Monday, January 07, 2013


On Spaghetti-with-Soy-Sauce-Night, I tell Thanh I want to do the dishes.

"No!" (emphatic). "No work for ten days!"

"But what about you?" I respond. "You work every single day."

Thanh just shrugs and says, "We different."

And my hair-washer, Trinh (also my age), during our hour-long conversation I learned that she sleeps on the same bench I recline on during a hair-wash...she and three other girls who work at Salon Mimi all sleep in a row on the salon beds. And they share a tiny bathroom with a squat toilet and a shower head next to a bucket. 

"It's OK," Trinh says. "It's not bad."

I am never more aware of my privileged life than when I'm here, and the fact that I have these friendships at all...well, it has to do with acceptance on many levels. Unconditional understanding of where we are from, who we are, etc. Mostly, though, these are content people. Filled with generosity, love and humor.

I think about these things a lot. So much, in fact, that I haven't been able to read the three books I brought. Too distracted with it all...I've seen too much behind the curtain these days.

What I think about:

My many freedoms: political and personal. Educational opportunities. Career choices. The ability to travel freely around the world. Maybe more importantly, being able to afford to travel freely around the world. Car ownership, home ownership. The time to think about what makes me happy and the means to make those things happen.

And that four years ago I (freely) answered a Craigslist ad that brought me here - to a place where I feel even more free. But in this place the people are not free. They do not have political freedoms and they are captives of poverty and bound by family responsibilities; no one else is going to take care of them if they get sick. So they have each other instead of insurance and pension plans. It would take them a lifetime to save enough to travel to America, but by then they would have hospital bills to pay.

So they accept it. They have enough. They have food, shelter, family and community. I know a lot of rich people would give anything for that.

Last night as I'm teaching Thanh how to use Facebook, she says, "So much freedom in America."

During our Nha Trang get-away, she confessed to me that she would like to be independent, but that it will never happen.

"It's hard," she said.

But loyalty and care-taking is so ingrained into her being that she couldn't go out on her own, even if she had money. At this point, anyway.

"Do you want to come to America?" I ask, hesitantly. I kind of have to ask. But I can't picture her there without the rest of "her."

She thinks for a moment, then says, "No. I don't."

I'm relieved. Because we have way too much, and with that comes so many problems. I want her to have a good life. I want all of them to have "better" lives. But what, exactly, does "better" look like? Does it make this market look like the shopping mall of my recurring nightmares?*

What a strange, strange world. None of it makes sense. I was born there, they were born here.

And the strangest part of all? "Contentment" exists somewhere outside of circumstance.

On Wednesday, a time-machine will take me back to my life. I will be happy to return to it (although today I couldn't remember what I usually eat for breakfast). A few people have predicted that I will come back here to teach - based on my obvious love for this place. The answer is a definite "no" to that. Just thinking about it causes me nothing but anxiety. I hate the heat, and I only endured it because I loved it here so much. But that was a different time, under different circumstances. This place changed me and offered me more than I ever thought possible. But I am content in Seattle.

Nevertheless, I do think that it will be a bit confusing to return after these two weeks. (I think I usually eat eggs for breakfast.)

OK. Now, for some final food wrap-ups:

*1. Speaking of that recurring nightmare, I keep meaning to mention this: the sushi restaurant that caused me so much worry? It closed after only one month. "Very bad," said Thanh.

2. I saw Pomelo Guy the other day, but he was just walking through the market and was not selling pomelo. Today a woman who HAD to be his twin was selling it in his spot. It was dry and very disappointing. I'm hoping for a miracle the next two mornings.

3. Deep-fried Spring Roll Lady closed her cart two years ago and moved back to the Mekong Delta, her home. I finally dragged Thanh to her area of the market this morning to make inquiries, and that's the story. So she closed up right after I left. I probably gave her the majority of her business.

Everyone else sells and sells, day after day. And they will be selling to me for two more days. Nothing could be better, from my perspective...


Pam Perry said...

A very deep and real thought you bring up: "Contentment" exists somewhere outside of circumstance. The poorest people I've ever met are definitely the most content. They long for nothing and always live in the present. It is a beautiful way to live that we Westerners have such a hard time grasping!

Mungo said...

I am one of the most discontented people I know... and I have so much. Thank you for this post and that reminder...