April 5, 2016

World : Observations in Vietnam

In medical school we took a field trip to a local art museum, where we practiced skills in observation that are felt to carry over to medical practice and the physical exam. This was studied in the context of dermatology. People are shown pictures of skin before and after an exercise that involves describing a painting in purely objective terms.  It was found that people could perceive and describe more details in skin findings after having gone through the practice of describing paintings. So as medical students we were taught to do the same. We each chose a painting and studied it for several minutes, and described it in front of other students using only objective terms without providing any subjective interpretation.  Meaning, we couldn't say that a sky looked stormy, but we could instead say that there were black clouds in the sky. This practice of observation is one of the top ten things I took away from my five years of medical schooling, and I think it's a powerful tool in any job. You pick up on so much more and take in so many more impressions.

When I travel I try to think in these terms. Seeing other places always heightens the breadth of perception just given how new everything is, but sometimes it takes conscious thought to observe intensely. Travel always helps me see more sharply how things look back home, and more so when I've looked at things sharply when away. Among the things given to me during travels, I'd like to share from each place some observations. Today--Vietnam.

Hanoi Vietnam, June 2008
When a fruit is in season, people eat it everyday with every meal. You eat batches after batches of longans and think it’ll never end, and then one day they’re gone and you understand, and see how defining seasons are. Bowls are never left empty, and if ice cream has melted you eat it as soup. People like to sing. They’ll randomly break out a line when walking across the room. Buses don’t stop at bus stops; they slow down and keep moving. People nap after lunch, no matter where they are. Within few minutes of meeting you strangers will invite you to their homes. It’s not considered rude to push someone out of your way. There’s little sense of individual space. Privacy isn’t important. Vendors hold fast and hard to what they want you to believe about their products even in the face of clear evidence otherwise.

The way people repeat and repeat make me feel like they believe repetition affirms truth, can even will it. What you eat, what you don’t eat, how much you eat, what sauce you choose to dip your food in—all will be noticed. Going out means flooding the streets and hanging out. People aren’t easily bored. They can sit for a long time. Tea is called water. White pants are in style, as are jeans/pants of different colors in general, as are ruffles down the front of your shirt. After walking in post rain streets the backs of my pants and the side of my purse are spotted with large specks of mud. For umbrellas, plaid is their black. People give up their seats for the elderly and pregnant but rarely does a guy give up his seat for a girl in high heels carrying lots of bags. When it rains my aunt rushes out to the balcony to retrieve the laundry.

It rains a lot. When it rains it feels like it will never stop. I haven’t yet experienced rain that you might call a passing shower. It’s always heavy and long, and there is always frequent thunder and lightning. When it rains, things change. People have to stop and find shelter, or are stuck at home. It’s not just an inconvenience; it’s a real thing. People work long hours, but don’t cut short breaks during the day to go home early. If it’s mealtime and someone calls you to eat, you don’t finish what you’re doing, you go; or they’ll keep calling you every other second. Friends are affectionate with one another. They have full conversations via back and forth text messages. People know the names of flowers.

Items are localized in areas. If you want to buy something, there’s a street dedicated to it; things aren't sold mall-style. To lock up your house at night, there’s a lock to the outer gate, an inner gate you pull across your double doors and bunches of little padlocks with different keys. The streets are gritty, and the air is thick with dust and heat. People wear face masks. In the hottest heat girls wear a long sleeve over their T-shirts when going out into the sun. Everyone showers at night. Every day I’m asked whether a dozen different things here are found in America. When a person doesn’t like to eat something, it’s said that he doesn’t “know how to eat” it. In the city it’s assumed you are from somewhere else, so people are always asking each other what their “que,” or countryside village, is.

Hanoi Vietnam, June 2009
Distances are significant here. The city feels bigger than it is because of how long it takes to get places. My family’s said that the transition from Hai Ba Trung, the residential district where they live, to My Dinh, the business area of Hanoi, is like going to another country. Rarely anyone has been outside of Vietnam; the majority haven’t traveled to other big cities within the country itself either. People love taking pictures if you pull out a camera and are unabashed about asking to you to take solo pictures of them. People talk to you without introduction. Once a person builds a rapport, which can happen in minutes, they look out for you. Strangers tell you how it is. They scoff when you’ve done something stupid, sound easily annoyed when you don’t do as they think is fitting. It’s not a social disgrace to criticize someone you don’t know because they disagree with you on something like directions or where to put your feet on a bike. Strange things happen, like purple ink splattering my skin through an open window of a taxi. Organization is not consciously valued. With a loose framework things work themselves out.

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