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Always sunny

At the end of the summer, I was able to finagle a deal with my employers to allow me to work from home for several weeks, home this time being the US. Nothing refreshes Hanoi more than an extended absence from it. Of course, this is likely true for any place.  Due to my long periods of absence from the US, my trips home always have a romantic feel to them. This trip felt particularly magical. How could it not with all the reunions with much-beloved family, friends, places and food? The shake-up of routine? I often feel the need to remind myself that the magic would not survive the day-to-day of living there again. If I didn’t acknowledge this, I’d have dropped everything and moved back after the first visit or two. I don’t suffer from the reverse culture shock reported by others (Notable exception: American TV, which always blows my mind; while a lot of TV is quite good, most of it seems mean-spirited and ugly). This is perhaps because I visit fairly regularly.

I find it’s true that living abroad has not only helped me better appreciate aspects of another culture but also aspects of my own.  While there are facets of American life and culture that exasperate me – I was there during election time after all – I now appreciate a number of things that I took for granted before.  The three things that stick out the most are the American version of politeness, Americans’ general openness, and the seemingly endless variety of options.

I’ve joked before about the trajectory of expat-in-Vietnam living. We’re at times comically predictable: the newbies all fixated on the same things (street food, traffic, getting ripped off) and declaring the same clichés (I really want to live in a Vietnamese neighborhood, not to live in a Western bubble); the less-than-newbies’ attempts at recreating their lives from home (joining an expensive gym, searching for the city’s best falafel); some of the old-timers’ tendency to sulk and complain, about both Vietnam and other expats.  Although we’re individually different, patterns do emerge.  I find myself now struggling to avoid falling into the trap of bitter expat syndrome.

And it is a struggle. Like my emotions have acquired a hair-trigger in which a mundane annoyance can easily devolve into extreme frustration.  An example: Upon returning, I found that my neglected motorbike had two flat tires. I did what anyone would do and pushed it to a nearby fixit place.  On the way, a parked taxi driver rolled down his window, pointed and said something (probably, “your tires need air”), and gave a hearty laugh. Really not a big deal, but I found my cheeks turning hot. “What is so fucking funny about this situation?” I thought angrily. “Why can’t you just let me do this very uninteresting thing without a running commentary?”  I’m not usually a hothead, but this silly incident peeved me.

This is usually the point when the crazy train comes rolling along, cargo loaded with sweeping generalizations: Vietnamese people are so rude!  Not, that taxi driver was sorta rude or that taxi driver sure has a weird sense of humor.  And just as I think this thought, almost immediately I feel guilty. Not just guilty, but stupid. Like a child throwing a fit over absolutely nothing.  How can I allow myself to go there? Of course Vietnamese people aren’t rude, think of all the favors and kindnesses so many have done for you. Both friends and strangers. Shame on you Sarah!

That’s an example of the very mundane. This line of thought also follows when the police extract bribes from friends, or I see yet another child not wearing a helmet as his parent swerves in front of me without glancing, or I read about government officials’ superstitious affinity for rhino horn, so on and so forth.  Depending on the day, these things, from the small to the large, can send me into a tizzy.  I’m certainly not the only one. Other expats frequently share stories of their overreaction and woe. Maybe they cursed at a delivery guy, lost their temper with a coworker, or kicked the door of a taxi.  I once knew a woman who used to punch people’s helmets while driving next to them on her motorbike.  Very amusing! And crazy! I have yet to totally lose it on a stranger. My reactions tend to run along the lines of defeated sighs or indecipherable mutterings.

A casual search on the internet suggests that expat aggravation is a very common phenomenon, not just in Vietnam but everywhere.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I’m writing about it now in an effort to understand it better.  People talk about “bitter expats” as though they are moral failures.  Yet basically everyone I’ve known who’s lived in Hanoi for more than a year has suffered the symptoms now and then.  It’s gotta be more than just a personal failing. After talking to some friends, here are a few ideas.

From observer to participant: When most people arrive, they’re just trying to figure out how to survive or adjust. How to find a decent thing to put into your mouth so your body continues to function. How to get from point A to point B without getting hit by a bus.  How to find an apartment and buy a bed.  How to make friends with whom one can actually converse, basically the only requirement in the beginning.  All that surviving is distracting.  Then you get over it (falafel successfully obtained!) and get on with daily living. B-o-r-i-n-g.  We came here for adventure, not for living! Why does it now feel like merely living?  The sample is also perhaps skewed. People who leave their home countries to live in an alien culture may have a harder time with stasis and settling down.  Isn’t that what we fled from to begin with?

There’s also a matter of involvement. When I was new, I wasn’t really invested in Vietnam.  I could observe things in a more detached way because, while I was interested, I didn’t actually care much. It was just a place I was wandering through for an experience.  Not yet a home but a strange place I was exploring. The longer I’m here, the more I care about it. Just like in the US, it frustrates me when I see something that I don’t think is right but that can change or get better.  This place is awesome, but it can do BETTER!  I get the same feeling when I see people vehemently denying global warming or fighting gun control in the US – c’mon Americans, we can do BETTER!  It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of it back home, but that feeling is amplified here. I can barely figure out how to call a plumber without my friend’s help, how am I supposed to accomplish anything?

Vietnamese people seem to often have the same attitude.  It’s a little too overwhelming and complicated for me to write about here. But basically acceptance of the ugly things in society, systems, or government seems to be the default.  People will admit that something is wrong or unjust, but then readily explain that this is just the way it is.  No changing it.  Is this also true back home?  In my mind, we’re always railing against something, although not necessarily successfully.   I understand how and why it’s different here, and I just bring it up because the powerlessness of it can be stressful.

Small stressors building over time:  Usually, the things that set me off are very small. That’s what seems so crazy about it. Sure, anyone would get angry after being robbed or directly insulted. But nothing so dramatic is happening. It’s more like minor miscommunications or setbacks. Things that are no big deal can feel like a BIG FUCKING DEAL. Why? 

It’s difficult for me to articulate, but I have the feeling that part of it is the consistent non-meeting of expectations.  Basically, when you’re strolling along in your own culture/community, you’re adhering to ways of thinking and behaving that are unspoken and nearly universal. Social contracts. An easy example is the queue.  You don’t need to have a conference with the other customers at the grocery store and then collectively decide that the fairest way to organize is to line up to pay, first come first serve. Nope, you just do it. You don’t think about this unspoken rule until it’s disrupted, as it often is in Vietnam.  Many of these unspoken courtesies or rules are simply different here. The Vietnamese don’t adhere to ours, and we only begin to adhere to theirs after learning them through trial and error (one embarrassing goof at a time).  These minor disruptions cause small ripples of distress. While each individual breach of expectation is unremarkable, they build up to the point of madness. And that’s when we go crazypants and overreact.

The outsiders: The overarching theme is our outsider status.  I’m oblivious most of the time, and I do live a bubble, so it sometimes surprises me when people stare at me curiously or treat me in an odd, goofy way because I’m a foreigner.  I expected this initially and practically welcomed it. I was gawking at Hanoi, and it was gawking right back. Now, it’s more like, “Yes, I’m here! I’m over it Vietnam, why aren’t you?”

It’s not just the inability to blend in, for there are many places in Hanoi where I feel like I blend in perfectly. It’s something else. Something more difficult to pinpoint.  As outsiders, we don’t always know how to put the things we see or experience into the appropriate context.  There’s too much we don’t see and don’t understand to make sense of it.  So instead, we force it through the lens of our experience, and it just doesn’t fit.

In many ways, it’s liberating to be an outsider. There are few people to answer to and little accountability for your decisions, no matter how stupid. The locals tend to leave you alone as much as possible, a fact that too many take advantage of. This is why many Westerners treat Southeast Asia as their personal playground.  They can be obnoxious, entitled jerkwads and get away with it.  But over time, I think the constant fish-out-of-water feeling has a wearing effect.

A downside to the lack of social responsibility is that it comes with a lack of social support system (i.e., friends, family, and community that know you and are invested in your success). You don’t really have to do anything, the world is your oyster!  So, go on, do something.  The dramas and obligations that preoccupied you back home are blissfully gone, but now what?  Don’t get me wrong, this can be a gift. Hanoi has awarded many with the opportunity to explore and build things that would be difficult to do back home.  But when you’re stuck with little knowledge of the place and people around you, it can also be a burden. While most of us like to fashion ourselves as independent, self-reliant agents, we get lost easily without a map.  With less accountability and support, you need to acquire a stronger sense of self-determination. Or wallow, I suppose.  Not always easy peasy.

Bottled-up: As mentioned, there are things that I find maddening about the US as well (easy considering that I’m from Texas). The difference is that it’s my right to rant about my country and the many idiots who inhabit it. The self- and outsider-imposed censorship that stems from being foreign can be a tough road to navigate.  There’s also the uncomfortable fact that Westerners inhabit a privileged status here.  Even nutcases can land a well-paying job or spouse easily, especially if they’re white.  I’ve seen it!

It’s a lot harder to criticize a culture not your own and one in which you’re treated so well. It irritates me when people imply that saying anything against Vietnam is not ok.  It just feels disingenuous and even condescending.  Vietnam can handle it. It doesn’t need protecting against the inane rants of us foreigners.  Of course, feel free to rant right back, but we all need a little venting, don’t we?

——–

It’s a complicated thing overall. I haven’t written in a while because, well, if you don’t have anything nice to say…  But not just that. I’ve sort of run out of blogging steam in general.

I initially wrote this post back in November 2012 and revisited it again in December, but then failed to post it because my bitter expat feelings waned considerably.  I’ve been feeling much more at peace with Hanoi in general, and I think this is due in large part to my picking apart the issue on my own and with others.  Rightfully shifting the blame and stress from Hanoi to other things where appropriate. Buying a new bicycle and riding around the city more also helped. Exploring Hanoi always charms me, and I don’t know why I so often forgot to do it.

And now it’s February already, and I’m back in the US. Not just for a visit. Moving on home! I’ve written one final post on that, to be uploaded within the next few days or so.  I just thought maybe this post deserved the light of an internet screen before that.

SONY DSC

Not always sunny, but lovely nonetheless.

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A post with a lot of awkwardness and a lot of cats.

There are many great things to be said about the Hanoi expat community. Overall, I’m thankful for its existence as it’d be really difficult to live in an Asian country without the benefit of a cohort of English-speakers to help wade through the confusion and isolation.  That said, the nature of expat life in Hanoi amplifies one of my most stubborn and reviled of personality flaws – my tendency toward social ineptitude.

To the point: I’m awkward.  Like, really. My awkwardness is the most loyal of travel companions. It has doggedly followed me from childhood to adulthood, from state to state, and even, alas, overseas into Vietnam. It’s who I am.  I’ve spent too much time self-psychoanalyzing the situation, and here’s the little that I’ve learned.  Whether or not I’m able to act like a normal, functioning human being with thoughts and emotions as opposed to a creature with only grunts and needs is highly dependent on whom I’m interacting with. It’s really hit and miss, and this is no clearer than when I first meet someone.  With some people, the initial meeting runs smoothly and effortlessly.  I can even pull off charming and articulate at times.  With others, I lapse into a state of fright and autism. I get jittery, my eyes shift frantically to and fro, I’m afraid of being touched, I forget basic vocabulary and repeat phrases over and over, and my brain’s hardware crashes.  When this happens, I search the wasteland of my empty mind for any topic of conversation to bring up, and all that I can find is the physical state I’m experiencing at that moment –  the weather (it’s cold), injuries/illness (my knee hurts, I barfed yesterday), and immediate outside stimuli (it’s noisy).  That line of talk usually gets me nowhere, and it signals the time to start planning exit strategies.

The anxiety produced by non-compatibility and long conversational pauses puts me into a state of fight or flight. And, as you could probably guess, flight inevitably wins out.  This means I enact one of the following strategies:

a)      First and foremost, I flee.

b)      If fleeing is not an option, I find a small space to crawl into such as a box or trash bin.

c)       I curl up into a compact, impenetrable ball.

d)      I pull my hoodie over my head and tighten the draw strings.

e)      I stop moving and breathing so as not to draw attention.

f)       I faint and play dead.

Cats, being awkward creatures themselves, are perfect for demonstration purposes:

I’ve given up on futile efforts to force extroversion and charm into my skill set, trying instead to accept and work around my limited abilities to interact with people.  Doing this as an expat in Hanoi is like going through social anxiety boot camp.  Let me explain.

One of the best and worst things about the Hanoi expat community is that it’s very small. It’s the quintessential small town in a big city. I know loads of gossip about people I’ve never met. It’s amazing how frequently you meet and see the same people over and over. This is due in part to the smallness of the social groups; chances are that a random person is a friend of a friend. While it doesn’t seem like we are few in number, we are very predictable and attend the same venues with unrelenting regularity.  If an especially cool event is happening, you’re guaranteed to see every expat you’ve ever met in Hanoi at that event, unless of course, they’ve left already.   In sum, we are swimming in a very tiny, incestuous pool.

On one hand, this is rather nice.  It’s great to run into someone you don’t know too well but really like.  The flipside is that you are also repeatedly confronted with people who, for one reason or another, make you want to cringe, throw up in your mouth, cry or run.  For all the reasons cited above, the latter group of individuals far outnumbers the former in my case.  It’s not that I necessarily dislike these folks. I can only think of a handful of people who I dislike in Hanoi, those against whom I have plotted elaborate and childish revenge scenarios.  No, usually these people are just regular people who turn me into the socially awkward Gollum I so despise. I often give them names, mostly to help Mitchell remember who they are and why I’m afraid of them.  Actually, he has a few to add as well, but once they’re on his list, they’re basically automatically on mine too. These include*:

  • Lurker
  • Desk man
  • Data entry girl at work (there are many of these, who only make me nervous because I can never remember if I’ve met them before, and I feel like an asshole for not remembering. But there are so many of them! A small typing army!)
  • Frenchy (aka, that girl who my friend slept with and then treated in an ungentlemanly like fashion so now she hates me, I think)
  • Nemesis
  • Box man
  • Party girl
  • Glasses girl
  • Chomp chomp
  • Agent mustache
  • Mr. Grumbles and sidekick Nooky/Nuoc-y
  • Vanilla café girl
  • Korean businessman (who always demands English teachers of me)
  • Evil research lady
  • MORE! (douchebag who harasses the workers at Vine restaurant to give him more wine at their weekly wine-tasting night)

*Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Wait, that doesn’t make sense.

Their numbers are many.  One would think that my being here for nearly 3 ½ years would mean that I’ve outlasted them, but they tend to only replenish and multiply.  Part of the problem is that there are so many people that you’ve seen a fucktillion times, but the chances that you’ve actually met this person at one time or another are about 50/50.  I’m constantly worried that I’m snubbing people that I’ve met at a random party and forgot about a year ago. Then I make it worse by hiding behind furniture when I see them, so that if they didn’t feel snubbed before, they sure do now.

What I think I’m trying to say with this confessional piece is this: If you walk by only to find me cowering in dumpster, hand clenched into a claw and hissing at you, please don’t take it personally. It’s just me giving into my insecurities and propensity toward neurotic shyness.

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Plans: Overrated?

Ask an expat in Hanoi, “So, how long are you going to be in Hanoi?” and expect to receive an answer like one of the following:

a) Didn’t I tell you? I leave tomorrow!

b) I’m going home/other country/to Saigon on April 24th.  My flight out of Noi Bai is at 9:21pm.  I have my 5 year plan on an Excel spreadsheet in my backpack if you fancy a look.

c) Ummm…In a year or two….ish. What was the question again?

d) Leave?!  Psssshhh.

For the last few ummm…years…ish, I’ve basically had answer C.  I can’t quite seem to make a concrete, cohesive plan for the future beyond a few months. Instead, I take the tactic of setting a vague departure date, usually at least a year away.  After that hypothetical date, my plans get a little fuzzier, involving things like going back to school, being Mitchell’s sugar mama as he goes back to school, flitting off to South America to see if my brain is as immune to learning Spanish as it is Vietnamese (which I’m learning is an expat living in Asia cliché – darn I believed I had thought of it first), and seeing if Japan is as weird as it appears to be.  It’s rare when I get the itch to move back to the US for the foreseeable future, but when it happens, it never goes beyond me declaring that we would have to move “somewhere cool.”  Jobs? An afterthought. It’s all about location.

My lack of planning skills doesn’t mean that I’m some sort of free spirit, letting the winds carry me and following my instincts through life or some such nonsense.  No no. If I haven’t at least got the next few months figured out, I’m a ball of anxiety tearing my fingernails to shreds and battling my lungs’ wishes to keep me a nonsmoker.  But my futile attempts at planning beyond that timeframe are usually out of a sense of obligation.  One must at least appear to have plans, right?  Therefore, I dutifully devise a plot for my personal movie (which would be in the awkward comedy genre that I love so much), and although it may be half-hearted or ambiguous, at least I get to have an answer for friends and family that is slightly better than the answer C above.

Given that basic strategy for creating a life timeline, it’s not surprising that when said Grand Departure Date starts nearing, I tend to, well, shift a bit.  People seem surprised and demand answers as I fumble to piece together an acceptable reply to the question, “For Jebus’ sake, why are you still in Hanoi, and what are you doing next?”  I end up with the boring explanation: “Well, I have a good job and a couple pets to feed and a nice house. And have you been to that new restaurant near the Temple of Literature?  How can I leave that?”  Many expats know this story too well. They know better than to take my silly plans seriously and they’re rarely the ones asking me for my timeline to begin with.  Others eye me suspiciously, wondering if I’m about to renounce my American citizenship and pitying me for not being able to get my life together.  It may be in my head, but I feel a (mostly) outside pressure to leave Vietnam.  This pressure seems to come from both back home and, oddly, within Hanoi.   As if after being here past a set date means that everything that was once good suddenly expires. Once you cross that invisible line, you are no longer cool for living in a foreign, exotic land but are instead moving into the category of sad people who lack direction and/or better options.  You’re that cousin who, 15 years later, is still working at the same job he’s had since high school. You’re that woman who got a Master’s degree in biochemistry and is working at a Starbucks 5 years later. You’re that drug dealer who’s still dealing pot out of his car to high schoolers instead of moving up in the drug cartel, riding around in an Escalade and wearing some sweet bling.  Or something.

One thing that is starting to wear on me (and the motivator for this rant) is the fact that I get asked future plan questions so often by strangers, acquaintances, friends and family.  I can’t imagine asking my friends back home what the hell they’re doing with their lives every few months.   It would be weird to do so (Hey, when are you leaving Chicago? You’re not? But why?), yet I receive this mini interrogation all the time. I understand why this happens, I really do.  I recognize how natural and innocent these questions are, and hell, I’ve even found myself asking them of my fellow expats.  As much as Hanoi feels like home, at its core, it’s still not.  Maybe it could be, but for now it’s not. So if a person is not home, it’s understandable to wonder when that person will be heading back.  Expat life is a transitional life for most people. So, perhaps these normal questions feel like an interrogation because I don’t have any good answers.  That admission aside, I still reserve the right to whine about people being all up in my business. Dang, let a girl be.

Isn’t it ok to be relatively planless?  Must we always be straining to see the unknowable future, clawing away at it as we tend to do?  It’s already too easy to ignore the present – that which is right in front of our face.  Besides, I hear that we’re pretty bad at predicting those futures upon which we base these plans.  Science says so.* Plus, isn’t Hanoi a city worth living in, not only in the short term but the long term?  A Vietnamese girl asked me the other day if I am bored with Hanoi yet, and it was hard for me to explain to her that, yes, of course I experience the occasional bouts of ennui, but I think it’s due to living a normal, routinized, 9 to 5 kind of life. It’s not Hanoi.  While not as exciting as the first year being here, it’s still a lively, interesting place to be.  It grows and evolves all the time, at times too fast.

To plan or to jump!? (or to hide in a cylinder block?)

*From Freakonomics radio:

Fact: Human beings love to predict the future.

Fact: Human beings are not very good at predicting the future.

Fact: Because the incentives to predict are quite imperfect — bad predictions are rarely punished — this situation is unlikely to change.

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Texas Texas Yeehaw!

“Home” can become a tricky concept for expats.  When I plan to visit my family in the United States, I say, “I’m going home for a few weeks.”  When I’m in the US and call Mitchell in Hanoi via skype, I tell him, “I’ll be home in a few days.” To complicate matters further, US “home” conjures up not one, but two cities – El Paso, home of childhood, and Austin, home of adulthood.  Either way, though, my native homeland is Texas.  When people in Vietnam ask the familiar question, “Where are you from?” I respond with a buoyant: Texas!!!

I rarely feel bouts of pride over my nationality, and when it does happen, it’s usually in response to a non-American being overly critical of the US (deserving though it can be).  Countries can be like family, sometimes it’s only ok for us to complain about our own.  However, I have an irrational sense of pride about being Texan.  I’m not the only Texan like this, most Texans I know are.  I have a t-shirt that reads, “Texas Secede!” and other Texans have repeatedly tried to convince me to trade them for it.  You’ll pry that shirt from my cold, dead body, is what I say.

Reasons for this pride are vague and run along the lines of Texas: a) being big, b) containing oil, cowboys and large-ish animals, c) not taking no shit, d) being good at football, and e) something or other to do with the Alamo.   We were brainwashed – I mean taught – in school to embrace the utter greatness and superiority of our state.  Promotions of various sorts – from truck and barbecue commercials to anti-litter and political campaigns – regularly reinforce this attitude by claiming that what they’re selling is even more awesome because it is either like or from Texas. (How many commercials in say, Nebraska bring up the state at all?)  Country singers provide further flattery and validation by frequently bringing up Texas, and even the nation as a whole gave us a collective high five when they elected our governor, George W, to be president despite his inability at times to string enough words together to form a coherent sentence. Clearly, Texas is awesome and everyone else is either enamored with it or very jealous.

Horse ranch next to my parents' house in El Paso, TX

That being said, when I gleefully announce that I’m from Texas, expats in Hanoi – whether American (not of the Texan variety), Canadian, European, Australian, South American, or otherwise – almost uniformly respond with a cringe. Even Mitchell responds to my Texas Secede shirt by smirking, “Please do.” Some try to cover up their revulsion with politeness. “Oh…er…that’s interesting,” they strain while avoiding eye contact. Others come right out and openly guffaw or raise a disapproving eyebrow.  I much prefer the normal Vietnamese response, which is an excited, “Ohhh, Texa!  Cowboy! Ha ha!”  (I nearly crapped my pants with joy when one of my teenage students wore a “Don’t Mess with Texas” t-shirt to class. She did not understand my giddiness.)

The funny thing about this is the fact that I was somehow initially surprised by these responses.  You mean, you don’t agree that Texas is the coolest place ever? Granted, it is only the second biggest state, although Texans will be quick to remind you that it’s the biggest of the contiguous United States (because really, no one counts Alaska as a real state anyway…it’s barely above Hawaii). And mind you, most Texans are more likely to see a Chili’s chain restaurant outside their window than a ranch, oil is creating a mess, and we actually lost the Battle of the Alamo.  Hmmm…but no, those aren’t the real reasons, are they?  What could it be?  Oh, right.

Could it be:

Ok, ok…sheesh.  I get it.  Texas sort of epitomizes what a lot of people loathe about conservative America.  And a large proportion of Texans are damn proud of this.  But that’s not my Texas. My Texas is filled with sweet, interesting weirdo types who also cringe at all of the above.  Or they’re just regular, down-to-earth people like you’d find anywhere else.  Maybe it’s ridiculous to have pride about one’s accidental birthplace.  But as silly as it sounds, one thing I do love about being from Texas is that people have at least heard of it.  It’s fun to play with it and to break people’s stereotypes about what Texans must be like:  I don’t have a Texas twangy accent; I think football is boring; I’m an atheist; conservative Republicans frighten me and I don’t think Democrats are liberal enough; I embrace feminism; I sympathize with illegal immigrants; I feel guilty about eating meat; and I do not deny the existence of global warming.  Yet, I own two guns, grew up riding horses, and have a soft spot for country music and beer.  I do fulfill plenty of other stereotypes, but not the Texas one (completely). Yeehaw!

Showing our true colors at an "around the world" theme party.

What a good sport Mitchell is, allowing me to humiliate him on the interweb like I do.

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LOL in Hanoi

Perfect picture posers in Hoi An, not Ha Noi

Lost in my English-only thoughts, I spend large swaths of lunchtime staring with glazed eyes at my bowl of rice. When that loses its charm, I begin guessing what my companions are talking about based on the random words I think I understand. For example, they may say something like, “Chúng tôi sẽ đi trên xe máy của chúng tôi đến một nhà hàng cá sau khi làm việc.” (We will go on our motorbikes to a fish restaurant after work.)  In my brain:

Well, they said the word “fish” and “motorbike,” so perhaps they are discussing the merits of building a fish-shaped motorbike or a motorbike that can ride underwater with the fish.  They may even be making a play on the Gloria Steinem quote, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a…motorbike!”

This?

Or this?

At a lunch recently, my coworkers burst into a fit of simultaneous laughter.  I snapped out of mental hibernation, and feeling sorry for me, one translated the joke for me.  It went like this:

CW: What is the similarity between a woman and a bicycle?

S: Um…what?  They’re both awesome?

CW:  No. With a bicycle, you pump it first and then ride it. But with a woman it is the opposite.

S: I’m confused. Which term is an analogy for the act of having sex? Because in the US, both riding and pumping can be appropriate.

Ok, I left out the final part and just giggled politely, as you do.  He looked way too embarrassed for me to justify asking him to explain further.  I appreciated the effort to include me and figured I’d return the favor by telling a joke. One of Mitchell’s students told him this one, so I figured because it was Vietnamese in origin, the humor would get through.  But mind you, it’s gone through a few rounds of translation and retelling.  Anyway, here’s that joke:

A boy heard his mother making a noise. Curious, he peeked into her room.  He saw that she was saying, “I need a man I need a man.”** [At this point in the joke you are to illustrate by closing your eyes, and rubbing your arms like you’re trying to hug or fondle yourself].  And then the next day, guess what? A man came over to the house, and his mother was very happy.  Later, the mother heard a noise coming from her son’s room.  She opened the door to find him [doing rubbing arm routine] saying, “I need a bike I need a bike.”

** Side note: her pet fish was in the background, riding a bicycle. 

I finished the joke feeling very clever, only to be met by the same polite, awkward giggling and confused looks that I had just done moments before.  Lesson learned: Translation = humor terminator (humornator? – I’m such a dork).

One of my favorite things about Vietnamese people is their quickness to laughter.  They can make any dork like me feel like a comic genius.  But also, the Hanoians around me take to laughing at me rather than with me on a pretty regular basis.  I’m surprised sometimes by the things I do that elicit laughter like: attempting Vietnamese (works like a charm), riding a bicycle while wearing a helmet, ordering coffee, shopping for clothes, drinking beer, walking down the street, existing in general.   It doesn’t appear to be mean-spirited or anything.  Just pure amusement.

This has been amplified lately due to my birthday present, the Honda Super Cub. It’s little and old and cute and fussy – all things hilarious.  The previous owner warned me that people would find the combo of me plus this motorbike highly amusing.  I thought I was ready, but no.  The first day I drove it to work, my coworker saw me driving on the street and drove up right next to me on her motorbike.  She looked down and immediately started cracking up, so much so that she couldn’t speak.  Another coworker laughed when he saw me on the bike and said that I don’t “fit” the bike, and I pretended that it was a reference to my youth and ability to function and not my size.  I provide daily entertainment for my fellow commuters while at stop lights by doing nothing but sitting.  Because the bike is old and fussy, I often have trouble kick starting it, which can spread mirth and merriment throughout an entire block for a good afternoon.  Yes, my adorable Super Cub has made me even funnier than usual.  Granted, just the name Super Cub does put me in a good mood (pronounced “coob” in Hanoi).

This is really nothing to get upset over or to even notice anymore, but my reactions to it vary according to my mood.  Mostly, I giggle with them and think to myself, “I know. I AM hilarious!  Yay Vietnam, and all the happy people in it!”  Other times, I get slightly offended in spite of myself, thinking, “For Jebus’ sake, can’t a girl just start her moto in peace! Why can’t you just laugh at me behind my back like everyone else?”  But one must never show this frustration as it will only serve to intensify the laughter.   The good thing about it all is that I can now openly laugh at people and situations without worrying about being offensive.  They just look at me and start laughing too.

What's so funny, mister?!

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I’m one of those weirdo loser types who loves eating alone at restaurants as it gives me a chance to read or listen to podcasts or some other such thing to fill my brain with thoughts that are not my own.  The other day I was doing just this when a girl I’d never seen before randomly asked me if she could join me. It kind of threw me off, being engrossed in a sick and twisted Roald Dahl story about a man who eats too much royal jelly and starts turning into a bee. So yeah, I had to sort of shift gears back into normalcy.  I awkwardly told her she could sit down, and probably regretting her decision, she justified herself by saying, “I’m just looking for a little English conversation.”  “Wow!  How long have you been here?!” I shrieked excitedly.  We were in the West Lake/Xuan Dieu area afterall, which due to the overabundance of foreigners and Western-style eateries could easily be confused for a suburban neighborhood in Florida, but replace all the Cubans with Vietnamese people. When I tell people I live around there, no one seems surprised.  It’s depressing the stereotype I’ve become.  I told my bosslady I was going to a wine tasting at Vine, and she said, “A lot of people like you do that, right?”  Well…I never…what do you mean ‘people like you’…just because I…er…yeah, you could totally say that.

Kind of like a beach in Florida?!

I don’t remember how long my new dinner companion had been in Hanoi, but it wasn’t too long.  Oh, young one, you must have seen how adept I am at maneuvering chopsticks and therefore have come to me for my infinite expat wisdom, have you not? I suppose I can take time out of my busy eating schedule to tell you all about the ways of Vietnam.  –Not really.  If anything, I probably left her with the realization that the state of befuddlement never leaves.  It’s always fun to talk to new Hanoi expats.  Some things they say are like a trip down memory lane: yes, I was terrified of riding a bicycle, much less a motorbike too; to the detriment of my wallet, I used to confuse 10,000 notes with 100,000 notes as well; I know, bun cha is the best food invention ever; oh, the food poisoning – I almost miss the opportunity it gave me to get out of work and to pretend to friends and family back home that I’m living the rough life; yes, it does seem like a good idea to go to Solace/Phuc Tan/other bar even though it’s Tuesday night.

Roughin' it at Saint Honore

While it’s common for senior citizen expats like me to feel superior to our new, inexperienced peers, it can also go in reverse.  With our crappy Vietnamese skills, our bagel-eating habits, and our aversion to squat toilets, newbies will sometimes give us that why’d-you-come-to-Vietnam-anyway-I-hope-I-never-turn-into-you look.  “Squat toilets are part of the experience! Why would I eat a hamburger when I can eat delicious noodles everyday?” they cry.  But give it a few months, and they’ll be asking us for tips on where to find goat cheese or chocolate or an apartment where it’s quiet.  I’m not the only predictable one.

Aside from the memories and getting to pretend to be an expert about something (while not an expert on Vietnam, I am at least an expert on where to find salsa in Hanoi), newbies are fun because they look at Hanoi through fresh, loving eyes.  It’s easier to notice and appreciate the beautiful, weird or interesting things around you when you’re new anywhere.  This can still be accomplished after you’ve been around a while, but it’s not the default mode anymore.  And it’s often replaced by the opposite – a sort of repulsion against Vietnam where it’s easier to notice and loathe all the tedious, ugly or annoying things around you (as hilariously described here).  “Hmmm…,” we wonder, “how did Hanoi turn into this wasteland of annoyance and despair?”  And Hanoi’s wondering the same about you.  We then proceed to intensify the experience through mutual sharing and whining, and I’m certainly no exception.  When I look back, I can mark a period of time that has a sort of black cloud hovering over it. I was just moody for various reasons and lashing out at Hanoi like a psycho. I would then come running back asking for forgiveness.  It’s evident when I read some of my past posts; although I’ve always tried to keep these lighthearted, occasionally that frustration seeped through.

So in this way, I like newbies.  They help me get excited about the little things in Hanoi again.  And they tend to be more open in general.  They do things like talk to weirdos in restaurants for one.  This newbie talked about how in the past, expats would kind of brush her off when they discovered she was just traveling through.  Now when she says she’s staying for a while, they perk up and put on their friendly face.  I think it’s the armor we don to protect our abandoned hearts.  Why should I invest time in you when you’re just going to leave me for another tropical place or home country?  This month marks the going away of 6 friends of mine, so yeah, I’m developing abandonment issues and should be investing in a shrink soon. Or acupuncture for my broken heart (sigh). That is, unless I meet plenty of high-spirited newbies in the meantime.

Summer flowers help too!

It took me nearly 3 years to fully appreciate these beauties

...and nearly 3 years to finally get my very own moto - thanks Mitch!

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While walking through almost any touristy area in Southeast Asia, chances are that you’ll hear the common proposition, “You wan’ massa?”  Back home, massages were a luxury that I paid a painful amount for only when I was feeling especially achey or found another reason to justify such extravagance.  Given that massages in Hanoi cost as little as $5 for a full body ordeal, massages get transformed from a luxury to a necessity in the minds of a lot of expats.  I indulge on a somewhat regular basis – maybe once every 4-6 weeks or so – an infrequency that is baffling even to me.  Why am I not doing this every other day!?  (If anyone is looking for a recommendation, I always go to Yakushi because they’re very professional and offer a range of services.  Just Massage is another good choice.  I think the 60 minute massages at both are around $10 or a little less.)

As nice as it is, I’ve come to learn that you should never go into a new massage place with expectations.  You really never know what you’re going to get.  It adds an element of suspense.  I’ve had tiny ladies walk all over me, my body contorted into unnatural-feeling positions, my fat pinched, my back cracked, my modesty dispelled, and my muscles softly caressed and then painfully jabbed.  I’ve been massaged in small, private rooms, on public beaches, and in a room full of other nearly nude tourists. I’m generally a pliable customer as I always just go with what massage therapists want me to do.  I’ve had massages that feel like borderline torture, which I endure with the aid of some masochistic thoughts about how pain is good for me and will make all my muscle problems disappear if I can only just soldier through.  I wonder if there is a real benefit to this or if I just pay to be tortured unnecessarily.

I’ve already written about my most memorable massage, received at what I think was a brothel in Dalat.  Yesterday, I had another interesting massage experience, although not nearly as entertaining as the Dalat disaster. I received this one in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), and it was one of the best massages I’ve had in a long time with regards to the physical feeling of it.  The massage lady seemed to know what she was doing with the perfect balance of pain and pleasure – she had mastered the hurts-so-good touch.  It was in a room with the massage tables divided by curtains.  Massage music is usually some sort of new agey crap that’s supposed to give you the feeling of floating in space or wandering through a magical forest.  The music at this spa was set at a low volume, so at first I didn’t notice it.  But once on the table and relaxed, I recognized the Joan Jett song “I hate myself for loving you.”  Hmmm…that’s odd, I thought.  It only got better.  Other featured songs:

The Locomotion – Kylie Minogue – Ah, don’t you miss 80s hair?

Like a Surgeon – Weird Al Yankovic

What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me No More) – Haddaway – At which point I started reflexively bobbing my head to the right and trying to dance suggestively with the massage lady.

This is one of the few times I’ve wanted to giggle during a massage due to something other than embarrassment.  Other highlights of this massage were when she turned me over and proceeded to pull my hair – at first large chunks of it and then what felt like one strand at a time, as if she were pulling out strands of gray hair.  She got me to do a lot of nice stretching and at one point near the end, she was on the table on her back, with her knees on my back holding me up so that I was in the air, arching over her.  As long as you can handle the music flashbacks, I recommend this place, located at 92 Bui Vien Street, the spa at the back of the Le Doan shop.  I really mean it when I say the massage itself was sublime.

One thing that I find myself consistently doing during massages is thinking of the most mundane, stupid shit.  I’ll start wondering about why my washing machine zaps me, or pondering over whether or not I’m using the right kitty litter.  And then, mid-thought, I’ll realize that I’m doing this and try my best to shut up my inner voice.  It seems best to have a blank mind during massages, but this is something I’ve yet to accomplish.  So, instead, I end up trying to focus on the physical feeling that I’m experiencing which in turns leads me to think about how strange it is that a stranger is touching nearly every inch of my body, aside from a few key areas.  Massages are actually quite intimate when you think about it, not necessarily in an erotic way.  (I truly can’t imagine how strange being the customer of a prostitute would be on this level.  I don’t think I could handle it.  But then again, I’m a girl.)  We tend to compartmentalize ourselves into the physical vs. inner or “true” self, but these distinctions are easily muddled and perhaps tenuous.  During these sessions, I often end up envisioning my body as the machine that gets me around and deals with the outside world, and this massage is like a tune up.  I imagine that athletes must have this feeling quite often when you see them preparing for a big game or getting fixed up when a muscle goes out of whack.  They just have a different kind of relationship with their bodies.  I think that the mind and body are more connected than we usually recognize, and “fixing” one can often help improve the other (hello, placebo effect).  I often use this argument with my stubborn self when I am trying to get motivated to go on a health kick.  Unfortunately, my health kicks are still few and far between.  And I don’t think getting a massage counts.  (What a tough life!)

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