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2012 in 2D

Happy New Year! Last Christmas, Mitchell got me a shiny, new fancypants camera – the Sony NEX-5. (Camera snobs: It’s fancypants for me. I have no idea how fancypants it is in general).  I wanted to put this new impressive thing to use, so I decided to do one photo every day of 2012.  Now that 2012 has come to an end, Mayan apocalypse successfully avoided, I get to share the photos with the world!  Year neatly summarized.

The first thing you’re likely to notice is that I’m not a particularly skilled photographer. I use exactly one setting, although I play around with the panorama function a bit in October. Also, my creativity waxes and wanes.  There are clearly days where I had forgotten to take a photo until right before bedtime. These photos usually involve my cat, Mitchell looking annoyed that he has to pose for me, or a piece of art in our house. I also admit that I missed 9 days. Dammit! I have only ONE task for the WHOLE year, and I SCREW IT UP!  Those days are marked by a photo of Mr. Happy Condom, a photo I took in Saigon a few years ago (for no other reason than I love him).

January 

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February

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March 

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April

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May

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June

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July

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August

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September

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October

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November

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December

December 2012

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Forgive me readers; it’s been nearly 3 months since my last confession…er…post.  And a lot has happened, mostly along the lines of: Holy crap, we opened a bar! (Or if you speak British, Bloody cheeky shite, we opened a pub!*)  It’s the Red River Tea Room, named after a now-closed bar in Georgia (USA) which was originally opened by Mitchell’s great great great uncle in the 1920s and frequented by Mitchell’s grandfather in the 1950-60s. The name is a holdover from the US prohibition era when many bars adopted names like “tea room” and served alcohol-infused tea to try to work around laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol. That explains the misleading nature of the name (we are not located on the Red River and tea is basically an afterthought).

[*Ok, British people probably never say this, but it’s the best I could do.]

When I say “we” opened a bar, I mean mostly my husband Mitchell and our good friend Jim, who co-conspired to make it happen. For my role, I’m deciding between the titles of owner-in-law and barwife, but leaning toward the latter.  As barwife, my job has consisted mainly of drinking at the bar, occasionally questioning and nagging the owners about their bar-related decisions, and at times dealing with some of the tedious paperwork such as the employee manual and contracts.

When we announced the enterprise to our friends and family back in April, it was as much a shock to me as it was to them. We had, afterall, been making our yearly proclamations that this will be the year for us to bid this lovely city adieu. But, also a yearly tradition, these plans have fallen through yet again. But still, what the fuck?  Where did this come from?  Some background: Mitchell & Jim had joked about opening a bar off and on in the past due to a shared longing for a bar in Hanoi that feels like ‘our bar.’ You know, the kind of place you get attached to and return to all the time – become one of the regulars. Not too fancy, not too divey, just comfortable and welcoming. There are tons of bars in Hanoi and many that we really like such as Barbetta, Tracy’s, Ete, and Fat Cat. While we like these places, none of them quite has the feel of our favorite haunts back home.  I suppose this is a common mission of expat business owners – to bring a piece of home to Hanoi.

When they joked about opening a bar in the past, I just blew it off as drunk hot air. Yes, you two open a bar and I’ll start a polka band composed entirely of flame-throwing, tuxedo-clad monkey robots (wait, who put psychedelics in my beer?). Then Mitchell came home one night and told me that they’re serious about opening the bar. And he was sober. Gasp! I peppered him with questions and then burst into tears, whining something like, “Ohmigod, we’re gonna be here FOREVER! May as well purchase a plot in that graveyard next door and tell our families and friends that we’ll NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN because we’re Vietnamese now!”  You see, Mitchell & Jim had spent many days and nights pondering and scheming about this awesome thing they wanted to do, which is a fun process. Since I hadn’t participated in these activities, I saw the endeavor less like a fun adventure and more like a giant, bar-shaped anchor on the boat that is my life.  Which, to my credit, it kind of is.  It’s in my nature to avoid such life anchors like mortgages, children, and other large investments of money. So yeah, I kinda freaked out.

When my melodramatic display subdued, we talked it out as married people are wont to do.  What it came down to was that Mitchell was clearly excited about this thing, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of that. As for business partners, we couldn’t ask for someone better than Jim, who’s not only a smart and responsible fellow, but also happens to be hilarious and rather amusing.  As for locations, Hanoi is ideal in many ways. It’s relatively cheap and easy to get things done here (if you have Vietnamese friends, but more on that later), and there are still plenty niches to fill.  Taking all of that into consideration, I gave my reluctant approval, still thinking in the back of my head that this thing probably won’t happen.  One week later, they had found a location and a week after that, they had given the landlady a deposit.  Ack! It happened so fast.  It’s hard to believe that this:

turned into this in only two months:

 

Such is the magic of Hanoi. Seriously, if you want to open a business, direct or star in a play, write for a magazine, design and model clothes, be featured in an art show, be on TV, and/or run a nonprofit, Hanoi is the place for you.  As an expat, it’s infinitely easier to do these things here than it is to do them back home. It’s one reason why many people come here with short-term plans but stay for the long run.

By the time the deposit was put down, I was on board. Getting involved in all the planning and designing helped that along. It’s really fun to help create something like this. Everything from the paint color, sign font, and furniture to the menu and staff were up in the air. It’s been thrilling to see our ideas turn into reality.  Plus, we managed to assemble a fantastic staff, who have turned out to be extremely charming, adorable and dedicated. It’s been great to get to know these guys. Now that the whole thing has proved to be this fulfilling and exciting, I feel guilty for my initial hesitance. Needless to say, I’m now a converted fan.

I don’t mean to suggest that everything has been easy peasy, of course.  I’ve found that Hanoi is a place of contradictions, one being that often things that seem like they should be difficult turn out to be simple, while other things that seem like they should be very easy turn out to be complicated messes.  We’ve been very lucky to have a circle of trusted and competent Vietnamese friends whom have helped us tremendously. We couldn’t have done it without them with our sanity still intact.  The rumors about opening a business in Vietnam are generally true. To get from point A to point B, one must navigate a path that is anything but straightforward.  There are all sorts of twists and caveats and players along the way that you have to account for. As Americans, we have expectations about the way things “should be,” while Vietnamese have entirely different notions of the way “things are.”  And the disconnect can prove maddening.   I believe the epitome of frustration came from a bizarre and unexpected negotiation with our landlady, Han (pronounced “Hun” who we first were calling Honeypie and now Honey Badger after this youtube gem).  We expected the process to last 1 hour maximum, but it expanded to an excruciating 3 hours of talking in circles and arguing over minutiae. Our friends were doing the bulk of the talking while we had to sit around bewildered and wondering what the unfolding drama could possibly be about.  It worked out obviously, but oi zoi oi. We’ve grown to like her, but Honeypie has been a source of some difficulty. Why? Because Honeypie don’t take no shit!

Overall, though, all the hiccups we’ve faced have been pretty minor. We all still have our normal fulltime jobs, so it can be a little exhausting at times, but since it’s a labor of love, it feels a lot less like work. Given that we’ve never done this sort of thing before, there’s admittedly been some bumbling around. It’s been a work in progress that has almost, but not quite finished developing yet.  Each week, we accomplish or add something new. It’s crazy to think how far it’s come since the first week – when the first customers came into the bar who weren’t already our friends, we first cowered in fear, shoving one another to go talk to them and running around in circles before serving them a drink (You go! No, you go!) Yes, we’ve come a long way indeed. Now, we generally go to the bar to relax and socialize. We’re there in case the staff need us, but as they grow ever more independent, the more superfluous we become. Which is a good thing. Basically, we seem to have accomplished our overall goal of creating a place where we can hang out. A fort for grownups.

Shameless plug: I can’t finish a blog about the bar without shamelessly promoting it, can I?  Some (but not all) things on offer include:

Beer!  Including mainstays like Carlsberg draft, Tiger and LaRue as well as some harder-to-find brews like Cooper’s Pale Ale and Stout (from Australia), Leffe Brune and Blond (from Belgium), Moa (from New Zealand), Suntory (from Japan), and Zorok (from Binh Duong, how can you not try a beer named “Zorok”?).

Wine! Three house reds and three house whites as well as some finer (aka fancy pants) wines for those with more refined palates. All of the wine comes from France, Chile, Australia and the US.

Spirits!  Whiskey and gin and vodka, oh my!  Some of our favorites are Baker’s 7 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Zubrowka Vodka from Poland, Bombay Sapphire Gin, and Cruzan Rum.

Non-alcoholic stuff! Milkshakes, organic tea from Betterday, espresso and coffee, juice, smoothies, etc.

Food! Pies and pasties from The Cart, Vietnamese food from Dieu’s Cuisine, Cielo pizza on delivery, and Joma ice cream.

In sum, come to our bar! Although we can’t ensure you money, fame or happiness, you are guaranteed to leave a better human being.

Address: 25 Đường Ven Hồ Tây (street just below Xuan Dieu, lakeside. Right next to Dieu’s Cuisine.)

Hours:

  • Monday – Thursday: 2pm – 11:30pm
  • Friday – Sunday: 11am – 11:30pm

Email: redrivertearoom (at) gmail (dot) com

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Photo & Flyer by: Julie VoLa (http://www.julievola.com/)

A couple days ago, I did something that was quite out of character for me and for that reason, very, very terrifying.  I know it’s a cliché to fear public speaking, but oh do I.  Given the choice between a delivering a speech in front of 1,000 people or getting a permanent neck tattoo of a butt (or a butt tattoo of a neck), I might choose the latter.

My temperament veers strongly toward introversion (ahem), and while I’ve learned that there are many fantastic benefits to being an introvert, vocal eloquence in front of large (or small) groups of people is not one of them. So when at the last Pecha Kucha night my friend Tabitha jokingly suggested that all of us at the table come up with a presentation for the next event, I just giggled nervously.

However, it did get me thinking.  The presentations we saw that night seemed to have been done by normal people, not the award-winning super heroes or science and art geniuses you often see on TED Talks.  Plus, the format of Pecha Kucha is 20 photos x 20 seconds each, so the presentations amount to only 6 minutes, 40 seconds.  That’s not long at all! Mitchell was also thinking about presenting. We had fun talking about different ideas for presentations, which made us feel smart and interesting, thus building our confidence to do it for real. We signed up. (Then Mitchell dropped out because he sucks. Actually, he got crazy busy, but more on that later.)

I was realistic, though. I knew it would be nerve-racking and difficult for me. But I’m American, goddammit, which means that my life is basically a marathon self-improvement project. Americans are always trying to better themselves, hence Oprah, Tony Robbins, and the increasing popularity of yoga. Public speaking, therefore, represented an obstacle to be conquered. I would preemptively attack it, the American way. True character-building, one terrible experience at a time.

If they can’t help you fix you, no one can! (Source: oprah.com)

After batting around a few ideas, I decided I would try to do a science nerd talk. Science often gets a bad rap. Its findings are denied, and it’s often accused of ruining all the mystery and wonder of life. Even when this isn’t the case, there seems to be a stark disconnect between the scientific community and everyone else. As a result, a lot of people are simply turned off by or intimidated by science.  I think they picture math equations, long words, and piles of homework.  But no!  Science is freakin’ awesome.  And freakin’ weird.  Its findings add whole new levels of awe and wonder to this crazy life, planet, and universe of ours. Oh, how I love it!  Watch out, science nerd quote:

“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.” – Carl Sagan

So, how to convey this message?  I recently listened to a Radiolab podcast about the microbes in our guts and how research is starting to show that the bacteria and other creepy crawlies living in our guts are linked with our mental health. Gut microflora appear to influence anxiety, depression, ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism, and all sorts of stuff.

Some clinical studies have even shown that taking supplements of probiotics may be able to elevate people’s moods. In other words, microbes can make you happy! Who needs prozac when you have bacteria?!  To me, this shows simultaneously how much and how little we know about ourselves.  So, I figured this topic would be a good way to lead up to my final message that science rules, stop being scared of it.  Although, admittedly, I believe more people took home the message: Eat more yogurt.*

As if to prove the research findings, my nerves really did mess with my tummy. I was ball of anxiety for the 5 days leading up to the presentation, imitating the stressed mice I was going to speak of.  When Thursday night rolled around, I thought I might hyperventilate.  The closer it came to my turn, the more my heart tried to escape my chest. This feeling was only worsened by the presentation before mine, given by a rather talented photographer, Dominic Blewett. He presented on the topic of extreme religious festivals in Southeast Asia.  His images included people putting various objects through their cheeks (like swords and umbrellas), running face first into the floor, and beating themselves bloody, all in the name of…er…no idea. The photos were amazing, but they were also quite intense and only exacerbated my state of panic.

Luckily, one of the advantages of introverts is our tendency to wildly overprepare in the face of potential public humiliation. I practiced my speech with my mom, my cat, my dog, my TV, my coffee pot, my alter ego, and my coworkers.  I tried to imprint the timeframe of 20 seconds into my brain circuitry (turns out, 20 seconds is a magical length of time that can seem to last for either the blink of an eye or an eternity in a presentation).  Despite my panic, the preparation allowed me to mimic a recording, and the words just sort of plopped out. Although I felt a genuine choking sensation by slide 19, causing me to make up words entirely (note: microbiotics is not the same as microflora, but fortunately it sounds like it might be), everything basically went as rehearsed.  Well, even.  Triumph!  Relief!

I’m not sure yet if 6 minutes and 40 seconds of triumph is worth days of dread and anxiety, but I’m glad I gave it a shot.  Maybe the next time I have to present research findings at a workshop for my job, it won’t be so bad.

Aside from myself and Dominic, other presenters were:

  • Arno Baude, a funny artist and photographer who has an affinity for Hawaiian shirts and tarp suits.
  • Monique Gross, who did a playful and poetic piece about 1,000 English phrases.
  • Guim Valls Teruel, an advocate of electric bicycles, who has convinced me that they are even more awesome than my Super Cub.
  • Joe Ruelle, who did a funny piece about Vietnamese food slang. I’ll never look at organic vegetables, chôm chôm fruit, or bánh mỳ in the same way.

If you’re interested in doing your own presentation, the next Pecha Kucha event in Hanoi is slated for after the summer.  You can email the organizers Colin, Gareth and Van Anh for more details: pechakuchahanoi@gmail.com. Many thanks to them for organizing the event and thanks to the other presenters for their insight and entertainment.

If you want to learn more about the gut-brain connection, here’s a good start:

*Sidenote: I feel the need to clarify. To my understanding, participants of the clinical trials demonstrating that probiotics can elevate mood were given supplements with very high levels of probiotics.  You won’t find these in an average cup of yogurt.  So, don’t blame me if you still feel crabby after eating yogurt for a month.

The Crab Nebula is a six-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion. Japanese and Chinese astronomers recorded this violent event nearly 1,000 years ago in 1054, as did, almost certainly, Native Americans. This composite image was assembled from 24 individual exposures taken with the NASA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 in October 1999, January 2000, and December 2000. It is one of the largest images taken by Hubble and is the highest resolution image ever made of the entire Crab Nebula. Source: hubblesite.org

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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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It’s a little late to write about Christmas, but I’m feeling festive so here goes. Mitchell and I went home to America for a couple of weeks for the holidays. By America, I mean Colorado (Mitchell’s “countryside”) and Kansas City (where my sister, aunt and uncle live).  As is my custom, I dreaded it.  It’s not that I don’t like visiting my family (really, mom!), it’s Christmas itself.  Let’s face it: it’s a cheesy, shallow holiday.  Nothing makes my soul recoil like Christmas-related music and movies (Home Alone being an exception). The worst part, though, by far  is the shopping. Our tendency to deplete our bank accounts in some misguided effort to express love through stuff is…is…neurotic, exhausting, bizarre, depressing. I don’t know.  It’s a tired liberal rant, but it’s tired because it’s true. In sum: yes, I’m a Grinch bitch.  But no, this doesn’t mean that I had a bad time.  And no, it doesn’t mean that I donated all of my awesome gifts to charity (blush).  I’m just prone to tired, liberal rants is all.

Even Hanoi has embraced Christmas. No, I'm not amused.

Speaking of rants, my family especially likes the holiday tradition of bickering over politics. We are firmly divided into two camps: 1) thoughtful, concerned, informed lefties and 2) wacky, confused, brainwashed Republicans.  (No bias there; to my astonishment, most of my family members reside in the latter camp).  This means that the dinner table frequently turns from civil and content to frothy and aggressive.  To my surprise, this year the topic that set us off was not Occupy Wall Street as I’d expected. I’d been telling Mitchell for weeks, “If they even mention the word ‘bongos,’ I’m gonna completely lose my shit!”  By this I meant that I’d jump on the table, mimic an enraged ape and throw the turkey across the room, behavior that has been scientifically proven to change hearts and minds. In the jungle at least.  No, the topic was Guantanamo Bay.  My uncle mentioned it to illustrate Obama’s failure to keep promises, my sister and I started pulling our hair out and screaming about Bush being a war criminal, our cousin asserted that Bush saved the Middle East, so on and so forth.  Lovely time.  Anyway, I’m not sure how we can learn to engage in these conversations in a more flattering and sane fashion.  At present, our country is experiencing a time in which the extremes we hear seem to be true. Bush really is a war criminal after all. Our civil rights really are being violated. And Newt Gingrich really is an evil, baby-eating robot troll sent from China to destroy American democracy. God, it’s so obvious. Just look at the guy:

However, that was the only maddening thing that happened this Christmas.  Most of it was really great.  Because they are so young, seeing our nieces on visits home is like meeting entirely new people.  Mitchell’s niece Catey Rose (age 16 months) knows sign language and can navigate an iPod. My niece Evelyn Grace (age 2 years, 4 months) can actually form and understand whole sentences and is learning to break dance.  They’re like real humans now!

Catey Rose

Evelyn break dancing

I was inordinately proud of the gifts I had made in Hanoi for my two nieces, Bettye Rose and Eviecakes (hồng = rose; bánh = cake):

Bettye Rose and Eviecakes

In Colorado, we got to go swimming in some nice hot springs.  Mmmm…hot springs.  (Words of wisdom: some friends and I learned the hard way that the hot springs in Kim Boi, Vietnam are not to be confused for actual hot springs. They are lukewarm springs meant for lukewarm weather.)

In Kansas City, I was taught to love my family’s newfound obsession with ping pong and the Wii Just Dance game.  The latter obsession has followed me back to Hanoi. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I’ve found the Wii Just Dance videos on YouTube, which means that yes, I can be found clumsily shaking and jiggling around my house to Gwen Stefani and Daft Punk.  I realize that no self-respecting person should do this after the age of 15.  But I have a problem. And no, I will not post a video of myself, but I might perform one of the dances for you if you are exceptionally charming and get me really drunk, as Huong has discovered.  The new hobby has inspired me to make a New Year’s resolution – learn Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance. Whenever the Thriller song comes on, I inevitably turn to the nearest person and proclaim, “I have to learn that dance before I die.”  Seeing that the world is supposed to end in 2012, it may be my last chance to fulfill this lofty goal.

My parents playing a cut throat game of ping pong.

Just Dance 3 - Wii Game; This guy is totally a burner.

I would write more about the wonders of Christmas, but the man sitting next to me at Joma is talking to himself while emitting an onslaught of coughing, snorting, slurping, sniffing, throat-clearing, and chugging noises.  He’s a symphony of bodily functions and my cue to leave. Happy post-holidays!

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The other weekend, I was invited on day trip to Ba Vi National Park, where, after enduring a grueling climb to the top of Vua Peak, you can see this:

But, as the title implies, this post isn’t about lovely Ba Vi and its national treasures. The experience highlighted something that I’ve noticed about young people in Hanoi and at home, perhaps everywhere.  Our short trip was repeatedly punctuated by stops to take heaps and heaps of photos.  I would estimate that between the 8 of us, at least 400 photos were taken in 8 hours. Every bend of the road, patch of flowers, park, body of water, or sidewalk presented an untapped photo opportunity. I often see young Hanoians hopping off their motorbikes for impromptu photo sessions, complete with multiple poses and angles and cameras. A glimpse at most people’s Facebook profiles reveals that they are not alone in this tendency.  People these days appear to have a deep-seated need to document their lives,

from mundane moments….

Look Ma, I'm eating a sandwich!

to celebrations…

Look Ma, it's Nam's birthday!


to rites of passage.

Look Ma, Mitchell’s made an honest woman outta me!


Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, blogs like mine – We are our own paparazzi.  But why?  Are we all neurotic vanity freaks?  Or clinging to our own fleeting existence?  Or just exceedingly bored?

I heard a thought-provoking On Point show in which Tom Ashbrook (the host) and Jennifer Egan (author of “A Visit from the Goon Squad”) explore this phenomenon.  They link the obsession with self-display with a sort of impulse toward nostalgia or memorialization, often in real time.  Jennifer Egan posited that doing this feels good because seeing our lives through the lens of memory adds depth to the experience.

JE: “I can very well understand the urge to do it because I think that the nature of nostalgia is that it seems to infuse life with a kind of added richness and charge because it’s being processed through memory. And often the nature of nostalgia is that we wish the present day life had that charge. Well, now…through technology we’re able to provide a sense of that charge in present day life or at least present it in such a way so that it looks to others like it has that charge.”

In addition to harnessing the power of memory, our tweets and FB albums are our way of manipulating time to a degree.  The past and present start to blur somewhat when you begin to commemorate events that recently took place (Man, that sandwich was good. I’m still full, but I miss it already) or events that are even still in the process of occurring (This sandwich is delicious, the best sandwich of all time).

JE: “I think our sense of time is purely subjective…we tend to posit the present against the past with a sense that the past is different…One of the things that’s interesting about our relationship to time now is that technology allows us to process our present lives into memory practically as they’re happening.”

“It heightens the experience to memorialize and commemorate it as it’s occurring. It adds a dimension that might not otherwise be there…Nostalgia is about  feeling that that dimension was there in an earlier time but isn’t there now…that kind of memorializing is removing the gap between past and present, maybe in a sense it’s a kind of anti-nostalgia. If you can commemorate this moment and process it through memory as it’s happening, maybe there’s no need to look back longingly on the past.”

There’s also an element of us watching ourselves live our own lives. We can also watch the lives of the other characters in our stories, be they friends, family, colleagues, lovers, frenemies, or that kid who used to pick his nose in 3rd grade.  As Jennifer put it, “The question is, ‘Does watching ourselves have an experience really add to that experience?’”

What about living in the moment?  Can you really be living in the now if you must take incessant breaks to document the moment and prove that it is in fact happening?  Does stopping every ten minutes to capture your stunning beauty or that of the view detract from appreciating it while you’re actually there?  At times, I think it does.  Your body may be in Ba Vi, but your mind’s on Facebook or if not that, at least it’s on getting the best picture. However, I’m not going to deny the fun and fuzzy feelings we get from looking at our photos online the next day and sharing them with our friends. Plus, unless your Facebook friends are jerks, they tend to write comments along the lines of “Wow, you’re awesome and gorgeous,” so not only do you get to have the experience, but you get an extra helping of self-validation (hello, like button).

You, my Facebook friend, are awesome.

Again, what did Tom and Jennifer have to say about this:

TA: “Can you live in the moment and be a nonstop curator?”

JE: “It depends on how one defines living in the moment. If living in the moment means digging so deeply into the moment that you’re watching yourself live it and displaying it for others to watch as you live it, then yes, the chronic Facebook posters are living extra in the moment.  But if you define living in the moment as an experience that is not about watching yourself but is just about being there…then I think you could almost say that this is just the opposite, that we have one foot out of the moment, even as we’re living it.  In a sense, who cares? There’s no right or wrong here.  The question is what makes life as rich as it can possibly be? And if that’s Facebook, then God bless.”

TA: “Absolutely, it’s not right or wrong, but it is fascinating to think, as malleable and imaginative of a creature as we are, how over generations or ages we may experience time itself differently.”

One thing that they didn’t discuss much is the fact that we are acting not only as our own paparazzi but also as our own PR agents.  What we present online may not be an entirely accurate representation of the reality of our lives.  It can be a sort of double life, and I’m only talking about those profiles where we use our real names and images.  Managing your online identity can be a challenge as you presumably want to express yourself honestly but to do so in a way that shows only your best side.  Online personas can be like our first-date personas. In both situations, we try to show only our especially clever, good looking, creative, and thoughtful selves.  (I mean, how annoying is it when your friend tags you in an unflattering photo? C’mon, I didn’t pre-approve that representation of my face!! Is it really that asymmetrical?)

Shoving this post back into an expat-in-Vietnam context, some of these things seem amplified when one is living abroad, notably the nostalgia factor.  Now that there’s not only distance but a few years separating me from my friends and life back home, viewing their online stories sparks a nostalgic yearning that’s probably more intense than it would be otherwise.  Because these photos and posts lean toward the happier, more fun aspects their lives, viewing my friends’ online activity can make me feel like I’m missing out on a really fabulous, non-stop USA party.*  And perhaps they look at my profile and think, “Ooh, pretty temples and stuff!  I need to travel more.”  Grass is always greener, my Facebook friends.

If you haven’t read Egan’s book, do so.  Soooo good.

Listen to the show. It’s free, yay!

*Sorry if I got the crappy Miley Cyrus song in your head.

Look Ma! I just wrote in my blog!!!

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…50ish more to go! (fingers-crossed)  That’s right, we had our one year anniversary last month.  Despite my tireless efforts to remain indifferent to and therefore above Romcom-esque holidays like Valentine’s Day and anniversaries, I was surprisingly excited about this one.  First of all, our anniversary is easy to remember, which saved us from awkward anniversary-date-forgetting moments. This is because instead of sending Save the Date cards, we sent a YouTube video featuring Mitchell’s students last year.  So, whenever I need to remember our wedding date, I just close my eyes and hear a cacophony of screams from Vietnamese children saying, “Mitcho and Sarah – Save the Date – AU-gus 28! – DAAAANNNCCCEEE!”:

 

 

Second, I was super excited to give Mitchell his present, which I will giddily describe for you now. Back story: Over the last couple of years, Mitchell has concocted numerous money-making ventures in his brain, many of them Vietnam-themed.  For example, he and his friend Ben have fantasized about setting up a bia hoi and/or bun cha street food establishment on a sidewalk in their college town.  Health codes be damned!  Another of these schemes has involved a series of expat-or-backpacker-in-Vietnam-themed T-shirts.  He’s been dreaming up T-shirt ideas for a while now.  Knowing that one can easily get customized T-shirts made in Hanoi, for his gift, I decided to make a couple of his ideas a reality.  I’m showing them here at the risk of having his million dong ideas stolen, but we must all take risks in life.

Presenting:

 

Ho is my Bro

Mitchell was a little concerned that this shirt might somehow be misconstrued as disrespectful to Uncle Ho.  I don’t see it.  In a culture where it is customary to call most people you know either “brother” or “sister,” this shirt only seemed appropriate.  (That’s Mitchell’s White Boy Gangsta Face, btw).

 

The Backpacker Menu

Goodbye embarrassing moments of ordering nonsensical items like chamberpots to eat on the street.  Now you can just point to the menu on your shirt.

 

She Likes Zombies

Total inside joke shirt.  Our neighbor’s kid has a toy car that sings a song.  The lyrics are not in English, but they appear to say the above. The shirt that didn’t get made because I had forgotten about it (regrettably) was a T-shirt related to the New Hanoian.  Expats will be very familiar with this website where any and all can review restaurants, cafes, services and basically anything in Hanoi.  As is normal for these types of sites, a lot of the reviews or comments are negative, some understandably so and others to a baffling degree.  Because you must give each review a score (1 to 5 stars), people often dramatically slash stars from their reviews and painstakingly explain why they have done so.   For example, “Minus 2 stars because the staff failed to light my cigarette.”  (I’m paraphrasing but not actually making that one up).   So, the T-shirt would put either real or fake reviews one the front and then “minus one star” on the back.  Actually writing it out makes me realize that it would probably be a stupid shirt to actually make (and may elicit a storm of negative stars on the website itself), but it was fun to think about.

On that note, I encourage you to make your T-shirt dreams a reality.  All you have to do is print out or roughly sketch your genius idea and take it the T-shirt making place on Hang Gai Street.  If you’re facing the lake, it’s on the right.  Sorry I can’t be more specific than that, but it’s not hard to find. Just look for the place with a lot of T-shirts.  Yep.

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