Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Come rain. Or shine.

As an expat living in Vietnam, there are a number of subjects that inevitably arise when talking to other long-term foreigners living here. I’ve compiled a mental list of the top, and sometimes most tedious, subjects expats in Vietnam talk about. I think at this time of year, the weather is probably right up there near the pinnacle. Put it like this, if "expat talk" was Twitter, #rain, #weather, #wet would be trending.

As I sit here in my air-conditioned office, I dread the idea of going downstairs to the canteen for lunch – plainly because it’s absolutely blistering hot outside. And as we know, this heat is a precursor - a sign of things to come, more specifically, of rain. Lots and lots of rain, like pats of warm butter dropped from above. Driving around on your motorbike in this rain is akin to being caught in a battle where big, fat globules are hurled like water balloons from the sky by mischievous gods attacking the mere mortals below.

I’ve been throwing furtive glances at the sky for the last few weeks – looking for that dark presence of a thundercloud on the horizon. Sniffing the air for signs of moisture. I thought Tropical Cyclone Pakhar was it.Watching how high and low the dragonflies are zooming about, estimating their trajectory against the horizon with my thumb and forefinger, squinting through one eye.

This is because it is that time of year when we expats start getting itchy. Very itchy and incredibly nervous. Let me explain why. At this time of year, we start playing a game of one-upmanship with each other by trying to predict when the “rainy season” will actually begin. The winner is recognized to have superior knowledge regarding not only Vietnam’s climatic patterns, but also all things “expatness”.  That's the prize. For the rest of the year, everything this expat says will be taken as the truth and cannot be questioned by other foreigners. When they say: “I think Vietnam’s economy will grow by 6.5% for the second quarter of 2012,” as another expat, you have keep your mouth shut and accept this as fact. Okay, maybe I’m over-exaggerating a little bit, but I think you understand why this title is so important, or it might just be in my head...

Thus, with the first showers of March, only an “amateur” expat (who has lived here for less than two rainy seasons) will utter the prophetic words of “looks like the rainy season has started”. The old-timers (foreigners who have lived here for ten years or more) will scoff at these greenhorn predictions, these young 'uns who think they know it all. They will throw knowing glances at each other. This is because old-timers know that there are at least five or six big showers in March before one can actually say the rainy season has started, even a tropical storm won't throw them off!

Oh, and god forbid those partaking in this unspoken challenge actually ask advice from the locals who have lived here all their life and know the weather like the palm of their hand. This is considered cheating in this game of one-upmanship. You have to state your prediction based solely on your own shrewd observations,  using science, experience and whatever other talismanic trick you have up your sleeve, such as a left ankle that starts twinging when the weather turns or an itchy ear. My grandmother used to start sneezing uncontrollably just before a big thunderstorm. That kind of thing. 

So how do you actually win this game and become the most knowledgeable and well-respected expat of the season? Once you say the words: “The rainy season is here” (beware, there will be groans and moans from others) the unspoken rules state that for you to be declared the winner: (1) it has to rain consistently for at least three days and three nights (2) all major and minor roads need to be flooded under at least three feet of water for said period of time (3) you must know (and be able to produce) at least four people whose motorbikes broke down from flooded engines (4) you must show photo evidence of an intrusion of cockroaches taking over your house.  Then, and only then, will you be crowned winner. 

You are then allowed to bask in your glory (or at least drip in your wet triumph), until late October when the rain slows down and a new game begins: the game of who can predict the end of the rainy season correctly, which is when it all starts again…

Written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn - March 2012

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