Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tôi yêu Việt Nam

Well, it might be presumptuous to say that I yêu all of Vietnam. To this day, I am still bothered by cat-calling xe ôm drivers. And there are still no barbershop quartets in the city. But last Thursday I got a big dose of genuine friendliness. Never ever ever would I have had the same experience on the streets of Toronto, principally because I don't look like a foreigner in Toronto. If we Torontonians treated all foreigners like I was treated today, then Toronto would be a much happier place.

My adventure began at the market near my house, where I was going to stock up on fresh fruit to kick the ass of this cold that I have before going downtown to work on my research project. By 'market', I don't mean 'supermarket', but an alley roughly twelve feet wide with women of all ages above 40 sitting behind baskets full of fresh vegetables and fruit and rigged scales (don't quote me on the scales). As I always do, I made my way from the entrance to the end, seeing how many people were selling custard-apple. This gives me crucial information about the number of suppliers of custard-apple - knowing how many people are selling it tells me what my bargaining power is. As I make my way through, I hear cries of "Cháu ơi!", meant to lure the foreigner into paying too much for something. By the time I reached the live chickens at the back, I had decided that paying 2000 VND for two bananas was going to get me farther in life than paying 9000 VND for two custard-apples. The ladies selling bananas always make a whole song-and-dance when I ask for two bananas, because it is apparently such a hardship to take a knife and cut two bananas off of the end of a bunch of fifteen. The (elderly) lady selling me the bananas was so adamant that I not take two bananas that, after we had got the price from something ridiculous to 2000 VND, she gave me a third banana for free.

Oh, and I also got about 300 grams of mandarin oranges. Mandarin oranges are in season in Vietnam right now, so they are very cheap. They have yellow skin, are really small and are easy to peel. You can pop a whole one into your mouth with no problem. They would have been delicious if I could taste them (remember, I have a cold).

As I am about to go downtown, the elderly lady offers me hot tea. It was fairly early (only 8:30 a.m.) so I thought I could spare a few minutes to talk to her. Whenever I buy fruit, the fruit ladies are always so amazed that I can speak the most basic Vietnamese, and they invariably say "...nói tiếng Việt Nam rất giỏi/giỏi lắm/giỏi thế!", and proceed to ask me the usual questions: Have you taken a wife yet? No? How old are you? Twenty?! Too young! I have a niece who is the same age as you. She's studying in university...". They are then so shocked when I say that I will not take a Vietnamese wife because I have a girlfriend in Canada. Maybe loyalty isn't as important in Vietnam as it is in Canada. Anyway, I and this old lady sit, and we chat. There are a few times when I cannot make out what she says, but most of the time I get it all or at least the idea. One thing she said, which I hope I will never forget, is this (and I don't remember her exact words, so I'll have to give a rough translation): Vietnam is poor, but it is rich in affection. She hit the nail right on the head with that one. People earning $3 USD per day have treated me to whole weekends of fun, and it does not seem to bother them one bit that I could easily have paid for everything. People are always working, day and night, to earn money, yet they are generous with the little they have even when those benefitting from their generosity have many times more purchasing power than they do. Even those who don't spend significant portions of their monthly income on me are actually interested to find out about me and my life. Yes, it's because I'm a foreigner. But their curiosity is friendly and has no malice or greed whatsoever. And there is no awkwardness, of which there is so much in introducing oneself in Canada. I admit that I am probably one of the biggest sources of that awkwardness (because I'm an awkward person). They don't talk to me because they have to - they talk to me because they want to. In Canada, in most cases when I'm not talking to any of my friends, I feel like I'm dragging the other person into the conversation by their hair - it's so hard to get real friendliness from other people. Yes, I'm generalising, but Canadians are so scared to ask other people about themselves out of fear either that they'll get an answer that they don't want to hear or that the other person will think they're weird for asking so many questions. I say "To hell with that". People should want to meet each other.

So our conversation ended after about half an hour. I thought for a second about paying for the two glasses of tea that I had, and by the next second I thought that paying for them would express that I didn't see the gesture as one of generosity. I promised her that I would come back from time to time, and I plan to make good on that promise.

Two bananas, a few mandarin oranges and fourty minutes later, I arrived at that building across from the Opera House, and had two of the most-productive hours of my life. As I walked west on Tràng Tiền, a lady carrying two baskets of bananas hanging from a long wooden stick (on the streets of Hanoi there are women, young and old, carrying stuff on these yoke-like contraptions, which are laid on one shoulder) implored me with her eyes to buy bananas. I said "Cháu vừa ăn chuối" (I jut ate bananas - this was true), a sentence which led to her guiding me to a restaurant which, by her account, is frequented by many foreigners. I didn't see any foreigners in there. Anyway, she led me all the way to this restaurant, probably over 300 metres away from where we met, while carrying the heavy load of bananas on her shoulder. Surely she didn't have to incur the extra damage and drudgery. I probably could have found my own nice restaurant if left to myself. But she took an active interest in my enjoying lunch, and wanted to be sure that I would enjoy what I ate. I actually did enjoy my plate of fried tofu. Mmm, tofu.

And as I made my way from the record store (where I bought some CD by Trọng Tấn), I stopped by a cart to buy some bánh mì (baguette). For some reason, I thought that it was appropriate to pay 5000 VND for an ambient-temperature, not-too-flavourful piece of bread. Of course, the older lady selling bread and her slightly-younger friend started talking to me. After about a couple of minutes of shooting the you-know-what, two girls, about eighteen or nineteen years old, walk by and freeze in their tracks from seeing me squatting on the sidewalk, holding a conversation with two Vietnamese women. "He's a white guy. Yet Vietnamese is coming out of his mouth. DO NOT COMPUTE DO NOT COMPUTE" is probably what went through their heads. Vietnamese people love to think that their language is the most-difficult language in the world. There is a Vietnamese saying as follows: the worst storm is not as bad as Vietnamese grammar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vietnamese is not as difficult to learn as at least three other languages which I have had the pleasure of learning for any significant period of time (English, French and Arabic. Two years of learning Arabic has had the sole result of me knowing how to say "I am eating a watermelon" in Arabic).

These two girls speak to me at lightning speed for a couple of minutes. It was all very confusing and surreal, but I think that somewhere in there word got out that I was on my way to buy headphones. One of the girls spends the next fourty-five minutes with me, standing there while I try on headphones and say that I don't want one with a microphone attached and that "big headphones" does not mean "earbuds". Would you take fourty-five minutes to help a total stranger buy headphones? As per usual, we exchanged phone numbers and promised to hang out at some later point in time. I hope that I'll remember and take the initiative to contact her.

Why did I have such an experience on that day? Surely it's not my own talents - I'm as reserved as can be. The old lady at the market was right: Vietnam is poor, but it is rich in affection. And, in most cases in my experience, it's not a money-grubbing affection.