Saturday, February 07, 2009

Home, Ascension, Air and Sleep: The Effects of Neighborhood Smoke and Mirrors

When my neighborhood confuses me, this is what I do: I 1) come back to the castle, 2) ascend the stairs to my Rapunzel Room, 3) turn on the air conditioning, and 4) take a nap.

Well, I just woke up from a deep afternoon sleep.

Just when I think I have something figured out, I find that I have absolutely nothing figured out. Take, for example, my "Just Like the Pineapple Lady, Not at all Like the Pineapple Lady" post, where I thought I had reached enlightenment concerning issues of neighborhood loyalty. Summary: It took months for Sweet Seamstress (Ms. Hao) to finish a few items of clothing for me because (I figured) I had bought the material for those items from the fabric woman across from Thanh and Thuy (before I really knew T and T). Any clothes ordered with fabric bought from T and T were being made very quickly, while the other bag of fabric just sat there for months. "It's all about loyalty," I wrote. Since then, I have been careful to only bring T and T's fabric to Ms. Hao for clothes-making.

Keeping that in mind, listen to what happened this morning:

My friends Sharon and Shannon have been asking me to take them on my fabric/seamstress loops - both neighborhood and downtown/Ben Thanh ones (I will post about loop #2 tomorrow). The first place I take them this morning - of course - is to Thuy and Thanh's. When we show up, T and T are very happy. Thanh says "I feel so lucky today, you bring your friends."

Both S and S have brought items they want copied, so T and T help them pick out material for cotton t-shirts, pants, and a stretch cotton skirt. We have a fun, warm interaction with a lot of laughter involved for the struggle in communication. The prices for the material are standard (around 60,000 VND per meter = just over $3), but the material they both choose to make skirts is a little higher. Thanh tells us it's pricey because it's "very high quality." T and T tell them that they will need four meters for two skirts, and the transaction is made.

Next stop, of course, is Ms. Hao's, three doors down from the castle...T and T's soul sister friend. Lieu, her assistant, who was at the party, is there, too. S and S get measured and show them the things they want copied. But wait...the skirt material, there is only 2 meters of it - not four, like we thought. Mass confusion, lots of pantomime, so finally, Ms. Hao calls for her neighbor who speaks a bit of English. After our explanations, we all think that T and T must have forgotten to give us all four meters. Ms. Hao calls Thanh, who runs down with two more meters of the same material. We think the problem is solved when she writes "240,000 VND" on a piece of paper...she's telling S and S that this is what they owe, meaning that this material costs 120,000 VND (almost $8) per meter. In all of my material shopping, I have come across nothing that costs over 100,000 VND per meter ($6)- not even fine Vietnamese silk. Sharon opts out, but Shannon says go ahead. When Thanh leaves, I cannot believe what happens next.

The English speaking woman makes a negative gesture with her hands and (in very sketchy English) says, "No shop at Thuy's. Too expensive!" Ms. Hao is nodding her head in agreement. She puts her hand up to her neck, like 'they are choking you.' "This fabric, they buy it for 60,000 VND per meter," says the friend. "No Shop at Thuy's."

Honestly, I am stumped; I have absolutely no idea what to do or say. I have told both S and S how great T and T are, that they have been amazing friends to us, about cooking, Pagoata Day and the Tet family celebration and about the loyalty between T, T, Ms. Hao and Lieu. I have finally taken my friends to meet these women and they experienced a warm interaction...but now - now we are caught in the middle of something really uncomfortable.

"But Thuy is my friend," I offer, weakly.

They look at me kindly, but after much more "discussion," between the three women, the friend says, "Come back at 2:00. We take you to the market to see (she points to the skirt fabric). Ms. Hao hugs me and says "We love Maggie" - like, we will only do this because Maggie is our friend. But this is the part they emphasize - at least four times: "DON'T TELL THUY." What else can I do but put my hand to my heart and promise that I WON'T TELL THUY?

It feels so strange, saying this to them. Both Shannon and Sharon help me process it all the way downtown because I am spinning. Sharon is the one who hits it right, though...I think. She says, "Maybe their loyalty has shifted to you."

Maybe there is nothing more to figure out, and it's that simple: I am their friend now, and they won't allow T and T to overcharge my friends.

When I was first getting to know Thuy, she told me that every afternoon, she gets on her motorbike and rides to a market to buy her fabric. Maybe you remember that I asked if I could come with her someday. She said yes, but her body language said "uncomfortable." Because of this, I never brought it up again.

Back to today. At 2:00, Sharon and I return for this clandestine outing. English friend and Ms. Hao put us on the back of their motorbikes and take us to this secret, local market; it's not far from the castle...a five-minute ride.

We go to one booth out of maybe fifty, and, sure enough, there is the material Thanh charged my friends 120.000 VND per meter for. The woman tells us it costs 60,000 VND per meter - half the price.

Of course you must account for seller mark up, but Ms. Hao says that mark up shouldn't be more than 20,000 per meter. Sharon buys some for her skirt and I buy some for pants, then we get back on the motorbikes and head home. Sharon leaves and I go in to get measured for the pants. Guess what they say to me over and over..."DON'T TELL THUY!'

That's the part where I come back here, ascend the steps to my Rapunzel Room, turn on the air, and fall asleep.

So here are the questions running through my head:

1. Would T and T have overcharged me if I had requested that material?
2. What if the woman at the wholesale market mentions to Thuy that I was there with Ms. Hao?

and this is Katherine's concern (as she listened with fascination to this story):

3. What if everything is revealed and loyalties are redrawn on a large neighborhood scale and as a result the Bum Bum shuts us out of hair washes, manicures, pedicures and massages? (every time K returns from the Bum Bum, she mentions the fragility of it all, how it COULD possibly all end at any moment...)

Hmmm. Don't know how to process it. But let me summarize the smoke and mirrors life I lead in this neighborhood:

1) I have a driver whom I must trick into letting me off next to restaurants that he disapproves of and next to Ben Thanh market vendors where he may discover that I am buying material from someone other than his sister (I always have him let me off in phony places, then tell him I will walk home). Every now and then, when I have somewhere non-school related to go and Nam is nowhere in sight on the street, I can always find "Mr. Bay" on a certain corner. Something I haven't mentioned to you is that "Nam" means "5" - Nam is the fifth child. "Bay" means "7" - he is the seventh child. 7 actually speaks really good English and we have become friends. Every time 7 takes me somewhere, I am afraid that 5 is going to catch me with him. It's quite unsettling.

2) I have a sandwich lady on the street where I meet Nam every morning whom I adore; however, I have overdosed on her sandwiches and can't stomach them anymore. Even though I can't eat them, I still buy two or three a week and either give them to friends or throw them away when I get to school. Because she is so friendly.

3) I walk past the Pineapple Lady every single day and I am afraid I am going to cause her early death. You should see the ferocious way she gestures for me to buy her produce. Every single day. And all I have ever bought from her is six cents worth of pineapple. I must walk by her and pretend I do not see her convulsions.

and now, this:

4) I have two friends who sell me material, teach me to cook Vietnamese food, and who invite me to family celebrations... but they seem to have cheated my friends. This cheating was revealed to me by their soul sister, who is almost my next door neighbor. Now I must not let on that their soul sister has tattled on them and has subverted their business, but the whole neighborhood saw us get on their motorbikes and ride out of the neighborhood, and the wholesale woman sold us the material that they sold us for half of the price, and she sells to T and T on a daily basis. Talk about a conflict of interests. And - I walk past T and T every single morning on my way to meet Nam; they see and comment on the clothes I am wearing. They will see this material.

Now, if this had happened to you - tell me, wouldn't you have had to come home, ascend stairs, turn on air and go to sleep?


Amy T. said...

Sleep, for me, would have been impossible with all that swirling around.

So, my perspective from my perch in this valley so very far away: you are a rich foreigner. They are not so rich natives. You have and always will have much more money than them. They provide a service for you by selecting fabric at a market and bringing it closer to you. The like you AND they are business women.

And I don't like pineapple.

Mungo said...

I think you need to discreetly follow T and T, in disguise, to their secret market where they buy their material and find out exactly how much they pay...

Maybe they overcharge to make up for all the meals T makes for you...

Maybe they are trying to show you how much they charge other people other than you so you will see how loyal they are to you...

Maybe they are trying to keep you closer than a friend, as in, "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer..." so they can eventually steal your identity and take over the castle...

Or, maybe they just screwed up.

I have to read your next two posts now to find out what happens... All my theories may already be washed away and I don't even know it...

Annette said...

I would add chocolate to the nap and air conditioning.

I think I agree with Amy that they are businesswomen. Maybe the economic recession is hitting in Vietnam also and they are minimizing the people they do 'friends' deals with. Maybe Timmy fell down a well and they need the money to pay for the doctor to fix his broken leg. Way too confusing for a monday morning.

marjie said...

Amy, yes, yes. But who doesn't like pineapple?

Mungo, I have thought through all of these scenarios. Thanks for displaying my mind in the comments.

A-Net - chocolate is not so readily available, thank goodness. Who is Timmy?

Brian Bowker said...

It's tempting to not buy material from them for a few days and then when they ask, say, "I didn't like the way you treated my friends."

There is a voice inside of me that always says that honesty is the best policy, and it has always proven right. But because YOU are the foreigner, and YOU are at the short end of the language barrier, you risk more neighborhood repercussions. Sticky situation.

What happens if you continue to buy from T & T and bring their material to the seamstress shop?