26 February, 2007

We Built This City

Tonight I had the pleasure of dining by myself at the new Korean place down the street from Kim and Janny’s house. The street I’m speaking of actually houses, or housed, a good many of my favorite people and restaurants. This street has the distinct feeling of being an alley, but it connects two really big important streets (albeit in a very winding fashion) and I guess so many people were proud of themselves for discovering such a handy shortcut, they decided to build some pretty houses and affordable ice cream stands and beer halls and now, a Korean restaurant. I really like this street.

I took with me only my wallet and a book, and set off to find the place. Its existence had only been hinted at by my friends who live around here, but the mention of a good Korean restaurant stuck with me and tonight I was on a mission. From deep within the couch cushions, Janny waved her hand vaguely in a direction and said it was called Ma Ma Han’s and that it was really easy to find, so I took off in that direction, and sure enough, almost at the end of the street, I found it.

Now, this alley is homey, and lovable, but it’s also a little rank. The sewers flood, and the other day on a walk, Kenny and I noticed a cigarette pack on the ground that was full of syringes. It has a few unsavory elements, but in a easy-to-learn kind of way, an unpretentious way. I was unprepared for the downright class of this Korean place. Ma Ma Han, whoever she is, must have studied interior design somewhere, because the good use of space and lighting really was apparent even from out on the street. It shone like a little gem in the dusk. In fact, for a second I worried that maybe I should have dressed up a little more. But there was one teenage guy sitting out front, probably to direct potential customers in, and he lit up in a grin when he saw me make like I was going to enter, so I figured my jeans and flip flops could be forgiven, and I was waved inside.

I was the only customer. I took off my shoes and sat cross-legged on a cushion at one of the low tables. A woman who looked like she was maybe in her mid thirties brought me a menu, which had surprisingly no Korean at all inside its covers. This was a good thing, since I can read enough Vietnamese to order something good, and I did: I ordered banh xeo kim chi, which sounded like the perfect combination of Vietnamese and Korean cuisine. Banh xeo is an institution in itself. There are regions, somewhere, that are known for making it better than anywhere else. You can get banh xeo at almost every restaurant in Saigon, and there is at least one that serves nothing but. Basically, it’s a very thin egg pancake folded over some bean sprouts, shrimp, or whatever the specialty is. It’s crispy and greasy, and very good wrapped up in lettuce and dipped into nuoc mam. And as we all know, I think, kim chee (or chi) is a variety of picked and spicy side dishes served with any Korean meal. So pickled stuff in a crispy egg blanket is what I ordered. I sat back to read and wait.

And I’m pleased to announce that the meal was awesome. The banh xeo was hot off the griddle and the veggies inside were crunchy and perfectly spiced. I ate slowly, reading a paragraph between bites, and when I looked up at the end of my meal, the city’s lights were lit up, and they reflected off of the wooden floor, and families were walking past the restaurant and kids were teasing each other like they do everywhere and teenage girls were practicing dance moves in a driveway across the street. Kim had just called to invite me to dessert downtown. And I had a revelation of sorts. Here it is:

I love this city. I love my life in this city. I love its freedoms, I love its possibility. I don’t exactly love the fact that I’m white and living here, because it means I get stared at and yelled at, but I’ve come to realize that there are plenty of people richer and more privileged here than I, and that a good amount of them are Vietnamese, and that I’m a giao vien Tieng Anh (English teacher), which is a respectable job for a white person, and the old ladies I talk to seem to respect me for that and be pleased with me. So I don’t feel especially guilty for being here, though sometimes the staring makes me mad.

It’s exciting, having so many opportunities and choices at my fingertips. Is this how I would feel living in any major city? Somehow, I don’t think so—-because the warm weather and the affordable lifestyle are big parts of what makes Saigon, for me, so much fun. When I think about living in, say, New York City, I worry: how would I afford that? I don’t want to be a pauper. I want to work hard doing something genuinely beneficial for a few hours of the day and then get to enjoy spending the rest of my time with friends, learning a new language, using public transportation, trying new foods, spending money on local restaurants and services, and getting a tan through it all. Maybe I could do this in a North American city, but I somehow doubt it.

I enjoy Saigon the most when the sun is down. The city at night, in the cool, on the back of a motorbike on my way to somewhere I like to be—-in my head I always seem to have that song, “we built this city; we built this city on rock and roll!” stuck on repeat. It’s like my unexpected, uncool anthem.

Will it be the same when I come back? Will I get to come back? I know that’s up to me. I don’t have to leave now, but I’m choosing to. I have to find out. I have to find out if I can go back and continue feeling as fully realized as I do now. I miss contra dances and baking and my knitting supplies and the Folk School and Gwynn Valley. I miss the Appalachian mountains, especially in the Fall, and I miss crickets and nice dogs and silly things I never really liked that much before. Most of all, I miss my friends. I have fewer now than I used to, and my Mom told me that would happen. I remember thinking how sadly wrong she was when I was a teenager and she was trying to explain to me that even though she had only a handful of close friends, it didn’t matter, because those friends had been there longer and knew her better than anyone. And I thought of my long list of current best friends, a mile long and ever-changing, and thought, well ha. Mine are the same way. But it’s funny which friendships lasts and which don’t, whose paths diverge from yours and who ends up keeping in touch, even sporadically, and mattering. And it’s great when you realize that it’s no one’s fault, that no one has done anything wrong by fading away, that we’re all young and are finding our way and our niches. Now I also have a handful of close friends, most of whom probably don’t realize they’re on that list, that I miss so much, even though we don’t see each other that often. To see them now, I think, would matter very much.

[In all honesty, I think one of the main reasons I like living in Saigon so much is because so far, I haven’t had to deal with things that stress me out when I live in the states, like owning a vehicle and maintaining it, or ordering more checks from the bank or renewing my license or even getting up early to go to work. As a recently arrived ex-pat, I haven’t had to deal with a lot of the grown up hassle. So, aha, maybe that’s it.]

So I’ll come back home, and I’ll have a Fall and I’ll go to camp and I’ll hug my friends and I’ll bake stuff. I’ll love Kenny and we’ll annoy each other and still love each other. And if Saigon really is the only place for me, then it’ll still be here. But I think it was Karl Maslow who had that theory of self-actualization, and I think I remember learning that self-actualization isn’t this thing you achieve and then you get to stay there forever and ever, amen. You hit that point and then sometimes, it eludes you, and you have to go back to attending to some of your more basic needs to make sure you can be free to feel self-actualized again. And maybe Saigon is like that. Now that I’ve felt it, I can take it with me, and have moments of feeling this good again. I’ll just try not to get another vehicle or need any more checks. And I think my license doesn’t expire for a while yet. As for work… well, we’ll see what I can find.


Chris Michel said...

Rock! Keep the Saigon with you, Jess... it's in you, not in the city.

And remember: they stare because they are in the presence of Genius, and it is awesome. ;)

clairebearkiss said...

it wouldn't be quite the same in NYC, but you'd be surprised how well you could manage, i think. i personally am funded by student loans and a hardworking husband, but i am always impressed by how well the people i know manage to really enjoy the city without being super-broke. they still work a lot, but they/we have access to things we might not have in other places. i just discovered walk-in qui gong massage and i am totally psyched!

i'm so glad to have been able to share in your exitement and wonder about saigon and the other places you've traveled. i have a friend in bangkok who i've wanted to visit anyway, but your descriptions make it just that much more urgent for me to want to go!


I'm on Flickr a lot.

Jessica K.. Get yours at bighugelabs.com/flickr