Small Demon
May 262009

This is my last day in Hanoi and the truth is I’m ready to go. I haven’t done much this last week except walk around the Old Quarter and buy presents for friends at home. Playing the tourist. It is of course very difficult if not impossible to get inside another place, another culture; but these last days I have felt mostly as if I’m just bouncing off the surfaces of the city. I am solitary under the best of circumstances, finding it difficult to throw myself into social rituals either abroad or at home, and I have not tried very hard these last few days to see people or go places that would require testing my language skills. The exception to this is in a few shops where I use Vietnamese to buy things. When I first came, I was adamant about using Vietnamese even in places where people speak English, but this last week, I have simply gone along with the English spoken by the waiters at my favorite restaurants. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been feeling very well until the last few days, but I think I’m just culturally worn out. I don’t know how anthropologists who spend a year doing fieldwork can take it — I can adapt for a while, but then I want to get back inside my own assumptions about the world.

So, I’ve been bouncing around, bouncing off of things. Literally, in one case. A couple of days ago I was crossing a street near my hotel in the established manner, walking slowly and letting the traffic flow around me, when a young woman on a new Honda Dream (with granny on the back) came barelling around the corner while talking on her cell phone, hitting me a glancing blow and knocking me backward a couple of steps, though I stayed on my feet. She stopped, said “Sorry” in English, then sped off, granny giving me a dirty look as they drove away. The traffic is perverse, drivers’ behavior apparently calculated to extract maximum short-term advantage at the expense of safety and order, to say nothing of simple courtesy. Among family and friends the Vietnamese are deeply cooperative and supportivcce of each other, but in the broader public spehre, such as driving, there seems to be no sense of an abstract set of rules to which one ought to adhere. Even walking on the sidewalk, there is no standing aside to let another pass, but always the pressing of individual advantage.

This attitude shows up in economic relations as well. Twice in the last week, I’ve been cheated by street hawkers. It embarasses me to admit that I was an almost perfect victim in both cases. In the first case, I decided to finally give in and buy a couple of tee-shirts from one of the hawkers who work the streets around the hotels south of the Old Quarter. The shirts have pictures of Uncle Ho or a cyclo, with Hanoi or Vietnam under the image. The shirts should cost about three dollars, five for one with embrordery. I bought one shirt and went to dinner. On my way back, I was approached by another hawker who had missed the sale. “I saw you before,” she said. “You work in Hanoi. Why you buy from that other girl, not from me?” she asked, putting on a big pout. That’s when I should have walked away. For one thing, I was tired; for another, I’d already let her begin to manipulate me. I wanted to be a nice guy. She was pulling out shirts and handing them to me and talking a mile a minute and I was asking how much for this one how much for that one.* Did I mention I was tired? By the time we were finished handing shirts and money back and forth I had paid eleven dollars each for two shirts, a fact that only fully came into focus for me when I got back to my hotel room and my calculator. When I saw her a couple of days later she tried to tell me I had agreed to pay her another ten dollars! I told her I could have bought two silk shirts at one of the big shops for what I had already paid her and she asserted that “Those shirts are fake — real silk shirts are very expensive” and offered to show me. But when I told her I was going back to the hotel to get the shirts she had sold me so I could give them back to her, she disappeared. Haven’t seen her since. I gave the shirts to one of her competitors, gratis. Continue reading »

Apr 262009

I hesitate to post this poem, written just this afternoon, fearing that it is insufficiently respectful; but whatever disrespect it exhibits is only an attempt to express a more profound respect. One never gets entirely outside the lecture room, of course; but one chafes. The seat is hard, the oscillating fan insufficient to ventilate the musty smell of old books in a tropical climate.

A Lecture on Vietnamese Culture

The professor tells the visitors
that today they will learn about
the betel leaf and the areca nut,
which is the history of Vietnam

in one small package, he says,
and then recites a song
for his audience, who have
been brought captive by a guide

to listen, though they would
be walking the narrow
streets lost in the heat blinded
by the haze of burning paper

from the temples, the sidewalks
filled with families eating soup
and gossiping, but they will
never be allowed outside –

today it’s the betel leaf
and the areca nut and slaked lime
for them, Vietnam as a quid
pro quo, their being here to hear

the lecture, offered many times
to others and polished smooth
as a Buddha’s toe kissed for
centuries, rubbed for good luck.

They are allowed nothing else.
Not the State’s music spilling
from the loudspeakers nor
the singing from the Cathedral

punctuated by the air horns
of tourist buses and the tinkle
of cyclo bells, the calls of women
hawking fish and fresh bread.

Tomorrow it will be coconuts
and when they are finished with
nuts they will move on to fruit
and flowers. And if they come

every day, before long they will
be allowed to discuss weather
and international relations,
which are very like the betel leaf.

(Hanoi, April 2009)

Apr 222009

So, if you woke up with a head cold, what would be the first thing you would think to do? Well, naturally, you would go with your friend who is writing a language instruction book to a recording studio to help with the English on the accompanying CD. And after that, you would no doubt have lunch and then go to your Vietnamese teacher for what, in this language, amounts to a singing lesson. In both situations I sounded more like a croaking frog than a human being, but everyone was very gracious, which is the norm here. In Vietnamese, croaking frog would go something like this: kęu ?m ?p con ?ch. I put that in just to see if WordPress can handle the unicode keyboard driver I just got installed today. As you can see, Vietnamese uses the Roman alphabet modified with diacritical marks to indicate the extra vowels and the system of tones.

Update: I’ll have to do a little more work on displaying Vietnamese characters.

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Apr 212009

There’s nothing like one’s first language lesson in eight years to drive home one’s almost complete ignorance of the language. It’s like a Renaissance map — not the complete Medieval fiction with Jerusalem at the center, some few regions have been filled in: a more or less accurate coast line for Portugal, say, but a completely fanciful view of Africa. My map of Vietnamese has tiny fractions of sense, small bits that track the real world, but which is mostly empty. I know a lot of nouns and a few basic verbs, but lack the syntax necessary to track the world in any accurate way. And as if the lesson itself  did not provide enough humiliation, I took a xe om back downtown afterward and the driver, hearing my few words of Vietnamese, started off on a long series of questions in his own language — he also had a bit of English — while roaring through traffic. I might not have been able to understand him had we been sitting across a table from each other, but I was completely lost in the noise of the traffic.

Update: This morning I went to lunch with Vietnamese friends who speak English, along with an American who speaks the language well. I find I can ear quite a few individual words in conversation and thus begin to get the drift, but it still moves so fast I get lost. And the American was easiest to understand, perhaps because her Vietnamese was a beat slower and somewhat more textbook clear.