What with one thing and another, it’s been tough finding time to cook up anything worthwhile for this space in the past couple of weeks. As you’ll recall, hometown amigo Ida Becker blew into Vietnam exactly that long ago, storming ashore like a hurricane. But loss of life has been minimal, the feared storm surge failed to materialize, and the winds she brought with her have carried with them lots of juicy tattle from the old stomping grounds in South Cackalacky. Overall, a refreshing change for this monsoon-soaked Southerner.
Ida also claims to have been busy – though as best I can see this entails daily spa treatments**, drinking lots of coffee and juice smoothies, hunting down a pirated box set of the first two seasons of The Tudors, going for mid-morning jogs in the park, and trying not to become too exasperated with non-English-speaking local restaurant owners who don’t know what “vegetarian” means. I suppose we all have our own ideas of what busy is.
She certainly hasn’t been shy about pumping the local population for her U-Truth project. In fact, I mentioned Ida to one of my adult English classes last week. The class is pretty evenly divided between bored Korean housewives and hardscrabble Vietnamese who understand that any chance they have at ever earning more than about $300/month rests on their ability to learn English and find a career abroad. The Korean housewives were intrigued at the shopping opportunities a year-long trip around the world presented. The Vietnamese students, however, found the idea of traveling around the world for a year at least as extraordinary as an American would find the notion of traveling around the moon for a year.
“Is she a millionaire?” they wanted to know. “How does she have so much money to fly to all these places and have daily spa treatments in them all?”
“That,” I replied, idly fingering my secondhand belt and fraying shirt cuffs, “is a question only Ida can answer.”
Naturally, then, when I mentioned the idea of having Ida come in as a guest speaker, the whole class found it fascinating. This she did last Saturday, when over the course of 60 minutes I learned that Ida’s philosophy of English-language instruction is curiously close to my own: speak non-stop for an hour, pausing for breath and the occasional halting question, and hope the students absorb something by auditory osmosis.
Actually, it was a good session, and Ida knew exactly how to work the room. We’d spent some time as a class earlier in the week talking about the idea of a Statement of Truth, and cooking up our own, so the students were nervous but prepared. In our second hour, each of them spent a few minutes alone with Ida in an empty classroom, where she grilled them on their personal philosophies toward life. One by one they disappeared, quaking, into her classroom, then emerged 10 minutes later looking like airplane crash survivors. Jackpot, Becker!
Last week also involved a move from the sticks of District 7 into new digs in District 1. Basically, this has meant a change from a bedroom in one posh Saigon home to another, this time smack in the middle of the motorbike-choked central district. But central Ho Chi Minh City is also awash in open-air cafes, a million and one kinds of storefronts selling pirated and reproduction merch, detailed hand-made furniture and home accessories, atmospheric restaurants, and all the other things lacking in the desperate hinterlands of the outlying districts. So even though it now takes me 30 minutes of shoulder-to-shoulder motorbike traffic to get to my school in the afternoons, it’s worth it for the time being.
The home I’m living in actually belongs to an old Charleston friend who’s been living and working here since 1999, Steve Mueller, a fellow Bishop England HS and Clemson University grad, though he’s a few years older than me. Steve and his family are vacationing for a month in the U.S. right now (in Charleston, actually), so I’ve got the whole four stories of the place nearly to myself. I say nearly, because I’m sharing the house with the live-in housekeeper and the nanny, neither of whom was apparently deemed indispensable to the vacation itinerary. They’re both unmarried, aged somewhere between 30 and 60 (it’s hard to say), and about four and a half feet tall. They dress in hand-sewn, two-piece outfits that look a little like pajamas – the same uniform that virtually every middle-income Vietnamese woman wears everywhere, every day, cut from what looks like a single bolt of fabric and just one pattern for everyone. About the only English words they know are “yes,” “no,” “you,” “hello,” “here,” “eat,” and “bye-bye.” This makes lengthy conversations challenging, as you might guess, but you’d be surprised how much meaning a person can convey with this modest lexicon and a lot of body language.
Often I’ll come downstairs to find the two of them sitting on the kitchen floor, a bowl of rice between them, along with another of tiny seasoned fish and a tureen of boiled greens, both of them belching contentedly.
“Hello! You eat!” they’ll cry, smiling broadly as they get up to fetch me a plate. Usually I’ll have at least a few bites of rice dunked in pungent fish sauce and a mouthful of greens. Never turn down food from a belching woman in pajamas who’s sitting on the floor, is what I say.
Without much to do in the way of housekeeping and nannying, the two ladies seem to have decided that I’m the only project available to them. My bedroom is cleaned at least twice a day, and if I happen to leave any item of clothing on the bed or floor, it’s whisked away at once to be washed and ironed to within an inch of its life. If I cook for myself, which I do fairly often, I’m forbidden from washing my dishes or throwing away my trash. This was made clear shortly after my arrival, when one of them caught me scrubbing a pan in the sink. Dismayed, the tiny woman pushed me away from the sink shaking her head. She took the sponge from my hand and shook her right hand back and forth in the universal Vietnamese sign language for no. “You here!” she said, smiling, pointing at the dishes, then at the sink.
“Okay, okay, I got it,” I said. “No washing the dishes. I’ll just leave them in the sink. How about the trash?” I asked, moving toward the back door and the trash can just outside. “Can I throw this stuff away?”
“No,” she said, closing the door with finality and pointing at the countertop. “You here. Bye-bye.”
They spend most of their days cooking fish and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and sitting on the front stoop of the house with their bare feet in the alley, gossiping, laughing and shooing away stray cats with the housekeepers and nannies of the neighboring houses.
This alley is a hive of activity. Besides being home to an entire ecosystem’s worth of wildlife, from cats, rats, and geckos to mutant cockroaches the size of coasters, it’s a big thoroughfare for strolling vendors who walk around the neighborhood shouting or singing about the wares they have for sale, advertising their businesses using methods that were probably popular in ancient Egypt. Most of the time they’re pushing bicycles bearing huge baskets full of unidentifiable stuff. But sometimes they’re just walking along, hands in their pockets and a cigarette dangling from their lips, repeating over and over again a Vietnamese-language litany that even I can now recite by rote. What are they selling? Even the shoeshine boys carry a bag of tools or something. (By the way, never give a Saigon shoeshine boy both your shoes at once. Trust me.) I have no idea what it could be. Massages? Courier services? Good conversation? It’s a mystery, as I’ve never seen anyone in our alley stop any of them for a business transaction. It looks like a deeply uneventful kind of work to me, but somehow they manage to look busy.
Maybe they’re just walking, talking advertisements for spa services. I suppose we all have our own ideas of what busy is.
** Ida has pressed for a clarification, and seeing as she’s holding painfully embarrassing photos of me getting a haircut, shave, and nasal hair trim from the world’s most thorough street barber in Nha Trang today, I’m inclined to indulge her. For the record, she has had only four (4) spa treatments since she embarked on her global journey six months ago. My observation was in no way meant to suggest that she is on an extended tour of the world’s poshest salons and spas. I can attest that she is a hardened traveler wholly uninterested in being pampered, unless it’s by a fruit lhassi or a bowl of museli, fresh fruit, and yogurt.