The rain now torments the streets of Saigon when before it was the sun. Her shine turning our shirts into mops to soak up our back sweat. The humidity is consistent whether the sun is shining or not, all you feel is heat. I look up at the clouds now to predict the rain, a dark cloud slowly walks over us. Yup, it soon will pour, I’m happy I finally bought a raincoat.
I am in another country. We spend most of our time looking for places to eat, al fresco. Little four pegged colored chairs, so close to the floor, but they meet up to the table, have become our new seats.
As I walk outside, the people on the motorbike stare at me. They tap their children or their friends on the shoulder to ensure everyone gets a good look at the dark foreigner. They don’t take their eyes off me. I smile. They smile back, some bigger than mine, others hesitant.
I get asked if the stares make me uncomfortable. I’m used to being uncomfortable. I’ve been thrown into spaces that don’t belong to me for quite some time now. This is not my country, I am the alien, they can stare as long as they want.
It was a hot day when we went looking for phở. The sun was tormenting my forehead, all I wanted to do was sit and eat. We found a hidden spot on some side street. A homemade restaurant, a stove for cooking on the left and if you venture further in, stairs that lead to someone’s home. A motorbike ramp created for
Resistance is persistent in the story of Vietnam. My forehead dripped as we walked through the dense forest at the Củ Chi tunnels, where soldiers use to live in the tropical heat. The trees were tall, the bushes full, the grass green. Gunshots rang out in the distance, it felt like we were in a live war zone. The tunnels were so small, they could not fit today’s average American. They were dug years ago by men and women to fight the colonizer and then the Americans. 75 miles of tunnels that reached all the way to the Saigon river. Tunnels that had kitchens, bunkers, and beds. Men slept underground, ate underground, prepared underground, all while American bombs were being dropped overhead. A man we met from California described the visit as ” paying respect to the land we walked on”.
“Walk slowly” was the instruction given to our group when advised about how to safely cross the busy streets of Saigon. “Walk slow, put your hand out to stop the traffic.” It felt like jaywalking across any street in Brooklyn, standing in the middle of the road, while cars passed you, staring back at the driver to ensure your safe passage.
Motorbikes parade the streets; reminding me of my mother country Nigeria, while the sheer number of people, the body dodging, the skyscrapers, the nightlife, the bright lights all remind me of my adopted home, New York City. I walk to my bánh mì lady that is posted in front of campus every morning. I smile through the stares from locals, as she delivers me the fan-favorite, Ôp La. A baguette sliced down the middle with eggs, mayo, pork liver, cilantro, cucumber, sour pickles, salt and whatever sauce she she feels like that morning. Breadcrumbs get everywhere, but I am too fascinated by the flavors combination of the egg, sauce and cucumber mixture to be too bothered. I allow the crumbs to make a home on my chest. From baconeggandcheese to banh mi. I’m in someone else’s country.
Blackness is a spectacle in The States, from white people wanting to touch black women’s hair to people being surprised that Black people can speak “well”. I came here to observe the Vietnamese, yet they observe me. The spectacle is staring back at the spectacle. European colonialism depicts the African as primitive, the dark skin as ugly. But weren’t the Vietnamese colonized by the French? Aren’t there bleaching products occupying shelves throughout this country? Aren’t women carrying umbrellas mid-day when the sun is high in the sky and it is 90 degrees to prevent their skin from darkening?
My social positioning has been agitated here. I don’t quite fit anywhere, not with the Americans, especially when I hear stories of my classmates’ lives and realize I can’t relate, or the locals. I’ve been shorted, stared at, pointed at. I am constantly wondering what the African body means to the Vietnamese and what the Vietnamese body means to Africans? I haven’t experienced any hate, more smiles than anything, but I am still negotiating my place each day, all over again. My world has been shifted, and I am currently in a new space, navigating new surroundings and walking through new alleys.
Next, The Mekong Delta.