April 27, Hà Nội
After trying to go through customs and realizing that I had to go and wait in line for visa-on-arrival from the counters in the back, I turned and saw I was headed towards a herd of white people from all walks of life. There were the white college students, recent grads on their gap year abroad, dressed in the loose elephant-print pants from the last country they “did” in Southeast Asia, 6-months-in-Asia backpack brimming, and middle-aged white couples ready to take on Vietnam. In all honesty though, what “better” was my own position here?
The taxi took off from the airport.
I looked out to the villages and farm lands we were driving past and I was in awe. The green fields and the cement village homes, papaya trees, was a mirror of the villages in Toisan that I had just left.
I decided not to buy bread from the supermarket, knowing that on my walk back to my new home, there was a bakery that my host pointed to earlier. The word “Bakery” was well-lit in English.
I reached the front counter and a woman in front of me had just pulled up on her motorbike. She and the baker smiled and joked. She was a regular. She handed him a 20,000 đồng note and he packed her loaf of bread in a white plastic bag. I took note, now knowing how much it was. She turned to head back to her bike. The man looked at me. I smiled and pointed to the bread enthusiastically, I wanted the same one. He looked at me and the smile began to fade from his lips. He realized I’m not Vietnamese. “Where are you from?” He asked me in English. “I’m from China,” I responded, slower, choosing to say China this time instead of America, for once. I waited for him to hand me the loaf of bread. In Mandarin he then said to me, “對不起，我不買給你,” Sorry, but I’m not selling it to you. I stood there, still mid-smile. He stood there and looked at me, firm in his conviction. He turned around to sit down, giving one last glare. And I knew then to walk away. Shit I thought, that’s the only bakery around. And then, I have a lot to learn here.
As I hear my host speak Vietnamese, not understanding any of it, I hear her say Trung Quốc. And realized she just said China and it sounded so much like how we would say it in Cantonese.
I type to my host in Google translate, our usual method of communication. And when I press the “voice” button, the Google translate voice says dại học for college.
I am amazed at the words in Vietnamese that sound just like how I would say them in Cantonese. I begin to make a list.
We bike along the West Lake, Hồ Tây, becoming another stream in the Hanoi school of motorbikes. And as we bike, every few kilometers, before us are temples and large gates with Chinese characters written on them.
I go home and begin to read the history of how the Chinese colonized northern Vietnam to seize Hanoi as its capital in ancient times.
I realize I am in completely new situations. All of a sudden, I am the one who can be exoticizing and remaining ignorant of another person’s culture. I am suddenly in territory where I am learning a new language, something I haven’t had to do in a long time. I am outside of my network of friends and of people who share identities with me. And I am learning how to survive.
By now, I have very much unexpectedly grown accustomed to living in Hanoi.
My motorbike driver asks if I am Chinese. I say to him yes, Chinese American. I’ve learned how to say in Vietnamese that I am American of Chinese descent – tôi là người Mỹ gốc Trung Quốc. They understand me. He asks if he can talk to me about the conflicts between Taiwan and China. I say yes, surprised. And for the rest of our fifteen minute drive into the city, we talk about China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. He asks me what I think about Donald Trump. He tells me he thinks Trump is afraid of China and that China will not support North Korea. That World War III could begin at any time now, especially with America’s latest strike in Syria. He is young, in his 30’s, wearing a face mask to shield himself from the pollution.
I ask him about Grab, the Uber-equivalent of Southeast Asia. He tells me it’s good to earn some more money. He tells me Grab charges 15% commission from every ride. I think about the sharing economy critiques, how Grab is making millions without having to lift a finger. And how I find it difficult to live in line with my values in terms of how and where I spend my money and where I spend my money as I find myself in new countries.
I truly thank him for his conversation with me. He asks me to rate him five stars.
I meet with Lien, a new friend who works at the bánh mì place I have gone to twice now after my Vietnamese classes. We go on our search for bún đâu mắn tôm, a typical dish here. I am so thankful Lien had the courage to come up to me as I was eating bánh mì last Wednesday to ask if she can talk to me and stay in contact. It’s hard for me to sometimes initiate conversations with complete strangers. And she turns out to be a student studying politics and journalism in Hanoi. We managed to finally find the place on google maps, with her help asking for directions and eventually coming to an alleyway where we entered and found the restaurant. It was wonderful. And so thankful.
My Vietnamese is progressing. I know how to properly greet people now, with the 9 pronouns I’ve been taught about how to address people based on their age and gender (which was definitely different before colonization. I can very easily see how a pronoun was added to incorporate the other gender in a gender binary, or how a third was removed, perhaps one that was gender neutral). It’s so relieving to be able to communicate with people even if it’s just greeting them properly. People mistaken me for Vietnamese and so when I address them properly, unlike how white foreigners would usually say “hello,” which is seen as rude (it is custom to say “hi uncle, hi grandmother, etc. to address anyone), they start speaking to me in Vietnamese. And from there, I understand little. I take it lightly for the most part. I ask people to amuse me for a second and please engage in conversation with the little Vietnamese I do know and have been learning in class. I then ask them – What is your name? Are you Vietnamese? What is your job? Where do you work? – from my most recent textbook lessons 1-4. I realize too that instead of speaking English as the default when people don’t understand me, I could speak anything – including Cantonese and Spanish because it’s really all the same if I don’t speak Vietnamese.
I feel in a really good place here.
I met with an organization I heard about online called “Hà Nội Queer,” started by two young people, Cai and Chili, trying to bring the queer people in Hanoi together to cultivate community. We met at a coffee shop, sitting on the floor crossed leg, them drinking teas and me, a mango smoothie. As I sat across from them, listening to the most recent events they had of a meet-up for LGBTQ folks in Hanoi, I realized how lucky I was to be able to meet with them in my second week here. I had previously been trying to contact people through couchsurfing – not quite sure how to make friends as a first time visiting a country, but also reveling in the fact that I do not have social obligations to go to, and thus, more time to do what I want to, such as writing.
“Do you want to hear about the queer community in America?” I ask.
They look at each other.
“We assume that in America, it’s… a lot easier, isn’t it?”
I paused. “Not exactly…”
“What is it like living in Vietnam?”
They look at each other.
“It’s not about what is it like living in Vietnam. It’s more about… what’s it like living on this Earth,” Cai said. I looked at him.
“Do you ever wake up in the morning and just think, why am I here?” Chili added.
I looked up at the houses of the narrow street we had turned onto.
“These are the old houses in Hanoi,” Chili said. The houses were apartment flats of buildings. Some of them had tarps hanging off of it, and a wooden deck with some slanted pieces of wood. “The government is trying to buy them back from the people.” I waited for the next part, to do what? “To build new apartment buildings.” It was a familiar story. The same in Amerika’s increasing city populations, the same in Havana’s booming tourism industry, the same the same the same. “They’re giving money to the people to sell their flats, or maybe a new apartment once its finished. I’m not sure. But it’s not going to be finished in a long time.” I thought to my grandmother’s apartment in Cheyk Hom, Hoiping, to be turned into an ancient town tourist attraction, promising its current residents new units in a new town that they’re going to build. Same story same story same story.
The elevator doors opened and we stopped at a set of glass doors on the fourth floor. A rainbow sticker on the door said “queer zone.” I was glad to see some acknowledgement of queerness no matter the rainbow flag. It was a room lined with white bookshelves on both sides. A black corner sofa with a smiley face throw pillow sat alongside the window that overlooked the lake in the neighborhood. Phuong showed me pamphlets along the shelves, printed in the dozens, ones with the LGBTQ flag, transgender flag, bisexual flag lining its Q&A fold-up pages. She told me that the ISEE organization has three main projects, one being focused on the ethnic communities of Vietnam and another, the LGBTQ community.
“Here are books that they did focusing on photo voice,” she said. I marveled at the books with pictures of ethnic minority community members, one specifically of the children taking photos of their own communities, and another on the queer community. She opened a book to show me. “The kids had an exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology here.” She flipped through the pages and stopped at one of a transgender Vietnamese person, with a face half-made in make-up. “The Department of Culture, Information and Society actually had to review all of our photos before the exhibition. There were some that they told us to remove. This is one of them.”
“Foreigners aren’t allowed to own property here,” Chili said. We were speeding along the interstate, but according to Chili, she was driving slowly, only at 20 km/h, on regular road. I thought back to Cuba, “Probably not only unless they’re married to a Vietnamese person right?” It was what I had heard in Cuba. “Yes, but even then the property is not under their name.” She added, “Foreigners can’t own property here, but they can buy the ‘right to use property.'” “Oh,” I said. “You know who owns the land on paper?” She asked me. “The government?” She laughed, “No, the papers say the people of Vietnam. All the people of Vietnam.” “Oh wow,” I said, that’s kinda cool. “So do you have access to the property then?” “No. It’s the foreigners who have the right to use the property.” Bureaucratic capitalistic bull, the right to own property versus the right to use property. “What about if they make some money from it, do you guys get a percentage?” I asked in my optimism. “No.” “Oh.”
After Vietnamese class, I had a sudden restlessness. I wanted to explore the city. These past couple days I have been having headaches and feeling really home-body and also bleeding. And today my period ended and I think something awoke in me. I looked up in my tourist guidebook where to go and what would still be open if I were to arrive half past four. I flipped through the pages and saw the Temple of Literature closes at 5:30. Perfect, I can just make it with enough time to see it.
I was walking around, marveling at the Temple of Literature. I read about its history but could barely wrap my mind around the royal exams and what it meant to be an elite Confucian scholar, answering finals questions to the king. A whole other world. A guy I had walked past before, photographing his group of friends, comes up to me and asks if I can help them take a photo. He asks me in Vietnamese and later tells me he mistook me for Vietnamese, something I’ve been getting a number of times here. Strangely, growing up in America, I was sometimes mistaken for Vietnamese too, by other Vietnamese Americans. I wonder if it’s because want to find their own people. Of course I help them take the photo. And soon, the friends come over and ask where I’m from. It turns out they’re from Ho Chi Minh City, traveling to Hanoi for vacation together.
I walk with them into the temple and one of them asks me to come to dinner with them. I smile, another random occurrence about to occur, yet one where I don’t quite know yet if I can trust these people. When I’m traveling, I always have this gut instinct, where a part of me tells me of the dangers I might run into and the possibility of death. It’s probably the inner part of me that is always looking out for my survival, fight or flight kinda inner thing. As we left the Temple of Literature, we sat down for some sugar cane juice across the street. With these people, there was that inner voice and fear that perhaps there was danger. It’s an irrational thought, one that always warns me to be careful in new situations, one that’s learned from growing up and being told “all strangers are bad and will try to kidnap you,” warranted warnings, yet warnings that prohibit me from truly accepting kind gestures from strangers without being very wary. We were soon eating pho together and I realized maybe I could trust these people after all.
We filed one after another into the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. And right before my eyes, was his open casket. Uncle Ho laying there, 4 soldiers standing guard at each corner. And suddenly every thing I had ever heard of Hồ Chí Minh became more real.