Among Asians it’s not necessarily rude to be blunt and brutally honest. I understand this conceptually but it’s hard to take when I’m repeatedly reminded about how much fatter I am now than I used to be. I get it, thanks for the news flash. The night before, the eldest son of my aunt casually mentioned how tan I was getting. Ordinarily I wouldn’t take offense but it’s meant to be a criticism in Vietnamese culture where porcelain skin is prized above all else. Also, literally translated, the phrase is “your skin is blackened,” which is considered insulting. Next he asked if I was sleep-deprived because he noticed how dark the bags under my eyes were. I guess from now on I’ll need to wear concealer at all times in case any relatives drop by. Lastly he wondered why I spoke Vietnamese so poorly compared to Tom, who was born in the U.S. and who’s barely more fluent than a trained monkey. Enough already, you are officially my least favorite cousin. This is the same cousin who brought dozens of containers of fresh yogurt because he heard I liked them and who was hell bent on paying for an extravagant feast for our family even though the cost might be some ordinary worker’s monthly income. Go figure.
I hit a low point earlier in the week when in the midst of already feeling hideously uncomfortable, my period started and diarrhea inexplicably attacked in full force. The limits of my endurance were being tested because at exactly this time there was a water outage in my aunt’s apartment building, which meant no functioning toilets or showers for an indeterminate amount of time (which turned out to be several hours). I wanted to kill myself. I have since recovered some perspective. It is definitely not as comfortable and convenient here as it is at home. Would I just want to hang out at home? What was the point of this sabbatical if not to spend unlimited quantities of time with my kids? I have to learn how to enjoy not billing my time, as crazy as that sounds. There are benefits to being a foodie in Vietnam. The flavors here are more intense and everything is a more delicate, delicious version than its American counterpart. Plus health care is hella cheap and more convenient than in the U.S. We simply showed up at the doctor’s home between visiting hours of 5:30 pm – 8:00 pm (and had to take off our shoes at the door), the doctor took a look at my kids as we described their symptoms, he wrote a few prescriptions that his wife filled out a few meters from him, we paid about US$40 for the visit and medications, and were on our way. Yesterday was the first day that my son didn’t break out in hives, and I’m duly impressed. I had heard horror stories about quack doctors in Vietnam but living outside of the U.S. for a little over a week has already showed me how flawed the American health care system is.
Life is about learning to adapt and adjusting expectations. There are pros and cons to every decision, and I just need to learn how to live with mine.
I might have romanticized Vietnam in my mind a little. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting; I just had some vague notion that I was simultaneously going to find myself and the secret of happiness. I knew there would be inconveniences but I didn’t realize how inconvenient and how frequent they would be. It’s one thing to joke about being sweaty and gross when you’re enjoying beautiful spring weather in the comfort of your own home; to be actually drenched in sweat on a regular basis is not fun. I had also joked about diarrhea before our trip. After clogging my aunt’s wimpy Vietnamese toilets twice within a 12 hour span (a feat of which I am both ashamed and proud), diarrhea is no longer a laughing matter. I feel like such a baby having the complaints that I have. In isolation each inconvenience is admittedly minor, but in the aggregate these minor grievances comprise an ordeal that is almost unbearable. These are some of my first world gripes:
- My daughter says “Vietnam is a little yucky.” Boy is that an understatement. It can be downright nasty. It’s not nearly as charming as I had remembered. Random nooks and alleys in Paris paved with cobblestones and overgrown with shrubbery are, without fail, delightful and picturesque. Nooks and alleys in Saigon are littered with trash and its stenches alternate between rotting garbage and choking exhaust fumes.
- People here don’t use napkins or paper towels. They just don’t. You either have to be really careful and neat, or use toilet paper. At best, there will be a roll of toilet paper available for use as napkins; at worst there will be nothing at all and you have to remember to bring some with you. And it’s not like you can have an unlimited amount of toilet paper to wipe up after eating like a barbaric American. The etiquette is to tear ONE SQUARE OF TOILET PAPER. I may be exaggerating slightly for dramatic effect, but not much. Seriously, in restaurants you get two squares but in people’s homes you should use as little as possible to be polite. Can you imagine trying to eat an entire meal with only one square of toilet paper? I still can’t manage it, especially with my slovenly American children. We’re forgiven quite a lot because we’re American but the disproportionate amount of waste that we generate is something I try to be conscious of and improve upon.
- There are no dryers. Laundry is dried on clotheslines or hangers, resulting in stiff clothes. Not a big deal except that none of the lint gets removed either, so wiping your face with a towel leaves behind a layer of fuzz which rolls up into balls of lint on your skin.
- Speaking of towels, they are made for miniature people. What would serve as a hand towel in America is supposed to be a full sized bath towel in Vietnam, even though I can barely wrap it around my body and it doesn’t cover up anything it’s supposed to cover up.
- Air conditioning is a treat. My aunt’s apartment is considered luxurious because our room has an air conditioner, but it would be considered bad form to leave it on all the time and even if we did, it wouldn’t be feasible to spend all day every day in our room. I’m used to things like central air, thermostats, and climate control banishing the slightest discomfort. Now when I’m hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable there’s very little I can do about it except continue to be hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable. It’s nothing like the clean, satisfying sweat that you generate from an intense workout. It’s a sticky sweat that oozes out of your pores and makes you feel disgusting and miserable.
- I’m over sleeping with my entire family on a mattress pad that smells faintly of urine. It was fun and cute the first night, maybe even the second, but the novelty has worn off and I dearly miss my king size mattress and Egyptian cotton sheets and freedom from the intrusive limbs of my children. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to deal with sleeping with my kids for an extended period of time. Our one unequivocal parenting success was that we sleep-trained our kids really well. They used to sleep for 10 to 11 hours each night, in their respective beds, alone in their respective rooms, no drama. I feel like all that training is coming undone. One person’s stirring will now wake everyone else. What if they won’t be able to sleep alone anymore? We also get to incubate in each other’s germs all night long. And forget about any husband-wife action. Most nights we’re separated by a kid and the most contact we can manage is reaching our ankles across the expanse so they can touch.
- My poor son is allergic to Vietnam. He’s broken out in hives every day that we’ve been here, I’m guessing from sheer discomfort.
- It is friggin’ time consuming and not all that interesting to take care of children all day long. I thought that if I stopped working I would suddenly have 12 spare hours a day to do as I pleased. It’s incredible how demanding these little people can be, and they’re not even uber high-maintenance diaper-clad toddlers anymore. Every few minutes I’m tending to someone going potty, someone getting hurt falling off the hammock, someone dirty who needs washing, someone who’s fighting with their sibling or just plain bored. It feels like half a lifetime is spent just preparing and delivering food into unwilling mouths. How on earth did I think I would have time for leisure reading or Facebook stalking?
- I didn’t have any basis for idealizing Vietnamese children, but I imagined they would be sweetly deferential, perhaps offering me tea on a tray with bowed heads. They are just as obnoxious as American children.
I had been in the habit of measuring my productivity in billable hours, and now that I’m taking care of my kids in a foreign and inconvenient setting, it’s hard not to feel like I’m wasting time, sadly. It wouldn’t be so bad if I enjoyed it more, but to be honest, I want to go home.
Most people, myself included, would not think of me as particularly maternal. I didn’t like kids before I had them and even now I generally don’t like kids other than my own. I think it’s because, like dogs, they can smell fear. Although my maternal instincts may be lacking, I surely deserve credit for my heroic efforts during our 13 hour flight to Korea. For several hours, my hip rested against the edge of my seat and my head leaned against a raised armrest as my kids’ legs poked me from all angles. I didn’t mind one bit even though it felt like I was trapped in some sort of primitive torture device; I would have endured much worse for the comfort of my children. Our first evening in Saigon, my daughter was blowing bubbles in the open lobby of my aunt’s apartment complex and a few of the local children were rambunctiously leaping and screaming around her as they popped bubbles. Their utter disregard for personal space made me really nervous. I didn’t expect to be a hoverer, but there I was, hovering anxiously around my daughter to protect her from little boys who were popping bubbles too rudely and loudly. Last night my cousins took us out to dinner at the mall and afterwards I watched in horror as my kids cavorted through various death traps posing as an indoor playground. If health and safety regulations existed in Vietnam, this place would have been in major violation. There was a rotating contraption that swung miniature punching bags attached to rope and I swear it was designed to give concussions to unwary children. Aside from myself, my cousin and one other rightfully paranoid parent, the gaggle of children were completely unsupervised. It was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life. Proof that I’m really a mommy!
This is where I’ll be sleeping tonight, on a one-and-a-half inch mattress pad surrounded by my kids and husband. I love it. It’s so surreal to be here in Vietnam. It had been such a mad scramble to the end, and the whirlwind of activity made the hours and hours of travel speed by in a mindless blur. In the blink of an eye we had arrived and were assaulted by strange and strangely familiar scenes, sounds, and smells. The hum of traffic and commerce, the heavy smog of pollution that sits on your skin and in your lungs like an oppressive blanket, the constant stream of horns blaring at each other as our taxi wove its way through a sea of sun-weathered faces on motorbikes. It’s like revisiting an alien planet that you had seen in your dreams. Tom and I had stayed in Saigon for a few weeks during our honeymoon over 13 years ago. So much has changed since then, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what, other than there are a lot more cars now. It’s vaguely familiar and yet enthrallingly new and exciting to be here with our kids and experience it through their eyes.
The house is a mess, I haven’t finished packing and am still doing laundry, the kids need a bath and our red eye flight is tonight. Not only did we meet some friends on the strip for lunch, I absolutely must get a pedicure before we leave. I have poor prioritization and planning skills.
Friday the 29th was officially my last day at work but I brought the kids into the office today to wrap up some loose ends. It’s been pure madness these last few days as we try to organize and pack for a year. Getting ready for vacation is so stressful. Poor me. I’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief once we’re on the plane. Despite how much left there is to do, Tom and I are trying to squeeze in some movies that we’ve been wanting to see. Last night we started watching Argo after 11pm and we rented Zero Dark Thirty to watch tonight. We have poor prioritization and planning skills.