Whatever rambling crap I end up writing next in this post might possibly come off as self-important and pretentious so forgive me – I am in the mood for pontificating so please read no further if you are looking for the latest perfume reviews – but I feel like getting down some ‘Vietnamese thoughts’ while things are swirling through my discombobulated mind after an unpleasant altercation last night in the centre of the city and a combustion on my part that led to drama down by the harbour- I feel like just lying here on my hotel bed with the amazing cacophony that is Saigon outside the window : I need the glass pane, the separation. And to just expunge some thoughts from my chest.
‘Holidays’. ‘Foreign culture’. I do feel that travelling and going on ‘vacation’ ( vacating what ? ) is so much more than just taking break from the everyday and the routine; at least in my case, now, at this point in my life ; more than merely recharging your batteries and relaxing, (yes: vital, and both of us already feel very invigorated by coming here after a crazy couple of years): you need to switch off and just chill, sever yourself from the tedium of daily responsibilities that bilge the mind and accumulate stress : but despite the need all of us lucky enough to be in the position to ‘get away’ once in a while might have, somehow that is not enough for me any more. For me coming to a place so entirely different from both England and Japan is a chance to learn more about what being human means : to see what Vietnamese culture – at least from my western perspective looking in from the outside – can teach me about myself and what the world is. I realize some of my calcifications and boundaries: my intolerances: the stress I find perversely stimulating; but also my obvious lacks.
I was randomly watching an episode of a ridiculously trashy reality show on Netflix the night before coming away – The Only Way Is Essex, about glammed up working class people and their friendships and sexual relationships with each other; terrible on many levels, if voyeuristically mesmerizing: this series, though ( series EIGHTEEN : do people really watch it all? ) was set in Majorca, even if the participants in the programme could have been anywhere for all the interest they seemed to be taking in their surroundings : the focus was on lipstick, hair, and the jealousies of relationships.
A reality show is not reality: and there is nothing wrong with a resort holiday – sun, sex, and sand; I love the beach as much as anyone else ( although neither me nor the d could realistically just spend two weeks lazing by the pool any more – each to their own ); but it does seem like a wasted opportunity to gain some kind of insight, to just use a foreign country as a mindless kind of leisureland, to miss out on the mindfuck of realizing how conditioned you are by your own culture and nationality and then immersing yourself in a place so utterly different from what you are used to – yesterday felt something like a mix between a maelstrom and an epiphany.
It is a peculiar position : being irrevocably English/British/European/ Caucasian by dint of birth, but then also living in Japan for half of my life, a place that has become my daily reality, and a place I love, but also, fundamentally, an ‘other’ that I have never for one moment stopped analyzing. In these PC times you are not allowed to make pronouncements on other cultures, but fuck it : if you are not allowed to express your observations on what you experience in life you might as well be dead.
What is so fascinating to me is the extremity of the yin and the yang: despite the gleaming neon beauty of Tokyo and its millions of citizens gliding through and past each other, ultimately Japan is an exceedingly neurotic, inward looking place ( is that why I chose it ?) : like me, people are obsessed with privacy, personal space, non-intrusion : it is an extraordinarily over sensitive nation , which is precisely why so much of the culture is so truly exquisite. At the same time, I do often feel it is an alienated, lonely place ( in one recent global survey or other I read recently, it was officially the loneliest place on earth, and the levels of social seclusion and the suicide rate would seem to also reflect that). Sometimes the country just seems to have turned in on itself.
Ho Chi Minh feels completely the opposite. It is an effusion of commonality and energy: again, I am no cultural anthropologist and am not pretending to be; we deliberately don’t read up or research places we visit before coming because we want to experience them from the font, raw and firsthand; my thoughts are only from a White Man -with all that implies, the guilt currents of colonial DNA – feeling things in my skin and through my senses; smelling it, photographing it through filters to exoticize it all further – but you can intuit the reality that the people here are more comfortable in their own skins and next to each other; everyone jostled together and physically up close; three or four on a motorbike; crowded right next to each other in restaurants; constantly moving like blood through the arteries around the city, endlessly; undoubtedly they have a place to go, and this is the only way to travel, but it feels more as though this were just the way it IS; you wonder whether, when the Japanese-Vietnamese co-constructed subway system opens next year whether everyone in this town would be willing to forgo what looks like a raison d’etre and give up the standard way of moving around this choked, congested city – at times hellish – because you might actually lose something in the process. Or maybe this is just my projection, as a weirdo claustrophobic introvert with some wild extroverted tendencies sees it – perhaps I am just jealous. Of what seems to me to be a kind of effortlessness. Not bristling and flinching like a nervous Brit or Japanese – there is a looser, more organic sense of life. Where I have all my stupid parameters about how much social contact I must have in my daily life, something we all have to some extent, surely, balancing the need not to be lonely with the need not to be crowded out and the intense craving for solitude that I have – here, it is so sociable and seemingly organic it’s like being on another planet. I mentioned the ‘biblical’ nature of Saturday night in the centre of town: I actually don’t have the words to describe just how LOUD and ramped up the situation was; thousands of people everywhere; it was an energy I have not ever encountered before, and inconceivable in Europe or in Japan, even if there were a carnival, or we won the World Cup.
Last night I blew a fuse though.
Having splashed out on a lavish six course meal at a restaurant called Lemongrass, along with many other white European and American tourists – delicious; as all the food has been; fresh, piquant, always fragrant, with tables set apart in the manner ‘we’ are used to ( I must admit I did enjoy the calm greens of the exterior and the relative quiet of it all; all other times we have eaten at local eateries; corner, canteen-like spaces which are relaxing in a different kind of way); unlike in Japan, where the obsession with communication and the phobia of not being able to speak English despite the years of learning it at school often leads to a ridiculous, multi-layered complex that leads to total panic when in contact with foreigners; something I can’t handle, but which I don’t have the energy to write about here, people are fine and laid back just with pointing, two fingers for two more beers, or just using rudimentary English ( I find the pronunciation of even the most basic words of Vietnamese utterly impossible and have given up even trying..).
In any case, it was an enjoyable, affluent experience, with Vietnamese versions of Last Christmas, All I Want For Christmas Is You, and Merry Xmas ( War Is Over ) – a song that plunges me into sadness whenever I hear it – on loop on indigenous instruments – even if we were stuffed to the gills and could hardly move as we went back out onto the heaving streets, cavalcades of motorcycles roaring round the central square by the town hall in the suddenly more clammy, too humid night heat.
Suddenly I felt that I just couldn’t take walking in it a moment longer. I just had to be back at the hotel : a comparative oasis of peace in a ( comparatively ) quieter part of town, and we hailed a taxi, which, I realized immediately, had a fake meter and was deliberately speeding off in the wrong direction. Having already been charged ten times the amount for one taxi journey – which would have been expensive even by Japanese standards – seeing the red LED lights of the shoddy home-made taxi meter whirling exponentially even as we were no way near the hotel and the radio blared I found myself F-bombing and shouting at him very aggressively at it was way too expensive and I was not going to fucking pay it and that he should go the right way -NOW – it was as if some flood gates had been let open ( suppressed culture shock finally expressing itself?), or a filament in my brain had burnt out as I found myself out of control, protective towards Duncan ( as you hear terrible stories about wayward and malicious taxi drivers sometimes ), trying to open the taxi doors as it was going along as he yelled at me to pay, fuming and apoplectic, and I screamed at him that I was only paying the correct amount; me, a maniac, in the maelstrom of traffic chaos flinging the door open and almost knocking a woman off her motorbike, the taxi driver understandably going nuts, me swearing like a maniac – eventually me just shouting just FUCKING LET US OUT! somewhere near the hotel ( I didn’t want to stress out the staff here; everyone has been unfailingly lovely), just barely avoiding actually coming to physical blows…
One minute happily, delightedly, sharing a lemongrass-infused, lotus root herb salad with Duncan; quietly immune in my touristic Euro haven of orientalist Noel bliss; the next a ranting maniac trying to jump out of a moving car, endangering not only myself but other people. You realize your own limits in such situations : that you can theorize and try and ‘intellectualize’ things all you want, but at the cellular level at the end of the day you are a culture-conditioned creature, and, ultimately, just behave like the ‘instinct’ based, reactive, animal that you actually are.
12 responses to “lemongrass: :::: : or, the limits of comprehension”
I realize this ‘piece’ is just incoherent rubbish tapped out on my phone : I will probably delete it later.
Please don’t delete it.I love to read about your experiences, either good or bad. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this way. I hope you have a more peaceful day. Happy Christmas to youboth X
And to you. And thanks for not hating this piece! The day did get much better and we are both enjoying it again.
Why delete it? An asshole taxi driver tried to overcharge you and you reacted against him breaking the law. Now maybe he will think twice about doing that. You sound just like my husband. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I can recall many instances in Japan where he was treated with prejudice and he just did not stand for it. At first his making scenes embarrassed me, then, over the years, it was like, “You go, girl!” It wasn’t just in Japan he demanded respect. I remember in Madrid when an ATM in the lobby ate my cash card. It was banking hours and we went into the branch to try to see if someone could extract it. A very mean stick- up -her- ass woman dismissed us and said “I don’t speak English.” My partner: “Call someone who does.” Woman: “No one here speaks English. This is Spain.” Now my husband wouldn’t have any of that and went off on her in a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and English : “This is an American bank….I came from a poor town in Brazil and I learned English….you FIND someone who can speak English for us…” It was both horrifying and glorious. When my husband got attitude in Tokyo (like sales assistants following him around, or not wanting to show him items, or not letting him try things on), he would pull out the English and say “I want to talk to your manager.” They would always be “Eigo wakarimasen….” My husband would go off on them: “You studied English for 6 years! i learned English by myself. I know you know the word manager.” Again, a part of me was always mortified, but the bigger part was exhilarated and proud (and turned on). I love how all the politically correct bull shit doesn’t really exist for him. He says when you grow up poor, being politically correct is a luxury you don’t have.
You should come to Brazil. There are really very few foreign tourists here (outside of Carnival) so you don’t get a distilled version of the country (most of the tourists are other Brazilians) and there’s really not any need to analyse anything (some foreign tourists do find themselves dealing with the implications of favela tourism, however). Mainly it’s just life and living and no need for social analysis, whether you choose to spend the whole weekend high on X or visiting all the amazing street art or laying on the beach or shopping at flea markets or hitting up the shopping malls and flirting with sexy people. It just is.
Does Vietnam have Uber?
I have never used Uber, but we now at least know what taxis to use and not use.
I love hearing stories about your husband – he would have been the same as me, probably: I was OUT OF CONTROL (perhaps part of me loves it?). But I did feel quite shocked and then very subdued, verging on depressed yesterday afterwards. But then the day got better and now it just seems like an ‘incident’.
Thanks for understanding and I hope you have a great Christmas in Sao Paolo xx
What a glorious turn this post takes! The photo with the cool colonial, turquoise-sea green, über-chic interior; the short intellectual juxtaposition of Europe, Japan, Vietnam; and then that breathless descent into a completely hysterical, quasi operatic breakdown/showdown—
Please don‘t take it down: this post will end up a classic.
I probably would have done, but after reading you say this now I won’t!
To be honest, all year I have been curtailed, or had a sense of not being able to let rip, because of the book. I never quite knew how conservative or not the publisher was going to be, I always felt that they must be reading the blog to see if they did actually want to still go ahead with the book, and so I have had the feeling of not being able to fully EXPRESS myself this year – which I know readers must also have noticed themselves. I was feeling too self-conscious (also, quite frankly, a bit sick of perfume. Not in the sense of wearing it and enjoying it, which I am just obsessed with as ever – every moment here I am conscious of scent – but all the BRANDS and all the bullshit that goes with it, and the hideous pressures of trying to rattle off a book in such a monstrously short space of time). As a result, I just couldn’t WRITE and felt really blocked. Coming here though has just broken through some kind of membrane and let me do it again, even if it is just to expose what a neurotic freak I really am. But having readers like yourself whose opinions I highly esteem means the world to me.
Merry Christmas etc and a great new year to you!
“The brands and all the bullshit that goes with it”—that goes for so many other blogs too. Masked smiles, sycophantic claqueurs, well-spokenness, toujours le mot juste: that’s elegant bullshit warding off all those not quite so nice emotions. But then there’s also no adrenaline, no thrill, no gasping, and no remembrance.
All the very best to you too!
Excellent post – I respond to this as someone who makes huge efforts to ‘do the right thing’, interspersed with a twice yearly emotional explosion of some sort. It always leaves me feeling guilty, but also, there’s always an element of truth being uncovered – something that had to come out in order for the situation to be authentic or to progress.
You mention that you felt somewhat repressed by the book-writing process -, feeling blocked, unable to truly express yourself and so on. Honestly I think that’s a recipe for an upcoming outburst. Because what’s the alternative? Stuffing it and everything stays internal? Maybe all that utter ease of human communication you observed in Vietnam released you from a sort of self-made strait-jacket! We’re like volcanos emotionally I suppose.
Recently, I’ve been creatively collaborating with someone who doesn’t really ‘do’ emotion (not on the surface anyway) – just intellect, a bit of enthusiasm and unspoken flirtatious looks which never translated to even a warm hug. I noticed that, when stressed, he’d become even more detailed and OCD-ish about things that didn’t matter. It killed the creative enthusiasm for me. Anyway, I eventually just blew my top and had a go at him. I felt bad afterwards (there are reasons, no doubt, that someone represses themselves as he does, not that he’d tell me). I can’t regret the outburst though, because the truth must out! We must express ourselves if we’re creative – or else we’re not being creative!
Thanks for this post, makes me feel understood 🙂
I agree with David – and I would have reacted the same way you did. I hate being cheated and treated like crap. Good on you for not letting him get away with it! I hope today is better.
It is/ was. Thanks for reading my crazed deluges! I hope you have a great christmas/holiday.