I just let some Thai students dump two rice cooker buckets of water down the back of my shirt.
We’re in three days of the Thai and Laotian New Year. Apparently, direct hits with water buckets are good luck for the coming year. Navigating around the dormitories these days, it’s best to look up.
Walking through their floor tonight, I crossed a makeshift bar. “It’s our New Year; please drink a beer with me.” I protested against even one glass. Gluten has been so cut from my diet that just one beer will knock my immune system down for days. So, I traded the beer for the water bucket.
Soaked like a wet t-shirt contestent, I received grateful blessings and bows. My grin infected my entire head, and cleared away clouds of negativity that had been trying to push their way in throughout the day.
The heat has been oppresively rising, also pushing the limits of my temper. Crossing the bucket bomb zone, I had been coming home from a pool hall. The clouds have been building from this: I can’t go anywhere in this city without being stared at, called foreign/mistaken for Laotian, having some commentary made about me (right in front of me!), despite my putting forth multiple sentences in Vietnamese. Especially now that the sun’s out and I’m worshipping it as most other Americans do, I have an asthetic division between me and all Vietnamese women who desperately fear getting tan.
The yelling out of “Tay! Tay!” (westerner/foreigner) is not meant to be malicious. It’s merely an exclamation of surprise, from a generally homogenous community with little contact with “different” -but it feels rude.
The more Vietnamese I understand, the more I feel offended. The constant difficulties of living in a language that you do not completely understand, make me question myself and feel like I am failing at learning Vietnamese.
“I speak Vietnamese, so talk to me directly”.
A woman abducted me to have lunch at her home and insisted I call her mama, while talking around me in Vietnamese. Excuse me? No! I already have a Vietnamese mother.
Men making comments, blatantly staring, arrogantly assuming I have to give them my time. Perhaps, as Louis and I cynically joke, hoping for the slutty western stereotype.
One interesting example of the social hierarchy created by language: A high school student at the pool hall referred to me as “em”, which is blatant disrespect, since I am at least 5 years her senior. If unknown, you always offer the pronoun of seniority. In addition, she mentioned that she is a student at the Vinh University high school where I taught last semester, so she knew better –that I am “chi” (older sister) , if not “cô” (teacher, aunt). It’s hard to convey the insult of this, without an understanding of the Vietnamese language/social hierarchy, but she sunk the 8-ball with an equivalent of “go back to the U.S.”, so you get the idea. Not yet Vietnamese enough to keep track of the proper address to use, I am feeling the pronouns.
It’s wearing to always be on the offensive. I’ve made a scene before over getting overcharged for bánh xèo (Vietnamese crêpe), thinking I was getting the foreigner price when, really, that’s the price. At the pool hall, I had just retaliated to obnoxious commentary and jokes about how attractive I am from some arrogant guy, so my response time in Vietnamese was not quick enough to respond more than “I understand you.”
And that’s what friends are for. As we left tonight, Louis walked over to the girl. “How old are you? 19? She is 24. You call her chi,” so that my pride could at least remain intact.
After a morning of being gawked at, Thanh, Louis and I spent the late afternoon at the pool teeming with Vietnamese boys. My frustrations are not merely over being called “Laos!” because I like to keep my skin dark. It’s bigger than that. In the culture I originally come from, you don’t point, you don’t stare, you don’t give your blunt commentary when not asked; even more so, it's a matter of the patriarchal culture that irks me here.
If it really were a health question of protecting yourself from the tropical sun, I would happily do as the Romans do: don a jacket, cover my face to my toes, and stay inside throughout most of the day. But since the divide between who gets to enjoy the weather and who has to fear the sun is based strongly on gender, sorry, better luck next time.
There is no kiddie pool at the Vinh City pool. There is a women’s pool –large signs dictate this small, shallow area, next to but separate from the beautiful Olympic sized lap pool.
There are men only fitness centers, and I’ve said “no thanks” to suggestions to relocate to the women’s side of my together, but separate fitness center. I have at least 10 years of weight lifting experience on any of these guys, why can’t I go there? Although shifting quickly, statements I've overheard include: women aren’t supposed to drink, smoke, make their husbands cook and clean, use birth control before marriage, and are believed to be the only sex with virginity to lose. Yet alongside that, we are supposed to inhale the cigarette smoke that men blow into our faces, marry if we accidentally get pregnant, and hide the shame of too common adultery (I still can't tell which are uncomfortable jokes and which are real suggestions) -maybe because marriage here happens early and how can a woman financially and socially acceptably raise a child on her own?
I stood above the edge of the pool and backflipped into the water for the gaping males and their expectations of what a woman can and cannot do.
I love Vinh City. I love my work, colleagues, life, friends and rhythm here, but I am so tired of hearing indoctrinated statements about equality blah blah when certain realities suggest that my gender is less than.
I'm not a raging feminist. What I have been is a semi-pro athlete in multiple sports. Athletic excellence is one of the greatest equalizers. I was at the top of my class. I don’t do well with any subordination. I am happy to be a Vietnamese half-man, foreign anomaly, but I will not be a Vietnamese woman. This isn’t a stab at the incredible Vietnamese females who I am proud to call my friends; their stoicism, patience, and ability to balance family and work success is beyond me. Many of them are modeling the way, pushing themselves into the roles they deserve. I don’t dictate that I am an other, my lifestyle does. I frequently feel like I do not belong here. In a lot of ways, it is true.
Now is probably a good time to issue the reminder that my views and words are only my own and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. State Department. They also don’t even reflect my own opinions on a day when the sun’s out, I’ve just been inspired by my students’ work, I’m in the shade, overlook the rooftops of this city and see ingenuity and palm trees. 9 and ½ months of making daily concessions to a foreign culture occasionally demand some time for people to respect my foreign culture, but on most days, Việt Nam is a brilliant place to be.