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The life of an abroad columnist

An Open Letter to The Chronicle Editorial Pages Editor

Dear Meredith,

It’s my last column of the semester, which, based on my brief perusal of last columns from years past, evidently means that I’m supposed to say something important, something I think is important but actually isn’t or talk about how stupid the people who are talking about supposedly important things are. Since I’m abroad, I should probably throw in some grand conclusion about my experience traveling to cities on four continents that ties in a comparative perspective of the urban developmental similarities between Detroit and Hanoi.

Here’s the issue: It turns out I’ve got nothing to say this week. As my friends and family will tell you, this is impossible, let me clarify: I do have things to say insomuch as I can write things down—it’s just that none of it seems particularly important right now.

To clarify, let me give you a picture of where I am. It’s 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Hanoi. I’ve just left my homestay, situated along one of this city’s (relatively disgusting but still lovable) muddy alleyways, replete with 400 electrical wires hanging overhead, splitting in every conceivable direction. I was hoping to take a nap before heading off to the internet cafe, but the Vietnamese wedding party next door blasting karaoke (I couldn’t wholly make out the song, but it sort of sounds like Cookie Monster singing Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”) had other ideas.

So I went on my merry way, passing by what appeared to be a PlayStation stadium cafe—that is, 40 immensely focused Vietnamese teenagers sitting in rows playing FIFA 2010 against each other on three parallel grainy TV’s. Immediately next door (or next open-air stall) is a guy selling some chickens, which my home stay partner and I briefly considered purchasing for our home stay father for his birthday earlier this week. We opted for a bouquet of the manliest looking flowers we could find instead, which was welcomed with a mumbled “thank you” in Vietnamese. His next words were translated to us as: “if we had them here a few years ago, the police would have arrested us for hosting Americans.” I guess he doesn’t like flowers.

I had to cross the street in order to get to the local internet cafe, an endeavor which reminds me a bit of the simulations of “chicken” we used to conduct in PubPol 55. In order to cross the street, you need to be able to convince (through pure eye contact and foot movement) at least 50 motorcycle, rickshaw, taxi, bicycle and SUV drivers that you are willing to die in order to cross. And they need to convince you (through a solemn glare and increasing speed) that they are more than happy to run you over in the higher pursuit of getting wherever they are going.

I won this time around, which brings me here, to the venerable “Cafe Kem” internet cafe. I take it the sight of me—a 20-year-old white dude pecking away at an external keyboard next to an iPad—is either utterly ridiculous, or I’m just really, really good looking in Vietnam, because the waitress and bartender can’t take their eyes off of me.

I’d been hoping to get out of here quickly, but my time here has been horribly unproductive. The kind of grandiose column ideas I picture as being appropriate for a farewell piece flash through my head, and for each I can picture 15 (or maybe fewer—as my abroad friends ask me every other week, how many people even read these stupid columns) cynical, groggy Duke students sitting in von der Heyden before finals week rolling their eyes. “God,” they’re saying, “I’m so glad it’s that condescending, preachy d-bag’s last column.”

So I’ve been looking through the more practical column beginnings I’ve saved all semester for moments like this—that is, when it’s the Saturday before my next column is due, I’m horribly distracted, and that Vietnamese waitress (who is actually kind of cute) is still looking at me.

But somehow a column about poor cell phone reception at Duke, or Tailgate, or the implications of the new house model seems sort of out place right now. I mean, if I had to explain to my home stay parents, the kids playing PlayStation or the guy selling chickens that I needed to run out of the house and lose hours of free time in this exotic place because I wanted to write some exposition on the cell phone situation at a college 9,080 miles away, I’d sound pretty ridiculous, right?

So, sorry to say, I’ve got nothing for you this week. I hate to disappoint, but I know the precious Duke Chronicle will go on without my valued contribution.

But if you really, really need something to fill my space for Monday morning, let me know.

That cell phone piece has potential.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior and is currently studying abroad in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam. This is his final column of the semester.

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