The Limits of Familiarity

21 Sep

Do you get offered guava-like fruit from strangers in the street? Why or why not?

The other day I walked out of my front gate and into my little lane, only to be confronted by a mysterious woman proffering strange, green fruit.

My first thought was that she was trying to flog me something and my instinctive response was to go on the defensive. I raised my hands in the universal gesture of “no thanks”, put on a fixed grin and started muttering “em ăn roi” (I ate already), which is a weak excuse for rejecting fruit but was the best I could muster.

Despite my feeble protestations, the insistent woman continued to press the guava-like object onto me and I began to realise that, on closer inspection, she didn’t really fit the description of a typical Hanoian street hawker. For one thing, she was only carrying two pieces of fruit.

And she was chowing down one of them.

Ah! Obviously this was just a friendly neighbourhood lady who wanted nothing more than to share an exotic fruity snack with one of the bizarre Tâys (Westerners) who live on her street. How nice! I dropped my defences, backtracked on my excuses and bashfully accepted the offering.

It turned out to be pretty gross and I chucked it in a bin once I made it around the corner but that’s not the point. It’s the thought that counts. More than that, it’s the openness; the willingness that I find in so many Vietnamese people to come up to a complete stranger and ask their name (and often age, income and marital status), offer them some fruit and possibly squeeze certain parts of their anatomy in a friendly, inquisitive way. I suspect you’d get sued, or at least backed away from, for doing some of those things in Australia.

Uncle Ho lives on and enjoys cuddling people at hot reggae nights

Consider another example. Early on in my Hanoian adventures I moseyed along to a live reggae night on an especially humid Spring evening. It was held in a dimly lit basement that took on the look and feel of a particularly rocking sauna as it filled with profusely sweating, manically dancing revellers.

At some stage of the night I became aware that an elderly Vietnamese man bearing a ukulele, a straw hat and an alarmingly close resemblance to Ho Chi Minh was circulating amongst the crowd. This cheery gentleman would dance up to a group of people, bop up and down, and then serenade each person by bellowing out their respective national anthems. Upon approaching my companions he cycled briskly through Advance Australia Fair, La Marseillaise, and The Star Spangled Banner before dispensing some cuddles and ambling off.

Part of me would love to think that Uncle Ho is not dead and on public display at his very own mausoleum but instead lives on in an ageless retirement, smoking pipes and playing checkers by day and dancing along to Bob Marley by night. The more likely truth is almost as comforting: Hanoi is just filled with genial characters such as this who think nothing of clasping an arm around you and launching perhaps into a stirling rendition of “O Canada”, or a spirited defence of peace amongst nations, or a hands-on comparison of your respective heights and musculature systems. This is welcome familiarity in my books.

There is, however, an upper limit to the level of familiarity I can readily appreciate. And on a recent trip to a hair salon, deep in the beating heart of Hanoi’s commercial Đống Đa district, I discovered this personal threshold.

After having my hair snipped and trimmed into something resembling a haircut, I was ushered to a hair-washing station by a kindly middle-aged woman. We gossiped about my age, occupation and relationship status as my head was dunked and shampooed and gently massaged. I was curious but not alarmed when a face-cloth was placed over my eyes, and my forehead was inexplicably hammered with a blunt object that made ‘clacking’ noises. But when it was time to wash the suds off and this motherly woman inserted her fingers into both of my ears and vigorously purged them of water (and wax), Vietnam had suddenly gotten a little too familiar.

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One Response to “The Limits of Familiarity”

  1. Dave September 21, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    Another glorious addition to the series Mikey!!

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