I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.
Forget Moscow, forget the UK, forget Saigon for a second, you see, I want to talk about sight for a bit. Don’t worry, I’m going to bring it all back to Vietnam and travel later, but firstly I want to talk about sight. The thing is, more than living in any one country, I live in two worlds. There’s the world my lens gives me and there’s the world nature and ill luck left me.
Both are entirely separate.
By the way, I should say that if this isn’t making any sense to you, go here
Don’t get me wrong, the lens is an awesome piece of kit, but make no mistake, sticking a lump of plastic that size into your eye twice a day is no joke. There’s also the fact that the
instant I put it in, two things immediately have an arrival point; taking it out, (my eye needs exposure to oxygen) and the discomfort of reinserting it. I suppose, in my own way, I’m simultaneously deferring both pain and pleasure. Maybe you’ll understand, maybe you won’t, but sometimes that’s all a bit too much to deal with in the morning. So, here I am, living in two worlds. I don’t have a great deal of useful sight without the lens. Imagine swimming in a fairly murky pool, at sunset with your eyes half closed and you’re probably about there. Faces are utterly indistinct, simply blurs. Similarly, simple things , like shaving or cutting my toe nails, have to be accomplished through a strained combination of feel and patience. So far, so tragic. I know; poor, poor me. But there are other aspects to this, really cool ones. However, before I talk about those, I want to dispel a myth;
Your other senses do not get sharper when one goes. They’re as sharp now as they’re ever going to be, so if you’re worried about your hearing, don’t go rushing to poke yourself in the eye.
However, something else does happen. Ratios shift. That’s to say, the emphasis you place on the source of one set of information is subtly overtaken by the emphasis placed on information from sources elsewhere. I’m not making this very clear. Basically, you start paying a lot more attention to what you’re hearing than what you’re seeing. Thoughts, in equal measure, also become greatly amplified. Much to my girlfriend’s frustration, life without the lens is very much one of the head. I once had a *fictional character observe that hell was the inside of your own head with the volume turned up. I put that in then – and repeat it now – mainly for no reason other that it’s a cool line. However, whatever the motivation, I/he couldn’t have been further off the mark. The inside of your head is a great place. I’d thoroughly recommend a visit. Without the distractions of a physical world, thoughts almost become tangible. Trust me on this, if you’re ever struggling to make sense of the world, just turn the lights down.
… And don’t get me started on music.
Of course, a life lived inside your head isn’t much of a life, so maybe, like Belgium, your head’s a nice place to visit but you probably wouldn’t want to live there, (can I just say that I picked Belgium entirely at random. I’ve only been to Belgium once, briefly, and then because I found work loading and unloading articulated trucks. I have no strong feelings
about Belgium, one way or the other). A life lived in your head is a life lived in a world ruled over by your own, utterly enlightened, despotism. That’s to say, no challenge can exist that hasn’t already been sanctioned by you. That’s a pretty comfortable place to be, but not necessarily a healthy one. One of the best spurs to growth is always conflict and conflict can only be found outside; with the lights turned on. Full beam. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about conflict of the kind that now has me contemplating sticking great lumps of plastic in my eye, I’m talking about challenge. I’m talking about encountering something that is alien to you, that rubs up uncomfortably against your own world view, then grabs you by the face and dares you to rationalise it. Now, there’s growth. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not even always nice, but there it is and there’s 80% of the reason for heading out into the world and taking a look at it, (the other 20% is that it’s just fun).
You see, and this is really where I’m going here; taking a look at the world can be tough. It’s hard to make yourself an alien. We’re human beings. We’re herd animals and, without a herd of your own, life can feel pretty vulnerable. I think it’s this that sort of underpins both my understanding, mistrust and occasional revulsion at any Ex Pat Community. You see – and this is the key thing – I get it. Sometimes, it’s just nice to speak your own language, to eat your own food and to be with your own people. There’s safety in that and I’ll hold my hand up now and plead guilty of seeking that sanctuary. However, I’ve also to accept that that’s an easy out. It’s like traveling halfway round the world to get a better lie in.
There’s a street near here, Bui Vien, one that’s viewed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah by most of the Saigon locals. It’s here that the Backpackers congregate in their near thousands to drink and smoke themselves into varying degrees of stupor. I’m deliberately trying to avoid any type of moral censure here, as, God knows, I’ve hardly been shy of either in my time. However, the point I’m trying to make is that it’s exclusively white faces – and RP accents – that line the sides of Bui Vien. Though I don’t want to single out backpackers for any particular criticism here, there’s the well heeled enclaves of the business community who pride themselves on just how homely they can make somewhere else. Similarly, there’s the beery world of the English Teacher here that, while perhaps trying the hardest to assimilate, still exists within a club of their own making. Really, what I’m trying to say is that it’s not one or the other. It’s not one nationality, class or ethic group; it’s all of them.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about me criticizing them as much as it’s about me reproaching myself. I’ve drifted into this world. Worse, I think I’ve done so while not even admitting it to myself. I’m growing increasingly aware that I’m getting gradually further away from my initial purpose. I set out to see and experience the world, not to cosy up to one exclusive little ethnic club after another.
I never wanted to be an Ex Pat.
A couple of weeks ago, we set off on a road trip. We didn’t really have much of a destination in mind. The plan was really to just head towards the Southern Highlands and see what
happened. A typhoon hit, roads flooded, it rained solidly for three of the four days we spent on the motorbike. Whole days went by without the feel of one dry piece of cloth next to your skin. However, through the rain, we saw a floating village, giant
volcanic boulders that had been spat out into any number of unlikely formations. We passed through obscure mountain villages, where just the sight of us seemed to draw open mouthed astonishment. We stopped at cafes, where teams of kids would come whooping out on our arrival. It was brilliant.
Life does not need a safety net. In fact, a safety net only reduces what life can be. life has to be challenging. It has to push you and, at times, make you uncomfortable. This is what is important. This is how you grow and how your understanding of the world and all the people in it grows. You have to live.
Basically, I think it’s time I put the lens back in.
*From the aborted – and bloody awful – novel, ’15% Miserable’