09 October 2010

Trading Life in the Emerald City for a Weekend in Sepia-toned Kansas

No, dear reader, I am not in Kansas. Rather, this weekend is my second return journey to Long Xuyen in the month that I’ve been back in Vietnam. And in more than one way, I feel very much like Dorothy who, upon waking, can say nothing more than “There’s no place like home…”
Last year, in dusty Long Xuyen one of the sources of joy and sustenance for some of us foreign volunteers was our occasional trips to Can Tho for grocery shopping and takeout pizza. In a town where the Western food option (as in singular) was the Jolibee at Co-Op mart and we couldn’t even find cheddar cheese, Can Tho loomed like the spires of the Emerald City. Cheese, microwave popcorn, peanut butter filled the aisles of our favorite supermarket and we always left having spent several hundred thousand VND. Next on our routine tour of the city was lunch at Cappuccino’s. This highly popular restaurant is frequented by Can Tho’s large tourist population and boasts an extensive menu of Western delights. After several weeks of nothing but rice, rice and more rice, there are no words to describe the joys of ooey-gooey melted cheese! The only downside to the restaurant is its ONE oven and the ensuing wait to get one’s pizza. There is a way around this hurdle, however, and it’s one that worked well for us: We did not order pizza for our meal. Instead, we’d choose something else from the menu like lasagna, burgers, or fish and chips. Then, as we would leave, we would place to-go orders for the pizza that we’d pick up after we’d finished our shopping. Brilliant, and it made for good eats for the next few days.
Our visits were never long, and I’ll admit, returning to Long Xuyen was occasionally a challenge after those few brief hours in Technicolor. When weighing my options for my second year in Vietnam, I said at one point, “Well… if nothing else is different, at least I’ll be able to get pizza.” While my consideration of making the move to Can Tho was affected, at least slightly, by the wider array of creature comforts it offered.
Flash forward five months: The Emerald City is now home. I’ve left the dusty, sepia-tones of small city life in Vietnam. It’s bigger, louder, disorienting, and more crowded. It’s no longer a novelty to see another Westerner walk down the street and people don’t stop and stare at me as much as they did last year. But life in the big city is not the glorious OZ that I anticipated. Physical discomfort aside for now, I think the main difference is that it is lonelier. Like city living in general, the volunteers occupy self-contained units, rather than the more communal nature of An Giang University. Whereas we would pass each other in the hall last year, I have been in Can Tho three weeks and have yet to meet my next-door neighbors. The bloom is off the rose, and as the harsher realities of city life become more evident, the familiar smallness feels all the more appealing to this weary traveler. The Emerald City is indeed bigger and more crowded but it also feels more isolated and quite lonely to this country cousin who longs for sepia-toned familiarity rather than the technical excitement she once craved.
There’s a certain irony in the reversal from last year to this. Now, instead of looking forward to weekends full of Western food and shopping in Can Tho, I take every opportunity to escape the lonely isolation of Can Tho for the warm-sepia toned embrace of friends, old and new in Long Xuyen. And as the transit van deposits me at Tinh Hoa, where my dear Joan waits with open arms (and air-conditioning) I once again echo Dorothy’s words and exclaim, “There’s no place like home!”

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