There’s a religious story told about a drowning man praying to God to be saved and turning down all the help sent his way because he was looking for something specific.
I wonder sometimes whether this is the parable of my life. I feel like there’s something I’m ‘meant’ to be doing but not sure what it is and am hoping the universe will send me clues.
I’ve always claimed that I want more time to myself, to immerse myself in creative writing. And there have always been plenty of good reasons why I can’t find this time. Until now that is!
Here I am living in a beautiful pueblo blanco with no family around for me to focus my energy on. I have a few friends and am beginning to become involved with some community activities. I’m really enjoying looking after the home, exploring local markets, buying and cooking our food and growing an abundance of plants in our patio garden. But there’s always a niggling feeling that I ‘should’ be doing something else.
Today it occurred to me that I am that drowning man. Having spent years claiming I want the time and space to write – the universe has provided me with the most perfect opportunity and I spend my days on distractions and tasks that provide varying degrees of satisfaction without ever actually having to sit down and write.
In Vietnam my excuse was that while I was sitting in front of my computer I wasn’t out experiencing the wonderful culture and life all around me. A valid comment you may agree. And the same does apply here to some extent but …. It’s now so hot during the day that all my neighbours and friends escape to the beach every afternoon to cool off, relax and play. That’s not something that hubby and I particularly enjoy so at the very least I have several hours every afternoon to ensconce myself in my lovely study, turn up the fan and write.
A lightbulb moment! Eureka, Karen, you finally have the time, space, energy and commitment to writing – all at the same time. Stop procrastinating! As an author friend once wisely commented: writers write.
If I want to be a writer, I’d better get writing!I
Whenever I bemoan the lack of time I have to do everything I want to do in a day, my husband helpfully reminds me how much time I ‘waste’ on Facebook and I wonder again if I should come off it, even if only temporarily?
Unlike many in my age group, I signed up to Facebook in those early days when, as a mature student, FB was adopted by university students en masse and the concept intrigued me. Gradually many of those young ‘friends’ have dropped off – as virtual friends at least – to be replaced by people I actually know and am friends with ‘in real life’.
I would agree that there are times when the site frustrates me – I don’t need a blow-by-blow account of your cat’s latest illness, or hourly updates on your husband’s recovery from an ingrowing toenail operation. However, with friends and family scattered across all corners of the world and spanning several generations, Facebook is a brilliant way to keep people in my life who would otherwise disappear off the radar, as well as sharing and receiving information at a local and international level. It provides a continuity and sense of community that might otherwise be missing in my life.
Where else could I:
- Support a campaign to stop Dubai (or Abu Dhabi?) opening a SeaWorld;
- Read Ricky Gervais’s pithy and poignant comments on animal cruelty;
- Follow the plight of Nepal as the international struggles to provide support;
- Share the adventures of my globe-trotting sister;
- Enjoy the incredible wit and humour behind some cartoons and jokes shared by friends;
- Connect with friends around the world who speak different languages and share items globally at the touch of a button?
Yes, there are days when I think I really shouldn’t spend so much time on FB and times when I vow to return to keeping a book of Crossword puzzles next to the kettle to entertain me in the couple of minutes whilst waiting for it to boil and not immediately reach for Facebook on my iPad. But, on balance, I think FB is more friend than foe and enriches rather than impoverishes my life and so, while ever that equilibrium is maintained Facebook has a place in my life. Hubby be darned!
Well, having spent a few months trying out Blogger instead of WordPress and acquiring a new iPad mini along the way, I think I’m back!
They say to embrace change but I wonder when I’m changing something just because I can, or to try out the latest ‘thing’ and when change really is to the benefit of me and those in my community.
Having struggled to access WordPress while in Vietnam I switched but it occurs to me that I prefer WP and now that I’m back in Europe there really isn’t any reason not to return.
So, here I am, back up and running and plenty to share from the last few months – about life, identity, family and a sense of belonging.
To be continued …!
One aspect of life abroad that can be both fascinating and frustrating for expats is that of Public Holidays.
Here in Vietnam there are nine weekday holidays, of which we’ve so far had 8.
Having arrived ‘post event’ in 2012, we decided to stay put for TET this year, despite the hugely conflicting advice about the wisdom (or otherwise) of such a decision, particularly given the proximity of our house to Phu Tay Ho – the main temple in Hanoi which is dedicated to the Mother Goddess. Changing date in accordance with the Lunar Calendar, TET this year was celebrated between 9th and 14th February and the whole area around the temple was turned into a cross between a carnival and carnage. Next year we will be going somewhere quieter – anywhere that doesn’t recognise this as new year.
On the 19th April we had a day off for King Hung’s day to commemorate the first King of Lac Viet and this week we enjoyed a two-day break. 30th April was Vietnam Victory/ Reunification/Liberation Day (depending on your affiliation/geographic location) to mark the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. And yesterday, 1st May, was International Worker’s day which celebrates the economic and social achievements of workers throughout the year (not sure how these achievements are measured or whether they’re just assumed?).
Unlike in the UK where all Bank Holidays (apart from Christmas and New Year) are shifted to the nearest Monday – public holidays fall on the ‘correct’ day here so it is not unusual to have a Tuesday and Wednesday off – as we’ve just witnessed.
The reason that I find these holidays stressful is because they are completely alien to me. I can’t always work out what is being celebrated. I’m conscious that sometimes even the name of the holiday can be cause of contention – as in the case of Reunification/Liberation Day. And it’s extremely hard, as a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, to work out how the Vietnamese celebrate or enjoy said holiday.
I’m reminded of my first Introduction to Islam lecture at the University of Manchester when the lecturer posed the questions – which Islam, when, where and for whom? His point being that, like much in life, there is no one ‘right’ answer – Islam is many different things to many different people. So too is the way of celebrating national holidays.
TET is the big one – similar to the Western Christmas – with presents, food, food and more food, some alcohol, spending time with people you don’t necessarily see the rest of the year, rituals, traditions and an enormous amount of pressure. It is, for the Vietnamese I’ve spoken to at least, both expensive and tiring and something approached with very mixed feelings. Sound familiar?
The last two days have felt like a weekend and so today must be Monday, which for some reason everyone else is calling Thursday! Hubby was off work but you wouldn’t have known it thanks to the constant beeping of his Blackberry and because he works in an international consultancy firm with colleagues around the world blissfully unaware that he was ‘on holiday’.
Which brings me onto the topic of how expats celebrate public holidays in their host country. Many, particularly the more seasoned foreigners and those with children, simply flee. Hanoi in particular engenders this desire because whilst it’s an amazing and vibrant city, it can drive you crazy with its constant noise, dust, humidity and general air of disorganisation. Depending on the length of holiday many people take the chance for an adventure exploring parts of Vietnam they haven’t previously visited, others head for a beach or 5 star resort and recharge their batteries beside a pool. Some friends of ours took advantage of one of the great deals offered to foreign residents and enjoyed a ‘staycation’ at a beautiful hotel on the opposite side of town to where they live and work.
We seem to be a little slow on the uptake and have so far been here for every public holiday. Now that we’ve enjoyed experiencing them – in that strange twilight zone between not being a local and not being a tourist, we have both agreed that we’ve ticked the box marked ‘Experience Public Holidays in Vietnam’ and will, in future, take the chance to be tourists in another city, enjoying everything that that entails. Staying put has meant that we’ve paid more for pretty much everything we’ve bought as local shops and restaurants all raise their prices at holiday time and we haven’t been able to enjoy the fresh ingredients we’ve become used to because, for example, the dairy producing the milk we like was closed for the holidays and the markets and small traders we usually buy from simply didn’t bother opening.
So here’s to our next public holiday, Monday 2nd of September when we’ll be celebrating Vietnamese Independence Day on a beach somewhere, or maybe even in Cambodia, Taiwan or Japan.
“Today madam we should pay our respects to the landlord’s mother” announced Chi. Great I thought, having been bitterly disappointed that we missed out on the actual funeral a few days earlier. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not somebody who delights in death or bearing witness to another’s sorrow. In fact I have probably caused more harm along the way with my complete horror of causing pain to another person – with the things not said and the actions not taken – than any mischief I might have carried out intentionally.
No, my delight is because I am intrigued by how others do things. How they conduct the rituals of life and how we learn what is expected of us simply by ‘being there’. And what better way to observe, at least a small part of, the rituals surrounding death here in Vietnam than by going along to pay my respects to a lady I have never met, for a man I never knew?
Despite being acutely aware of how little I know about Vietnamese societal norms, one thing is for sure – I can recognise a mother’s pain in any language and can think of nothing worse than the raw agony of losing your child, no matter how old they are.
Chi explained that we should take fruit and an envelope each on which we must write some words of condolence. It was agreed that I should write what I would in the UK to someone I didn’t know and so, conscious of the need to translate it too, I opted for a rather bland:
We are very sorry for your loss.
Warm wishes, Kevin and Karen
Into the envelope we were to put 100,000 Vnd per person (i.e. 200,000 in my envelope and 100,000 in Chi’s – which she refused to let me pay)
At 2p.m., which Chi considered to be the right time to visit, she called our landlord and landlady and, getting no reply, set off next door to find out what time would be convenient.
The mother was there but about to go back to her own house along the alley. A few minutes later and Chi’s ‘phone rang to signal that we should set off. Walking Sally through all the inter-connecting lanes on a daily basis, I already knew the house to which we should make our way but the landlord’s 23-year old son was waiting at our gate to escort us.
On arriving Chi pushed me forward saying: “You are older than me, you must go first”. So there I was, straight into the front room as is typical in Vietnamese houses. The grieving mother looked to be in her 80s but I find local people incredibly difficult to age accurately.
We were handed a plate on which Chi arranged our envelopes and the fruit (grapes the size of golf balls because as Chi said: “They will be offered to other visitors and everyone will know that they were brought by the ‘tay’ – the foreigners”) This she then placed on the altar where we stood side by side with hands raised, flat together in a symbol of respect and prayer. We dipped our hands three times before the photo of the deceased, made a small bow and sat on the hard wooden chairs beloved of Hanoians, to chat about the deceased take tea and eat fruit. (I learned that the Vietnamese way to eat a banana is to snap it in the middle and delicately unpeel one half at a time eating it as you unpeel. My rather ungainly and faintly obscene ‘Western’ way had me cursing the previous visitors for not having had the foresight to have taken grapes too)
The mother, my landlady and the deceased’s sister all sat with us chatting, with Chi translating, bridging the divide and asking all the questions I longed to ask but would have felt to be impolite even if I could speak Vietnamese. (They have no such qualms and to say that they ‘call a spade a spade’ would be under-emphasising just how blunt they truly are). The old lady started to cry and kept saying “Cam On” (thank you) over and over. Chi explained that she was so moved that I had taken the time to visit and that the whole family are most grateful to Kevin and me for caring about them. I confess I felt slightly guilty at just how fascinating a pleasure this visit was for me and muttered the obligatory platitudes, you’re welcome, it’s nothing …..
And so to the deceased. He was the youngest of her children born in 1969, making him 42 at the time of death, which everyone agreed was far too young. He was diagnosed with throat cancer 6 months ago and had whatever treatment could be offered here. Towards the end he was ‘so sick he could not eat rice’ Chi confirmed solemnly. Anyone who has been to Vietnam will immediately discern just how truly dreadful was his condition as, for most of the population rice is eaten and enjoyed three times a day, every day. He was conscious when he died but very weak having existed on just water, yogurt and milk for several weeks. His illness did not unfortunately take away his appetite and he begged for food right up to the end, knowing as he did so that he could not possibly swallow anything with any substance. Surrounded by his entire family; mother, brother, sister, nephews, nieces and the collective spouses, he passed away peacefully on Monday.
We all agreed that this was a blessing, that he was a very handsome man and that he had a lovely smile.
Chi explained that the family must continue to feed him for 49 days which was slightly disconcerting until I realised that this is done by leaving his meals on the altar for him to enjoy, along with his favourite brand of Hanoi vodka, soft drinks and cigarettes. Prior to his illness, he had been a heavy smoker so his relatives must ensure that during this mourning period he enjoy a continuous supply of cigarettes, lit for him and placed between the incense sticks in a manner that seemed sickeningly close to a replica graveyard with its burnt out stubs sticking into the air almost mockingly.
During this 49 day period the daughter and daughter-in-law will take turns on alternate days to feed the mother before she moves in next door permanently on the 50th day.
With the niceties over we took our leave to more ‘cam on’ing and squeezing of hands and, once outside the door the sister invited Kevin and I to her restaurant, just near where we all live and my landlady begged me to teach her English in exchange for Vietnamese classes from her.
The son escorted us on the return trip with Chi confessing that she had not been that way along the alley before (despite admitting to me earlier in the day that she had lived not 5 minutes walk from my house for 10 years during her marriage!) and the son laughed and said that everyone knows me because I walk through there every day with my dog. As she opened our gate Chi said how lucky it was that the deceased had no children of his own. Thinking how difficult it would be for them to lose a father I agreed with a sympathetic nod only to be brought up short when she said “The landlord must now look after his mother and if there were children he should pay everything for them too, at his own expense. Yes it is very good, I think so, that he had no children. Very luckeeee.”
Well now I would never think of not having children as being lucky, although I can see her point. Even in death, life must go on.
So, we’re back in Ha Noi having spent almost three weeks travelling the length and breadth of England – with a bit of Wales thrown in for good measure!
The three and a half months between arriving in Ha Noi, in March, and going on holiday seemed to fly past and we were just beginning to find our feet when it was time to go ‘home’. Which brings to mind the question about where is ‘home’? Being an ex. pat. you become a little confused I think – home is where we live and that is Ha Noi but it’s also where those we love live and in our case that’s the UK. When we were on holiday we found ourselves talking about Ha Noi as home, partly perhaps because all our possessions are here and Sally (dog) was in kennels. Is home then where you have roots or a tie, or people? If it’s people, is it where the majority of the people you care about live? Maybe it’s wherever your heart says is home. For me, right now I have two homes: Ha Noi because it’s where my husband and Sally are and the UK because it’s where pretty much everybody else that I love and care about lives.
Our holiday had been planned around my youngest sister’s wedding celebration (the original ceremony having taken place in Noosa ) and, happily for me this coincided with Bruce Springsteen’s tour of the UK with the East Street Band. Four of us went to The Etihad Stadium in Manchester on a very bleak, wet, grey evening in June to hear the band play their hearts out for 3.5 hours. Awesome and a lesson for many of today’s ‘celebrities’ on showmanship.
It is not unusual for there to be tension or under currents at family get togethers but, unless I missed them entirely, our day was fantastic – credit to the bride and groom for their thoughtful planning I think! However, in-keeping with wedding tradition, the bride looked absolutely stunning. They say that every girl wants to be a princess on her wedding day and my sister looked every bit like a fairytale princess.
We spent the next two weeks driving like maniacs around the country visiting relatives and friends and enjoying the cool weather (I know, I know, who’d have thought I’d enjoy cool rain so much but after the humidity of Ha Noi it was sooooo refreshing!). By the time we got back on the plane we were both slightly frazzled and ready to relax – thrilled though we were to have seen so many loved ones.
The day after landing back here, we were off again. This time taking up an invitation from some great new friends to join them on a week end cruise to HaLong Bay . It is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and breathtakingly beautiful. I will try to insert a photo at the bottom of this post.
By the time we got home on the Sunday evening we were fully relaxed having enjoyed a great holiday and a great week end. Let me just tell you a little about the group we went to HaLong Bay with though because it reflects the whole ex. pat. experience perfectly. The man who invited us is Dutch (met hubby at a networking event) married to a Vietnamese lady from Saigon. They had invited us to dinner a few weeks ago and it came out in conversation that the week end we got back from holiday was our 8th wedding anniversary. Knowing that Kevin (hubby) had been having some challenges at work and we hadn’t been out of Ha Noi yet, they suggested we join them on this cruise. Seemed like a great idea and we gratefully accepted. Over the next few weeks it transpired that the trip had been organised to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Dutchman’s sister who would be coming to Vietnam with her two children especially to celebrate the birthday. Great, what an honour to be included. So, the 12 guests were made up of: the Dutch man and his wife and young son, his uncle who was born and brought up in the States, plus American wife, his father and cousin from Holland, his sister and two daughters who live in Curacao plus Kevin and I from the UK. Internationalism at its very best eh! Even if we return to HaLong bay during our time in Vietnam I can assure you we’ll never forget our first trip. And if you haven’t been – check it out and add it to your bucket list 🙂
I don’t know why, it’s not as if the inhabitants are little people or anything, but this dwelling always reminds me of The Borrowers. Just before moving to Vietnam we watched a new BBC One dramatisation of Mary Norton‘s classic novel so maybe that’s why it’s near the front of my mind. Like many children I absolutely loved the idea that there might be little people living in our midst who ‘borrow’ all those things that go missing!
However, this picture is in some ways perhaps rather sad – this motley collection of cast offs and leftovers is someone’s home. From what I can gather a family of 6 live here, including two young children, but that could be more because Vietnamese families prefer to live all together and I often see an elderly woman emerging from the front door too.
Like many thousands of Vietnamese people, this family make their living from collecting, sorting and I guess selling on somehow, other people’s rubbish. Their house happens to be on a piece of wasteland where I walk Sally sometimes so the family now recognise me and wave or say Xin Chao (hello). The children – under 6 years of age – are both fascinated by and terrified of Sally but they do seem to enjoy watching her frolicking around off lead and throwing/catching various bits of ‘treasure’ like an empty drink bottle.
Not usually one for facts and figures I can tell you that the minimum wage here is (supposedly) 2 million Vietnamese Dong (Vnd) per month – roughly £60 and very roughly £2 a day. Sure many things are very cheap here but even so, that is not a lot of money. A paper collector can earn 3 million a month while a surgeon will earn 30 million (an amount that only 2% of the population generate).
The observant amongst my readers will have noticed that there are a) not a lot of photos and b) none showing people. It’s not that I’m not interested in people, quite the opposite in fact, I’m only really interested in people. It’s because I have an absolute horror/dread/fear of taking someone’s photo without asking them first. Yes I have some hang ups about having my own photo taken and yes it stems from my childhood and yes Dad, I forgive you honest I do! There are some stunningly beautiful, tender interactions between people here where the lines between public and private are very blurred.
Many people live out their lives on the streets, in public and the opportunity to observe or bear witness to all of life’s interactons is all around you. When my hubby walks Sally last thing at night he never ceases to tell me how many of the cars and motobrikes were ‘rocking’ on the waste ground which doubles as a spot for young lovers under cover of darkness. (Isn’t that illegal in the UK by the way?!)
Maybe one day I’ll pluck up the courage to ask The Borrowers if I can take their picture outside their home but then how could I explain that I don’t want the picture to gloat or show the world how dreadful it is here – but to show you how happy they seem, the level of teamwork displayed with every single family member pulling their weight and mucking in and how ingenious is their house which withstands the truly awful weather in Hanoi. I couldn’t explain it and have them understand and I don’t want to steal from them so I’ll have to try to capture them in my mind and the occasional furtive picture and hope that that’s okay with them.
It is no exaggeration to say that I can spend all morning shopping here in Hanoi. Pause a moment while I wait for friends and family to process what I just said. Karen shopping? It will seem unlikely I know but ….
I haven’t yet found a shop that sells everything that I want for a meal so I end up going from shop to shop buying meat here, vegetables there, condiments from a third and bread from – well, the bakery of course! Things aren’t so different here.
Or at least that’s what happened before the fabulous Chi took over the running of our household. Now, at least some of the traipsing around can be alleviated by telling her in advance what I need and waiting for her to arrive for work, happy, smiling and bearing gifts! Well, fruit, veg and/or meat to be accurate but it feels like a gift because the quality and price are far superior to anything that I can manage to buy and I’ve had to make so little effort myself. When I complimented her yesterday on the quality of the Dragon Fruit she’d bought me she replied, with a totally straight face: “I am a Vietnamese woman. I know how to shop”. Well quite a few of my friends know how to shop Chi but trust me, they couldn’t buy fruit at the absolute peak of perfection quite like you do!
In the UK I would often trek around one of the big supermarkets, aisle after aisle searching for a product that eluded me only to ask an assistant who pointed to the very shelf where I was standing (who does decide where all those products go by the way?). Out here my inability to find items is greatly simplified by the clever Vietnamese grouping all their shops by item, especially in the Old Quarter. Therefore if you need paper you simply go to Paper Street, if you want bamboo furniture head over to Bamboo Corner. However, even this cunning strategy falls down, from my perspective, when it comes to two particular items: nappy sacks and tea towels. I absolutely can’t find them anywhere but I love the idea of Nappy Sack Street so am not going to give up. Without wishing to further worry my family with talk of all things baby related I was thrilled to find, after only an hour’s searching, Paddling Pool Lane. The dog (nappy sacks are the perfect receptacle for taking out on dog walks) is in danger of over-heating out here and absolutely refuses to go near water unless it’s a muddy puddle or Westlake where the only steps in and out are about a kilometre from the house and it’s too hot to walk there. Hence the need for a paddling pool! Tea towels? I’ve no doubt I’ll find them when I least expect to and no longer want them. Until then, I’ll make do with the one that I packed (accidentally I admit!) and await my furniture shipment from the UK.
Having been here for three weeks now I fully intended to write once or twice a week but this has been wildly unrealistic. Why? Because there is so much to see and take in as a newbie that just living it is enough without re-living it by writing about it all!!!
I have one of my son’s with me for a couple of weeks so, in addition to acclimatising and finding us a house, supporting my husband when he comes home totally exhausted and trying to get to grips with having a dog in a city that neither of us knows and she hates the constant stream of scooters whenever we set foot outside the apartment – I just don’t seem to have the energy to write. I don’t want to write when I’m too tired because I don’t want a negative or low-key blog – I’m loving it here and want that to be reflected in what I write.
I have been keeping a list of things I want to write about and I hope to get around to them all at some point but for now I’m going to share with you one note I made that seems to make perfect sense but I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what I intended to say about it!!! The note reads: Often messages misleading.
When I work out what I meant by that I’ll share it with you For now though I’ll just make a couple of comments. My son and I have just come back from a fabulous street foods tour with Tu from Hanoi Street Food Tours – check out his blog at vietnamesegod.blogspot.com and had an amazing time. What I felt really strongly though is that I need to start learning Vietnamese ASAP because I’m going to miss so much of what’s happening around me if I can’t converse properly. Food is a passion and I really want to buy locally and eat seasonally – for that I need at least some words and phrases. So, top of my To Do list is to get some lessons!!!
The second thing I wanted to share is how tough it is when you first arrive if you have family ‘back home’ because I find myself living in two time zones. Everything gets translated back into UK time so that I don’t miss speaking to the kids or my parents because I’ve got the time wrong. Also, I’ve kept a client in the UK so have to make sure that I keep to the deadlines – in UK not Vietnamese time. This so far has involved me living a full day here in Hanoi and sitting down to ‘work’ at about 7p.m. knowing that I’m still well on target for the UK working day. That’s not sustainable long term as I’ll be exhausted but for now well, ….
So, all good, more tiring than I expected and things move at their own pace which is as it should be but takes some getting used to for a controller like me!
Have an ace week end everyone and I’m off to sit on the sofa and stroke the dog’s tummy and we can reassure each other that all’s well with our world 🙂
Yippee, we’ve agreed what we’re doing with all the items in one room of the house. Okay, we haven’t done anything with them yet and I did pick the easiest room – the sitting room. But, don’t knock it, for a hoarder this is amazing progress with 6 months still to go before we move!
I’ve devised a Ship, Store, Sell checklist; itemised everything in the room and then have a quickfire session where hubby gets to say what happens to each item. Any that I don’t agree with we discuss before moving onto the next item. I think this is called teamwork!
I haven’t quite worked out a prize system yet but really feel that something should be on offer to make a painful process a little more enticing! (Prize for me that is, Kevin (did I mention his name before – well, he’s the hubby!) isn’t sentimental about most ‘stuff’ and would happily get rid of 90% of it).
Ship and Store are pretty self explanatory but Sell actually means I need to give some thought to anyone who might want the item among our friends and family. If not, whether it genuinely is worth selling, if it would better suit www.freecycle.org , the charity shop, local community furniture project, recycling or the dump.
Time for coffee and cake to give me the energy to tackle – the dining room 🙂