Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Bicycle Diaries

Last Thursday, I bought a bicycle. I know! Even I asked "What took you so long?". I had been here for nearly four months and I was still moseying around the city on foot, by bus, by xe ôm and by taxi. I had to get with the way of the future! No longer do I live in darkness. I once was lost, but now am found on Đường Láng four days a week, pedalling the hell out of my two-wheeler.

My new vehicle (the word "vehicle" gives my bicycle the dignity it merits) was made by Asama, a Taiwanese company. It's a single-speed bike, a fact which takes the stress of indecision out of riding a bicycle. I pedal, and the bike moves. No worrying about what the optimal front gear-back gear combination would be. The bike asks no questions, and I give it no answers. That's the way I like it. It's silver, has a built-in lock (yahoo!) and a basket on the front. The basket might give the impression that I look like a joyful little schoolgirl when riding the bicycle. Nothing could be further from the truth. My manly work clothes, my helmet with a flames decal, my legs like tree trunks (see below), my mind-boggling speed, the steel in my eyes, they all say "Step back. This is a real man on the bicycle.".

I had been apprehensive about riding a bicycle in Hanoi because, to an outsider, the traffic looks like hell. What would poor I do without the shell of a car to protect me from the big, bad, unscrupulous motorcycle drivers? But then I started working at Hanoi Community College, requiring me to commute on one of the most-godawful bus routes in the city. The bus never comes, the driver plays the worst Vietnamese music [which is really something, because Vietnamese music as a rule is bad (THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS DON'T KILL ME)] and I have sometimes felt so squished that I feared the atoms comprising my body would implode. Oh, and it would take me over an hour to get to work. On my bicycle, it takes me thirty minutes to get to work, and that includes a pit stop to eat xôi by the river. By bus, it would take me an hour, cost me 6,000 VND (3,000 VND each trip) and force me to walk for ten minutes on a stinky, dusty street. So every workday I save one hour, giving me one more hour to listen to Hard to be Cool (In a Minivan) on repeat.

What is the bike-riding experience like? It is a blast. Riding a bicycle in Hanoi is much safer than riding a bicycle in Toronto. Most of the vehicles around me are motorcycles, which are narrow and can easily go around obstacles. Cars are very wide and the drivers cannot see exactly where the edge of the car is, making the risk of colliding with a bicyclist on the side of the road relatively high. In Hanoi, I have access to virtually one-and-a-half car widths of road space, giving me lots of room to avoid the many potholes, crushed rats and unsightly bumps on the road. It also gives me room to whiz by the other cyclists, who like to take their sweet time on the road as they languish without helmets. I go nearly as fast as the motorcycles, allowing me to go to the left side of the road whenever I need to make a left turn. Sure, the cars honk at me, but, as I said in a previous post, I don't give a shit, because I'm on YouTube, baby! I ain't going to get off the road just because you decide to take one of the modes of transportation least conducive to safety, air quality and just allocation of road space. Of course, when I'm in the left lane, I pedal like hell and promise to buy my legs a beer one day to make up for the trouble I cause them.

On a related note, my use of a bicycle has been wonderful for my legs. They have been transformed from stores of flab into pistons of power. Three months ago, my calves were 8.5 out of 10. Now, they're 15,000 out of 10. I have to get ready to have thighs like those of the Greek gods, because that's where I'm headed. Cream-white thighs, unblemished by the sun and more suited to oxen than to human beings. They lead very nicely into my effulgent, finely-toned, deep-beige calves, which are the marvel of the world over. The colours are so divergent it is as though the thighs and calves belong to two entirely different beings - or, more accurately, deities.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pulling a Fast One

So yesterday was the Day of Atonement, the day when we (you know who you are) atone for our sins in the hope that God won't p0wn us in the following year. Usually I spend this day in the Toronto area, rushing from class to synagogue and driving under the influence of overwhelming hunger. But this year was different. This year, I spent my Yom Kippur in Hanoi. To put it mildly, there is not much in the way of Judaism here. I had to suspend my disbelief a great deal in order to turn the nearby military academy's five-o'clock wake-up horn into the blowing of a shofar. Despite the dearth of other Jews, I managed to participate in some rituals nonetheless. However, my participation was certainly not perfect.

I was looking forward to coming home early on Friday night, as my work activities had ended a bit early that day. I was getting ready to go home when someone I worked with invited me to come to her office and chat with the staff there. I spent about an hour there talking and eating dried fish from Nha Trang. In Canada, this is called 'a waste of time'. In Vietnam, this is called 'important relationship-building'. So I ended up leaving my office at the usual hour. On my way out, I was accosted by one of the college's vehicle watchers and invited to come into his office and talk with him. He is definitely one of those people who thinks that how well someone understands him is positively related to the volume at which he speaks (in Vietnamese). I was practically being yelled-at from a distance of one-and-a-half feet. Maybe I would have understood him better if I couldn't hear my eardrums exploding. He also served me what is quite possibly the most-disgusting tea I have ever consumed in my life. It was nearly cold, too. Blech! I minded the tea more than I minded the fact that a man, in his fifties or sixties, whom I had never met before put his arm on my shoulder and held on tight and touched my leg. I really don't mind that - I mind getting stared-at a heck of a lot more than I mind being touched.

That took me to about five o'clock. I waited about twenty-five minutes before my bus came. When it came, it was jam-packed (as usual) so I ended up taking a motorcycle taxi to get home. Now, I understand that drivers always ask for more than they expect to get. But I was being quoted 50,000 VND for a ride that should be 25,000 VND at the most (I paid 25,000 VND). It annoys me not because they want such a price - it annoys me that they insult my intelligence by quoting such a high price. I figured that I would commit the sin of stinginess because I would atone for it that evening anyway. Would it have been right to accept a price of 30,000 VND, which the drivers insisted was rock-bottom? Who would spend the 5,000 VND in a way that provides greater social benefit? If it buys shoes for their kids, then I should have accepted the price of 30,000 VND and swallowed my pride. But if it buys cigarettes, then I should bargain as low as I can possibly go. Would I spend it in a socially-useful way? Do I have a right to that money in the first place? Which is more important - my pride in getting a good price, or the driver having xôi (instead of nothing) for dinner? I am inclined to say that the latter is more important. But I am not a charity, and I should not be seen to favour some drivers over others.

The sun was still up when I got home. I thought I would be able to sneak dinner in before the sun said goodnight (on Yom Kippur, one is supposed to refrain from eating and drinking from sundown to sundown). Alas, we did not have dinner until eight o'clock, about one-and-a-half hours after the sun set. I was certainly not going to refuse to eat. I wouldn't ever go through a whole fast day without eating dinner first! After dinner I took some big gulps of water to make sure that I would not shrivel up and die from dehydration during the fast day. In Vietnam, it is rather possible to go a whole day without eating (people in the countryside are forced to do it), but it is much less possible to go a whole day without drinking. The heat and the humidity suck the water out of your body like a vacuum sucks dust.

For the first time in two weeks, I woke up after 5:30 AM. I decided that Yom Kippur would be a day of true rest (and atonement). After waking up at about 7:45, I just lay in my bed. It was the first time that I could truly relax. I really had nothing to do or to worry about doing - not even getting up to eat. By 8:30 I was on the floor, also laying and taking doing nothing very seriously. Between 7:45 and 2:00 I lay in my room accomplishing a whole lot of nothing (and a bit of reading, and a bit of atoning). This Yom Kippur was the first one during which I actually atoned. In Yom Kippurs previous, I just went to synagogue, did the whole fasting shtick, slept, etc. But this time I committed the act of atonement. To do this, really-religious Jews will take a live chicken and swing it around above their heads as they recite each of two prayers three times. If I wanted to, I could have used a live chicken. They can be easily bought at the market or pilfered from somebody's property. I have seen live chickens hanging out in front of a café that I go to often. I don't think anybody would miss them. But it was easier (yet more costly) to use money instead of a chicken. Money doesn't scream or try to peck at you. But it probably makes the experience much more intense. "Please God, this is my exchange, this is my atonement, I will do ANYTHING to get this chicken to stop attacking me!" is probably what goes through the heads of most Chasidim. But now I actually have to part ways with the money. That kind of sucks. But the money doesn't belong to me anymore. It belongs to those who need it (NOT xe ôm drivers).

The hunger was a nice feeling. I hadn't felt it in a long time. As the period of hunger drew on, my body felt more relaxed and seemed to clean itself out. I'm not referring to elimination. Parts of my body felt like they were freeing themselves of some kind of heaviness and dirtiness.

In the afternoon I decided to brave the moisture-sucking sun in order to go to the park to stretch. That venture was mostly a failure, because I really felt more like sitting on the bench than stretching. I did a few feeble stretches and enjoyed a view of the lake in Nghĩa Dô Park. To be honest, I do feel like I took the Day of Atonement a bit too easy. It's all about mortifying one's flesh and one's sense of pleasure in order to be granted a good year by God, am I right? But this is Hanoi, not Toronto. I was missing the awesome (as in causing awe, not as in cool) experience of communal atonement in synagogue. Then again, I also missed the communal chit-chat during the service. I definitely did not miss that. It is so rude and ruins the service. I don't care if I am committing the sin of whatever the opposite of mercy is - anyone who persists in chatting during the service, after being told to be quiet, should leave the sanctuary voluntarily or be forced to do so. I'm not talking about people who ask their spouses every so often what time it is. I often wonder the same thing when I have to wait until sundown to eat. I'm talking about people who talk about how sick their aunt is, how many diseases she has, what medications she has to take for them, how she is too stubborn to move into a nursing home already, how things would be so much better if her husband wasn't in the hospital, why her husband is in the hospital, how many diseases he has, how many medications he has to take, etc.

I was looking forward to doing some more sleeping at home but I was accosted by some construction workers sitting outside the site on my street. They're building some kind of tower which, according to the artist's rendition pictures on the outer boards, will only have white people in it. I had to go through the same questions: how old are you? are you studying here? have you taken a wife yet?. I was talking to a group of three people, all of them sitting close to each other, yet each of them asked me the same questions. Some other workers came by to look at the Tây, and they in turn asked me the same questions. I would like to forgive them for annoying me, because their curiosity is friendly. But I am not that good of a person. Yet.

As I came in the front door of my house, ostensibly to do some more sleeping at home, my host dad offered to teach me some Vietnamese after showering. I had planned neither on showering nor on learning Vietnamese that day. Many people wash themselves on Yom Kippur because they have to be in close proximity with other people in synagogue. I do not wash because not washing helps me feel like shit, which is what I am in comparison to God. I somehow managed to wash and dry myself in twenty minutes and learn how to greet different people in Vietnamese. I knew how to use the vast majority of the titles beforehand, but the lesson itself clarified some things. I also successfully picked up some new words! I do not know if he knew how exhausted I was, or if he thought that my hunger might preclude me understanding what he was saying to me. Luckily, dinner was right after the lesson, at six o'clock. The sun was still up, but I didn't care because I would rather eat than be a jerk.

So I had twenty-one hours of fasting. It's not quite twenty-four, but it's better than nothing. And I learned something about how being in a room full of people magnifies the intensity of the religious experience.