On March 5 in the Year of the Pig, exactly one month to the day of the Lunar New Year, my novel will be published. And believe it or not, in the Chinese Zodiac, the pig is my sign! Surely this must be auspicious?
We reserved our flights to Vietnam a year ago, seized by a bleak, mid-winter, air-mile spending spree that, as we consoled each other at the time, could be cancelled without penalty. Only we never cancelled and here we are, in Vietnam, at the height of the Tết New Year Celebrations. Red and gold banners festoon the streets proclaiming “Chúc mừng năm mới. Happy New Year!
In retrospect, flying for more than 20 hours to a developing country on a time-zone exactly opposite my regular work hours, mere weeks ahead of the publication of my debut novel was a crazy but brilliant idea. The effect has been a welcome dilution of my anxiety and pointless perseveration over things undeniably first-world and utterly beyond my control. I’ve only cried the once, not including the agonizing crush injury to my writing hand.
Refusing to data-roam has helped. For the first few days, I couldn’t resist taking out my phone to look for WIFI, waving it around like a Geiger counter, which produced frowns from Tyler.
“If you’re not taking a photo, put that thing away.”
The rule was we could only go online at our hotel or guesthouse, and for as brief a time as possible. Those first few days my thumb would slink towards Instagram like a whipped cur only to find that my feed — indeed, all of my social feeds — were fast asleep. Or I’d send a flurry of fretful book-related emails in the morning, which had the effect of making me feel like a Jane Austen heroine, having dispatched a billet-doux across town by an unreliable courier, pining in wait for the evening post. None of these emails would generate a response until bedtime, by which time I’d already downed a vacationer’s ration of liquid comfort and scarcely remembered what I could have been so worked up about. This detachment, this translocation, has made it easier to forget work, forget about early book reviews, print runs, and marketing plans, and get into the swing of New Year’s celebrations in Vietnam.
“Chook Mong Nahm Moi!” We practice our pronunciation on practically everyone we meet in Vietnam. They look at us blankly, sometimes with a flicker of fear, so we smile maniacally and repeat ourselves at a higher volume. The second time around they typically burst out laughing — the Vietnamese, we’ve found, have a wicked sense of humour. They shake their heads, then use exaggerated lip positions and hand gestures to correct us, as if conducting a children’s orchestra, trying to show us where we got the inflections wrong.
“Like this. Chuok! Mong. Nahm. Moi!”
“Okay. Chuok! Mong. Nahm. Moi!”
“No, Chuok! Mong. Nahm. Moi!”
This goes on for days. Crowded, honking, swerving, diesel-fumed days in Hanoi, until we escape south to Tam Coc. Dozy, green-smudged, rice-patty, river-days and still no one understands our greeting. We try again further south in golden, sun-soaked Hoi An, bustling with Chinese and Vietnamese tourists, wide-smiled and dressed in silks, their selfie sticks tracing the air as if casting a spell. Paper lanterns have been laced across the narrow streets so as to be cinched tighter still when the crowds amble through. Windows and doorways rustle with red and gold decorations; sticky rice, pork, and mung-bean concoctions are neatly folded into leaf-wrapped packages; children, candy-jacked, clamour for the pig balloon, on wheels, that can be pulled precariously by a string over the sharp and broken pavement: all of it foreign, magical, and distracting. It’s been a while, we realize, since we’ve travelled somewhere that’s made us feel so inconsequential and shabby, which is rare and welcome.
Chock! Moong? Nam. Maiee?!
I couldn’t recall our lunar zodiacal signs so looked them up. Tyler, naturally, is a tiger — information he claims he already possessed and accepts with a noble shrug. Tigers are friendly, confident, adventurous, charming, and widely admired. They rarely feel tired and have rich emotions. They can also be snobbish, selfish and mean, and they seldom admire others. Tyler has already tuned me out.
“Hey, I’m a pig!” I announce. “It’s my year!”
We look up pig. As the story goes, the pig was late to the Jade Emperor’s party because he overslept. Pigs have a tendency to be lazy and to overeat, but they like material things so they can achieve these by working hard. Using the same approach I employ for unwelcome weather reports, I consult a different website.
“Pigs might not stand out in a crowd. But they are very realistic.”
Tyler, charmingly, finds the pig’s qualities to be highly amusing.
It’s hard not to look for meaning in this zodiac, hitherto ignored but now inserting itself into every hour of every day. Surely if I’m a pig, and I have a novel coming out in the year of the pig, that could be a slam dunk, no? I snuffle about on the Internet trying to find something reassuring and instead find a lot of tepid wish-wash.
“For the Pig zodiac sign, the Earth Pig Year 2019-2020 is going to be, from many points of view, somehow out of ordinary. While the perspectives for their career and financial situation are favourable, the personal life requires them to take some precautionary measures.”
“Stop it.” The Tiger is fed up with this newly discovered secret passage back from our vacation into my queasy anticipation of my book’s launch. “Put your phone away and come for a swim.”
We’re on Phu Quoc island for New Year’s Eve. We stay up late enough to catch the fireworks, which also means we’re up late enough to peruse emails from home and troll the Internet searching for general enlightenment. The Tiger opts to read his book. Sometime around midnight I fumble out of the mosquito netting around the bed and make my way in darkness out to the toilet, which is open-air, in an enclosure outside our thatched hut. This timing, while accidental, might also be important. Apparently it’s lucky to be the first person to enter a home on New Year’s Day. The head of the house will sometimes leave and return just after midnight to secure this top spot. I don’t flush, which would be noisy and potentially unlucky, so I crawl back into bed and am more or less asleep by the time Tyler finally sets down his book and heads out to the bathroom. The confident and adventurous Tiger elects to switch on the outdoor light, which prompts him to start hissing at me through the worn, wooden shutters.
“OH MY GOD. GET OUT HERE AND SEE WHAT YOU PEED ON.”
It’s too compelling to ignore. It’s seems I’ve peed on a cute, mid-sized, yellow frog. At least, he’s yellow by the time I’ve scrambled out to look at him. I feel terrible. We scoop him out and encourage him back into the shrubbery. Sorry Frog! Chick. Ming. Nom Meei!
Peeing on frogs must be exceptionally unlucky because the next morning, eager to display some of my pig-like traits at the buffet breakfast, I’m hurriedly locking the door between bungalow and bathroom when I slam my thumb in the shutters. The nail blooms instantly purple and the wave of pain that sweeps over me is so swift and powerful I almost throw up. I’m too nauseous to eat my breakfast. Within an hour, the confident Tiger is heating a needle on a candle flame so as to melt a hole through Pig’s thumbnail to relieve the pressure. Another Google search confirms what I already know. Pigs are brave.
But I’m picking and choosing here, because only a fraction of the things I’ve read online about pig personalities ring true for me. I work hard, but I’m not materialistic — I routinely squander all my money on travel, not things. Blue and green, so-called unlucky, are my favourite colours and I have a real and unfounded aversion to lucky number 8, which has always struck me as a very smug and narcissistic number. It’s true, I’m stubborn, but not particularly self-indulgent or easy to anger. I wish I was happy-go-lucky, I’m an early-riser, and I never find the time to be properly lazy.
Later, after the sun goes down, I’ll get an email from a friend to whom I sent a self-pitying photo of my mangled thumb. “Oh no! Hope it heals before you have to start autographing books!” Also at sundown, the Tiger, rich with emotion, will confirm that the nail is a lost cause, likely the nail bed too. He will tenderly dress my plump and weeping wound and tell me he wishes it was his thumb that got crushed, not mine, which makes him a most loveable and unselfish Tiger. Then he’ll take me for some liquid comfort.
En route we make a stop to ask for first-aid supplies and some ice. I make the mistake of showing my thumb (self-indulgently) to the semi-English-speaking woman at reception, who coos sympathetically. I ask her if she thinks it’s unlucky to have been injured on New Year’s Day. She rolls her eyes and says, “Oh, you’re a goner!” And we laugh. I’m resolved to be happy-to-lucky so I’m tempted to tell her about peeing on the frog, or that my debut novel will be out in the Year of the Pig. Instead I say:
“Not fair, right? And it’s my year. I’m a pig!” Her face freezes in mock horror and I think again how fun the Vietnamese have been, how witty, how tolerant of us butchering their beautiful tonal language. I laugh at her play-acting, at my expense.
But she’s shaking her head now, looking spooked. “No, actually, that’s bad. Or, some people would see that as VERY BAD. Extremely bad. Be careful, okay?” Her smile comes back now, strung-up, papery and festive. “But I’m sure it’s fine! Chúc mừng năm mới!