Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sexpats, Missionaries, Hired Guns, and English Teachers; An Introduction to the expat scene.

So, less someone think I'm biased against all things Vietnamese, it's time to talk about the expat “community” here. (It's not just the Vietnamese that piss me off, I'm an equal opportunity critic) I put quotes around community because in my mind, community means some common connection to other people, some lifestyle or belief, some glue that holds people together rather than having them be strangers. Here in Hanoi, we're only a community because of our foreignness. The only thing the expat community has in common is that no one speaks the local language (ok, maybe there's 3 Westerners who can carry on an actual conversation in Vietnamese deeper than “My name is ---. I like food too”), and we are most certainly NOT VIETNAMESE, a fact pointed out every time you are stared at as you walk down the street, ripped off by a local, or asked to repeat your poorly spoken Vietnamese five times. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that Viets don't treat us well, in general, they do (apart from ripping us off), and they are a super friendly people, far more friendly than any Western place I've lived. It's just that their ethnic identity IS their national identity (like every other country except America, Canada, and Australia-immigrant nations), and so the only Vietnamese are Vietnamese.

A couple of other quick generalizations about the demographics before we begin. The expats here are almost exclusively 20-25 years old, or 55+. Straight out of university, or heading to retirement. And dear god, I must be getting old, because seriously, college kids (and those just out) seem like such immature twats to me. Bah, such is middle age.

Anyway, In Hanoi, there's four types of expats. Not EVERYONE falls into these categories, but hey, generalizations are a fun part of life. Without them, where would most humor and ALL social sciences be? I find the only people stupider than someone who never makes a generalization are the ones who believe all their generalizations one hundred percent. Bigots and the Politically Correct are not so different from each other in that regard. So without anymore caveats, here they are, the Sexpats, the Missionaries, the English Teachers, and the Hired Guns.

The (S)expats are often older Western guys (but not always older), who love Vietnam because here they are a white god. Not every guy who dates Viets is a Sexpat, but boy, you can tell them when you see them. You can recognize most Sexpats by the age or beauty difference between them and their Vietnamese girlfriends/wives. Old guy with young girl? Sexpat. Ugly guy with beautiful local girl? Sexpat. Back home, they are usually guys who have a hard time getting laid, but here, they can always find a girl whose lifetime earnings will total what the Sexpat earns in one year. As such, the Sexpat represents a way out of village life for a local girl. And all they have to do is cook for, and have sex with an older ugly guy. And even better, unlike 70% of Vietnamese men, he is less likely to abuse her. 66% of Vietnamese women report that their husbands abuse them.

It's pretty funny/gross to see some guy in his fifties with a far younger, far more beautiful, and often pregnant, Viet wife trailing behind him. Typically the girl speaks little/no English, so that sweetens the deal further, as most of these guys don't want a wife for companionship anyway. They want a good little girl who cooks, cleans, fucks, and shuts her mouth (at least in English). Typically, when they go out to social events, the Sexpat gives his girl a toy to play with, and that keeps the girl occupied while the man hangs out with his friends. An Ipad is the preferred pacifier. The girl sits happily playing, as she would be lost in all the English conversation anyway. The Sexpat's preferred transport in Hanoi is a big, expensive motorcycle with his little Viet girl clinging on to him like a mother chimpanzee and it's offspring.

Because cars are almost useless here, guys with small dicks tend to prefer big expensive motorcycles, and even they are fairly useless for the typical weaving in and out of Hanoi traffic. Those bikes were made for proper roads and highways, not cramped alleyways and weaving around the random fruit seller standing in the middle of the road. Getting around here is all about zigging and zagging through the hordes of people, random open manhole covers, and Vietnamese stopping in the middle of the road to get out their cell phones. The Hanoi Weave is hard to do on an 800cc motorcycle. Not to mention the only time you can get any vehicle going faster than 70mph (and in Hanoi traffic, doing 70 feels like driving at Mach 10) is once you get about one hour outside of Hanoi into the countryside. And even then, there's the goddamned fruit sellers in the middle of the road.

Sexpats are the only long termers here in Vietnam. All the other expats, no matter how much they swear to you "they just love Hanoi", are only here for three years maximum before it starts to even get to them. Most people who “just love Hanoi” have also never lived anywhere outside their hometown. Those who have lived in a lot of different places tend to not be big fans of Hanoi, because the newness of being a foreigner has worn off, and what's left is just dirty old Hanoi.

Saying how much you “just love Hanoi” is the local equivalent of “I wait tables, but I'm actually an actor” in Los Angeles. Essentially it's another pretentious line of bullshit which nobody believes yet everyone tells each other. This city has a higher pretentious twat ratio per capita than a New York gallery showing performance art.

Everyone is trying to out “I-love-hanoi” the other, because everyone considers themselves so hard core because they live in Hanoi, yet being pretentious, they would never say its hard to live in Hanoi. Oddly enough, everyone “just loves Hanoi”, yet absolutely no one lives here longer than 3 years. No one that isn't into banging Viets that is. Sexpats got it good and will never leave.

Which brings me to the second type of expat, the Missionaries. Now, I don't mean actual missionaries in the religious sense, these Missionaries usually work for an NGO, but there's also a healthy dose of them in the education field. NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization, basically equivalent to an international non-profit company. The Missionaries are typically fresh out of their ivy league universities, and after a year or two of either volunteering or working as an unpaid intern, are here to Save the Vietnamese People. They are mostly from wealthy backgrounds.

There's not a lot of money to be made in the NGO field, at least at the entry level (upper management make as much money as their private business counterparts, and somehow, are still always crying for everyone else to give their organization money), so the only ones who can afford to work as a volunteer or unpaid intern for a year are people who are already independently wealthy. Alas, it's always the bourgeoise who lead the revolutions and crusades as their insulated backgrounds breed naïve idealism. Of all the pretentious pricks in Hanoi, these are usually the worst.

As they have been enlightened on poverty, oppression, and gender rights by their professors, they are here to right the wrongs, and guide the benighted Viets to peace and prosperity. As old and corrupt as the Sexpats are, they are naive and young. An army of Pollyannas coming to Save The World. Now, I understand their motivations, and respect them actually. Helping people is a noble goal, and I know the people they do help really appreciate it. However, their naivety and self-righteousness make them a pain in the ass to deal with. Actual missionaries are often helpful in the same way, and annoying in the same way.

The Missionaries are the types that if they were to hear you complaining about anything here, would be the first to tell you "if you don't like it, then you should leave", or that the Westerner neighborhoods are "expat ghettos". Of course, they would never apply such critiques to foreigners in their own culture. They would never tell a Viet that lived in Canada and was complaining about some aspect of Canadian culture "love it or leave it!" No, that would be wrong. Nor would they ever call a Vietnamese neighborhood in their own country an “Asian ghetto”. But hypocrisy never got in the way of self-righteousness. I used Canada as an example, because they are the most politically correct people I've ever met. Like a country of Diversity Specialists or something. Except for my Canadian friends who are reading this, luckily they aren't so uptight. :)

In conversation the Missionaries are either excusing the stupider aspects of Vietnamese culture, or persecuting anyone who happens to point out such cultural failings. “Not better or worse, just different” is their motto. Yeah, ok, so you're telling me the cultural acceptance of domestic abuse is “just different” than ours, which tends to frown upon it? Or not putting a helmet on your child's head as it clings to the back of your motorbike, because you believe that a helmet will hurt a child's brain and neck development (yes, that's an actual reason here) is “just different”? What about the Vietnamese/Chinese obsession with male virility which has put to extinction the Vietnamese rhino, and pushed the Vietnamese tiger , elephant, and bear to near extinction? Ah, right, that's “just different” too. One thing travel and history have taught me is that, yes, some cultures have their shit together a lot more than others. Cultural relativism is bullshit.

English Teachers are the next group. They are typically young kids who are out on their first international adventure, and capitalize on the huge demand for native English speakers to teach conversational English. Few other places in the world can someone straight out of college work 20 hour weeks and live like a king. And that's why they are here, to party their asses off while still making money. They live in kind of an extended spring break.

When people ask me what I do in Hanoi, I tell them I am a teacher, then quickly add in “but I teach History”, to not get lumped into the party happy backpacker scene of the English Teacher. People usually respond, “oh, you're a REAL teacher”, because basically to be an English teacher you need little to no qualifications, at most a six month TOEFL course, and there's little to no course planning. You show up around 6pm, go through the preset lesson plan with the students for a few hours, and then you're done for the day. The pub awaits. It's not a bad life if you're someone who just wants to party his or her way around the world. In fact, I wish I had discovered this gig when I was traveling the world, as it sure as hell beats the digging ditches and serving coffee that I did. Not a bad sort, the English Teacher, but not much for conversation beyond “did you see that chick?” or “I was sooo wasted!”

Finally, we come to our last group, the Hired Guns. Hired Guns are the ones who are only here because of their jobs. Typically embassy workers, business people, or occasionally, teachers, such as Yours Truly. I put myself into this generalization. Most Hired Guns don't care for Hanoi, as they didn't really choose to live here, and Hanoi is a hard city to fall in love with. They tend to isolate themselves in the gated communities or luxury villas, in order to put as much distance between Vietnam and themselves. They are often middle aged, typically trailing a bewildered family. I don't really know much about this type (apart from myself) as they really don't get out much, I only see them behind the dark glass of their chauffeured cars, or at the more exclusive restaurants in Hanoi, which I don't go to. An elusive species.

So, that brings you up to speed on the local expat scene here. Which pretty much sucks by the way. The social scene is very tiny, and it's notable to see someone you haven't seen before. There are plenty of backpacker tourists in the Old Quarter, but they're only here for a quick bit. Every expat has pretty much seen every expat around town. It's pretty incestuous, and as far as incest goes, well, let's say that family tree ain't too pretty.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

An introduction to freediving, and how I almost apparently died several times.

So, continuing my Thailand Island adventure. I camped three nights and spent four days on the semi-deserted Koh Rok, swimming and writing. It was a good time for me to clear my head. Being in the wilderness is good for that. And got some writing done, because they have a generator that runs for a few hours at night. I love being in the middle of nowhere with my fancy computer and phone. Makes me feel like I'm a nomad of the future. Which I pretty much am I guess.

Anyway, after scuba-diving, I was snorkeling around by the beach. It's amazing there, there's coral reefs surrounding the whole island, much of them in only about 5-10 feet of water, so you can basically snorkel in them. While snorkeling, I saw something about 15 feet below the surface that I wanted to check out, so, using my newfound knowledge of how to stop your ears from hurting underwater from the pressure (the technique is called 'equalizing', and basically, as you descend, and your ears start to hurt-the main reason I could never go more than 6 feet underwater actually-all you do it squeeze your nose shut, and blow, forcing your ears to equalize with the external pressure) I took a deep gulp of air and dove down.

I got about 15 feet down, and still had plenty of air. Then I looked around and realize how deep I was underwater, and that actually, I could stay down for a little while as my oxygen felt fine. It was pretty liberating. Scuba diving is great, but it's expensive and requires a whole bunch of awkward and expensive gear. Snorkeling is great because you need very little and can do it for free. In fact, all I had was a snorkel and a mask, I didn't bring my fins. But there I was pretty far below the surface, swimming around like a fish underwater, not even needing awkward fins.. As I felt my lungs start to burn, I headed back up. I had been under almost one minute.

Then I wanted to try again, and go deeper. So, I started to hyperventilate, on the theory that it will saturate my blood with oxygen, giving me more time underwater. I gulped a final breath and down into the blue I went. This time, I looked up and realized I was 30 feet underwater! It was amazing. I have always actually been terrified of drowning, and never did any diving before Christmas of this year. I could feel the fear as I went down, but it was outweighed by the exhilaration of what I was doing, what I was accomplishing, and what I was seeing. It was like the poor mans scuba dive!

I came back up, waited a few minutes to get my air back. This time I wanted to see how far I could push my limits, how deep could I go on a single breath, just using my body, not even fins for ascent/descent. I relaxed, then started to hyperventilate to fill my lungs. Then final breath, and down, down, down. I made it 40 feet down, touched the bottom, and shot back up, lungs burning for air, and right as they were about to give up and breathe big lungful of water, whoosh, I made it to the surface and let the glorious air fill my lungs. I couldn't believe what I had done.

From that moment on, I haven't been afraid of drowning. Major phobia number 1, CONQUERED. It was so liberating. I know exactly how far I went down because I did a second dive where I measured it out using a bunch of rope I found, and measured it out, tying it to a piece of wood as a float, and using a rock as an anchor. It was between 40-44 feet deep!!! On a single breath of air, not even using fins to move faster. With fins, I think I would reach 60 feet. That may be my next adventure this spring.

Anyway, after a few days I had to leave my tropical paradise to head to Bangkok to get laser-eye surgery (more on that later). As I got back to the mainland, I met with one the dive masters that I had scuba-ed with, and told him about my little diving accomplishment. He nodded impressed and said “Oh yeah, that's called free-diving. There's a french guy who teaches that in Thailand. But actually, a bunch of people die every year doing that. Usually happens as they are returning to the surface, only a few feet from the surface when their lungs give out and they suck in a lungful of water, drowning instantly. Happens when you mis-judge the air left in your lungs.”

Me.....”Oh.....Huh...Yeah...I didn't actually think about that.” When I got home, I googled freediving, and one of the first things that come up is “freediving deaths”. Apparently, a lot of people do indeed die doing this. There's two ways that people die doing this, one is called Shallow Water Blackout, where you misjudge the amount of O2 left in your lungs, and as you're about to surface, your O2 levels drop, but you can still hold your lungs closed, so you think its fine, but in fact, your blood doesn't have the required amount of oxygen in it, and your actually faint underwater from lack of O2, drowning instantly. The other way people die is Deep Water Blackout. This is when you dive deeper than 30 feet, which I had, and resurface too quickly (which I had), which causes your blood vessels to expand on ascent due to the decreasing pressure, so basically, your blood pressure drops very quickly, and you faint, drowning. Oh and also, hyperventilating before a dive as I had only increases the chance of Shallow Water Blackout.

I spent a horrified hour reading about the various ways I could have died instantly. DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME. Freediving is so risky that even the world champion died through a shallow water blackout. However, after doing more reading, you can avoid this fate if you simply listen to your lungs. If your lungs start screaming for air, your dive is over, go up quickly. The problem happens mostly to experienced divers, as they develop an ability to ignore the burning sensation and overcome it by willpower, in order to hold their breath longer. But it's a real fine between that and blackout. However, next time I freedive, I will most certainly try and take a few more precautions, because it was pretty freaky reading about how many people die from it.

However, the freedom of being underwater like that is indescribable. As I said, it's like scuba with none of the expensive, heavy bullshit. Just you and the water. And even better, you can't get the bends (nitrogen poisoning) from it because you're not breathing underwater, it's just a single breath, so you can rise and surface quicker than a scuba diver. But yeah, next time I try that, I'll be taking a lot more precautions.

Now is the part, if you haven't already said it before, “Why the hell would you even bother doing this crazy, and dangerous stuff for no real reason?” I didn't know the answer until just now. I realize throughout my life, I am most happy when I am challenging myself to the limits of human behavior and experience. Countless times, I've hit the Road, with no money, no plan, no friends, and no connections, sometimes even in a foreign country, with no support, just throwing myself into life, simply just to see if I could do it. I've hurtled down one of the largest mountains in America, Mount Hood, on a rickety children's bike, just to see if I could do. I've been penniless and homeless 5 times so far in the US and once in France, no connections, nowhere to stay, just the clothes on my back and less than a dollar in my pocket. And 5 times, I made it back again by my own wits and work and sometimes a little help from my friends. Unconsciously I do it to test my limits, I guess. And although it may sound like it, I have never done it to brag, I've done it simply to challenge myself.

And I realize these times of my life have been the happiest moments in my life. Because it makes me feel alive. The times in my life when I haven't been challenged have often been the most sad parts of my life. I fear stagnation literally worse than I fear death. Death is after all, the one guarantee in life. But stagnation is no guarantee. Stagnation is the feeling of nothingness, of aimless drifting, of simply just existing. For some that's a fine life, but for me, that's a fate worse than death. I'm not making any judgements against anyone's life, I'm just saying how I prefer to live mine.

I know I'm weird like that, and by now means do I encourage everyone to think like I do. If everyone did, the world would actually be a bigger mess than it is. So, honestly, I am not trying to brag, nor am I trying to encourage you to do the same. But for me, it's simply not a choice. It's my nature. And if there is one thing I believe is that everyone should follow their natures. Indeed, that may be the key to happiness. But I don't know, I certainly don't have all the answers. I can only speak from my own mind and nature.

And so far, in less than a month, I had completely conquered one of my two phobia, drowning. Now, I just had to get over my claustrophobia....That little experience would come two days after this diving experience in a partially submerged cave in Thailand. Soon updates.