I will answer two of those questions. I did not delete the block quote template in the WordPress sample post.
As many of you may already know, I’ve been living in Can Tho, Vietnam aka Cần Thơ, Việt Nam (look Mom, I’m learning!) for the past two or so months (crazy). The plan is to live here through summer 2020 courtesy of the wonderful people at Princeton in Asia, who have set me up at Can Tho University to teach English. I’ve joined an amazing group of teachers and administrators at the School of Foreign Languages there, a role I am definitely qualified for.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I just want to say that I have really found myself here, and that self is definitely a coquettish Victorian lady-in-waiting. Think about it: the hourglass figure, peels of coy laughter that trail me yonder and hither, my affinity for doilies, why I always have my smelling salts…maybe you pieced it together before I did. Thus, true to my deepest inner self, and since this is my *first post* (long overdue, sorry), I’ma make you work for the good stuff. And your reward for this slog will be a glimpse inside my head, and perhaps of my bare ankles if you’re lucky [giggle, blush].
What is this blogé??
(Thinking about sounds A LOT these days while I try to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet to help with teaching, and in my spare time, straight-up ruin the Vietnamese language with clumsy white-boy articulators…SAD).
So the plan is to use this space to air whatever strange things pop into my awareness lest they ricochet there too long, rear themselves at inopportune times, maybe cause an international incident or five. Let me tell you that this introductory post seems just ripe now after spending so much time in the digital brown paper bag that is my Google Keep app. Admittedly, I wrote a chunk of this like a month and a half ago, and editing it now that I’ve gotten a semblance of my shit together here has been a pretty strange reckoning with both the questionable grasp on temporality I’ve maintained since I left, and some primo evidence that I really need some healthier hobbies. If nothing else though, I’ve learned since my departure that I crave an audience more than I would care to admit. Because where’s the fun/playful narcissism in keeping a journal that nobody reads? And yes, I’m looking at you, little brother who I don’t have but who, if you did exist, would likely be named Brad or something to that effect, and would one day sneak into my room and find my diary in my nightstand, then read all about my embarrassing crushes, go tell the jock-I-liked-but-had-no-chance-with that I wanted to marry him, and I’d be like sooo embarrassed I could just die. [Camera pans to the 90’s]: I’m talking Pogs, Gak, white preteen girls with cornrows, Tamagachis for chrissakes–the apex of culture as we will know it for millennia to come, this I am sure. Watch more TV if you’re lagging behind.
Bear with me, please, and if you’re still reading–remember, you are helping keep the peace by letting me contain and channel at least some of my flights of fancy away from the unsuspecting citizens of Can Tho–you might be able to guess the other possibly more obvious reason I’m going to try and keep up with this blawg, and it has very little to do with misplaced nostalgia, don’t worry. The plan is that every now and again, I’ll do my best to give you the occasional glimpse into what life is like for me here, and try my best not to be annoying about it. As a very dry point of context (nice change from the 99% relative humidity here that prevents skin, dishes, and clothing from ever drying completely here), the city is about 1.7 million people, 3.5-4 hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, the most populous city in Viet Nam (about 8 million souls). It’s referred to alternately as the Fruit Bowl or Rice Basket by nobody outside of guidebooks–I’ve also heard a variant involving fish. Some people do actually call it the Western Capital of Viet Nam, because as you might’ve guessed based on the other descriptors, it’s the agricultural and commercial hub of the oh-so rich and fertile MeKong Delta region. [Insert call-back to Victorian lady-in-waiting bit].
And by the way, just a note here that dawned on me, relevant to everyone, but especially those people who lived through the 60’s-70’s. I will put this very simple matter to rest: the Me Kong, Can Tho no exception, has a rich history and cultural legacy that spans thousands of years–it is and always has been so many complex and beautiful things to so many people who are not Charlie Company. Sounds like a reasonable assertion, right? I think we can make that leap people, I really do, even if you haven’t been here and/or seen the admittedly really good Ken Burns documentary–try not to reduce this place to its eponymous war and anti-war movement. As someone who was guilty of harboring this implicit association before I left, I can now confidently say it’s a very dumb, gravely misleading, oppressive kind of metonymy that probably exists in the American imagination in some form or another for every place abroad our government has tried to spread “freedom” by force. And we should do our best to erase those false equivalencies from our minds. And though history needs remembering, it does not need to cast a shadow so large it eclipses the present and the people who have striven, despite the past, to get there. Okay, I’m done.
Don’t worry, I’ll take a breath and hand the mic to Wikipedia, citing nobody in particular but seeming credible per usual, to do the rest of the talking for me when it comes to broad-painting characterizations of a place that I’ve spent all of two months in:
“Cần Thơ gạo trắng nước trong,
Ai đi đến đó lòng không muốn về.”
“Cần Thơ, white rice, pure water,
All who come wish never to leave.”
A few addenda: I do plan on coming back to the States, for the record; the tap water is is far from potable; mand the rice is indeed white and fluffy AF. I will say up front, in case you saw me last in the thick of my pre-departure “question-everything” state of being, it’s been pretty dope here. And no I don’t have Insta or Tweetser as of now, because I am and will always be above the fray duh, so this is what it’s gonna be, people! Also I have no self-control. But please, whatever it is that I wind up putting on this thing, if the urge strikes, do it: comment, email me directly, try and penetrate my foil hat with ESPer signals, send me a postcard, whatever. I hope–but don’t expect, as a good teacher must learn–to get some nice little back-and-forths, every now and again.
What has Kal been up to the past two months?
It begins…onto a little reflection about my time here! You made it. No paywall too, but you’re probably not even thinking about that because YOU are the one who killed magazines/print journalism by trading your soul to sate a never-ending thirst for free and instantaneous content. And I’m not even stealing your personal data in a bait-and-switch that has already doomed us all–you’re welcome.
So where to start with what has been a pretty wet and wild transition into Can Tho living. It flooded a lot pretty recently, to make my meaning clear. My accommodations are, how you say, rustic. But, to quote a long-standing refrain of my only sometimes ironic father, not in a pejorative way! There are adjustments, but I’ve already found myself finding comfort in the new things that make me feel at home here. The sound of rain on corrugated metal, chirrups of frogs after dark, the mosquito net that kind of reminds of a blanket fort, geckos on my window panes, geckos on my walls, geckos on my face while I sleep in blissful ignorance of the geckos that are probably all over my body sipping mojitos and making weird small talk about crickets and that time Steve jettisoned his tail for no reason at all and Geico’s perpetuation of unrealistic standards of Gecko beauty etc. Oh and (thank God) the functioning A/C in my bedroom. And now that I can drive a motorbike without feeling like I am putting myself and others in the gravest danger every second I am on the streets, the city has started opening up a little more. The cafes here are amazing and you can really match your choices to your mood if you take the time to look around. Fancy vaguely hipster indoor plants vibes, or hammocks + chain-smoking old dudes, and everything in between. And though I am a vegetarian and mostly a man of peace, I’ve really taken to the joys of hunting mosquitoes and wreaking vengeance on their species for the countless human fatalities they’ve caused throughout the ages. How do I kill them, you may ask? Of course I like the electrified zapper racket and the pop you hear when you connect, but I tend to prefer it au naturel, when I can see my own blood freed from their greedy bodies, see it on the wall, on my hands, smeared on my face (the horror, the horror). It really is the little things! And if you think I’m being gratuitous, keep in mind that it was either this or a detailed description of what happens when you have delayed onset food-poisoning right after you eat most of a fresh durian, which for those who don’t know is a sweet and notoriously stanky tropical fruit I used to like up until very recently.
Horribly irreverent jokes which I may use to offset an otherwise preachy tone aside, all of these details are at best ancillary commentaries on the real sources of any feelings of comfort or ease I’ve been able to tap into in this new and sometimes overwhelming place. Namely, the heartfelt gestures and disarmingly genuine welcomes I’ve received from people here, getting more good will in one month of Can Tho than in 26 years of living in New York (only partially kidding). Teachers, students, friends of PiA, random smiling faces. My life in Can Tho so far, one that could easily be amorphous and scary and alone, is instead being built on a truly reassuring bedrock in the form of countless kindnesses I’ve received from people who know full well I cannot reciprocate as a fairly helpless newcomer, but nevertheless insist on opening their homes or offices and showing me Can Tho as they know and love it. Aww indeed.
I think even after just two months, my new surroundings have already proven themselves to be uniquely chill and accepting–go at your own pace, share laughs or silent reflections with people who you can maybe talk to for 30 seconds between your knowledge of each other’s native languages, sit and eat fruit and drink coffee for a few hours, periodically toast to nothing in particular, sneak some rum into karaoke, meet friends of friends out-of-the-blue and go somewhere to wait for more. A lot of this mostly happened before I started teaching and suddenly became very busy, but still! The other day, I was looking for a cafe my friend James recommended to me, clearly lost in a residential Hem (kind of a side street but more winding, fewer building numbers), and a guy and his grandma who were sipping some tea called me over, worked with me through my atrocious attempt at saying the address, then promptly proceeded to sit me down so the guy could get his motorbike and drive me there. It was shuttered and I felt very vindicated after 20 minutes of doubting my sanity, but I owe it to people who helped me for no reason other than the fact they could and that it’s something people seem to second-guess a lot less around here. Kal, you might be thinking, don’t take rides from strangers! But then again, you’re not here and you can’t tell me what to do, and are therefore wrong by design. And also you weren’t melted into submission by a Toothless Granny Grin (TM pending).
To avoid romanticizing things completely, I won’t side-step that I know these daily interactions are colored in part by the fact that there aren’t so many foreigners here in Can Tho. Not many visitors or expats make it down south for extended periods of time, though it seems to be an up-and-coming part of the country for travel, and I feel very lucky to have the rare opportunity to be in a place where the default assumption isn’t that I’m another obnoxious tourist just passing through. And I feel very lucky to try as hard as I can to greet the openness I’ve been received with with efforts to stave off the impression that everyone from the U.S. is insensitive, racist, or entitled. And yes I do know that English is a global commodity that affords me loads of unearned privilege (on top of my whiteness, who knew it was even possible), which does sometimes become apparent when people express undue enthusiasm about just hearing me pronounce words like foreigner whose spelling is really just cruel and absurd. I think it’s important to remind myself and whoever is reading that whenever I describe experiences I have here, I’m talking about what’s in front of me–the people I’ve met, the conversations I’ve had, the feelings that have been imparted on me–and not trying to extend it to much else. And in the hopes of dispersing the specters of any culturally imperialist/Orientalist vibes (more white guilt, anyone else?) that could at best become a nagging disclaimer when I talk about anything, and at worse actual sentiments I accidentally communicate, I want people to recognize that the intention of whatever I say here is never to judge or define or come close to understanding or characterizing entire peoples or histories, in relation to which I’ll always be an outsider who needs to maintain a commensurate amount of humility and respect. Please call me the fuck out if I ever get carried away into icky territory (unless my jokes are deliberately offensive, in which case, you millennials should grow a sense of humor and stop it with your PC Culture, Cancel Culture, War on Christmas, etc.). Please know that I’m trying hard to think about things, at least for now, less like “Kal meets stand-ins for unfathomably complex and imbricated geopolitical and cultural forces,” more like “Kal meets new homies and tries to write down some things he felt.” My tolerance and self-awareness do have their limits, so I will add that I am seriously not into wooden couches. I would also, at this point, do unspeakable things for slightly taller chairs and/or a decent lumbar support. Sorry not sorry.
So with that out of the way and a hopefully more charitable/buttered-up ear on your end (already forgetting how idioms work in English, sorry…corn pun, though?), I can get back to talking about myself. As for me and my very visible difference and very “helpful” English skills, I’ve never felt “used” or othered or anything like that. Sure, people often think I’m way richer than I am, or ask me good-naturedly about my background, and they like to practice talking with a rarefied “native speaker,” but when it comes down to it, their curiosity, their concern for my well-being, and their countless favors feel mostly refreshingly genuine, never anything like lip service or an expected quid-pro-quo. A lot of the time, I get the sense people are just sincerely excited to show someone who knows nothing about their lives that Vietnamese culture and hospitality are things worth being proud of and sharing with the world. It’s not just being an outsider that affords this window–I’ve seen this extend to relationships teachers have with their students and friendships here in general. Invite people in, introduce them to family and friends, even tell them about your home town and make a trip of it together. And so if you get to practice English in the process or learn about life and cultures outside of Vietnam, it’s a win-win. And you can call me naive, but as I get spend more time here and feel a little less apprehensive when I’m out and about, the more I feel like I have a choice in how I move through this place and approach new social interactions. Basically, I make a fool of myself the same way I do in most of my encounters with just about anyone at home, and the more I can remember to do what comes naturally (grinning, laughing, shrugging), the more people seem to be willing to meet me somewhere halfway. It took a little time for that sense of agency to build up in me, but the little island of trust and vulnerability that lies somewhere out there in middle of any cultural or linguistic gulf is somewhat visible on the horizon for me, as of pretty recently.
There’s a takeaway here that is only a little exhortatory. The ways that our imaginings of “otherness” can preclude any real recognition of humanity can be far subtler and far more pervasive in progressive circles than overt xenophobia or outright bigotry. I’m learning that it was largely the blind-spots I had before I left, the “limits of my longing” to borrow from Rilke for a second, in which I think I unknowingly gave a pass to a pernicious kind of cynicism about people instead of doing the hard and daunting cognitive and emotional work of approaching the unknown without assuming the worst. Before I left, countless other people were there in my fears and apprehensions–drunken motorbikers, strangers rightfully bitter about my country’s legacy of aggression and war crimes here, teachers who were unkind or impatient, peers who I couldn’t connect with. I never carved out the mental space for an amazing possibility: what if we actually like each other? That none of my anxieties before leaving ever really accounted for anybody outside of myself is a sobering truth to reckon with now that I’m here and noticing anew that my world is defined by the interpersonal. I’ve believed that in abstract for a while, but I guess I haven’t been really reminded of its existential realness–travel can do that for you. Surrounded by a support system that was and is everything I know in New York, I guess I became too used to things, for better and for worse. My friends and family did not have to accrue extra symbolic meaning because I had everything I needed in their presence and love; but the truth is that it’s been supremely moving to be reminded by strangers halfway across the world that pretty much anybody has the potential to lift you up if you open yourself to it.
As the romance period here dwindles, teaching has become a fixture of my routine and free time feels more elusive. I’ve started to wonder how to set up boundaries to make my life feel like my own–to feel a little more independent and less like I’m in this constant state of passive reception. But I’m glad I got to finish this post that I started writing when I first got here because it’s reminded me that it pays to remember that the “other” is perennial and dynamic, a shorthand by which we are reminded of perspectives that may seem accessory or outside of our awareness, because sometimes franklu they are, but are no less important for it. This other may be literal, or it may be a self from a different time, a frame of mind you might forget is possible as you find yourself juggling obligations and goals.
Living in a new place makes you the other surrounded by others, a paradox of relative perspectives that ultimately can be freeing rather than mire one down in worry and fear (perhaps the Torah’s refrain describing the Israelite slaves, strangers in a strange land, is redundant for a reason). Power dynamics are murky and confusion is inescapable, but there is a beauty to the weird mutual discomfort in new encounters and if you’re lucky and patient, it often cedes to laughing with or at each other because you’ve just shared something. I guess the solution to this paradox of being a guest in a new place that you’re trying to cast as a “home” seems to be to limit your focus to what’s directly in front of you. Much like good motorbike driving–watch out for that person emerging from the hidden side-street on their phone and not looking up at all. Admittedly I forget all this bit quite often–sometimes I’m exhausted by teaching and socializing, sometimes I miss familiar faces and places, sometimes I say “yes” too much and feel myself getting lost in the expectations of others, the stubborn and distracting questions still looming about why I’m doing this and what I will “get” out of it. But I think this piece has served, for me at least, as an important reminder that amidst those worries, one thing, connection, does not need to be over-complicated, and that good people do exist everywhere and they are actively looking to find other good people. Don’t deny yourself this possibility because you may fear the worst or because you may have been hurt in the past or because you’re worried about saying or doing the wrong thing. Just eat some fruit and take a nap because it’s too damn hot and you’re probably not thinking clearly, or maybe just thinking too much.
So…….after all these preambles, onto my the juicy center of the proverbial Gusher that has been my stay thus far: some mediocre photos (sorry, it’s not my medium). Check out the next posts. Woooooo.