Copy fr Sensory Ethnography Blog Post
I left NYC by midnight flight on Sunday 7th and landed in Sai Gon Tuesday morning, via Anchorage and Taipei. The next day I was on a plane to see a couple of friends in Singapore, as encapsulated in the **Singapore Live** entry from the Sensory Ethnography Summer Journal. There’s a whole lot to think about there, but that’s someone else’s project. After the Great S’pore Adventure I returned to Sai Gon to welcome my partner-in-crime (PiC), the ol’ college roomie. I roped her into being my sound gal for a month. A quick round of family introductions and then we were on a flight out to Da Nang on Sunday 14th.
With just about a day and a half in Da Nang I felt I, too, (according to a friend’s phrase) was chasing my childhood. Though I was born there, all that’s recognizable from the recesses of memory are yellow mandevilla clinging to gates that line the walk to the beach from my paternal grandfather’s house and the green-and-white checkered tile floor that remains despite the home’s renovation over the past few years. On a previous trip back to Da Nang I had noticed billboards advertising a new Korean development along the shore, complete with skyscraper condos, office spaces, and entertainment complexes. I didn’t realize it was still in the works. This time a relative of mine whizzed me on his motorbike past the construction site, where they’ve cordoned off the coast as a temporary parking lot for backhoes, dumping tons of sand into the ocean to create an extended beach. I have a distinct image of my father tossing me as a toddler into these very waters, and for that moment, I was terrified that he’d left me to the will o’ the waves. Now no one has access to Thanh Binh (which translates as “peaceful”) Beach. Right before this drive-by sighting I’d made a visit to my sick great-aunt (Grandpa’s sister), who’d just been discharged from the hospital for a cancer treatment. Needless to say, the ride gave me lots to contemplate.
More than anything, two themes follow me in my thoughts: paranoia and networks. My time in VN so far has been cushioned by the incredible support of my extended family and their networks. Simultaneously, everyone (family in both the States and VN) has warned me time and again about theft and the dangers of unknown evils. I haven’t fully unpacked the rationale behind these persistent exhortations to be careful yet but am slowly developing ideas. In these new urban spaces, where everyone is physically proximate and crammed!, the network of the extended family has a strong presence at the same time that a wall of mistrust is erected surrounding casual social interactions in the physical space of the city.
Ostensibly, Hue would offer me relief then. It’s considered a more quiet, gentle city than Ha Noi, Sai Gon or even Da Nang. I luckily found a lovely 3-BR house with gardens, tucked in a little alley, for rent for 2 months. It’s right next door to a big market, pictures of which I’ll post sometime. My uncle (Mom’s younger bro) and his wife have been extremely attentive and helpful in getting PiC and me settled. He helped us get a bicycle for everyday errands and then negotiated a motorbike hire service with two men to help us get around the city with our equipment and to “protect” us. Even here people seem to think a bodyguard is necessary.
I could protest. I could refuse the coddling. But I decided instead to accept the family’s gestures of concern. This way, the network continues to function. For example, I have had to rely on an aunt (Mom’s cousin) here whose recently-deceased husband was in the police force. Through their connections, I had a meeting with the Deputy Director of Hue’s Foreign Affairs Office to ask for his help in acquiring a work permit for filming. One of my first work-related encounters with bureaucracy, I quickly became (internally) irritated at the show of procedural sternness. He yapped on at first about how I had to be affiliated with an umbrella organization, then after some explaining on my uncle’s part that this project was not yet my dissertation work, he urged me to draw up a document explaining my exact itinerary and contacts and the thrust of the research and filming I was doing, including details about my place of residence, identification, etc. All this red tape is to be expected, but I was a bit unsettled and frustrated when he said the footage would have to be reviewed and the office would have to issue me a certificate of permit before I leave the country. I am not used to surveillance. Overall I think it was good practice to establish myself as a researcher here, and ultimately I don’t think there will be too much of a problem in terms of materials that would be liable to censorship. Still, just last weekend one of the most prominent pro-democracy lawyers here was just arrested in Sai Gon on charges of “colluding with foreign reactionaries to sabotage the Vietnamese State.” He has defended a number of dissidents and advocates for a multi-party gov’t…
So I haven’t started shooting yet. Settling in to the house and taking care of paperwork has taken a couple of days. PiC and I plan to walk around tomorrow and get our bearings. Grandma’s sister here is involved with the Hue Poets Society. Her deceased husband was Chairman of the Society at one point. She’ll dig through their old publications for me and put me in touch with some writers soon.