire fitting, holus bolus, from the ceiling.

I noted to him that when we lay in bed, we would now be gazing up at a gaping hole into our no doubt rat-infested roof. So he reached down to the desk - conveniently located under the chair he was standing on - picked up a document I had printed out for work and then slipped it inside the ceiling so that it lay flat against the hole.

Voila, negligenius: light problem fixed, hole problem totally fixed. Plus the rats now have some bedtime reading material if they want it.

And so Vietnam, I salute you. Your slogan should be “Vietnam: Experience the negligenius” and your logo should be that guy I once saw - negligenius incarnate - who had fashioned himself a motorbike helmet out of a polystyrene box. I realise now that you’re not my slapdash people at all: you are my masters, and I have much to learn.