Being a Dumbass: You’re Doing it Right
First off, THERE WILL BE BLOOD CURSING – in this post. It will employ a number of top-shelf four-letter words, in fact. If this offends you, stop reading now. Seriously. Stop and go somewhere else.
Okay. Here comes the first one: this post should really be titled “In Which I Fuck Up Bad.” There are screw-ups, and then there are fuck-ups. This was a fuck-up. It was also a theft; specifically it was a pickpocketing.
But this doesn’t change the fact that I was complicit in this fuck-up; I know better than to walk around downtown Sai Gon at night in the middle of a crowd during Tet with my wallet and phone bouncing around in my pockets.
This is particularly true considering the fact that A) I’ve been in Sai Gon during Tet before, so I knew what I was getting into; and B) I’ve never put myself in that situation before – I’ve always erred on the side of caution in these circumstances. I almost never go out at night — particularly in a place like Sai Gon or Bangkok — with my wallet, phone, ATM card, cash etc.; I only take the cash I expect/want to spend and a copy of my passport in a travel wallet which hangs around my neck underneath my shirt. If I think I might need my phone for some reason, it also goes around my neck or else is somehow secured on my person.
I didn’t do any of that, this time. I was in Sai Gon for one night before I was supposed to catch a morning bus to Cambodia; I wanted to travel there before I return to the States. I was staying in the backpacker ghetto in District 1 of Sai Gon at my usual hotel; I had just bought credit for my phone’s sim card and exchanged a bunch of Vietnamese dong for U.S. dollars. I realized I needed razor blades before the trip, and rather than buy them in the backpacker ghetto, where they would no doubt be more expensive, I had the brilliant notion to walk to the super market in a shopping center in downtown Sai Gon – the center of District 1, where Tet revelry was already underway.
As I got near the shopping center, the crowd was literally jammed together shoulder to shoulder, barely moving (think Times Square on the calendar New Year’s Eve) and spilling out onto the streets, where motorbikes are wheel to wheel, not moving. About this time I’m thinking I should maybe be worried about pickpockets – yeah, I’m prescient like that. I then got jostled on my left, turn around and look, and felt fingers in my right-hand pocket. I whirled around, but too late; wallet is gone and no one visible except a thousand people milling around. Then I felt fingers in my left-hand pocket, whirled around grabbing for that hand but only caught air and a glimpse of a short, tiny woman with black hair quickly shoving her way quickly through the crowd, which closes in behind her in her wake (short woman with black hair – nope, no one like that in Viet Nam; should be easy to find). I made a vain effort to follow her, but she was lost in the crowd in seconds.
Cash, ATM card, keys to my apartment, and phone – all gone in the blink of an eye. It’s an expensive moment of complacency. Like driving a car: it only takes one moment of inattention – fiddling with the radio, sending a text – and blammo! Metaphorical shit hits the fan and you’ve just killed a bus full of nuns carrying babies, as well as your stupid-ass self. And the nuns were blind and the kids were refugees (what was the name of that Cincinnati band? Damned if I can remember).
Why did I do this? I did it because I’m a fucking goddamn idiot. Why did I walk downtown, in that crowd, with my wallet full of cash, my ATM card, and my phone – none of which I needed; I had planned to go right back to the hotel?
Fucking. Goddamn. Idiot.
I got complacent – I’ve been over here for more than a year, and while there have been plenty of trials and tribulations, none of them have resulted from my being stupid. I had begun to think of myself as the experienced travel and wise expat, I suppose – I know what I’m doing, mucking about in foreign parts; sure no problem. I’ve been drunk at 4 am in downtown Bangkok and stayed out of trouble; I’ve been out all night partying in Sai Gon without incident.
Right, so there I go, Mr. Complacent Smart Guy, Mr. World Traveler, off into the crowd, preoccupied with his trip to Cambodia. One moment of inattention — one moment of complacency – one moment in which I let my guard down – and I get “a duck in the face at 250 knotts.”
Bad Timing: You’re Doing It Right
This might have been an expensive inconvenience at best, had I had my usual precautions in place, and had it not been Tet, the week-long celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year. But somewhere along the line, I cashed in my traveler’s checks that I had been carting around for nearly a year and never bothered to replace them – complacency for the loss. I had a stash of emergency money back at my apartment, which of course did me no good; my apartment is an hour away from Saigon, and my keys were in my wallet (fucking goddamn idiot!). Granted, I can break into my apartment’s front door in under a minute, but I had taken the precaution of locking the security gate as well as the front door – because I was going to be gone for a week or more and it can be broken into in under a minute, if you know the trick.
And it was during Tet; this compounded the problem to the nth degree. I had no way to reach my landlord (her number was on my phone, but she was more than likely out of town for the Tet holiday). I had no way to contact a locksmith (more on this later). I couldn’t get home anyway, as I have no money at this point, at all – actually, I had plenty of money, just no way to access it.
A long and frustrating 48 hours ensued in which I had nothing to eat and very little sleep and walked for miles all around Sai Gon.
The first thing I did was call my brother back home in the States – Skype for the win. Fortunately I had the foresight to put his name on my bank account before I left on my overseas adventure. He was a trooper; within a few hours – while he was working, mind you – he found time to go to my bank, withdraw cash on my behalf and send it to me via Western Union.
This went off without a hitch; unfortunately the next day all of the banks and other places with Western Union outlets were closed in Viet Nam for an entire week because of the Tet holiday (although it didn’t officially begin until the following day). I must have went to 20 different Western Union branches all over District 1 and District 3 that day, seeking one that was open, to no avail.
The issue of face further complicated the issue still further and sent me on several wild goose chases in search of Western Union. I don’t want to tear off on a tangent explaining the concept of face, however; it’s a difficult concept for Westerners to grasp, much less explain. Between Thailand and Viet Nam I’ve been in Southeast Asia more than a year, and have spent some time in China and Japan, and I still don’t have a firm grasp of this Eastern concept. I’ve even talked with some long-term Western expats here and in China, and even they have difficulty explaining it.
Let it suffice to say that it is a common aspect of cultures throughout Asia, particularly where there is any historical Chinese influence. When you ask someone a question for which they may not know the answer, given the context it may constitute a loss of face or at least a perceived loss of face, especially when a foreigner is involved. Consequently you may not get a straight answer. I’ve learned to recognize the body language and facial expressions that indicate when I’ve inadvertently asked a potentially face-losing question – but I was desperate, so I kept asking and kept looking.
And most people I asked did indeed tell me straight up: no, they didn’t know where a Western Union branch was likely to be open and that I wasn’t likely to find one because of Tet. But there were a few folks who assured me that if I just went to such-and-such a street or such-and-such a bank, I would find an open Western Union branch, and in every case, this turned out to be bullshit.
But don’t get me wrong; I’m not faulting anyone. While I would have preferred they just say “I don’t know” or “I can’t help you,” rather than send me on a wild goose chase, I realize it’s a cultural thing (albeit a frustrating one for us forthright Yankees sometimes).
And, as I say, I was desperate; I was facing seven days with no money, no food, and no place to sleep (or at least no way to pay for my hotel). I know several people that live in Sai Gon; they were all out of town for Tet, naturally.
Furthermore, people – from friends to acquaintances to strangers – seemed reluctant to help as they were preoccupied with Tet; one Vietnamese friend couldn’t even be bothered to try and call a locksmith – “Oh, it’s Tet, I wouldn’t be able to reach one – not for another week.” Um, geez, dude … could you at least try, maybe? Another friend, a long-time American expat, his only suggestion was to go to the police. I eventually did, which involved no less than six different visits to three different police stations before a) the proper jurisdiction could be established and b) someone would actually take the time to deal with me. Needless to say this was also as pointless as it would be back home in the States – and I’m not faulting the police; they have bigger problems to deal with than some dumb-ass getting pickpocketed during the biggest holiday celebration of the year.
Buddhist Precept: Don’t be a Dumbass
So to make a long story, er, um, somewhat less long, I sold most of my camera gear for significantly less than it is worth, but for more than enough to live on comfortably in Sai Gon for a week (about twice as much, actually). In the end it was this or sleep outdoors and dumpster dive for food; no one came forward and volunteered a floor to sleep on, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask – make of that what you will.
The day after Tet was over; I came back to my apartment, asked the neighbor to call a locksmith – lucky for me the girl across the hall speaks English considerably better than I speak Vietnamese – and I was in my apartment within 15 minutes.
As the Buddha tells us, “work out your own salvation; do not depend on others.” Ironically I posted that quote on Facebook in the aftermath of all this, and an expat friend responded about how warm and helpful the people of Viet Nam were – unlike our compatriots back in United States. I couldn’t help but point out that I have friends back home that would have offered me a couch to crash on without me having to beg — unlike here, evidently.
I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, or trying to indict an entire culture – again, make of all this what you will.
And In spite of my own complicity in this festival of fuck-uppedness, I do not exonerate the thief anymore than I would exonerate the rapist because the victim dressed provocatively and flirted. I would remove the genitals of said rapist and would go upside the head of the pickpocket, given the chance. In fact, I’ll admit it: I would enjoy getting my violence on with this person; I would happily shed copious amounts of their blood.
But it hasn’t soured me on traveling abroad, nor has it soured me on Viet Nam. This could have happened anywhere there was a crowd during a holiday in a city – provided I was there to be stupid, that is.
And it could be worse. I could be as dumb as this guy.