Nobody warned me about being over-exposed in Asia. Before I left home for the first time. Before buying my plane ticket. During those park hangs with my bohemian friend, on the forums, in the Lonely books.
Sure, people told me I’d see some shit. Dirtiness, poverty, rats, bugs, squat-toilets, scams.
But it’s not the same. And I’m not talking about being exposed to the sun, either.
I’m talking about being exposed to life. True, raw existence. The kind that’s going on everywhere around the world, but that we in Canada and the West decide to put a lid on, to hide behind an Instagram filter, to report on Facebook. Yes, it happens on our home turf as well. But instead of people with genetic defects, or violence against women, being hidden behind closed doors it’s right there in the streets. It’s that kid with a huge deformed head being pushed on a cart by his grand-mother. It’s that girl being slapped, held by the hair, by her drunk boyfriend before they drive home together. They’re not in some institution or behind closed curtains – mostly because there are no institutions.
They’re right in front of you, a reminder that nothing’s perfect and everyone is a little broken inside.
Bear with me. This is far from being a “wake-up everyone!” post or some call to arms like you see so much from all your traveler, left-wing and “aware” friends and that you scroll right by (unless you’re also an “aware” person, in which case, comments and share!).
It’s just an observation, an appreciation. A statement.
Living in South-East Asia, I find myself a witness to human misery, poverty, sickness, unsupervised mental illness, untreated physical decay, corruption, racism, friendship, silent dedication, love, worshiping, trust, betrayal, sadness, happiness, love, laughter, shameless cheesiness.
It’s… it’s almost too much sometimes. But I take it all in.
I remember a few years back, I was sitting in a terasse on Avenue Mont-Royal after an afternoon playing tour guide for my Alberta friends visiting. We were in a good mood, we were tipsy from the sangria, we were laughing and talking. We were noisy, but not that much. Sitting at a table next to us are two bothered-looking women sipping wine. After one of my friends exploded in laughter, I heard one of them mutter: “Est-ce que c’est là qu’on est rendu?” Is this how far we’ve come?
She was comparing us to barbarians, and it always stuck with me. That she thought something was wrong with us. I’ll never forget that this young woman in her 20’s was annoyed at someone’s laughter, outside at a terasse on a summer evening. I wanted to tell her that her sentence could be turned back at her. Is this how far we’ve come, that people can’t laugh in public? That we need to be neutral and composed, robotic, at any and all time?
But I didn’t tell her that, because it’s useless. I refilled my glass and took a bite of my burger.
Here in Vietnam, I can’t just turn back to my smartphone or put my headphones on when I see something strange because first: it’s everywhere and second: some of the shit I see is intense. Retina-scarring intense (Counting the over-exposed pun, that’s two puns about the sun).
Also, because I left my home country specifically to see life, dirty life, to get away from the sanitized existence we built ourselves to make ourselves believe that everything is fine and clean and white.
To get away from the bothered wine-sippers.
Meanwhile here the locals deal with it how they may. A point, a stare, a laugh, mostly ignoring. For us who’ve been growing up under a fucking lavender-scented pillow though, some of this shit is downright irregular.
I was driving home from a few errands today. There’s this small stretch of road that passes under the Saigon bridge and there’s always people under bridges here (bitches love shade). Sometimes they’re fishing in the tar-black water of the Saigon river, sometimes waiting out the rain (they’ll block the whole road), mostly it’s occupied by a lady in her 50’s manning a tiny movable fizzy-drink workstation-on-wheels, and a dude Asian-squatting in the middle of a huge pile of Jeans that fell off the production line.
Yes, you can shop for Jeans under bridges here. I guess that’s where you get the best deals. There’s another dude doing it near where I work, laying out his pairs on an orange tarp after 6 pm, on the sidewalk of a busy corner in Phu Nuan district.
So today I’m driving under the bridge, around 11 am where everyone’s scrambling to get out of the way of these Satanic UV rays (read these last words in a Texan accent) when I see this little old lady begging, sitting on a tiny piece of fabric.
Now, it’s not the first time I see old people begging here. And just in case you’re wondering what “old” is, think about your grandma you haven’t seen in months.
So. I see this little old lady. As I drive by, I have to slow down because there’s a few fishermen walking around in the middle of the street, totally oblivious to the traffic, and so I get a chance to take a good look at this little old lady. She’s sitting on her side. She’s got her right arm up. It’s shaking heavily. Two people are trying to give her money.
From her armpit and out towards her chest is spreading some sort of growth.
Then I get a flashback. I’m at the Beijing train station. I’m trudging through the mass of humans, trying to decipher their alphabet so I can get in the right station while at the same time looking like I know what I’m doing so scammers’ll leave me alone.
Suddenly, right in the middle of the busy square is a lady in her 60’s, sitting on her side, wearing no shirt.
Naturally, my mind goes: “Yoo! Lady with no shiiiirt!”, then it quite rapidly goes to “Yoooo… Lady in her 60’s with no shirt!”, and THEN it goes into “Yooooooooo lady in her 60’s with no shirt and two purple-colored fleshy-flower outgrowths where her boobs should be! Let’s forget about that pronto!”
And forget it I did, until I got a major flashback today at around 11:10 am that sent a shiver down my spine.
Over-exposed. To life. To everything. My over-sanitized mind’s coping mechanism had me forget the cancer-boobs lady. Vietnam reminded me. Grabbed me by the back of the neck and force me to fucking LOOK while I was trying to bitch out.
Look. LOOK. This is life. LIFE. It ain’t perfect. Sometimes it ain’t pretty. Or is it? Fucking tumor-flowers, you ever seen this? Betcha you didn’t. Even on Rotten.com. Fuck you. Look. LOOK. Don’t be a wine-sipper.
It’s a lot to take in, especially if you’re sensitive. And if you are, like me, you toughen the fuck up or spend a lot of nights laying down on your bed, arms crossed behind your head, staring at the ceiling and the dark and everything you can’t change.
You feel your heart sink the first time you drive by a skinny dude in dirty blackened clothes, crawling through the streets to beg for money, pulling himself with one shoe on his hand, flip-flops tied to his knees and elbows. Then, a few months later, you see him on the news. He was faking. He can walk. He has to pay a huge fine.
What. The. Fuck. My initial reaction was, fucking liar. My second reaction was Holy Shit, he was so desperate that he was willing to drag himself through traffic, risking his life, sacrificing his pride, every day.
I have countless stories like this. Too many. Literally every time I step out of the house I see something strange. Something cool. Something special. Something fucked up. Whereas in Canada I would routinely walk an hour every night after work and literally see nothing. Maybe it was me, maybe it was you, maybe it was my neighborhood (Ville-Marie, Plateau), maybe I was auto-censoring but it’d seem like the city was a cement block. Unmovable, uncaring, plain. Stoic.
Here I feel like I’m walking through an open sore. Of course, of course, it’s not all bad. I get to make faces at kids without their parents thinking I’m a freak. I see young and old couples together, their love scenting the air. I hear laughter all the time.
This evening I was asked to come and sub a class, far from last minute, but unscheduled. I did it, because I like to help out and because I needed the money. I went to the center, did the lesson, laughed with the students, took a selfie with someone and was about to drive home…
Until the security guard, the 50-year old dude sitting at a small table in the alley, calls my name.
He loves me.
He talks to me in Vietnamese. I don’t understand him but I know what he’s saying. “You look better with a shave!” as he slides his index down his cheek and then points at me. He grabs a beer from a plastic bag on the ground and gives it to me. “Một trăm phần trăm!” he says! Sounds like Mo cham po cham, and it means 100% (finish your beer, kiddo). I decline the beer chug (some of the students are still walking out of the parking lot) but sit down and joke with him. The student I took a selfie with comes around to help us communicate. Everyone is smiling so hard.
I’m exposed to all this laughter, all this happiness, all this joie-de-vivre, so open and unabated, so careless and free and spur-of-the-moment, and all of a sudden I catch myself remembering why I decided to leave Canada in the first place, and why I ended up in Vietnam instead of Laos in the second place.
The security guard wanted to know how to tie a tie, so I got up and stood behind him and tied it up for him. I Chugged the second beer he handed me. He hugged me and told me “Bonsoir” with love in his eyes, and I left, singing “Happy birthday” when he pointed at my tie, now his.
Yes, I’m over-exposed. It’s good and bad, but it also helped me reinforce the thought that you have to show the world what you wish to see.
When I smile, when I laugh, I force someone to my happiness. What they do with it afterwards is up to them.