Friday, May 20, 2011

Paris III.

148. Paris Gare du Nord. "Where you go?" I am asked. Standing in front of the ubiquitous Paris public transportation map and studying its colorful crisscrossing lines, I remain silent. It is not one of my favourite things, talking to people I barely know, much less some dark-hair, suspicious-looking African guy in checkered shorts whom I have never met before. Having just left the duffel bag in a locker at the station, I am trying to figure out the next step. "Where you want to go?" the stranger changes his question slightly, inadvertently making it a more accurate question to ask. For the first time, I am spending a day in Paris without an agenda, and, for the most part, without anyone to see. It is a rather strange experience: knowing exactly where you are but at the same time feeling lost. I am still not responding, less because I am wary of his ulterior motives, but more because I do not know the answer myself.

My self-appointed tourist guide does not give up easily. "What about Eiffel tower?" he points his chubby forefinger at the tiny iconic symbol on the map. I have been there, I want to tell him. In 1998, when, geographically clueless and technologically challenged, I believed that I could see Hanoi from one of the telescopes on the Eiffel tower; returning to Vietnam after my first overseas trip, I eagerly told my family (and practically anyone who bothered to listen) about the magical telescopes, until someone pointed out that Paris and Hanoi were diametrically opposite. In 2010, when Zoe and I, not wanting to wait in queue for the lifts, have run down the rusty metal stairs; immersed in the cold night air and in the bright yellow glow of sparkling lights, I felt like being in a fairy tale. And, again later in 2010, when, as two last visitors of the evening allowed to the top level, CS and I watched fireworks from afar; as tiny dots of colors flared up in the dark sky, it occurred to me that everything was simply a matter of perspective. 

"What about Champs-Élysées?" the African guy interrupts my wordless nostalgia. "You want go there?" Before he tells me yet another touristic place -- Notre Dame, I imagine, would probably be his next suggestion -- I tell him sincerely that I do not know. As I get on the nearest metro line, I realize, that sometimes it is okay not to know where I am going.
149. Avenue Daumesnil. Pushing a baby stroller with a 20-month old baby next to it, instead of inside it. Hair braided into three parts (one at the top, one on each side), she too is pushing the stroller and making, literally, baby steps alongside me. As other pedestrians do double-takes, I feel proud of her, for knowing to help at such a tender age, even if I am not her mother, even if she -- as I find out later -- isn't actually trying to help. A nanny has taught her to always hold on to something while walking.

150. Port d'Ivry. "Hey, I haven't seen you for..." I want to say ten years, because ten years ago I left Vietnam and I do not remember seeing her since, but she beats me to it. "Four, or five years? The last time was when we went swimming, you, me, and your sister." At her mention, the memory comes back to me. Visiting home one summer, I have persuaded my sister to take swimming lessons with me at a pool near our house, and my cousin, living nearby, has tagged along. Much younger but already an experienced swimer, she once had to rescue me when, suddenly panic, I started to swallow water at the deeper end of the pool. As I make a mental note to tell Zoe about someone referring to what I did as swimming (and to leave out the sinking part), my cousin continues. "You look different! Back then, you were like..." she gestures my former unspeakable size, not unlike the way Bowser once described a fat American burrito lady. It has never ceased to amaze me how much one can rely on a Vietnamese friend or relative to comment on one's weight as part of greetings, regardless of how long it has been since the last encounter. With this thought, I stand still, somewhat awkwardly, and my cousin, without missing a beat and most likely without noticing my slight discomfort, moves on to another topic. 

She is now a first-year university student in International Law, she tells me, and this morning was her first end-of-the-year exam. Over lunch, I learn much more about her, about how she has been working hard to improve her French, and as it progresses, so do her university grades, about how she has been watching all the TV news to keep up with current affairs in politics, economics and life in general, as part of being a lawyer-in-training, about how she hasn't made many friends so far, what with the hectic study schedule and cultural clashes, but she has all the same been proudly sharing Vietnamese culture, through organizing the Vietnamese Tet celebration at the dormitory and university presentations. As she talks, it becomes evident to me that she hasn't seen a Vietnamese, much less someone who knows of her in the past, for a while so she is doing the talking for nine months's worth of relative isolation. So I eat and listen, every now and then asking questions to encourage her to continue. Her stories remind me of when I first came to Australia, overwhelmed and homesick, but determined to take in everything and to learn fast to adapt and grow up in a foreign land without family. At nineteen, my cousin is older than the fifteen-year-old girl I was when leaving home, but she is still so young, I think to myself, with many fewer years of life experience compared to the twenty-five-year-old girl I am now. In an attempt to help her avoid some of the unpleasant parts that I had to go through myself, I think of talking about the things I have learnt in these extra years I have over her, but I realize that I cannot give her shortcuts. Life experiences are to be experienced, not taught. I continue to eat and listen.

When we leave the restaurant, she offers to show me her university, if I have nothing else to do. "Why not, it might be interesting," I agree, but let her know that I will need to go when a friend of mine finishes her meeting. On the tram heading to Porte de Versailles, my cousin tells me more of the university life. I am not sure how we get there, but suddenly she mentions a cold winter day going home in wet clothes. Puzzled, I ask her to rewind the story. Apparently, some fellow lawyers-in-training have poured water on her. "It's OK," she says, because it was only water and not Coke or something dirty. Sure it was cold but she did not mind, especially as it was already the second or third time it has happened so the element of surprise was smaller. That time it was just a little unfortunate because she had already been feeling under the weather and she thinks that wearing wet clothes all the way from university to home made her sick, which itself would still have been OK had it not been that the next day she had some exams. "Are they still doing that to you?" still stunned, I ask her. "No," she says, and hesitates a little before telling me the next part, that they recently pushed her down the stairs, and it hurt. "Do they even know you?" "No, they don't, but that's what racists do, they attack people even if they don't know you." "Shouldn't you tell someone about it?" "Whom?" she replies simply. "It's not highschool, you know, we are at university and there are thousands of students. No teacher to look over you. Besides, they did not mean to kill me, they just wanted to scare the little Asian girl for a minute or two. I am using my supernatural power," she waves hands in a supposedly witch-y way, "to pray that they fail the end-of-the-year exams, so that they switch to a different university." At this thought, she smiles, not in the way an evil witch would smile but in the way Cinderella would smile when her annoying step-sisters finally left her alone.

A text message comes. I apologize for not being able to visit her university, at least not today, and because I cannot think of anything remotely helpful to say, I tell her to take care of herself. As I catch the metro to Place d'Italie, it occurs to me that just because she has fewer years to gain experiences does not mean that her collection is any less rich than mine. I am unsure whether, at my older and supposedly more mature age, I would be able to handle racism with the same level of optimism and strength as she does. She will be OK, I try to convince myself. After all, between the two of us, she is the only one who knows how to swim.

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