Melancholia awaiting intervention

melancholic drips of
mingle with sea tears of

salt, sweet, spice, sour

a bowl of pho
a slice of lime
and the healing heat
of too-mild chilies

cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, cloves


crunchy oiliness of banh xeo
wrapped in the nosy spice
of mustard leaves
pungent with the aniseed of
holy basil

no spice without sweet
no salt without sour

home is where the contrasts
burn holes in my heart
the better to allow fateful winds
to blow me apart
with ecstasy, doldrums and easy pleasure

So long Sài Gòn.

Ghettos and calling the kettle black

I’m sitting in the backpacker ghetto in Sài Gòn, trying to tempt my sore tummy back into the realm of the well by tenderly offering it ‘comfort food’. I’ve tried countless fruit shakes and lassies, pumpkin wontons in coconut soup, and goat’s cheese salad so far, plus a number of plain baguettes, all to no avail. I cannot face any noodle dishes (except pho), spring rolls, grilled meats or anything I devoured in the lead up to my belly’s demise. Is this irritating? Supremely. Do I think I can fight it? Not even going to try. I accept my need for cultural succor in the midst of an otherworldy month in Southeast Asia. Here I am studying the foodways of Viêt Nam, incapable of consuming any more of them, at least for the time being. Yet this has led to what I am finding a very interesting reflection.

Normally when we travel, Stuart and I are slight food fascists – not only do we try not to eat Western food during our travels (except a selection of breakfast foods, which we indulge), we scorn the idea of traveling in a country and not wanting to eat their food. Among the many reasons for our stance on this is the idea I am working on in my thesis about food being an avenue to understanding and belonging to a culture. So we try to eat our way to understanding, so to speak. Some would say we are ‘consuming culture’, though I am increasingly at odds with that concept. Culture is not a consumable, it is an interaction. And food offers a rich opportunity for this interaction – that is, over the table.

In fact, another brief reflection on my own life that I’ve had this trip is how I don’t eat nearly as much or as well when I’m alone (which is common to many people), and I have often subsequently wondered about the legitimacy of my food interests given my propensity not to eat or to eat very simple foods when alone. I have realized that my interest in food is as much about an interest in community as it is food (though I do, of course, adore good food), and so when there is no community, no table to share with friends and family, food is no longer a primary concern.

But back to the main topic here, about me sitting in a backpacker ghetto eating Western food in Sài Gòn. What am I doing? Why am I not out there, eating more banh xeo and chatting with locals? Well, aside from being sick, I think many of us are gathered here because we need some cultural succor as well. We need linguistic and cultural familiarity, and sometimes just food we recognize. It’s all very exciting and wonderful to be challenged hourly by new foods, drinks and the environments in which they are prepared and consumed. It is also a constant de-centring – it’s destabilizing. Those who have heard me on the topic of de-centring before will know that I am in favour of this experience, and find it worthwhile in the same way that learning to write in the margins enriches any reading of our lives. But such de-centring is also unsettling, and therefore eventually quite tiring. I think then that people need a recharge, and I am trying to come to terms with my own need for this supplement. And so here I am, in the ghetto.

Now, what I want to do next is talk about other ghettos. Migrant ghettos, socioeconomic ghettos, racial ghettos – the word has been used, mostly in a derogatory fashion, for some hundreds of years. The original ghettos were the Venetian Ghettos, where Jews were forced to live from about the 14th century. The term continues to apply to minority groups who either willingly choose to live amongst ‘their own’ or who are forced to by a majority group, usually through violent means. But even when the minority group that is willingly choosing to collocate with others of their group is relatively affluent, the term ghetto carries negative connotations. We need only read some of the more racist journalists or politicians to know that they ‘don’t approve’ of these ghettos or, as we often read in Australia, ‘ethnic enclaves’. Yet these same people typically also ‘don’t approve’ of new migrants moving into ‘their’ neighbourhoods. Catch 22. I’d like to focus on migrant ghettos, and I’d like it to be clear that I’m not using that term derogatorily, just descriptively.

Melbourne has a number of migrant ghettos, including Carlton as the original Italian area (which, interestingly, is no longer ever referred to as a ghetto as far as I know, though it maintains a very high population of Italian migrants – in fact, none of the Italian neighbourhoods are called this anymore, which makes me wonder ever more about the shifting notions of race in the geopolitical sphere, where Italians are now ‘white’ though that was not always the case). Some of the better known ghettos these days include Footscray and Richmond, where the Vietnamese have settled for the last 30+ years. Footscray’s ethnic diversity is broadening as many more African migrants settle there, but Richmond’s Vietnamese character is threatened by inner-urban gentrification as the wealthy buy in to its proximity and vibrant scene (which, ironically, will disappear like the other vibrant scenes that exist wherever migrants, artists, musicians and academics cluster when they are driven out by increasing prices). But for years, Victoria Street has been “Little Saigon”, a place for the Vietnamese outside of Viêt Nam and for the non-Vietnamese who want a taste of it (often literally, when they go there entirely for the fabulous range of restaurants).

For the migrants who choose to live together then – what motivates them? Obviously, everyone is different, but I think we can draw some generalities as I did for the backpackers above. Migrants seek comfort and familiarity in a place where every time they leave their own home they are in a linguistic and cultural mist. In fact, their own home may be of such different construction and layout, the occupants a very different, often smaller constituency, the sounds outside and inside so foreign, that even to be at home is not to be entirely ‘at home’. If you don’t speak the language of your adopted country, when do you get to relax? Is it any wonder that groups that are culturally and linguistically distinct seek to live amongst ‘their own’? Interestingly, we never talk about the migrants in Melbourne as ‘expats’, do we? But let’s talk about expats.

Hm, where do expats live when they go overseas? In ‘expat communities’, you say? Right, so… ghettos. Aha. Why do they live in these ghettos? Why don’t they assimilate? Why don’t they learn the language? (English-speaking expats are particularly well known for their failure to even attempt to learn the language of their adopted countries.) Why do they insist on eating all their own foods?

So. Ghettos. They make sense. They allow people to make sense of their worlds, and to be at ease while they do so. Of course it seems best if they come out of the ghettos and interact and learn about their adopted countries, and contribute some of their own cultural knowledge to the host countries. All of this is also assuming that coming out is an option. With no language, and particularly in the case of refugee migrants, where the support services for them to have access to language classes might be very limited, it can clearly be very difficult to leave the ghetto. For women, there is another set of concerns, whether it’s a Western woman in an Islamic country or a Muslim woman in a Western country, or some other configuration where the ways of the home and host countries are directly at odds. But where these particular hurdles don’t exist or can be overcome, surely we will all be better off if we make forays out of the ghettos until it becomes comfortable.

I think I’m feeling well enough for a short wander to the Ben Thanh Market, where I can practice some language and have a bowl of pho for lunch.

Even holidays need a weekend…

Our first tour, and hopefully our last, ends tonight. It has been amazingly full – of people, activities, learning and a sense of being overly protected. We have been spoiled, delighted, irritated and stimulated, usually all at the same time. So, a few highlights…

Cambodia (actually Kampuchea) is a remarkable country of friendly, resilient people who have endured a great deal yet still carry on with broad smiles and a proud sense of their long history. The Champa kingdom that extended so many kilometres south of Angkor was a marvel of ingenuity and creativity, yet only remains as the minority Cham people in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta region of Viet Nam. They’re the only followers of Islam in the area, as far as we have worked out. The Cham reign ended as the Vietnamese just kept pushing south from their original homeland in the north until they had their current long skinny dragon-shaped country to themselves (‘they’ being some 90% Viet and 10% another 53 ethnic groups). Of course, they also endured 1,000 years of Chinese occupation and carry a strong sense of that influence even now, particularly in the north, and the final purge of the Chinese took place in 1978 in Hanoi, when the Communists forced them out. There’s still a sizable population of ethnic Chinese (Hoa) in Saigon, though that city boasts a stronger Khmer influence culturally.

Back to travel banalities, though, a highlight of the cruise on the Mekong Pandaw was the morning they took us to the floating market at Cai Be (in Viet Nam) and then conceded to let the intrepid amongst the group (ie six of us out of some 40-odd) actually stay ashore for a couple of hours to wander around the market onshore. The floating market serves as a sort of wholesale market, whilst retail takes place ashore. And what a glorious early morning marketing scene it was! The abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables (think cassava, coriander and Chinese cabbages flanked by bananas, betel nuts and bitter melon) was matched only by the extensive selection of fish (eels escaping their oversized containers next to skinned frogs still hopping limply next to unskinned wide-eyed fellow prisoners of circumstance) – the fish section, by the way, that didn’t smell at all because all the fish were still alive. Of course, the cages of rats for somebody’s dinner were less of a highlight, but interesting in that exotically appalling sort of way. A divine breakfast of pho at one of the stalls-cum-cafes followed by our first Vietnamese coffee (ca phe – and excuse the utter lack of diacritics here as I am too lazy a the moment to cut and paste) topped off our idea of the perfect morning. And then it was back to travelling in the ‘safety and comfort’ of a horde of lovely people who made up for the stifling environment of this style of travel by sharing their fascinating, long and adventurous oral histories with us as we all wiled away the heat of the afternoon up on the sundeck.

Along with all the fascinating tidbits learned about these glorious ancient cultures by wandering amongst their foodstuffs and basking in their collective warmth has been the dark side we’ve witnessed in places like Tuol Sleng (otherwise known as S-21) in Phnom Penh, the high school converted to a place of torture for opponents of the Khmer Rouge. Whether it was intellectuals or their own party cadre they were torturing, the place is a scene of horror that reminds one of how dangerous people can be when power and fear intermingle in large doses. The nearby killing fields at Cheung Ek were peaceful in comparison, even with the tower of skulls imposing its intensely physical memorial in the centre. Approximately 2 million people died in the mere four years the Khmer Rouge were in power, in a country that only had about 7.5 million at the time, by execution, starvation and disease. How how how does the world stand by while these atrocities take place in our midst? How can we learn from our horrible mistakes of apathy and save future victims all around the globe from similar acts of genocide? I only wish I could begin to answer the questions of which so many of us are full.

The Cu Chi tunnels north of Saigon hold their own horror, as we confronted the reality that living in tiny airless spaces deep underground was actually more appealing than attempting to survive the defoliated landscape above. While our American comrades have struggled to come to terms with their presence in this beautiful country that was so deeply damaged by their government’s actions (and ours, and both of mine, and who are ‘they’ and ‘we’… ?), the Vietnamese we’ve encountered have continually reiterated what a vibrant and dynamic country they are, and how no animosity lingers to hold them back in their drive towards peace and prosperity. Uncle Ho reigns supreme and I can easily accept him as the hero to lead us all out of the darkness of colonialism, imperialism and violence, even if only as a symbolic figurehead of idealism.

Sitting now in the sublimely colonial surrounds of the divine Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, one can understand the appeal of being the ruling class. Conversely, in such luxury lurks a cold divide from everything local, and sheltering in the cold divide is power’s old friend, fear. In the not knowing, in the protective gestures, and in the home-away-from-home creature comforts is where I sense that which seems most destructive – the fear to engage. If you strip back all this protection, these buffers and masks, people will quickly discover that there is nothing to fear, and that there is much to be learned. Tomorrow, when the others depart, I look forward to slipping out of the silk robes and into something a little more comfortable.