Sunday, July 24, 2011

Chicken Feet and Cheese

I have no idea what traveling to Vietnam would have felt like if we had taken a plane directly from Dulles to Ho Chi Min City. But coming from Menglun a town in China that is a ten-hour bus ride or hour-long plane ride from a city(Kunming) that the woman who found the fake Apple Stores in China called the End of the Earth; HCMC felt like Paris, really comfy! Kunming is a city of 7 million with an airport that has direct flights to cities such as Singapore and Seoul not to mention snickers bars cheese and corn flakes so I’m not quite sure what was meant by the End-of-Earth crack. And, while at a different time in my life I might well have scorned these comforts, I have to admit that at this point, after two months of jungle living, I soaked up every bit of bourgeois and Western pleasure I could.

Back in the Garden I’m staring out my porch window as my feral looking kids scramble up a rugged jungle footpath carrying rambutan, and I have all the windows and doors open because the ac doesn’t actually work during the hottest points of the day. I just got back from buying rice in the market, where I squatted and sniffed like all the other women. (I have no idea what I’m sniffing for, but everyone else does it). From this vantage point Vietnam seems like Asia-light—it’s Asia but with the trappings and conveniences of a Western city. In the end it felt uncanilly familiar because it was a mash up of our Western lives and our home-away-from-home in the Jungle. We’re used to seeing a whole family on a vespa; in fact, we sometimes are that family, and banana leaves and rubber trees barely attract our attention any more—an azalea or a large carton of milk would be more shocking. Rebecca and Eli who a few months ago probably would have thought rambutan looked like a small sea animal were thrilled to find it at the breakfast buffet. They had plenty of chicken feet and pigs ears, but as the kids said “whatever...” Moreover, a lot of what we saw in Vietnam lived up to expectations gleaned from guide books, newspapers, movies, and restaurants.

For sure, lots of the trip was cool and fascinating because it was different and new. The Cu Chi tunnels were provoking and grotesque. And the water puppets came with music that was by far the most interesting I’ve heard since we arrived in Asia. It lacked the cheesy enya like harmonies and boring drum tracks that undercut most all the other music I hear in China. I didn’t hear a single diatonic scale the entire night. Rebecca even noticed the difference. “they don’t have so many triads in this stuff.”

But really, the creature comforts made the trip; baguettes and croissants for breakfast, English speakers at the markets, restaurants where no one spits on the floor or tosses empty beer bottles around. I found clothing that fit my giant white body not to mention real cotton T-shirts for the boys {Manuel, however, could find neither shoes nor shirts, but he could get pants, }. In Vietnam people wear helmets on their vespas and wash their hands frequently. I’m not a germaphobe and, indeed, bad vision keeps me from being bothered by a lot of dirt; but it is filthy in China, and Vietnam’s like an operating room at Brigham and Women’s by comparison. You can’t drink the water there, but it’s a whole lot cleaner than the water here—I hadn’t felt so clean in two months. I agree with David Sederis in his Guardian piece “Chicken Toenails anyone” that at first it’s pretty disconcerting to see people spitting on floors, kids pooping on the street out of their split pants, etc.. And, while unlike him, we’ve stayed long enough that it doesn’t bother us, it did feel good to be back in a place that shares more of our hygiene norms. (thanks Bridget for sending that article)

Some of these creature comforts emerged from the fact that the tourist experience comes with a certain kind of uniformity across cultures and locations, and its inherent voyeurism rarely gets beneath the surface of the destination and the moment. We never saw the HCMC equivalent of Menglun’s AgMarket with pig-eyes and chicken toes. Manuel’s high school friend Juliet, who lives in HCMC, told us that the market near her house has a range of products that would make us squirm in the same way Menglun’s fresh duck intestine does.

In addition, it is s disconcerting to think about how many of the core familiarities of Vietnam emerge from a darker past. As an enlightened liberal, it pains me to admit that these European elements that made us comfortable are very vivid remnants of the colonial project. The French left Indochina in 1954. It sounds like a long time ago but cultures move at almost glacial paces. And it’s equally painful to realize that even the “authentically” Vietnamese parts of Vietnam are more familiar than anything in “our” part of the Mekong because of the Vietnam War. What that means is that a lot our pleasure and enjoyment emerged out of a long history of violence, domination and cultural destruction. I did not take the opportunity to explain to the kids that the baguette they happily snarfed was the product of such a fraught history.

I did try to explain exoticism to them, but it went nowhere. References to Mulan and Aladin did not help. Both hotels we stayed in made promises on their websites of “the real Vietnam” and an “exotic” experience. That it didn’t feel exotic at all to us kept sending my thoughts back to learning about orientalism and exoticism in college. I have a vivid memory of reading Edward Said’s Orientalism in a literature class where we focused on exoticism. I remember little lights going off because I always knew that Beethoven’s Turkish march had little to do with Turkish people. (ok this is crass now but I was seventeen) A lot about those concepts went over my head, but I remember the notion of orientalism as created not by facts but by Western fantasies of the orient. And then I found it everywhere; it was kind of like when we learned about phallic and Christ imagery in AP English and all we all found it in every single thing we read, saw, and heard (our slightly repressed English teacher encouraged this).

Part of the reason it wasn’t that exotic in Ho Chi Minh City was, of course, the food and the cleanliness standards. The kids had pizza almost every night. David Sederis’ droll assessment of Chinese food put all of the mundane details of cusine here under a snarky colorful microscope in the Guardian piece I mentioned earlier. And, like most satire, some of it was spot on and some was just over the top offensive. I’m still disgusted by chicken feet, and I try really hard not to think about the fact that most of the people who cook our food don’t use soap to wash their hands. Vietnamese food didn’t taste or feel more familiar to me because of a lack of chicken toes. It felt comfortable because; it tasted a lot like Vietnamese food in Harvard Square and Arlington, VA. It was a little fresher and a little spicier but basically variations on a theme. In contrast, almost nothing we eat here has any resemblance to any Chinese food I’ve ever encountered. But no one here makes me eat chicken toes or pig eyes. In fact, anyone who has encountered a westerner, and even those who haven’t, knows I will find those things repulsive and thinks it’s kind of funny. And they take one look at the color of my skin and turn the spicy down a notch. Even my Indonesian and Thai neighbors do that on the spice meter. But eople here are disgusted by cheese—especially the really good expensive pre rotted kinds. And Sedaris seemed bothered by tongue but my people, European-descended Jews, eat a lot of it, and I have a vivid memory of my friend Cynthia’s mom feeding it to me. (I didn’t’ eat it) Anyway back in the local market today I passed up the tongues, feet and brains and stuck with my usual veggies and Tofu (and, we also bought more rambutan, mangosteens, little yellow mangoes, weird white mushrooms, and steamed buns with spicy mystery meat).

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