Sunday, August 5, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Journey back to a time...

And then it was Spring time and the dark, grey Winter days slipped away and a new hope was beginning to dawn.
It was always too hot there, no matter how light her clothes were or how she plonked herself under the air conditioner-she could never cool down. And yet the life there enthralled her daily as she passed by her neighbours and the children all playing and shouting her hello's. It seemed like she had entered into a new realm of culture, a new world- a world very far removed from the one she grew up in.
The morning ritual begins and she would make her first and only hot coffee of the day-the following coffees would be iced and sickly sweet. She would leave her privileged house share-a huge house with a big, black gold rimmed gate and go out onto the alley, which was long since awake. She would need to brace herself for the head turning, the hello's, the instant hustle and bustle-2 steps away from her house. Sometimes she wasn't in the mood and wished she could just blend in like everyone else but most of the time, it felt energizing and alive.
And then the motorcycle men that all wait at the top of the alley. Who would it be today? The knarly handed, pock face man who had a face that she didn't trust but he seemed to be loyal to her, so she would take him again. But he made her feel uneasy. She would try not to look at his distorted hand, it looked or seemed broken and yet here he was driving her on his motorbike, weaving in and out of the relentless traffic. The honking, the dusty street, the teenagers cycling, the face masks, the shops with loud techno music. She would experience all of these, observing the life that vibrantly played out before her eyes. No morning was the same. She would always see or experience something new.
She would get used to the way her driver sped along the street, although some mornings she wished he would slow down. She would always notice the people outside the eye and ear hospital and how they over spilled on to the street. The smell as she passed the canal, the putrid overpowering nauseating smell of shit. She would always have to breathe in for that part of the journey and exhale a good distance away but the smell usually lingered. What made it bearable was the infused smell of incense from the pagoda, which was situated on the canal.
Finally, she would arrive at the centre where she worked. She would pass the two street vendors who she grew to love and always looked forward to seeing them -there was always laughter and pinching and smiling. She would order her egg roll- a fried egg with coriander, pickled carrots, chilli and soy sauce all in a fresh baguette. She would smile as they talked to her entirely in Vietnamese, pointing at her porcelain white skin and then pointing at their much darker tone. This interaction almost happened daily.
The children were all milling around too, running towards her smiling, hugging her as she walked into her remarkable place of work. Sometimes she would have 3, 4 or 5 children all embracing her or other times just one and she would run or skip inside the playground. One of the teachers from the school would always skip over to her upon seeing her and grab her and welcome her with 2 sniffs on either side of her face-like the French do, but with a sniff instead of a kiss. It took her a long time to figure this strangely affectionate custom but it was one she learned to relish.
She would walk up the steps and would begin to look forward to her much needed hit from the air conditioning. Children would mill pass her and she would high five them. She would start her day knowing how lucky she was to be having her life fulfilled and enriched on a daily basis.
Back home and as the pink Irish sky dims into another chilly Spring night, she is brought back to those days where life blustered and the pace quickened and smiled remembering it all as if it were a dream.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Settling, not settled

It's a curious business, adapting to life back home. Four months ago, I arrived back with skin slightly less white then normal, a packed suitcase full of memories and experiences from the sublime to the beautiful. I came home, fresh and excited, hopeful and full of optimism that somehow I could overcome the fragmented and harsh new Ireland that I was now learning about. People told me, don't read the papers, don't believe everything you hear-Ireland is your home, no matter what. And it is but God, has it changed.

The past 4 months have been a struggle but hope is only around the corner. The changes in our communities, our society has been so hard to grapple and somehow, I feel like an outsider. That said, it has been and is worth it having my friends and family nearby to help and support and edge me closer to finding my feet on the ground, which feels well within reach now.

In West Clare now as Spring has sprung, the frosty blue sky stretches out and the air is clear. I am taking things more in my stride now and reflecting on a frustrating baptism of fire. It would have been hard to prepare for this from the dusty Saigon streets but now that I am here and back and have no plans to leave, I have to make a go at it. I have to keep the chin up and the fire in my belly and keep faith that life with all its swings and roundabouts will eventually get easier. It will be a long road ahead but whatever about all these endless news reports about longer dole queues, emigration and all the bank stuff, none of these should get in the way of what is really important-our own spirits. We need to mind ourselves through this time, we need to take our time and not get so bogged down in each news item that assaults our ears, day in day out. I look at my parents and how they have a renewed lease of life by being more involved with the community-singing songs and playing music. I see how happy this makes them, such a simple thing but it can distract and enrich their lives no end.

As for me, now is my time to slowly figure all of this out and my new place back here. Time will tell how it all pans out but for now, it feels exciting to think about all the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead. Onwards and upwards.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

thoughts on home

Being home is about lyric fm, leftover newspapers and silence. It's about reflective walks in the park and swiping coloured leaves from my boots. It's about lamenting Ireland and hopes for the future. It's about Michael D and Ireland's soccer team winning. It's about Guinness and copious cups of tea. It's about family and being close to them again. It's about inhaling the fresh damp air and breathing it into my lungs. Trying to get warm. It's about embracing the newness of being back and the oddities of it all.

Sitting on the bus listening to the chatter and banter. Observing life that has changed beyond measure in 2 short years. Passing cafes, clothes shops, restaurants and bars all once alive and thriving now boarded up. That strange feeling when passing the empty vessel buildings. The occupy tents outside central bank. The enormity of all this is very hard to process and I don't quite feel part of it-I feel like a quiet observer trying to understand it bit by bit.

There is a feeling of dislocation as I try to slot back into life here. A big part of me is still in Vietnam among the children and being taken in by their spirits and positivity. How little they have and how often they smile. Watching them dance or painting and them being transformed and captured by life's simple pleasures. I miss Truc and Muoi, Nhi and Thuyet, Khieu and Thong, Phu, Tai, Anh Nguyen, Anh Thu and Tai. I miss sitting with them after class and eating noodles with them. I miss being part of their lives but I know that leaving when I did was the right thing to do. There is a comfort in these memories, that somehow I made a difference to their lives, however small that may have been.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

thoughts on leaving

The decision to move on from this experience has been the toughest one yet it is something I need to do. It is tinged with bitter sweet feelings as I attempt to conjure up an impression of what the time here has meant to me. There are so many elements to life here that make it so vibrant and special, the memories are so many, each impacting me in different ways. 

I will miss my alley with the children playing badminton outside my gate and shyly asking for their shuttlecock back. I will miss the old man who sits in his boxers, belly proudly out and his firm and friendly hello to me most days. Or the man at the local shop who is from Malaysia and has lived here for 50 years and teaches me at least one Malaysian word when I buy something from him. Or the ban xeo lady at the end of the alley who cooks these delicious Vietnamese pancakes on small iron stoves under a canopy. She always speaks to me in Vietnamese, utterly unaware that I do not understand one single word she is saying to me.

I will miss people watching as I am on the back of someones motorbike and taking in the street life whizzing by. The endless array of plastic chairs and tables; families eating together; men gambling; women linking each other; men walking arm in arm, unselfconscious how this would read in the western world. The noise, the endless sometimes ear splitting noise drives me crazy but it also amuses me as the people here filter it out and just get on with it. The honking, the honking. At least once a day I will shoot someone in a big honking car a filthy look. The driver of course is oblivious. 

The honesty of the people. The directness of them. It is always a thrill to watch how the people interact with each other. Sometimes, the directness can be misinterpreted as being rude. Like, in a busy restaurant-the staff buzzing around, shouting at each other to get the job done. Or when I am with my Vietnamese friends and they firmly shout "Em, em em oi!" Meaning sister/brother please give us attention but it is so straight up, no bullshit, no airs and graces. It's just honest-we need your help please see to us now. The attention to detail. The food. 

The little dishes with lime juice and salt, the soy sauce with chilli, the amazing street food life that is just buzzing with delicious, cheap and mouthwatering flavours. The smells-incense, food, smokey bbq, noxious fumes, intensely polluted canal, the smell after it rains, the smell of the magic potion green oil which I believe every Vietnamese person possess. 

The motorbikes and how they carry the most ridiculously precarious loads from stacks 20 feet high of plastic chairs, a massive fridge with the driver one hand on the controls, the other hand firmly on the fridge keeping it stable. I once saw a calf squashed into a basket being transported on a motorbike. Poor thing. The rows and rows and rows of shops all selling the same thing. 

The market life near my house. The enthusiasm of the young vietnamese to speak English and the smiles and thrilled face when you tell them their English is very good. The old grandparents and how they look after their grandchildren. Walking through the alleys at night and the families eating together on the ground-open houses makes it a fascinating way to really get a true glimpse at life here. It is wonderful beyond words. 

The women all covered up from head to toe not letting the sun get a glimpse of their skin. The women caressing my white skin in admiration-me doing the same to them but they shaking their heads saying ugly. They all want white skin-so funny how we all want what we can't have-the world over. The cafe sua da addiction I have acquired and how there is never enough-it always tastes like more. How every day something grabs my attention for a moment or longer. I might see a man with a white beard who looks ancient and wise. Or a child-the children here are so beautiful. 

Usually and sadly it is the poverty that grabs my attention the most. Disabled people wheeling themselves around on a worn out wheelchair selling their tickets. I often see this old lady near my house who is so badly stooped over she uses a small stool to help her make her mobile. She sells lottery tickets. The other day I saw a man with two small stools attached to stumps where his legs once were-this was how he got around. Two nights ago I was out very late and a tiny little girl appeared selling flowers-she must have been no older than 3. I am shocked a lot here by how so many people are simply tossed to one side and forgotten. Most of all I am shocked at how so many older Western men are playing a role in all of this. It is a very common sight to see a much, much older man with a younger, beautiful Vietnamese woman. It is very difficult not to be judgmental and cynical when seeing this-it is sordid and disturbing and it is probably the one thing here that I hate the most. It is very unsettling, especially when often these women look so unhappy, so resigned to life and their own happiness. 

The helpless feeling I sometimes get at work when one of the children tries to communicate with me about their home life. The lack of resources for them makes life very tough and burden filled. It is often hard to know what to do to help. Sometimes I have to accept that there is not always a solution and that I just have to do what I can within my means. That has been a good but tough learning curve. All of the above only touches on the many, many layers and diversities of living here- the times both good and bad will remain etched in my memory for all the times to come.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Next week, I will be here for a year and a half. The time has flown by and I have barely had the time to catch my breath, let alone reflect. But lately, as things quieten down at work, I have been doing a lot of reflecting on life so far away from home; on how my life here has changed me and how having this experience has given me so much inspiration. My mind gets occupied with home a lot and trying to visualize my place there again. It is daunting but I know in the not too distant future, I will return and settle life back with loved ones and friends once more. And the stories from here will no doubt come flooding out and the moments, the simple moments are always the ones that will stay with me. Like the coffee and egg roll ladies outside my work, who pinch me and slap me and laugh with me, like we have known each other for years. I am picking up more and more what they are saying now, my few phrases of Vietnamese in full use! They grab my belly or whack my behind or pinch my cheeks. They are the most lively spirited, lovely lovely people and God but they make my day sometimes.

Living here has, if nothing else, allowed me to forge my own way in life, my own routines, my own independence. There are a lot of freedoms here, things can move along in a smooth, uncomplicated way and it feels like nothing in the world can interfere with that. The Vietnamese people have a resilience and a drive that is unquestionable and dignified. From the lady at the top of the alley who sells her cigarettes, from what seems like all day and all night (I only know this from the rare occasion I come home late...ahem) to the lad who works endlessly seaming clothes, repairing trousers. I never take these people for granted, I always acknowledge their long hours, the acceptance and undoubtedly the hardships that must go along with trying to make ends meet. Every time it rains and if I am home, I watch it teaming down, relentless-sometimes violent. There are stacks of small huts at the back of my bedroom that I can see. Whenever it starts to pelt down, I will hear the screech of metal-a small opening in a roof closing shut. And that's someone's home. No window, just a gap in the roof of a small metal building.

If people ask me what is it about this place that really makes it so special- It's the people. Without question. How many cities in the world can you go to where you are greeted with smiles more or less everywhere you go? Very few, if any is my guess. Of course, there are exceptions and that goes for everywhere-nowhere is perfect.

Or the art room at work, where I cherish the moments most of all. The other day, I stood in the room and there was a hush of focus, of busy young energy working on their brush strokes. Nobody was talking (now don't get me wrong, it can be a madhouse sometimes-kids laughing, running, singing and I equally love it when it's like this-so this was an exception) and there was a real camaraderie in that silence. There they all were, some younger than others all with the same purpose-expressing themselves through their art work. It is very hard to articulate how rewarding that is, that we can make that possible for them. That they have this safe haven to have the space to do this. And it is amazing to see how much they grow and thrive and come out of their shells. Some of them when they first join, have a lot of anger or frustration because, being blunt-they can have shitty lives-no doubt. One little girl, Tam, she is brilliant-she has a wild spirit, a true tom boy- a true rebel and I love her for these qualities. She gets into trouble sometimes but honestly when I see her, quietly transferring all of that on the paper in front of her, it is remarkable how it brings a sort of calm to her and she becomes more open because of it. It makes the sometimes loneliness, the homesick feelings, the longing for familiar faces-all absolutely worth it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A boy, his mother and a room

It was a typical hot Saigon day and I casually arranged to visit the boy and his parents at home. I wanted to take photos for my records and talk to his parents about how well he is doing, how he comes to the art class brimming full of light and promise. How his picture will be exhibited in America- I wanted to make his parents feel proud of their son and be happy to hear some positive news. In my mind I had hoped this news would somehow brighten their day.

We walked up a rickety and treacherous narrow stairs to the loft room, their home. Nothing can prepare you. The room is tiny, indescribably small-the size of a broom cupboard. Thong sits proudly on the floor, we followed suit and sat on the remaining floor space to wait for his mother to come back. As I sat, it felt unstable, like it could collapse. I look around-the walls are shabby, falling apart, no window, corrugated iron, and one small fan-little or no possessions. Behind where Thong sat was 2 shabby, aging large teddy bears-the only sign of childhood. I tried not to look shocked at the utter destitution I was now observing. I wanted to put up a front for Thong to protect him of how I was feeling but I could not. In a way I feel like I failed him, took a bit of his dignity but I am simply not used to this.

We waited for his mother and when she came I was immediately struck by her overwhelming sadness. I tried to break the ice with her, telling her how happy we are with her son, how he is one of our best students and that she should be proud. For a second or less, she lightened but that soon passed. After some time, she crumpled, she sobbed and it was soon clear that she was in an impossibly desperate situation, now alone (her husband is in is 70's and is very sick) she picks up rubbish to sell and earns about $25 a month, which is almost all spent on rent.

My colleague tried to get to the bottom of why things have gotten so despairing for her. The more she spoke, the further her body stooped into a sort of shame as if this situation was any of her fault. Her head bowed and she wiped her tears with her raggedy shirt-I didn’t have a tissue to offer her. I wish I had a tissue. I kept telling her, none of this is your fault, nothing you have done is wrong-try to feel hope and we will do our best to help her.

That was on Friday and it has stayed with me. I am reminded about my own life, how blessed I am to have a family, amazing friends and no matter what I will always have support and love. For some people they have neither.