Wednesday, 18 January 2012

You can't always get what you want

Hanoi is currently in the grips of a pre-Tet consumer frenzy. You’d think that since there’s no Christmas-like gift-giving at Tet there wouldn’t be so much stuff to buy, but actually there’s even more.

Not only do you need to buy special Tet decorations and special Tet food, you need to buy new things like clothes, homewares and appliances to ring in the new year, because nothing says auspiciousness like newness. And you need to buy some gifts too, mostly in the form of potted plants, fruit and hampers.

Because every nook, cranny and underpass of the city is already being used to its maximum capacity for selling stuff, all this extra stuff that needs to be sold is just absorbed into the pre-existing spaces.

This is our local coffee shop, which is inexplicably called Jackson, and inexplicably features a toucan mascot:
While usually only selling coffee (or should I say "coffe"), it has temporarily diversified and is now offering pot plants:
Funnily enough, that “Happy New Year” sign is up all year round. This just happens to be the one of time of year when it actually comes good. Happy New Year to you too, Jackson!

This is the printing shop where we got the invitations and decorations for our Australian wedding made:
For the rest of the year it’s just a sewer, but for now it’s a sewer with flowers growing in it. I asked Nathan if he wanted me to buy him a plant grown in his own poo, but he declined.

You’ll be pleased to know Trúc Bạch is getting into the Tet spirit in other ways:
That’s some altar offerings and a dead rat. Happy New Year to you too, little bloated chuột!

At any time of year, buying things in Hanoi can be a challenge. Every single thing that exists in the world exists in Hanoi – somewhere. In fact, they’re probably made here. 

The challenge is in knowing where to find what you’re looking for. This is complicated by the travelling vendors, who might be tauntingly moving your sought-after item around town, always just out of your reach, as you’re hunting around looking for it.

And an infuriating thing happens often with supply and demand here, where as soon as you want something, it will completely disappear, even if it was previously ubiquitous.

For example, once we were cooking canh chua for dinner and needed pineapple. Now, anyone who’s been to Hanoi would know that Hanoi is usually awash with pineapple. In fact, “Hà Nội” in Vietnamese actually means “City of Plentiful Pineapple” (not really). But as soon as we actually needed the damn fruit, it was as if the street vendors had all been called out of town on a pineapple-selling convention.
Where's this guy when you need him, eh?

After giving up myself, I made Nathan cycle aimlessly around the city looking for the spiky suckers. It took him over an hour and he practically had to cross into China to find one. But find one he did, because he knows if he’d come back empty-handed, I would have beat him.

Now I know to aim low, and try not to yearn for anything too specific. I head out looking for “fruit” and if I come back with morning glory and some fried peanuts, I chalk it up as a success. Because it’s at least “food”.

So when Nathan dreamed up a Halloween costume that looked like this:
And which relied upon - entirely - for its execution not just two motorbike ponchos (which, incidentally, usually only appear for sale when it rains), and not just two two-headed motorbike ponchos, but two two-headed, green motorbike ponchos, I told him he was dreaming. “DO YOU NOT REMEMBER THE PINEAPPLE?” I said, calmly and reasonably.

But one thing I do love about Nathan is that he dares to dream. So I said I would try. But that I would spend no more than one day looking for the ingredients for his vision and if they didn’t turn up – which they inevitably wouldn’t – he would have to design a new costume. Preferably one featuring morning glory and fried peanuts.

I randomly chose a shop to begin my search the next day. The conversation there went like this:

Me: Motorbike raincoat?
Store lady: Yes.
Me: Two heads?
Store lady: Yes.
Me: Green?
Store lady: Yes.
Me: Two of them?
Store lady: Yes.
Me: Holy Mother of God. WHAT. JUST. HAPPENED.

And with that, she reached under the counter and produced them, as if she’d been expecting me.

“Well, Hanoi” I said. “You win again.”

And so Nathan’s vision became reality:
And I became sweaty and delirious from the combination of glue gun and plastic, but still none-the-wiser on how this place works. Which is just the way I like it.

Happy Year of the Dragon! Now go out and buy some stuff.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Foreigners on the flip side

One of my favourite blogs from 2011 is Photastic USA, written by Huyen, a Hanoian who has moved to America with her husband Ben. While living in Hanoi for three years Ben kept a near-daily blog about his experiences living in Huyen’s country, and in a neat role-reversal, Huyen has now taken up where he left off, only writing about living in Ben’s country.

Huyen’s blog reveals that the expat experience, no matter where you’re coming from or going to, is, in many ways, a universal one. She writes about her first Thanksgiving with the same wide-eyed excitement as me when I wrote about my first Tet; she writes about snow with the same awe that I feel for the Hanoi summer; and she writes about commuting in NYC with the same terror experienced by any expat in Hanoi traffic:

“To be honest, if Ben did not go with me, I would cry in the station because of being scared. The crowd in the bus station is not the worst thing. As soon as we step out of the station, I saw a huge crowd of people on the sidewalk. I was surprised and asked Ben: Are all of them going to work? Ben said he thought so. It was really overwhelming how many people walking on the sides of streets in New York. Everyone was also in hurry to work. They walked so fast. I felt like I would be pushed if I just stopped for a second. One thing came out of my head that understand now how foreigners in Vietnam are so scared and nervous about the rush hour in Hanoi.”

Like me, she marvels at the differences between Western and Vietnamese weddings, and then, like me, decides that she prefers the traditions of her new country rather than her own. Also like me, she writes a post on the novel attitude to pets in her new culture:

“If you go to Vietnam and you see many signs of places with dogs or cats pictures, those are called Dog or Cat Restaurants. And you might see a lot of people inside. When we were riding bicycles in California, I saw a sign with a Dog and Cat picture, but I was surprised when the sign actually said: Dog and Cat Hospital! I stopped right away and told Ben: "Oh my god, I think my parents will be very very surprised when I show them this sign." So I asked Ben to take picture of me in front of the hospital. When I first moved here, I felt a little bit strange seeing how pets, especially dogs, are treated here. They have their own beds which I did not even have when I was a kid.”

She struggles with the local food, with its lack of rice and vegetables (although in one awesome scene she wows a crowd of guys at a barbecue by hoeing into some pig’s trotters), and has difficulties remembering and pronouncing American names:

“At first, I thought every one would easy to remember my name because my name is just one syllable, not complicated at all comparing to some American names like: Elizabeth, Sebastian. Also, there are a lot of last names in America comparing to few Vietnamese last names. Also, it was very hard for me at first to remember and say right every one’s name here, as I told Ben in Vietnam that all white people look the same for me.”

I felt that if anyone could share some insight into the experience of foreigners abroad, it would be Huyen, so I emailed her to ask if living in America has changed her perspective on what it’s like for foreigners living in Vietnam. In all honesty, I thought I knew what her answer was going to be; based on her almost universally positive writing about her new home, I assumed she would say that it’s much easier to be a foreigner in America. But I was wrong:

“When I first moved to the US, I was nervous that everyone will treat me different from American. But from meeting new people, I realized that no one really cares I am American or not. Actually I wish everyone think I am foreigner because I will be treated as a foreigner: people should talk slowly to me, and should understand that I am not used to everything in America (I did not know how to get around at the beginning). Then I think being a foreigner in Vietnam is much better. Everyone thinks that foreigners do not know many things in Vietnam, so local people will be very friendly and try to introduce new things to foreigner. I also feel like Vietnamese think foreigners are special people.”

This was pretty mind-blowing for me. It’s one of my pet peeves living here how often I’m told I “don’t understand” how to do things, and am mothered by well-meaning Vietnamese people who believe I don’t know how to carry out various basic tasks “correctly”. These tasks include, but are not limited to, using chopsticks, parking my bicycle, carrying my shopping, opening doors, wearing clothes, and generally just existing. But Huyen is right: for all the times I’ve complained about being treated like a child, or having my autonomy compromised, there’s been ten times as many occasions when I’ve benefited from the instruction and assistance of locals just because I am, as she says, “a special person”.

It’s so easy to focus on how foreigners in Vietnam are treated unfairly - especially when you’re getting ripped off every day - but I’d have to think very carefully before saying I want to be treated the same as everybody else. Would I want to be surrounded by people who assume that I speak fluent Vietnamese? And in many ways don’t I actually count on being mothered to get by here?

Huyen continues:
“I do not really see foreigners treated different in America because it is very hard to tell if somebody is foreigner. This is so different from Vietnam, because being foreigners in Vietnam really makes you have a lot of attentions everywhere you go. I think it is so exciting and interesting being a foreigner in Vietnam, except you probably have different price range for mostly everything.”
Next time I complain about the “foreigner price”, I’ll remember what it’s actually buying me: the luxury of being treated like a foreigner. Sometimes special treatment isn’t such a bad thing.

Thanks to Huyen for her brilliant blog and for answering my questions. I really hope you continue writing! And happy New Year to all the foreigners around the world, all of us eating unfamiliar food and struggling with unpronounceable names, wherever we may be.