Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Vietnam Monkies Flying Out of my Butt
(Photos taken on the back of a bicycle at Bat Throng Ceremics Village in North of Hanoi)
I don’t think it really matters where you’re from. You grow up in one place with your own concerns and cares, savoring wisdom from necessity and the mundane. I grew up knowing it was going to rain by looking at the mountains in the east and how to take the guts form a telephone and make a killer Martian Robot Halloween costume. Random unrelated pieces of knowledge that make up my DNA.
Random modern me.
Random modern you.
That’s why travel to foreign countries these days is so bizarre. People cater to their notions of your tourist needs, attempting to match your American or Western sensibilities often so comically askew with your own. They take you as personal guests for fine dining at McDonalds cutting their cheeseburgers with sterling silver forks while glitzy orchestral renditions of Yesterday and the Moonlight Sonata hum on muzak speakers above you, telling you that they don’t usually drink Coca-Cola, but that it is just so suitable with Kentucky Fried Chicken, and don’t you agree? They prop you up with stiff throw pillows on high speed Tuk Tuks insisting you lay back when you really want to sit on the edge and fly. They serve you beer with ice cubes and pepperoni pizza with green peas and carrot slices. It’s just weird what must be going on in their heads as they try to figure me out.
Then there are the endless questions, as if they are stuck on “Meeting a Foreigner Beginner Conversation” repeat. They will ask you if New York is really both a city and state and what is the capital of Montana. You ask why and they say, “Oh, just I’m studying.”
When you know this is the same safe dialogue they’ve had dozens upon dozens of times with odd-looking English speakers like yourself. So you interact. You try to make a joke, catch them slipping up. You have the sense that just as you are sampling monkey brains and ordering frog legs off the menu while squatting in a back alley over a fire pit in an off the beaten path dive in a foreign land you will never return to or see again, they are also experiencing something new and equally tranquil, and so you play along.
It’s always surprising how in the middle of these goofy thoughts, I am always confronted by the sublime. The fact that I absolutely know nothing about the place I am currently presiding. I don’t know the history. I can’t name the region without consulting my guidebook. I can’t name their present leader or identify any of the faces on their currency. I’m like an idiot child that is being pampered and spoiled and enabled toward some constant state of unoriginality and futility.
At least I am aware of this. I think I am aware.
I know that I am in Vietnam. I know this country should mean something to me.
And I am trying so hard to find what that meaning should be.
I know that in a few days I will be in Cambodia.
And that should also mean something to me.
But I am perplexed as to what it is exactly.
I borrowed a bicycle today, gave up the bumpy motorbike, too scary, and wrapped a scarf around my neck and headed out into the rain toward the village of Bat Throng about six kilometers out of Hanoi. I wore a bamboo rice hat through the fields. It got a lot of strange looks, cheers too, but mostly just perplexed gazes as I passed. I wonder if the Vietnamese use expressions like, “Yeah, and someday monkeys will fly out of my butt,” because if they do, today I was that rocketerring primate.
I don’t know what I witnessed today. I only know I need more time.
I need a lifetime.
I need a do over.
Maybe in my next life all the legless men begging on streets without hands will be baristas at Starbucks offering extra caramel on my scone, and all the children born with birth defects due to napalm exposure will be cast in Shakespeare roles in my next play, and maybe all the little children in the mountain villages hiding along the side of the road like dark weeds that I can barely see will actually grow up to move and inspire people.
But for now, I am only trying to feel. I want to feel something.
Help me, Vietnam. I’m looking for you.