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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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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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Read the signs

In my line of work, when you write an article for publication, you should try to fill gaps in the existing body of literature.  Basically, write stuff that no one else has written about, or failing that, at least add some new information or write about the topic from a different angle.  Keeping that in mind, we can see that the signs in Hanoi have been well-documented and commented upon (for nothing amuses us expats more than funny English, inadvertent puns, and odd advertising). Hanoi signs even make “most popular” sign lists, thanks in large part to the “Try cock today please” sign (at least they said please). However, I propose that I still have something to contribute to this body of work. See if you agree.

The signs in Hanoi add a level of fun and, at times, absurdity to daily living when you snap out of your routine long enough to notice them. And I’m all for absurdity.  So here are some of my favorite signs around the city.

Many of the signs that stick out involve kids.  There are the child models creepily posing like adult models (a la Little Miss Sunshine), like these cuties:

This kid in particular is clearly my favorite, as he appears to be a Vietnamese-Mexican cowboy.

There’s also Quang Huy, child chef extraordinaire. He nailed the iron chef look of pride and confidence. He specializes in duck, if you’re interested.

At first the following sign doesn’t raise much attention. The grandparents appear to be playfully admonishing their oblivious and deliriously happy adult children. But the boy, he’s giving an evil death stare as if he’s plotting his entire family’s annihilation.  Or less dramatically, he’s just warming up to his future role as the perpetually annoyed teenager.

Everyday, I get a taste of home as I drive by Arnold Schwarzenegger, pre- California governator days (circa 1970s).

I also get to enjoy his present-day replacement beefcake (this model comes with shorter hair).

Although by now it seems normal, the amount of signs featuring white people really surprised me when I first arrived.  Why is Britney Spears gazing at me from my café table, and what is Hilary Duff doing on the local salon sign?

Hey, do I have something in my nose? And have you seen my shirt?

Miss Snootypants

 

 

Then there are the always entertaining propaganda posters, of which I most enjoy those involving drugs and/or HIV.

Pow, take that drugs!

Be careful to avoid those bags of HIV.

Meet Social Evils Snake, vomiting the likes of: HIV/AIDS, massage, gambling, drug addiction, injection, prostitution, motorcycle racing, alcohol, violence, superstition, “beer hugs” (not to be confused with bear hugs), and embezzlement.

“tệ nạn xã hội / văn hoá độc hại” = Social evils / harmful culture

Speaking of mascots, I like these guys:

Telebuffalo

Migraine-Inflicted Octopus and the Boisterous Bovine

Drunk cannibal chicken

Fly chef superhero

and his nemesis, Disco Chef

Bodyless Friso Freak

The Banana Streaker

I don’t have a common categorical theme for the next few.

There’s something about these creepy feet that really bother me.  The eyeballs in the toes, for instance.

Mr. Bossman is not happy, but his coworkers don’t seem to mind.

While I don’t think this sign is grammatically incorrect, “English skills for key persons” sounds weird, right? Perhaps it’s the persons vs. people usage that confuses me. “Persons” has never seemed right to me, possibly because it’s written frequently but almost never spoken. Either way, there’s something off about naming a school “Cleverlearn” and then marketing it to “key persons.”  How does one know her own level of key-ness?  Must you be clever as well or is that a skill imparted upon you? I’m also curious about how they have reinvented English learning.  Perhaps by combining random words together to amplify their effect (clever + learn > clever & learn).

Who put ecstasy in the noodles?

Haunted milk:

Every inch of what?  (No, this sign isn’t located next to the COCK store.)

The sign that inspired this post (and that will never cease to amuse Mitchell, who was the one who pointed it out to me and demanded that I write about it).

And finally, the king of my sign collection.  Protecting babies just got easier with our exclusive line of sunglasses.  Aviator sunglasses are out, Roman soldier sunglasses are in. I could go on, but really, need I?

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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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One perk of living in Vietnam is that, if your bosses are as kind as mine, you get time off for two major holidays in a row: Christmas/Hanukah/etc. and Tet (Lunar New Year).  Just as I was adjusting back to normalcy after the post-Christmas hangover, Tet was already upon us.  I love the buildup to the holiday.  Hanoi’s already hectic energy ramps up a few notches, a feat previously thought impossible.  However, the frenzy and traffic gridlock is somehow made bearable by the explosion of colors and smiles throughout the city.

I’ve developed my own Tet tradition of taking copious amounts of photos of kumquat trees being transported on motorbikes and bicycles.  One photo just isn’t enough:

This year we decided not to follow our expat brethren who tend to flee Vietnam en masse during the Tet break.  For most of us, Tet means an opportunity to bask on a beach somewhere.  It’s an allure that’s hard to pass up.  In years past, a few people told us that we should stay in Hanoi.  It’s so calm and peaceful, they’d say.  But Hanoi has no beaches, we’d reply.  Leaving Vietnam during Tet is practically sacrilegious among the Vietnamese, so it can be difficult to explain why we are usually so eager to leave when given the opportunity.  Travel is our religion.

However, not this year.  The trip home for Christmas left us a little exhausted and lazy.  The appeal of doing nothing trumped the appeal of exploring another place. There is much to be said for doing nothing, and we generally don’t do nothing enough.  Plus, a part of me has always been curious to see what Hanoi is like during this period of reverie.  I pictured shuttered doors, deserted streets, and an absence of honking.  I bought what felt like loads of groceries to prepare us for the shutdown.  (They only lasted through the second day of Tet, confirming Mitchell’s assertion that we’d be among the first to go during the apocalypse.)  Most expats who stay in Hanoi lament over the closing of all their favorite spots, but in a way I was hoping everything would be closed.  This can’t be a normal week!  Convenience be damned!

What actually happened was that most places were closed, but enough were open so we didn’t starve.  People were still in the streets, but not nearly as many as usual. The first day of Tet was even busy as people left their houses and flocked to the pagodas.  A friend told us that if you wake up very early on New Year’s day, the streets truly are empty.  Although we didn’t experience this ourselves, we spent a day being tourists in a less crowded Hanoi.  This meant visiting pagodas and actually reading the history and descriptions about them, gawking at old buildings, taking excessive photos and walking aimlessly through the Old Quarter.  While people were still out and about, most things were closed and the traffic was reduced to a trickle. It felt like seeing the Old Quarter for the first time.  In general, it’s easy to feel like a tourist in this city, no matter how long you’ve been here.  It sort of never loses its mystery.  You peel off one layer only to find dozens more.

Throughout the years I’ve peppered Vietnamese people for details about Tet, and as far as I can tell, they do the same stuff we do for the winter holidays. That is: go to “their countryside” (i.e., hometown), eat, spend all their money, eat, cook, eat, nap, eat, drink alcohol, eat, visit friends, eat, visit a pagoda, eat, watch fireworks, and eat.  I don’t know if they also follow the Christmas traditions of bickering over politics, nagging at family members to get married/have babies/lose weight/find employment, posing for awkward family photos, and embarrassing one another, preferably in front of a new love interest.  I can only hope they aren’t deprived these time-honored bonding activities.

Like Thanksgiving, Tet comes with special food.  I had nearly the exact same meal 4 times in 5 days, which includes chicken, fried spring rolls, bamboo noodle soup, “frozen meat,” and bánh trứng (sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves).

What’s frozen meat you ask?  The Vietnamese name for it is “giò thủ.” It was explained as being meat from a pig’s head (or chicken) mixed with mushrooms and then frozen into a lump.  (Find a better explanation and recipe here.) It kind of looks like meat jello.  My American tongue cringed a little at the sight of it, and my body gave off survival signals along the lines of “do not put the strange thing into your mouth, better safe than sorry.” But I overrode these alarms and tried it, and it’s actually not bad. All in all, Tet food is delicious quá.

"Frozen meat" or gio thu. Source: http://www.theravenouscouple.com

We didn’t stay in Hanoi the whole week, though, as we visited a friend Chi at her grandmother’s house in Bac Giang.  The house was on a small hill in the countryside.  Chi’s family was very hospitable and generous from the start. The warmth and open-heartedness of Vietnamese people never ceases to surprise me.  If you’re in their house, you’re family. Period.  It’s humbling.  Chi’s grandmother is 92 years old and tiny.  She smiles often.  While she lives alone, Chi’s aunt is right next door and numerous other relatives are close by. There were many animals around as well. Chickens, dogs, piggies, kitties, birds, and cows.  It’s nice to see the Vietnamese countryside.  I often forget that there’s a lot more to Vietnam than Hanoi.  Hanoi has a way of occupying one’s attention.

While it was difficult to pass up the chance to travel, I’d recommend staying in Vietnam for at least one Tet holiday.  Indulge your sedate side.

Chúc mừng năm mới!

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Dengue Fever on the Electric Mekong Tour

There is one less thing I’m allowed to complain about in Hanoi these days: music shows.  See, back in my day (i.e., way back in 2008) the only live music that my admittedly-clueless-and-inexperienced self knew of was Minh’s Jazz Club, karaoke bars, the water puppets on Hoan Kiem Lake, and that guy who plays the flute with his nostril on the streets.  Music shows would happen on occasion and would serve as an impromptu expat Mecca for a weekend.

My, things have changed. These days, you can find live music every week at places like Hanoi Rock City, 21º N Club, and Ronaldo’s.  What you hear can be a little hit and miss, but the number of good performers either in or coming to Hanoi seems to be ever-growing.  We were rather spoiled over the last 2 weekends in particular.

First, there was the Electric Mekong Tour with Dengue Fever.  When it comes to music genres, I’m at a pre-elementary level of understanding.  When I hear there’s a music genre called “Crunkcore,” I assume it has something to do with porn featuring Lil’ Jon.  There’s also “cuddlecore” – porn featuring teletubbies and care bears?  “Cybergrind” – enough with the porn already.  “Cowpunk” – cowboys with mohawks?  Ok, point being that I know nothing of the world of music genres and subgenres, but Wikipedia tells me that Dengue Fever combines Cambodian pop music with psychedelic rock.  A combination that works rather well.

Crunkcore, cuddlecore, cowpunk

I had attended a wedding earlier in the day, where the bride and groom somehow convinced me to ingest high volumes of strange alcoholic concoctions. Like I’m going to argue with love. So, by the time I ended up at the American Club, I was miles ahead of much of the crowd, excitement- and inebriation-wise.  And what’s the first thing I saw?  Two enormous condoms – well, people dressed like enormous condoms at least. (I will refrain from making enormous dick jokes).  This strange sighting occurred not due to the correlation between sex and rock and roll, but because the event was sponsored by the American Embassy in Hanoi and PEPFAR – an aid program with a long name that gives money to combat HIV/AIDS around the world.  Of course I drunkenly stumbled up to the condoms and demanded attention from them. (Luckily, I wasn’t quite drunk enough to demand they let me wear their costume.)  To get rid of me, they directed me to a table with free condoms and HIV prevention information, including the materials below, which after a few hard blinks, I shoved into my purse:

By no means do I disapprove of these materials. Quite the opposite. I am, however, amazed at the level of explicitness in them.  For one, Vietnam is pretty conservative when it comes to icky sexy stuff. Also, they were funded by my country, and as an American, I realize how prudish and backward my country can be regarding sex, particularly gay sex. Props to PEPFAR then.

Back to music!  Last weekend was Go!Go!Japan!, a rock concert featuring Japanese and Vietnamese bands.  When I found out it was being held at the National Exhibition Center on Giang Vo St, I knew I had to go. I drive by this place every day and have been repeatedly awed at just how glitzy and hideous a place of this size could be, particularly on event days.  It takes the “bigger, brighter and more rainbowy are always better” approach to decorating.

Of course, the other major lure was the music lineup.  I had seen Okamoto’s at a previous CAMA event and like the rest of the crowd, I fell in love with the band and the Japanese Mick Jagger-like stylings of the lead singer.  They are apparently “psychedelic garage rock,” if that means anything to you.  To say this band is energetic is an understatement.  The vocalist is constantly running and shaking and bobbing and crawling and fainting and swaying and telling you to speak Japanese.  The drummer and guitarist are also enthusiastic.  But the bassist. No, he serves as the counterpoint.  Dressed in nerd chic, he calmly stands in place, practically bored.  Someone must be responsible.

Okamoto's - Charisma

Before Okamoto’s was the Electric Eel Shock, a “garage metal” band.  They were also very entertaining and quite good, even playing some “Brack Sabbath” tunes for us.  My favorite part of this band were their power moves, particularly those of the drummer.  He played with 4 sticks, 2 in each hand.  Occasionally, he would raise his fist, 2 sticks in a V-shape, and slowly move them across his face.  Think Pulp Fiction dance move.  Other times he would dramatically stand up and point at the crowd or the sky. I missed it, but someone told me he was playing the drum cymbals with his shirt at one point. And I heard that he usually plays in the nude.  Yep, he’s awesome.

Electric Eel Shock

Electric Eel Shock - note the power move

This band also instigated a mini-mosh pit of sorts.  The mosh pit was composed primarily of tâys, who tore off their shirts, ran into each other a lot, jumped on one another’s backs and unsuccessfully attempted to crowd surf.  I turned to Huong and said, “The white people are embarrassing us again.”  But that was a joke. The group never got overly obnoxious or rowdy, stayed relatively confined, and was almost as entertaining as the bands.  Another fun spectacle was the young Vietnamese metalheads (?), who with joined arms, were bent over and swaying rhythmically for most of the night.  Not sure if this is what they were going for, but I found them adorable.

Other bands included the Vietnamese “progressive rock” band, Ngũ Cung, also known as Pentatonic.  They were clearly a big draw for many of the young Vietnamese concert goers, many of whom were wearing the band’s t-shirts.  I wish I had more to say about them, but all I can remember is that at one point, they sported a keytar, and they performed a few 80s hair band reminiscent power ballads.

Ngu Cung, and their keytar

Other bands that were there but that we didn’t see were Molice of Japan and Rosewood of Vietnam.  They’re probably worth checking out.  Thanks CAMA and Japan and US Embassy/PEPFAR and music extraordinaires!

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