A ‘funny thing’ happened to me today

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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).

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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?

‘Funny’ indeed.

 

 

 

Just your typical Friday in Saigon

The daily sights and sounds of Saigon never fail to disappoint.

Take “Goldfish Alley”, the street to which the guy in this picture is no doubt headed.  It contains, on most days, about half a dozen enthusiastic traders offering what I can only reason, given the hot weather here, is something more akin to a boil-in-the-bag dinner for one, rather than a new pet for the kids.

Photo credit @Steve Jackson http://www.ourmaninhanoi.com

But, if you live in Saigon and want to buy a pet fish, even if its life expectancy is dubious, then you know where to go. Continue reading

The Art of Smiling

Late to the party, as usual, I’ve been enjoying the work of Yang Liu – a Chinese-German artist http://www.yangliudesign.com/ whose interpretations of the differences between these two cultures is captured in her East vs West series.

Interpretations which make for some fun talking points for a Brit like me, who has now been living in Vietnam for a year or so.  Take a look at your leisure…

Continue reading

The Art of Inner Voice

The folks from WordPress encourage their blogging disciples to use different “categories” for our posts, so I have reverted to incorporating “The Art Of…” as one of these.

I would, however, caveat that I am not proffering any form of artistic advice or guidance in the words to follow, themselves arguably a bi-product of my own ‘Inner Voice’ and stream of consciousness. In fact, it was Florence, our 3 year old, who first put the idea in my head to write about this subject, earlier today, whilst playing in her bedroom.

Not for the first time in recent months I found myself propped up on Flo’s beanbag at 6.30am this morning, clutching the day’s first cup of tea, and attempting to follow the non-stop chatter she was managing to keep up for a good twenty minutes, breathlessly switching topics, from barbie dolls to doctors and nurses, to renaming her plastic farm animals to listing out options of what her best friend, Velvet, would be wearing later when she comes over for dinner. Continue reading

April journal

Just back from lunch, and tapping away quietly writing this as   Lou is sleeping in one bedroom and Flo is supposedly doing the same in hers…although I can still hear her singing.  Sarah is with us and downstairs having a swim.

So – 5 weeks on from the last pause for thought, and glad to report that things going well out here in Saigon.  In fact I mentioned to Lou this morning that living in Vietnam has started to feel real now, as opposed to the sense we had for a while that we were on some extended holiday out in South East Asia.  Work took me to Bangkok in the middle of March, and then a week more recently up to Hanoi, and it was upon arriving back from this last trip that it began to feel like coming ‘home’. 

True, Hanoi had been quite cold and my time there largely spent holed up in a hotel conducting workshops and meetings in window-less rooms, indulging in too much coffee, too many table mints, and having despairing Groundhog Day moments as I floated round the hotel’s endless buffet at lunchtimes wondering whether research had ever been conducted on linkages between crème brule consumption and various internal organ malfunctions. 

On the back of 7 days of seeing the inside of a hotel (with the odd skirmish at some local bars inbetween) I’d have been excited about the prospect of flying out of Hanoi and arriving back on the Isle of Sheppey but, as it was, touching down in Saigon was a real treat.  The senses were invaded with what were quite familiar sounds and feelings – the throng of chatter awaiting arrivals at Tam Son Nhat airport and the thick, hot air wrapping itself around you as you wait to jump in a taxi and weave your way through the neon lights and motor bike horns, over the Saigon bridge, and into Thao Dien district and our 9th floor apartment, where we’ve been residing for the past 3 weeks.

We’ve been exceptionally lucky since arriving in Vietnam, and this apartment was another good find.  Despite a relatively stressful weekend last month moving in (complete with lugging boxes around town, dusting and cleaning the place itself, and entertaining Flo at the same time) it’s been a great place to settle into and has some very useful amenities (pool, gym, kids area, café) onsite.  We also have a large sexy plasma screen TV, which many people will appreciate is something I’ve long dreamt of owning – although if truth be told the viewing options are not exactly cutting edge, unless you are an avid Vietnamese soap opera fan.

Flo’s school has also worked out extremely well.  We had enrolled her into the Montessori School here within 4 days of arriving and she started immediately.  Their facilities are really impressive, and she settled pretty quickly all things considered.  We’ve got our first experience this coming week of school Easter holidays (2 weeks) which will be fun, but also a bit of a juggling act for Lou.  The combination of 40 degree temperatures and an impressively weighted 5lb bump (not bad for 34 weeks) mean that keeping Flo occupied for a day can be quite tiring – I’m slightly more fortunate as my bump is only around 4.5lbs so am a tad more nimble under foot.

Anyway, I decided about an hour ago to start a blog.  Not sure what this means, other than I’ll have a convenient central space on which to keep these rambling notes, that one day might make for an interesting (for me at least) reflection of our time out in Vietnam.  Please manage your expectations carefully in terms of what you might find on this site (I’m struggling already with just downloading pictures), but I’ll do my best to entertain.  I’ve no doubt anyone who actually reads this will know better than I how to make their reactions heard.  In the meantime, go Rory Mc!  I’ll be sleeping sweetly as you hopefully clean up the Open.