Vietnam, Sandals and a Superman Hat
At time of writing, I am staying in a traditional French colonial home located at the heart of historical Da Lat old town in the picturesque Vietnamese foothills. It is a traditional French colonial home in the same way that the Nutella crepe is a traditional French colonial food. The whole house is shiny and white and absolutely ev-ree-thing is trellised. They are currently installing a traditional French colonial chandelier with the name Tanlong (a local glass wholesaler) printed on the side. I’m sharing a room with an American called Brad. Brad is tall and gangly with thick eyelashes and a very polite haircut. He wears long khaki shorts every day, combined with a pair of Roman sandals and one of his tasteful assortments of pastel button-downs. He buttons everything it is possible to button. He looks like he spends a lot of time and effort trying to dress as badly as possible.
I am certain that Brad moved into my room with designs on my superman hat (a full-colour masterpiece I picked up in Hanoi). It seems to me that a novelty hat is the only avenue open for Brad to dress any worse than he already does. I am sure he is befriending me only in order to get closer to my superman hat. So I have undertaken a regimen of counter-infiltration techniques. I sleep in my superman hat and wear it whenever possible. I spin around abruptly in hallways to check if Brad is stalking behind me with his bony yuppie fingers reaching out towards me. I occasionally leave the hat alone in the room with Brad, walk out the door, and then immediately burst back in with the intention of catching him in the act of taking my hat. The staff are eyeing all this suspiciously, but one can never be too careful in times like this. And Americans hardly have a good track record with moral conduct in Indochina.
On second thoughts, it may be that Brad has no designs on my hat whatsoever. It seems unlikely, but maybe he dresses that badly by accident. Ha! Who am I kidding? No one could dress that badly by accident. Brad is aggressively boring in a very American way. He is convinced of the gravity of every situation and so polite it’s kind of rude. Like when you visit your clean-freak aunt Agatha who makes such a fuss of cleaning up after you that it is very obvious she would prefer it if you didn’t mess up her house please, preferably by not coming to it in the first place.
That’s how it feels when you talk to Brad. He has not offended a single person in his life, as far as I am aware. Everything is politically correct, which I also find rude, because being politically correct is a selfish way of sounding compassionate without ever needing to care about another person. Brad may correct me when I call the street kids “street kids” instead of “pre-educated juveniles”, but I am the one who gives them fruit. Brad just looks at them funny and flop-flops away as fast as his Roman sandals can take him.
Whenever I make a joke Brad makes this horrible face that makes him look like a child who just pooed a little while farting and knows his parents will get angry if he tells them now. Another crime Brad has perpetrated against me is his annoying habit of saying things like “do not” instead of “don’t”, “believe” instead of “think” and “that is a valid opinion; I’ll consider that” instead of “that’s a stupid idea; shut up”. In short, he speaks like he learned English in a political science class, i.e. he speaks how he dresses.
Cognitive scientists say that 90% of a person’s thoughts are repeated. For Brad, that number is significantly higher. He is a 90-year-old rotarian at heart. He has three topics of conversation, and these are on permanent loop, like elevator music. Those topics are, in order of time we dwell on them: life at an American college, life in a small American town, and how Brad has broken free of both of these like Jack Kerouac dressed up as Nigel Thornberry to indulge himself in “unique cultural experiences” in Vietnam.
I am lying on my bed one night, reading a book by Martin Amis. I chose the book out because I quite like the new English creep school of writing (Amis Jr., Will Self, etc.) and because I just knew the cover would make Brad uncomfortable. Brad walks in the door, sunburnt and smug after a day of flop-flopping around a local marketplace and talking that very slow English. The. Way. Stupid. People. Speak. To. Foreigners. I position the book between my face and Brad’s and I can feel him shudder.
“Hey, AJ!” I wave the book in the air and mutter something to myself to give off the impression that I’ve gone mad and hopefully make Brad go away. It doesn’t work. “Guess what? I just saw a traditional cultural dance advertised at the front desk and I am just super excited about it.” I wave the book condescendingly at Brad, expressing that this is exactly the kind of mind-numbingly boring thing I guessed he would get hot under the pastel collar about. “Would you care to join me?” I would not, but I recently quit drinking, so I have nothing else to do. I grunt. “Great! Fantastic! Awesome!” Another annoying American habit of Brad’s: exclaiming in tricolon. He would probably also repeat jokes loudly back to me after I made them if he was the type of American who partook of such things as jokes.
I wear my superman hat to the traditional cultural dance because I am sure Brad is up to something. We go to dinner at a local restaurant. We both get the pho (Brad corrects my pronunciation, saying that in Vietnamese, it is phoo, like food with a downward inflection, even though it is not). I say, “Thank you,” in English and tuck in. Brad says, “Thank you,” in a language that is not English, but is also definitely not Vietnamese (it might be Portuguese) and looks around the restaurant proudly, sitting on his plastic stool like it was being carried by a litter of slaves. “Isn’t this just fine? Delightful? Great? Look – a traditional Vietnamese meal in a traditional Vietnamese home: the father watching TV, a child asleep on the floor, the mother cooking the broth. Could you ask for anything more?” I could, and that would be silence.
I offer to go to Tanlong tomorrow and buy Brad a glass screen to carry it around the city with him. He would have something to tap on that way. He recoils and makes his face. The highlight of the meal is when a noodle flips up and hits Brad in the eye. I drop my chopsticks into my phooo (downward inflection) and applaud. The discussion mostly revolves around Brad’s enlightened Christian sympathy for the pre-educated juveniles he sees on the street around him.
“I just feel so sorry for them. I wish there was something I could do to help them… something that wouldn’t involve me touching them… I have a fragile immune system.”
“Now that doesn’t surprise me at all, Brad,” I say, much chirpier since the noodle incident. “But how do you think they feel about you? Here you are, 10 000km away from home, having spent more money than they may ever have just to get here, doing things none of them will ever have the opportunity to do and living in a kind of luxury they probably can’t even dream of, and what are you doing the whole time? Checking Facebook on your iPhone, arguing with taxi drivers for ripping you off a dollar and complaining that the buses are late. But there they are, with butt-fuck nothing, sleeping in a gutter with a dead rat for a pillow, playing with toy cars made out of bottle caps and their own rotten teeth and held together with gobs of other people’s spit, and they’re having a great time. I imagine that maybe they should be the ones feeling sorry for us, Brad.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Of course not, and that’s why you think you feel sorry for them.”
We walk to the traditional cultural dance show. Brad bows to most people we walk past and says, “Happy anniversary,” to them in Japanese. We arrive at the show and Brad is just delighted, overjoyed, ecstatic when they present us with floral garlands. I say, “Thank you,” and smile. Brad says, “Namaste,” and bows so deeply he head-butts the lady who gave it to him.
As for the dance, it was cultural in the way a Kmart is cultural – an expression of a culture, sure, and “cultural” in that sense, but the culture it expressed was not a happy or loving culture. The culture it expressed was not a traditional culture either, or even a local culture. The culture it expressed was a tourist culture. I grant – all the dance moves were probably very traditional and the costumes have been around for centuries. But culture is not the movements or the music or the smiles: culture is what happens around the movements and the music and the smiles. Culture is the static hum of commonality, of shared humanity, that gives the movements and the music and the smiles their meaning. Put it this way – it was like watching the mating ritual of a peacock without understanding that the ritual was intended to woo a peahen. Beautiful, but soulless.
The only culture I experienced at the show was the culture of sitting in an audience of lard-sweating, middle-aged Americans who looked like they were made out of the same material as those plastic piggy banks with the screw-tops, and clapping and whooping every three minutes. I may as well have stayed at home and watched the thing on TV. At least they filter what you look at on TV, so you don’t have to see the sad faces as the performers walk off the stage, or the tents they live in behind it, or their children sitting tired in the gutter and waiting for the show to finish. And best of all, if I watched it on TV, I wouldn’t have had to sit next to Brad. There is no way Brad would ever be in my living room. Unless he broke in to steal my hat.
Cover by Ackgan