Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Falling Down the Stares

Last Saturday, I had my first haircut since leaving Toronto. It cost me 30,000 VND and was done on the sidewalk. Admittedly, it is one of the worst haircuts I have ever had. But I have had good haircuts in my life. And this haircut even came with bugged-out eyes (see photo), free of charge! But I get enough bugged-out eyes from other people here in Hanoi. Yes, folks, I get stared-at. I should have known it was coming, and I did know that it was coming. What I didn't expect is the degree to which it bothers me. I don't get bothered because it's rude (staring isn't rude) - I get bothered because every time I get stared-at I feel like the starer is calling into question the validity of my existence. Their eyes ask questions like "Why are you here?" and "Why should I respect you by averting my eyes? What respect do you truly deserve?". For some reason, when I ask myself these questions, I don't get nearly as frustrated as I do when other people ask them. Maybe that is because I'm soft on myself.

When I catch someone staring at me, my first thought is "It's on, baby". I stare right back at them uninterrupted as I walk by. My next thought is "Oh my God, are they going to chase me down?". By the time I have had that second thought, I am a good distance away from the starer. I don't know what my eyes express as I return the stare, but I hope that whatever they express is fearsome. Being stared-at is really exhausting, and I hate having to do it.

For the past two days, I have tried something new: averting my eyes as soon as I catch someone staring at me. Here is why: whenever I return the stare, I get really, really, really worked-up and inclined to carry out violence. I remember hearing years and years ago (see, I'm old, see) that dogs consider being stared-at in the eyes as an act of aggression. I get the impression that being stared-at releases something in my animal nature. It feels as though a wave of anger and defensiveness courses up my spine, and I instantly get into this zone of fear and aggression. Averting my eyes keeps other people from staring into them, and thereby keeps them from sending me into the animal zone I just described. I feel much happier as I walk to and from work. My mood is spoiled much less often. Besides, the zone is a very exhausting place to be. After about five times of getting into the zone, I feel really worn-out and as though I need a vacation. I don't want to spend my placement tired and angry, so I have taken action.

I am also trying to listen to ridiculous and ridiculously joyful music. Exhibit A, Overwhelming Joy by The Inspirations: Exhibit B, Hard to Be Cool (in a Minivan) by The Oak Ridge Boys: What do both of those songs have in common? Bass singers with ludicrously-low voices. I am disproportionately in love with listening to true basses. It is true that I'm a bass, but only in a limited way. Certainly not like those guys. While I'm talking about basses, I'm going to plug this video ( which features me cranking out Eb2 for roughly five minutes. It's not the lowest of the low, but I don't give a shit, because I'm on YouTube, baby! Hahahahaha!

Monday, August 2, 2010


My dear friends, do not worry about me. The worst culture shock has subsided, and I have periods of happiness and/or excitement these days. I'm not angry anymore at those I've never met, and some people are really amazing. Twice in the past two weeks, I have had my breakfast paid-for and been given lifts to work. I just came back from an amazing weekend (well, from Saturday at about 10:30 PM until Sunday at about 7:00 PM) trip to Ninh Bình. I am busy at work - this is a state of being that I haven't experienced in a long time. Not surprisingly, the eight-month-and-one-week clock in my head has grown much quieter.

Eclectic Shock

The CIL training manual doesn't lie.

Culture shock really does happen.

I found this out one morning as I walked to work (it takes me about 40 minutes, and would take me the same amount of time if I took the bus) totally pissed-off at everyone around me. They didn't do anything hurtful to me in particular – they just were entirely incomprehensible and their very being made me feel like an outsider. So many people stare at me as they drive by, I'm surprised that I haven't caused a traffic accident by now. The catcalls of the xe ôm drivers assault my ears. People who cannot enunciate due to the absence of a full set of teeth or due to laziness speak to me in Vietnamese at roughly a million miles an hour (how the hell do locals understand each other?) and seem insulted when I don't understand. The smell of shit and garbage mixed together will violently assault my nostrils without warning. When I walk from one block to another, people on their motorbikes will cut me off by turning in front of me – throughout the entire turn, their eyes do not move one bit (I have observed). I have been woken at midnight by a cockroach climbing through my hair. The heat and moisture have allowed bacteria or fungi to constantly give me itches on my skin. I was touched on the chest by the dirty, dirty, two-inch-long fingernail of a xe ôm driver (this guy's mind was also filthy). And when I was at my most angry, I suffered being accosted by a local who wanted to practice his English, being watched while I ate breakfast and having to entertain his conversation.

The above are all small annoyances, when taken separately. I should, if I could be absolutely proportional in my feelings, be in an uninterrupted state of slight perturbation. But I was (and probably still am) angry and wanting to leave (due to the small annoyances mentioned above and to larger annoyances that, for various reasons, will not be mentioned on this blog. Since you have doubtless memorised this blog's disclaimer word-for-word by now, you know what I am talking about.). Most of my anger is not at any one annoyance. I am angry that I am an outsider and have to deal with other people viewing me as an outsider, whether they express that view by patronising me, staring at me with cold, dead eyes or laughing at me. I did not expect that I would escape culture shock, but I was fooled by the culture-shock into thinking that it would be a gradual descent. Culture shock is like finding an adult cockroach in your bathroom. You don't expect it, it's ugly, it startles you when it appears and when you spray it with insecticide it smells bad and poisons you.

So now the mental countdown has begun in earnest. The mental countdown is BAD: it prevents those who do it from having fun. Of course, I miss home, and would be a cruel person if I didn't. But there are great things and great people here, and my work will eventually be fulfilling and excellent. I prefer to look forward to those things instead of thinking to myself "Only eight months before you go back home!". I cannot let myself be pissed-off for eight months. I would probably die before the eight months finish if I were to be pissed-off for all eight of them. So I have resolved to forget about the amount of time left, and to replace anxiety with the seeking of fun. I like fun more than I like anxiety.

My feelings and the CIL training have confirmed a suspicion that I have had for years: multiculturalism is a sham. When non-Europeans migrate to Canada, they do not force their cultures upon anyone. Culture is not weird dance, weird food and funny talk. Culture is the totality of what a group of people values, and what they do in the service of those values. It is true that Canada allows people of any culture to live within its borders. But Canada very much has one culture – Western culture. Westerners' attachment to reason (economic benefit?) and disgust at parochialism allow Westerners to coexist with people of other cultures without confronting the value differences between Western culture and said other cultures. Those who are raised in urban Canada and who stay in their particular urban agglomeration (I acknowledge that there are cultural differences between provinces, cities, etc.) do not experience culture shock because of immigrants. I might be a connoisseur of bún (yes, Vietnamese people eat more than just phở) but be unable to stomach Vietnamese norms about personal space (or lack thereof) or about friendship.

I can't think of a smooth way to end this post, so I have put a clumsy way to end it instead.