Monday, March 16, 2009

Here on Heroine Isle

Well, It has been a long time since I've made a post and I'm sure ALL of my loyal readers have been pining for yet another brilliant entry. 
Since I lasted posted a lot has happened. Ben has arrived, started and stoically finished the god-awful CELTA. I have been awarded the medal of valor by the Vietnamese govt. for saving two dogs from a burning building, thus enabling a poor family to eat for a week. Ben and I moved into a new place after spending three weeks living in close quarters at Madame Lan's homestay. Our new place is a former cafe complete with a host stand, a "Pixel Cafe" sign, a large court-yard, and so far one confused former customer who knocked on the gate until I walked out in my boxers and scared him away with my slug-like whiteness. It was a good find and it even has surround sound! When I first figured out how to make the system work I danced around the front room making a spectacle of myself for the lady who runs a tienda across the street. It has a good atmosphere despite the concrete wall crowned by a seven foot chain link and barb-wire fence. Ben calls it the Minimum Security Cafe.
Life in Hanoi continues to be weird. If you have ever watched a Monty-Python movie where people are doing odd, random things on the periphery, then you have an idea of what Hanoi is like.  For instance, Ben and I were wandering around the city and stumbled upon an ad-hoc electronics swap meet. Electronics as in pieces of ancient ghetto blasters, parts of French-era fans, and coverless VCRs, all of which were secured precariously to 10-year old motor-bikes. Or, the man I call Sarge who travels around the city in a complete American Military get-up featuring camo, a pistol belt, and a Vietnam-era American helmet covered in netting. His camo jacket even has a US Army tag over the left breast. Oh yeah, he's Vietnamese and doesn't speak a word of English and looks completely mystified when I give him a hearty "Howdy Sarge!" What is particulary funny is that many of the poorer old men wear plastic versions of the NVA helmet so it looks like Sarge is always being hotly pursued by hostile shoe-shine forces. 
On Thursday Sarah and I went variating (Euphemism for Trespassing), but property lines are not very distinct here, so you can walk about anywhere as long as you don't step on the crops. We walked out on the Long Bien Bridge circa 1900 and designed by Eiffel himself. In the middle of the bridge, which is open only to foot, moto, and train traffic, We walked down a staircase onto an island. The island is huge, stretching for maybe four miles and it is within the Hanoi city limits.  But, unlike the rest of Hanoi which doesn't waste a square inch of space, the island is completely agrarian. It is just dirt and is within flood levels so there are no permanent structures other than the bridge. It is quiet picturesque and also a relief to walk in a large open area. The farmers work their plots in patty-hats and traffic is even reduced to a low, far away clamor. 
All very nice, until you walk to the water's edge under the bridge and find yourself in a hypodermic needle mine field. No worries, I didn't step on any, nor did I have to fight off any junkies. But it was a shock in Hanoi, where I have been hard pressed to find any underbelly of hard-core crime. We carefully tip-toed away and walked across the island.
On the other-side we found two men replacing a bulb on a warning sign for ships even though the trees in front of the sign blocked it from view on the river. Beating the bushes to drive off snakes we walked down to the river bottom which has been exposed by the dry season. 
Houseboats, trash, a stranded dingy, and home alters. Similar to the crumbs for Catholic communion being washed down into the soil beneath the church at home, the Vietnamese apparently throw their old or unwanted ancestor worship alters off of the bridges into the river. The effect is a sand bank studded with the little, half-cabinet like things. There were also perfectly good and attractive porcelain jars everywhere. It is unusual that nobody has picked up the jars up, but I wonder if they are not containers for human ashes and therefore a complete non-no for trash pickers. 
Our day ended with us crossing a rickety bamboo bridge over a babbling brook of sticking sewage, walking back up to the dike road through a very poor neighborhood, and passing a pool hall directly under a bridge (the bridge is the ceiling). Ben and I went back through the area yesterday and this time we did manage to find a specimen of the Hanoi Junkie who was babbling, giggling, and stomping around. He didn't seem to notice us.
None the less, I never felt like I was in danger. I wouldn't dream of going to places like that in LA or Denver, but in Hanoi, well even the shady underside of the city is no more dangerous than my neighborhood back home. (I promise Mom.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Location, Location, Location

Something that I have thought about more than once, and often seems superfluous, is the idea of location or space/place. Is an empty patch of ground that gets overgrown the same place? Is a prairie that is covered in suburbia the same location? What happens to the space that is full of memories that is a car or a building that is destroyed. Is the compacted piece of metal or the empty space in the sky the same place? Can location really be charted by GPS? 
I just returned from Cambodia two days ago. It was a hell of a trip. I just watch "Frost Nixon", it was a hell of a movie. Something was brought together by watching the movie.
There is intellectual knowledge that is factoidial and almost dead. There is emotional knowledge that invigorates the intellectual. In the movie images of the invasion of Cambodia were shown. I was there just 72 hours ago. The images were of naped villages and people. Crying children, killing soldiers, and dead animals. That was a location in time shown of a geographic location. Driving through now, it is simply a shithole. A place where pride (perhaps only as I see it) is a luxury, where people surround buses and sing-song their goods and wait for your guilty eyes to meet theirs through the window so they can smile and raise whatever crap they want to sell up and motion with their heads. Routine desperation perhaps. 
Anyway, the location that I saw, the place, is as distant as DC from San Francisco when compared to the images from the movie I watched. And it is from Butte to Missoula in relation to what I saw 3 1/2 years ago. Especially in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
I read a book a while back where a man was raised on Mars by Martians. These aliens had a different relationship to time where they could feel, view, and even be overcome by all the memories of a place. Of course that isn't true for humans. We visit Civil War battles sites and Holocaust Death Camps, but these aren't the same places. There may still be petrified blood on the ceiling of S-21 (a Khmer Rouge killing prison in Phnom Penh) and ghostly, sunk-in blood stains in an Antebellum mansion in Tennessee (I visited a few years ago) from Forest's hospital of butchery, but the places die with the passed moments of saw meating bone and bullet passing through brain. With hobbled adult imaginations the places get withered. Thank ingenuity for video I suppose. For what would those locations in time be without memory, especially the kind that pulls emotions into full action?
Those places along the road in what was, for the 1970’s, the Heart of Darkness, and the videos depicting in full reality Nixon’s deeds, for a moment made real how America formed it’s experiment into a lie for a time. Or formed itself into a mirror of those chaotic and savage locations (Thames reflecting Congo). There is a man in Phnom Penh who has full body burns and is the most freaky and abrasive beggar I’ve had the sad opportunity to be confronted with. Very likely he is a napalm victim. Unless he is a Khmer Rouge soldier, then is his horror of life a sort of just reality and not victimhood? What is certain is that the city and the countryside is filled with the human detritus of land mines (USSR and US) and bombies (US). You can see these people. I gave several money (nothing that hurt the wallet.) Tonight I saw a man using wooden blocks on his hands to walk across Cat Linh street in Hanoi. No legs. NVA soldier? Is the location where he lost his legs, be it a factory, road, or crater, have more credentials as a location than others because it is the spot where he lost normalcy and pride? Even though it is undoubtedly completely changed in the 30+ years since? (Although, you can still see bomb craters from the air when flying out of Saigon.)
Well...I guess location is a very subjective thing despite Google Earth. Despite on-location museums. Location is where important events demonstrate the fragility of the realities we want. And it is where the unnoticed and forgotten happen, and where good things make their space in time too. Of course.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Fighting French

Last night I met a couple friends at a nice little French Bar near the school. Sarah and I stayed on after the other two guys left. We soon found that everyone else there was either Vietnamese or French. No problem. We talked to a 17 year old from Paris who was drinking whiskey and smoking. Nice guy, he plays the saxophone in the band that played that night.
Then, in the bathroom a photographer, also French, started to talk to me. Nice enough, but with shades of creepy. His photos were on the walls, and admittedly they were pretty good. He bought us drinks and we sat and talked with him for a while. He introduced his friend Jean. They wanted to know where we were going next, I said we were going to Club Blitzkrieg on Dien Bien Phu Street because they have a killer drink called The Battle Of Algiers. They found this offensive for some reason and I was promptly attacked by Jean. Now, Jean was pretty Drunk and his English was somewhere past drunken recall, therefore I couldn't attempt to diffuse the situation by talking. My French is poorer than Jean's English, all I know are the basics like "I surrender!" which I wasn't about to say. And Dammit! I'm American, I can't back down, we never surrender...(There is no Tet Offensive street in town). So there we were, a Frog and a Yank throwing punches in Hanoi. This is somehow ironic. 
Actually, what happened, humor aside, was pretty pathetic and emasculating. I've seldom been confronted with imminent violence much less a real punch throwing, no hesitation fight. What really happened was that Rafael, the photographer, asked me if I would trade my red tie (which I was still wearing to cover up the missing button of my shirt) for his big white beanie. He looked alright in it, but I told him with my whiskey breath, "Naw, I'd look like an idiot in your hat." He, puffed up a little and asked if I thought he looked like an idiot. I immediately saw my mistake and said, truthfully, "No, no you look pretty good. I just don't think I would..." I was interrupted by Jean knocking his forehead against mine. "What you say about my friend! What you say!" Then he grabbed me by the collar. Once the shock wore off a little and the adrenaline kicked in I grabbed his collar and told him to back off. This was followed by me receiving more headbutts and me pushing Jean into a wall. He was a solid, weighty guy. I don't know how I managed to push him or how we broke it off. I do know that Rafael and the bar owner did nothing to help me.
I wanted to leave immediately. But somehow it all got turned around on me, Rafael was offended that I was trying to brush it off, accept the apologies casually and leave even though I was the one who had been assaulted for no good reason. 
The Vietnamese do slappy fights and so forth that you see occasionally, but you are hard pressed to figure out a way to offend them. You can walk into any Bia Hoi or restaurant, be loud and effusive and the worst you get is curious stares. (Meanwhile Vietnamese businessmen are yelling Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo! at the limit of their voices and drinking as much beer as they can in one gulp, then slapping each other on the back and tripping on the furniture.) The Vietnamese look different, are culturally and linguistically very different from me and yet I have had few culture clash problems. Walk into a French bar and mind yourself closely. 
I hate that "I'm so offended" crap. Where does it come from? Why does it seem so important to many individuals and cultures? I can think of little that that would genuinely offend me. I can think of nothing spoken that would make me punch or headbutt (very odd) someone. Really, its just strange, monkey-like, protect my territory, primeval behavior. 
Oh, and thanks be to Jesus I'm not French.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Boom-Boom and Orwell

Scene 1: Ba Lan. I get a call from my Texan friend. She is having drinks with a Dutch lady and an Englishman. She gives me the address. On the way out I have to give my land lady a piece of paper saying when I will be back so she doesn't lock me out. Where am I going? Oh, Nha Tho, but I don't say it right. This leads to a Vietnamese lesson conducted mostly in broken English and French which ends in me having to look at pictures of Ba Lan (Grandma Lan, my landlady) at Euro Disney with her sister, daughter, and daughter's father-in-law. 
Scene 2: Xe Om to Nha Tho, which is next to the Cathedral. I overpay, of course, because I am Tay (foreigner) and it is late.
Scene 3: Salsa. I'm at a expensive restaurant that is classified as Mexican only because it serves tapas, Sangria, and tortillas. Everything else is French and expensive. We talk about the weird things our students do and say. Sarah has a seven year old student who removes his shoes and socks and dances in class every chance he can. I have students who constantly, innocently ask me what certain Ebonics words and general profanity mean. 
Scene 4: Attack of the Boom-Boom girls! Walking away from the restaurant in search of a xe om I am surrounded by four prostitutes. One hand on my wallet and one fending them away I shrug off their questions (where you from?) and their so handsomes, so strongs and giggles. I stare at the ground. They leave, make a second pass on motorbikes yelling Tay! as if I didn't know already that I'm a foreigner.
Scene 5: The Friendly Xe Om. All negotiation must take place with an exaggerated face. He says nam Muoi! (50 thousand dong) I have a big surprised face. Bun Muoi! (40) completely depressed face. Hai Muoi! a gentle pleased face. He asks me, en route, where I'm from in Vietnamese. I'm able to answer. This obviously means I'm fluent in Vietnamese and much follows. All of which I answer with either pleased grunts, my address, Obama!, or 'I have no idea what you are saying.' Nothing phases him. At 20 kilometers an hour we go down the street shouting Obama! together. He tries to charge me double, I refuse, he thinks this is all very funny.
Scene 6: I open my thankfully not bolted door just as the Orwell truck goes by at midnight. In Vietnamese, I am told, the truck's recording blares on speaker phones, "Why are you up at this hour? You have work tomorrow! You must get up and be productive for you family and the Republic!"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Let me explain the title. In Vietnamese many nouns are two words. The first is a classifier (I believe) like ‘Xe Dap’, bicycle, or ‘Xe Taxi’, you can guess that one. Xe simply means that the noun is a form of transportation. Also, word endings are not important, which is abundantly obvious even in my intermediate classes where plurals, possessives, and word final consonants in general are dropped. Unfortunately I have been forced to use a yard stick to enforce pronunciation. 
Therefore, Motorbike becomes moto-bi, which sounds like the extreme of sexual deviancy. Anyway, I just rented a bike and talk about a high! The first ride was about two seconds long. Apparently the gas is touchy when the bike is in first gear (you have to shift these things?) It took me across the street and almost over the curb. Good thing there is no such thing as road rage or personal weapons here, just a cacophony of honking. Well I got honked at a bunch, calmed myself down, and eventually figured it out. The first day was full of lurching, apologies to people who don’t understand me, and the general feeling of having adrenaline pumped right into my heart. But, I’m better now. I think I’ll be able to do this, and even enjoy it. I think I'll call my bike Blue Magic.
My driving habits have already taken a down turn by US standards. Signals, what are those for? The Vietnamese don’t know. One ways and solid lines on the road? Mostly just a strong suggestion. The rules of the road: don’t go fast and honk the hell out of everything that moves. Honk even if nobody is around and you just gotta honk. Oh, and keep a hundred in your wallet for the cops.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Monsoon Halloween

It has been raining in Hanoi for two days. Animals are lining up in pairs on the banks of the Red river (namely rats and Chihuahuas, if there is a difference). The streets are often flooded and the Language Link classes are either canceled or have only one or two students in attendance. 
Tonight was Halloween and I forgot the number one rule of being abroad... never, ever trust a Limey (Englishmen). Since classes were so small ( I had only two students for two classes) all the teachers and students gathered up at the restaurant behind the school for a 'party.' We talked, we ate, we drank. After, an Englishman, an Aussie girl and I were supposed to go to a 'saloon.' The Aussie only had a bike and on the way she peeled off and went home. So, it was only the Queen's subject and I. On the way, the dude's motorbike, I was on the back, broke down twice because of two foot water. At one point I was up to my knees wading through the water after the Brit, who was pushing his bike. It looked like some sort of watery exodus. Many people's bikes had given out for good and were pushing them home, others were walking. All quietly.
We arrived at the saloon (and it was a saloon, imagine Stockman's x 3 minus Saudis) soaked and covered in germs and who knows what. The place was filled to the brim with freak music and barmaids. No costumers except some odd Vietnamese guys. Nick bought whiskey and beers. I wondered if he was trying to loosen me up for some ungodly purpose. Met a weird Belgian guy, Nick (the Limey) flirted with everything that was female in the place. And, eventually I got him to give me a lift home. But first, after paying a week's salary (hyperbole) for drinks I stole a jack-o-lantern from the bar and smashed it outside just to prove I was American.
What a Halloween. Tomorrow I might have to swim to work.