Having Time for Strangers
Despite solid effort, my professional work has been sparse since arriving in Vietnam, and it’s gotten me down more than once. (I’ll leave my extensive job search trials and tribulations for another post.) However, I’ve decided to take on a new perspective: that of a writer on a research mission. As you and I well know, writers often travel to remote locales to research settings for books they’re working on. I may not be writing a novel at this point, and I don’t have an agent or a contract or any financial backing whatsoever, but I’m working on this writer thing, so I figure I may as well dive in head first.
Because I’m not working a full-time job, I don’t have a schedule or agenda for most of my days. I set some goals and make vague plans. I can’t help it. But these plans are more along the lines of what coffee shop I plan to visit, if I ought to run or do yoga, do the laundry or go to the beach. Sounds pleasant, right? Some days it is. Other days it’s tough to feel a sense of purpose, enough of a reason to get out of bed. Hence my writer-on-a-mission mindset.
Back in my workin’ days, when strangers broached a conversation with me, whether in line at the grocery store or after a class at the gym, I was typical Midwest friendly but usually kept things as short as possible. I had things to do, places to go, bills to pay, a dog to walk! I couldn’t talk to random people all day long! I wasn’t being short, I told myself. Just efficient.
I’ve been in Da Nang for almost three months, and I still have to fight my initial impulse to dismiss strangers. My busyness excuse doesn’t hold true anymore—if it ever did—and it’s difficult to appear convincingly industrious while lying under a palm tree on the beach. Plus, talking to strangers in a foreign land is good for my research.
One day, while enjoying Flowers for Algernon in my bikini beneath a favorite palm tree of mine, a petite young Vietnamese man in jeans and a polo sat down right next to me on the sand. I pretended not to notice him, but that didn’t last long because he said hello to me with a big smile. I returned the greeting, and my eyes went back to my book.
“Where you from?” he asked.
This is the most common question Vietnamese folks ask me. It makes sense. I’m obviously not from here, and they must be fascinated by the increasing number of foreigners in their midst.
We talked for a few minutes. I found out that he’s an engineering student at the local university and is from northern Vietnam. He wrote his name in the sand for me. Ty. I noticed my finger was still holding my place in my book. Resolutely, I stuck my bookmark in its spot, and put on my cover-up. Ty isn’t taking English classes this term and said he wanted to keep his skills fresh by practicing on a foreigner. I was aware that the fact that I was wearing a bikini may have influenced his decision of which foreigner to practice on.
We ended up talking for 45 minutes, about his career goals, his roommate, how long it takes him to get home when he visits his family, different Vietnamese accents, what I was doing in town, how long I planned to be here, what we each planned to eat for dinner, and what tacos are exactly (like banh xeo, but not really, “same same but different”). He found it funny that I said “yup” and asked how to spell it. When I told him it was time for me to leave to get started on my taco dinner, he asked if he could get a picture with me.
The gainfully employed Sarah of a few months ago never would have given Ty the time of day. Self-employed/unemployed Sarah may have helped him learn something or made his day better. Perhaps he just wanted to look at my ass and show his friends a photo of him with a white girl. I don’t care either way. I got something out of the interaction. And I finished Flowers for Algernon another day.
Another time, a middle-aged Asian woman came up to me on the beach and asked me to help her with her camera. She seemed to have spotted me from afar. Perhaps reading from a Kindle made me look technologically inclined. She’s Vietnamese but has lived in Sydney for years and was traveling with a group of 14 through her native country. She planned to go visit her parents in Ho Chi Minh City the next day. She wasn’t able to take any more photos—as she showed me, her digital camera display was black when she was in camera mode. I’m no expert with cameras, but it was a Canon and I’ve had a couple of Canon digital cameras in the past. I told her maybe her memory card was full. She deleted a few pictures without any concern for privacy while I looked over her shoulder. Admittedly, the pictures I saw were blurry and of things like taxis on the side of the road and her own lap. Nothing was lost in deleting them, and nothing was harmed in me seeing them, other than my already limited respect for her photography skills. She didn’t seem bothered. Then the display showed the beach in front of us. She successfully took a picture of the sea. She hit me—hard—on the upper arm and cried, “That’s it!” I fought back the reflex to rub the spot she had punched. Instead I smiled and wished her continued safe travels. She walked back to her group happily.
I also had a woman reminiscent of Mrs. Potato Head, in bathing suit and frightening gaudy makeup, blabber at me in what I believed to be Russian for a few minutes while I stared back, shrugging and responding with a lame, “English?”
I see my passing friend Hanh at a local cafe often. She’s a 39-year-old single mother and sells medical equipment. She and her pal offered to take me to Hue for a weekend trip. She said they like to drive their motorbikes fast. They laughed. She gave me her phone number, and I gave her mine. I said I’d check with my boyfriend to see if we had plans. I don’t plan to hop on her bike anytime soon—the prospect sounds terrifying—but we say hi and chat whenever we see each other.
Still, there are some strangers I prefer to ignore. There’s one old American guy in my neighborhood who seems to prey on the company of others, inviting himself to join paying customers at restaurants and ordering nothing but a glass of water. Tanned and wrinkly, with a white beard and bulging blue eyes, he wears the same outfit and giant backpack most days, rolls his own cigarettes, and is a self-described follower of the book of Leviticus. He could simply be lonely, but he gives me the heebie jeebies. I avoid eye contact whenever he’s in my general vicinity, preferring to observe his character from a safe distance.
I’m trying to be open, but it’s good to have headphones handy, just in case.
Read on as I take a break from Vietnam-expat-life writing to get snarky.
The only constant is change, and language is no exception. Words and their meanings are ever evolving, a reflection of the needs, desires, and behaviors of speakers, writers, and readers of that language. This evolution often happens to the joy of some (e.g., the addition of “yooper” to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 2014 for my boyfriend and his family, who are from Escanaba, Michigan—his mom got him a t-shirt emblazoned with “yooper” and its definition across the chest shortly after the news came out) and to the dismay of others (see: jegging).
Digital culture in particular has played a large role in the English language’s recent evolution: more additions to Merriam-Webster in the past two years include catfish, crowdfunding, digital divide, net neutrality, and NSFW. However, new establishment-recognized words aren’t the only way that language can evolve. I’ve noticed increasing usage of the following forms of internet writing, most frequently in photo captions or status updates on social media, all of which I find to be problematic.
Call me a curmudgeon ahead of my time if you’d like. I just can’t help but think of a lunch and learn that I sat through as an intern at National Geographic, with a famous feature writer as the speaker. He had started out as a caption writer for the magazine. That was all he did—write useful captions to help readers understand the photos they were viewing, all within a tight word count so that they could fit into the magazine’s layout. It was something you had to perfect if you wanted to work your way up the ladder. This profession still exists, perhaps in a less respected way, because digital publications tag their photos so that search engines can help people find what they’re looking for.
My point is, I enjoy when captions have a purpose, and when status updates or tweets are informative or funny or thoughtful. But more often, they’re so stylized their only use is to help keep my social media scrolling as mindless as I’d hoped it’d be.
“You forgot your tenth complaint,” you’re thinking, you savvy, discerning reader.
10. Listicles. Writers can’t seem to argue a solid point anymore without using lists.
Kung Fu Pho & The Condom Mascot
I enjoy noticing signs in Da Nang—neon signs and billboards and chalkboards and posters and permanent building signage, in Vietnamese or English or both.
Phil and I went to a free film this past Saturday evening, part of a three-day Japanese film festival called “The Colors of Love”. While the film was free, tickets were required (or so we thought), so we went to the State-run Le Do Cinema in the city center early in the day to pick ours up. All of the tickets had been distributed, but the cinema staff encouraged us to come back after the start time, explaining that the theatre wasn’t likely to fill to capacity. They were right, and we enjoyed what was roughly a Japanese version of Love Actually while sitting in a stiff 2-person seat.
The Le Do Cinema doesn’t quite compare to the newly built cinema at the local Vincom mall, which is almost as nice as the theaters in Grand Rapids (high praise, as GR theaters are some of the best in the U.S.). Though the drama we watched at Vincom was rather loud—ear plugs would have been helpful during the musical montages—it was our only complaint.
As one review of the Le Do Cinema states, “this technologically backward cinema has only been upgraded once, over 20 years ago…[it] has poor air conditioning and a wet and damp interior.” Appealing, right?
All of this to say, outside Le Do that Saturday afternoon I saw a poster for what is sure to be one of the top releases of 2015: Kung Fu Pho.
Rather than look up the premise of this film, I’d prefer to make up a few options myself, Balderdash style:
Here's the real movie trailer, if you’re interested.
In musty, “totally outdated” theaters now!
Another sign that I cherish is one I have dubbed The Condom Mascot. It’s a permanent fixture outside a cafe-and-nonperishables-only-grocer that I walk by frequently to get to my country-music-playing cafe hangout spot. I had to wait until it was closed to get close enough for a photo, so as not to be too conspicuous:
I love so many things about this sign. The first is its formality, complete with faux wood texture. But it’s all about the mascot himself. This condom is winking at me. I’m confused as to the moral dilemma that has caused him to have an angel on one shoulder—or should I say in one ball?—and a devil on/in the other. Love seems to be involved. However, if this condom isn’t for use in one-night stands, then why is he winking? Or is the heart symbol part of his joke? That jerk!
Don’t worry, The Condom Mascot is important enough to be lit, so he can spread confusion and protect the vexed from STDs day and night.
At my favorite cafe in Da Nang, just a few blocks from my apartment, they play a wide range of music, but their favorite playlist consists entirely of American country music. They play it again and again. The highlight track—at least for me—is “Grown Ass Man”.
I think I’m the only one in the cafe who has any idea what this means.
I embarrassed Phil by knowing the lyrics to some generic country tune that was blasting through the supermarket in the new Da Nang mall, Vincom, when we were there on a Friday night a couple of weeks back. To put it more accurately, he was ashamed for me. Noticing this, I sang louder, projecting in his general direction. It’s liberating to have very little chance of knowing anybody at all in a public space, and to truly, deeply, not care if any of the people you know were to stumble across you, dancing through the instant noodle aisle. As I explained to Phil, I grew up in a farm town. Some country music was bound to seep in, even if through my subconscious.
The local beach bar, where I read in the afternoon from time to time, favors James Blunt albums. Full albums, played from start to finish. It’s probably the same album every time, but I can’t tell because all the songs sound the same.
A group of us went to a nicer restaurant in the city center for some live music last week. A Vietnamese cover band with rotating vocalists performed George Michael, The Beatles, The Doobie Brothers, The Carpenters, and The Cranberries, among other related artists. They didn’t have a full drum kit, and one of the guitarists was partial to using a Spanish flair, but we enjoyed their interpretation nonetheless. The vocalists in particular were on point, excellent imitators of vocal styles.
I guess you’d expect nothing less from a culture where karaoke is so integral a form of entertainment.
Beware, purists and karaoke haters, your ears will never be safe in Vietnam. Morning, afternoon, evening, karaoke may strike. All your antagonists need is a microphone and a speaker. Karaoke happens in restaurants and at home, and is highly common at celebrations that often spill out onto the streets.
I’ve heard some traditional Vietnamese music, but it’s more rare. It could be the neighborhood that I live in and the people I hang out with. But even one of my Vietnamese friends is a huge fan of Western music, particular Western pop music. He doesn’t understand why most of his friends from North America don’t listen to the popular music that is produced by North American artists. The Billboard top 10 can’t lie! People are listening to this music! Are they all in Asia? We try to explain to him him that many Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber fans are young, and that people who teach or play music, like many of his foreign friends, don’t tend to enjoy popular music.
He also reasons with us that Asia has a bigger population than North America. Case in point: the popularity of Westlife. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. Well, Westlife was an Irish boy band, formed in 1998 and disbanded in 2012, and they were apparently incredibly popular in Asia with teenagers. My Vietnamese friend played me their Uptown Girl cover. Then, I played him the Billy Joel version. He told me that he liked the Westlife cover better because “it’s the original to me.”
I wonder what Billy Joel would say to all of this? Is he aware? I guess he could spend all day, every day, marveling at the wide-ranging derivatives of his work—and trying to profit from them. But how crazy to imagine him sitting down to write the lyrics to one of his songs, say in a room alone in New York, then to think that a teenage Vietnamese boy sang those same words, maybe 15 years later, in his small Vietnamese countryside village along to a track recorded by an Irish boy band.
This brings me to an interesting piece of Vietnamese culture—intellectual property does not exist in the same way here as it does in the States. You can find the Apple logo on a blue jeans tag, or the Burger King logo appropriated with “Pho” in the place of “Burger” and “delicious” printed out beneath it on a t-shirt in the tourist shops (if it helps to see it, click here). Ripoff Ray Bans are everywhere, hung on large boards carried on the shoulders of women who wander through cafes—the Vietnamese version of the trench coat salesman. You’ll also hear songs that sound readily identifiable only to realize that they are, in fact, covers. I can’t imagine that the artists are receiving royalties for all of these derivative works. I am not preaching from on high. I’ve participated in this culture, too. I’ve purchased burned copies of DVDs at a shop set up just for this purpose. But what am I supposed to do? I’m addicted to Game of Thrones a few years behind the rest of the Western world, and HBO GO is not available in Vietnam. Their loss.
At first, I couldn’t get over the incongruity of the Western music and the Eastern architecture, food, everything else here.
But it’s starting to feel common. I’m not so exhausted by constantly processing everything. Some of it is only being processed subconsciously, to come up again in another grocery store in another time and place, likely to Phil’s chagrin.
The Stage Below
Looking out the window
At others looking out, too
Some looking into the room behind me
what I’ve turned from
A father walks his daughter down the street
their eyes ahead
on each other
stepping at a ratio of 3:1
Traipsing down the asphalt stage
Of “An Thuong 1.5”
I’m an observer
Safe in my box seat
only $250 a month
Coming down from on high a
My foreign presence on the street-stage watched
ever so closely
Skin, hair, height a marker of the
Preparing to leave my perch
active participation in
First, a pep talk
The white statue of the Lady Buddha
at the base of Son Tra Mountain
Watching bright screaming parasailing tourists
Overseeing selfies taken by hoards of bus riders passing through
No time to enjoy the waters she surveys
To imagine what lies on the other side
To hear the tide
What would she say to us
if we listened?
The chord remains
I can’t get over how welcoming and patient the expat community is in Da Nang—or at least the community that I’ve been lucky enough to tap into, through Phil and, ultimately, his sister Angie, who’s been living here for five years now. I’ve been on the receiving end of more generosity in the past couple of months, including from near strangers, than I ever would have expected.
Cases in point:
The list could go on.
Not to downplay any of this generosity, but there’s also an element of karma here. All expats remember what it’s like to be a newbie, and many have had friends do plenty of favors for them in the past.
This leads me to another interesting element of the expat community. There’s a revolving door effect—I know the names of many expats who have gone home or moved on to another destination, but whom I’ve never met—which has led me to group the expats I know into categories: those who don’t plan to be here for long, those who do, and those who don’t know what the future holds for them.
I guess this exists at home, too. People put down roots in different ways—narrow and deep, like oak trees, or shallow and wide, like grass.
There’s a 15-year-old girl, Anh, who sometimes joins our pickup basketball games on Sunday mornings. We play at her school, where she has practice from 6–8am. When she joins us, she’s still wearing her full uniform and has waited for our arrival for an hour.
Until I moved to Vietnam and started joining in on these games, she was the only female, and was at least 10 years younger than the international men who played.
One day, after we were all done playing, everyone was doing what you do after a pickup game—shooting the shit. Anh hadn’t joined in, but seemed to be listening intently. Then, when the conversation lulled, she shook her head, smiled, and said, “I wish there was one language,” conveying that she wasn’t able to keep up with our profanity-peppered, slang-filled, quickly spoken English.
Living in a foreign nation has helped me realize how fortunate I am to have been born in an English-speaking nation. We are so spoiled.
People often see Phil and me and speak to us in English. Some Vietnamese adults and children are eager to practice on us, starting conversations in cafes or on the sidewalk, or yelling at us in English as we pass them by. I know that English isn’t an easy language to learn, and feel guilty at the effort everyone is making to accommodate me. After all, I’m living in another nation, and I have spent much of my time here thus far exploring cafes and my neighborhood, sitting and reading on the beach, and looking for work, not learning the language.
However, Vietnamese is super difficult. From what I can tell, it’s comprised of tons of short words, using different vowel sounds that are barely distinguishable and consonant combinations that are nearly impossible to replicate. As an English teacher friend said, the Vietnamese “swallow their consonants.”
After getting over my initial reaction to respond to Vietnamese in Spanish, a second language I can barely claim, I’m still not much use. I know how to say a couple of phrases and have long ago “learned the numbers”, but often blank out when I ask how much something is in Vietnamese and get the appropriate Vietnamese numerical response. Luckily, I’ve gotten pretty decent at mimicry (as any 5-year-old can tell you, fingers help with numbers) and most vendors are kind enough to pull out a calculator or some bills to show me what they mean. It helps that I’m trying to buy something from them.
Furthermore, as my teacher friend convincingly argued, there are so many different English-speaking accents—native and foreign—that English speakers are accommodating listeners. We can understand what someone is saying even if we’d have said it differently, including if the tense or order of words isn’t quite correct. But it isn’t as common for foreigners to learn Vietnamese; the Vietnamese aren’t familiar with comprehending foreign accents or small grammatical mistakes. Unless you say something very well, they’ll look at you entirely confused, or, if you’ve done a better job with your pronunciation, they’ll repeat it back to you a few times to make sure they’ve understood. I know my address in Vietnamese, but taxi drivers always repeat it back to me a handful of times before they trust that they know where to go.
English is a common ground for many in Da Nang. Couples whose native languages are French and Russian, or Dutch and Vietnamese, speak English with each other. But this common ground is malleable, and often laughable. One of my purest sources of joy here, as a word person, is discovering things that have been rendered meaningless upon translation into English, or ironic combinations of English words worn by the blissfully unaware. Here are a few of my favorite examples:
Despite how much easier it would be if we all spoke one language, as young basketball-er Anh wished, I strongly believe that it’s worth the cultural richness to have so many different ways of expressing ourselves, words that tie us to our families and our homes, even if there is a barrier to entry that has rendered me a bumbling fool on more than one occasion. The unintentional hilarity doesn’t hurt.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.