Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Expat Mayhem

One of the middle-aged women was an American whose name escapes me, and the other a Dutch woman named Helena. They had spent their afternoon in an expat bar, plowing through a couple bottles of wine each. Needless to say, they were not in any condition to drive a forklift when I arrived in the evening.

Their drunkenness isn’t particularly noteworthy. It took me a long time to learn that heavy drinking is not just the purview of the young. My parents, while not teetotalers, are certainly not boozers either. If they have two drinks with dinner, the rest of their evening is spent in the prone position on the couch. If my father – god forbid – has three drinks, my mother purses her lips and begins purposefully striding around the house, picking things up and heavily putting them back down, fraught with tension as she convinces herself that she's married to an alcoholic. Needless to say, he usually saves such deviant behaviour for when she’s out of town.

At any rate, this is why it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I discovered that older people drink as well.

But none of the older drinkers I’ve met have been anything like Helena. She was more like the young girls I saw every Thursday and Saturday night when I lived in a university town, clad in weird outfits, clinging to one another so that if one stumbled they all stumbled, and shrieking with over-the-top laughter every time this occurred, which was every four or five steps. This is irritating in 18 year-olds, but to see someone in her mid-forties act like this is a intriguing more than anything else. For about five minutes.

She lurched from her friend to me and mine. “Whassyername,” she slurred, clutching my arm in an attempt to stand up straight that almost worked. Grabbing her to prevent her from dashing her brains out on the tiled floor, I told her. The minute she was upright again, she got distracted by something and dashed away.

While she was gone, her American friend took the opportunity to get friendly with another punter. Really friendly. I glanced over to see them shaking hands; a second glance a couple minutes later revealed that her hand had slipped into the back of his shorts, in a public display of affection that I’ve never understood. Maybe it’s a territory-marking thing. A hand that close to a biological waste disposal system is going to ward off even the most committed competition. "Back off," it says. "We mean business."

I turned my attention away for awhile, thinking that the excitement was over. Far from it. She returned from wherever she’d gone, saw her friend canoodling, and gasped. Mouth agape, she ran over to me again. “Dave, what should I do?”

“What do you mean?” I genuinely was wondering. I was also wondering if I should correct her as to my real name, but quickly determined that this was not something worth dwelling on. I am familiar with the drunken goldfish memory.

“I think I will go over and say ‘excuse me that’s my friend.’”

This did not seem productive. “Well,” I tried to be tactful, “they are both adults…” As I said this, I had to hold in a snort. They certainly were.

I don’t think she liked my answer, as she abruptly left for the second time and made the same pitch – in a voice loud enough for me to hear, the deliberation of which I am unsure of – to another table. She certainly was intent on audience involvement in what was thus far a one-woman show.

Not for long. The exposition was done; it was time for some rising action in the performance. Enter the next character, at precisely the moment that I began to grow bored.

His name was Quy and he came with a gift - a tub of moisturiser for Helena. The way that she took it, thanked him, and then proceeded to ignore him suggested to me that he was in one of those black hole-esque unrequited love relationships, where he dreamed of the day that she would put her hand down the back of his drawers, but knew, deep down, that it would never, ever happen.

My hypothesis was quickly confirmed when he, realizing that Helena would not be speaking to him tonight, took the seat next to me, which had become a rotating stage for the evening’s players. He then launched forth with a dramatic monologue, telling me about, well, everything.

He told me about Helena and her drinking, he told me how he takes her out to dinner. He told me where he lives, his age, his job, how much money he makes. He set up his character in a heartbeat, with absolutely no prompting from me. Were a playwright or a screenwriter to do the same, he’d be laughed out of the theatre or studio for writing something so unbelievable.

Helena stumbled back, distraught. “Jeff, I called my boss and told her I have a migraine and can’t come to work tomorrow.”

“That’s not really a big deal,” I said. “I mean, at least you called her tonight, right?”

“You see,” she lurched (although that is a word that generally describes walking, I feel that is the only effective way to describe her speaking style) “in sales and marketing, it doesn’t matter if you don’t come to work, as long as you meet your sales quotas.”

A Dutch saleswoman in Vietnam? This was interesting, so I asked her more. Besides, I could have sworn she was a teacher.

“Oh no, I’m not a saleswoman. I haven’t been for seven years. Now I teach.”

“You’re a teacher then?”

“No, I teach.”

I furrowed my brow, and delved a little more. “Where do you teach?” She gave me the name of a language centre.

“So you’re an English teacher?”

“NO!” I teach English!”

“Okay,” I breathed in. “You teach English but you’re not an English teacher?”

“Stop making fun of me for not being a real teacher!” And she flounced away again, in a manner that strangely reminded me of Miss Piggy.

If that exchange made your head feel like it was going to explode, imagine how I felt.

Quy leaned over. “She’s 31 you know. Like me.”

By this stage I wasn’t questioning non-sequitors. I was just triaging and treating on a case-by-case basis. This was the Emergency Room, not Diagnostics. So I finally released the snort that had been building up all evening and said “Quy, she is not. She’s 45 if she’s a day.”

He nodded sadly. I’d pointed out that the empress had no clothes. “I know this.”

The empress came back, and Quy unnecessarily shushed me.

“You see,” she slurred. “I told my boss to fuck off so I’m probably fired.”

Was she kidding? She’d told me another version of events not five minutes previous. I’d seen short-term memory loss and poetic license, but never the two combined to such an extent. In a refreshing display of maturity, I decided that mentioning this would be counterproductive. So I decided it was time to go. I’d seen enough for one night.

Helena thrust her cheek out and demanded I kiss her goodbye. I obliged, dodged her attempt to take my glasses, and stuck my hand out to Quy. He hesitated until Helena disappeared, and then, as if to conclude the play, grabbed my hand in both of his and pulled his face up to mine.

Franticly, he whispered. “Listen, listen. I have car. You take my number. You find two western women, you call me, I drive us anywhere.”

Even for this odd evening, this was unexpected. I tried to explain that he was double-handshaking the wrong guy. It's a rarity for me to have one woman on the go; a spare is completely out of the question. I tried to explain this to him but he cut me off.

“No! You have ability! I sense this! I drive us to beach! Two hours no problem!"

It didn't look like logic was going to prevail tonight, so I said okay, disentangled myself from his now-clammy hand,took his number, and left.

But the offer still stands. If you’re a woman reading this blog, from Europe, the Americas, Australia, or New Zealand, and you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City with a spare friend, towel, and day, drop me a line - the three of us and my man Quy, we're going swimming.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Plight of the Lowly Sperm

Stress gets all of us down. No matter who you are, sometimes the little things pile up, or the big things catch you off guard. Projects, commitments, exams, essays, lay-offs, relationships starting, relationships ending, death, disaster - they can all have a pretty atrocious effect on your system as you wonder to yourself “how will I ever get through this.”

Some perspective helps. Like a circus sideshow, it's always nice to look at someone else and say "wow, at least I'm better-off than him." This has, I am fairly sure, been the reason for reality television's success over the past ten years. Nothing makes you feel better about yourself than seeing the truly inept have their problems highlighted  on a national, often international, stage.

But if Big Brother's on  hiatus and America's Next Top Model doesn't come on 'till Friday, there's a simpler way to gain perspective. You don’t have to look far to find it – only an eyeflick downwards, at the nearest man’s groin. 

Inside that groin – it may be yours – is a major unsung hero of our time. The lowly sperm. Whatever hand life has dealt you, I can personally guarantee that it would beat his.

For one, look at where he is born, and may die – inside someone’s testicles. Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste, but this, to me, is not the ideal living space. It’s hot, it’s damp,  and it smells. And it's not like it's a nice neighbourhood either - to one side is a penis;to the other, an anus. To be honest, I’d rather live almost anywhere else.

But there is a certain enviable simplicity in the sperm's life, living arrangements notwithstanding. The  great questions of humanity, echoed through every culture’s art, religion, and philosophy are pretty tough: “why are we here?” "where are we going?" Sperm are not known for their artwork. Possibly this is because they have no arms or legs to paint or write with, or possibly because they do not have brains capable of such complex thought. The cynic would say so, but I’m a romantic: I think it’s because the sperm doesn’t need to ask these questions. His lot in life is clear, his fate sealed from the day he’s born. 

Wait in your testicle home until you’re summoned. When you are, grab a chunk of DNA and get expelled – along with hundreds of millions of your compatriots, so you won’t be lonely – and rocket down a tube at unfathomable speeds before landing, a tad breathless, in a strange cavern. Once there, it’s every man for himself – swim as fast as you can in the race of a lifetime. If you win, you get to become a person. If you lose, you die. Talk about high stakes. Indeed, it's probably more heartbreaking to fall short of his goal than it is for any of us to fall short of ours; after all, if we fail, we can always try something else. Not only does the sperm not get a chance to set a new goal for himself, he wouldn't know what to do if he did. He's programmed to do one thing, and one thing only. 

But do they ever complain? No. Do they ever refuse to take part in this event that will likely lead to their death? No. Every chance they get, they swim their hearts out, trying their best to fulfill the one goal they’ve ever had. If they don’t make it? Well, ce’st  la vie. At least they tried.

It never was the ideal life, but from the 20th century onwards it got a lot worse. Regardless of their contribution to public health, the condom, the contraceptive pill, the IUD and the sponge have not been good for the business of fertilization. Imagine the disappointment of rounding that final bend, only to find the expected death-star sized egg not present. All that effort, for naught. 

This isn’t quite as bad as the other options, though; after all,  he must have known that the egg’s presence wasn’t guaranteed – it was just another long shot set of odds in his long shot life.

But the sponge – he smashes into it, and finds himself soaked into a material with which he is completely unfamiliar. The IUD – everything is going fine, he’s swimming along, then zap – some copper poisons him and he quickly expires.

Most painful and humiliating, though, must be the prophylactic. It is different than the others in that halts the fantasy of a chance the earliest.“This is what I train for,” the sperm thinks to himself as he grabs his packet of DNA and sits in his ejection seat “I’m going to do my host proud and spread his genes like they’ve never been spread.” He sits back, a bit nervous and very excited; or is that very nervous and a bit excited. It's such an emotional rollercoaster that he can’t tell which one takes precedence. The adrenaline is coursing from his head to the tip  of his tail – he’s never been more ready in his life. He takes a deep breath, and BLAM he's off like a shot.

Smash.  With a sickening thud, he hits the impermeable latex of the condom. Maybe he’s killed instantly; maybe he blacks out, then wakes up, looking around to see if anyone else made it through. Nobody did. His comrades, the men he grew up with, who he became so close with during their retrospectively short tenure inside your testicles, are writhing in pain around him. They’ve smashed into the latex, into each other; those who miraculously escaped death are trying to push their way to the front, creating a stampede that kills even more. The sperm takes stock of what is happening, and, just before he dies, realizes that he will never – and nor will anyone he knows – carry out the one task he was assigned in this world. 

If he had cheeks or eyes, a single tear would drift down the former before the blackness overtakes him. But he doesn't even have the luxury of crying.

So think of him next time the world’s getting you down. Think of the sperm and his friends, laying there in agony in a condom, or even making it all the way to the egg, but a split second too late and being poisoned for their trouble. What's  more, I haven't even mentioned the patently genocidal amount that end their lives on a tissue, old pair of underwear, or in a sock. We all feel, from time to time, that we were born under a bad sign, but when compared to the sperm, we’ve got the world in the palm of our hands. 

With the exception of the one in a billion who make it. They, I fear, put all of us and our piddly goals to shame. So if you're looking for perspective, try not to think about them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

There Was A Dog on the Roof

There was a dog on the roof. That’s not a metaphor, cliché, or long-reaching attempt at symbolism. It is a sentence designed to be taken literally; it describes real life. There was a dog, standing on the roof.

He (I can say definitively say he because Vietnamese dogs are not often spayed or neutered; hence, there are a lot of them, and their gender is far more apparent than the sexless canines I am used to) was doing what dogs do best – Being A Dog. He was doing on the roof what he would likely be doing on the ground, barking at the chaotic traffic, chasing his tail, and dashing perilously close to the ubiquitously tangled mess that is Ho Chi Minh City power lines. Being a dog, of course, meant he was having a great time doing it.

I would have kept walking were it not for the motorbike taxi driver. It being the hottest part of the day, there was a group of them sitting under an umbrella across the street from the dog, sipping cold, sweet drinks, watching the traffic go by, and idly chatting. One of the younger – possibly the youngest – drivers saw the dog, and with it an opportunity to make the beastly hot afternoon go by faster.

He ambled across the road and removed his shoe, looked at the dog, and tossed it in the air. The shoe, not the dog. 

The dog was hooked. The moment he laid eyes on the flying shoe, it became more than an object of desire. He didn’t just want it – he had to have it. I could tell how deep this flowed, because it stopped his frenetic playing. Instead, he dropped his front paws down, rested his face on them, and looked at the shoe with an intensity and concentration I never thought his species capable of. That shoe would be his.

The next step was so well-thought-out that I suspected that it was not new. Now that he had the dog’s attention, the driver threw the shoe so that it hit under the overhanging section of roof. Being made of corrugated iron, a resounding clatter ensued, and the dog, convinced that the shoe  had landed on top of the lip rather than smack the bottom of it, dashed over, sniffed, and, confused, slinked back to his shady spot. Then the whole process repeated itself. Dogs, while loyal and fun-loving, are not known for their intelligence. Anyone who has pretended to throw a ball for one knows this; it’s another great game that fools them every time.

Intrigued, I took a seat on the stoop next to the drivers. I expected them to be as amused as I, but when I glanced over at them, one was rolling his eyes and the other was pointing at his head. A third looked at me, pointed across the road to their friend, and told me something in Vietnamese while also rolling his eyes. Again, further evidence that this game was not new.

Then something happened that made the drivers,  passersby, and indeed every shopclerk and security guard on the section of street look up and roar with laughter. He had miscalculated a throw, arcing it slightly more than he intended to, and the dog had achieved what he had been waiting for so patiently: he caught it.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier dog. Dogs are usually fickle animals, trying their damndest for a ball or toy, only to lose interest the second they get it. Not this one. He’d wanted the shoe for ages and now his faith and perseverance had paid off. He did a victory dance, grabbing it in hs jaws and running around in circles. He gnawed on it for awhile. He excitedly leaped into his little house to see what it tasted like in there, then leaped out and barked as if to tell the crowd “don’t worry, it’s just as good!” Then, with a look of panic, realised he didn't have it anymore, so he bolted in, grabbed it, and jumped back out. Even for a dog, he was exuberant.

The taxi driver was not quite so exuberant. One shoe was now a dog’s chewtoy; the other was in his hand, but without its mate it was useless. First, he tried to bring the dog over by repeating the trick and throwing his remaining shoe at the overhanging lip, but he soon realized how embarrassing it would be if the dog were to get this shoe too. So after a few throws, he just held his shoe and yelled.

As if he were waiting for this, an elderly man opened the window of the apartment, and an increasingly heated exchange occurred, entirely in Vietnamese. Thanks to context, though, I imagine it went something like this.

“Your dog has my shoe!”

“I can see that.”

“Can I come up and get it?”

“No. You torment my dog with that shoe every day. Now he is tormenting you.”

“I can’t drive with only one shoe!”

“You should have thought of that beforehand! I hope you burn your foot on exhaust fumes!”

And with a slam, and to the driver’s peers’ delight, the apartment dweller disappeared. One of them looked at me, grinned, pointed at his shoe, said something, and laughed. 

Astonishingly, the man with the missing shoe was not done. He was going to have his shoe back, or die trying, it seemed. So his next move was to bang on the door of the ground-level shop, which was eventually opened by a sleepy-looking man (it was afternoon siesta time, after all). Again, the exchange that went from terse to heated; again, no luck for the driver. 

And he walked back to his friends, looking cranky and forlorn, hobbling slightly with his single shoe. I took this as my cue to leave, and did so. 

Language barriers are not always quite the impediment we imagine them to be. I was speaking English, and everyone else was speaking Vietnamese, a language which I can thus far only say “hello,” “thank you,” and “iced coffee.” But when the drivers and I shared a laugh at their friend's expense, no translation was necessary.

Probably more important, though, is this valuable lesson: throwing things at dogs is very similar to playing the stock market. Don’t do it with anything you can’t afford to lose. 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Elaborate Street Theatre

Much to the dismay of all respectable foreigners in Vietnam, there is a very small yet highly visible (or audible) contingent of travelers who are neither nice nor unobtrusive. They typify everything that the idea of the “ugly American” (or Australian, or Dutchman) describes. They’re loud, obnoxious, and often drunk. They patronize the locals at the best of times, and vilify them at the worst, viewing them as an impedimence between their tour bus and Vietnam.

On more than one occasion, I have been near these winners in action. Every time I do, I wish I had a sign or a shirt that had printed on it, in a variety of local languages and dialects (for clarity) "I do not know this man."

I found myself sitting at a table with a member of the Vocal Minority during my first week in Ho Chi Minh City. We were at an outdoor table in the heart of the tourist area, eating our meals and watching the world - mostly composed of salespeople -  go by. 

These salespeople deserve explanation.

A number of enterprising Vietnamese have taken advantage of the fact that the city’s tourists are concentrated in a small area, and have set themselves up as (very) small businessmen-and-women. Shoe shines, pirated DVDs and books, knockoff watches, sunglasses, sex – it's all on offer in the course of a five-minute stroll.

One strategy is to approach tourists dining in restaurants. Good thinking – a pedestrian is on his way  somewhere, and it is not very difficult to simply sidestep a salesperson. But in the restaurant, he’s a captive, bound by his meal.

Predictably, the stranger and I were approached by a number  of hawkers, all of whom we politely declined. Eventually, a woman came to us. She wasn't selling anything, but merely asking for money. Again, we declined, and it was here that he decided to strike up a conversation with me.

“They make a good living, you know.”

I spluttered a little on my beer and asked him to come again.

“Begging – it’s a damn good living.” 

This wasn't a whisper, either. The Vocal Minority thinks that nobody in Vietnam can understand English, so he was, for maximum attention, using his stage voice, projecting so that the entire restaurant could hear. Reluctant to converse with someone so insightful for fear of being put to shame, I pretended I hadn’t heard, and focused on a lizard on the wall and its efforts in flycatching. Thankfully, he let me off easy, and took the social cue.

I had to wonder, as I ate, what he meant. Was he under the impression that beggars started out as surgeons and hedge fund managers, but decided to turn to the equally lucrative industry of asking people for money because the hours were so much better? Did he know something I didn’t? Call me naïve, but I don’t think begging, in any context, can ever be referred to as “a damn good living.”

But he wasn’t done yet. A few minutes later, a watch salesman approached us. The Vocal Minority looked at me, winked conspiratorially, and then beckoned the man over to his table. He then spent the next several minutes asking pointed questions about one watch: where was it made, how much was it, would it last, was it waterproof? Ten minutes were spent with the VM turning it over and over in his hands, giving all appearances of being on the brink of a sale. Then, without any warning, he said “nah, not for me,” returned the watch, and sent the salesman on his way. It had all been a game, a deliberate waste of the man’s time when a simple “no thank you” would have sufficed. 

He really showed that guy.

I should mention that this man did give money to one hawker. It was difficult for me to believe, too, after I saw his displays with the other two, but once I put it together it all became clear. For a guy as special as my dinner companion deserves a very, very special kind of hawker.

These women are my favourite, because they are experts in the psychology of the Vocal Minority. They recognize that these types are notoriously tight-fisted, and they will never give money to beggars, so they disguise themselves. A woman, usually with a child in tow, will walk the streets armed with a few packs of Kleenex and gum, ostensibly trying to sell them. When she approaches  middle-aged, balding tourist , he will make a big show of patting the child and giving some money. However, when the woman goes to give him his Kleenex, he puts both hands up in a show of faux generosity. “No, you take that,” he says, and the woman puts on a show of absolute gratitude and leaves, walking backwards so as not to turn her back on such a gentleman.

That’s the genius of these hawkers – they’re not selling Kleenex, they’re not selling gum, and they’re not begging. Rather, they’re selling feelings. Through this elaborate street theater production, where everyone knows their role, the hawkers are successfully selling self-worth, importance, and magnanimity. 

It’s simple business. Supply and demand. Recognise these loud, brash tourists’ underlying sense of inadequacy and offer to fill it for a couple bucks. I, for one, admire these hawkers’ acumen – and if someone told me they make a good living, I just might believe it.