The Squeaky Robot

A Meddling Robot in a Human's World

More than the Sum of Its Parts

Posted on April 9, 2014

Women sleep on hammocks along the water, barefoot and surrounded by tea canisters…

You try to capture your place in a neat little paragraph, one with compelling imagery – it’s a must! – of those shaded tree-lined boulevards, a serene ripe green in summer, prickly skeletons in winter. What’s in the air, as well? Parilla clouds in Montevideo. Dust and sand, intrusive, skin-stinging, is in Tripoli air I heard. Maybe love is in the air of Paris, Japanese tourists think, until they get there and see their dreams commit suicide by way of top of the Eiffel Tower.

In these descriptions you end up romanticizing your place in question beyond oblivion, to an extent that suffocates an unimaginably diverse entity and replaces it with the sometimes rosy, often simplistic concoction of your mind. Born from, what will forever be, a painfully limited experience. I know all this because I’m guilty of it too.

The short summaries of Lonely Planet and other travel guides and literature attempt to characterize places in this way. For legitimate purposes, no doubt. Tell readers and travelers how this place is, tell them what they must know and what to expect. They will thank you for it; their trips will be smoother, easier. They can make the most out of their two free weeks a year.

But it invites the danger of generalizing to the point of blandness, offering dubious literary certainties with no follow-up. It talks about a place in the context of a handful of eyes and opinions, in ways that are too confident. How, in truth, to describe my place, Hanoi, that captures its whole? Yes, the Old Quarter is a sight, stitched together by crumbling buildings that are alive, but Hanoi is more than the Old Quarter. How do I mention the city’s labyrinth of alleys, a system as expansive as nerves and synapses, that hide from the sun? How do I talk about the dizzying effect of the carbon monoxide I breathe in, sitting in rush-hour traffic? Or the incredible amount of animal abuse that goes on? Or how in some areas, the wires create a thick net that could catch a falling object and sometimes support the weight of even the fattest of roosters? Or the oppressive regime, both creators of laws and enforcers of them? Or the semi-abandoned amusement park at the top of West Lake that plays its music and turns its ferris wheel for no one?
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But what I find most offensive about these neat summaries is that they rob me of the grand surprise: that beautiful, indescribable feeling of being thrown into a place and going through it on your own terms.

Instead, I should talk about how the longer I am in Hanoi, the less I understand it. How one of the most nausea-inducing statements is anything resembling: “The [insert group here] are a proud people.” How I’d be a terrible travel-guide writer because for every place I’d write: “Just fuckin’ go and see for yourself.” How anyone who asserts absolute truths shouldn’t be regarded seriously. How answers are only good insofar that their questions are worth asking.

Instead, I should say that my truths are not yours, and my truths extend no further than my hazy line of vision and feeble reach of my arm: I’m people-watching from this cafe balcony. It’s a breezy cloudy day on the lake with good visibility. Women sleep on hammocks along the water, barefoot and surrounded by tea canisters. A spider has been pulling a thread from a nearby hanging leaf to my head, and it’s dangled here in front of my face longer than it should. Everything is interesting, and everything only happens once.

How to Buy Groceries

Posted on March 22, 2014

After a full week (or was it longer?) of eating out, I yesterday felt compelled to go grocery shopping. Normally I’d take my bike, but I’d been driving everywhere recently. It felt right to go by foot, headphones in, daydreaming on shuffle, going a pace all my own. It is in these moments that I feel most this city is my new home; moments of serenity and clarity in a life and setting that breed chaos. (Though on some days I wake up dazed, astounded by the fact that I live in Asia, and I am so shocked and humbled by this that I sometimes forget to put shoes on before going outside.)

Walking around Hanoi is special, anyway, because you have to adopt the alertness of a chipmunk protecting its keep, only here this means dodging old women as they heave buckets of dirty water into the street, navigating the labyrinth of narrow alleys – cities in themselves – with expert reflex because some bikes don’t honk when they’re turning a corner, popping from midair.

I locked my gate and set off. The streets calmed down a bit because it was after lunch-time, and locals use this time to sleep. Maybe curled on floor mats or propped up by bags of rice against a wall with straw pyramid hats swallowing their faces, it makes for a city on pause. In normally dark alleys, so cramped there is no room for the sun, there were rays of light pulsing down from a shale March sky.

I passed many shops, some dead, some alive. Each selling something different, each with a unique layout. But in each shop, there was a clock on the back wall. And the hands on each clock were spinning furiously like pinwheels in a storm, round and round, their screws shaking violently like they wanted to be relieved of their constant burden. It went on like this as I moved through the small streets; the shops continued down a long line and every single one housed a rabid clock. No one else paid notice; they were either sleeping, speed-walking while balancing vegetables and fruit on their shoulders, or lethargically tending their store while watching Korean soaps.

The market I always shop at is part outside, part inside. It’s one of those huge airy industrial buildings with grids of vendors, enormous plastic skylights, mysterious liquids perpetually on the floor, abated only by sprinkles of sawdust. Lurking in the air is always a dampness of fresh meat. There is a clock on the front facade, above the entrance doors, but it was frozen when I saw it last.

My vegetable lady waved to me from afar. I turned the corner and there she was, sixty meters away, smiling and motioning me to go to her. I proceeded slowly, casually grazing the different products to be bought. Women sat on the curb with shallow wide baskets of chilies, garlic, lime, lemongrass, ginger. My five cooking essentials. Some had bowls of snails for sale, others half-dead fish and unidentified brains the size of softballs. One woman a little farther away was hard at work plucking chickens and preparing their feet.

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I approached my regular stand and the woman pulled me over to show me a new batch of fresh cucumbers. I told her in shit Vietnamese, I don’t like cucumbers. She placed three cucumbers in a bag and weighed them. I then pointed out all the stuff I needed: onions, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, bright green herbs that smelled sweet like a dream, and potent red chilies – tiny but capable of setting instant fire to a whole pot of soup. She proposed I buy other vegetables, suggesting beets and parsnips and such, but I declined because I thought I was in Southeast Asia, not Belarus.

At that point, I started to feel a ticklish breeze around my ankles. It grew stronger into a fixed circular motion, and it seemed that a tornado had erupted in the center of the street, dancing, wobbling, but stable. It soon became semi-opaque, light gray with brown spots, with all the chicken feathers it sucked up, pulling a ribbon of rice from nearby buckets, scattering debris all around in beautiful graceful unrelenting circles, through the air and on the ground. People on their motorbikes nonchalantly maneuvered around it and vendors continued their gossip; I then asked how was it possible she had run out of carrots? Strange.


I paid and bid her adieu, till next time, maybe two days or three or six weeks from then, for I couldn’t count and all the clocks were broken.

Hanoi is for Fugitives

Posted on March 20, 2014

Nights in Hanoi aren’t for the sparkling clubber or clean-cut man in business-casual; they should be in Saigon. There is no vanity to Hanoi, and so this city without a mirror lets you into its Vietnamese soul.

Nights out begin at a harshly-lit street restaurant with moldy plastic stools that buckle and food like stir-fried noodles doused in hot sauce and an entire tree branch of limes. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Beer must be bought next door, seventy-five cents.

Afterwards you’ll find yourself in some sort of dark space with dim bulbs that emanate a pointless light – perhaps live music is playing, maybe radio jazz, or just the quiet whispers of people getting to know each other. No matter the venue, though, the tables are small and unbalanced, and you hear the switch and hiss of a beloved lighter being put to use. Dingy couches invite you to sit, the small stage pulls you in to sing like you’ve never sung before. There is an unassuming air here, a strict come-one-come-all policy, a gift without the wrapping paper. A gin & tonic in a plastic cup is still a gin & tonic.

Before midnight, restaurant staff hides the motorbikes, moving them from the sidewalk to some enclosed space – a nearby garage or entrance hallway or even the bar in question so that people can mingle and drink among their transport. The state curfew forbids anyone being out after midnight, so hiding the bikes and locking the doors and closing the shutters is a way to doop the cops. The cops aren’t dooped, though, just well paid, just puppets of the mafia. We go through this dance anyway, the one of cutting the music, putting out what remains of the lights, and being very quiet for a few minutes as we look toward the windows and a pair of high beam rays grazes the bar like a protruding scanner.

No, Hanoi isn’t for the sparkling clubber with heels that loudly click. Hanoi is for fugitives, ready to run.

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Fifteen Hours

Posted on March 17, 2014

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It was the shock of waking up one day and realizing I had to fill the next fifteen hours with something of substance.

To fill my fifteen hours, I would go places and watch Hanoi in action. Stepping outside meant to step into a sparkling cloud of warm mist. There was seldom a sun. Just mist and smog and drags of smoke from people lighting fires in the streets as a slew of motorbikes sailed by, jerking smoke around like silk laundry in wind. Maybe for warmth or to dry socks, I figured. No, just to watch papers burn.

To fill my fifteen hours, I signed on for kickboxing. My performance in the first class was pitiful, like a T-Rex trying to punch a floor pillow. But then my brain said, Aha! Your greatest asset has always been that you’re a quick learner. And by now, dear reader, I could probably knock you out.

To fill my fifteen hours, I began meeting my friend Phuong to work. We were translating a long script for the Tuong Theatre. It was hour after hour of sitting, talking, negotiating, sometimes fighting a tug-o-war of words, each of us defending our linguistic prowess. Translating first from old-timey Vietnamese, then the more modern stuff. Phuong would explain the idea, what’s important in this sentence? In this stanza? I need more context! I’d then make it into something, powder to pills, and clean it up, tie it up into crisp clean copy.


To fill my fifteen hours, I was hired by the same theatre as somewhat of a publicist. Tuong shows are about Vietnamese folklore, history, culture, stories passed down by old men with long gray beards to those with eager young ears while incense burns nearby. The costumes of the actors are embellished to a degree that can’t be communicated here; the paint on their faces is rich and thick, so opaque with confident demarcations of the blackest of blacks, and same for reds and blues and whites, you’d think it were a wooden mask waiting to dry. As far as the Western world is concerned, the one that travels to Vietnam and Hanoi for vacation, Tuong Theatre doesn’t exist. This is where me and my fifteen hours come in.

And so something of substance fell from a hazy sunless sky, as it often does.

Backstage

Posted on March 6, 2014

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The woman in the rice hat is my fashion hero.

I was invited to attend a celebration of Vietnamese history and culture. I was pulled into the section where the actors wait to make their entrance, and it gave a perspective that perhaps most audience members never experience. The costumes shimmered in the floodlights as the dancers depicted the rebellion of Vietnam against China, led by the Trung sisters, the country’s first female king and general. But all I could think about was, what are these actors thinking about? Grocery lists? Squabbles with loved ones? How they could use a cigarette right about now? Were they just enjoying the show and the movements they rehearsed a million times over? Or why is this white girl in their way?

Road to Somewhere

Posted on March 5, 2014

I took my bike out late at night to get more practice while the roads were clearer. It was a warm night, the city blanketed with slick pavement that made that sticky noise of rubber and rain, a Hanoi drowning in purple and red buzzing lights – hotels, eateries, flower shops, anything. The road, like a midnight river, reflected the flashing fluorescence. Rainbow Road.

I zoomed past Ho Chi Minh’s red-lit tomb, my quiet illustrious neighbor, and around Ba Dinh, making sure to go on new streets, uncovering places I’d never been. I circumvented West Lake, smiling at the realization that I needed no map, I needed no help. There was no one else there at the top of the lake, the green-gray water now an impenetrable black like sloshing oil, as I sat on my bike and watched this chaotic place dim its lights under the pink urban sky.

These midnight rides to nowhere have a practical purpose – to teach myself how to properly control a 125cc Honda Wave Alpha – but I also use them to deflate. Something had been off in the past week. And when something feels even slightly misplaced, misdiagnosed, misinterpreted, I need to know what it is. Nothing good comes of the alternative, which is to recoil into one’s shell and quietly suffer.

I know I feel happy here, that moving here was a thoroughly good decision, but there is a discomfort about it, too. Now I realize my love for Hanoi quickly changed from that honeymoon love, that blinding impossible love of traditional travel, to the love where you just lie awake at night and think: Shit. I’m committed to this place. My toothbrush has a permanent spot here. It is sobering in a worrisome way, in a way I haven’t been old enough to experience until now. I have never regarded any commitment as too serious or too important to break. I believe in choices and corresponding consequences. I am unattached. I am a person who looks at national divorce rates and says, “Oh! Look how many people are leaving unhappy marriages!” I am a person who likes to know where the exits are located.

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I have never moved to a foreign country with no contacts, no immediate job prospects, and no definitive goals. I am accustomed to travels that are swift and fleeting – here today, so let’s enjoy this, I will be gone tomorrow. But I’ve chosen to chain myself to Hanoi, for now at least. My shock isn’t cultural, it is the shock of waking up one day and realizing I need to fill the next fifteen hours with something of substance.

Indeed, I have decisions to make. But let us start at the beginning: should I be in third or fourth gear?

Temple of Literature

Posted on February 22, 2014

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I met Phuong and her twelve-year old daughter Dan outside the Temple of Literature. Established in 1070 by King Lý Thánh Tông, this is a historic fixture of Hanoi that is not to be missed. It was used to foster the talent and energy of Vietnam’s people, a serene place for sages and Confucian scholars to learn and train; “The talent of the country is the health of the country,” Phuong explained. We walked along hundreds of stone tablets resting on carved tortoises, symbols of longevity and wisdom. These were in honor of the doctor laureates who had excelled in a given discipline: history, math, politics, it goes on and on. Every facet of this place was dripping with venerable tradition; it seemed an appropriate vestige of ancient ways, an homage to literature and the written word, as I watched a master of classic calligraphy make his brush dance.

Afterwards we went to a coffee shop and Dan pulled out her science textbook. It was all in English, Phuong said, and Dan was behind given they just moved back to Hanoi after three years spent in Germany. I was then asked to help.

As I detailed the differences between compounds and mixtures, solvents and solutes, and independent and dependent variables, Dan was quiet but I saw she was trying to absorb everything I was saying. She wanted to learn, it was clear, and she wanted to understand. There was an undeniable brilliance to her, a natural curiosity not easily attained. I couldn’t help thinking how she would have done well a thousand years ago, owning her own tortoise carved from stone.

I waddled home with my backpack and helmet, rejecting all the pressing taxi drivers along the way, for it was a cool, humid evening and I began going through the Vietnamese alphabet in my head.

Twin Cities

Posted on February 21, 2014

There are two Hanois: one where you’re not on a bike and another where you are. In the first Hanoi, it’s a still city built on crumbling stones, sewn together by telephone wire and tree vines that menacingly curl their way outward. In the second, it’s just a wave of bikes like blood cells in a vessel, and it becomes a labyrinth to be negotiated with expert pace and maneuvering and the chaos of the sidewalks – the people walking, working, eating, welding, cleaning, smoking, laughing – becomes an incoherent blur with the wind hitting your face and you wondering why you haven’t done this before.

Arguably, not all newcomers ever experience Moving Hanoi. It becomes a tough world to penetrate psychologically, and the reliability and safety of walking and taxis are favored. My first few days, I walked everywhere under the pretense of “getting to know the city,” but the reality is I didn’t yet know how to enter Moving Hanoi. How to summon a xe ôm, motorbike taxi, and what to pay? Where do I get a helmet – a good helmet, not just a plastic skullcap that becomes shards in the event of collision? When and where should I start searching for my own bike, so that I can toggle the twin cities at my leisure and convenience?

My first xe ôm was the first time I felt part of a new world, a Hanoi defined by its movement, not just a person standing in it as fixed as a tree, watching the current come and go. I felt like an insider, like I had upgraded my existence here: I found a spare helmet in my house, I walked up to one the guys who lean against their bikes on street corners, and we indulged talk of place and price. We soon set off; I held on to the bar behind me but I soon realized I didn’t need it. I was stable, I was sailing, I was part of the seamless blur of light that electrified this place, and I was watching the first Hanoi, the still Hanoi of tree tendrils and telephone wires, go wistfully by, like a friend of the distant past.

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Royal Huế

Posted on February 19, 2014

In a gust of fortune I was picked up by two kind Vietnamese women, Ha and Thu Phuong, whom I know through like, five degrees of separation. They met me for tea, tea turned into lunch. A short ride to the French Quarter and I was bathing in sweet fish sauces infused with chili. It was a lunch of cuisine a la Huế, the ancient capital city in central Vietnam known for its copious World Heritage sites.

Central Vietnam’s royal and prestigious history affords its cuisine the same distinctions. It was a meal of dozens of small plates and involved methods of preparation. Banana leaves needed tender unwrapping, cakes of steamed rice patties needed to be rolled, every plate was to have a splash of a different sauce; the minced beef patties on lemongrass skewers had to be assembled by hand with herbs, mango, cucumber, and vermicelli, all rolled into sticky rice paper, which was to be dipped in a light peanut sauce. Indeed, there was something more to this meal than most. It was fun.

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Bánh bèo: tiny steamed rice patties topped with scallions, fried somethings, and crispy bread. Pour a little sugary fish sauce, and it’s an unbelievably good mix of texture and flavor.

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Bánh nậm: another type of steamed rice cake infused with green onion, shrimp and/or pork. The technique here is to pour some fish sauce, slowly try to peel it off the leaf, then roll it into a tube.

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Bánh ram ít: a sticky rice dumpling filled with pork and shrimp on top of a crispy rice cracker. The stickiness cannot be overemphasized; it feels like having very delicious glue in your mouth. I appreciated the crunchy cracker, which served as kind of a life boat to hold on to while chewing.

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Nem lụi: Minced beef is wrapped around a piece of lemongrass and grilled. Then begins the painstaking – but very much rewarding – process of assembling the rice paper roll. I will definitely be doing this for future summer barbecues.

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So after five involved dishes, I was prepared to roll out of the restaurant. But Ha insisted that I try Bún bò Huế, the defining soup of the region. Unlike pho in Hanoi, the broth is really complicated; largely infused with lemongrass, it has different sweet, sour, and salty components. It’s also known for its wide array of meats and proteins: oxtail, pig knuckles, beef shank, congealed pig’s blood, and random types of cartilage. Ha said I needed the “complete experience”, and I agreed.

I took a motorbike taxi home. As I strapped on my helmet and jumped onto the back of the bike, I swear to god, acceleration was slower than usual.

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