Summer of discontent
Hanoi in July is a perfect place – if you happen to be a mushroom
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.