I also admire the resourcefulness of people in Vietnam. One day I stopped on Hai Ba Trung Street. Like many other street names in Vietnam, it’s named after Vietnamese heroes in this case two brave sisters who fought Chinese invaders a thousand years ago. I wanted to know if the shoe repairman under the umbrella on the corner (next to the tailor with his sewing machine and the lady pressing sugar cane juice) could repair my leather bag. He said yes and I sat down on one of the ubiquitous tiny plastic stools to wait. Five minutes later he was twisting the inner tube out of a motorcycle tire, and my bag had been put aside. In another few minutes, the inner tube customer was back on his motorcycle, and the man had taken up my bag again. He repaired it flawlessly for half a dollar.
ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING things about living overseas is seeing how other expats deal with it.
In Vietnam my daughter attended the British International School, thanks to the generous education allowance of my Fulbright grant, and the majority of her classmates’ parents were wealthy American, Asian and European corporate people. Most had chauffeurs, gardeners, full-time maids, nannies and enormous houses in private gated compounds. I think it’s living beyond your means if you have to hire all these people to keep your life going.
During our stay, one of the compounds added 2 meters of concrete and barbed wire to the top of the already-high surrounding wall. The names of the streets in the compound included Lotus Road, Rose Road, and Tulip Road, but more fitting names would have been Paranoia Place, Whites Only Way, and Lotta Bucks Lane.
On several mornings in Vietnam, my husband and I had breakfast at the rice joint across the street from our house. The place had an aluminum roof, and the walls were a patchwork of battered sheetrock, plywood, two decapitated trees and more aluminum, all pasted together with ads for Fanta. The floor was uneven, and customers tried not to get stuck with the table in the corner, where the stools wouldn’t stay upright. The owners loved our boys and automatically served two plates of rice to them when we entered. Half of the patrons were male construction workers, and the other half were people who ordered to-go without getting off their their motorcycles. I told our Malaysian neighbor (married to an Australian construction manager) that we liked this rice joint, and she couldn’t understand where it was. It didn’t exist for her, though it was right across the street.
The effect of life and time
SO, WHO IS THIS PERSON who lived in Gabon and Vietnam? What has changed over the years to make these experiences so different?
Soon after I left Gabon, I wrote an essay called “Unmoveable Feast” in which I described a dinner that I ate with some Gabonese friends. My hosts pushed me to ingest what I was certain was a bovine asshole. I would have done the deed if they had not knocked the aperture from my hand at the last minute. By the time I got to Vietnam, I knew my personal limits. I did not drink snake blood wine or eat dog.
Peace Corps impressed on us the fact that we represented our country, with warnings to behave ourselves. But in Vietnam I represented myself and my profession. My husband thinks travel does not “teach us new things” so much as remind us of aspects of human culture that have become dormant or discarded in our own national cultures in favor of the priorities we have selected. Examples of priorities include heaters, air-conditioning, bug zappers, leaf blowers, and subdivisions technical manipulation of our environment. These choices are opposed to awareness of our dependence on and connection with the earth, the land where our food comes from. This is not to speak of our high estimation of our jobs and money over our ancestors and the appreciation of our physical being.
I was able to learn much more about Vietnam than about Gabon when I was there because I knew what I wanted and had built up knowledge about the world in the 23-year interval. I did 100% better in my job because I was prepared and because I enjoy teaching. My family made and makes me feel contented (and tired) and focused every day. Much of my pleasure in Vietnam came from seeing things through their young eyes.
Succeeding in Vietnam makes me feel more at peace with what I think was a bungled job in Gabon. I had felt lousy for two decades about my poor Gabonese students my guinea pigs. Now I see that, given my resources at the time, at the age of 21, I couldn’t have done much better. Now my question is: What next?