It's been almost a month since my last post. We're back in Saigon and into our rituals again. Today we sat, as we always do on Sunday, on the terrace of the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf outlet across from the famous Notre Dame Cathedral watching the panorama. It's always a visual feast - upscale locals sipping lattes and fiddling with their smartphones, overweight German and American tourists in black socks and Birkenstocks, tall slim girls in sheath dresses with 6 inch heels looking as if they had just come off the runways of Paris, brides and grooms in rented tuxes and dresses being stylishly photographed in the square, hoards of shoe shine boys and lottery ticket sellers, old white guys with young Vietnamese girls, the whole menu of Sunday sights.
This is the leisurely side of the upscale expatriate life. But, there are many sides. If everything goes as planned, life is good. But there is always an underlying anxiety when you are living in a country where you don't speak the language fluently. If there is a problem you always seem to need the help of a local friend to explain and translate. Skilled professionals feel vulnerable, dependent, and helpless. A friend of mine had a meltdown last week when his motorbike wouldn't start. He's been here for 7 years with a good job as the vice-principal of an international school. He lives with a Vietnamese friend and gets along just fine until something goes wrong. In this case his bike quit in the basement of a hotel parking garage. He pushed it up two long ramps to get to the street and knew enough to find one of the motorbike repairmen that squat on corners throughout the city. Bad news. The repair guy couldn't fix it. So he left the bike and caught a taxi to a shop where he could rent a bike until his got fixed. Next problem. Rental bikes come without gas, so he pushed the rental a few blocks to the nearest gas station. Next problem. The seat wouldn't unlatch and give him access to the gas cap. Next problem. He tried to call the rental shop but the two numbers on the rental contract were out of service. At this point, he called his roommate who had to come pick him up and translate about all the mishaps with both the repairman and the rental guys. By now he's late for work and, even though he's been there 7 years he won't get paid for the day because even a few minutes late will cost him a day's pay. He loves it here, but the only thing he could say was "Why am I living in a place where I can't speak the language and am like a helpless child when things like this happen?" That same day, Marilynn's phone stopped working, her computer gave her fits, the kitchen stove malfunctioned, and our DVD player failed. We needed lots of help and third party intervention. Some days are better than others, but let it be noted that we have cell phones, computers, stoves and DVD players. The people around us live without hot water, electricity or enough food to sustain a normal life. The expat life is good but it has its challenges. Hold your breath and walk slowly and steadily across the street. Those thousands of motorbikes really will go around you.