Worlding as other places
Hà Nội 2020
Lately I’ve come to realise that Tết* is increasingly happening elsewhere.
If you live in Saigon and spend your time around those with disposable income, you will find yourself fending off the same question over and over: where are you going for Tết? The cosmopolitan lifestyle dictates that even in the middle of a pandemic, money should be spent on mobility. That the centre-periphery imagination – in which the cosmopolitan class resides squarely in the middle – could indeed be reconfigured in a trickle-down economics kind of mentality. Places that used to be reserved for foreign hippies, as it were, suddenly become avenues for vicarious enactments of global cosmopolitanism. You can go to Đà Lạt and pretend you’re in Paris. Côn Đảo and pretend it’s the Maldives. Hội An and pretend it’s Venice. After all, so they tell me, Tết is Vietnamese Christmas. Except it’s nothing like Christmas, and the food is much better.
Hội An 2020
Tết is sad and boring in the city, my GrabBike** driver explained to me the other day, and urged me to try and get out of Saigon. He was envious that I am a Saigonnese and hence don’t have to pay rent (something he just assumed), but felt sorry for me that I don’t have a place to come back to at Tết. Tết in the countryside/ở quê is pure bliss – he shouted over rush hour traffic – because people celebrate it differently. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the city is always dead during the holidays. It’s migrants from the rest of the country who spring up this city and give it its lifeblood: they work service jobs, open new businesses, live in the outskirt districts, send their kids to local public schools, and call Saigon their second home. Their absence from the city leaves a barrenness many young Saigonnese mistake as a nostalgic return to a Saigon they only got to experience through opaque photos and blurry footages taken out of context. Migrants are almost always the problem, it seems. Mobility is more obviously problematic if it is upward and by other people.
On the paper today, news of Vietnamese overseas students and workers being stranded all over the world, one year into this pandemic, reminds me of the ordeal I lived through in the US, merely half a year ago.
“Between January 26 and 28, some flights will bring Vietnamese from South Korea, Japan, Australia, the U.S., and Europe home. But they will never be enough to meet the surging demand with the holiday barely two weeks away.”
“Some workers and students want to return since their visa or study program is finished.
In Finland, Nguyen Thuy Linh and two of her Vietnamese friends, who graduated from a university in July 2020, have been living frugally to survive the ordeal.
They could not return by a repatriation flight from Paris on January 28, and said they might celebrate the Lunar New Year with other Vietnamese in Helsinki.”
Tết could surely be celebrated in Helsinki, but it happens in Việt Nam. That’s why when people enter your personal information into these websites that determine your astrological signs for free, they also ask for your place of birth. Machines, too, know of other places, and they assume that life is different there.
Sài Gòn 2021
Worlding is happening(s) elsewhere. In attending to other places, immediate surroundings take on their meaning. Vietnamese will not be caught dead wishing you a happy Chinese New Year – it so happens that we celebrate the lunar new year at the same time – and we get properly annoyed that elsewhere people seem to mostly think that Chinese are the only people capable of maintaining multiple narratives about the passing of time. There’s the Westerners’ holiday (Tết Tây) and there’s ‘our’ holiday (Tết Ta). We live simultaneously in different new years. Many times to a place, many places at a time. One foot in what commands our identity, the other in what we hope one day we would become.
The zoning of ổ dịch/pandemic hotspots begets a perverse sense of space. Problems, as it were, are happening within, rather than distributed across space. Grids are good for a few things, among them tic-tac-toe and making three left turns to get home; but not for adventure, and never for writing. To write on grids is to recite what has already been written; to write on plain space is to pen the unruly within out-with. The rhythm of form quavers in the flows that carry it. Flows of form, too, reverberate in temporal regimes unhinged by our biogenic affairs.
Làng Nôm, 2020
*Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday. In Vietnamese, tết literally means holiday. Lunar New Year, once can say, is *the* holiday.
**GrabBike is a service provided by Grab – you can think of it as Asian Uber – where (mostly) nice people would pick you up and drop you off on their scooter bikes for a reasonable fee. It’s a great way to get around in Saigon.