Monday, September 19, 2005

Walk This Way

Despite the fact that my Vietnamese is progressing not at all, I continue to attend language classes. You may recall that, for whatever reason, my teacher has it in for the minority tribes in Viet Nam. Luckily, we have been working with a new textbook that highlights different Vietnamese cultural topics for each chapter. This has been helpful in distracting her from launching into tirades about the “unbelievable demands” and protests of late by the Montagnards. It also sometimes distracts her from asking me how she can get a visa to go abroad, but not usually. Last week’s topic was sidewalk cafes. Now, the term “sidewalk café” probably brings to mind strolling down streets in Europe where impromptu biergartens pop up, or restaurants spill into the walkway when the weather is nice. For my fellow Washingtonians, it might also remind you of spring or summer, when during the work-week and on the weekends, it might take all day to organize who would secure the all-important outdoor table at a bar or restaurant.

Here, sidewalk café has a different meaning. One of the first things I noticed when I arrived here was that sidewalks are multi-purpose. By no means does a pedestrian have ANY right to think that it is a protected space meant for walking. Why, today, in fact, the man in front of me on the sidewalk who was hit by a motorbike sure did learn his lesson. And if he didn’t, well, I’m sure he’ll have another chance to learn it soon. To date, I can count 8 uses for a sidewalk, besides the usual means of transportation for bipedal beings. I’m thinking of creating a piece for Schoolhouse Rock Viet Nam as a service message to those who aren’t in the know in VN. I would call it “Elbow room”, after the Manifest Destiny episode, and I would include the following uses for a sidewalk:

  1. A parking lot. At any time in any place someone may decide to open up a parking lot business for both cars and motorbikes. Even on the narrowest of sidewalks, it can be done, forcing those walking (usually the elderly and tourists, but, let’s face it, both of them are expendable) to go in the street and pray that they are not clocked by a moving motorbike.
  2. A shortcut for those in a hurry on a motorbike. Who are we walkers to think that a sidewalk is a convenient and safe way for us and us alone to get around town? When turning corners, it is extremely important to listen carefully and check. It’s useless for me to count the number of times I’ve almost been hit head-on when turning the corner. I used to get mad and indignant when it happened…why, I even yelled “hey” (“oi”, you may recall, in Vietnamese) a couple of times. But luckily I have learned that it is not for me to get angry. People are in a hurry and if there’s a sidewalk just sitting there, it’s actually wasteful NOT to use it. In any case, the elderly and tourists are society’s dirty little secret—they NEED to be taken out.
  3. A store. Who said that corruption and lack of transparency is a problem in Viet Nam? You can’t get more transparent than goods and money exchanged right on the street. And when you’re in a country where intellectual property rights mean nada, it’s even better.
  4. A restaurant. This is probably the most common thing you will find on the sidewalk. The problem is that the “restaurant” consists of chairs and stools about 1 foot high, with no rhyme or reason to the layout, thus causing the ignorant pedestrians to have to zigzag their way through and hope that they won’t step on a soup bowl or, worse, crush a Buddhist altar to the owner’s relatives. If there’s a special event, the restaurant will take the up the entire sidewalk, again, forcing the walker into perilous traffic, usually consisting of on-coming, wildly-swerving motorbikes.
  5. A barber shop. Take a chair, scissors and a rusty mirror to hang on a wall or fence, and you have your own hair salon. Bubbles Salon it is not, but these are still quite popular. It’s all done sans electric razor, so it takes forever. And by forever, I mean one to two hours. For men.
  6. A motorbike repair shop. An old tire propped up with a ribbon tied to it, along with a usually tired-looking owner, indicate it is a repair shop rather than a parking space. They are at almost every corner, and some are fancier than others. Some have juggling jesters for customers waiting, and others just have the usual stale, civet-digested coffee and donuts from the local Dunkin’ Donuts shop.
  7. A dentist. I am not making this up. I have seen this not once, but twice. At first, it looked like a barber shop, with the dirty mirror hanging precariously on the wall and a man sitting in a barber’s chair. But when I got closer, the “owner” was wiggling around with a wrench in the guy’s mouth—a wrench. In truth, I haven’t seen any others since the rainy season has been gracing us with her presence. The rain, she can’t be good for business.

After I told Teacher about the last use of a sidewalk, she refused to believe me. She started to give the “we are not savages like those people in the hills” speech, but I managed to cut her off and distract her with the topic of China Rising. Like many Vietnamese, it’s not that she doesn’t like China—she HATES China—and lectures me often about the need for Vietnamese youth to develop their own sense of cultural identity, as if I am somehow part of either the solution or the problem. In any case, after careful research and asking around, I have found out that, yes, there used to be sidewalk dentists (mayhaps an import from the French?), and there may still be some around. I will not mention this in my next language session, however, for fear that she’ll either bring up the highlands tribes or China’s one-child policy. But if she does, I will simply tell her in Vietnamese about the time that I jumped ship in Hong Kong and made my way over to Tibet, and I got on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas. This will be to kill time with Teacher, see? A looper, I will say in English, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I’ll tell her I'm a pro jock, and whom did they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald, striking. I’ll tell my teacher about how I was on the first tee with him. How I gave him the driver. How he hauled off and whacked one - big hitter, the Lama - long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And I’ll ask her if she knows what the Lama said? Gunga galunga gunga - gunga galunga. And if she knows that we finished the eighteenth and he was gonna stiff me. I’ll tell Teacher I said, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And that he said, "Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness." So I’ll tell her I got that goin' for me, which is nice. That ought to quiet Teacher down for a bit.

I would then tell Teacher that having received the gift of total consciousness, I’m now thinking of getting into the sidewalk business myself. Specifically, I would open up a bank called Capitalism Schmapitalism. I would model it after the Vietnamese banks and carefully follow the rules for the foreigners. Based on anonymous tips from avid ex-pat readers of my blog in VN (read: me), these rules include:

  1. If someone wants to open up an account here, she must show proof that she is working (via a labor contract) and proof of the source of every damn dime deposited. If you think this is a tinge illegal and an infringement of rights, you would be right, but you need to be reminded that capitalism, my friends, is a discussion.
  2. Said bank account will be in dollars, as that is what your paycheck will be in, but if you’d like to withdraw money, you may only do so in Vietnamese dong, of course.
  3. Let’s say someone doesn’t want to open up a bank account here because she thinks the rules for foreigners are stupid and nonsensical. If she wants to deposit her monthly paycheck, which is written in dollars and issued by an American bank (oh, say, Citibank), into her account in the US by mail, she cannot. Why? First of all, checks here are only valid for two weeks. Second, even if they were valid for longer, they are only good in Viet Nam. Why? Too many questions, you ask. As Billy Madison would advise—talky, talky, talky. No more talky.
  4. Now, let’s just say that this ex-pat opened up an account with HSBC and her checks are issued by, say, Citibank. She thinks to herself, I prefer HSBC, so I will simply deposit my two paychecks into this new account. Au contraire, says HSBC. HSBC says these checks cannot be deposited because they are issued by Citibank…checks in the future, however, done by wire transfer can be deposited, but these particular checks must be cashed, then deposited into the HSBC account. The bank reminds the customer that she MUST keep her receipts from this transaction because, as noted, the source of all goddamn deposits must be accounted for.
  5. Are you with me so far? The silly girl follows this advice and tries to cash her check at Citibank. Citibank says, “Madame…you can only receive dong for this, although it is made out for USD”. The silly girl tries to argue and the bank teller informs her that the Madame, she can deposit checks in dollars, but cannot get them cashed in dollars—she must receive dong only, for it is against the law. The teller assures Madame that she can deposit the dong into her USD account at HSBC with “no problem”. The silly girl cashes the two paychecks, then walks over to HSBC with a shitload of dong only to find out that, indeed, she cannot deposit dong into a USD account. The girl thinks to herself, “Mmmm, so I have a USD account, but if I take money out it can only be in dong. The money going into it, however, can only be USD. Brilliant!” What followed after Madame entered HSBC to deposit her dong and found out she could only deposit dollars was not pretty, so I will not go into it. Just know that it would require several additional pages of explanation.

The take home, folks, is that, as my favorite history professor, Otto Campbell, at Mary Washington College once remarked, “Socialists, mah friends, they will spend yaw mun-ay. Oooooooh, yes. But they aw surely capitalistic with they-yuh own mun-ay.” And the second take home is that I’m so quitting my job to open up a sidewalk combination bank/dentist. It will be like the swimming pool stores you pass on Route 1, where you ask yourself, why is that swimming pool store also selling fireplaces? When the Vietnamese pass by my shop, they will say, Tai sao chi ay co cua hang via he ve ngan hang VA ve nha khoa???? Oooooooh, yes, they will. Then an astute companion will remind them that a healthy business is prepared for all seasons, rain or shine. And if my language teacher is around, she will remind them that minority peoples cannot even figure out how to answer the phone, thus they should not be allowed to bank.


At 8:17 PM, Blogger tandemadventure said...

Good to hear from you Ms. Saigon. Your posts bring back many good memories. Hopefully you can find time to write more often as your stories are an excellent distraction from the oh-so-fun task of looking on for a job!
Update from the Golden State: Jess nor I have found jobs yet however I am considering buying a new road bike as to keep up my hobbies. :) The weather has been great for riding, running, hiking, road tripping, etc...not so great for job searching.
Take care and have a passion fruit for me…I saw that they were $2.99 EACH! in Safeway today. Maybe we could set up a little export/import business on the side...

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