Tuesday, August 10, 2010

the interrogation

Being the only foreigner in the area, its totally understandable that people are curious about me. I also understand that people are often very keen to practice their English (all 3 or 4 sentances of it). It's always nice to meet new people, and I'm more than happy to talk. It's just slightly frustrating that people seem to wait until you're about to start eating a meal before pulling up stools and starting with the questions. Especially at breakfast. Breakfast's a pretty personal meal. I'm often not fully awake, and trying to get my head together for the day at work. Negotiating a conversation in Vietnamese (or, even more challenging, very broken English) whilst handling chopsticks, balancing on a teenytiny plastic stool, keeping flies out of your face and fending off stray dogs, in 35 degree heat, is quite a stressful experience. Unfortunately quite a lot of the people around here have a rather brusque manner - questions are literally fired at you. If you don't understand, they're shouted louder, but no slower. And drunk people are a nightmare.... but it's all part of the fun and games.

As to the course of the conversations, they're very predictable;

1) "What person are you?" Easy

2) "How old are you?" Easy

3) "What do you do?" Tricky - hard enough to explain in England. I just say I work with children. Not a doctor, not a teacher, something in between.

4) "Are you married yet?" (it's always asked with a 'yet'. The idea of someone not getting married is utterly inconvievable)

5) "Do you want a Vietnamese husband?" Well what do you say to that?
a) Yes please, do you know anyone suitable?
b) Yes please, can I have yours?
c) No, Vietnamese men generally have a very fixed idea of gender roles and they don't match mine
d) No thanks, I have no intention of settling here

I generally try to joke around and say I love Vietnam, and the people here, but I don't speak much Vietnamese, am too tall, etc. and change the subject....

6) "How much do you earn each month?" I really dread this one. I never know what to say. Our VSO allowance is just over 7 million Vietnamese Dong per month (roughly £200). Which for me out here in the country, with a very simple life, is more than enough. I'm managing to save a lot of it to pay my house and van bills when I get back to the UK (or maybe for travelling....) For volunteers in the cities however, it disappears quickly, and certainly isn't enough to live a luxurious lifestyle. But 7 million is still more than double what my interpreter earns. It's more than double a teachers salary. It is probably 10 times the earnings of a rice farmer. And our accomodation is paid for. So compared to the majority of people around me, I am receiving a huge amount. For volunteering. So.....

- I can't say 'I don't get paid' because, although linguistically it's a 'living allowance', I receive money.
- I could say 'not much compared to what I can earn at home', but i'm not at home. And you can't compare.
- I could say exactly how much I get, but I feel it would change the dynamic between me and my community. I'm not flashy. The staff and families I work with see me in old practical clothes, on a rusty second hand bike, eating street food, and they feel comfortable with me. I feel it's important that I live on a level with them, for people to trust me, to speak openly about their problems and discuss things.
- I could lie, but I'm not comfortable with that.

I tend to try to say 'I have enough to eat and drink and get about' (as well as I can in Vietnamese), and again change the subject. At work, where they know I have a camera and a laptop, I try to take fruit and snacks for the children regularly, and I always contribute when we have a party or meal. But when people are particularly persistent in wanting figures then I sometimes pretend not to understand. Is that cowardly? Advice and suggestions on how to handle this would be welcomed.....

Now I'm done writing this, I'm going to go out for something to eat. And no doubt an interrogation or two....!

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