Repair of an old book

This Saturday morning, after a long week at work, I woke up at five after going to bed at 6 the previous night thinking that I’d wake up two hours later so I could do some lifting at a nearby gym, only to be woken up by my alarm clock set at 5 this morning. After making coffee, I answered some emails, watched a Youtube debate on power between the then young Chomsky and the virtually ageless Foucault.

Then I saw sitting sadly on the corner of my table a mangled copy of Crime and Punishment. I took pity and held it like a mother holding his son’s wounded body in war. The previous sentence is an exaggeration.

Then an urge to repair took hold of me. Obsessively.

I bought this copy six years ago from a bookstore near Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. The bookstore was on the second floor of a building whose ground floor was used by an old man selling birds. Along with titles in Vietnamese as well as books translated in the Vietnamese are Wordsworth Classics. I bought this book by Dostoevsky and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary for 50,000.

Since then, the guilt-ridden Raskolnikov became one of my favorite literary characters.

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I stroked my copy like how I would stroke that cat our family had had when I was only 12, with care. I glued the spine together and scotch-taped the pages that needed scotch taping.

I do not have any emotional attachment to my books. I keep those I already read because I have hope that someday my younger brother or sister would pick them up, read them, and discover a universe that I inhabited while reading them.

Or, I keep them because someday, when I become tired of all the prerequisites of living, I shall escape from all these with my books that need repairing, a pair of scissors, a roll of scotch tape, and the ever reliable Elmer’s glue.

Here’s to the five years of blogging

I began blogging exactly five years ago. That night of 8 June 2008 when this blog debuted was like tonight; it was raining hard. Traffic of motorbikes scurrying to reach their destinations halted outside because the downpour was just too much to bear for the antiquated drainage system of that old district of Hanoi. The woman selling pho outside our compound was still there, seated in her red kiddie plastic chair serving bowls of steaming rice noodles submerged in that divine broth to stranded motorists who did not bother taking off their colorful raincoats and equally multi-colored helmets.

That night I was suffering from a level of boredom too extreme and painful it was one of those rare times I can recall I cried. I cried a lot. I missed home so badly. I felt invisible because I was indeed living invisibly. For the woman selling pho outside I was just “that” strange ngoui nuoc ngoai, for the rest I was a nonentity.

Writing down about those gamut of feelings  I knew I would never fully capture in writing, I thought, would be the best way for me to at least have some semblance of order during those months when nothing seemed to make sense. (It’s not as if things make more sense now. (Often they still don’t make sense, though I never stopped attempting to understand them.) I was twenty-two then. I could feel I was poised to realize whatever it was I was dreaming of. I have completely  convinced myself then that whatever inconvenience it was that I was going through in that foreign country was a way of gaining a foothold to something bigger. I didn’t know what that something was then, and I can never be less sure now.

I didn’t care that “Going Against the Current” was too corny a title. But it was the first thing that occurred to me. I subtitled it ‘thoughts of a twenty-something.’ I wasn’t aware then that I was having my share of quarter life crises. I didn’t know the term existed. But I knew there was something odd about that whole set-up. Living and studying in Vietnam was not part of my plan then. I only wanted to escape from the banality of my existence right after graduating from college that I was willing to be hurled anywhere, only to find myself hurled nastily in that blah. I was living by myself in that shoebox of a rented place on Tran Hung Dao Street in the old district of Hanoi, which only exacerbated what then was a terminal case of ennui. At that time, it was the aptest title I could think of for a personal blog.

I wrote this to console myself:

“On Being an Exile”

I have been reading a short essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, and he talked about how being an “exile” brings out parts of our personalities that is unknown to us, and will forever be unknown to us, unless we allow ourselves to be exiled or for us to be exiled by force (which can be in any form such as that of the state, an organization, or the bigger society).

Here, I shall be talking about throwing one’s self away, figuratively, that is, one chooses to embark on the feat of a self-exile. Consciously choosing to leave, and here it means physically deserting anything that has to do with a secure life, and living in a place that is foreign, a place where doing something for comfort will prove burdensome. Barriers will include inability to communicate one’s self, lack of cultural knowledge, ethnocentricity, etc.

Just like all ethnographic researches, the researcher, or as in our case the exiled, faces several stages of coming to terms with himself in relation to his environment and its actors. Roughly, there will be a period of much patronizing and romanticizing, that is, the exiled will think that everything around him is better than what he has left behind. It will be followed a realization that things around him are different and therefore will tax his understanding of all the cultural truths as well as subtleties in his new environment. This will awaken the hidden ethnocentric (and xenophobic) character of our subject which lead to a gap and further distancing from everything around him and creating a world of his own making. Although this may sound pessimistic, this is necessary for the subject to create a giant leap towards understanding and eventually living in harmony with the foreign people surrounding him.

The third period, which I will refer from hereon as ‘distancing’, is a very crucial step because this is where the hidden and repressed selves of our subject surface and thereby allowing different personae to make themselves known to him. Here, creativity, appreciation of one’s former society, and objective probing of the world in general are strengthened and are highlighted.

In distancing, the mind of the subject shifts from a passive, non-observer of events, objects, cultural truths and subtleties, and idiosyncracies into a more active, peering, and critical entity. Interestingly, this also leads to a blossoming of the artistic mind, scientific inquisitiveness, and more understanding of the inner self as well as the emotion. Distancing allows the exiled to have a hold of his world and shape it in a way that can be radical, sometimes, but most of the times more reformative, and in general beneficial. It can be in a form of literary works such as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or Tolstoi’s novels War and Peace and Annakarenina, or Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

It is, therefore, necessary, especially for the young people, to travel and to detach themselves from the mundane and the usual and immerse themselves in a world devoid of comfort and security.

No amount of feigned cockiness could hide the insecurity of my twenty-two-year-old self, of my inability to know where exactly I was heading. Still I treaded on because doing the most difficult was the easiest thing to do. And I never regretted having gone on with the journey. The ride has been exciting and I look forward to more years of blogging. I just hope that when another five years is done, I’d be a lot better.

Simple sentences and fragments

I woke up very early, at 8. It was very cold. The first thing I did was to wash my face and brush my teeth. I gathered my whites and washed them at the basement. Then I went to the kitchen. There, my books and computer were waiting for me.

It was drizzling outside. A gloomy day. Rainy days vex my spirit.

I boiled some coffee. It would have been in a samovar. If I were in Russia. But I’m in America. So it’s a whistling kettle. Between a samovar and a whistling kettle. There is no competition. A samovar is poetry incarnate. A Whistling kettle is prose.

And how I detest conditionals.

I cooked a cup and a half of rice. I washed it first. Thrice of course. It should be that way. My mother said. The bag of rice was imported from Vietnam. It’s the best variety. A little sticky. Not too wet. Moderately soft. Bright white. My appetite wasn’t with me, though. I approached the table. Opened a book and read. I realized. It was already 10. I stared at the view outside. The falling rain water mesmerized me. I closed my eyes and said a short prayer.

                             

The prosaic whistling kettle announced the conclusion of its reason for being. I poured its briskly boiling content into my cup. Where’s the coffee maker? I seemed to have heard. In case you asked. It’s cracked.

I prefer my coffee black. It’s less fattening this way. I don’t like my coffee bitter, however. So today, it’s black. With a dash of Splenda. I’m already fed up with all the bitterness. Including the bitterness in my coffee. A little sweetness won’t hurt. I guess.

It rained the whole day. I stayed in. I was alone. Everyone left.

How to cook nem rán (Vietnamese spring rolls)

I can eat nem rán (pronounced /nem zan/) at breakfast, lunch, and dinner straight for one week without ever getting sick of it. This Vietnamese dish, very popular in the entire of Vietnam, is best eaten with Nước mắm, a special sauce which can be bought in any big grocery in Manila.

Last night, after a long day at work, and after having made a promise to cook this dish to somebody very dear to me, I and this person very dear to me cooked our version of this quintessential Vietnamese dish. I passed by SM Makati after my work at AIM to hurriedly buy the ingredients. I already had a Plan B, that is, to cook a simple pasta dish in case majority of the ingredients are not found, but I did find almost everything, except for Nước mắm, which, if my understanding is correct, is the Viets’ version of patis or fish sauce.

I also found rice plates which were excessively thick and brittle for the nem rán I had in mind. Good thing, this person very dear to me suggested to dip the plates in water before rolling them with the filling inside. The idea worked.

Here’s how we made our nem rán (actual picture posted above):

Ingredients (as any decent recipe will commence with this boring one-word cliche):

1/2 kg ground pork (I used the one with lots of fats, which is several pesos cheaper than the leaner one, but many times tastier, if not deadlier)

1/4 kg shrimp, diced (no need to buy big, expensive tiger prawns)

1 cup bean sprout (the shorter the stems the better as longer stems mean bitter-tasting sprouts)

75 g vermicelli (this is the transparent rice noodle Filipinos call sotanghon)

1 big carrot, diced finely

1 cup mushrooms (or any type of edible [yes, many are inedible e.g. fungi that cause athlete’s foot {lame attempt at humor}] fungus)

1 big egg (this will serve as binder; although the temptation to use many eggs is strong, resist, as you’ll end up having an omelet instead of austere spring rolls)

2 tbsp  Nước mắm (patis will do)

salt, pepper, and sugar (to taste)

Maggi magic sarap (this is my super-duper secret ingredient)

20 rice plates cut in half

Procedure

1. Combine all the ingredients together, except the rice plates, in one bowl and mix them well. (The picture that follows may look gross but this is the cheapest and the best, if not the only, way the ingredients can be integrated into a fine mixture, without the cooking falling into the danger of becoming grossly pretentious.)

2. Wrap a spoonful of the mixture with the rice plate. (This may sound deceptively easy, but as we both found out, this is the most challenging phase of the procedure. We have much to learn in the area of quality control.)

3. Deep fry for 4-5 minutes or until brown. You may have to make holes in the casing using a fork to allow steam to escape.

4. Serve hot. Makes 40 nem.

It is best to use Nước mắm pha or an odd admixture of nước mắm, sugar, lime, and salt. Now if you do not want to bother yourself with concocting this sauce, your good, dependable ketchup will do just fine.

Nem is best eaten with sticky rice and outrageously cold beer. And love, lots of it.

In all fairness, our nem tasted…nice*.

*(My apologies for the use of the very erudite ellipsis).

On exactly the same day two years ago:

While ridding my computer of useless and redundant files, I found these pictures dated 3rd of January 2009. I was with my Vietnamese friends visiting the port city Hai Phong, 100 kilometers from Hanoi. It was the height of winter and the shivery breeze from the sea exacerbated the chilling effect of the bitter weather. I was suffering from a breakout of pimples, flaking skin, asthma, and scores of discomfort associated with cold January. But those didn’t keep me from enjoying the trip and taking thousands of pictures which some just ended up, like souls do in the now defunct purgatory, in the recycle bin of my computer.

With Le at the gate of the Cathedral of Hai Phong. The city is one the few cities in the country with a sizable Christian population. My friend, Le, practices ancestor worship.

With Le’s cousin, Chi Anh.

By the seashore several meters from the Hai Phong Harbor, the biggest in Vietnam next to that of Saigon. The sea was unfortunately too murky, and without expounding on the thesis, too cold for swimming. But had I brought trunks, I wouldn’t let go of the opportunity to wade in the water in the dead of winter.

Nhọ and Tẹt

Caught in my made up and self-declared ‘tumultuous’ daily existence, I tried to distance myself a bit from thinking too much and writing in the past week. But realizing that I can only survive without writing and blogging for five days, at most, I thought of having a line up of things to write about so that when finally I find enough time to write the things on my mind down, they’d come handy.

So a week ago I asked my Vietnamese friend, Chi Le, to send me pictures of her cats. In her email she promised to give me as pet her newest cat she named Nhọ, meaning ‘dirty’ in Tieng Viet, if I one day decide to live permanently in Hanoi.  Nhọ is a stray cat in the neighborhood whom she and her mom adopted.

And to make sure she’ll remain true to her words I’ll use this post and that email she sent me to remind her someday that she made this promise, that is, if I eventually decide the Vietnam is the place for me.

Nhọ looks like Puss ‘n Boots in Shrek. And who wouldn’t fall for a cat as cute as this cat? And besides, this cat does what chi Le’s other cat should have been doing but failed to do: ridding the house of mice.

Meet Tẹt:

Tẹt, her only cat that time when I was still staying in their house, was by default my favorite. This aging fat cat has grown too old, too fat and spoiled by my friend and her mother, Co Doanh, that it has completely abandoned its responsibility of catching little mice in the house. According to Chi Le, Tet has come to feel more superior now because of seniority, and he’s more than willing to show Nho who’s boss in the house.

Tet used to stay in my bedroom located just beside the kitchen except for times when my friend would carry the lazy cat upstairs. In the cold Hanoian winter of 2009 he stayed most of the nights with me, together with the big but docile dog, Gau. Tet always made it a point to sharpen his vestigial claws at midnight and gave out those scary wails to signal he’s in heat and ready for romancing (he’s a castrated cat, by the way). Still, I tolerated him.

This gave me enough confidence that if bad comes to worse and worse comes to worst, he’ll give up her old mistresses for my warm embrace. But I was wrong. No matter how much I goaded this black cat to take my side and come with me to the Philippines, he didn’t bother to consider my proposal and even thought of it as absurd by giving me that tired yawn and proud grin. He, of course, chose to live a comfortable, shielded, and lazy life in my friend’s house until this day.

Something from last year

From the web, I found this photo taken exactly a year ago when I left Hanoi. (Front) Duong, Le, Co Doanh (Le’s mom and my second mother in Hanoi), Chau. (Back) Son, JP, and me. I can’t believe it has been a year ago.