Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Group

Here's where it gets really taboo - writing about "the group". I don't know how it works in other social spheres here, but at least in the gay world the basic social unit is the "group". In the West we have more fluid circles of friends, overlapping networks whom we introduce and mix together. The groups here are very tight knit and well-defined, almost like family units. You aren't part of various circles of friends - you are a member of one group only . The problem with us foreigners is that we socialize differently so we really confuse things.

Two weeks ago I got in big trouble. I was congratulating myself for what I had assumed was a successful cross-group introduction. Viet and Huan seemed to chatting it up just fine at Apocalypse last Saturday. It was only later on the moto ride home, that Viet started to lecture me about respecting "group" privacy. I was guilty of two transgressions: 1) it seem I had identified Viet's workplace in passing to Huan; and 2) I had mentioned to Huan that I was going on a day trip to the countryside with Viet's group the following day. Huan let Viet know that he knew about both of these things in conversation.

I can understand that in a society as conservative and gossipy as this, it may be wise to keep your workplace and your connections in the gay world as separate as possible. The second transgression I just don't understand. I can't pretend I always comprehend the dynamics here. Sometimes I feel like I am peeling back layers of an onion and not getting to bottom of things. Why should it matter if people outside your group know you are driving out to the country for the day?

Although foreigners don't tend to be part of these "groups", I find myself pretty much accepted by one of them. Viet's group has done so much to include me that I feel like one of the guys. Last weekend was a perfect example. Seven of us met for dinner out on the dyke road near Nghi Tam. (It was an odd dining experience because we went out for "Western" food Viet style. The meal consisted of some cuts of very rare beef rolled up with bacon with a bit of crumbly cheese on top. Also included was a green salad with French dressing. Of course there were the Vietnamese touches that made it interested: all the beef was dipped in a lime chili condiment, and we also ate grilled stomach, etc. I imagine it as the flip side of North American Asian fusion. Despite the Western theme there wasn't a white face in the place, except mine of course. I was surprised I liked it so much. I would go back, except that a thousand other Viet delicacies are calling me!)

The dynamics of the dinner conversation were typical. In general most of the conversations occur in Vietnamese and I let them wash over me. If there are group decisions to be made, they are invariably in Vietnamese, so from my perspectives things just sort of happen and I figure it all out later. I don't mind. Most of the guys speak some English, and two or three speak it really well. They are my interpreters and sometimes conversations float back and forth between the languages. I also have these interesting relationships with the guys who speak no English whatsoever. We cannot communicate, but we've spent enough time together to feel like friends. Two in particular are terrible flirts. I am never sure what they are saying to me, but I can often read the innuendo by gesture and expression. Of course, two can play that game and they often look helpless when I toss something back their way.

After our Western fusion dinner, the guys decided they would all gather back at my little place on Vo Thi Sau to hang out. I am often simply informed that I will be hosting. This is fine though, because in fact I have to do very little except let them in. On the way back our pod of motos passed through the Old Quarter. Viet went off in one direction to buy fruit at the market under the Long Bien bridge, someone else stopped at a store to pick up little creme caramels, and Hung and I found a little place selling che (cold sweet soup with lotus seeds). They wouldn't let me pay for a thing.

Instead of sitting around on my living room couches and chairs, the guys toss every available cushion on the floor and stretch out on the tile floor. The Vietnamese are very comfortable on the ground. They seem immune to the back aches I get when lounging on mats.

So here I find in the midst of this Vietnamese group and accepted as part of it all. I often can't believe my luck.

And yet, I'm not an insider. The guys have invented a name for me, that sums it all up. I am Tay Nha Que. Tay is the word used for Westerners. Nha que is a (derogatory) term used for country folk - especially those who come to the city and maintain their country ways (it can have a real edge in certain contexts). Although I'm from the city, I have these strange ways and am hopelessly naive from their perspective. And I must seem awkward. I don't know how to do things right: I can never get the footholds down when climbing on the back of a moto, I can't peel jumbo shrimp properly when eating hotpot (they take over and do it for me), I have been caught storing bananas in the fridge, and I eat yoghurt in the morning (not to mention once after dog meat!). They roll their eyes: tay nha que, tay nha que! As a Westerner, shouldn't I be more cosmopolitan? Instead, I come off as parochial, as a Western village boy. They never use the term harshly. It is always a gentle tease and is accompanied by a smile and a chuckle. Thankfully, they put up with me.

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