Friday, February 5, 2010

In which Ellen and I compensate for our failures by buying everything in the Republic of Vietnam

         We’re on our way to Ha Long Bay and our driver pulls into a compound of low yellow buildings.  Elegant white stone statues line both sides of the road:  Romanesque women with bare breasts and no arms, Dali-style abstracts where a twisting figure-eight reveals two lovers about to embrace.  I’ve been to China before so I understand what’s happening as we climb out of the van and are pointed toward the bathroom.  But I don’t think Ellen does.

“Meet you ten minutes,” the driver says, and pulls off in the van—to the other side of building. 

Which means, of course, that after we’ve peed and helped our kids pee and apologized to the bathroom attendants for the inordinate amount of pee on the walls and floor, we have to walk through the building. 

Past all that merchandise. 

This particular warehouse—because that’s what it is:  a huge building, maybe 50 meters by 50 meters—is filled with traditional Vietnamese art:  handmade silk ties, silk-stitched tablecloths and pillow-cases, carved wooden bowls, egg-shell paintings made from flattened pieces of eggshell glued to wood and then lacquered so that the final painting has a cracked, textured look. 

All of these items are beautiful.  Gorgeous even.  And, it turns out, they were all made and are sold by the physically handicapped. 

All of which is nice, but for one small detail:

I don’t care. 

I want to get to Ha Long Bay.  I want to get on a junk and watch the waves and see those magical, dragon-curved mountains popping up out of the water around us.  Eventually, yes, I want to buy some souvenirs of Vietnam, but at this point I’ve only been here for 24 hours and I’m not in the mood to be guilted into buying some fancy crap that’ll spend the next 15 years gathering dust in some drawer before eventually getting pawned off on gullible neighbors at a garage sale.      

The only two comforts I have in all of this are: first, the knowledge that, all over Asia at this very moment, this same thing is happening to approximately 1.5 million bald white guys.  This is how things work in China and Vietnam and Cambodia and Malaysia:  tour guides and van drivers and concierges get kickback for getting tourists to buy stuff.  Ten years ago when I was first in China, a tour guide drove us past a crowded city square full of people laughing and dancing, saying, “Don’t you wish you could get out here?”  “Yes!” we all yelled.  But he just smiled and took us up to some god-forsaken mountain in the middle of the night to see a 1/1,000,000th scale model of the dam we would see in real life the next day—all because there was gift shop there run by the his sister’s brother-in-law’s uncle’s cousin’s half-daughter twin’s pet schnauzer. 

My second comfort comes from the fact that I know that my wife, Ellen, isn’t going to be taken by this crap.  No, Ellen is a down-to-earth common-sense woman raised by two depression-era parents who taught her how to spend her money wisely.  Why, I’ll have you know that in our house we wash and re-use our Ziploc bags—sometimes two or three times.  And it’s a good thing, too—about Ellen’s tightwadedness toward spending, not about the plastic bags—because, Ha Long Bay aside, yours truly just loves to buy fancy crap that’ll spend the next 15 years gathering dust in some drawer before getting pawned off on gullible neighbors at a garage sale.    

This in mind, I stroll confidently through the art gallery, gently tugging Jamie away from the life-sized etching in lace-thin glass of two Vietnamese women wearing Ao Dai, until—

“We should buy some of these.”

I turn and stare at Ellen—or the woman who I thought was Ellen.  She’s holding a pair of silk-embroidered table runners. 

“Why?” I say.  I can’t think of what else you say to the alien that’s sucked out your wife’s brain and replaced it with it’s own, lime-jello-y self. 

“For—“ my wife says, and then names some obscure cousin that came to our wedding 17 years ago and hasn’t been heard from since.

“Really?  Because, you know, we just got here.  We have two whole weeks to buy gifts.”

“We have a lot of gifts to buy,” she says, rattling off three dozen names of people I’ve never met.  “We should get started now.  Besides,” she says, then silently nods toward the one-armed, no-legged man who doesn’t actually have a torso either, and who is somehow nonetheless hovering nearby, managing to appear simultaneously helpful, courteous, non-obtrusive, and quietly dignified (I hate people who can do that, by-the-way).

So we choose two of the table runners.  And then we choose three more.  And an egg-painting.  And two sets of serving dishes.  And three of the wonderful water-color paintings that Americans think of as typically Asia, with the tall mountains and willowy trees sketched out in faint, misty lines. 

Fortunately, though, that’s all we buy for the next three days.

Of course, we spend the next three days on a boat.  After that, we go to Hanoi and go apeshit. 

I’ve never been any place where there’s more stuff than Hanoi, Vietnam.  Every corner you turn you find art shops and gift shops and tailors and tie shops and places to buy bowls and plates and Tintin paraphernalia that’s outlawed in every state but California.  You can buy Ao Dai and Dai Ao and Auld Lang Syne.  There are women on the streets carrying oranges in baskets and pineapples on bicycles and musical instruments and whole sheets of tin cut and hammered into the shape of Mao Tse Tung french-kissing Ho Chi Minh.  (And it’s official folks:  I will never get back into Vietnam). 

I suppose to be truthful, it’s not that there’s actually more stuff in Hanoi—it’s just that there it’s out on the streets where you can’t miss it.  In Hanoi, the shops literally vomit goods onto the sidewalks; there are places where you actually have to step off to curb and into traffic to get past a particularly expansive flow of ceramic gods or “hand-made” artificial-silk purses.  There is so much stuff in Hanoi, that I can’t imagine there’s any way it can all every actually be sold:  there just aren’t enough people to purchase everything.

Fortunately for Hanoi merchants, though, Ellen and I are willing to try our best. 

Probably the only thing Karl Marx got right was the idea that the revolution would be threatened by the fetishization of material wealth.  Basically, what he meant by this was that poor folk would be distracted from the grave injustices of the world by all the new, shiny crap they could buy now that factories were making everything cheaper.  When we “fetishize” something, it takes on an added value that exists only in our eyes:  where most of us see feet as smelly lumps of flesh that carry us from place to place and produce nail clippings, to someone who fetishizes feet, they’re sexy and provocative, flirty and dirty and ooooooh, so very naughty.

Not that I’d know. 

Those are nice sandals, by the way. 

What scared the living be-jesus out of Marx was that the poor would start thinking that all the new junk they could buy at cheap prices—gloves, soap, clothing, candles—somehow solved the problems in their world—little things like social injustice, social inequality, and the oppression of entire nations, races, and genders for the benefit of a few.

We do this all the time.  We’re having a bad day; maybe, for instance, our spouse took away our favorite pair of black leather pumps.  Then we’re walking down the street and we see a life-sized replica of a water buffalo welded out of hammered tin, and we picture ourselves sitting in our living room, gazing happily at our water buffalo while sipping a banana daiquiri, and the image makes us feel all warm and fuzzy and filled with hope for the future.  That the water buffalo in no way solves the larger issues in our lives—e.g., our disagreements with our spouse, our inordinate affection for sling-back sandals with red leather laces—is beside the point. 

Back when we lived in Ohio, my Chevy Citation started to smoke and burp every time we drove it more than ten feet.  Sensing intuitively that this was a bad sign, we decided to buy a used car from a friend back in Wisconsin.  That weekend, while I graded papers, Ellen and a colleague drove back to Manitowoc to pick up our new vehicle, a Dodge Colt, bright red, with “Smokin’!” painted on the side.  All Saturday and Sunday, as I dragged my brain through paper after paper beginning “Webster’s dictionary defines . . .” I kept finding myself thinking about that shiny red car, it’s fancy sound system, it’s manual clutch and fluid stick shift.  I’d picture myself driving along the highway, listening to music, the windows down, my hair blowing in the wind (this was a long time ago), not a care in the world.

And I’d feel happy.  Having that car, I was certain, would give me something my life currently lacked:  I would be a better person with that new car, smarter, more likeable, easier to get along with.  My jokes would suck less, my racquetball game would improve, and God would stop pulling out wads of hair in the shower every morning. 

Finally on Sunday evening, Ellen arrived with the new car.  She handed me the keys.  I climbed in, rolled down the window, cranked up Vanilla Ice, and put it in gear.   

I wasn’t, of course, to the end of the block before I understood I was the same balding, unfunny, racquetball-losing jerk I’d been before.  Only with a different car. 


Ellen and I didn’t buy a new car while we were in Vietnam, but we purchased pretty much everything else.  I don’t know what happened.  Everything we saw was just so pretty, had so much character, would be just perfect for our house back in Virginia.  We pictured ourselves sitting in our living room back in Lexington, sipping banana daiquiris and gazing at a life-sized replica of a water buffalo made out of hammered tin, and we knew, just knew—well, you know the rest . . . 

If, as I’ve been told, people buy stuff to fill a hole in their lives, Ellen and I must have a gash the size of the Mississippi River delta tearing through our world.  We bought 15 watercolors, a dozen purses, 42 serving plates and bowls of various sizes, 11 lacquer paintings, and 107,000 miniature wood carvings of everything from the tourist cyclos that are everywhere in Vietnam to of-scale replicas of downed American fighter jets with the crispy pilot still inside.  We bought carved wood with in-laid mother of pearl, and mother of pearl with in-laid wood.  We bought tableclothes and pillow covers and scarves and cinnamon boxes and something long and green and smelling vaguely of sulfur and baby powder that, I have to admit, I still haven’t quite identified. 

Some of our purchases were just stupid:  at one point in Ha Long Bay, we were dragged to a tiny fishing village consisting entirely of houses floating on blocks of styrafoam.  We were told that this was a “tour,” but of course it ended with a visit to the village gift shop where, for some reason we still haven’t quite figured out, we bought five 8x6 watercolor paintings for 10 US dollars—a piece.  That this was roughly twice the price you’d pay for a similar painting in, say, Des Moines, didn’t occur to us at that moment. 

Another time, I was somehow suckered into paying $10 for a big flimsy piece of red paper with the symbol for “Happiness” on it.  I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but when we got back to Hong Kong and pulled that crappy little piece of scrap paper out of the suitcase, all I could think was “Temporary Lobotomy.” 

Other times, we made some really smart choices:  arriving in Hoi An, the last stop on our two-week tour, Ellen and I both felt mildly disgusted with ourselves, like a pair of would-be dieters who’d just gorged themselves on a six-pound box of chocolate.  No more, we told ourselves.  We’re not buying another thing.  Nothing.  We don’t care if the Lord Jesus Christ himself comes out of an art gallery and says, “With this painting, ye shall have everlasting life”—we’re not buying. 

Then, as we strolled through the narrow streets of the old city, our guide, Kem, pointed to a tailor shop and said, “If you want to have something made, that’s the place to go.” 

Now, there are a lot of tailors in Hong Kong.  Walk down Nathan Road any day of the week and you’ll be accosted by three dozen young men offering custom-made suits.  My friend Chris regularly goes to Shenzhen, just across the boarder into mainland China, to get tailor-made shirts, pants, and suits.  I always found this a little funny, as most of my clothes come from this guy named Eddie or his friend Mr. Bean, and I couldn’t see the need to shop elsewhere. 

The more I thought about it, though, the more I occurred to me that, actually, most of the stuff I bought on-line or from magazines really sucked.  It seldom fit the way I liked, and when it did, the materials were often too waxy, or too coarse, or just plain cheap.  Standing outside that tailor in Hoi An, I understood that I could pick exactly the fabrics I wanted, the colors I wanted, and have clothes made to exactly my, admittedly rather peculiar, body shape.  Why not? 

When I mentioned this to Ellen, she looked as though she was going to be sick.  “Leave me out of it,” she said.  “I’m done.  Done.” 

So I left her to wander with the kids and went inside.  It didn’t take me long to figure out I’d made the right choice.  Normally, I hate buying short-sleeved shirts for work—everything looks like Best-Buy uniform rejects—but inside the tailor’s I found some nice cotton/linen blends that were light enough for summer but formal enough for work, no “My Name Is:  Todd” tags required. 

I was just moving on to the silk cotton-blends (and yes, I really am gay) when I turned around and discovered Ellen had wandered in.  She was talking to one of the clerks, pointing to a dress dummy on the top shelf wearing a short-sleeved blouse with shaped sleeves and rounded collars.  In her hand was a light cotton with a flower print. 

She saw me watching, and shook her head.  “I’m just looking.”

Nine shirts and two skirts later, we walked out of there poorer but oddly satisfied. 

And frankly?  Not really that much poorer.  After all, my friend Eddie can’t sell me a long-sleeved silk-cotton dress shirt for $17.  Or a matching silk tie for $4.

We had to buy another suitcase to make the trip back to Hong Kong.  When we arrived, exhausted and tired but happy, we unpacked all our dirty laundry and all the kids’ coloring books and all the half-eaten candy bars and the roughly 6,247,891 shells we’d gathered at the beach.  Once all that was done and the laundry machine was pumping away, I started collecting all the gifts and decorations and clothes and just plain junk we’d picked up, and laid it out on the bed. 

Or tried to.  It didn’t fit. 

“Ellen,” I hollered over my shoulder.  “Is this a double bed?”

She yelled something that sounded like “Treen Pies.”

“Really?”  I could have sworn it was a double bed.   Or even one of those extended twins.  Because, you know, if it really was a queen-sized bed, that meant we bought an awful lot. 

An awful lot.

Aw well, I thought, at least my life is better. 

And then, of course, I realized once again that it wasn’t true:  I was the same jerk I’d always been, only with a hell of a lot more stuff.

And some really nice shirts. 


Anonymous said...

are you a writer? this was cleverly written and full of spirit (that came out cheezy/corny)

Paul Hanstedt said...

Thanks, that's very kind. Yes, I write regularly and publish irregularly. Are you an agent? Because I need one!

Najmania said...

Paul - First of all... this is one of your funnier posts.. I laughed out loud. Second - My eyes lit up when I saw your pictures. OMG - I need to go shopping in Vietnam. My life will not be complete until this happens - thanks to you.

PS - Could I be put on your list for people to buy something for?