Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ice Never Tasted So Good

If you ever get a cold in Vietnam, lock yourself in your room until it’s run its course. If you don’t, you risk compounding and extending your sniffles through sheer stress and frustration.

For one, there’s a myth that will haunt you. When you’re not raised in “don’t drink cold drinks when you have a cold,” it’s very easy to mock the irrationality behind it. But then, I can’t be too condescending, as it’s just as irrational as the Western “don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant in the first trimester.”

In any case, the no-ice myth is just as irritating as it sounds. I first experienced it when I was on a holiday with four local women I barely knew. They were incredibly nice but were, for a variety of reasons, excruciating to spend time with, so I tried to abandon the trip a day early by feigning a cold. It didn’t really work – by the time I had formulated my plan, the morning bus had already left, so I ended up leaving only marginally earlier than I was originally going to.

More importantly, my fake illness meant that for the entire day I was denied cold drinks. A round of refreshing iced teas would arrive at our table, but before I could get my hands on one, one of the women would say something in rapid-fire Vietnamese, immediately after which it would be snatched away and replaced with its piping hot evil twin. There are few things less pleasant than sweltering in the Vietnam heat while drinking something made from freshly-boiled water.

Like all myths, this one annoys me because of its profound lack of logic. When you have a cold, what you need most in the world is hydration. Water, orange juice, Gatorade- anything to keep your fluids up. It’s not easy to choke down hot tea in the tropics, and it’s impossible to drink a lot of it.

But I made it through this ice-free day and went on with my life. Four months later, I actually got a cold, and the whole process repeated itself, albeit with different people.

Usually, I let my immune system take care of my illnesses, as I figure the boys could use the real-world experience to supplement their grueling training regimens. But when a café I frequent literally refused to serve me iced tea – supposedly for my own good – I decided to make an exception because I didn’t want to cause unacceptable loss of face by screaming at a kindly waiter who was just trying to help me out.

So I went to the pharmacy and described my symptoms, expecting something like sudaphed. Instead, I was given a three-day course of ten pills a day and advice to spit phlegm out my mouth to avoid a chest infection. I took the former and knocked them back, thinking to myself “when in Vietnam…”

I’m retrospectively reminded of an interview I once saw with my hero, Seth Rogan, who talked about when he got a cold and, for some reason or another, drank bourbon to cure it. Like him, I definitely felt good after taking my “medicine,” but “good” is significantly different from “cured.”

I was loopy. First, I felt fantastic. Cloud nine fantastic. I was relaxed, with as light smile on my face, going about my business in a fog of medicated bliss. Sure, I was still stuffy, but I didn’t really care anymore.

Then I started to feel active. And not just in contrast to the tiredness brought on by my cold. I felt like I’d washed down a pile of amphetamines with fifty or sixty cups of coffee. My fingers positively flew across the keyboard as I sat in a café and facebooked the finer points of life with everyone who had the pleasure of being online at the same time as me.

Then I left the café, bought some lunch, and entered the next stage. All that energy had its price, and I was exhausted. More exhausted than, I think, I’ve been in my entire life. I collapsed on the couch, leaving my lunch half-finished, which is probably a first for me. Leaving my lunch, not sleeping on the couch.

I woke up in a fit of paranoia. Everyone was out to get me. I was jumping to conclusions about people I’d met that weren’t just unreasonable, they were absolute fantasy. I’ve never been a particularly paranoid guy, so this was a brand-new and wholly unpleasant experience.

I went to take another nap. This time, however, I was in a strange no-man’s land that wasn’t alert, wasn’t tired, but certainly wasn’t normal. I would close my eyes and lapse immediately into incredibly vivid dreams while still being aware of my body, pillow, and blankets. They were a cross between dreams and hallucinations, and were thoroughly unrefreshing.

All through this, by the way, my cold remained completely undiminished. And I’m not a doctor, or even anything approaching an expert in the sciences, but all these effects seem profoundly worse than some sneezes and coughs. In the medications’ defense, I was distracted from my cold for awhile as I turned my brain to these more pressing matters. Maybe that was its purpose.

I opted to avoid the cold medication in the evening, but still went to work, where I felt a bit bad over the fact that all the Vietnamese teachers were now coughing and sipping hot water. I couldn’t resist some smugness, though –those same teachers had been religiously wearing masks when I came in hacking and coughing the day before, not to protect themselves from me but to protect themselves from the dreaded H1N1. Suckers.

Over the next few days, I recovered with little fanfare. Now I’m a first class citizen again, being served the same drinks as everyone else. Ice never tasted so good.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Things I Don't Understand

There’s a lot I don’t understand. In fact, the amount of things I don’t understand outweighs the
amount of things I do by an enormous factor. When something is marked down 30 percent, why
do people buy three of them? Why do people drive to the gym? Why do people stretch their seatbelt over one shoulder so that passing police think it’s on but don’t go all the way and click it in properly?

This last one, which I witnessed in the USA, was a particular mindblower. While I support fighting the man as much as possible, this is a situation when the man’s going to have the last laugh – especially when you’re in an unsocialised, second-rate hospital with your credit being destroyed by the minute after you fly through your windshield.

Moving to Vietnam has done precisely nothing to improve this foible of mine. Indeed, it has compounded it. Where my own culture confounded me enough, a foreign one is, as I’ve said a million times before, a whole new world of weird happenings. So here is a summation of the irritating, the infuriating, and the inexplicable.

Fruit Prices
I know by now that a smoothie from a streetside vendor costs 7,000 dong (about $NZ0.70). I also know that if I go to a vendor I’m not a regular at that I will be charged 10 or even 15 thousand dong for the same smoothie. This used to put me into a rage at the principle of being overcharged based on my white skin, large body, and pointy nose, but I’ve become much more complacent about it. After all, it’s really only a token amount more, especially when the same smoothie would cost $5 in NZ.

But I draw the line at fruit. Rather than charge slightly more than or even double the going rate, fruitsellers love to try to charge me three to five times as much. And I just don’t understand it. Not only will they quote me a price that is at times higher than expensive, non-tropical New Zealand, they will also often refuse to budge from that price.

It’s not very logical, really. Rather than sell me fruit at a slightly-higher-than-average rate, the extortionate rate assures that they make precisely zero dong in profit as I walk away in a huff.

Of course, when I go to the next stand my energy is so sapped from the first one that I accept, with no argument whatsoever, a price that is only marginally lower (to the tune of three or four cents). Maybe it’s an elaborate scheme run by all the fruitsellers, or maybe I’m just paranoid.

Motorbike Parking

This makes sense in theory. You park your motorbike, a guy hands you a ticket, watches it while you’re shopping, working out, or drinking, and then when you’re done you give your ticket to the man, who gets your motorbike and sends you on your way.

They probably do this in the West too, but I’ve never been swanky enough to go to a place with valet parking; I’ve barely even owned a car.

At any rate, the parking guys are devoted to their jobs. If you’ve lost your ticket, it’s a big deal.

I was reminded of this at my gym a few days ago. Every day, I go there, exercise, and then as I leave the parking man sees me and gets my bike ready as I walk out. He knows it’s my bike, I know it’s my bike, and, as if to underscore the fact that the ticket’s a formality, he tears it up without looking at it when I give it to him.

So when my ticket either got dissolved by sweat or, more likely, fell out one of the several holes in my back pocket, I thought it would be no big deal. After all, the parking guy and I – we had a relationship.

No dice. Even though he knew exactly which motorbike was mine, he wasn’t having a bar of it. No ticket, no bike. So I stood there for ten minutes or so, looking distressed until, tired of hearing me talk to him in a foreign language, he relented.

As I mounted my bike, I apologized to him and tried to show him that I had a hole in my shorts by making a hole with my thumb and forefinger and pointing to it with the forefinger of another hand. It wasn’t until he recoiled in disgust that I realised that my gesture could be construed very differently.

Needless to say, I’ve been swimming for the past week or so.

But this is what I don’t understand: aren’t keys sufficient indicator of ownership? What’s more, if a thief were to go to the effort to steal your keys, wouldn’t he or she go ahead and steal your ticket as well? Simply locking your bike seems way more effective than participating in this weird charade.

Weird Lies
The most baffling thing I’ve encountered here, however, is a tendency of employers, landlords, and the like to tell me things that are not only untrue, they lack any grounding in reality.

For example. For my first six weeks here I lived in a hotel. It was a nice place, but a tad lonely. It also didn’t have a kitchen, which is a convenience I surprisingly missed, even though I literally never cook. So when I found a room in a house with some similar-aged teachers for $100 less per month, I jumped at the opportunity.

The conversation with my landlady then went like this. “Hi, I’ve found a new place, so I’m going to move out at the end of the week.”

“New place? How much?”

“$200 a month.”

“Oh, that very cheap.” (it isn’t really)

“Yes, that’s part of why I’m moving there”

“Does it have air conditioning?”


“I don’t think it does.”

I furrowed my brow. “Yes, it does, I looked at it yesterday.”

“No, there is no air conditioning.”

And this didn’t happen in isolation. It’s happened on loads of other less-noteworthy occasions, but one is forever seared in my memory.

The school I work for grew tired of paying me in envelopes of cash, so they opened a bank account for me. As part of the process, I brought in a photocopy of my passport and visa (the latter of which the woman looked at and said “ooh, single!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it meant single entry, but I had to wonder what she would have thought if I’d had a multiple-entry visa).

Two weeks later, I got a phone call saying my debit card for my new bank account was ready. I went in, and was handed a shiny, new card: with the name Sram Bartob Grnovern. I pointed out that, while I was sorry to cause trouble, that is not my name, and consequently it would probably be unwise to use a bank account opened in this near substitute.

“Oh, no!” the woman nearly had an anxiety attack, “but that is your name!”

Furrowing again. “I’m sorry, but it really isn’t.”

“No! That was the name on your passport!”

Again, I said, kindly I think, that no, it wasn’t the name on my passport, as it wasn’t my name. She argued for a few minutes, but I felt fairly confident on this point so I stood my ground.

I guess it would have been easier for them if I’d just admitted that no, I wasn’t Sam Barton Grover. But ever since then I’ve wondered what social protocol I’d (so clearly) violated. Was I supposed to simply say “oh, right, that is my name. Silly me,” and go on my way?
Like I said. Bewildering.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hiding Face

Even though I grew up in the antipodes, I’m not completely cut off from the world, so I wasn’t overly surprised when I arrived in March and saw a large amount of motorbike drivers clad in masks.

AlthoughI was skeptical, I'm told that they’re a godsend, especially if you find yourself behind a truck or a bus, something that, I can now attest, makes breathing a difficult and unpleasant exercise. So maybe there's something to the motorbike masks.

The fact that they’re primarily worn by women also suggests to me that they have something to do with the national obsession with light skin, but that is, as of yet, an unproven hypothesis.

But over the past few months a new phenomenon has emerged. No longer is the mask a cloth driving accessory but it has, with the swine flu epidemic, turned into a surgical life accessory.

I’m going to go ahead and check my cultural sensitivity at the door here and be honest: these masks are really stupid. They're ineffective, superficial, and, most importantly, an enormous pain in my ass.
For one, I’m pretty sure that these masks put the wearer more at risk than he or she would be without. This is especially true with small children, who idly chew on theirs. Before long, what was once a mask transforms into a soggy, disgusting mess. Pretty gross. Also, it completely negates the mask in the first place, as swine flu is a waterborn disease. It swims sperm-like through snot and spit droplets, and will think nothing of swan-diving into that mess and delivering you a hot, fresh case of H1N1.

Not to mention the fact that walking around with that sludge on your face all day creates a breeding ground for other germs.

They’re also a hassle. Not just a small hassle, but an enormous one. If you ever think your blood pressure is too low, do this: get a job as an English teacher for 10 five-year olds, all of whom are wearing surgical masks. Not only are their already-tiny voices muffled by their so-called “protection,” they’ve also been told by their parents not to take them off under any circumstances. I inadvertently made a child cry last week when, without thinking, I reached over and pulled his mask down because I wanted to – god forbid – hear his voice in a language class.

I’m prepared to put up with hassles if it’s in the name of safety. Indeed, I’m a big fan of safety: I always wear a bike helmet, never fail to put on my seatbelt, and after a really nasty foot infection two years ago, always clean my cuts with hydrogen peroxide and warm water. So if the masks were actually preventing swine flu, I’d applaud them. “Go ahead,” I’d enthusiastically crow, “wear a mask! I’m wearing two!”

But that’s why they’re so annoying. They’re not effective at all. It’s not like they’re a little bit effective, or sometimes effective. No. A surgical mask is not a valid way to protect yourself from swine flu, or anything else for that matter. Not leaving the house is a good way to avoid the flu, as is wearing an expensive, completely impractical respirator. Or, you know, washing your hands.

And here’s the final, crushing blow to this moronic cultural phenomenon. Swine flu isn’t a big deal. I don’t know why nobody’s really said this, but let’s face it: it’s not. With an estimated mortality rate of less than half a percent, and probably, in fact, less than that because so many cases never make it to a doctor or hospital, it’s really not anything to worry about.

So, face-hiders, please, I’m begging you. For the sake of your dignity and my sanity, stop playing into the hands of the pharmacists who have shrewdly doubled and even tripled the price of their surgical masks and think rationally. Because I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.