Sunday, December 02, 2012

Back to the Sweet and Salty

Here's the recurring nightmare I had for weeks upon my return home two and a half years ago:

I enter my Nguyen Canh Chan neighborhood to discover that it has transformed into an outdoor mall with multiple levels and escalators. Panic sets in: I need to find Thuy and Thanh, but there are no fabric stands. I step onto one of the escalators, frantically searching for something familiar. As I rise to the top, I see a bright, orange-lettered sign that reads "99" - apparently, the price of shoes. They are on sale.

And there the dreams would end.

I think it was the installation of the bright, shiny sushi restaurant on the street next to the market during my last week that caused my worry -
progress that threatened to obliterate my own personal paradise.

For two years, Katherine and I would swing in the hammocks on the Castle roof and say, "We live in the best neighborhood on the planet." And then we would list all of the reasons that made it so (the rice cakes, the market market market, the Bum Bum, the seamstress, the avocado shakes, the prawn fried rice, the alley fried chicken, the squid, our neighbors, the people, people, people...)

We never, ever tired of this conversation. No kidding. Not ever. We still have it on Skype all the time (she is back in Montreal now). One topic will end and one of us will say, "We'll never find another neighborhood like that, ever, in our whole lives." And then the other will commence with The List.

I'm heading back the day after Christmas, and I'm pretty sure that there are no escalators - or shoes on sale for "99"- in my alley grid. Yep, I'm going back. For ten days. It seems unreal. I mean, it seemed unreal to me for two whole years. I never got over the feeling that I should pay a ticket price to enter my neighborhood every day.

So I've been re-living my morning market walks lately, preparing myself to greet the squid man's hesitant smile again, to beat the crushed garlic/pepper lady and the towel lady to say a "hello" first, or to possibly see Nam leaning against his mother's home gate, using his motorbike as legs. Soon I will nod to the eggplant guy and the mango woman before turning the corner to wave to Thuy and Thanh, smelling the broth at the chicken soup couples' stand and hearing the deep fried bananas sizzling next to them - all with the constant background din of the motorbike army just blocks away, mixed with the tones of the Vietnamese language.

I've found a market in Greenwood that is run by Vietnamese family - Lenny's Market. Sometimes I go there and buy vegetables just to hear them speak. The language soothes me, as do the many authentic Vietnamese restaurants I have found in the international district that feel almost like home.

But they can never be home.

Of course, some things will be different.

Thuy has a baby now. He was born last spring, and I can't pronounce his name. She and Dung are getting their own place in District 7. No more four sisters and two parents with whom to share a two-story home.

And Thanh now has a computer and an internet connection at her families' house. We write every couple of weeks. Last spring I sent her all of the media that covered my students' book release (if you don't know about that, we have a website now: ) and - unknown to me - she signed up with the online Edmonds news website. I found out that she had subscribed in the fall, when she sent me a link with my picture and a new story about our book. I didn't even know the story was running.

We send each other pictures, too.

The day after the early November flooding around Seattle, she sent an email asking if my house was flooded.

"Please send pictures," she wrote.

Now her emails end with a countdown. "See you in 27 days," was her sign-off yesterday.

I am spending $1400 to fly across the world to hang out at a fabric stand and to drink tea on a concrete floor with my two friends and "their" new baby. I can't think of a better way to spend money.

Or, I could say, I am spending $1400 to fly across the world to eat sixty cent rice cakes. I can't think of a better way to spend money.

Here is a current, constant discussion taking place in my mind: Of course I will eat the rice cakes first, but what will be second? The steamed rolls filled with mushrooms and pork and topped with fried bread and nuoc cham made by the woman who ignores me? Or the deep fried eggrolls, made by the woman who talks to me as if I can understand every word she says? Or the sticky rice filled with mung beans and topped with both salt and sugar? Surprisingly, that is my niece, Megan's, favorite food memory (next to the pomelo and the wonton soup cart).

What about at night? The alley fried chicken and rice? Or the squid five ways? It will probably be the squid. Unless the crispy ravioli woman is back in business on the side of the new highway. Thanh told me she shut it down...

Yes, my neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City, the place I love more than any place in the world (other than home), is still there. I will step back into it and time will slow. I will sit on a small, red plastic chair on the morning of December 28th and order rice cakes from two laughing women. I will read a book while they take extra time to remove the shrimp shells, and the soy milk woman will prepare my drink with a third of the sugar that the locals take. They'll remember.

And, I'm pretty sure I will feel the same as I did when I sent Katherine a text from that same chair over two years ago stating: "This is the place I feel most happy in life."


Amy T. said...

Ah, the first in The Band to lean in, oh so closely, to eavesdrop on the whisper that is Marjie's travel, Marjie's passion for life.

Marjie, that you can say, ""This is the place I feel most happy in life" is a gift only granted to those who don't hurry through life. That's the blessing HCMC has given you... and, in our own voyeuristic way, to us!

Anonymous said...

Oh how fun to jump on email and see you BACK ON YOUR TRIPLE S WITH CRUNCH MODE!
So happy you get to go back to your Happy Place and be with your T sisters. Reading how it is the best $ spent brought tears to my eyes. THank you for sharing so much with your fans. Love Wac

Mungo said...

Your writing sends ME back there, too! I can't believe you've been back here for two years, and I haven't seen you yet... Life flies by... Have an amazing Christmas and a fantabulous trip!

Anonymous said...

I've now read this three times and can't stop smiling! Your writing
and energy are so vibrant and colorful I really feel like I am going
back there with you! What a treat to have you back in your groove,
going back to your place. Do you think the rice cakes would ship well?
If so I will have a birthday next year. :-). Love, Pam

The Norris Clan said...

And #1 will be last to comment... Now wonderful to have you back in cyberland! Who am I kidding? You bring ME back! Mungo, I agree. Just hearing the stories brings me back to a much happier time. M, I'm in need of some really good stories right now... Some happiness. Your happiness. I'm looking forward to the postscript of your happiest place on earth
Sincerely, and always, #1

Brian Bowker said...

"I am spending $1400 to fly across the world to eat sixty cent rice cakes." That sounds exactly like how my brain translates just about any ad for a Black Friday sale (except I know that the rice cakes will be already sold out.)

I'm so excited for you! Where will you be staying? Are you going to try and hire Nam?

Marjie said...

So happy to have the band reunited...thanks everyone! #1, some really good stories, coming your way. I mean, I'm doing all I can - just for you! Brian, I'm staying at the hotel in the alley. If Nam is hanging around, I will hire him to drive me crazy, for sure. Pam, rice cakes don't last longer than they take to cool and pop into my mouth. Wish you could all come a tour...