Sunday, April 24, 2016

Something strange is afoot at the Circle K.

Circle K's are everywhere in District 1. Sometimes there are two or three per block. They sell pretty much the same kind of crap that the ones in the US sell except swapping American garbage foods with a variety of Asian garbage foods, including but not limited to my favorite Korean kimchi-flavored seaweed snack and, most importantly, 750 ml bottles of Gordon's gin.

Walking home from work the other night, I swung in to the closest Circle K for a couple of cans of tonic water.  Two young American hippie-looking kids with pasty skin, eyeballs as big as saucers, and arms full of junk food were staring at one particular cookie display. The boy catches a glimpse of me out of the corner of his eye and his face perks up. That's when I went into defense mode, making a beeline for the back of the store where the cold beverages are kept, my goal to not make eye contact again with them. Plan backfires.

"Hey!", says the boy to me (I say 'boy' but he's probably about 25). "Hey! can you tell me where I can buy a muffin?".

I glance over at him wearily. "A muffin?"

"Yeah we just landed here and i'm REALLY JONESIN' for a muffin. I'd even take a blueberry one. Where can I buy a muffin here?"

Right, cos blueberries, not to mention muffins, are aplenty here. Does this kid know he's in Southeast Asia, I wonder. "Well, there's a Starbucks nearby".

"Great!". He and his girlfriend, who is just as spaced out as him, practically jump for joy and nearly drop their armloads of crap. "We'll head there!".

"Yeah, so hang a left out of here and it's about a block and a half down....".

"Wait, what? a block and a half away? Man, that's waaaaay too far". Boy looks crestfallen.

"Uh, too far? It's a block and a half dude".

"Nah, i'll just have to make do with these weird cookies I guess".

I start walking towards the cashier, ready to get the hell out of neon lit pasty face land.

"Hey, one more question! Hey so... is it legal to smoke pot here?".

I stop and turn to him. "WHAT?!?".

"Yeah, well you know, I've seen people smoking weed in public so I wasn't sure if that's a thing. I mean, can I buy it? And where can I buy it? Can I just light up anywhere like the locals do?".

In retrospect, there's so much I could have said and probably should have, but it had been a crap week and all I wanted was a fucking gin and tonic and a half dozen limes at that point. And I probably sounded like the oldest bat in the world when I responded with a, "Sorry dude, that's not my lifestyle".

"Oh.. okay, just thought i'd try. Thanks!"

He and the girl turned back towards the cookie display, the tip of his tongue sticking out from his mouth as if to really concentrate on the task at hand.

Bless his heart.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The French chef.

"Here's the thing: you're not a chef. You’re not a good cook. You're not even a cook. You lack all the basic French culinary skills. You don't know how to use a knife. I'm afraid when I see you holding a knife because I just know your fingers will come flying off and then I'll be forced to call an ambulance and get saddled with babysitting you at the hospital all night. You absolutely suck as a person. You're a terrible manager. Whomever trained you ought to be ashamed of themselves because they failed miserably. The Viets are not used to being treated with respect. If you respect them, they walk all over you. They need to be treated with fear. They are not your friends. They are there for you to abuse and they expect that. So quit being nice to the staff. It's unbecoming. And quit saying thank you whenever someone does something for you. Chefs don't act that way. TRANG, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? Who told you that you can sit down? FUCK THIS SHIT. Fucking animals. See what I mean, Caroline? In order to succeed in Vietnam you have to treat people like complete shit".

I sat there throughout this monologue, speechless. I thought it best to keep my mouth shut anyway. He had spent the entire lunch service hollering at me, loudly enough for customers in the restaurant to hear. He yelled; he threw pots and pans across the room into the sink, contents flying everywhere; he kicked the garbage can; he hollered that I had shit for talent. “ARRETE DE M’ENGUELER”, I finally shouted back at him. He looked at me with surprise and clamped his mouth shut. That's when the owner came into the kitchen, smiling, looked directly at me, and said, “Caroline, can you keep it down? The clients can hear you”. He was so used to the French chef's antics that he tuned them out completely (though various reviews on Trip Advisor mention how volatile and condescending the chef is to staff and customers). And all the owner heard was my voice.

You know it's bad when you dread going into work because you don't know what kind of mood the French chef will be in. I found out through a friend (who had the misfortune of dating him for two dire weeks) that he was bi-polar and refused treatment. He would destroy things in the kitchen then scream at us to clean it all up. He abused everyone, not just me. When he wasn’t pointedly avoiding the owner’s Vietnamese wife, he would yell obscenities at her. He made my favorite hardworking girl in the kitchen cry every day.  She pays 6 million VND for English classes every afternoon (about $270 USD – an absolute fortune here where minimum wage is about $100 to $150 per month), and he would purposely detain her or prevent her from going by saddling extra work on to her shoulders.  Every time the server would come up to the pass to take food to a table, he'd say to her, "Try not to drop it, you fucking ugly bitch". Every. Single. Time. The last few weeks he stopped coming into the kitchen during service, except to yell some obscenity or another at us. He would sit at the first table in the dining room where he could observe us in the kitchen and occasionally bellow out an insult for all and sundry to hear. He told many regular customers, "Your food is going to suck today because I didn't make it". On my third day, he told me I was on my own from now on. "You need to fail. You need to fall on your ass and screw up orders so badly. I WANT you to fail".  The only person who seemed at ease with him was the French owner, who had become very Vietnamese, adopting a non-confrontational attitude by turning a blind eye and ear to everything.  When I finally sat the owner down to complain, he said, “Well what do you want me to do about it?”

When the server took two days off, the French chef was upset. "Can you believe he gave her two days off?”, he said, pointing to the owner. “That fucking server doesn't even fucking work! She doesn't deserve it. She needs to be kicked in the ass. I should kick her ass". Two days later, he called in sick, claiming indigestion. The next day, he said he was taking himself to the hospital. Day three: no call, no show. The owner, out shopping, ran into an acquaintance who happened to mention she'd seen his chef out drinking that morning and acting belligerent while playing pétanque.  And this, finally, made the owner snap. He unceremoniously fired the chef via text, but I knew this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear from him. He came storming in one day last week to collect his final pay. “I WILL DESTROY YOU”, he shouted to the owner and his wife. “I WILL FUCKING DESTROY YOU AND YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR BUSINESS. ON THE HEAD OF MY MOTHER, I PROMISE YOU THAT I WILL FUCKING MAKE SURE YOU FAIL”. On and on and on, he finally clambered down the steps to the ground floor, attempted to break the front door and part of the front window. Reeling from the shock of it all, we were all shaking.

I endured 5 weeks of this and it seemed like a lifetime. 6 days a week, at least 10 hours a day. I’m mentally worn out.

I'm not naive; I know the old school French chefs have a habit of hollering at their staff. Perhaps this breaking down of someone's soul works when you're a young trainee of 17, but once you hit your mid-forties the routine is a bit stale.  I wasn't hired to be a line cook; I was reeled in to help change things (menu, atmosphere, etc). I was to work not only back of the house but also front of the house, with server training and assistance with wine. They knew of my qualifications before hiring me. They knew I was self-taught and was a catering and event chef and chef instructor before moving to Vietnam. I was honest about everything.

A new chef has been hired, and after a strange "getting to know you" kind of week, I have to admit that I like him. He's a talented youth, also French, but much less volatile. And though the atmosphere has changed for the better, I’m looking for different work.  The damage has been done. I’m over it.

But the best part about all of this is that the French chef left Saigon. Mutual friends ran into him and he said he was moving away because he was sick of it all (it's probably because he has such a bad reputation that no one will hire him). But as of yesterday, he is gone from this town, and the air has cleared. Good riddance, volatile asshole.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The story of Ri

My Facebook timeline shows a constant stream of locals posting about having found stray or ailing dogs, kittens, cats, etc, and wondering what to do about them. Unfortunately, this is pretty common here, as people (including the High and Mighty Expats) discard pets frequently without much thought. It's a different culture, and coming from a country where we are passionate about spaying, neutering, and saving every animal, I've had to develop a blind eye to a lot of things. I saw dog meat at a butcher shop in Go Vap (a northern, poorer district in Saigon) and had to develop a stone heart instantaneously.

And then you meet someone like my friend Trang. She lives in the Vietnamese part of District 7 but hails from Hoi An in the central part of the country. She finds the stray, the broken, the bleeding animals and nurses them back to health before sending them to live on her parents farm just outside of Hoi An. Recently she saw a man tossing a small bird into the road. When she asked him why he did that, he said the bird was too scrawny to eat so he might as well throw it out. Trang scooped up the sad animal and saw that it was a baby owl, probably minutes from death. She brought it home, named it Ri (pronounced Ree), nursed it, and now it flies around her room when she comes home from work, hooting happily. 

She can't save every discarded animal in Saigon (though she sure as hell is trying, what with her little menagerie in Hoi An); but it's little stories like this which restore my faith in humanity.