Less shocks me now, as I near the end of my three months in East Asia. A giant cockroach flying across the bathroom. Lines of ants climbing the wall in a breakfast restaurant. Small piles of frogs slit at the bellies at the morning market. The constant honking of horns. Two men pooping alongside the train tracks at the Saigon station at six in the morning. A little girl pooping on the sidewalk. A woman hiking up her skirt and peeing outside the hospital. Your basic outdoor bowel movements.
I was, however, shocked today to walk by a string of eateries roasting dogs on spits on the sidewalk. The shape of the animal looked familiar, and I humiliated myself in front of a whole group of Vietnamese while trying to confirm that it was, in fact, dog. They laughed at my ignorance, my naivetae, my Western sensibilities. Or maybe they just laughed because I was trying to talk to a group of people without knowing a word of their language. Maybe they laughed because a host of other foreigners has already had the same reaction. I tried not to react so openly. Tried to control my face. I understood intellectually that people eat dog. Someone suggested last week that I might have already eaten it without knowing. But seeing dogs on a spit is just one more thing that makes me feel like a total alien here. Makes me feel more different, more distant. Every living dog I’ve seen since seeing the dog meat seems to have this ridiculous, sad look on its face, and I wonder, would they eat this one? No, this one’s a pet. No, this one’s too skinny. No, this one’s too old. This one’s got cataracts in his eyes, this one’s got some weird skin issues.
But I do wonder. There are chickens wandering around town too, but I don’t wonder if they’ll end up on spits. I know they will. And I’m going to be one of the people eating them. And I’m okay with that. I actually seek it out. Eating chicken gives me a great sense of comfort—it’s something I know well, and understand completely. And food matters a great deal to my sense of self.
Before I left for Asia, I made a deal with myself that I could eat anything I wanted while I’m here. I’d never eaten pork before, nor shellfish, out of a sort of arbitrary respect for keeping kosher. I don’t keep kosher in any other way, but this was one thing I’ve always done in order to stay connected to Judaism, my family, my cultural heritage. I knew it would be incredibly difficult to avoid these categories of food throughout Asia. As Sarah says, they use pork like a spice here—sprinkling dried pork floss on otherwise vegetarian dishes. It’s been odd tasting both of those kinds of meat, and truth be told, I still cringe when I put pork in my mouth, and the texture of most seafood is unsettling.
I truly understand now the concept of “comfort food”. Eating food I know can shift my mood, bring me back into focus, remind me that I do actually have routines at home, and that I like to cook and bake. I lose track of myself here sometimes. I have no personal space, let alone a kitchen, no clear memory of how I’m different at home. I can’t count on anything here, and no one counts on me for anything, which is liberating, and it also gives me this bizarre ghostly feeling. This city would be exactly the same with or without me. I have no place here except to consume as much as I can in a short period of time.
This morning I arrived in Saigon on the overnight train—solo, as Rosie is taking a few days to explore central Vietnam with an Easy Rider motorbike tour—took a taxi to District 1, and right off, I found an Israeli cafe and ate a perfectly predictable carrot muffin. I treasured it. After the muffin, I went out into Saigon, found a sweet hostel tucked away in a small alleyway, parked my giant backpack, and went back into the city for my first real wander. After just twenty minutes of random rights and lefts, going through winding alleyways and narrow streets, I found a bustling, overflowing produce, meat and spice market.
The markets are almost always my favorite parts of each Southeast Asian village, town, city. They all have consistencies: heaps of leafy greens, most of which I don’t recognize; bright purple eggplants; towers of garlic, orange, yellow and white ginger; every kind of fruit you could hope to stuff in your mouth. In Saigon, the individual sellers sit on tables behind their produce, chopping, prepping, cleaning, looking up occasionally, chatting with their usual customers.
I found a woman selling cold desserts, and when I walked over, she pointed at a small plastic stool and told me to sit down. Okay, I said, committing to eating whatever it was she’d put in front of me. She opened a cooler on the floor and picked through the two dozen jars inside, looking for the perfect one. She handed one to me with a small metal spoon, and so I ate. Vietnamese yogurt. Not like any yogurt I’ve ever had before. Creamier, more tart, icy. There is a comfort, too, in eating new foods. The feeling of absolute satisfaction in tasting something you’d never thought of before. You’d never imagined. In knowing that you’ve put something in your mouth that you may never get to taste again. That your palate is improved for having sat down on this small plastic stool.
Later I had slow-cooked chicken with rice and cucumbers. And then an iced Vietnamese coffee flan. And fresh squeezed pomelo juice. And I’m going out again for round two (or two hundred?).
If food helps me to define who I am, then I’m relieved to know that who I am is uncertain. And willing to taste new things. And willing to miss my routine for the prospect of three more weeks of pickled this and roasted that. And pickled this and roasted that mixed with sugar and citrus and spice and cream.
Vietnamese food, of all the food I’ve tasted anywhere in the world, is the most ridiculously creative, variant, wild and surprising. It’s become a huge part of my experience of the country, and of each city individually. I remember streets by what we ate there, and I remember people by what flavors they delivered. I made my first Vietnamese friend, Giang, while eating tofu soup on a plastic stool in Hanoi, and she’s helping to deliver me to even more delicious underlayers, Vietnamese dishes I couldn’t have found on my own. There are benefits to being a ghost, nearly invisible and largely mute. I get the flavors without any of the responsibilities. And I can handle that for a few more weeks.