A rather strange thing happened to me today. I went to lunch at my usual place and was greeted by a few hellos from the owners. I ate a little later than usual and perhaps they were worried that I wasn’t coming today, but I showed up and had my rice and things. Then, it started to rain. I wasn’t concerned because the rain wasn’t coming down very hard, so I continued eating. I was eating a soup with my rice; a soup made with a bitter gourd/cucumber-type vegetable. I really like the bitter taste but some foreigners don’t. There was a middle-aged man sitting at the table across from me. I was telling a younger man there that I had to go to class soon and it was raining. Then the middle-aged man said something to me in Vietnamese. I didn’t understand it and said so. But then he asked, in excellent English, “You like the bitter vegetable?” and this sparked off a short discussion of what dishes were good with this particular vegetable. However, now it was time for me to go. It wasn’t raining particularly hard, but in the two blocks to the university, I knew I would get nice and soaked. Then the older woman who looks like she runs the place waved for me to stay. She went back in her shop and emerged with a plastic poncho. It was translucent blue and had white polka dots, but I didn’t really care if I looked good, as long as I didn’t get soaked. So because of the generosity of someone that I don’t know at all, I was mostly dry when I arrived at my freezing classroom.
My suitcase sits in the corner of my room, reminding me that my time here is impermanent. I’ll be headed back to my adopted hometown of Long Xuyen and I’m looking forward to it. This whole sojourn of mine here is a lesson in how nearly everything in this life is impermanent. There are things I like about this big city, but I tend to enjoy life in Long Xuyen more. And then in a few years, all of the familiarity that I have there will be smashed and gone in the wind like dust. But anyhow, progressing along that line of thought usually leads to depressing thoughts.
I’m looking forward to the challenges and (hopefully) triumphs of this coming semester at An Giang University. I’m looking forward to learning more Vietnamese on my own, now that I have some more basics down over the summer. I’m curious to see what the new volunteers bring to the atmosphere of the International Guesthouse. I know that there will be three new young people, around my age, coming with an NGO called VIA to work in the English department. I also know that there is a family coming and I’m interested and also slightly concerned to see how they’ll get on in the relatively isolated town. I’ve also heard rumors of one, possibly two more volunteers coming to the university as well. What this means to me is that, come September, there may be 15 expats all living in the Guesthouse. This will be a strange dynamic. Up till now I’ve been used to small gatherings with perhaps 5 expats, say for dinner, but things may change. I’m remembering my job description that I signed with MCC, and it said that I would be living with few other foreigners, and that I’d have to have a “pioneering spirit,” or something like that. I’m worried that I’ll have to develop more of a “tour-guide spirit,” something that I don’t have. Oh well, another lesson on the impermanence of things.
The rain drizzles down tonight turning the sidewalks icy. My flip-flops skid along as I walk and I take short, firm steps so as not to fall. The phone booths here use some kind of tinted plastic on them, and this evening I noticed that car and motorbike lights shining and flashing through the tinted stuff made them look like flashing ambulance lights.
I had lunch today at my normal little place, and a cyclo driver sat down across from me. He normally has a post that is between my guesthouse and where my Vietnamese classes are. Most days he smiles at me and I’ve noticed him at this particular sidewalk restaurant before. He didn’t say anything, but I decided to try to talk with him. My listening is probably my weakest skill in terms of Vietnamese, and that was truly confirmed when I was talking with this older man. For those who are reading and don’t know, a cyclo is a kind of three-wheeled bike contraption. The driver sits behind the passengers and/or freight and pedals and steers the thing by kind of swiveling the front two wheels around. These things don’t have gears, and there is only on break on the rear wheel that is activated by pulling a wire behind the driver’s seat. Anyhow, this man sat down and started eating, so I asked him how many hours he works in a day. The answer he gave me must’ve been exaggerated somewhat, but I’m sure it’s quite a bit. I learned that he is 64, and from what I could see, he had one tooth. His fingers were big from a lifetime of hard work. He complimented my Vietnamese a few times. “Thanks, uncle,” I said, “I try, but sometimes it’s very difficult.” He gave me his big, toothless smile and yelled for another plate of rice. I had to get to class so I told him I’d see him later.
The rain seems to be coming down more frequently recently. I had a nice little splash in it as I was headed to class today. I was at my usual café for studying today, but sometimes I’m there for reading, and of I’m always there for it’s primary purpose: to drink strong coffee. The sky was sprinkling a little around 12:30, but I didn’t pay any attention to it. I figured it would spit itself dry in ten minutes or so. Then, as I was asking for the bill, it started to come down heavy. “Sit down, sit down,” the owners were telling me. “I have to go to class,” I told them. This one statement in Vietnamese sparked a few questions from the shop matriarch. “How old are you?” she asked me. “Twenty-two,” I said.
“What country are you from?”
“Do you have a wife yet?”
“Not yet. I’m too young.”
“How long have you been in Vietnam?”
“About six months.”
“When do you return to America?”
“I’ll live here for two and-a-half years more.”
These answers seemed to satisfy her immediate curiosity. It was now closer to 1 o’clock. “I have to go.” The older man at the shop waved at me as I stepped out into the rain. “Thank you,” he said.
The rain really came down when I was in class. The classroom is on the third floor of a building, and when we have breaks from class the teacher and students go out onto the open hallway/balcony for the fresh air. This hallway/balcony happens to overlook a construction site for a new building at the university. Today it was turned into a huge mud pit. I don’t know how they could work there at all for a week.
When class was over the rain had stopped, and I made it back to my room by avoiding puddles. Then I was sitting and working on something, and the thunder and lighting seemed to be crashing right outside my window. It made me jump a few times. And the rain was pouring once again. At least I wasn’t out in it.
Then finally the rain stopped, but the leaking from the building across from mine was deceiving me again. Eventually I went out for dinner. I had a spicy noodle dish and the young man who works there sat down a few seats away to ask me a question. “What is more delicious,” he asked, “pho or bun bo?” Pho is usually my standard when I go to this particular shop, but lately I’ve been digging the bun bo there. “I like pho and bun bo,” I told him. When I was paying and he was bringing me my change, he gave me the greatest compliment I’ve received in a long time. He said, “Rat giong Viet Nam.” I understood those particular words, but didn’t really get the meaning at first. I asked him to write it down. He did and as I was walking away the full meaning of the phrase struck me: “You’re very similar to the Vietnamese.” At least that’s the best way I can interpret it.
It started raining rather hard this morning. “Damn the rain!” was my first thought. I had wanted to go out exploring. I could see the water droplets slanting past my slightly tinted window. Then I decided to head to the roof of my guesthouse. The roof is interesting in that it’s technically the roof; you can’t go any higher and it’s open on all sides, but there is still another little roof for shelter from the sun and rain. So I went there to experience some rain without getting wet.
As I climbed the stairs up there, I noticed that the rain was slating so much that a little bit was making its way into the stairwell. On the roof, half of the floor was covered in water due to the brisk wind that was accompanying the rain. I went to the dryer side and just watched. I felt a chill, literally. Not a chill of the beauty of the tile roof and pastel-colored buildings spread around me, but a little shiver ran through me because of the way that the wind and rain were changing the atmosphere.
I watched the rain fall onto the sprawling, derelict construction project right across the alley from my window. The place is now used for parking a few cars and motorbikes, and weeds and plants grow all over and exposed iron rusts in the elements. Some of the six floors immediately opposite to me have leaks down onto the floor below. This is an interesting deception for me sometimes, because I hear the leaks and water splashing and I think it’s raining, but the rain has long since stopped.
But last night, I finally got what I’d been trying to avoid since the rains began: an unwanted shower. I went to buy some groceries and there was just a sprinkling of rain. I met the landlady of my place on the way out. “Take my umbrella,” she said. “Oh, no problem. I don’t need it,” I said. As soon I got out of my alley, the rain seemed to fall harder. I tried to stick close to buildings, but there is always a chance of a gutter getting me nice and soaked. In any case, the rain wasn’t too bad on the few blocks there, but when I stepped out of the store it was really coming down. I stood there under the eaves and watched the lights change and traffic move. It seemed to be subsiding a little, but by no means stopping completely. I decided that the next time the lights changed that I would go. I did, and the rain wasn’t heavy and it wasn’t light either, so I was nice and dripping when I got back. My landlady was downstairs. “You should have taken the umbrella,” she said.
The past few days I’ve been on many walks around this city. Sometimes I wind up whistling an old song that finds its way into my consciousness. I was thinking today though, that I’ve never really heard anyone here whistling. I thought it was odd because when I’m here, no matter where I’ve been, I’ve always been around people. Being around so many people, I would’ve though I’d hear someone whistling something at sometime.
So today I was walking past the American consulate and checking out the Vietnamese guards outside armed with AK-47s. I had just decided that I was hungry and was going to a small, western-style convenience store to buy baked beans for dinner. However, before I got there, I heard someone whistling a song. I turned around and it was a little boy, maybe 11 or 12 years old. He was one of the numerous kids who goes around all day and sells lottery tickets. He had what looked like a crippled right hand. But he was whistling. I just glanced at him. There went some myth or stereotype that had been forming in my mind. It was the strangest thing for me to hear as I had just been thinking about the lack of whistling here over the past couple days. I suppose that it was just one more way for me to learn that I’m constantly learning here. I don’t think one day has gone by since I’ve been here that I haven’t heard, seen, smelled, or tasted something new.
For dinner this evening, I didn’t want to experience something new though, I wanted some baked beans. It being the season of cookouts back in America, and with the Fourth passing without a taste of bratwurst, I figured baked beans would be something familiar and comforting after a breakfast of rice noodle soup and a lunch of white rice, shrimp, pork fat, and soup made with a bitter vegetable. I don’t know if there are any Vietnamese foods that I’ve tried and distinctly not liked, but sometimes I salivate for a taste from home. So to the convenience store I went. I bought baked beans, canned hotdogs, and Tabasco sauce. I went to the roof of my guesthouse and cooked (or heated, call it what you will) in the small kitchen there. It was a nice view and the breeze was refreshing when it blew the right way. It was a heavy and very filling meal.
It snuck up on me. There was a warning, but I didn’t heed it. All of a sudden, it struck, and I’m still reeling. Jack is gone. He’s back to his hometown of Seattle and will be studying in Michigan this fall. I never think about these events until they pass, and during the last few days with Jack I realized that I should have spent more time with him when he was here. Four of us piled into a taxi at 4 a.m. and went to the airport, and then three came back. Jack disappeared into the vacuum of a building known as an international airport. I can only hope that someday we’ll meet up back in the States and take road trips like we discussed many times when he was here. I wish him luck, but I’ll miss his mellow and intelligent presence in Long Xuyen over the next years.
And once again I’m back in this city of motorbikes. When I came up here with Jack we had the windows of the car down, and later that day I could actually feel the dust and grime on my teeth. In certain places, there are walls that are built around construction sites, and they are used by some people as a convenient urinal. Sometimes when I’m walking past one I take a deep breath and try to hold it, as the smell can be pretty overpowering. But it’s all part of the experience I suppose.
Now today is the Fourth of July, and it’s strange. There are no booms of fireworks, and I haven’t yet seen anyone cooking out either. No flags suffocating the streets, no parades, but somehow being away from it all makes me miss it slightly. I wouldn’t mind having a bratwurst and then waiting till the sun goes down to see bits of gunpowder and chemicals explode in the night—hanging out with some good friends and driving around in the warm, holiday night air. I saw fireworks at Tet, and I’ll see my fair share here in the future.
Another thing that happened in the recent past is that my parents bought tickets to come visit me. They’ll be here in December, and actually be here for Christmas. That’s quite possibly the best present I could ever receive. When they arrive it will have been over a year since I’ve seen them, and it should be wonderful. I just hope I can be a decent guide around these places that I’m still learning about.
Now I’m about to go on a wandering expedition around where I live. I like just walking to see what I can see. I’m lucky to live in a section of district one where there aren’t many tourists (at least I don’t see them). And no tourists means that there are no people or children lying in wait to try to sell me something with a few words of English. I’ll just stroll around and try to enjoy this rather cool weather here, brought on by a few days of rain. It’s strange actually, last night I was very cold, having caught a motorbike taxi in a cool, drizzling rain and soaking my hair. Julie sent me the address of a restaurant, and I didn’t know where it was, and my driver didn’t know where it was, but we eventually found it and I’d never felt so cold here. It was that soaking cold that comes from rain, and the sun was down and provided me with no consolation. The rest of the night, even though it wasn’t raining, I was still cold as four of us wandered the streets and watched the western tourists wander by in a daze. We chuckled and laughed to ourselves. Julie gave a one-armed beggar with a crutch a hamburger.