“Ba Oi” by Anna Matussek, Hanoi

Borders August 15, 2011 00:48

topic: BORDERS medium: TEXT

Ba  Oi!1 

      You see me every day. I see you peeking through the gates, regarding me critically as I return from work, getting off my bicycle, a little sweaty, my helmet on (of foreign origin, it says ‘california pro’ and is really a skateboard helmet-where I come from it’s a done thing but here you are seen as a total dork if you wear a helmet bicycling) and when I offer ‘Xin Chao Ba!’2 you either turn away or mutter ‘vang’ (yes). My male flatmate reports being able to practice his Vietnamese with you and how sweet your smile and how you go out of your way to show him how neighbourly you are. When I come home from going out or meet you in the street with him, a smile comes over you, you ask questions that we might or might not understand and wants to introduce you to the neighbourhood kids. (I made friends with them long before you decided to give me the cold shoulder, ba!)

Foreign as I am, the only thing that is different is that I am a woman and he a man. Well, maybe there is more.

I try to imagine what you do all day in that big run-down house of yours. I only ever see movement and lights on in the ground floor of your massive 4 story house. The front=yard is clean (you are constantly sweeping it!) but bare with a dried-out little tree in a pot (how does a tree dry out in Hanoi-where humidity reaches like 200 percent, huh?!)

I feel bad for being angry with you as you’re old and frail and I have been taught to respect my elders. So I accept that my anger has nothing to do with your person but with either

a) Your personal history/experience

b) Whatever society has taught you

I imagine this:

You were the matriarch of this once grand, even palatial, home. Your husband, a war veteran, who had bravely fought off the Americans and the Southerners. Like your father before him had the French. You had given birth to two sons. The first, your favourite, your baby, made you proud. For a while at least. The younger was a little softer, a little slower, married early and within the ranks of the party.

Your older son suddenly got involved with foreigners, even fell in love with one of them (a woman) and left you only a letter explaining that he was on to bigger and better things far far away. Your husband died of a broken heart and your younger son lives with his wife and kids in the wife’s province far away. The eldest sends you money and wants you to come live with him…in one of those countries where women look like me (big and tall, white and too open and self-confident for their own good)

I might be wrong. I don’t know. I hope your life is a happier one and I just never see your family because they come every day at lunch-time and take you out to a fancy meal while I’m at work. I do hope so.

And I hope that one day Ill get to hear all about your life and the real reason why you don’t like me.

Your neighbour (no. 27b)

      Em (‘Little sister’)

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