Monday, 21 May 2012

Sometimes it's better not to know

In Vietnam there is not much that separates the producers from the consumers. You don’t have to go to a far-flung industrial zone to see where your stuff comes from, you can just walk down the street:
Early on in my time here, I went to a store to buy a green picture frame. They didn’t have the colour I was after so the woman from the store took a black frame outside onto the footpath, whipped out a can of green spray paint, and voila, I now had a green frame. 

My first thought was “Man, this is shoddy”, and hesitated over buying it. But then I realised that if they had originally had a green frame in stock, I would have cheerfully bought it, even though this is exactly how it would have been made anyway. It was seeing how it had been made which devalued it.

This is why in countries like Australia, manufacturers go to great lengths to gloss over a product’s provenance and to eradicate all trace of the human hands that made it come into being. Evidence of the manufacturing process is a flaw: we prefer to believe our stuff just… materialised.

This subject has been on my mind recently, because it’s been staring me in the face:
That is the view from our window. On the upside, we now have a lake view, and on the downside, we now basically live inside a building site.

Due to its omnipresence, Hanoians know a lot about construction, and now, so do I. The noise of things being built and things being knocked down is the city’s soundtrack. The cicada whine of the circular saw; the reverberating hum of the machine which straightens out those big long metal poles; the plink-plink-plink of bricks being stacked; the, umm, jack-hammering of jack hammers.

The construction site outside our window has gone through a number of stages involving all of these sounds. The most exciting stage was probably when we woke up to see a Vietnamese Stonehenge had appeared:
The worst stage was when a truckload of gravel was dumped, and then shovelled down a corrugated iron chute from about 11:30pm till 3:30am. And then again from 6:30am:
Do you know what gravel sliding down corrugated iron sounds like? Like GRAVEL SLIDING DOWN CORRUGATED IRON.

Being experts in construction, Nathan and I know that the worst is yet to come. We watch the site’s daily progress with dread, shooting hateful looks at the gravel-shovelers and the plink-plink-plinkers. Unfair, really, since their lives are much worse than ours. They live onsite, in a crappy humpy that rattles and shakes on a windy night, they work under the baking sun, and while I complain I no longer have any privacy, at least I can close my curtains. These guys can’t have a wee without my beady eyes glaring down at them from on high.

The construction site’s current stage can only be described as a dog’s breakfast:
I look out at it, then can’t help but look around our house, my mind seeing through the paint and plaster walls to its skeleton. Our apartment must once have been just like that pile of poles and planks. And I think, “Man, this is shoddy”. I remember how our landlord once warned us against having a party and the guests all dancing at once for fear of the building collapsing. We laughed this off at the time, but now I’m not so sure. 

For a country with so many fakes, there’s something honest about the Vietnamese mode of production. The part played by the human hand is not just present; it’s in your face. And so too is the knowledge of its fallibility. Now please excuse me, I have some cracks I need to inspect.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

For hire: one blogger, with some wear and tear

This post first appeared in AsiaLife HCMC.

Many expats worry about how their time spent overseas will affect their employability when they return home. Fear not! The skills you’ve learned in Vietnam are totally transferable. You just need to position them in the right way. 

“I have advanced and adaptable communication skills”

What this means is you can act out, charades-style, complex medical afflictions for the pharmacist (“Two words, four syllables… That’s right: vaginal thrush!”), and, using absolutely no words, acquire exactly the counterfeit medications you need. Indeed, your non-verbal skills are so advanced that you can convey entire sentences just using your eyes. It only takes one narrow-eyed glare to say, “If this pirated DVD copy of Game of Thrones is not of superior quality, mark my words, I will be right back here to have your guts for garters.”

“I have demonstrated experience in following complex procedures, and applying specific policies and guidelines”

Do you know the correct, Vietnamese-approved order in which to add the raw ingredients to your hotpot? Yes? Really? You’re not tempted to add the noodles too soon? Well, there is no more complex procedure than that. You’re a total pro.

“I have experience in research and analysis across a broad range of fields”

Well, you might not leave Vietnam an expert in its history or language or culture, but I bet if I asked you for the nearest store that sells cheese, or where to go for the cheapest beer in a 100-metre radius, you would be all over that shit. You are an expert: you’re an expat expert. And that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of strategic research and analysis to find the closest cheese and cheapest beer.

“I am financially adept and have considerable experience in profit-and-loss calculations and business negotiations”

Finances? Pffft, piece of cake! To be more precise, piece of cake you got for half-price because you found a baby rat in it. Score! Your entire life is a profit-and-loss calculation. Sure, it’s running at a pretty constant loss of about 40 percent because of your poor bargaining techniques and enormous nose, but there’s a gecko living in your kitchen who you’ve named “Gordon Gecko” which is totally the kind of reference that only a hard-hitting business mogul like yourself would get.

“I can interpret and analyse complex and ambiguous situations, generating appropriate recommendations and solutions”

You sure can. For example, when your neighbour asks you “Do you have children yet?” you employ in depth analysis to understand this to mean: “You will surely die ALONE and BARREN.” Your solution is to rub your belly and pretend you’re pregnant when really you’ve just eaten too much of that chè with the rainbow jelly in it.

“I thrive in a fast-paced, dynamic environment”

Umm, every time you use your hairdryer, blue sparks come flying out at you from the wall socket. I think you can handle working in a “dynamic” office.

“Challenging situations bring out the best in me”

For you, a challenging situation is like a shot of rice wine made from rotting goat’s penis: it MAKES YOU STRONG. Sure, it could also make you vomit into your handbag all the way to the Family Medical Practice, but whatever, that’s still not the worst in you, is it.

“I have advanced problem-solving skills”

It only took you twelve months to work out which type of Vinamilk is the one with no sugar. You are basically an ace code-cracker.

“I operate to the highest levels of personal integrity and ethical standards”

You wipe your chopsticks with a napkin before you use them. That totally counts.


And just like that, your time in Vietnam reaps dividends. If you need a reference, just send them to me. No-one’s going to call a referee in Vietnam anyway.