Perspective

Unimportant Remarkability: A Post-Grad Trip Through Southeast Asia

By Mimi Zak

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We are pushing through the thick crowds of a stuffed midnight street in the old quarter of Hanoi. In a state of slight inebriation I watch Madi’s sly smile creep across her face as she records Molly’s dance through the unmoving cobblestone streets. Molly is playing with the balloons of the salesperson, playfully teasing him and his expressionless face. Madi giggles in enjoyment. Molly is twirling now, slowly and then quickly around the herds of pushing people, singing a song we love with her head and her hands and her hips. A thousand moving persons and motorbikes are whooshing past our manufactured memory. Nerve endings tingle from the tips of my fingers into the rest of my body. My teeth are chattering together in some uncontrollable expression of vigor, summoned by the excess.

We were three in 7.6 million. Mathematically, we were unimportant. In a crowd of an incalculable size, there was no other option but to accept ourselves as unremarkable. So there I stood and Madi smiled and Molly danced: three unremarkable people who, with the help of this fantastically foreign place, could find the limits of their given, unimportant remarkability.

*****

It was the second day of a three week excursion through Thailand and Vietnam. Still exhausted by the recent 26 hours of travel, Madi, Molly and I carried our acquiescing bodies to the Warowat Market in the depths of Chiang Mai. The market is made up of three tarnished industrial buildings whose recovered, winding passageways are now filled by tables of anything. The fish mongers sit next to the donut makers, who sit next to someone selling silk who have another on the left pushing meats on a stick. Tuk-tuks weave through us. The locals push past. Street vendors call out in broken English because we are so very, obviously, terminally white.

Down in the basement of the Warowat Market was the food court. There our hungry stomachs met a petite, plump Thai woman. In harsh fluorescent lighting she had pointing fingers, aggressive Thai exclamations, and three oversized metal pots of mystery meat. Without question or approval she scooped from the deep cauldron into our given styrofoam bowls. One was liver-like, the other was something related to pork, and the last had floating, fleshy balls of fish. Her quick hands pulled dashes of something brown and crumby from behind the cold, metal counter. In bunches it went into the bowls and in fistfuls the bahts went into her hands. Other Thai female crows started to circle. Flying in from their nearby stations, they handed us their cutlery and pointed to their own food stalls, squawking in Thai about the something they could offer us.

“You pretty girls,” the one woman said. “More of those pretty British girls, always so hungry.”

I accepted the label without correction. More pretty British girls being catered to, made to feel remarkable — how disgusting this feels.

*****

One night in Nha Trang we ventured into a bustling restaurant across the street from our rented apartment. A perfectly strange establishment filled with uncaring Vietnamese men who sat on miniature plastic chairs and tables, smoking cigarettes and picking ever so specifically with wooden chopsticks at pieces of bird, frog, rabbit, and the like. We took a table outside and ordered squid dipped in a green, spicy sauce and red snapper wrapped in leaves and butter.

Our beers arrived with the torrential rain. A waiter soon appeared to courteously combine our blue plastic table and chairs to the adjacent blue plastic table. Six Vietnamese men had fatefully joined our meal now. Little language was shared between us, so only short introductory phrases were exchanged. But broken compliments of our noses, our lips and our president did follow. Every ten minutes we clinked our glasses and gave a short “Cheers!” performance in recognition of one another. The night traveled on in this awkward ecstasy. At the meal’s end, with snapper bones and empty beer bottles scattered about, I agreed to the ongoing proposition of the man to my left. In exchange for a cigarette, I let him kiss my lips, and I kissed his in return.

A simple, sweaty American girl with lovely cheeks, he thought.

A slightly dirty Vietnamese man with a strong jawline, I thought.

The night also ended with the rain. We walked back down the street and rested our burnt, tired bodies on the balcony of our temporary stay. Molly, Madi and I laid side by side on the concrete as the puddles of rain water seeped into our clothes. With smiling faces and quiet laughs we stared up at the clear, nighttime sky, felt remarkable, and passed my triumphant cigarette from lips to lips.

*****

We were in Hanoi, the northern epicenter of Vietnam. A young boy’s stream of urine was being guided by his mother’s hand into the street’s sewage system on the sidewalk in front of their family restaurant. I watched from afar as Molly walked blindly into his strong tangential current. The stream hit Molly’s tan sandals with a splash. She yelped in surprise and disgust. The mother looked at her — eyes blank, uncaring.

Two nights later we made it to central Vietnam, arriving in the city of Hoi An. It’s far quieter than Hanoi: less bustling, more tourism, cleaner sidewalks. Restaurant workers fill its nighttime streets, berating the tourists and travelers to “please try their bars” for the “best party tonight” with the “prettiest girls” and “strongest drinks.”

A 3 for the price of 1 drink deal at the “Crazy Tiger Girl” bar comforted our budgeted minds as we settled into its humid arms. By ten o’clock we were drunk with the rest of them, the older, silent British couple with wandering eyes to our right and the flower headband blonde duo dismissing drunken flirtations to our left. We stumbled back to our hostel, happily weaving our jellied bodies through cobblestone streets. At the turn of a corner, a mother dashed from her front door with a small, prostrate child held out in front of her. What followed was an immediate splash of projectile vomit onto the city sidewalk. I watched from afar as Molly walked blindly into her strong tangential spit-up stream. She yelped again, her feet covered in the girl’s liquid expulsion. The mother turned back around and carried the young girl back inside.

Molly repositioned her glasses, turned around to me and Madi, and, this time, delivered a goofy grin. We’re unremarkable again, and how delightful it was.

*****

We woke early most mornings. One morning, in Vietnam’s beloved Halong Bay, I started clearing sleep from my eyes at 5 A.M. The balcony of our hostel, the “Happy Hostel Halong,” held respite for my restlessness. The rooftops and balconies of the surrounding homes, stores, and alleyways stretched out in a horizontal, endless fashion. Across the street, two floors above, a young woman moved quickly around her balcony of chipped paint and dying plants. Her thick black hair was harnessed at the nape of her neck while heavy bangs curtained her dark eyes. Her beauty was evident, even from a distance. Soft, orange pajama pants hugged her hips and a small crying baby was strapped to her chest. She nuzzled her nose and cheeks down into the child’s reddened face while her stringy, small arms slopped the heavy laundry onto the metal wires above the balcony floor. Thirty minutes passed, and when the wires started to sag and the baby seemed soothed, she went inside. I waved a small and unnoticed goodbye and watched as droplets from the wet clothing patterns watered her ill-maintained shrubbery.

Behind closed, tired eyes I imagined that I knew her life. I dreamt naively of it, in the limiting contexts I understand: blowing the steam from her coffee, pressing her knuckles into a door she slammed shut, kissing her mother’s forehead, fondling the curls of her child’s father. I decided she was rightfully proud, enchanted by her world and creations. I decided she was intolerant, undefeated by inner and outer obstacles.  An active, remarkable current rolling over and through walls of bullshit— that was her.

And I just sat across the street, glasses falling onto my nose, listening to all those same sad, slow morning songs and rereading all those same books whose lessons I’ve already learned. I’m afraid so I’m passive. I portend comfort in the cages I’ve made. I’m not remarkable here. I’m a ripple, nearly drowning in my bullshit, looking over at a wave.

*****

It had been three weeks of tiptoeing through delicate towns and shiny cities, stomping only in the moments where there just wasn’t the room. Our parade of madness was ending tonight on Bui Vien street in Ho Chi Minh. Purses had been stolen, skin had been burnt, new foods were met and left with regret. But we were finally slaves to the dangerous creature of commotion found at the cross-section of culture and tourism. We did it.

In the clothes from yesterday and the day before that, a yellow raincoat over my head, I ventured outside into the monsoon one last time. Up and down the Bui Vien again, searching for foods with listed ingredients. Overconfidence proved perilous for my sensitive stomach.

I settled early for the open doors of “Vietnam’s Best,” an almost miniature restaurant buried between the fluorescent signs of competing nail salons. Old letters, post-its, and pictures covered the walls. At a plastic table I looked up at the decorations of this apparently beloved establishment. Most were yellowing notes of acknowledgement and praise — “Best Vietnamese pancakes I’ve ever had” or “I never eat the same place twice when I travel, and I did here. Best food I’ve had in Vietnam!” Heavy, high praise. Maybe they are Vietnam’s “Best.” I ordered fresh spring rolls. The Spanish man’s plastered note touching my right elbow had recommended them.

Four walls covered in dirty little notes were an ideal final adventure. My prying eyes, arms and legs climbed up onto the plastic chairs of the empty restaurant, surveying up and down the food reviews and group pictures for something, something, anything.

In the upper left corner, hidden by the steam billowing from the kitchen’s window, I found it. A sharp, honest scissor cutting through the field of papers. Written in delicate cursive, a perfect, yellowed billet-doux: “I love you, Angie.”

I jumped down from the faulty plastic chair, pulled my journal from my backpack and ripped out an empty page. On the top I wrote the date, my name, and the only poem I know by heart:

“I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold.”

The waiter arrived with my food and smiled as I snuck the paper beneath a thumbtack on his wall. I eagerly grabbed the to-go box and, with a quick goodbye, jumped back out into the slow rain.

Mimi Zak is a writer based out of San Francisco. Her hobbies include brainstorming, writing, and editing this bio.