Culture Shock & Knowing your History

December 2005. Hanoi, Vietnam. It's colder than I ever expected Hanoi to be. At least it feels cold. It's probably 60 degrees, but still 100 percent humid. The wet air seeps through my clothes and chills me to the bone. I shiver standing at the bus stop, wearing five cotton layers. The cacophony of rush-hour traffic rattles my brain. Thousands of motorbikes inch past on the paved streets, all beeping incessantly to get by. Each driver revs the engine, moves forward six inches and idles, revs and idles, revs and idles. Along the sidewalk girls amble by with linked arms, staying close for warmth and to avoid the impatient motorbikes that drive over the curb. Mothers carry babies, old men with long sharply pointed beards stroll with their hands behind their backs, young men walk with purpose, swinging their arms. And in the midst of all this chaos, a woman lays a blanket on the sidewalk and spreads out scores of women's shoes to sell.

I am the freak-at 5'9" taller than a "very tall man" and, at a mere 165 lbs, fatter than a "very fat woman." I have light hair and light skin and I don't ever wear a hat. While foreigners are not an uncommon sight in Hanoi, they don't live in this part of town and they don't ride public transportation. The old men stare as they stroll. The girls giggle. The young men try not to look. The babies are terrified. For me it's just another workday.

Soon a young woman, probably close to my age (although it's difficult to tell), sidles up to me. I know what's coming: the long list of "get to know you" questions-the same list I went through yesterday with the other girl and the day before with the xe om (motorbike taxi) driver.

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Judy Naegeli

Judy Naegeli (2005 Krista Colleague) spent a year in Hanoi, Vietnam, with the Mennonite Central Committee working at an international publishing house where she edited manuscripts to prepare them for an international market. She currently applies her background in Literature editing the monthly e-zine of Mustard Seed Associates and draws on her History degree working as a dramaturge for Taproot Theatre in Seattle, Washington.