Sunday, November 23, 2008

Two tongues = handy

My cardiologist "aunt" from Hanoi came to visit for the weekend. It was entertaining. She took me to an exorbitant but mind-blowingly awesome buffet at a 5 star hotel yesterday. Srsly, there was like foie gras cooked on demand and a chocolate fountain. Then today we ended up at a "binh dan" restaurant. It was hilarious cos she was visibly, like, "holy shit this place is SO LOW CLASS". Whereas to me, a place with chairs that are more than stools 10cm off the ground and tablecloths is woah break the bank already. I've been eating at pavement stalls. She said it was the first time ever she'd been to one - having spent her whole life in Vietnam! I'm not sure whether she knows she's in the 1%. I wouldn't say she's a snob, just...removed. I'm still fascinated by her, though. Such a dynamic, complicated yet endearing modern woman in a society that's not really caught up yet - the stuff heroines of novels are made of. Her family's interesting too. Her mum was a ballet dancer, then joined the army's arts corps (who knew such a thing existed!), then switched into medicine and later Eastern medicine. She knows Portuguese fluently, having worked in Africa for some time. Her dad was a famous architect, and went to Cuba and France to work. Like, wtf, I didn't know there were people like that in Vietnam.

So I was farewelling her today when I got into a conversation with a xe om driver. He's a good bloke. Then one of his regulars came round, an Aussie. So began one of the funniest, most disjointed conversations in my life because while neither party could understand the other, I got both ends.

Dramatis personae:
1) Aussie: 61yo, Vietnam Vet, big, bluff, rough-house Queenslander with tatts and a beer gut. Doesn't speak any Vietnamese and probably thinks everyone should understand English. Likes giving the driver punches in the arm, the only way he can communicate.
2) Driver: 40ishyo bone-skinny, chain-smoking, gap-toothed. Doesn't speak English except for "yes", "no". Ducks when Aussie comes, having been smacked too many times.
3) Me: bemused and amused, in PJ shorts because wasn't planning to stay downstairs for long.

Driver: I have no idea where he wants me to take him! And he never pays me enough. He only pays 70 000 for a whole day's driving, I barely break even with the cost of petrol these days. I might as well stay at home. It's no holiday, being his driver.
Aussie: He keeps taking me in circles and asking for more money, the greedy bastard. I always shout him meals and cigarettes. It costs me 150 000 a day!

Driver: There was this girl who kept wanting money from him...she wanted him to buy her a motorbike! I tried to tell him to stay away.
Aussie: There was this girl - she's 38 but looks lots younger. Isn't she cute? *whips out phone*

Driver: I feel sorry for him despite his cheapness, because without me he'd have to take taxis everywhere. He's a good bloke.
Aussie: I'd punch the lights out of anyone who tried to lay a finger on him. He's a good bloke.

Driver: Did you see the powdered pills he put in his coffee? Can you ask what it is?
Me: Shit, I hope they didn't give me the wrong cup! I'm scared! I don't want to ask. He wants me to come up to his room to "fix his computer". I don't know what to do!
Driver: Oh my god. He loves flirting with girls. Don't go!
Aussie (oblivious): Can you ask him how I can buy some fairy lights, like up on that tree there?
Yes, I did drink from a cup potentially with white powder in it AND went to his room. I KNOW!!! I can feel the disapproval coming down the mother-daughter psychic connection line as we speak! But he left the door open in his room, and I poked my keys between my fingers as makeshift brass knuckles just in case. Nothing happened, thank Jeebus...I'd have no one to blame but myself. Fortune favours the extremely stupid sometimes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


(drafted a few days ago)

Apparently I've been tagged for a meme. Too uncool and blog-orphaned to tag anyone else. Does Not Play Well With Other Children here! heh. But anywho...

The instructions:
  • Grab the nearest book.
  • Open it to page 56.
  • Find the fifth sentence.
  • Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
  • Don’t dig for your favorite book, the cool book, or the intellectual one: pick the CLOSEST.
I was hoping it'd be some random Viet book, but sitting here on my dining table / dumping ground (along with socks, a surgical masks, souvenir koalas, toilet paper, a Shins CD, my CV and Keo Mon Sua) is Jonathan Harley's Lost in Transmission. You may know him as the husband of the chick who wrote Holy Cow, or the ABC's South Asia correspondent. The book's about his travels - he was in Afghanistan on September 11th and such. Eh, worth the $4 it cost me as part of a travelogue box set (do I hear a "hell yeah!").
"On both sides of the divide, more than fifty thousand Kashmiris have fled their villages and the raining shells."
Meanwhile, just back from Le Cambodge. Angkor totally deserves the hype. I travelled with my ex-PBL-groupmate and another Aussie student, and collectively we decided Cambodia wins at temples and city architecture. Phnom Penh is a classy joint. Vietnam is bogan in comparison, but at least we win at food! Bun bo hue shits all over your amok! (er) That said, Cambodia is definitely more developing world - complete with the trademark Pong of Asia stinky markets, vehicles overloaded with cargo and people (today we saw a guy clinging for dear life on the boot of a car as there was no space inside), and undernourished, unbelievably cute half-naked children begging for money. Guilt. Trip. As a rule I don't give money to beggars, but sometimes I forget why that's a rule. Well, if you give a man a fish, you feed him one day. If you give an international charity $40 a month, 20% of which goes to glossy advertising and Administrative Costs, and they teach a man to fish, then you feed him for a lifetime. Or something.

In Phnom Penh we visited the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. The latter is really just a field, with ominous ditches and signs saying "Please don't walk over the mass grave!", and a monument filled with skulls. The museum is at the school that the Khmer Rouge took over and used as a prison. There are no tastefully lit cardboard placards, few glass cases in this museum, no multimedia whizzbangs - quite a contrast from the Holocaust museum in Washington DC. That's not a political's just that this shabby place doesn't allow you much historical distance at all. The first thing you walk into is a series of cells. It was late afternoon when we got there, and the cells were unlit. In these dark, bare rooms, there's nothing but a metal bed frame on which sit iron shackles and other sinister implements. On the wall, a picture of the victim found there. Dead or alive, it's hard to tell. No words of explanation. There's only a sign in Khmer outside, with a drawing of a smiling man crossed out. We couldn't figure out what it meant..."no photos"? "No smiling"? I think it's perhaps "no smiling and posing for photos in this place where people were tortured and killed". The next building is the gallery of the dead, photographs of the prisoners at arrest, and sometimes after being beaten. It's the "befores" that were especially haunting, though. Rarely do they show fear or cry, some even half-smile for the camera.

For some reason we decided we'd go see the war museum today upon our arrival back in Saigon. I wrestled with a lifetime's worth of indoctrination. See, the version of the VN War I got as a descendant of soldiers and refugees, was vastly different from the Western notion - all that stuff about guilt, quagmires, good old hippy days, "Communism roolz (in theory)", American imperialists interfering with the nationalist struggle by the valiant VC, etc etc. It blew my 14-year-old mind, that the story we were taught in Year 9 History differed so much from the story I got at home.

So yeah, the museum is an obvious propaganda tool. Captions say things like "American GIs [grinning] after beheading Vietnamese patriot". And yeah, there's a Hanoi Hilton-sized elephant in the room... indeed all the exhibits are of American weapons and their consequences - I didn't see any VC artefacts. But, man, the pictures. Napalm, Agent Orange, land mines... bodies, burns, birth defects, dead kids. "They did it too" is no answer. There are no answers.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

West Winging it

The West Wing totally called the US election. Matt Santos, token ethnic president based on Obama, campaigning on a message of change, wins against maverick Republican partly based on John McCain - check. Chooses Josh Lyman, based on Rahm Emanuel, as chief of staff - check. The only thing that's missing is the theme song.

I had a post-election squee post but my wifi died and I lost the nerve to press "publish" afterwards. Luckily for you: I was kinda delirious after 150 hours of election coverage. Gotta admit, this Australian shed a little tear. Democracy in action, yknow? And hope in the face of one screwed up world.

Been obsessively following the news, far more than is healthy for someone who's NOT AMERICAN. SMH, Huffington Post, New York Times, New Yorker, Guardian, Washington Post, Politico. This real time thing is too slow, I wanna know what happens in the next episode NOW! Where's the DVD box set?

For your perusal:
  • The rise and fall of John McCain. New Yorker.
  • An oldie but an of coursie: a conversation between Jeb Bartlett of WW and Obama. NYT.
  • Tears along with the joy. NYT blogger.
  • Can Obama be the next FDR? New Yorker.
(what, you got something against New Yawk?)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's a....squalling purple thing!

So I've been pretty crap at blogging Vietnam! I blame the shitbox wifi in my room. Sitting downstairs now glaring at my battery meter.

GUESS WHAT. Today I went to an obstetrics hospital. Borrowed scrubs and a student ID so I wouldn't look too conspicuous. What, that's totally legit!

It was awesome! And a little bit icky. But mostly awesome. I saw four births: one immediately afterwards (placenta still on the way), one C-section and two from start to finish. That is, we had a look of them before the "pushpushush!! HARDER! you can do better than that!!!" started. I even, ahem, assisted on one. That's to say, I felt the belly to see when it was taut, and was meant to yell at the mother to push and tap on the belly to help the contractions, except I was kinda shy and didn't fully understand the instructions.

The actual process of childbirth looks, um, kind of painful. When it's my turn, give me the frigging drugs already! And the cutting and sewing bit - only under lidocaine here - seems like torture. Eww. And the delivery suite wasn't very friendly. Women just lying there with their legs open, no one paying much attention to them. Is that the way to welcome a new life into the world? I entertained notions of having a hippie, birthing centre, water-birth, midwife type of thing, but then I can't be a doctor and forsake western medicine entirely hey. Maybe a hippie birthing centre next door to a major tertiary hospital. Also, yknow what? Newborns are so not cute. Maybe after they're cleaned up and oxygenated, not so much when cone-headed and purple and covered with dodgy slime and being held upside-down by the legs by a midwife who's suctioning said dodgy slime from its nose, mouth, and anus by the same apparatus (yes IN THAT ORDER, thank god).

My Viet student friend ultrasounded another woman's belly and after mucking around for a while trying to find it, we finally got the heartbeat. The mother's face lit up, as no doubt mothers' faces everywhere light up. My "omfg that rocks!!" grin was reflected in her face.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Indecision 08

A German and an Aussie med student in a Vietnam triage room.
German: What day is it today?
Aussie: Umm let's see...tomorrow is the election. I mean, The Election.
and previously
Aussie 1: I haven't been following the elections recently, but yesterday I went on a mad spree and stayed up til 2am looking up the candidates on Wikipedia and reading the blogs.
Aussie 2: Dude. ME. TOO.
Conclusion: don't fuck it up for everyone, America! Kthanx.

I've had a bit of election fever for a while actually. Huffington Post is my drug of choice, although it's funny how it's so overtly Obamamania. Reminds me of how my Flynnie mentor only watches Fox. All the cognitive bias you need in one place!

CNN and BBC don't work here properly, with only sound but fuzzy wuzzy pictures. I would like to attribute that to Our VC Overlords, but it's more likely due to crappy reception. So my options for fulfilling my "WOOO! WEST WING SEASON FINALE!" excitement are listening to the news (so retro! cf people in WWII listening to the wireless to see whether their city's going to get bombed) or obsessively surfing the blogosphere.

Monday, November 3, 2008

We sing with one voice

Remember how I was feeling like a stranger here? I've discovered these really are My People. See, in Australia, people look at me like I'm a weirdo whenever I randomly burst out singing in the street. Haven't they seen musicals?! But here in the motherland, EVERYONE does that. Bus drivers, roadside stall owners, cleaners, doctors in ED or surgery - elbow deep in someone's belly. They'll just be working then suddenly break into folk song mode and no one blinks an eye.

A genetic excuse!

(and a one, two, one two three four...jazz hands!)