After something like 2.75 years in Vietnam, I'm taking the low road back to civilisation.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

#6 Keith's phone call.

In May of 2008 while teaching I received a missed call from my best mate, which was followed up by a text message asking for a call back. Whether or not the text message alluded to a less serious situation I cannot remember, but upon getting home I hadn’t yet returned the call. Keith called again and left me with tragic news that stunned me and left me thousands of miles away from a good friend who was in hospital effectively braindead and being kept alive by a machine.

Having left work on his motorbike, Gordon, experienced on mopeds but fairly new to his 600cc sportsbike, had been cruising down the outside of a line of stationary cars near my childhood dentist, when a car pulled out from a side road directly into the path of his bike and sent him flying. The impact upon his landing was such that Gordon’s life was instantly destroyed through no fault of his own or the driver of the car.

The distance numbed my reaction somewhat, I’m fairly sure. A couple of years later I had some closure on this, when Zoe started fitting on the ground outside a bar in the early hours of the morning. I think it was the air of helplessness that surrounded the people involved that connected Gordon’s last 24 hours to Zoe’s allergic reaction. A very sudden and inexplicable

The gravity of this didn’t affect my motorbike driving style in Vietnam at all, as the traffic systems and motorists’ awareness of motorbike riders are so vastly contrasting between the UK and SaiGon. The main effect it had on me was a realisation that life is so short. An obvious one maybe, but any death I had experienced until that point had been someone considerably older than me, who I hadn’t had any real attachment to. Gordon had, of course, vastly increased his odds of a premature death by jumping on such a machine.

I think this incident contributed to breaking down certain inhibitions I had previously held. Saying more explicitly what I think or how I feel is clearly not a problem for me these days. There is considerably less thought about what could go wrong while I consider doing something, instead more focus on how to make it work. This is more a by-product of an overall rise in confidence and skills from my experiences in Vietnam.

I never once actually spoke to him after moving to SaiGon, and only exchanged a few messages with him where all he spoke about was his bike and how fast he has managed to make it go. Which is a difficult last exchange to deal with, despite the fact his fatal crash was at fairly low speed. Keith recently reminded me that it's been over 2 years. I still can't quite it's been that long, and that this is the third trip home since his death.

#7Jon's Pub golf

Probably the best night out in 2008 was to mark the start of Jon’s hiatus from SaiGon as Chi was gestating and he was venturing to icier climes for his PGCE. My first experience of pub golf, a lot was learned on that balmy night, mainly that Long Island Iced Teas should not be played on an 18 hole course, and that mobile phones should be left at home.

I’m proud of the fact that I can remember most of the night, and from the scraps of paper found in David On’s pocket the next morning, I actually managed to complete a decent round, ending up a couple of shots behind the leader, whoever that might have been.

The players were mainly made up of Raiders, with the notable exception of Christoff, Henno’s mate from Stellenbosch who I was meeting for the first time, but would feature later in massive sporting fixtures such as the inaugural Singapore F1 Grand Prix, and the World Cup in South Africa (or more accurately, wine tours in between games). We lost David On for certain holes as a result of a jealous, attention seeking girlfriend, but were rewarded with an entertaining take on women from the man himself. He later tried to save some strokes by buying a round, but was frustrated to find that generosity doesn’t get you the birdies in this case.

Somewhere between making assertive statements regarding fire hydrants and the 14th hole, we came across a mechanical digger. Having failed to spark life into the beast by ourselves, the driver turned up and obliged us by cranking the engine and then hoisting Henno and I who were perched on the crane up several feet in the air. This ignited a trend for heights on industrial machinery, which I partly believe was inspired by Pete Shepherd’s schooldays theft of a steamroller.

The memory started to go at Q Bar, and I’m sure that if we had a game the next day, it’s a fair bet to assume we lost.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

#8 The ballet dancers

During my first few months in Saigon, my original circle of friends was made up of 5 of the teachers which had graduated from the TESOL course previous to mine, with the addition of Ryan and I. This circle did not last long as we each found personalities more suitable to our own, for Ryan this was Tam Tam bar crowd and some workmates, for me the Saigon Raiders and some Apollo staff.

Tali, Eddie, Ryan and I went along to the Opera House one evening to take in the Vietnamese theatre and one moment turned out to be, without doubt, the single funniest moment of my ex-pat life. I won’t go into too much detail, as this will mean nothing to those who had not witnessed it and my words are insufficient to do the scene justice. Basically the show was opera in the first half and we had spent most of that falling asleep, or watching the bat circle the stalls. After considering at the intermission whether we should stay for the second half, we relented and were rewarded with two male ballet dancers prancing on from the sides in the most mincing manner imaginable. The hilarity ensued and while Tali managed to remain relatively composed, Eddie, Ryan and I fell into hysterics which fed off each other for about half an hour and drew attention from those opera going types surrounding us. Fortunately the theatre was only about 40% full, less so in the rear where we were sat, and our laughter was able to break free, until it became simply too painful.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

#9 "Experiencing Vietnamese culture" aka Ridiculous Vietnamese behaviour.

The Vietnamese work ethic. I had the privilege to see the Bitexco tower as the helipad was nearly finished, and at almost every turn Fraser, Ollie and I were faced with half a dozen workers springing up onto their feet to make a very half -arsed attempt at looking busy. Looking busy consisted of little more than being on their feet and smiling... this is part of a larger epidemic where a significant amount of locals somehow feel entitled after one month in the job to switch off almost completely, stop trying to produce quality work and instead concentrate on the infinitely more productive output of complaining about their income/company/managers and taking inordinate amount of sick days due to family reasons.

Personal space hypocrisy. The best examples I will provide of this was when playing a friendly/friendlies against a Vietnamese team/s up at Thu Duc Sports University. Whether the two incidents I am about to quote took place in the same game, I can’t quite remember. Anyway during the game one of my teammates tried to apologise for a tackle and when the guy refused a handshake or helping hand back up onto his feet because he was so badly hurt from the tackle, my teammate ruffled his hair. Anyone who isn’t familiar with Asian culture should be informed that touching the top of an Asian’s head thing is a no-no. OK fine. But at the end of another friendly (and also once at a Bia Hoi) I went for a hand shake and the Vietnamese guy instead tried to grab my dick. Anyone who isn’t familiar with my culture should know that if you do that to a Brit on the football pitch (I say Brit since there are probably some European nations which like that sort of thing) you stand a good chance of leaving with some teeth in your hand.

Complaints ie. "You're not ___ enough to be my teacher" - Ultimately, if their teacher was a closet 47 year old male paedophile who had secretly spent the last 5 years serenading around Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines as an English language instructor, spending his student’s money on sex for schoolkids they would be happier. That's an extreme example but unfortunately it holds true for their psyche (For the Vietnamese ignorance is too often bliss). An awful male teacher with expensive possessions or who just rocks up and teaches directly from the book is held in so much more esteem than a quality female teacher who prepares lessons and has a clue what she is doing…

Vietnamese standards of decency.
Some examples will suffice here.
1. People debagging, crouching and shitting in a very visibly alley in the city centre in the middle of the day.
2. Poor punctuality. Dismissed with an insulting laugh. And repeated offences.
3. Cheating. Dismissed with a laugh. And repeated offences.
4. Acceptable noise levels. It seems anything goes so long as the sun is up. That includes next door neighbours drilling holes every Sunday morning from 8am for weeks or months on end. Or next door neighbours building a rabbit hutch in a darkened enclave which is actually on YOUR property, and sticking a confused cockerel in there who crowed for 15 minute spells every hour from 5am up to 5pm. In their culture, you are expected to grin and bear it, fine - as long as they don’t throw childish fits when you are watching a CCR DVD at 9.30pm. Or starting your motorbike outside your house. Or when your cat walks around at night.
5. Animal treatment. In Vietnam the old style rat trap is used, where the creature is lured into a cage, which has a trapdoor held on a latch. When activated the door is released behind them and traps them in the cage. One Saturday morning when I was waiting at the side of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai for a taxi to work during my crutches phase, I saw a woman put the cage in the gutter, then bring out a kettle and slowly pour a litre of boiling water over the thrashing rodent until it had stopped bouncing off the sides of the cage. Well, job done.

After nearly 3 years I eventually succumbed to the Saigon Zoo which gave me two additional examples of the lack of respect for animals that some Vietnamese men, children and women hold.
Incident one, “The taunting of the lion”. When approaching the lion cage there was a group of around 6 people watching a man who was holding his briefcase just out of the Lioness’s paws reach, encouraging it to swipe at the bag. A moment of inspiration came to me as Hana and I looked at each other in disgust and as the man prepared to taunt the big cat once again, I readied myself and waited for the lioness to strike, simultaneously grabbing the guy from behind and roaring in his ear. It achieved the desired effect of scaring the piss out of the guy, but my Vietnamese was insufficient to explain to the guy if he continued I would try to feed him to the animal.
Incident two, “The Crocodile ashtray”. A guy with his young daughter in his arm and a cigarette in the other flicked his burning cigarette over the fence at the Crocodile which opened its jaws and snapped up the butt. I would have liked to have seen him try to stub out that fag in the Croc’s mouth, and see how he was going to smoke and carry his toddler at the same time ever again.

People are told to be sensitive to Vietnamese culture and adapt. I agree to a point, my former flatmate Ryan was very short tempered and overly hostile towards the locals. But the country and its people are supposed to be developing, and I didn’t see any signs of it in my time there. Now that I’m away from Vietnam I say without reservation that the majority of Vietnamese people need to grow the fuck up. Not that I particularly held my tongue when I was there. But they can’t do it by themselves, and as teachers we can only help them reverse some of these behaviours, assuming their family unit is not simultaneously encouraging the opposite.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Most memorable moments from my time in Saigon.

If this list was about the most memorable moments from the last 3 years of my life, then a much smaller proportion of them would have been based on events that took place in HCMC. But this list is about expatriate life within the inner city. Each of my trips from Tan Son Nhat airport were eagerly anticipated and I was very much pre-genkified. So this top ten is based largely on nights out, football related stuff or total surprises. Evidently that's what a Saigon working week leaves you with.

Of course, some events weren't even up for publishing consideration due to the fact that this is an open blog and certain things are on a need to know basis. Just think Vietnamese rum, post Thailand stag do/pre Christmas blues, Lily bar, et al.

The list is not entirely made up of happy memories, but luckily, the bulk of my recollections are of the fond variety.

#10 Cat injuries

Each of my cats suffered their own trauma during the 2 years I lived with them. What exactly happened in each of these cases, I can never be sure.

Floyd (otherwise known as Big Benson, Wolf Doctor) committed genocide on the bat population that circled the roof of our house during a 2 or 3 month spell until either a) he got bored or b) he actually succeeded in wiping them out. This worried me slightly as Ryan and I had decided against the Rabies inoculation since we thought initially they were going to be largely housecats, until his faecal/urinary habits became intolerable and was banned to the roof at night. He then managed to clamber in through the gap at the top of the door and he was then entitled to come and go as he pleased.

One day, I came down the stairs to see this lovely picture.

Then feared the worst. As you would. He was promptly stuffed into a backpack (at this stage he had become too big for the Xbox 360 packaging) and driven the two minutes down to the vets, where he was injected with antibiotics and we were instructed to bring him back every evening for a week. The official verdict was he had eaten something he shouldn’t have.

Shitrock (otherwise known as Veronica, Neko, Snake) was assumed to have suffered a mysterious fall which resulted in a bloody nose/mouth and a severe limp for a period of two or three weeks. The neighbour next door had apparently been spotted swinging some kind of stick at her in the past, but this seemed to be as a result of a misjudged leap. Or was it a sympathy break after seeing me on crutches for so long?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An idle kind of life

There are several very good reasons why a 29 year old man should not be living with his parents. It doesn't take very long for these to become obvious once more, having spent several years since my last prolonged stint with my folks.

One of these reasons is that in order to use the internet I have to lie on my front on the floor of their dining room. Combine it with the facts that it's such a pain in the arse to reconnect, I am not working, most of my friends have left Edinburgh or are actually working right now, my girlfriend is a million miles away, and as a result I am spending a worrying amount of time prostrate next to the dinner table in front of a computer screen.

At present, I am right in the middle of a little 4 week stint back at my parents flat, before I (and Hana, when she arrives) move into my brother's spare room for about 5 weeks. That gives us time to look for a 1 bedroom flat once the Edinburgh festival and Fringe have packed up and taken their ludicrously inflated flat rental prices (and our jobs) with them. Needless to say, our flat will have WiFi.

Price check one. Key cutting in Vietnam = 5-10,000 VND (20-40p) Same 2 minute operation in UK = £3.50. Before any Vietnamese key cutters out there reading this start packing their bags to start up a business in Edinburgh, be warned:
  1. It's pissing with rain.
  2. Cut one key for 10,000 and you can get your lunch. Cut one key for £3.50, and you're still about £7 short for your bowl of Pho.
  3. Nobody will understand your pronunciation. You won't understand anyone else's pronunciation. Neither of these will improve with time.
There is no Vietnamese community in Scotland. Maybe the food is too healthy. Take that out the equation and you're not gonna get Vinatown suddenly springing up somewhere just off the Dalkeith road. I've got kind of sidetracked here...

Anyhow, tomorrow morning I'm on a train to Slaley Hall, Hexham near Newcastle for the weekend to spend a few nights in my brother's timeshare lodge. Golf, gym and Wet 'n' Wild...

Monday, July 12, 2010

A few final words on fitba

The world cup has gone, and my world cup beard has disappeared along with it. There stands a fair chance that it will be reincarnated a few months down the line, taking the form of a distant cousin, the Edinburgh winter beard. For the present, however, I am facial hairless and football-less. I have been toying with the idea of trying to find a club while I'm back home. Until I know what I'm doing beyond the festival though, I can't commit to training and games. If I decide to wait until I know how I'm placed, the season will be under way and I will have next to no hope of breaking into a team as first choice goalkeeper (the only position I am willing to risk my bones in at the moment).

This Catch 22 situation raises the other option that I have considered recently, that I could stay involved in football and make a little pocket money by doing a spot of refereeing. I hesitate when I see the treatment of Howard Webb last night. Replace a squad full of Dutch professional footballers with a collection of hungover thirty somethings from Clovenstone with unknown employment status or criminal records, replace Soccer City with a frozen Seafield pitch - suddenly it seems like the worst idea I've ever had.

I know I won't get a lot of sympathy for this, but all this free time has long since gotten old. Therefore this slowest of months, July, has been filled with notions of day trips and short breaks, some of which have come to fruition, others are pending a decision and one or two have been abandoned completely.