The word on the street

Yi and I were watching Slumdog Millionaire last night. I thought she might be able to relate to it more than a Japanese movie since it shows the slums of Mumbai and countryside India. She sometimes thinks that the rest of the world live a life very different to the countryside of Vietnam so it takes some effort to prove that that’s not really the case and that there are less developed regional areas in every country. Plus it’s a great story about overcoming adversity and beating all odds to the be with the person you love and I know she loves stories like that.

But it was one particular bit that amused me. It’s one of my favourite lines in the movie, early on when Jamal is being interrogated by the police, the inspector asks him why he got a question about the Indian coat of arms wrong, commenting that even his 5 year old daughter knows the answer to that. Jamal responds with this:

“Who stole Constable Varma’s bicycle outside Dadar Station last Thursday?”

The inspector says “You know who that was ?”

“Everyone in Juhu knows that. Even five year-olds” is Jamal’s answer.

I laughed out loud and Yi turned to me and screwed up her face said “I don’t understand”. I explained to her as best I could that he was illustrating a class difference. The inspector’s daughter was middle class and she went to a good school therefore she knew the answer to academic questions like what was written on the coat of arms, but Jamal was lower class and he lived on the streets. He knew street things like who stole an officer’s bicycle.

I like to live amongst street people. I tried hanging out with the ex-pats when I first arrived and they drove me fucking nuts. Few of them spoke any Vietnamese even after decades here, they didn’t know any cultural traditions and most could not even eat with chopsticks. I eventually found I was most at home with the street people of Pham Ngu Lao chatting to the vendors, buying egg rolls in the morning and walking around the park. Plus, they tell you things.

The other day I was out having breakfast with my Dutch friend Jonas. He had been robbed by his girlfriend. She’d taken his phone and all his money and fled so he needed to borrow some cash to get him by. We went to breakfast at a Mexican place where they make a nice ceasar salad and soon the old fortune teller woman Ha came along. She said hi to me and then turned to Jonas and said “I hear your girlfriend steal all your money from you”. He said “yeah” glumly and related the story and I stifled a laugh because it had only happened yesterday afternoon so either she was a very good fortune teller or word had traveled fast.

After finishing we walked to the pharmacy because I needed some antibiotics to try and kill off the effects of whatever nasty shit was in the food I ate recently at a BBQ place. The old pharmacist lady doesn’t speak a lot of English, or at least I didn’t think she did. To my surprise as we stood there she smiled at him and said “You girlfriend. Vietnamese. She take your money, run away ?” I couldn’t help it his time and I laughed out loud and said to him “Man, everyone knows already. That’s amazing”. But word does travel fast and wide.

A few weeks back I had my phone stolen. A nice Galaxy Note only a few months old. Normally I am very careful but on this occasion an old newspaper guy was very sneaky as he had pretended to be disabled and have a bad leg and he distracted me by covering my phone with a newspaper while he tried to ask me if I wanted to buy one so it was a few seconds after he left before I realised he’d pinched my phone.

Naturally everyone knew about it by the next day and a few people commented on it. But a week or so later, I was talking to Ai, my friend who sells books. She’s known me a while so she was a bit more forthcoming with information. Without me even asking her she said “I know who took it. He works around the corner on De Tham. You want to go find him ?”

I said “Nah. Too late now. If I went and saw him I’d probably just want to hit him and that would solve nothing and the police wouldn’t help anyway unless I caught him with it and it’s not like going to jail would stop any of the petty crime here. He got away with it because I wasn’t careful. That’s just how shit works. But thanks for telling me anyway. I’ll walk past and give him the staring of a lifetime so he’s too scared to come near me again”.

They might not be able to recite the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence for you, but people in the street surprise you with the things they know sometimes. A book girl with only the most rudimentary knowledge of English will come out and list for you George Orwell’s most well known novels. An old security guard will tell you which hotel the Australian prime minister stays at when he visits. But mostly, they know things about the street. They know which place sells the cheapest noodles, the freshest bread rolls, and who stole whose phone or wallet in the last week and what they did with the money.

And I like that. There’s more to life than facts like what’s written on your national crest. That’s why I chat to the local people and when they’re tired and I’m bored I will buy them a coke or some noodles and shoot the breeze with them. Because they things they know can’t be learned in books. The only way to truly know the word on the street is to live there.

A friend of mine who works as a security guard at the nearby bus station

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