Tossing Lessons: Tales of Cultural Exchanges Gone Wrong
“I don’t know why they call it the Perfume River. It sure doesn’t smell that good.”
–Yours truly during a River cruise in Hue.
The path to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to Hue leads to Heaven and it costs $4 to get in.
At least, that’s what the driver of the bus said we could see at the second stop of the day if we didn’t want to spend an hour at China Beach. By now I was traveling with Sunny and a bunch of Israelis, and the thought of paying to see Heaven and Hell appealed to me. I’d already seen Hell, but figured this might be my only chance to see Heaven, dead or alive. Both places are part of a series of caves found at a Buddhist sanctuary built on Tho Son (Vietnamese for “earth”). In turn, Tho Son is one of the Marble Mountains, each of which is made of marble and is named after one of the five elements. As interpretations of heaven go, it wasn’t bad, but I don’t have much to compare it to.
If I hadn’t known any better, I would have sworn that both places looked like mountain caverns with large religious statues inside them. The view from the top is impressive, though: China Beach and the South China Sea. Less impressive were the kids who hung around the site just so they could walk alongside tourists and charge for giving directions to places visitors already knew how to reach. Although the children cursed us, neither Sunny nor I fell for the scam. Ah, the joys of a young tourism industry.
Two years before my trip tourism was all but unheard of in Vietnam, a number of repeat backpackers told me. One couple even said foreigners were such a novelty in Nha Trang during their 1994 visit that locals couldn’t do enough for them. When the husband’s sandals broke, for example, residents walked the couple to a cobbler in a nearby market who worked on his shoes while they waited. The people sat with them, brought them food and wouldn’t let them leave until the work was done. They also wouldn’t take any extra money. The opposite was true when I visited. Many (but not all) of the people charged for even the smallest bit of useless information. There was also an established travelers’ route with a network of companies offering buses to shuttle people along. I would like to say I strayed from the Saigon-Dalat-Nha Trang-Hoi An-Hue-Hanoi route, but I didn’t. Although I didn’t even stray too far from the central districts of the cities I visited, I made a point of straying beyond the tourist zone and into the residential neighborhoods. Even so, it was hard to escape the haranguing of omni-present cyclo drivers who believe every foreigner needs a ride; and seem genuinely puzzled when any tourist might actually want to walk anywhere, no matter how near, when they can take you there and overcharge you much more quickly.
Although I’m pretty sure Hue’s citizens have never seen “Saturday Night Live” or “Wayne’s World,” I’m sure they must hate the shows with a passion because both are responsible for an exchange they must hear thousands of times a day every day.
“H-way!” (which is how the town’s name is pronounced.)
And each time people in tourism-related business hear it, I’m sure they just smile and pretend it’s the first time they’ve heard it. Partly because that’s what’s done to keep customers happy and also because they don’t know how to sarcastically say, “Gee, I’ve never heard that before” in English.
Although I rode to Hue in a bus full of Israelis, the only person to notice it was the Jewish holiday of Shavuot was the only gentile on the bus, Sunny. Like me, most of the Jews probably couldn’t have told you the significance of Shavuot even if the planet depended on it, but we celebrated anyway. Since there were no synagogues, we opted for dinner at a restaurant we called Lac’s Place (Lac Thanh Restaurant) because it amused us.
Lac’s is known among backpackers for its good food and its owner, who is mute. Ordering food there is a challenge because Lac can’t speak and his daughter doesn’t know English. Lac didn’t have trouble communicating with us when he tried to sell us a cruise down the Perfume River in a fishing boat, however. He simply mimed riding in a boat, swimming, looking at temples, laughing and eating.
It was a Kodak moment.
Somehow, we overcame his handicap and negotiated a good rate on a trip for the next morning even though none of us had even considered cruising the river. We even changed the tour so we wouldn’t have to spend so much time at the city’s many pagodas.
Once dinner was over, all 15 of us began talking about odd English expressions and euphemisms. Apparently, no such conversation is complete without considering all of the language’s odd phrases for vomit because we listed them including Riding the White Bus, paying homage to the ceramic gods, up-chucking, a technicolor yawn, and, one I’d never heard of before: Calling God on the Great White Phone. Then I chimed in with a phrase I’d heard in Saigon: Tossing.
Although I’d always associated the phrase with throwing (“toss the ball”), cooking (“tossed salads”), and vomit (“tossing your cookies”), I was floored to learn it means something completely different to Brits, Aussies and Kiwis: masturbation. I didn’t realize it had this meaning until an Australian woman in a Saigon cafe told me she’d been crossing a street earlier in the day, looked at the traffic and saw a motorcycle rider playing with himself while waiting for the light to change.
“Oh my god, he’s tossing himself!” she recalled thinking.
I understood what she meant, but I couldn’t get over the picture the phrase painted. Instead of imagining a motorcyclist sitting at a traffic light with his fly open, all I could see in my mind’s eye was a man grabbing himself by the butt with both hands and throwing himself across a room. The more I thought about the phrase, the more I realized how inaccurate it was. The man wasn’t really tossing. He was merely pulling.
Apparently, I was the only one in the group who’d never heard the phrase before because everyone else made fun of me. I’m not naive. I knew all the other euphemisms for masturbation they named, but the depth of my knowledge didn’t impress them.
I wasn’t the only person who hadn’t heard the phrase, but I didn’t find that out until I walked Sunny to her room. As I said good night I noticed she looked tired and confused. She was tired because it was midnight and she’d spent most of the day trying to keep up with conversations in a second language. She was confused because she’d heard a word she didn’t understand at dinner.
“What means ‘to toss?'” she asked.
I wasn’t quite prepared to answer this question because I didn’t know how much she knew about sex. I knew she was 21 and I remembered that the first time we met she told me the reason Japanese women wear a layer of fabric at the back of their kimonos was so they lay it on the ground during sex. While her comment indicated some level of awareness, I had heard Koreans were known for being sexually repressed. One of the Israelis she was traveling with also said Sunny told him she’d been in a relationship with a guy for more than a year and never kissed him. Consequently, I wasn’t sure what to say or how she’d react. So, I tried the direct approach.
“It means to masturbate,” I said.
The expectant look on her face showed she didn’t know what I was talking about.
Trying to explain masturbation to someone who doesn’t know much about sex was like explaining sex to a martian. Neither has the proper frame of reference. Still, I bravely pressed on.
“It’s like making love to oneself,” I explained.
All I got back was a blank, uncomprehending stare, so I tried explaining the concept by describing how it worked. I knew she finally understood what I was saying when her expression changed from curiosity and confusion to horror and disgust.
“In Korea, only men do,” she said.
I don’t know why, but I felt the need to tell her that wasn’t the case at all. For some reason, I felt there was a need for full disclosure. So I told her I knew several women who admitted to masturbating. The look on her face went from disgust to the panic of a person whose world has been completely rocked.
“I need to go upstairs and think,” she said, distraught and over-exposed to an alien culture she wanted no part of.
The next culture clash came during the cruise down the Perfume River. Since the group didn’t want to visit the temples our guide usually visits, we had two hours to kill, so he took us up river and dropped us at a beach town. Once we reached the beach we were immediately set upon by young capitalists selling everything from pineapples to beach chairs. Being that neither Sunny nor I wanted to swim, we staked out chairs in a shady beach restaurant and were immediately charged rent.
Our encampment immediately became the base of operations for all the pint-sized, pineapple-selling, future-free-enterprisers looking for a new market, and for all of the backpackers who wanted to get out of the sun. When an Israeli named Uzi happened on the scene the kids tried to sell him a pineapple for $1. He wanted it for 50 cents, but ended up agreeing to pay 70 cents. Uzi then stole one of the kids’ baskets filled with pineapples and walked up and down the beach selling the fruit. His only buyers were the married couple who owned the beach restaurant and the only reason they paid was to get their son’s business back. They ponied up 10,000 Dong, giving Uzi a 3,000 Dong profit over the kid’s rates. He eventually gave the pineapples back, but not before the beach urchins begged and pleaded.
And they loved every minute of it.
Before the cruise ended, we stopped at one noteworthy religious site, Thien Mu Pagoda. In addition to being home to one of Vietnam’s most famous structures, a seven-story, 21-meter high octagonal tower, it also has another claim to fame.
It now houses the Austin used by monk Thich Quang Duc to get to Saigon. Most Americans may not know Duc’s name, but they’ve seen him before. He’s the monk who immolated himself to protest the Vietnam War in a now-famous picture. On the off-chance that the occasional visitor might not have seen the picture or noticed the Austin in the photo’s background the monks have thoughtfully placed a copy of the picture in a garage next to the infamous auto.
If I ever needed proof that there was one rate for locals and another for foreigners in many Southeast Asian countries, I didn’t need to look farther than the Citadel. At the front entrance there was a sign between the two doorways leading into the complex. The left half of the sign is in English and reads, “Entrance for Foreign Visitors” with an arrow pointing left. The other half of the sign was Vietnamese and probably said something like, “Entrance for Vietnamese Residents Whom We Can’t Gouge Because They Know This is Just an Average Tourist Site.” This is rude. I know tourist sites in Thailand charge foreigners more than citizens, but at least they’re subtle about it. Everyone goes through the same entrance but pays different rates. After all, why is there such a need to rub our faces in it? Tourists know they are bringing extra money into the country. Just humor us and let us pretend we’re paying the same as everyone else.
Although the Forbidden City was interesting precisely because no one could enter it but the emperor, his eunuchs and his concubines, this part of the site didn’t impress me. Instead, I enjoyed poking around in the maintenance sheds and areas where the restoration work was going on. I didn’t know they were private areas until I noticed I was the only tourist in the building. I guess I should have realized I’d strayed from the path when I didn’t see the buildings on the Citadel’s map.
After having seen Hue, I was ready to ride the rails to Hanoi. Unfortunately, Sunny had taken ill and couldn’t move. Since we seemed to have agreed to travel together for the rest of our time in Vietnam–even though we’d never said so–I was obligated to stick around. And watch my money disappear.
My trip had become a race against time. I wanted to get to Hanoi and up to Halong Bay, an area many southbound tourists highly recommended. Sadly, time and money were running short. I knew if I didn’t hurry and leave Hue I would be in a truly ironic situation. With only about a week left on my visa, I could renew it to make sure I had enough time to enjoy Halong Bay but, if I did so, I wouldn’t have enough money to see it. If I left Hue early enough, however, I would have enough money, but I wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy it.
And then there was the matter of train tickets. Sunny and I purchased tickets for soft class train passage to Hanoi the day we got to Hue for $29 each. Although the price wasn’t bad for a 658-kilometer trip, it was still a huge chunk of cash and I couldn’t afford to lose that much money in one fell swoop. Other backpackers assured me I would be able to get a cash advance on my American Express card in Hanoi, but I wasn’t so sure.
As I pondered this crisis while sitting in a sidewalk restaurant across the street from my hotel, a woman stopped by and asked if I was going to be in town the following day. I’m not normally suspicious, but I wasn’t sure I liked having a stranger know my travel plans. So, I was evasive until she told me she was with a French film company that needed extras during the next day’s filming. Knowing I was likely to be stuck in town anyway I said I would stick around if I could exchange my train ticket. I wasn’t expecting a shot at fame. I just figured I could pick up a few extra bucks and a free meal or two in the process.
Sadly, my dreams of fame, fortune and a free lunch were smashed into tiny little bits when Sunny staged a rally the likes of which had not been seen in the annals of backpacker history. She apparently went from flu to health in 24 hours. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to see she was better, but I was worried about her ability to travel because she had been the poster child for backpacker sickness the night before. She insisted she would be fine as long as she didn’t move too much. In fact, she kept her movements to a minimum in the hours before we had to be at the station by staying in her hotel room all day writing postcards until it was time to leave for the train.
Because Sunny was weak and it was raining, we took a cyclo, or pedicab, to the station. Cyclos may be an environmentally friendly way to see a city, but they have one major flaw: their drivers. The jockeys of these three-wheeled jitneys are known for negotiating one rate at the start of a trip and charging another at the destination. Sunny and I both had such run-ins, but we didn’t have a choice. I negotiated a good rate for the ride because I was willing to make a fool out of myself and was as silly as possible during the process. I’d like to think it was my silliness and wild gesticulating that charmed the drivers into cutting a deal, but there’s no way to be sure. Perhaps I baffled them with bull. That’s the only way I can explain how a slightly spaced out Sunny managed to short change the driver. She did it by giving the cyclo owner a big bill he couldn’t change. Although the drivers are notorious for increasing their tips by pretending they don’t have enough money to change a bill, Sunny made him get change before she paid and he somehow gave her more than he should have. Sunny noticed immediately but let it pass. Considering how much she hated cyclo drivers (“I want to tell them fuck you!” she told me later), I think she saw her unexpected 10-cent windfall as a victory for tourists everywhere.
We ended up with an hour to hang out before the train was due. As a result, we found ourselves in the middle of an event that many friends who travel together for an extended period of time experience: THE MOMENT. I’m not talking about a romantic moment, though. No, I’m talking about the awkward time when conversation has run out, you’re tired, grouchy, sweaty, dirty and you know that nothing else should be said. If you’re like me, however, you can’t resist. I don’t always break such moods with a wise crack as I did when I was in my 20’s, but this situation screamed for something stupefyingly silly, a line so dumb it makes everyone drop their mouths in shock.
So, I looked at Sunny seriously and dropped the bomb.
“There’s not a man, woman or child alive today that doesn’t love a tasty beverage,” I said, quoting David Letterman for the first time in more than a month. I didn’t have to wait long for impact.
Sunny looked at me, puzzledly, looked away in deep thought as if she were staring at an invisible computer screen for an answer that wouldn’t come, then looked back at me again. I could hear the wheels spinning as her brain processed the statement before responding in flawless, accented English.
“I understand each and every one of those words, but that doesn’t make any sense,” she said earnestly, sending me into a laughing fit as I explained to her that she understood perfectly.
Baffled, but amused, she wanted to memorize the phrase so she kept asking me to repeat it. I didn’t know why she wanted to learn the saying, but it amused me greatly knowing that one day in the not-too-distant future she could be back in Korea talking with her friends when she would suddenly decide to use the phrase for the same reason I did. And, perhaps if I was really lucky, there might be an American who overhears the comment and is shocked to discover what a big impact David Letterman is having on Korean culture.
Then the express train rolled into the station and we began the 10-hour overnight trip to Hanoi. It only took us about an hour to realize there was nothing soft about the seats in soft class and that we should have splurged on sleeper class. By then, it was too late and we still had nine hours to go.