“Foolishly, blissfully stranded.”
These three words of the subtitle of So Happiness to Meet You brilliantly distill the polar contrasts of this most unlikely and serendipitous adventure. Foolishly? Blissfully?
Yep. In 2008, 15-year veteran L.A. Times reporter Karin Esterhammer lost her job in a major downsizing. Strapped with credit card debt, a self-employed (a.k.a. “non-earning”) husband, car loan, and mortgage, she talked her husband into selling nearly everything they owned to move with their eight-year old son to Vietnam.
As the book flap reads, “in a country where you can get a great meal for 85 cents, she figured they could get jobs teaching English, live frugally, and ride out the recession. She figured they’d return home in a year with cash in the bank. She figured the global economic meltdown wouldn’t touch them in Vietnam.
She figured wrong.”
If you are not as wonderfully captivated by that improbable premise as I was, you should know that the writing and observational/reflective thinking in this book are deft enough to pull you through anyway. Here are a few examples:
–(One night in her 9 X 5 ft. house in the city’s poorest district): “I ate slowly and listened to all the alley sounds: motorbikes, floodwater splashing against the houses; neighborhood children taking turns with the karaoke microphone, their little voices ear-twistingly out of tune.”
–(describing the oppressively humid heat) “Turned on a floor fan which we hovered around like homeless people crowding around a trash can fire on a winter night.”
–(holding a baby at a local orphanage) “I uncurled his tiny fingers and put my forefingers into his fists to feel that wonderful, reflective grip babies have just before they pull your finger into their mouths to gnaw on you.”
The story is alternately haunting, heart-rending, thank-heaven-this-isn’t-me scary, side-splittingly funny, and ultimately poignant and uplifting.
We get an upclose look at the month-long Vietnam holiday of Tet ( “Fireworks blast throughout the city to scare away bad spirits”).
We get a behind-the-curtain look at the post-war devastation of the suburbs, dilapidated and overcrowded schools and hospitals, and the regular flooding of the detritus-choked Saigon River into neighborhoods.
We see a bit of the history of Vietnam through the eyes and stories of a couple of companions she develops. One’s parents were rice farmers from a small village south of Hanoi and had spent the post-war years in extreme deprivation.
There are huge, unspoken takeaways for the reader in seeing exactly how nobly neighbors can treat each other, absent the pressures of America’s competition-driven society.
She describes her beloved neighborhood companion (Tin) as “methodically and oh-so-slowly pick[ing] the [cilantro] leaves with the devotion of a monk fingering his prayer beads.
'Can’t we just chop off the stems and be done with it?' " she asked, feeling hot, prickly and a bit edgy.
“Tin stopped, looked at me, and raised his eyebrows up to his hairline.
'Not EVERY leaf is delicious!'”
Without overtly stating the somewhat clichéd myth of the noble primitive, or "other" who has not been "corrupted" by civilization – and therefore symbolizes humanity's innate goodness – that same lesson is implied, much more convincingly in the showing:
“How often I’d watched housewives sitting on porches, picking, shelling or snapping green beans, morning glory leaves, cilantro, mint or Chinese broccoli. Preparing vegetables was a daily activity and it gave the women a chance to sit on their steps and chat with each other across the alley. None was in a hurry to finish the task.”
This is a fast, easy, and satisfying read, artfully sewn together from very brief chapters which always foreshadow the next perilous turn, always captivatingly told.
I have a whole new appreciation for every detail of my life after seeing hers up close. Like the author, I fell for many of the lovably-flawed characters, was repulsed by others, and learned a ton about another culture. Like the author, who finally returned to her US home neighborhood in Burbank, Calif., I didn’t want the adventure to be over.
Although some might ding the author for flirting dangerously close to romanticizing the poverty she encountered, I am inspired by the author’s extreme generosity, wit, heart, and tenacity amidst hour-to-hour, day-to-day challenges over her two-and-a-half-year stay.
There is something for everyone: suspense, drama, victory, defeat, humor. But mostly it is a highly personal study in tolerance, equanimity, serenity, understanding. And dare I say it: love.