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.
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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.