Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Big C

After having lived in big cities (Amsterdam, Tokyo and London) for a period of nearly six years, I felt a strong desire to live in or near the countryside again. After all, I grew up in a small countryside village, so I am used to being surrounded by green fields and fresh air. Although I do appreciate the amenities of the big city, I will always be a country boy. I feel more at ease in the middle of nowhere than in the middle of Shinjuku or Westminster. Green is my favourite colour, and I prefer the smell of cows to the smell of cars.

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in Hoi An about two months ago, was the lovely surrounding countryside. I immediately rented a bicycle and explored the area, even though I had not visited any of the historic buildings of the old town yet. And when I decided to stay and try to find a job here, one of the reasons why I preferred tiny Hoi An to the big city of Da Nang (30 kilometres north and a population of one million) was exactly this: the proximity of rice paddies, farming villages, and a small river delta.

Alas, I had forgotten that life in a small town is not always as idyllic as it seems at first sight. Of course, one of the drawbacks is the commuting - but this I knew beforehand, and to be honest, I don't really mind. I am used to it anyway, and I much prefer riding my motorcycle on a Vietnamese coastal road to cycling through the traffic and rain of North London.

However, there are other drawbacks. Life in the big city is much more anonymous than life in the countryside, and I have come to believe that this is a positive thing- at least when most countryside people have a worldview and morality that is strongly conservative, sexist, and xenophobic. Frankly, I have had it with all the gossip and insults addressed at me, my girlfriend, and her family. The majority of the people here strongly disapprove of a mixed relationship, and they try their best to make life difficult for us, in different ways. Usually, they just speak about us disapprovingly, behind our backs. Sometimes they throw insults at us directly. A policeman asked my girlfriend: "What's wrong with Vietnamese boys? Can't you find a Vietnamese boyfriend?" This would be considered sexual harassment at home, but here apparently it is considered acceptable - at least no one dares to protest, powerful as the police are. And a couple of weeks ago, some of the local men went so far as to sabotage my motorcycle by cutting the gas cable with a knife, after they had seen the two of us together.

One more thing I don't like about living in Hoi An is shopping for food. Of course, Hoi An has a big market, with delicious fresh seafood and vegetables. But shopping is always a fight, as nearly all merchants will try to overcharge you, sometimes asking several times the price they would ask a Vietnamese person. If you just need some tomatoes and eggs, you don't really feel like haggling for half an hour. Moreover, not all the products I am used to are for sale at the market, nor at the small grocery stores elsewhere in town. So when it comes to shopping, I am glad I live near a big city, which has a couple of supermarkets with fixed prices and imported products.

One of the supermarkets is called Big C. It is located inside a department store, which also has a cinema, where one can watch the latest Hollywood films (tickets only cost about $2.50). Shopping at Big C is quite an experience, especially when you are on your own. Before you enter the supermarket, you have to put your bag in a locker - not all Vietnamese are used to the concept of self-service yet, to put it euphemistically. But then, you can actually buy such delicious things as wholemeal bread, peanut butter (fair enough, it's not the real one, but even imported American sweet peanut butter is better than no peanut butter at all), French raspberry syrup (more expensive than a seafood meal in a restaurant, but it's worth it), Japanese tofu, chickpeas, and imported liquor.

There are way fewer tourists in Da Nang than Hoi An, so most people are not used to seeing foreigners. As a result, people in Da Nang generally are more friendly towards foreigners (although I have heard some stories of nasty xenophobic bullying in Da Nang as well, but nonetheless, my overall impression is that people are nicer), but also more curious. When you are walking in the supermarket alone, you are continuously followed by children shouting "hello hello" and "wha you name". Meanwhile, most women cannot resist the temptation to study the contents of your shopping cart. Lots of bread and milk, strange imported European products, but also familiar items such as fruit, vegetables, fish and soy sauce... Why, it looks as if this foreign man actually cooks himself! And they look at you admiringly, as they are not used to seeing men who cook.

This is not the first time I live in a foreign country. As most of you know, last year, I lived in the UK, and a couple of years ago, I spent one year in Japan. But trust me: living in a small Vietnamese town is much more challenging than living in London or Tokyo. Although there are some similarities between Japan and Vietnam, the differences between the two countries strike me as much more profound. This may be partly due to the fact that when I went to Japan I already spoke Japanese and knew quite a lot about the country, whereas when I came here I had very little knowledge of the Vietnamese language and culture. But there is more to it. The Japanese public sphere is a relatively easy place to navigate. People are generally polite and friendly, or simply not interested in you, but they hardly ever behave rudely. Japanese bureaucracy may be frustrating at times, but at least there is no corruption and lawlessness, as is the case in Vietnam. There is little harassment, little in-your-face xenophobic hostility, and little crime. Let's be honest: Japan and Vietnam may both be Asian, Buddhist, Neo-Confucian, influenced by Chinese culture, et cetera; and there may be similarities when it comes to art, religion, architecture and social values. But the ways in which people behave in public, relate to each other, relate to the Western Other, and relate to the state, are strikingly different. Hence, living in Vietnam is a completely different experience from living in Japan.

The other day, after I had finished my shopping (and spent the entire income of two English classes on delicious imported goods, shame on me) , I went to the lockers to get my bag. The things I had bought had been put into a number of plastic bags - one of the few things Vietnamese people hand out generously, unfortunately - but I preferred putting them in my backpack. When I arrived at the desk, I saw something which I had not seen before in Vietnam: a queue. Not that places here are never crowded (trust me, they are), but Vietnamese people simply do not queue - they just fight to be next, or they yell at the waiter or salesperson they want to buy something from. However, I did not give it much thought, and I queued, too.

I was standing behind a man, who looked like he had not shaved for a week. He wore a shabby purple t-shirt, in stead of the striped shirt that most Vietnamese men wear. He was quite tall, had a long face, and wore glasses. "He looks quite Japanese," I thought.

From behind us, a number of people appeared. They ignored us, went to the desk, gave the employee the number of their locker, and got their bags. They did not have that guilty look that people who deliberately jump a queue usually have. Apparently, they did not understand that we were queuing. Perhaps they did not even know the concept. They were followed by some others, who did the same thing: they ignored us, and went to the desk.

The man did not move an inch. He looked completely flabbergasted. This had never happened to him before, and he simply did not know how to react - so he did not react at all. After a while, he called his wife, who stood a few metres away. "I really thought I was queuing," he said - in Japanese. His voice expressed shock, not anger. His wife shook her head, smiling. I could not tell whether she was Japanese or Vietnamese.

I did not want to wait any longer. I went to the desk and got my bag. More people were coming, and they all ignored him. The employees behind the desk ignored him, too. He still did not move.

I could not help it, I had to say something. "Japan and Vietnam are quite different, after all, aren't they?" I asked him, in Japanese. I smiled at him.

He looked at me, even more surprised than before. It took him a few seconds to realise what had just happened. Then, all of a sudden, a smile appeared on his face. It was a beautiful smile. It expressed relief. It reminded me of the sun, suddenly appearing at the end of a heavy shower.

"Yes, quite different, indeed!" he exclaimed, wholeheartedly. Finally someone who understood!

Thank God we are all so different. And thank God we are able to overcome those differences a little bit, not by denying them, but by understanding and accepting them.

I drove back to my little town, my backpack filled with peanut butter, milk, raspberry syrup and chickpeas. People were busy working on the rice fields. Somebody rode a big buffalo. The sun was gradually moving towards the horizon, painting the sky purple. Children were cycling home, yelling at each other, and laughing.

Pasta for dinner, tonight.

No comments:

Post a Comment