December 26, 2018My scooter is nothing special. It's cherry red, a bit scuffed on the sides. It gets me where I need to go, and that's it. Each day I mount it and roll it out the door of my apartment building, then I fire it up. Off I'll go into the bustling mechanics of the day.
What is Vietnam? What does it mean to be Vietnamese? These are questions that I always ask myself. As I drive my scooter beneath the trees and past the shops of Danang, I always look around to see if I can find clues to the answers. Look for the elements, I tell myself.
There is the madman who shuffles up and down the street each day, an older fellow with a pout on his face, shouting at whomever he approaches. What is his story? What tragic misfortune relegated him to this sad role in our neighborhood? Does anyone care for him?
Driving, driving. That big yellow star set against a red background presides everywhere nowadays. It's patriotically displayed in solidarity with the national soccer team, which is currently moving up in a big regional championship. I sat beneath the pouring rain recently with my friend at one of the many cafes, watching the locals seated alongside me as they rose up and cheered emphatically when Vietnam beat Malaysia. Afterward, I made the choice to immerse myself in the roiling thick of flag-waving, horn-sounding revelers on motorbikes that coursed through the streets, something that the locals simply call "the storm." A euphoric sense of victory transpierced the atmosphere.
The cold-eyed police officers in their greens and tans, eyeing the flow of traffic from the sidelines.
There's something that feels charmingly egalitarian about a society whose main form of transport is motorbike (which in Vietnam can include scooters, motorcycles and anything in between). Everyone is equally exposed to the elements and each other; something intangible is shared amongst us through the air. Whenever I'm waiting at a light surrounded my fellow riders, there is always this feeling I get of "we're all in this together."
Propaganda posters for the government are posted everywhere. They colorfully depict happy families and happy workers and encourage citizens to dutifully fulfill the tenants laid out by Ho Chi Minh, the grandfatherly founder of Communist Vietnam. Nobody really gives them a second look.
It is somewhat distracting to see the eyes of surely beautiful women peeking out from beneath the masks and coverings that shield their flesh from the sun (or raincoats deflecting the rain, recently).
(I should make a side note that Vietnam is one of the most distracting places I have ever been to. For my eyes, at least, it is one of the countries with the largest number of beautiful women per square meter.)
Organized chaos. The marriage of these two intractable opposites is what best defines Vietnamese traffic, which weaves and threads itself into its own crazy pattern. Jostling amid the stream of vehicles and idling in a gridlock of exhaust-breathing, growling engines is its own experience. Children sitting with their parents on motorbikes stare at me wide-eyed.
Of course, everywhere, the chatter of Vietnamese. From the markets to the offices to the households, the language fills the air and gives life here its own strange cadence. The sounds it possesses are as if English was assaulted with a cleaver and the resulting pieces were bent into impossible angles. However, I always delight in the challenge of wrapping my tongue around that curious rhythm whenever I get the inspiration to study the language, which is sporadic.
I see the middle-aged women proudly clad in their pajamas, sometimes carrying items for sale or sometimes just standing on the curbs, looking out. The school children in their little uniforms and red kerchiefs scattering as school is let out. Sparks flying forth from men sawing metal on the blackened patches of sidewalk in front of their shops. The feral dogs milling about, tempting fate in the middle of the busy streets; to be called a dog is one of the worst insults in Vietnamese.
All of this flashes past my eyes. I'm in the middle of it, as I have been for almost two years now. But there is a creeping thought inside me.
I will never truly understand this land. I will never really know what it means to be Vietnamese. It is one thing to admire a culture and language from afar, but it is quite another to be born within it and have it hardwired into your every thought, every perception, every action. On some level, I will always be an outsider here.
This is of course obvious, but for someone who likes to think that there are no limits to what one can learn and achieve in life, it's still a stark wall to have to accept. The ever-present cultural barrier. There are limits.
That doesn't stop me from continuing to ask the same question, though. And as I move through the streets—indeed, move through time and space out here—I continue to glean little, partial answers to that question. They're everywhere in this city.
It all depends on how you look at them.
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