It’s nobody’s fault. No one’s to blame. There’s no blame to be had. It is what it is. People can’t help but stare. I’m a foreigner. I look different….and people haven’t seen a foreigner in these parts since……a long time ago. So, when I walk along the street, people see me and forget they’re riding a motorbike and stare at me instead of watching the road. Walking, they stop in their tracks, slack jawed and stare. Small children stare wide-eyed…..then turn, literally running and screaming to mom and dad…..
Most people are friendly about it. I’d say a good 65-70%. After recovering from the initial shock, they smile, wave and say hello. As Mike has said, it’s like being a celebrity…..without the income….. Others stare without wanting to appear to do so. So, they adopt actually a bit of a scowl and avert their eyes as soon as I look their way. Maybe they’re really not happy I’m here. I truly don’t know. Either way, the effect it has on me is isolating. Sometimes I feel like the town’s mobile freak show. As I said, it’s no ones fault really, but if it’s anyones, it’s mine. I’m the one who came here.
When I was in Chico, dreaming about this venture, I boldly, grandly, maybe egotistically, certainly naively, stated I wanted to explore a different culture as if I were Lewis & Clark & Margaret Mead all rolled up into one…… I am humbled. I have not scratched the surface. This culture, this society, this identity, runs hundreds and thousands of miles and years deep.
Something I’d noticed when I was in Hanoi – particularly in the more touristy Old Quarter: Westerners avoiding each others’ gaze. Did they want to believe they were the only Westerners here? That they’d been the original one to blaze this trail…..and embarrassed by that notion faced with the abundant evidence they were in no way the only Westerner in town….? Here in Thai Binh, however, the story is different. There are truly incredibly few non-Vietnamese people here. I was walking into Hapro – the Vietnamese ‘everything’ store – and saw a man walking up the steps ahead of me. After doing a quadruple take, my jaw dropped…..and I stared. He was not Vietnamese. He’d done his own number of ‘takes’ as well and we stood there, staring at each other, each fumbling for our words and finally, dumbly said, ‘Hi.’ He then said, “Yours is not a face I’m used to seeing in Thai Binh.” He spoke English!!! JOY!!!!
I’ve been struggling in writing this. Maybe I’m infected with a bad case of Political Correctness……. but until you’ve been the Stranger in a Strange Land and have felt the often overwhelming sense of isolation, you don’t know how exciting it can be to meet someone who speaks your language. Someone with whom you can converse without struggling over every single word. I’ve had many ‘conversations’ with wonderful, beautiful people here (‘conversations’ quite intentionally in quotes) but always and only with great struggle….and fortunately, great humor as well. But to meet someone with whom I can converse freely and express ideas and share humor…..what a joy!
We spoke for a few minutes, exchanged email addresses and agreed it would be great to get together for coffee…..which we did yesterday afternoon. His name is Sebastian. He’s German. He’s a doctor in a local hospital and he’s only going to be here for another month, dang it! He and his girlfriend (who’s working in another province here in Vietnam) will be moving back to Hanoi. But, we had a lovely, interesting, funny, invigorating conversation and will be doing so again soon.
It’s the little things you miss. The things you really do take for granted when you’re at home. Communication. Just a simple conversation – invaluable.
Picture time. I haven’t been taking a lot of pictures lately….just haven’t been getting out much. But a couple of days ago I saw this little gem……..