I stop by the supermarket on the way home from work.

My local supermarket is a fairly standard, western-style affair with air-conditioning and florescent lights. If I don’t look too closely, I feel as though I am back in my country for a few moments as I walk in the door. But as I stride past the aquariums overcrowded with live, gasping fish and rows of pigs’ feet, my nostalgia extinguishes.

I’ve run out of laundry detergent and walk over it find some. There are a bewildering array of options; I settle in and start running my eyes across the brightly coloured bags. A store employee notices that I’ve been staring at the laundry detergent for some time and decides that it must be because I don’t know what I’m looking at. With most products in the supermarket she’d be right but in this instance the pictures of sudsy clothes tumbling in washing machines on the bags leads me to make a deduction I was reasonably confident in. She gestures to the bags of laundry detergent and mimes washing clothes with her hands; I watch for a moment and admire her perfect use of non-verbal communication. I nod and begin to copy her. We wash our imaginary clothes together in aisle 5, smiling at each other in perfect accord. I’ve almost finished washing my make-believe underpants when she is finally satisfied that I understand the use of the products on the shelf and leaves me to my deliberation. I sniff several bags of laundry detergent until I find the one that will make my clothes smell like a wildflower meadow after rain and place it in my basket.

I remember that I’m down to one roll of toilet paper at home and head in the direction to get some more. I stop suddenly when I see my new friend next to the rolls. Probably best to skip that particular improv session; I’ll come back for them tomorrow.

This is not to say that I didn’t really appreciate that woman’s efforts to help me and everyone else that has gone above and beyond to aid this hapless stranger in a strange land. I’ve lost count of the number of times people communicated with me through stilted English and French, mime, pointing, drawing, and once, animal noises. Thank you for learning more of my language than I have of yours and for your patience in the face of my ignorance.

Thanks Saigon!
Thanks for all the peace signs, Sai Gon!

4 thoughts on “Improv

  1. I’ve just had a good hour reading through your blog. I lived in Vietnam for four years and you brought back so many memories. Do you still get bizarre free gifts taped to products in supermarkets? Two favourites were a pair of beige ladies underwear taped to insect spray and an ashtray taped to washing powder.


    1. Glad I was able to provide a trip down memory lane.

      The free gifts with purchase are still going on. I think all the glass dishes in my house have come taped to the side of my favourite of rice crackers. I once saw a lighter taped to the side of men’s deodorant… which makes a pretty decent flamethrower if you’re into that sort of thing (not a recommendation).


  2. I don’t know about Vietnam, but in Thailand the TP is used for everything but what we Westerners use it for, so the pantomiming wouldn’t have offended anyone.


    1. We have the Butt Hose-gun in Viet Nam too. Most of the plumbing won’t take toilet paper. There is usually a little bin next to the toilet for the paper to be collected and thrown away.

      Now I’m curious; what is the best use of toilet paper you’ve seen in Thailand?


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