This morning I went out running and an unusual thing happened to me whilst I stopped to buy water – a toddler took a leak on my foot.
Unusual, perhaps, as I stop to buy water in Saigon most days whilst running, and in fact at least twice a day I’m likely to buy something from a street vendor, yet not in the 6.5 years since living here, has a toddler peed on me during any of these transactions.
In fact, I’m 99% sure this is the first time anyone has urinated on me in my life.
I was as angry as I was crest-fallen during the experience – albeit an experience which lasted just the few seconds until I noticed what was happening, prompted as I was by another customer astride a scooter pointing it out to me. I was angry at the person selling the water – for it was her toddler. And crestfallen at the incongruity and farcical parameters which framed this, now documented, episode in my life.
To accuse a one year old of a roadside crime is clearly nonsense. Surely, I told myself just 20 metres away after marching off with my drink, this was a fluke coincidence of nature. A toddler needs to relieve himself and there, tree-like, stands a leg and a bright yellow trainer to take the hit.
However, once 50 metres away, I then recalled how, only moments before the act, the young chancer had tugged at the two inner soles I was carrying (my shoes were rubbing in the humidity and I’d removed the inners) but I’d refused him the chance of taking them from me. Perhaps then this was his way of having the last laugh, given I’d curtailed his advances on my tongue shaped slices of rubber?
As I’d marched off from the stall, snatching my change (and utterly losing face in the process, of course) the vendor yelled at the boy and started towards him. I started my run again but sure enough, as this quandary of speculation buzzed about in my head, I briefly turned to see the little guy bawling his eyes out, tottering about and looking just as confused as me about what had taken place.
So naturally I then felt the guilt of even stopping for the stupid bottle of water in the first place. I wished instead that I’d smiled more at both of them, found some empathy, rather than screwing my face up into the all-too-familiar incredulous ex-pat look, which somehow tries to convey, in one eyebrow scrunched-up stare, the words “seriously?!”
I invoke the “seriously” pose a lot in Vietnam – usually at 4×4 vehicles, driven badly or parked inconsiderately, however the pose is very adaptable, and works in restaurants, bars, taxis and generally in most walks of life out here. And each time the pose is deployed, I usually reflect afterwards what a waste of energy it (along with, now and again, some additional fist-pumping and gesticulating) ends up amounting to.
Another frequent “thing” concerns local dogs and their owners. I’ve often tried to take up roadside debates with dog owners here, as their mangy muts come hurtling up to me, yapping and biting at my heels.
Only this weekend, I was sprung upon by four dogs at once during a run, and the dog owner in question wouldn’t even look me in the face whilst I attempted to engage in a discussion about why they weren’t calling their dogs off me. Instead, the owner just swept their door-step. Their tactics and logic, I had to conclude, being that if they didn’t look at me they didn’t need to acknowledge the fact that I was stood there, with one of the snarling hounds attached firmly to my running laces, asking them to discuss their rather obvious lack of interest in disciplining their own dog.
After that encounter, I fantasized about picking up said dog, and hurling it into the canal opposite their owner’s house, only to then again wrestle with the guilt of doing such a thing when clearly, as pets, dogs who lunge at any passing stranger are probably reacting out of fear and might be being “disciplined” daily – in perhaps the same way that the young boy this morning experienced: more corporal punishment, than pastoral care.
What to do about something (whether you might believe I’m rightly or wrongly laying judgement down on these individuals) that is beyond your individual control or influence?
Well, social movements have proven to influence and changes norms, and are usually initiated and inspired by small numbers of people, so one answer to this question is to start a movement against….against what exactly? I am asking parents not to hit their kids and dog owners not to beat their dogs? Well, yes, and….
Cultural and social norms are clearly so pervasive that they remain complex tectonic plates to shift. Unless, perhaps, inside of a respective society there are consensual agreements about some of these topics and behaviours, shared by all. Schools, governments, civil society groups, employers, parents – a united front is required to make certain things really become binding. You’d think. But we know of course that just because a country signs on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child doesn’t translate necessarily into all children NOT having these rights taken away from them.
And me living in a different country, thinking one thing and carrying my own set of values, does not translate very effectively (I’ve learnt) into me and my “way” having any credence or traction with other people living here.
Agree to disagree, move on and let it be? Maybe that is one answer, but it’s not really working for me (says the man who would throw a dog in a canal to win an argument).
At a recent meeting with a local Saigon NGO, a colleague there talked very plainly about growing up in Vietnam.
“I was never allowed an opinion as a child” she explained, “not at home and not at school – kids here aren’t expected to have a view on things, or be listened to by their elders. So, I never did really talk to adults, except to do what they told me to do.”
Funny, how in this “modernising” part of Asia – labelled as such by many because of the region’s accelerated construction projects, bustling coffee chains and fast-food franchises, catapulting the middle classes into new and exciting public spaces, which will empty their wallets and fatten their waistlines – funny, how this changing face of Asia is, at once, scarring the streets of cities like Saigon, with an ugly new frontage of brands and plastic products yet, at the same time, does perhaps modernising bring with it a helpful scythe across the ankles of existing cultural and social norms, which may just be in need of some updating?