Sum­mer of dis­con­tent

Hanoi in July is a per­fect place – if you hap­pen to be a mush­room

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CAROLYN SHINE

FOUR­weeks in a new coun­try and I al­ready know the word for mould — moc. It sits in­con­gru­ously in my vo­cab­u­lary along­side ‘‘turn right’’, ‘‘turn left’’ and ‘‘how much is this?’’.

The mould prob­lem is prob­a­bly j ust the down­side of a cli­mate per­fect for grow­ing mush­rooms, I re­flect, as I sponge the white powder off my black pants. I’ve been read­ing about the ex­plo­sive growth of the mush­room in­dus­try in Viet­nam. The coun­try is now one of the world’s top mush­room ex­porters.

Hanoi in July — per­fect con­di­tions if you’re a mush­room.

Not so ideal for hu­mans, though. Hu­mid­ity and pol­lu­tion, both in ex­treme, do not form a sweet com­pound.

I’ve got the get-up-and-go of a bi­valve. Sponge in hand, I cast my eye around the room and groan to see a small black shoul­der bag I bought in In­done­sia has be­come car­peted in the stuff. It looks like an al­bino ver­sion of its for­mer self. I’m won­der­ing what will hap­pen when the mon­soon breaks. Will there be a brief hal­cyon sea­son of crisp, dry breezes and lazy sun­shine — the days warm, the nights cool and fra­grant? Or will we go di­rectly to the night­mar­ish climes of win­ter?

I’ve heard enough about the Hanoi win­ter to be afraid. When de­scrib­ing it, peo­ple tend to com­bine the word ‘‘cold’’ with ‘‘hu­mid’’, a com­bi­na­tion I’m not fa­mil­iar with and don’t want to be. These same peo­ple talk of a frigid northerly wind that howls down from China to pen­e­trate the thick­est sweaters, through to the deep­est bones. My flat, in lo­cal style, has tile floors and no heat­ing.

But for now there should be plenty more mon­soon be­hav­iour to come. Stu­dents have told me Au­gust is a time of fierce rains and flood­ing.

Stu­dents are be­com­ing a prime source of in­for­ma­tion now. It seems teach­ing English in a for­eign coun­try is the fastest way to learn the ropes. My ad­vanced adult class gives me a win­dow into the cul­ture, al­though the glass can be very streaky. I take my ques­tions and queries into the class­room and some­times they lead to grand dis­cus­sions that oc­cupy most of the les­son pe­riod.

Since the ini­tial shy­ness re­ceded, opin­ions have started to emerge. I catch the odd glimpse of an open mind, a thirst for knowl­edge. But other at­ti­tudes seem en­trenched and in­tractable.

In last night’s class we dis­cussed the old chest­nut: A woman’s place is in the home. To­day I’m still mulling that hour and a half. In par­tic­u­lar, one highly ed­u­ca­tional seg­ment. The ed­u­ca­tion, of course, was mine. The short scene re­play­ing in my mind runs like this: I’ve asked the men how many of them would pre­fer to have been born fe­male. There’s an avalanche of chortling.

‘‘That is a ridicu­lous ques­tion,’’ a smirk­ing, rather ma­cho guy called Cong tells me. ‘‘Of course, no man would pre­fer this.’’

I look to the other guys. They look away. So I pose the op­po­site ques­tion to the women. ‘ ‘ How many of you would pre­fer to be a man?’’

An out­break of ex­cited dis­cus­sion in Viet­namese sug­gests this ques­tion has never been put to them be­fore. About half even­tu­ally raise a hand. A fair choice, I muse, con­sid­er­ing the divi­sion of labour I’ve ob­served.

Life in Hanoi takes place on the street. Men loi­ter in small groups on busy corners with ba­sic tools and an air-com­pres­sor, ready to re­pair, re­fuel or re­tread any trou­bled two-wheeled ve­hi­cles. Be­side them are women wash­ing clothes in big sudsy metal pails, men play­ing cards, women sweep­ing, one hand held be­hind their back, men drink­ing beer and smok­ing rough to­bacco through large bam­boo bongs, women sell­ing fruit from 50kg bas­kets yoked across their shoul­der, men sleep­ing in ham­mocks.

‘ ‘ So . . . you’re happy to be a woman?’ I ask one of the ab­stain­ers. She shrugs. ‘‘It is the woman duty serve her hus­band,’’ she replies. Other women nod in agree­ment.

‘‘And you’re happy to do this?’’ I ask her in a tone that reg­is­ters my baf­fle­ment. Apart from the jar­ring sen­ti­ment, like so many replies I’ve been hear­ing lately, hers doesn’t seem to ad­dress the ques­tion. In Viet­nam, a vi­able an­swer to the ques­tion: ‘‘Do you pre­fer frog por­ridge or fish por­ridge?’’ is ‘‘Yes’’.

The other women gig­gle at my re­ac­tion. ‘ ‘ Of course,’’ the ab­stainer says, smil­ing. The out­spo­ken Pham, who’s sitting over on the male side of the room, elu­ci­dates. ‘‘It is an hon­our for the woman to look af­ter her hus­band,’’ she tells me. ‘‘To make the food for him and his par­ents and to have chil­dren. Chil­dren are our fu­ture.’’

The se­mes­ter of women’s stud­ies I un­der­took as a brighteyed stu­dent in my early 20s comes crash­ing down about my feet. There I was learn­ing about why the pro­noun I, as a phal­lic sym­bol, is a pa­tri­ar­chal af­front to our lan­guage. More than a decade later, a mem­ber of Viet­nam’s ed­u­cated elite tells meit’s an hon­our to live life as a do­mes­tic drudge.

I ask my­self: is this the re­sult of brain­wash­ing, or a pan­demic of Stockholm syn­drome where the cap­tive be­comes will­ingly and per­versely sub­servient to the needs of the cap­tor? Or is this sim­ply a vi­able opin­ion suf­fer­ing harsh judg­ment at the hands of my own skewed and se­lec­tive West­ern sense of moral­ity? Is it wrong to want to be a good wife?

I’m not blessed with the ca­pac­ity for cer­tainty; with my pre­vi­ous con­vic­tions tak­ing on wa­ter, I’m be­gin­ning to suc­cumb to a deep philo­soph­i­cal con­fu­sion. In fact, the du­ties that await a wife are more oner­ous than I know at this time.

Af­ter her wed­ding, a Viet­namese bride tra­di­tion­ally moves out of her par­ents’ home, where she has spent ev­ery night since her birth, shar­ing a bed with her mother, where she has eaten each day of her life with her fam­ily, and she moves to the house of her hus­band’s fam­ily.

At the new res­i­dence she be­comes the prop­erty of her in-laws, and the bur­den of do­mes­tic du­ties now in­cludes look­ing af­ter them. Once I un­der­stand this, many things be­come clear. Clear­est of all is the re­lief and joy ex­pressed by par­ents who have a baby boy.

In a year, a Viet­namese friend of mine and his preg­nant wife will learn from an ul­tra­sound test that their baby is male. My friend, who’s a thor­oughly mod­ern and well-ed­u­cated man, will cel­e­brate, be­cause, he says, a boy child has ‘‘higher sta­tus’’.

Whereas once I would have taken um­brage at this, I come to sym­pa­thise. When you look at it their way, a girl is ba­si­cally a waste of re­sources. You clothe her, feed her, ed­u­cate her, and then lose her com­pletely on her wed­ding day.

A son, on the other hand, is a good, solid in­vest­ment and a vir­tual guar­an­tee of home help later on down the track.

Last night’s class has been timely, dove­tail­ing dan­ger­ously with my grow­ing dis­en­chant­ment. My get-up-and-go deficit is run­ning to­wards weari­ness, ow­ing as much to the so­cial cli­mate as to the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal one. I’m be­ing in­cre­men­tally worn down by a fail­ure to con­nect with the lo­cals. There’s clearly more than just the lan­guage bar­rier in the way.

With the ex­cep­tion of Nga’s mother, Xuyen, who en­ters the com­pound reg­u­larly to cook in the tiny, dark kitchen next to my down­stairs door, the women in my com­pound glare at me­when I pass.

Some­times I re­turn their glares with big, friendly grins just for the sport of watch­ing the glare turn sev­eral de­grees sourer.

It’s a loser’s game in the end, though. For some of the pop­u­la­tion here at least, I’m not just a for­eigner, I’m a for­eign ob­ject. This is an edited ex­tract from Sin­gle White Fe­male in Hanoi by Carolyn Shine (Transit Lounge, $29.95). Su­san Kurosawa’s De­par­ture Lounge col­umn re­turns next week.

TOM JELLETT

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