Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Biking in the Big City

When I first arrived here, I had no problem with walking everywhere I went. That changed after two months, though, when I moved into a house that was twice as far from my work as my hotel had been. Where a fifteen minute walk was tolerable, thirty minutes, two times a day, in the sweltering HCMC heat was just a bit much.

I had a bit of a dilemma – Vietnamese food and this daily regimen had delivered me a new, svelte figure that I’d grown attached to, and knew that a owning a motorbike would soon see the end of . So I compromised: I bought a bicycle.

I used to bike everywhere I went in Dunedin, a city that, while much sleepier than this one, is also far hillier. Because of this, I figured it’d be no problem here – I’d zip around much faster, save precious time, and generally be more mobile.

And it was a marked improvement. All of those things came true; no longer is a trip to the corner store for some ice cream a twenty-minute time investment and no longer am I accosted by endless streams of motorbike taxi drivers. I leave my neighbourhood more often, and generally enjoy all the perks that come from bigger range.

I do have a few complaints, though. For one, a good seventy percent of the people I pass collapse into laughter. This is for a myriad of reasons; for one, the bike I ride was designed for the Vietnamese frame. My 100 kilograms make me resemble the clich├ęd gorilla on a tricycle, which I can understand is quite mirth-worthy.

I also wear a helmet, which nobody in Vietnam does on a bicycle. This is not something I understand quite as well as the above reason; an impact at speed with a moving bus, truck, car, or motorbike is equally traumatic, no matter what you're riding. So to the people who laugh at my helmet, I say this: I’ll be laughing at you when you’re in a coma.

Finally, the fact that I’m even on a bicycle is hilarious. I think it has to do with the same mindset that finds dark skin so repugnant: biking, like a tan, is for peasants, and all people of means and with any self-respect avoid bicycles like the plague. Since the assumption is that all foreigners are filthy rich (which, to be honest, we are in relation to the cost of living), it is hilarious to see one on a bicycle.

That’s not the only negative aspect of biking. Even though it’s flat here, it’s also incredibly hot. Along with a raincoat, a second shirt is now high on the list of things I don’t leave home without: far too many times have I taught a class of 13 year olds who, in keeping with the theme of my life in Vietnam, were overcome with laughter at my sweat-soaked carcass. This particular laughter, however, soon turned to watering eyes and wrinkled noses as my sweat dried and began to emit a distinctive, thoroughly unpleasant aroma.

I also often fear for my life. The motorbike reigns supreme in Ho Chi Minh City, closely followed by buses who dominate with their size, followed by cars who usually push motorbikes out of their way but are swarmed in busy times, with bicycles bringing up the rear. With the speed of a car in traffic but without the power, I literally have no control. On countless occasions, I’ve made turns I didn’t need to make, gone down incorrect streets, and pulled over to wait because the inexorable flow of the traffic made going the correct way a life or death decision that would result in the latter.

But I still didn’t mind, because I was getting around faster than when I was walking. Then I got a dose of the last thing I needed: perspective. A Vietnamese friend, fed up with driving me around and dubious of her ability to steer with me on the back, insisted that I learn to drive her motorbike. The first ten or fifteen minutes were sweatier than all my bicycle rides put together as I gingerly accelerated, certain that I was going to propel my passenger, her bike, and myself into something or someone. But soon enough I was blasting through traffic like – in my eyes, at least – a pro.

It was fantastic. I wasn’t getting worn out, I was going way faster than a bike, and finally I could dictate my own destination rather than be at the mercy of everyone else’s. All the limitations of my bicycle were dealt with in one fell swoop.

Then my friend went home, and I had to go to work. Upgrading from walking to the bicycle was a dream come true – but downgrading from the motorbike was a living nightmare. I never felt so slow or sweaty in my life as I did that day.

But I’m holding out. I’m sticking with my bicycle, partly out of commitment to regular exercise, partly because I got incredibly ripped off when I bought it and want to make my overspending worth it, and partly because I enjoy bringing it up whenever someone starts talking to me about the evils of pollution (invariably a person who, in one of life's refreshing ironies, swears by their motorbike).

It’s anyone’s guess as to how long it’ll last.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


My father hates Dr. Seuss, and consequently his books were never a huge part of my upbringing.However, since I’ve worked in and around primary schools for a year and a half now, I’ve become familiar with a few of his stories.

I’m not a fan of classics like Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, as even as a child I was irritated by the self-indulgent rhyming taking precedence over the story. However, I do enjoy a handful of the Dr's other children's books. My favourite is one I recently discovered when a child at my school asked me to read it to him: The Sneetches.

Here’s a quick rundown: some of the sneetches have stars on their bellies; some don’t. The ones who do won’t let the ones without on the beaches (the self-indulgence is, of course, present, but I’m able to ignore it). Luckily, Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives, with an affordably-priced star-painting machine!

Of course, once he’s done that, he then goes to the other group and offers them the service – again for a low price – of star removal. And so on and so forth, until nobody knows who they are anymore and everyone can live in perfect harmony.

Dunedin’s Western location on a cultural scale combined with its (extreme) Southern location on a geographic scale has created an odd standard of fashionability for the lucrative 18-24 female demographic. On one hand, ever the pragmatists, they want to protect themselves from the city’s perpetual drizzle and winds that deliver icy chills straight from – seriously – Antarctica. On the other, Western standards of beauty demand that everyone’s skin be toasted to a luxurious golden brown.

Achieving this is made more difficult by the fact that most of Dunedin – and New Zealand’s – residents are descended from the British Isles, a genetic makeup that is not overly conducive to tanning. So they first slather themselves in fake tan, and then, with a complete lack of a sense of irony, climb into a puffer jacket and don a scarf to protect themselves - and their recently-applied coat of tan - from the elements.

Cut to Vietnam, where the exact opposite is true. Naturally, since a tan is easy to come by, people – especially women – wear hoodies in the 30+ degree weather, along with sunglasses, masks, sleeves, and socks with their sandals to prevent the slightest pigment change. If they should find themselves outside without their anti-tan gear, they’ll grab whatever is nearby, be it a book, piece of paper, or takeaway container, and hold it over their heads. Anything to avoid the sun’s brutal rays.

Vietnamese women definitely have a healthier goal, but I don’t think the motivations have anything to do with health. Rather, just like their Western counterparts, they’re trying to achieve something that is, much to my surprise (although it shouldn’t have been), completely arbitrary: beauty.

At first, I thought it was just a masochistic desire on both groups’ parts to fight an uphill battle, but recently someone spelled out the real reason for me when she said, in shocked response to my enquiry as to why she wanted such light skin “I don’t want to look like a farmer!”

Because that’s it. Even though we don’t say it in the West, it’s still at the forefront: nobody wants to look poor. It’s acceptable – indeed, even par for the course in the West – to actually be poor, with debts, loans, and overdrafts all over the place but looking poor is unacceptable.

In temperate North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, those with money can afford to go on holidays where they can work on their tan; they have the spare time to lounge on their roofs in bikinis; they have the extra few dollars a week to splurge on a tanning bed. Saving all of that, a bottle of L’Oreal fake tan is always just a short trip to the pharmacy or department store away: if you can’t be tan, you may as well look tan. "At least," you’re saying to the world, "I can afford this bottle."

So of course it’s the opposite here, in a country in a region where the well-off sit at desks and the poor toil the fields and sell trinkets on the streets. Here, light skin is a sign that you don’t have to work outside, that you can afford air conditioning, that you can stay inside during the hottest part of the day.

It’s all an effort to separate ourselves from the working classes. In the industrialized West, a working man or woman spends his or her days in an office, under a car, in a factory; here, the working people farm.

Of course, there are significantly more people who look middle class than actually are middle class. Thankfully, credit cards have yet to arrive here, so unskilled labourers with $20,000 cars, $2,000 televisions and assorted overly expensive clothing are not yet on the scene.

But the appearances of the middle class are available to those who have to work outside. It’s in every pharmacy and supermarket, prominently displayed and constantly being re-stocked. Made by L’Oreal, probably in the same factory as the tanning cream by pasty assembly line workers, it comes in a bottle of the same colour it promises to make your skin: milky, glowing white.