by Connla Stokes
The foreign man is in a car hurtling down a highway towards a bridge. He is freshly arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam and he is on a mission. As he drives over the Red River for the first time ever, he is full of self-belief and determination—he laughs (a little nervously) along with the taxi driver who is laughing (a little giddily) at the foreign man who is shaking his head in disbelief at the mayhem all around. This is the beginning. This is day one. The foreign man is sweating a little bit but he’s prepared to take everything in his stride. This country is a work in progress. He is here to help. He is here to make a difference. He does not see himself as a hero. He sees himself as facilitator. His modus operandi is imposing sustainable practices on developing countries. He is not a miracle maker. He is a policy maker. The key to his effectiveness is the application of far-reaching, holistic strategies and procedures. Whatever the issue is—inequality, road safety, the vulnerability of disadvantaged youth, HIV/ AIDS, disability, poorly regulated urban planning, a lack of green initiatives, a basic misunderstanding of the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, the absence of a great English breakfast-style sausage, that kind of thing—there is a way to address and resolve the situation. His policies will do much to ameliorate the situation/ standard of Italian style coffee/ quality of English breakfast style sausages. No matter where he goes in the developing world his mantra remains the same: Systems, systems, systems, details, details, details, training, training, training. Oh, and by the way, this man is from Sweden, Norway or Denmark, or maybe Germany, or is it Australia, or Ireland, or England, or the U.S.A? Where you are from? Maybe he’s from there. In fact, maybe this guy is you, even if you are a woman. Or maybe this is a poor attempt at literary deflection—maybe he’s me.
Let us not quibble! Let’s just agree to stick to the third person and get you up to speed on his life after three to six years of trying to make a difference in in Hanoi, Vietnam. He has by now attempted to implement his training programmes, strategies and policies—and we should say he has worked tirelessly—yet he has failed to reach his targets/ fulfil his goals/ meet his own lofty expectations. Or maybe he briefly reached those targets then performances dipped. Or maybe his policies have not been implemented in the right way due to the shortcomings of associated bodies/ departments/ partners/ infrastructure/ human resources. Maybe he ran out of funding due to corruption/ wastage/ negligence/ inflation/ the global downturn. Maybe he needs more time, perhaps an increased budget. Suffice to say, he is disappointed not to meet his expectations and he is irked by the obstacles that have thwarted him pretty much every step of the way. It feels like he’s taking two steps forward then three steps back, or maybe one step forward, three sideways steps to the left, four to the right, and then back to square one. Or maybe it’s more like climbing up the ladder to the next level and then sliding down a snake to the bottom. Or maybe it’s like banging your head off a brick wall. Whatever the appropriate analogy let’s just say he’s getting increasingly agitated. He’s not the kind of man to give up but the mounting frustrations he is experiencing through his work are starting to spill over into his free time. He is getting visibly angry in restaurants when waiters make mistakes. He has started directing taxi drivers in an aggressive way as he now assumes they are all trying to rip him off. He has always been a thorough man, the sort who checks every item on his itemised bill and that’s fine. But one day he explodes with rage when an itemized bill from a sandwich bar has been inaccurately tallied and he has been overcharged by half an American dollar. He screams at the owner that he will never order a sandwich from there again and announces his boycott on Facebook/ Instagram/ Twitter. He starts shouting at people on motorbikes who beep at him when they’re driving on the pavement. When he goes for a cycle around West Lake he tries to kick the wing mirror of a car that is driving on his side of the road. When he orders a flat white and a cookie from a café staffed by former street kids they deliver the coffee in a plastic bag with a straw and the cookie in the cup. Once he would have found that funny, maybe taken a picture and stuck it on Facebook/ Instagram/ Twitter but this time he goes online and writes a scathing review on an expat network lambasting the lack of training and attention to detail of the managers. When a spikey-haired youth shouts “fuck you” at him for no reason somewhere near his house the foreign man charges after him and demands to know where the boy lives. He drags him there and screams at the boy’s parents in pidgin Vietnamese. They stare at him blankly until like all sudden storms he disappears as quickly as he appeared. He lives in a state of permanent exasperation. The city is closing in on him. When he leaves his house it’s almost as if he is looking for things that irritate him so he can release his frustration: reckless drivers, insolent teenagers, sloppy service, unjust dual pricing, hairs in his noodles, cappuccinos that look like lattes, sausages that should never be allowed near any kind of all-day Western style breakfast… He can’t see that’s he’s losing his grip not even when one day, when he’s driving up Nghi Tam Road he sees three adults, two children and one baby all on the same bike and he will be enraged, so much so that he is determined to stop them—unsure of how he will do this, or what he will do when he does. He shouts at his driver, if he has one, to speed up, or he steps on the accelerator, if he is driving his own car—either way, he has to catch them! He swerves through the oncoming traffic narrowly avoiding motorbikes, mini-vans, buses and cars. He speeds past several other foreigners on bicycles and scooters who wave their arms in the air and shout abuse at the driver of the 4WD SUV for driving like a madman. The foreign man in the car doesn’t notice them nor does he notice another foreign man who is sitting in a taxi driving in the other direction. This other man is freshly arrived. He is on a mission. He has just driven over the Red River for the first time ever, he is full of self-belief and determination—he is laughing (a little nervously) along with the taxi driver who is laughing (a little giddily) at the foreign man who is shaking his head in disbelief at the mayhem all around. This is the beginning. This is day one. This foreign man is sweating a little bit but he’s prepared to take everything in his stride.