Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Nguyen’s Law

Little do people, myself included, realise the insufferable fate of a foreign man living in a superstitious state. Here I am continually under a curse, perhaps, as I have not laid the appropriate fruit on an altar on a specific day, or I barked at an old woman at a green tea stall, or even completely ignored the righteous ritual rites of ‘room’ days - kitchen god day, broom cupboard day, the place where bikes are parked beside a redundant Karaoke couch day, and so on. Perhaps I’m just a bungling foreigner threading on the feet of ancestor’s spirits left, right and centre. Or perhaps not.

I believe, there is a curse and the curse has a name. It is Nguyen’s Law. It goes along the principle that whatever you want you can’t have, without at least a bit of a struggle. Or at least whatever you do there’ll be something to annoy you along the way.

Take for example the shoeshine urchins. Poking your ribs as you contemplate life mid-coffee, or mid-bia when you chat with your friends, they mutter into your shell - Shoe shine Anh oi. You whisk them off with a flourish. No! Bugger off! Next time, nhe! Or perhaps you have your own adjectival phrase or expletive word of choice. Then, sure enough, a day will come. A day where you have an interview, or a wedding, or a flash function or a hot date. You will go to the café deliberately to get a shoe shine. You will sit. Order a black coffee. Wait patiently. And along will come a cigarette lighter sales man. You will order another black coffee. And a woman selling plastic buckets and mops will appear. Subsequently you arrive to your appointment a jittering mess; caffeine horsing through your veins and your shoes unpolished to the point of being filthy. You lean against the corner wall tucking your shoes under a cloth, incapable of polite conversation, waving people away. Which will lead to another curse, no doubt, including weddings, corners or waving.

How many times I’ve lay in my bed, stomach rumbling, a new day long since on its way. And I hear the soft husky cry – “banh my nong oi!”. I think, hot bread! Now that's a good idea. Yet when I get down to the door only a faint echo of the bread woman’s voice can be heard and a woman with a conical hat stands at my gate pointing at my empty cans, 500 dong notes flashing in her eyes.

So too, the house. Oh! Ye infernal gods! No matter where you live there will be a pea beneath the cushion. Or a boulder beneath the sheet, depending on how wealthy you are. A niggling irritance that, over the course of time, will eat your patience till it’s threadbare.

You find a house. The landlord seems fair. Not too alcoholic, not too greedy. A cute daughter flits about and as she speaks English, conveniently all queries must go through her. The rooms are oddly off-rectangular. There’s a plug beside the toilet which leaks. The stairs are a bit crooked. Not the best place in an earthquake. But you say aye. I’ll take it and hand over the deposit. Then beside your house you discover there are six and a half construction sites. Dozens of plucky little labourers are grinding, drilling or standing around doing nothing except maybe staring in your window. Either that or a karaoke bar you never noticed materialises. At the crack of midnight wailing voices croon like lonely cats. You lie in bed and suffer in whimpering exhaustion. You wonder what else can go wrong. Then the water pump starts up, creaking and clanking like a pre-industrial revolution experiment and you wonder how you’ll ever reach dawn psychologically intact.

Then you wake up with a headache, or a hangover more likely, and you crawl down the road with your gagging tongue. You have noticed millions of Nha Thuoc’s in the city but somehow you picked a street where there are none. You end up sitting in a café crying into your coffee. A boy approaches and pokes your mid-rift.
“Anh oi! Shoe Shine! Ok!”
“Panadol co’ ma!” you scream.
To top it all off, as you walk back to your house a banh my seller will stop and brandish some loaves in your pasty face.

Yes, I can’t think of how many times I have run out of petrol outside a noodle shop. Or had a puncture beside a petrol station. Or how many times I have thought the girl beside me at the traffic lights was checking me out until I heard her say ‘smelly foreigner’ and her friend replied ‘with a ghastly bike’. And why is it that whenever I had a late Saturday night people like to get up and drill at seven the next morning? Why is it when ever I turn up at bars they get shut down? Why?

It is the dreaded accursed Nguyen’s law that thwarts me. The law that states whatever is in abundance shall be perversely elusive. Whatever is most annoying in your present situation shall occur. Whatever irks happens.

Your only hope is to thread carefully. For you thread on the thin ice of calm, below the waters of rage and despair. If, you can maintain a Zen like cool in a crisis, apparently, not only are you some boyo, but the world is your hamster. Or is that oyster? And old Nguyen’s law will have to wait till next time to ruin your day.


Anh oi - Hey brother
Banh my nong oi - Hey, I've got bread in a basket
Nha thuoc - Chemist

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