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

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Returning: One Month Later

Something lay there that eluded not just me, but many who have experienced another way of life. We write about some facets of it, some surfaces, that we make our business. But the gold we find is transformed by the reverse alchemy of our journey, for there to here, into lead....What is this reality that gets left behind?

-Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Eden
Last week I saw a woman in a conical hat riding down Parliament St. Then I looked again and saw only a man on his bike wearing a large beige hood that sat like a triangle on his shoulders.

The woman seemed as natural as the man, except that she inhabits another world. I only saw her though because I was still between worlds. It's as though my body returned to Toronto, but my mind lagged behind, shifting between alternate realities, not sure where it was or wanted to be.

It's been a very long month since I returned. I expected reverse culture shock, but that was the easy part. Grief has been the greater challenge.

My first shock was the silence. I live in an urban area by North American standards, and yet the silence in the house was deafening. I felt like my ears were stuffed with cotton: no honking motobikes, no clanking dishes, no water pump motor, no barking dogs or calls from the laneway vendors. Only silence. Even outside I felt a kind of sensory deprivation. Where were are the people? A city of millions behind closed doors, an entire metropolis inside, hidden away in houses, cars and office buildings. No theatre of the street, no sea of motobikes, no adrenalin.

Of course I knew I had arrived in the midst of our winter slumber. We are only now tentatively emerging into spring but the city still waits.

The cold was one reason I hid at home for the first few days. The other reason was that I was not ready to be part of things again. Reengagement was an admission that it was all over, and I was not ready for that. That would come later when I felt like I was returning, and mentally I felt I was still in the process of leaving. I still feel that grief. My mind wanders back to the vivid world I left behind and then suddenly I reawaken to my surroundings and feel a yawning loss.

Grief is in many ways a renegotiation of identity, and my challenge has been to incorporate HanoiMark with a different self that inhabits this world. I left something behind in order to explore a new identity abroad and it is as if these two selves now meet as strangers. At first I felt distant and disconnected in my old contexts. For at least two weeks I felt tone deaf in conversations with friends. I felt I was observing our conversations but strangely never fully a part of them.

Sometimes after a vacation you experience that strange sensation when you walk into your house and somehow everything feels different. The space of your home feels altered, as if someone changed the height of the ceiling or the shade of the walls. This return had a different quality. Places seemed completely unchanged - it was the other stuff: the sounds, the conversations, the social relations, the pace of life, that all seemed strange and foreign. And maybe the fact that the places seemed all too familiar, highlighted the odd temporal character of the experience of returning. I felt I was returning, not just to a place, but to a time half a year earlier. Time itself seemed compressed and foreshortened. Because everywhere I returned felt like I had only left moments before, the six months, in their intensity and richness, seemed to inhabit some other dimension, some unrelated time.

This disconnect between worlds played out on so many levels. Most people had a very difficult time relating to my experience or knowing what to ask or say. I think it helped that many friends had been following this blog. Still I tired of answering the question "So how was it?" because the question only seemed to invite a quick summary. And then there was this one: "What was the one highlight of your time in Vietnam?" I cannot distill the experience like that. All I can say is something true but generic like "my friends" - which sounds flat to the listener who was probably hoping for something more exotic or lyrical.

I'm not sure I'd be any better at engaging someone who had returned from a place I knew nothing about. And the problem is not all theirs either. I became aware that people would tire very quickly of me beginning every sentence with "In Hanoi..." so I would censor myself. Too often the result has been a huge gulf in communication. People don't know what to ask, but then I also don't know how to get started. What remains is a sense that I experienced a very vivid dream, a world hermetically sealed off from this one both in time and quality, a private world resistant to all attempts at description.

I try to find ways to bridge these worlds. Writing helps. Also I've been able to keep in touch with so many of my Hanoi friends by chat and internet phone. I am still up on all the gossip. How long this will last I don't know. And I've tried to continue to feed my addiction to Vietnamese food. Toronto has no shortage of Viet restaurants, but then the offerings here have lost their magic. What impressed me so much before pales now in taste and variety. I haven't given up yet, but I stare at the menus here and recognize little. This is partly because most of the restaurants here are Saigonese style. Even when I have found the odd place that serves Northern delicacies I find that the dishes have inherited only the names: bun rieu, cha ca, bun cha - but rarely their essence. I've been assured by others who have returned from abroad that eventually your tastebuds forget. Is this a blessing or a curse?

In January my friends Deep and Daniel visited me in Hanoi for a weekend. They are Toronto friends but are now living in Bangkok for several years. Viet and I took them all around town on the backs of our motos. One evening we took them across the Red River to a fish restaurant in Gia Lam where we joined 6 or 7 of my Group friends and sat on grass mats eating grilled fish and hotpot. Later I told them how pleased I was that some friends had come to witness this world. It meant that I would have someone to talk to about this experience, to validate the existence of all of this, and to make it seem less like a private dream. I told Deep how I was already anticipating the challenges of returning. I worried that I'd have to box up this part of myself and put it on a shelf. "Welcome to the immigrant experience", Deep said.

Obviously my return after six months cannot approximate the profound dislocation that immigrants must feel, but at least it gives me some small insight into the challenges that can result from such cultural shifts. It also reminds me of the richness of place that sometimes seems to resists language. I can see how this surfeit of experience could defeat and silence - or inspire acts of imaginative expression.

Deep agreed that probably part of this experience would sit sealed in a box. But he also assured me that it is never really forgotten. "There will be times you'll need it, and you will take it again off the shelf."

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Blogger Godknows said...

Some part of yout post has reminded me about my trip to AUS, thanks for sharing.

11:38 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a span of mere six months, and you are already getting mesmorized by an alien world.


Perhaps you might have already felt a bit disaffected of your native milieu? If not, then what is driving you to embrace strangers from a distant culture ?
(But then again, one does not necessary need a void to fill, in order to develop a strong affinity toward new-found friends.)

I do not mean to contradict you or your friend Deep, Mark... However, I am wondering if; what you are feeling is more akin to the sentiments of the overseas students returning home, than those of immigrants.

Many years ago, when I had to hurry back home to Saigon from France, ending my short stint at a Jesuit seminary. I remembered the bitter sweet feeling, somewhat like you described.

It was not that I did not miss my family/friends. And I certainly did not regret the missed opportunity to become an ordained priest either (hah! if only my family knew the real me!)

I remember grieving over being separated from my clique of French "bohemians", where I could be honest, at ease, where I could confide without the fear of being scorned (or condemned.)

As an immigrant, I only remember the apprehensive feeling during the early years (trying to adjust.) Perhaps every now and then, a nostagic longing for the loved ones left behind.

10:48 PM

Blogger Khoi Gallub-Ho said...

Your experience is unique to me as is your passionate and caring personality. I admire your ability to share, positively talk and write about your feelings and thoughts this way.
Glad to be one of your friend.

11:48 PM

Blogger Wulingren said...

I had a similar experience my first time coming back from a year in North China. I was seriously lost when I came back, and I was always reminded of Zhuangzi's (Chuang-tsu) story about his dreaming he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he didn't know if he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. For me, the experience was so powerful, I kept asking myself, "Did that really happen?" Finally, I decided to study Chinese, and ultimately, I went to graduate school in Chinese studies. Now, I am living in Taiwan.

1:14 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am commenting a while after, so you may never see this..but if you do..You have managed to express something I have felt since leaving Hanoi - over 3 years ago. In my experience, the 'box' is unsealed often, even if only for myself. As you can imagine, people who are unable to relate when you first return are definitely unable to relate a few years on. And sometimes I have found being left alone with these memories makes me question if they are even real.
Enjoyed your thoughts.

12:51 PM

Anonymous Brian said...

I do hope that you still pick up the comments posted here. First, it would be good to hear more recent news from you. Second, the sentiments you have expressed, so elquently, in many of your posts, are very moving.

The love will last.

6:57 AM


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