In Which I Take Down Four People with My Mere Presence
I’ve been wondering pretty much since about the third day I’ve been abroad here in Southeast Asia – so that would be more than a year now – as to when my mere presence would bring others to harm – that an accident would occur in which life and limb would be endangered, merely by the fact that I was physically present. I had assumed it would occur while on my bicycle.
I was wrong.
No, it happened in a supermarket at the mall. A 20-something young man, an old woman, and her two grandchildren all came to grief for the simple fact of my proximity to them. That is, me, “The Foreigner!”
Dun Dun Duh!
Perhaps I should explain by offering some background. In the larger, more cosmopolitan cities here – cosmopolitan being a relative term – such as Sai Gon or Bangkok, foreign people are not that uncommon. It’s not unusual to see a foreign person walking down the street or even on a motorbike, and unless there is a potential financial transaction involved, most locals don’t give foreigners a second thought.
That is, except when you emerge from the usual circumstances – like, say, being a foreigner and riding a bicycle in Sai Gon traffic. Don a helmet while doing this and you become a matter for spectacle.
I wasn’t in Sai Gon very long when I acquired my first bicycle here and used it to cruise around District 1 and District 3, with occasional trips to District 7. This was unusual in and of itself, but I also wore a helmet – here, everyone who rides a motorbike or motorcycle wears a helmet; it’s an enforced law. But no one who rides a bicycle does.
The first time I nearly caused an accident merely by my presence as “The Foreigner” – Dun Dun Duh! — was not long after I acquired my Vietnamese mountain bike. I was riding to a nearby movie theater to purchase tickets for Avatar 3D. It was Sunday, which is a big day out for most Vietnamese; many working class people work six days a week, and Sunday is their one day off. Consequently Sunday is the big day/night to go go out – you’d think this would make Saturday night the big night to go out, but generally, Sunday night is the night Vietnamese people tend to party hardy.
So there I am riding my bike on a Sunday afternoon a little ways outside of District 1, where it’s less common to see foreigners. Traffic was busy, but not absolutely crazy, the way it can get later on in the evening. A guy passed me on a motorbike with his wife on the back, as well as their two children (I’m making an assumption, of course; it might have been his sister, niece and nephew, for all I know). Again, most people wear helmets on their motorbikes here, although it’s pretty common to see helmetless children, unfortunately. No one had helmets on this particular motorbike except the driver.
As this guy passed me, he did the classic incredulous double-take that I would soon become accustomed to in the course of the ensuing year. A foreigner on a bicycle in Sai Gon traffic! No way! He was so amazed and amused, he had to slow down and comment. Looking at me, he pointed at my bicycle, then pointed at my head.
I shrugged my shoulders and lifted one hand in the universal “what?” gesture. I at first thought he spied some sort of mechanical issue with my bike. He pointed at his helmet, knocked on it, then pointed at mine again and laughed out loud, gesturing once more at my bicycle.
“The Foreigner” wearing a helmet while on a bicycle! What a crazy maroon!
Bear in mind, while all this is going on, we’re moving, in traffic. About this time we come to some rough spots in the road. Like any large city with heavy traffic, there are places on Sai Gon roads where the asphalt is in various states of disrepair. No more so than in any rust-belt city located above the Mason-Dixon line back home, but there are blocks with potholes and rough spots that will take a motorbike down if the driver isn’t paying attention.
This guy hits a pothole; his motorbike wobbles. He panics, brakes hard, people behind are suddenly whizzing by on his left and his right; one of the small children behind him leans perilously off to the right to the point that she’s parallel with the road before her mother clutches here to her chest as her husband fights to get the bike under control. I immediately increase pressure on my brakes, thrust my butt out over the rear wheel and get my gut on the seat – mountain biker instincts die hard – and prepare for a quick stop; traffic is dense enough that there’s really no room to maneuver; it flashes through my mind that if he goes down I might have to try and bunny hop over him to avoid a crash myself.
This all happened in a split second, of course. Fortunately he manages to get the bike back under control. He looks back at me, laughs once more — this time at himself, I suppose — and speeds off.
Don’t get me wrong. The majority of motorbike riders in Viet Nam and Thailand – well, I’d say less so, in Thailand, but still a majority – drive reasonably safely (given the conventions and rules of the road here, which differ considerably from those of North America). I frequently draw double-takes while on the road, true, but rarely do they endanger anyone.
But this guy, well, he was, if I may put it bluntly, a stupid idiot; he put several lives in danger just to laugh at me for doing something out of the ordinary. But aside from idiocy, there is the troublesome fact that he almost pulled a Darwin maneuver on his whole family merely because I’m “The Foreigner.” Had I been a Vietnamese guy puttering along on my bike, this incident would have never taken place.
At the time I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I’m still not sure.
How Do You Say “Back Off, Jethro!” in Vietnamese?
Again, I’m not judging all Vietnamese. Go to any country, and put a foreigner on the road who’s dressed a little different from the way the locals go, and a similar situation could arise; idiocy and poor judgment are universal. America, et al, is no exception.
But this phenomena seems to increase when you take “The Foreigner” – Dun Dun Duh! — and put him in a smaller, more rural environment. In Suphanburi, Thailand, I was “The Foreigner” all the time. Wherever I went, heads turned, conversations stopped and cries of “Falang! Falang!” would inevitably follow behind me.
Here in Bien Hoa, an industrial city/suburb of Sai Gon about an hour north of the city center, the community is not rural per se, but it’s certainly much less cosmopolitan than Sai Gon; foreigners are few and far between, as there is no tourism industry here. The only foreigners here are a handful of ESL teachers or business people of various stripes – or washed-out ESL teachers like me, of course.
I ride my bicycle here even more often than I did in Sai Gon. Needless to say, with the exception of my 3 a.m. rides when I have the roads to myself, I draw all sorts of attention when I ride and frequently distract people who should be watching the road. As noted at the beginning, I have always figured it was only a matter of time until the law of averages caught up and someone bit it hard because they couldn’t resist staring at “The Foreigner.”
Saturday night that finally happened. But it wasn’t on the road.
Through unfortunate miscalculations, I found myself on Saturday afternoon with nary a crust of bread to eat in my apartment, much less anything else. Granted, I eat out a lot, but I get tired of always eating out at times, since I’m “The Foreigner.” Besides, I was jonesing for some fast food; it had been several weeks since I had indulged. So off to the mall I went.
The mall here on Saturday, as I had been warned, was an utter, chaotic madhouse. Jam-packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-to-wall people. The Big C supermarket in the mall even more so – they must have 50 checkout lines, and they were all packed. The fact that Tet, the Chinese New Year holiday, begins next week I’m sure only compounded the problem.
After having forded this seething mass of humanity to procure my goods, I slowly made my way amidst the checkout-throng, looking for a line that was slightly less crowded than the rest. As I made my way in one direction I noticed one guy in the endless line of people making their way in the opposite direction do the slack-jawed double-take look in my direction, yet again. It was one of many, true, but this guy was so awestruck by my presence that he also had to strain to see what was in “The Foreigner’s” hand basket. I had already begun to make my way past him at this point so he leaned back trying to look over his shoulder and mine to get a glimpse.
Again, this also happens many times when I go to the supermarket. But this guy, he was special – in several different ways. He leans over so far, desperate to get a glimpse at my groceries, that he actually falls over. As he falls, he instinctively thrusts out a hand for balance or to grab something, and inadvertently cold cocks an old woman behind me right across the jaw. She pinwheels around, the groceries in her hand flying everywhere as she falls. Fortunately, perhaps – at least for her – she fell on two small children, ostensibly her grandchildren.
So, four people on the ground, one of whom is an old woman, the other two, small defenseless children – all because of the presence of me, “The Foreigner!”
No one was seriously hurt in their various falls – at least as far as I was able to determine. As the invariable cluster of onlookers swelled and mall security responded, I was gradually shuttled to the back of the crowd, as the fact of three generations of people prone on the floor of Big C was apparently an even bigger spectacle than “The Foreigner.” Since there didn’t seem to be anything for me to do, I made my way to a checkout lane (despite the excitement the nearby lines had diminished only slightly).
Now, it’s one thing for someone with personal space issues and mild anti-social tendencies to be the constant center of attention every time he sets foot outside his door for an entire year (you’d never guess I use to sport several unconventional facial piercings, eh?). When something like this happens … well … wtf? Wtf am I supposed to feel? Wtf am I supposed to do? I make light of of the situation, but it’s inescapable — an old woman was knocked down not because of something I did, but merely because I happened to be near her.
It’s like I’m in my own personal existential/absurdist play. Do I laugh to keep from crying? I keep waiting for the director to come out in a fog of cigarette smoke. “Non! Mais non! You must … how you say, express more ennui! Disgust and ze … perplexité of ze expat life, ze life lived abroad, oui?”
In any event, it’s hard not to take it as a sign that it is indeed time to head back to a land where I’m just another face in the crowd, and not … “The Foreigner!”
Dun Dun Duh!
Of course then the question becomes, how long will I be home before the wanderlust kicks in again? And where will it take me next time? But that’s a question for the future.