Wednesday, July 25, 2018


It's hard to believe it's been ten years since I landed on the motorbike-army streets of Ho Chi Minh City - an experience that introduced me to a world of international friends, a new Vietnamese family, and changed the trajectory of my life.

Sitting in a folding chair on the floor of T and T's 300 square foot home is one of my favorite places to be on this earth; if I'm not there, it's a place I can go in my mind when I need it. In that place, time doesn't exist - there is nowhere pressing to go other than to the rice cake stand, and no pressure to do or be anything other than what you are doing or being at the moment.

With that in mind, here are a few highlights about being in my favorite place in July of 2018:

 - Going with Thanh to the temple where their father's tray of ashes lie (he passed six months ago). She invited me into the "inner" part where we lit incense and identified ourselves to him (it's "Maggie" I  said, because that's what he called me) and then spoke out loud what we wished for ourselves, our family, and the world. Thanh pointed out her brother - the one who has Asperger's and who sets up their fabric stand every morning at 5:30 am - he was sitting outside his father's resting place, just staring inside. Before their father's death he used to just walk around Ho Chi Minh City all day until it was time to come back and put the fabric back in the house. But Thanh says he just comes here now and sits, all day long, instead of walking. He misses his father so much.

- Seeing the vendors. I've heard stories that city officials want to put an end to the street food scene and "upgrade" the city - I saw a lot of "Bellevue-like" evidence of that - high rises, wide, clean sidewalks, and not a vendor in sight in a few newer districts. Also, many markets are being shut down because of claims that food handler's permits are not valid. But for the most part, my market is unchanged...the garlic lady still sells garlic, and the banana lady still sells bananas. When Thanh and I did our first "red carpet" circle around the market, I asked about the Garlic Lady, one of my favorites back in the day. "She has a baby now, and no husband. It's very sad," she told me. But every morning, she and those surrounding her still race to be the first to greet me with "hello!" and are all smiles. I have no idea where they live or their struggles, all I know is that they live with constant joy regardless of their situation in life. One day the Banana Lady - one of the few vendors who lives within the market - invited me into her home. It was maybe 250 square feet and half of it stored her bananas. "I bought this house," she told me in very broken English. "Fifteen thousand," she said, proudly. I didn't know what that meant, exactly, but she was so proud of owning that house. I know the main thing T and T have going for them financially is that their parents own that house, right there in the middle of the market. And I knew it was significant that she invited me in and shared that with me.

- Visit to Nam's family. If you followed my blog from '08 to '10, you were a big fan of my motorbike driver, Nam. He was cool, he was infuriating, he was bossy, he was kind. I called him my "mother." He drove me crazy because he told me what to do all the time. But I loved him. He showed me around the city and taught me to eat certain foods. Well, he died ten days before my last visit in 2012, and I was very, very sad. I had been invited into the family when he drove for me, so his nephew, who lived in the neighborhood with Nam's sister, drove me to Nam's family's house while they were in the midst of a lot of grief. On my last night of this trip, I "dropped by" Nam's sister's house on my way to T and T's. There was a house full of people, and fortunately, Nam's nephew was there, this time with a wife and two babies. He speaks really good English and they all invited me in to sit down and have some iced tea. Nam's sister videoed our whole visit, smiling so widely, saying she couldn't wait to show the video to Nam's daughters (that was translated). Everywhere I went, I felt like royalty.

- Reading to Quang in the mornings. I got up every day at 6, went to the stand, and read to Thuy's son, Quang, out of the English books my mom sent. We would sit on top of the fabric and he would repeat the story after me, pronouncing consonants over and over..."Pig. Puh Puh Puh Puh...Pig". If you have ever heard a Vietnamese child speak a strange language that sounds a lot like English, that's because they are speaking English without consonants. Quang, even though he's only six, can write English sentences in perfect cursive. He goes to English school in the neighborhood twice a week. but he can't speak it at all. I fell completely in love with this kid. Thuy said many times, "I want him to go to America for school when he's fifteen. I want him to have a future." I told her I would look into it, but I don't have the first idea where to start. I told her to get a bank account (they've never had one) and think "scholarships" - but I wasn't sure what else to say at this point. I want him to have a future, too...but, of course it's loaded. The beauty I see in that community, well...what will he find here? Anyway, I digress. I love this kid...

- Teaching Thanh and Truc to swim. It was Thanh's second time on a plane and Truc's first, but submerging in ocean water was a first for both of them. Shea and I taught them to float, and to swim, just a little. It was awesome, truly. Seeing them laugh and splash in the water and Thanh saying, "I have no worries," -- that was definitely one of the best moments. And the fact that that moment was next to moments where we were brought squid, clams, crab and fish right to our lounge chairs...well, what could be better than that?

I'm grateful I am still connected, and that this neighborhood remains untouched. I can still leave my country and, like Thanh when she's in the ocean, forget my worries about where things are heading. I can be there, just existing, eating, as a part of a community. This place is changing rapidly, but still maintains its purity.

Coming home is always hard, a jolt to my system. My needs seem to increase, everything moves faster, and I get caught right back up in the wheel of assaults from the news.

It's hard to believe they want to be like us, when all I can see is that we need to be more like them.

1 comment:

Mungo said...

What a beautiful home you have, Smarj...