The Bird Flu Social
Generally I have a busy social life here, but sometimes I feel suddenly quite alone. The last three days it seems everyone has been busy with their lives. I like my little house, but there is hardly a thing to do there, so sometimes I just wander the streets of Hanoi. Mind you that's not a disagreeable thing to do; it would be hard to exhaust the pleasure of discovery.
Last night I resorted to one of my longer strolls, but the evening began instead at a social at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador. The occasion was not Hallowe'en (which it was), but avian influenza. I received an invitation by email last week for an information session and status report on the possibility of the pandemic. I have not been worrying a lot about the issue these days (I have smaller fish to fry), but it was a creepy experience. After they went through some of the basic info, they described the possible impact of such a pandemic. I won't go into the details because there is no point getting all panicky. Let's just say it sounded a bit apocalyptic. The good news is that we were told the government here is actually very well prepared. Most of the discussion in the question and answer period revolved around two issues: the supply of Tamiflu (none) and evacuation plans if it ever came to that. I had that eerie feeling you sometimes have in "interesting times", the suspicion that maybe what you are experiencing may in retrospect be judged of great if not historic significance. I know that sounds grandiose, but there I was in a room with people some of whom are coming fresh from the avian influenza conference held last week in Ottawa for health ministers from across the globe, and here I am receiving their report and recommendations in one of the big hotspots.
Anyway, I think of myself as being fairly philosophical and sanguine about things like this, and don't intend to dwell on this. I made my appointment for the flu shot today, but there aren't a lot of other preventive measures one can really take (beyond common sense - I guess I will have to pass on raw duck blood).
The evening was surreal for another reason too. I realized that this was the first time I'd been in an entirely Western crowd in over two months. That's not to say that everyone was white, Canadian society being what it is, but mostly. I've gotten so used to being a (very) visible minority here. I go whole days without seeing more than a couple Westerners. I am used to being stared at and having children stop their sidewalk ball games to yell "hello". Furthermore, I'm not really up on the expat scene; my circles are mostly Vietnamese.
In contrast this felt very familiar. For once I could understand the jokes and cultural references (for instance our probable fate upon return being quarantine isolation in Scarborough), and I was very happy to see butter tarts amongst the incredible spread provided. At the same time, I felt a bit of a culture shock. The one thing I could have done without was our stiff and reserved form of socializing. Hardly a soul talked to me. Eventually a kind looking older woman approached me and asked me how long I'd been in Hanoi and what I was doing. After explaining I finally got around to asking her if she was involved in a project or some sort of work in Hanoi. "Not really", she replied, "I'm the ambassador's wife."
Eventually I left feeling ambivalent. There was nothing to mediate between the cosy world of the ambassador's living room and world of Hanoi waiting for me out the door. The familiarities of a Canadian crowd had a certain comfort (despite the topic of the evening), and yet I felt I had little place there in the expat world. Instead I wandered out into the chaotic streets of Hanoi where I feel alive and engaged yet still an outsider. I took a very long and meandering route home. I think it took me two hours: past the brooding Lenin statue looking out over a spontaneous soccer game; along a street consisting entirely of sidewalk hotpot restaurants with low tables and plastic stools; past the lantern and paper offering street; into the myriad crooked crowded streets of the Old Quarter. Eventually I emerged into Ly Thai To Park where kids were breakdancing, and on to Hoan Kiem Lake where a crowd of woman were doing an outdoor aerobics class. I bought a banh my pate (warm pate, cold cucumber and hot chili on baguette) to supplement my dinner of hors d'oeuvres, and eventually settled in at a street cafe to cure this bittersweet feeling with a mia da sugar fix (iced sugarcane juice with lime).