Thursday, May 17, 2012

Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's Some Temples

Rage over. Let's look at more pretty pictures of Laos.
































And, yeah, a little modernism, too. Aaaaaah.



The bridges, however, could stand some improvement.

But overall, a pretty fantastic place to be.




Bye, bye!


Friday, May 11, 2012

And Now for a Little Biracial Rage

Travel, people like to say, is wonderful precisely because of how much it changes you. Mostly I am changing into something I don’t want to be—angry, hot, overwhelmed; one more ex-pat whining in an air-conditioned lounge, unable to ask for the bill in Vietnamese. Last night, I got to be changed into a hot-headed, self-deluded bitch. 

Why, you ask? 

Because of my appearance. Let me say that I’m used to people talking about what I look like here. The northern Vietnamese are pretty blunt: they’ll tell you if they think you’re fat or not, pretty or not, old-looking or young. But the most common comment I get about my appearance here is how I don’t quite look like an American. “You look like Asian peoples,” is, in fact, what I was just told by a bookshop owner, after having a drink at a bar where the waitress asked me if I was Korean, an hour after my French class  in which all the other Vietnamese students asked if I came to Hanoi because I might be part Vietnamese. It’s been years since I’ve had this much continuous speculation about my appearance, a fact I had chalked up to a) increased media attention to mixed race people as a whole in the US and b) just looking really white. I have traveled to a lot of Asian countries over the years (China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, then-independent Hong Kong, and Taiwan) and what’s struck me in each of these places is how obviously the people with more historical exposure to the west are better at identifying mixed- race people. Being mixed race is Asia is not just a marker of a possible foreign nationality but of class status, family history and language.  I mean, you don’t have two major wars with two major western powers in the course of less than a hundred years, along with decades of colonization, and not have a thing or two that pops into your mind upon seeing a mixed-race person of my particular age in Vietnam.

I haven’t met many mixed Vietnamese or Viet Cu here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen a lot of them. There’s a fashion magazine here called Dep which routinely puts mixed-race models on its cover, and a lot of the travel tourism television ads that come out of Malaysia and Singapore feature attractive biracial women running in and out of shopping complexes, eating something barbequed over a pit, flying helicopters and going deep sea diving. The mix of west and east in these models offers the viewers (most of whom would be Asian) their own sense of the “exotic” experience all of us want, with the added comfort of knowing they will never be—or become—too far away from the familiar comforts of home.

An important side note: as you might expect, if biracial women are the female spokesmodel of choice here, white men are the inevitable leads to this eternal costume drama that is the southeast Asian tour brochure. Thus, in an ad for a new swanky Hong Kong hotel, you can see a gorgeous mixed-race  woman (possibly full, hard to tell as she’s always in half-shadow having a dumpling shoved into her mouth) being clutched near a balcony by a white guy, or sitting down on the chair a white guy is offering to pull out for her, or following a white man into what seems to be a steam room-meets-wedding chapel. The worst ad I’ve seen that panders to this is a perfume ad in which a white man at an airline ticket counter gets a whiff of the young Vietnamese woman standing next to him in line, falls head over heels and then pursues her maniacally throughout the rest of the airport.

The perfume is called—and you’re really going to hate this—“Miss Saigon.”

Leaving aside for the moment how “Miss Saigon”/ Madame Butterfly Redux finishes, I should say that I’m not as upset by this this as you might imagine, largely because it’s so familiar to me and because I’m just too damn tired to keep getting worked up about it. This is the background music of Asia—Vietnam’s “white noise”—that I’ve learned to live with (not happily, I’d like to add) and that I think a lot of the smart young Vietnamese students in my class at least are pretty savvy about. I think they see it for what it is—a fantasy that feeds on that complex brew of envy, competition, and—yes-- self-hatred, all of which has been injected with an awareness that parts of Vietnam have become more globally changed; if not in the physical make-up of Vietnamese themselves, then at least in its landscape of  the business world. To me, “Miss Saigon” isn’t just a reference to a bad rock-opera, it’s a nice little dig at a changing Saigon itself.

But what does this have to do with me becoming a raging bitch? Well, the other night, I had an odd dinner with a friend’s father. This man is a 76 year-old white American, very kind, smart, well-off and certainly well-traveled. He had just read my book The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee which I wrote fourteen years ago (TOTALLY not per my request: he was just curious). The book is about some of these issues I’ve listed above: the ambivalence I feel about seeing Asian women in relationships with white men considering the persistence of our stereotypes (both positive and negative) about Asian femininity, the confusion of being told that race doesn’t matter while at the same time being forced to continually acknowledge the appearance of your difference, the ways in which your “exotic” appearance makes you the object of someone’s consumerist fantasy. Anyway, he told me he thought it was very, um, interesting (pursing his lips here sourly to let me know he hated it: thanks for that, by the way) but that he wondered about some things.

For instance, he said, he’d just gone to a party in Hanoi with a bunch of young ex-pat couples. All of them were mixed: white husband, Asian wife. The backyard was filled with their happy, mixed-race progeny chasing each other around the grill. As he had just finished my book, he decided to take a little survey, and so went around the party polling people about what they thought about their marriages, about their kids being mixed race, if their children (or they themselves) ever felt confused about it.

“And guess what?” he asked, shaking his head with bemusement. “None of them thought anything LIKE what was in your book!”

“How old were the children?” I asked.

“Six,” he said.

Let’s pause here to consider the fact that I wrote my book when I was 26. If at age 6 I had felt anything like what I felt about my life at age 26, I can say with some confidence that I wouldn’t have made it past my tenth birthday.

And let’s also take a moment to consider that people at a party might not feel comfortable talking about their identity issues to an unknown American near-octogenarian trying to use them as a basis for a survey.

These things acknowledged, what galled me about this remark, and the conversation we proceeded to have after (“I’m telling you, you don’t look Asian at all to me. And I had a wife who was mixed! I have a very good eye for these things!”) was the fact that I was again being questioned about my appearance (this time, my NOT-Asianness), but this time being implicitly asked to defend not only myself but a book written to explore the meaning of this very betweenness of identity. And what mattered in this debate was NOT the conclusion that I myself had come to about what I was or felt I was, but the conclusion that I could make HIM come to about what I was (“I don’t know, those kids seemed fine, and my mixed wife, well, she basically told me it never meant anything. She was, admittedly, an unhappy woman. To be honest, I only married her because I liked her kids.”). In short, the book was not about my life or my perceptions of it, they had to be about HIM and HIS perceptions, and if they didn’t correspond to things he experienced at an hour-long barbeque with strangers less than half his age (or, better yet, to an unhappy but brief marriage to a woman he acknowledged he didn't even like), then the conclusions I had reached about what being mixed race meant over the shortish/nasty/brutalish course of my life were essentially negated, ESPECIALLY considering the fact that I didn’t look mixed to him at all, thus shouldn’t have ever bothered myself writing about this topic.

All of which really made me want to bash his head in with a wine bottle.

What also galled me about the conversation was that, during our meal, the waiter kept looking to me for confirmation of what this man was ordering—in very loud English—and would address all his questions for this man to me: something I notice that happens when I eat with other friends who look more white. Basically, a lot of waiters here seem to think that, between the two pale foreigners sitting before him/her babbling in English, the one most likely to understand Vietnamese in a pinch is the darker-haired, vaguely familiar-looking one. And so while this man is going on and on about how white I seem to him, the waiter is subtly signaling to me (via his visual distress) how Asian I hopefully might be.

For the record, I don’t doubt that those children weren’t conflicted about their identities. First of all, they’re six. They’re still learning about zoos and ice cream.   They also, obviously, come from a different generation, one in which the media is—if not exactly saturated then at least burgeoning with images of multiracial people, ambivalent as these images may be. They also live in Vietnam, in an ex-pat enclave that has a VERY healthy percentage of mixed families, and are going to the expensive international school which requires that a certain percentage of its attendees be Vietnamese. In short, these kids are living the globalized, mixed family dream. I won’t lie: I had a great childhood, but if I’d had the chance to be among those families at the barbeque when I was a child, I’d have killed for it.

But the thing that enrages me most, that still makes me seethe writing this, is that at stake was the very palpable sense that the only identity at that table that counted, the one truly stable self-consciousness able to make such fine distinctions and judgments, was his:  it was only through the surety of his perceptions of me that I could be granted an identity that fit with my own perceptions of myself. In short, only he could decide to confer identity on me. On that level, I had to PROVE something to him: something that he couldn’t, or didn’t want, to see.

“You know,” I said, angrily at one point. “We could flip this whole thing around. We could spend a half hour talking about what I first thought YOU looked like when we met, and then how surprised—or not—I am by the facts of your opinions based on my assumptions.”

“I didn’t tell you what I thought you looked like when we first met.”

“But you’re telling me now.”

“Yes, because you brought it up!”

It is true that, having published that fucking book, I brought it up. And yet, even without that book, I think it would have come up, and keep on coming up. Because at some point I would have mentioned my family, and maybe mentioned that my mother is Chinese American, and then we’d slip into the quagmire in which we found ourselves last night: the conversation about race that’s been going on around all of us, not just in Vietnam, but in the States. Let me be clear: when the Vietnamese (and Cambodians and Laotians) ask me if I’m Asian, it doesn’t bother me. If someone from America thinks I’m white, it doesn’t bother me. What bothers me—and I’ve said it before in this blog—is when someone starts to implicitly or explicitly insist that I must curtail myself to certain values and experiences based an identity that he thinks HE gets to confer on me. THAT’S when I get annoyed.

I’ve had Asian friends who have been just as teeth-gratingly annoying: friends who insist I like food because I’m Chinese, who say I think certain things because I’m Chinese, that I like certain types of men because I’m Chinese. I’ve had Asian boyfriends who want me to be as Asian as possible in public and as white as possible in the bedroom. (Don’t ask how that works: I still don’t know.) The thing is, it doesn’t work like that. Perhaps it might be nice if we could tie certain personal tics so directly to the genetic, physically expressed invariables of racial appearance. But we can’t. We have culture, which explains much, but race itself explains nothing.

It’s just one more digit in the ever-expanding equation.

Honestly, I hate the fact that I’m writing--again--about this. But being biracial is like living in a room filled with mosquitoes. Every time you start to drift off to sleep, you get bitten. And I’m sad about the dinner because the friend’s father is actually a kind and generous man; it’s just a testament to how infuriating the topic of race is, how it turns everyone into cartoon versions of themselves.  In all honesty, I understand his argument. I even understand his suspicion and his petulance. I understand these things so well because his perception of and feelings about me are the predominant ones that American culture offers: they are—and this is what I wasn’t able to explain to him—the predominant psychic space that has been granted me. I exist, but only as far as I don’t insist upon another narrative about my life other people don’t recognize or feel uncomfortable about.  In this, I’m the one who is asked—constantly—to give something up, to adapt myself to an outsider’s way of seeing, rather than the reverse. This man’s position is the one we start from, the logical proposition which has to be—through logic and persistent alternative reasoning—negated.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if it were actually the reverse? If my identity was the “stable” position we had to start with? In my mind’s eye, I go back to that party filled with six-year olds. I don’t know what they’ll think about race, what they do think already, but in some ways I like to imagine them the way my friend’s father saw them: wildly, uniquely indifferent to their meaning in this world.  What a change that would be, to be like them. I can hardly begin to imagine it. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How To Wash an Elephant: Laos

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an American woman abroad must be in want of an elephant experience.

It is also a truth universally acknowledged that this same woman, having spent more than three months in Vietnam, must be in greater want of a renewed visa.

The marriage of these two truths will produce a last-minute run for the border in which this woman ends up in Laos, outside Luang Prabang, furiously scrubbing the head of an elephant.

Chapter 1: How To Get A Visa Inside Vietnam

When I first arrived in Hanoi, I got the three-month, multiple entry visa, forgot about it, basically let it run out. The reason I forgot about it was that I had technically lived illegally in France for four months without a visa (I figured no one would care about the extra month after the first free three; plus, the paperwork for the French visa was so onerous I couldn’t be bothered to fill it out) so I got lazy and forgot countries actually cared about these sorts of things. Then one day, purchasing my next big round of tickets to Singapore and Australia, I checked my passport, saw the visa’s expiration date, blanched.

Like I said, in France, I hadn’t cared. I had a ticket for departure, thus a firm leave date: what could they do? Throw me out of the country on the way out of the country? Fine me, sure, but probably nothing worse.

In Vietnam, however, I could imagine worse. I could imagine not only a fine but a huge “tax” added on top of it to help me avoid certain legal measures, including—say—jail time, so I got on the horn with the friend of a friend, a Vietnamese restaurant/real estate business/tour operator/raconteur who once told me that if I needed my visa renewed he could handle it veryvery quickly, and thus found myself in the back of a terrible restaurant in the Old Quarter that night, eating watery duck curry while haggling over a two-month visa renewal price as—I shit you not—the Muzak version of The Godfather theme trilled in the background.

You might wonder why I didn’t just go down to the Immigration Office, less than a mile away from my house! and pay the 10$ visa fee. The reason for this is that the Immigration Office—charged as it is with handling visas—evidently doesn’t WANT to handle visas and certainly NOT for 10$, thus it tells all foreigners hoping to remain in Hanoi’s loving embrace that they must go to a travel agency. These travel agencies seem to charge wildly different and sometimes outrageous prices for renewing visas, plus they require more prep time than I had to spare, something Mr. Khien promised wouldn’t be an issue. So there I was, downing curry, listening to Mr. Khien negotiate on the phone with his police officer friend (“I know a man,” Mr. Khien said, “what do you say: on The Force?”) about time and price and what I was allowed to get now. Evidently, immigration policies change here, oh, fortnightly, so instead of being eligible for another three-month visa I had to renew for one-month, single entry only, after which I could get another month. Fine. I paid my money, left my passport, and a few days later got my visa.

That still left me with another month to go before I was slated to leave Vietnam for good.

And once again I left things late. So late that, rather than go back to Mr. Khien and his friend on The Force, it was probably safer to hoof it to Laos and renew my visa on return.

Interestingly, this meant having to do another series of backroom negotiations, this time over US dollars. For those of you planning to travel in southeast Asia, make sure you have AND KEEP enough US dollars with you to buy visas to all countries you plan to enter. Evidently, visa offices in Cambodia and Laos ONLY want US dollars, and those in Vietnam certainly prefer it. And getting US dollars in Hanoi is harder than it looks. Harder, that is, than in Saigon, where getting dollars is as simple as going to an exchange office or foreign bank or hotel. But here in Hanoi, City of All Human Annoyance, you can go to certain banks but you need to complete stupid amounts of paperwork, and for really large sums you have to go to the gold markets. I didn’t have time for any of this nonsense, so found myself—again!—tucked away in a dark corner of my apartment complex with the father of a friend here who stockpiles US dollars for just this sort of irritating non-crisis.

In Vietnam, I suspect there is little difference between a black market economy and a regular economy. The black market economy here IS the economy.

Anyway, a few days later, I found myself in Luang Prabang, staying here:

Chapter 2: Paradise Found

Friends, let me just say it: Luang Prabang is heaven. A very very hot heaven as the place is about 100 degrees plus humidity in late April, but heaven nonetheless. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, something I didn’t appreciate the value of until wandering around town, astonished (no better word for it) by the beauty.

I mean, seriously, people: check this out.






The temples! The bougainvillea! The parade of monks each dawn!

I was astonished also, I must note, by both the friendliness of the people (Wait, wait, I kept thinking, no one here is constantly trying to rip me off?) and the startling absence of them.

The first is obviously something to celebrate (especially after living in northern Vietnam), the second not so much. The absence of humanity is due in part to the fact that during the Vietnam War America bombed, killed and displaced tens of thousands of Laotians. Laos was in fact the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history, as we dropped more than two million bombs there and left somewhere around 50 million as yet unexploded munitions in its fields. The absence of people may be initially charming, but it’s also a reminder of certain long-term effects of the Vietnam War.

This is, by the way, something to be confronted throughout southeast Asia. Go anywhere in Cambodia, for example, or outside the bigger cities in Laos, and you’ll see signs for fields that have been or are in the process of being cleared of cluster bombs and land mines. You will also come across museums like COPE or the Land Mine Museum documenting the disastrous consequences of our buried munitions.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you muttering. We feel terrible about all that. Bloodthirsty, hypocritical war-mongers the lot of us. Got that memo. We suck. SO WHAT ABOUT THE ELEPHANT?

Chapter 3: The Elephant

So one day while wandering around town, panting like a spaniel and mopping at that slick of sweat that had recently become my face, I came across the sign for Elephant Village, a tour company a friend of mine in Vietnam had recommended. Elephant Village was started by a German businessman interested in saving the Asian elephants in Laos. Basically, at his facility, you get “trained” to be an elephant rider (not really: they just shove you on its neck and tell you what commands to shout while the elephant wanders off, totally ignoring you), you go on a little river trek, then (best part of the day!) you get to feed elephants bunches of bananas and then play around in the river with them, washing them down.



Reader, my whole life, I’ve hated tours. They’re lame. They’re expensive. They never show you anything “authentic” about a place. You have to hang out with strangers from around the world for a day, slowly learning to hate them. All this is true, but when you get to stand on the head of an elephant in a river, squealing as it hoses you down with water sprayed from its trunk, jumping off from and then clambering up again onto its back as it rolls and sloshes; when you get to return later to its stable to feed—one by one—green bananas into its (let’s just admit it here) vaginal-looking mouth, well then, there’s only one thing to say.




This was so much fun! And even though I kept trying NOT to put my face in the water, having seen the softball-sized mounds of green poop floating past in the river during our trek, it was impossible not to lose myself in the joy of being able to touch an elephant up close, to feel the black wire hairs bristle on its head, to fit my knees behind its rough ears as I leaned over its bowed head with the brush, scrubbing caked mud off its forehead. It’s amazing and a little scary to swim around an elephant in the water, watching as all the other elephants push and jostle each other playfully, to feel the dry, suitcase-like hide of their shoulders. Oh, Reader. It. Is. Fabulous. I could have stayed there the rest of the day.

But, obviously, I only paid enough for an hour.

Anyway, that is what you do on a visa run. After that, it was back to the hotel, the night market, plates of fresh noodles and fish at the food stall buffet, terrible cocktails on the patio, and the liberal and possibly liver-damaging usage of DEET mosquito repellant.

So, how do you wash an elephant? With a river, a brush, an expired visa, a fistful of commandeered US dollars, and--finally--the good sense to know just how to keep your head above water.



Sunday, May 6, 2012

All Apologies

Xin Chao, Lovers!

So it’s been awhile since I last wrote, which I was sort of hoping no one had noticed, but evidently someone did as my friend, Brian, recently emailed to ask if I’d a) been gored by a water buffalo or b) succumbed to that rare but potent skin disease endemic to Vietnam caused by chemicals the US buried in the soil here 40 years ago.


Considering I hadn’t before heard of said flesh-eating disease and have, since my arrival to Vietnam in January, been also suffused with a persistent but low-grade dread about contracting dengue fever, you can imagine the enthusiasm with which I greeted Brian’s recent email. After several minutes doing my best imitation of an Edgar Munch painting, I decided to pack away the computer, crack open a bottle of duty-free spirits and self-soothe with several hours of badly dubbed martial arts movies.

When I started this blog in earnest, I promised myself I’d write four entries a month: basically one a week, and I was pretty good about this up until this past month, when everything went cattywumpus. No, I have not been killed by a water buffalo (hard to do, as water buffalo horns face backwards, thus goring is only possible by being hit by a water buffalo running full tilt in reverse) nor contracted any fatal US-originating skin diseases. I did, however, lose a couple of weeks after a three-day boat and kayak trip to Halong Bay, after which I suffered another rare, but totally moronic “illness” called Mal de Debarquement, which happens when the (usually) female brain—thoroughly lavaged with new levels of progesterone and estrogen—can’t switch back to land mode post-cruise, and so the sufferer wanders around in a rocking haze, feeling like the ground is being constantly yanked out from underfoot. It strikes mostly women and lasts anywhere for weeks to months; some people, horrifyingly, never recover at all.





What this meant for me was 15 straight days in which looking at a computer became impossible for any time longer than about 20 minute intervals, after which I’d wooze and stagger, headachy and confused, panicked about my inability to focus on anything smaller than a wall. Driving around in taxis relieved the symptoms, as did, thankfully, doing my favorite thing in Hanoi: walking around the park at night, watching families play badminton, or dance meringue, or roller blade, or walk their dogs: children and young couples sitting in the grass, playing music; people sharing food and taking pictures of each other, strolling--like me-- for hours in the humid night, trying to cool down.

So. That was April.

On top of these physical malfunctions were other (somewhat existential) reasons for not writing. First, I had a couple of books that were published. Fellow writers in the ether, I don’t know about you, but there is nothing simultaneously more joyful and dispiriting than having a book of poetry come out. Here it is, the product of four to five years of work, carefully edited, typeset, elegantly printed and bound, at last available for public consumption and critique. Now sit back and watch it get tossed, with as little fanfare as possible, off the nearest cliff.

Or not, as the case may be. In some ways, it’s not the critical reception or lack of it that bothers me. The real problem with a book being published is that it marks the date when those years of obsession, those dizzying months upon months of revision, contemplation, research—all that fantastic agony—are over. Someone has now slapped those poems out of your hands, and left you with the realization—correct or not—that those poems are really, forcibly, irreparably done.

This makes the yawing hole that may or may not be your current writing life all the more apparent. It takes me a long while to refocus after a book comes out, and now I have two to compound the problem. It is not that I am blocked: I write, as much as ever, but nothing worthwhile comes of it. When things are going well, I am alive. After a book is finished, I am… not. In the back of my mind, I know this is part of the process itself: I go through it every time. What comes next is the new hunger. But it takes time to find it. After six books you’d think I’d know enough not to panic about that, but still I do. Each month that rolls by in which I am not hungry in that critical way that makes the writing of another book possible, I wonder: Was that the last poem I’ll ever write?

Added to that is the whole fact that here I am, edging closer and closer to the date my time abroad ends, and so far I have less than 15 written pages I want to keep. Somehow, this doesn’t seem like enough, especially on someone else’s dime. Every poem I write, I can’t help but think: Was that worth $52,000? A year away from your husband, the risk of your pets dying from treat-induced diabetes, the possibility of having all your flesh eaten away by the ghost of a war that will never really die?



You can’t think like this, I know: it just worsens the problem. But such is the joy of being a writer.

Finally, the last reason I haven’t written is because April marks the beginning of the season when people move away from Hanoi. April is the cruelest month, packed as it is with goodbye dinners and farewell drinks, and friends waving to you from taxis on their way to the airport. And one of those friends was Ruth.


This photo of Ruth was taken at Khoach Sang, a.k.a, The Worst Place to Vacation in the Whole of Vietnam. This is right before Ruth and I take our ride on the (literally) death-defying bucket of lugnuts passing as a Tilt-a-Whirl. Ruth’s colleagues at the university told us to go to this place, renowned for its mud baths (a local fungal slick optimistically advertised as a spa treatment) and its relatively untrammeled hiking trails, to which (bafflingly) none the guards stationed around the many paths allowed Ruth or me to access. So instead Ruth and I hung out in the hotel cafĂ© with a big bottle of vodka, something that may or may not have been a plateful of fried pieces of an old purse, and spent the weekend alternately taking casually monitored amusement rides and getting drunk next to this:


I love Ruth. Ruth is a German water rights scholar, artist, and staunchly Leftist organizer from Hamburg. She’s the kind of woman who decides to turn an abandoned warehouse into a sprawling, super-cool art space. She’s the kind of woman who decides that getting a PhD in Political Science might not be the most practical thing and so becomes a master of carpentry, the kind of woman who wanders around the Australian outback for three months with little more than a sleeping bag and a map, the kind of woman who says to her obsessive-compulsive artist-turned-weightlifter boyfriend, “You know, if you keep trying to make me feel guilty about eating this piece of cake, I’ll break up with you right AFTER eating the rest of it,” the kind of woman who travels to Tasmania for a music festival on a mountaintop, who is willing to turn to a party full of strangers in which someone tells a homophobic joke everyone else is too cowardly to call out and ask, “I do not understand: Why are we NOT punching this person in the face?”

Ruth is exactly the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up.

Ruth is one of a fairly long list of cool people I’ve met this year: artists and scholars and NGO workers and architects, people who spend their lives traveling from one country to the next, fixing up buildings in war-torn nations or helping out with women’s rights, running travel tour companies or conducting interviews that will turn into books of investigative journalism. They are multilingual, engaged, hyper-curious people, and I am in awe of all of them. I have promised some I wouldn’t mention them in this blog to protect their privacy, in particular certain people in Paris (though you know who you are! Look at me, not writing about you! You who are so cool!), but the fact is, these are what have provided me the most inspiration this year. I always suspected my life to date had been fairly narrow in its aspirations. The people I’ve encountered this year have confirmed this, and if I’m grateful for anything, it’s the opportunity to meet people whose own curiosity shows me how much larger this world really is.





In a way, Hanoi in particular is to thank for this. Here, ex-pats obviously stand out. Even the Vietnamese-Americans (or -Australians or -French, the Viet Cu as they are called here) are—in large part—fairly easy to identify, which allows me to meet people I would likely have no access to at home. Like diplomats, say, or people who work for the World Bank. That’s the upside of being an ex-pat, and being an ex-pat in Hanoi, one of the toughest, most hostile, relentlessly stressful burgs on the planet, might contribute to the overall congeniality of fellow foreigners.

One notable thing about living in Hanoi is that the city itself is the hot topic of conversation among its residents. Every conversation requires a good half hour discussion about how the hell you are surviving here, what the fuck is WRONG with this place, when in God’s name you plan to leave, and yet why for chrissakes you can’t seem to tear yourself away. Hanoi is like that particularly charismatic yet undeniably psychotic friend you have, the one about whom you and all your other friends can’t stop gossiping.



I mean, in one day in Hanoi, my apartment doorway, plants, shoes and parts of my legs were sprayed all over with pesticide by the local hose-happy pest guy (oddly, something like that happened to Ruth, too, before she left: is this Hanoi policy?), I got in a shouting match with a local vendor intent on cheating me out of 200,000 VND and finally, almost fatally misjudging the distance between me and an oncoming rush of taxis and buses due to poor night vision, I found myself maniacally running not AWAY FROM but INSIDE OF heavy traffic in a kind of NASCAR-meets-Pamplona death match which amused the fifty or so scooter drivers suddenly whizzing alongside me no end.

This place is fucking killing us.

Anyway, this is why I haven’t been writing. To Brian: my apologies. To the rest of you: I’ll be better in the future. Maybe I’ll even try to make up for it by posting twice per week for May.



And to the guy who just sprayed down my feet with toxic bug juice: I’d call you some fairly choice names, though clearly my fair nation has left far worse in your own backyard. For that, I’m sorry. And sorry, too, that our various discontents and rages get to converge like this in a stew like Hanoi. My best wishes for you and your family. I’m just starting to understand what it takes here to survive.