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Realizations from this morning

This morning I sat at a coffee/tea stall in an unfamiliar alley, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, waiting for some passport-sized photographs that I’d just purchased to develop so I could actually go about doing the thing I had planned to do. I sat on a rough-hewn wooden bench under an angled plastic awning, listening to the rain and watching the water run off the edge of the awning and into a bucket that was already full and overflowing onto the sidewalk, negating the purpose of the bucket, I think.

This unfamiliar alley, no more than 30 feet deep and 15 wide, is almost entirely occupied by four food stalls – much like the corner of the airport designated as a “food court”. Each stall has its own area, but in a space this small they’re really all together. Coffee/tea, fruit juice, chao ga (chicken-rice porridge), and a mien/bun noodle stall. I sat at the coffee/tea stall, a rectangular table covered in random packaged snacks, bottles of Hanoi beer and Hanoi vodka, juice, soda, gum,  cigarettes, lighters, and the like, flanked on two sides by rough wooden benches, one of which I’m now sitting on. When I walked up, there was no one behind the table, and I briefly considered the fresh fruit juice stall across the way. Fresh passionfruit juice is just about the best thing, tart and delicious…but I hadn’t yet had a coffee.

Em muon uong gi?”, from behind me. (What do you want to drink?) I turn to find a lady in her mid-fifties in a set of the ubiquitous floral pajamas, holding an orange floor fan. I let her by and sat down on the wooden bench, saying “Em muon nau da, it sua” (I want an iced coffee, just a little milk). She plugs in the fan, setting it in the corner, and constructs my iced coffee. Sweetened condensed milk goes in the bottom of the glass, then the thick dark coffee from a plastic water bottle (made at home in advance), a few chips of ice and a spoon. We talk briefly about the weather before I go back to watching the goings-on in the alley.

Maybe I should step back a bit. Why am I in this random and unknown alley on a Thursday morning, anyway?

My eyes hurt for the ten minutes that I’d been awake, not including the twenty minutes it took me too unravel myself, groaning, from the blanket and Andrew’s sleepy arms. How a few years have SO changed my ability to get up early after staying up late, I’m not sure. I am also not sure how long will I be able to go on considering 8:30 early. I put on most of the clothes I wore yesterday, noticing that they’re looser than a few months ago, and am pleased…especially since I don’t much feel (at the moment) like going to kickboxing later, and a bit of incentive is a good thing.

My shoes were still damp from yesterday, black flats that soaked up all the road splatter from driving to work in the drizzle. Everyone tells me that I should use a hair-dryer to dry them; preventing mold and continued dampness…but I’ve never done this. I’ve used the hair dryer on my hair less then 4 times since we moved here, and those who advise that I dry shoes and my dog with the hair dryer don’t quite understand this. When I finally get home, stepping out of the squishy shoes is a delight, and the last thing I feel like doing is sitting on the floor pointing a loud appliance at them.


I got up, got dressed, put on a raincoat and went to catch a taxi to the hospital for the health checkup and certificate required for a Vietnamese work permit. If you don’t mind spending $200, the foreign hospitals and clinics can do this. If you want to pay $35, you’re going local. 8 minutes and 65 cents later I’m at the front desk, being told I need a passport photograph for the health certificate. I obviously do not have this with me.

And this is why I sat and had coffee at the sort of place I usually pass by on the pretense of their coffee being less delicious than the places that are a bit more upscale. I sat on a wooden bench, with a bird chirping in a wooden cage behind me, watching the rain pour off the awning and into a bucket that was already full. The coffee was delicious. A man used the stream of roof-water to wash his face and hands. The vendors from each stall (each selling something different) chat amongst themselves. They’re each putting together a list of things that they need, and the lady at the coffee stall where I’m sitting is collecting these. Ten small bottles of Pepsi. One big bottle of LaVie (this is a water company). Napkins. Limes. Some fruit, whatever looks good. She calls someone on her mobile and reads the various lists, and I’m pretty sure it’s her husband given the informality with which she’s speaking. The woman at the juice stand I almost visited sits in a pinkish set of pajamas, talking to a man about her age in a flirty tone. Her hair is perfectly curled at the ends, her face made up, and she’s in PJs at an outdoor fruit juice stand under a glorified tarp in the rain. I am conscious of my lack of makeup, the stain I’m only just now noticing on my jeans, and the fact that my hair is wet and probably a bit messy looking.

I sat at this stall for 20 minutes while the photos I didn’t know I’d need for a health check were being developed. My 9am appointment, thankfully with a kind soul from HR who was shepherding me around the hospital, getting techs to process my stuff a bit faster and move me along, would be more like 9:30. A quick walk down the street to a shop where I could get passport photos taken and developed on the quick; the HR girl is raincoat-less and seems unaware or un-phased by the mess. She also seems entirely not annoyed that she’s here in the rain, helping this Tay (westerner) do a pretty basic thing. I take the photo sitting on a plastic stool in front of a grimy wall, and twenty minutes (and a coffee) later, there I am, wet hair and makeup free, in sets of four.

I have no idea how this place, these things, become normal so quickly. The normalcy makes it even easier for me to consider just about everything an inconvenience. The rain, the need to have a photograph for a health certificate, the fact that this local hospital that does work permit forms for foreigners has exactly zero English speaking administrators. Inconveniences instead of adventures. I design a life plan around living outside the US in countries drastically different from the States, and then get frustrated by the difficulties. I do this; forget this, way too often.

Photos in hand I’m back up the street to the benh vien (hospital), and so begins a 45 minute labyrinthine treasure hunt through a network of buildings (some old, some new), some connected by hallways, others by open doors and alleys. Eye check. Teeth. Heart. Blood. Urine. Height and weight. I’m in each office for no more than 5 minutes, given only a cursory look (probably because this is a work permit checkup). Each place adds signatures to a once-empty form, stapling on slips of paper, more signatures, more stamps. Hang from HR cuts us to the front of each line like a pro, and people seem to be letting us pass mostly so they can stare openly at me. I read letters off a chart, let them listen to my lungs, pee in the cup. Another stamp and signature, and off to locate the next office, following the order on the list. We went to the 2nd floor of the main building 3 separate times, and the people behind the glass partition on each floor watch us wander about with only the vaguest of interest.

I’ve gotten off topic, I think. My eyes were tired, I was wearing old clothes, I took a taxi there and then had to go back out into the rain almost immediately. And sitting on that wooden bench is the sort of thing I want to be doing here, what I’m supposed to be doing here. Drinking tea and watching people live, talking to people, getting little glimpses of someone else’s world. This is why I’m here.

And yet somehow my overly-prone-to-complaining brain finds all of this a frustration rather than an opportunity. Adventures are more than just the things you set out on, they’re any experience you meet with the right attitude. I worry that I’m getting dangerously close to “The Secret”-level positive thinking. Please know that’s not what I mean. I grew up believing that trips to the grocery store were fun because my dad loves going to the grocery store and somehow they always became treasure-hunt adventures. I still love going to the grocery store. And yet here I am living in a country I love on both academic and personal levels, annoyed at the inconveniences it imposes on my day, on my timely crossing off of to-do list items.

Today I went out in the rain, earlier than I’d prefer, to fulfill a work permit requirement. I was -inevitably- missing something, and went back out to get that something. I was shuffled through lines and crowds and offices. When I smiled without restraint at the random administrators, doctors, nurses, and other patients, I got the same in return, along with a few inquisitive questions and small talk about the lines. What am I doing not doing this? I’m missing way too much of this place if trips out to the market, trips to hardware supplies street, trips to the bakery that makes a decent muffin, trips to the doctor and dentist and office supply store, are experienced as scenes of potential inconvenience and time delay…if they’re not acknowledged (time delay included) as exactly what I want.  I am living the life I hoped for and forgetting to notice way too frequently.

I have Andrew. I have Ethel. We’re all in Vietnam, a place that is a little gritty and very alive. I have gainful employment that I enjoy 85% of the time, employment that is allowing me to study for a grad school exam back in Madison and write and think of new research questions and projects. I live in a gorgeous French colonial house with the two beings that matter most (one bearded, one furry). It’s time to be happy.


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