The first thing that hits me stepping off the plane is the humidity. I was prepared for the
heat, but the moisture makes it unbearable, creating an uncomfortable stickiness on my skin. The water-filled air slows down my breathing and movements; putting a halt to my racing thoughts, worries and doubts. Suddenly, I am intensely aware of being in Vietnam.
My cousin Tien and his girlfriend await me behind the gates in the arrival hall. He waves at me and I walk over to give him an awkward hug. I remember that hugs were something I only got used to after many years of helpless encounters with German friends. We warm up during the one-hour cab ride into Hanoi, talking about Brown, my plans for the summer – and laughing about the involuntary funny mistakes I make with my rusty Vietnamese. My last visit three was years ago, and this is only my fourth visit; I can still count them on one hand.
The streets are busy as ever, with a flood of honking motorcyclists passing by the car. Tien asks me whether I think the streets have changed a lot: whether everything is a bit more “developed” now. I don't know, I answer - I don't recognize much. I try though, try to find that familiar feeling of “coming home.”
Uncle Luoc and Aunt Bao are home when we arrive. I forgo the hugs this time, and quickly also discard the idea of shaking their hands. The house seems much smaller than in my memory. My one-year old niece is running around the house, though just barely learned how to walk. Last time I visited, my cousin Phuong was still single, now he's married with a daughter. He and his wife Thom live in a room on the second floor, and my uncle and aunt cleared the other room for me to move in. They moved onto the third floor next to my cousin Tien. It’s a typical “tall and skinny” Hanoi house, where going up three, sometimes even four stories compensates for the limited space.
My aunt prepares a rice noodle dish for my arrival. Tien's girlfriend goes into the kitchen to help her and I feel pretty useless. The humidity makes me lazy and I don't feel like engaging in small talk with my uncle. I am overly self-conscious about saying anything that would let them think I am still the naïve and decidedly privileged ‘cousin-from-abroad’ from three summers ago. Well, I do believe that I am still naïve; and yes – definitely privileged.
Exhausted and jetlagged, I go to bed pretty soon after dinner. My head spins from only speaking Vietnamese all day, after only ever using it once a week on the phone with my parents since leaving home. Writing this in English seems out of place, as though I am not able to let go of my life in the “Western world,” even for one summer. Finally, I am tired of trying to analyze every single move, smell, or sight I see. I decide that I have a whole summer to learn, and that some rest will hopefully let me arrive in Vietnam. Listening to the constant, heavy patter of the monsoon rain, I quickly fall asleep.