Thursday, 8 January 2009

Intolerable Presence

[Another view from the hotel balcony in Cairo, May 2008.]

I am going to Vietnam in a month. Yesterday I began reading Norman Lewis' travelogue through South-East Asia in 1950, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and found this quote:
"It was all very entertaining to a stranger completely fresh from the West, but from the experiences of these few hours I had learned one disturbing thing. This was that as a European I had been invisible. My eyes never met those of a Vietnamese. There was no curious staring, no gesture or half-smile of recognition. I was ignored even by the children. The Vietnamese people, described by early travellers as gay, sociable and showing a lively curiosity where strangers were concerned, have now withdrawn into themselves. [...] It is as if a general agreement has been reached among them that this is the best way of dealing with an intolerable presence."

Although the situation in occupied Indochina during the fifties is a completely different kettle of fish, this discription captures for me the same sense I sometimes get walking in a foreign city. I felt it occasionally while walking around Cairo as a "Westerner". To describe it as hostility is too strong a word. And indifference is too weak a word. It is better described as feeling unwelcome. It has more to do with my own unease in being a "Westerner" than any actual unwelcomeness on the Cairenes' part. 

Other related blogs: