An Anecdote on Mary Oliver

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Here is a Mary Oliver story for you.

One summer many years ago, when I was starting my first year in college and trying to figure out who I would be, my mom and I stayed in Cape Cod for cheap at a friend of hers from medical school.

Our first morning there, my mother woke up at dawn for a walk on the beach and asked me if I wanted to come. I groggily, grumpily, told her no, preferring to sleep in. I was at the age when one is still angry at being pulled along to family vacations, when there were more important things to do, to read or write. I had brought back some paperbacks that I wanted to get through and had stayed up late the night before reading them, in part to not deal with possible conversations or forced chatter with my mom’s doctor friends.

An hour later, just as I was waking up from slumber, my mother came in, all smiles and sun happy.

“What a walk, Tuan! It’s so beautiful outside!” I suspected her of exaggeration, to evince from me some regret.

“You would have liked the woman I met on the beach too.” My mother went on to describe how she saw a gentle gray haired woman walking her dog on the empty beach, how lovely the beach was with the sun barely up, how the woman saw her walking alone and started a friendly chat with her and how she had a gentle, kind, patient way about her.

What did you two talk about?

Well, life, family, the light on the cape.

“She told me she is a poet, and I told her about you and how much you love literature and wanted to write too.”

“Oh really!” I perked up, awake finally. “Who is it? Anyone I know?”

The poet on the walk, of course, was Mary Oliver.

Lesson learned. When your mother asks you to take an early morning walk on the beach with her, you should go. There is a finite number of such walks in your life. And there’s always a chance you could run into your literary heroine.

That’s the end of my story. It turns out I would never get to meet Mary Oliver in real life, though I would teach her poems to my students and would see her words move them as much as they move me in my solitude. Thus, the walk, lived through my mother’s description, is how I often picture her when I read her, alone at first with her dog running after waves by her side, then in the company of a Vietnamese doctor who has her own stories to tell.

I see it almost as my own memory, a bystander observing at a distant curve of the dunes: Mary Oliver walking side by side with my mother, in the Cape’s early dappled sunlight. Two women I hold the utmost respect for, in dialogue for an idle, relaxed half hour, neither one realizing how much the other’s words would mean to me throughout my life.

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“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
– from “Wild Geese”

Flooding Season

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The worst flooding in Saigon comes in late October to December. Black clouds roll in from the direction of Vung Tau, pushing up river like a gathering horde; the once airy sky turns heavy and dark, auguring unrelenting rains to come. In minutes the streets are overwhelmed. Motorbikes are caught mid journey. Drivers wait it out under cafe awnings, watching the streets turn to streams, streams to rivers, rivers to oceans of disturbed waves, all in a Saigon minute.

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No City for Old Men

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For my first few months back in this long term stay in Vietnam, I tried my hand at writing articles and short pieces for whatever places wanted them. Most English media sites about Vietnam were online zines, and the pieces that were in demand told of the country’s developing future. Editors wanted reviews of new restaurants and bars, real estate, life hacks for living in the new Vietnam, interviews with influencers, pieces advocating novel luxuries here or soon to be here.

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Adrenaline rush in a left turn: the morning motorbike commute

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S
o a year of writing ends and a new year of teaching (my lucky 13th year) begins, for I’ve taken a position at Saigon South International School teaching I.B. English and 10th grade English. I will be driving every morning for 15 – 20 minutes from district 4 down to Phu My Hung, south of the city, to get to my classroom.

I’ve been making the drive the last few weeks for new teacher orientation, starting around 6:50 or 7, when the city seems already wide awake and buzzing with activity. Let no more assumptions be made that Saigon is a city of idleness, its citizens nostalgic loafers in cafes drinking cafe sua da and complaining of failed relationships all day, for in the morning, I join a legion of motorbike traffic shuttling workers to their places of labor.

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Books I’ve read on my year off

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It’s coming upon a full year since I took my sabbatical, and I suppose it’s pretty much over now. Aside from giving me time to write, this break also allowed me to do more reading than I normally could in the hurly burly of attending to a full time teaching load.

Here are the books I’ve finished in my year off, and a few words about a few of them (to be added to when I have time). I should say that I’m quite positive about the books on this list, mostly because I’ll never finish a book I don’t like, and I’ve leafed through many books and put them down partway through. Life and sabbatical years are too short to waste on bad reading.

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Monsoon season

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D
ownpours at the start of the rainy season are routine, appearing and departing like the clicks of a clock ticking time. At three, the sky turns moody and darkens. At four, a downpour. By six, all is clear and the diesel thick air gets washed, the clouds hang, dripping pastel prettiness, just in time for visitors to take to sky bars and watch the sun dip into the horizon.

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Em Chua 18: Some thoughts on the most successful film in Vietnam

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“All Americans are sluts”, said my friend Vu.

“Wait… What?” I exclaimed, assuming this was just misspoken English on Vu’s part, though he is fluent in the language.

“Yeah, Americans are all sluts, man. That’s what most Vietnamese locals think just from watching Hollywood films and shows.”

The group of male friends, all Viet Kieus and Americans, nodded their agreement. Vu was the only local in the group, and he had our attention:

“Everyone is sleeping with everyone else. Different kinds of people all sleeping with each other in different ways. We think Americans are all slutty.”

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The Short Happy Lives of Saigon’s Creative Spaces

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I

like to visit 3A Station in the late afternoons, when visitors come to browse its galleries and shops, or take photos next to its graffiti covered walls. The exteriors of old colonial warehouses that used to be here are kept intact, extending to form colourful alleyways.  Small trees, industrial art, and painted walls refract the late afternoon light; on most afternoons, a breeze blows directly from the river and cools the alleyway. A bar at the alley’s end, The Great Hornbill, plays soft dixieland jazz or classic 80s tunes from a lone speaker running into the centre of the makeshift square. A gentle, affecting pace contrast the alleyway with the din of Nguyen Van Cu, the busy avenue that leads into it, offering respite from the ubiquitous construction noise that typify the new Saigon.

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The changing lives of Saigon’s sidewalks

W
hen he first visited Saigon in the late 1940s, the writer Norman Lewis made this observation of the sidewalk life he saw here, after a short amble through the city:

“It was clear from the first moment of picking my way through these crowded, torrid streets that the lives of the people of the far East are lived in public… The street is the extension of the house and there is no sharp dividing line between the two. At dawn, or, in the case of Saigon, at the hour when the curfew is lifted, people roll out of bed and make for the pavement, where there is more space to perform most of their toilet. Thereafter they eat, play cards, doze, wash themselves, have their teeth seen to, are cupped and massaged by physicians, visit fortune-tellers; all in the street” (Lewis, 22)

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A motorbike ride to Vung Tau

Halfway on the road from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau you turn from highway 51 onto Hoang Sa road, and the land opens up on both sides. You come upon salt marshes, with their mixture of sky, island clusters, waterways, briny sea and pungent drafts of dried fish. Views here are expansive: tufted grass, mangrove clumps, an occasional boat docked next to makeshift homes, become dots upon a larger canvas of sky and marsh water.

It took two hours to get you here on motorbike. Two hours splitting the road with careless cars, packed buses, delivery trucks loaded twice their heights with wood, metal shutters, construction sand and pebbles that bounce out their useless tarp covering and pelt you and motorbike the entire way there.

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