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Chủ Nhật, 15 tháng 4, 2012

1. One evening I arrived at a pavement underneath a bridge only to find out my friends hadn't left their houses yet. So I waited. I usually can't stand not doing anything for one moment, but because I had expected my friends to be there when I came, I didn't bring with me anything to kill time. I looked around and saw a xe om man. He was sitting on his motorbike underneath the bridge. He was waiting for a customer, but no one, including himself, could know for sure when the next customer would show up. He was there, waiting for someone that may never come.

A xe om driver is such an intrinsic part of every street in urban Ha Noi. Sometimes a few of them sit together, sometimes one sits by himself. No one really pays much attention to them, except those who are looking for a ride. People pass by without a second glance. Xe om don't stand out more than a wall, a tree, or a bridge. They are a part of the scene, they are always on a spot from morning to late night, in the rain and in the sun, without much interaction to the world around them. They just sit there, sometimes so immobile that they become almost invisible.

I remember the time I saw a xe om early morning on the first day of New Year. The street couldn't be more desert as everyone had either returned home or were at home, and he was there, sitting on his motorbike at his usual spot. More than anything, the first day of the New Year is time for family, and it couldn't be any other thing. So much that I, and the majority of Vietnamese, consider it sacred. When I saw a human figure on a motorbike at a street corner that early morning, all definitions of loneliness seemed inadequate.

Back to the xe om underneath the bridge,  even though we were both waiting, I had a definite end while he didn't. I would just wait until my friends came, but he would be sitting without any certain point in time. Suddenly I felt desperate. I have never in my life waited for something, day in and day out, without a single clue of how long the wait will last. I wanted to talk to him, but didn't know how. The 2m distance between us seemed hopelessly vast.

Vehicles kept passing by. Two silent figures parked near each other under the bridge. I didn't know if he was even aware of my presence. He seemed indifferent to the world, as if nothing but a customer would spark his interest. I couldn't start a conversation, I struggled to find a word, then I quit. We both stayed still, there was a world of difference between us.

2.  When I was still working for Bloom, I spent about 3 days a week talking to female farmers. They would tell me how their children's teachers had reminded them of paying tuition too often lately and how the children didn't want to go to school anymore because they were ashamed of not paying on time. They would explain how they had done everything they could think of but couldn't save the chickens that they invested all the loan in from dying. Or how they were willing to do absolutely anything, including spraying pesticides, a job that everyone wishes to avoid and often hires poor people to do it instead. 

And the rest 4 days of the week, I went back to my normal life. Sometimes I spent on a new pair of jeans the amount of money a woman needed to keep her daughter in school for the next semester. Sometimes I bought a pile of books which costed me the equivalence of an investment in 2 piglets. And one time I was invited to a luxurious meal which I didn't enjoy that much (I am never a big fan of seafood), only found out later that the total cost for that meal was 10 million, a huge number that many of the borrowers I worked with just needed to completely change their lives and their children's.

The thought of a separation between a "working life" and a "normal life" disturbed me a lot. It seems so wrong that half of the time people surrounded me needed a few millions to pay back debts, send their children to school, start a new business and even have a chance to break out of poverty, while during the other half, those surrounded me spent the exact amount of money without a second thought. I felt guilty when I was among the latter, but I didn't know what else to do. There, I talked to the farmers, was welcomed into their houses and shared their difficulties, but the distance between us was a world apart.

3. I have friends on facebook who pride themselves in a passion for travelling. They often upload tons of pictures of themselves going to different places. But they see more through their camera lenses than their own eyes. And while at a new place, they spend more time taking pictures of the local people or worse, posing and taking pictures of themselves than interacting with the latter or even just looking at them. 
I don't like that way of travelling, but I guess my friends are too afraid to reach out, or don't know how to start, or maybe they don't consider touching a place through its people a part of travelling. Who cares? Just bring back loads of pictures, people will admire you and your adventurousness. Just like I didn't know how to start a conversation with another human being, or struggle to fit my way of living with many others.

One day I went out to get my cell phone a nylon cover. I watched the man skillfully use very simple tools to place a super thin plastic cover on the screen. At some points his hands almost fondled the object and caressed every single tiny space he could find on it. Very delicate and patient. I tingled with an urge to write something about him, because the way he moved his hands seemed like an art to me. So I started asking him questions: "How did you learn to do this?" "Is it difficult?", "What do you need to set up a shop?"..but my attempt failed. I didn't know whether he preferred to be quiet and focus on his job or whether my questions were too intimidating. I went home and google "nghề dán điện thoại". A bunches of articles came up, I read until I felt sorry for myself that I have to turn to google to find something that was right in front of my face.

4. The world we are living is flat in the sense that it allows us to reach further and further. It is probably true, but I would say we are not reaching deeper, at least not to people who are very different from ourselves. Instead we confine ourselves to our own little worlds, we interact with people similar to us, and withdraw into our private spaces so  much that when it is time to come out, we become too afraid or reluctant.
Isn't it sad that I can reach people thousands of kilometers away by my fingertips but couldn't touch those right next to my hands?

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