Journey of the Known Stranger  by Vu Thuy Anh Phan

Journey of the Known Stranger

by Vu Thuy Anh Phan

The cars here, in Newcastle, look like giant toys with both misplaced drivers and steering wheels. For me, an inhabitant of another world, this small detail became the first spark of cultural shock ‘a la’ Alice in the Wonderland. It was my second time returning to Newcastle after the winter break. I saw a row of toy taxies and finally got my mind around the fact that I was already in England. It is amazing how super-fast flights nowadays can change our notion of time and space. Five hours on the plane and here I was on the island of Great Britain, separated from my home by the English Channel and western European lands. It would take me roughly the same amount of time to watch two and half times of ‘Avatar’, or to take the camera and go for a walk on Ukrainian streets or simply to read one short novel in Vietnamese (believe me, it takes me a while to do that).

After those seemingly short five hours, I was already standing outside of the Newcastle airport, waiting for the taxi driver to squeeze my last giant suitcase into the boot. It was two hours before sunset: a snowless winter day, when the sky was so blue that looking at it for a while would hurt your eyes. The whole busy scene of passengers going out of the airport with their trolleys and baggage, jingling and rattling through the microscopic unevenness of the asphalt, was softened by a golden, almost transparent, fabric of sunlight.

The suitcases were successfully squeezed in, and taxi speeded towards Newcastle, towards the continuation of my life journey, along the corkscrew highway. The taxi driver was a serious dark-haired man with a slight frown on his forehead and a peculiar foreign accent. With IPod earphones on, he did not seem to be disposed to any kind of conversation. I looked outside the window. My memories ofthe first arrival in the unknown night city, hiding the promises of new experiences, encounters and challenges, were gradually diluted, as I embraced familiar scenes of red-bricked Victorian houses, glued together on one side of the street, numerous road directions found literally at every step, and the senile smile of KFC restaurant, greeting everyone traveling from the international airport. I was certainly not as familiar with the north-western road leading from the terminal as I was with the city-center – Nothumbria Street, Grey Street, or the Quayside were better explored and foot-printed. But I was not an absolute stranger to this city anymore, even on this north-western road.

On this day, two parallel worlds were constantly appearing in my mind. I bet all explorers of new places and countries would relate their experiences with things back home. It was the same for me here, in Newcastle. For instance, the first thing I noticed in the cosmopolitan place, likeMcDonald’s, was that Ukrainian baked potatoes were missing on the menu and that every kind of tea was served with small packages of milk. The taxi made a next right turn. I recalled a well-known route leading from the Ukrainian airport to my house. You could see its broad enormous roads and large many-stored apartment blocks – old Soviet ones and newly built – all mixed together. As you approached the city-center, streets started narrowing down, becoming an ideal haven for the most mood-suicidal traffic jams. Everything was different here. Newcastle was more peaceful and “closer” to the ground – I got used to this typical image so much that seeing one high apartment building next to the Argyle Street was an absolute shock.

A loud sneeze from the driver had interrupted my thoughts. Somehow, the magical words “bless you” have dispersed the silence and a friendly smile spread across the man’s face. It seemed he was quite happy to finally start the conversation, and at once I was bombarded with numerous questions about my student life in Newcastle. It is strange how we, human-beings, can sometimes be silenced and alienated from each other – we often hide in our cocoons, allowing our imagination to draw the caricatures of what supposed to be a portrait. I would certainly leave the car, thinking that the man was a really somber taxi driver: the one you meet on the Ukrainian streets, who are constantly dissatisfied with their life and complaining about the country’s bad economy. But, thanks God, he sneezed, and I got a chance to hear some details of his life. It turned out that his father had moved to here from Pakistan, while he had spent most of his life in UK.

‘So do you have any brothers or sisters?’ he asked. At first, it seemed quite strange that he was asking about my family. I told him I had a younger sister. He smiled. ‘Oh, then your parents must have pampered both of you a lot.’ I did not get what his point was, till he went on with a familiar tradition of making comparisons, saying, ‘You see, in Pakistan we have more kids in the family. Four or five is the average, but usually there are even more. A lot of kids, you know.” He told me about his numerous cousins back home, which reminded me of those Vietnamese puzzle-stories about relatives, where you can confuse your mind figuring out who is the granddaughter of your grandmother’s elder brother.

Arriving in Newcastle this time was quite an experience, and that’s what I liked about this city – you can meet people from different places and they all will have some kind of story to share. When you turn over a new blank page of your life, there will be always strangers appearing. Some of them will leave and some will become known enough to become you friends.I met one of my nicest friends this way.

It all happened because of the SMS from AMYWAY, a company I became interested in after visiting the university’s job fair. No one would think that the message arriving on Sunday with time and place of meeting, but without a date, would occur on a different day, supposedly on Tuesday. Both Joumana and I arrived at County Thistle Hotel just to become disappointed, but remaining enthusiastic enough to start the conversation. We were heading home from the Main Station’s direction towards the Monument. She was that kind of open and friendly person, who knew how to smile with her dark-brown eyes and keep the ball rolling. Joumana was from Algeria, but until now she had spent most of her life living in different countries. I was from Vietnam, but was born and have lived all my life in Ukraine. Two different worlds, but it turned out that we had several things in common. We were both from Newcastle University, we lived in the same area, and we enjoyed playing piano.Besides, Joumana’s father studied in Russia for several years and had taught her some Russian words – enough for her to sometimes add ‘privet’ and ‘khorosho’ to our conversations. On that day, she also showed me how to use the local metro.

‘It kind of annoys me’ I said. Seeing a yellow ‘M’ sign next to Charles Grey reminded me of my ignorance. Seriously, I felt really inexperienced, never ever going underground and never being able to push color buttons and buy a metro ticket.There are certain things that you should do before being considered a real explorer of other culture and I thought that UK metro was one of those important things.

‘It’s OK’, replied Joumana. ‘I also didn’t know at first, but it’s quite simple. Do you want me to show you?’

My heart melted from such a kindness from the stranger. In Ukraine the whole procedure of buying tickets was much simpler. You just need to buy a blue token for all destinations and use your elbows to make your way to the required metro branch – there are always millions of passengers in the Ukrainian underground, especially during rush hours– all relying on their survival instincts and elbows. Other than that, everything was quite simple in Ukraine, but not here.

‘Look, you need to choose your area.’ Joumana said, showing me the map on the screen. ‘Each area corresponds to a certain number shown on the button. Press your number and put the money into this slot.’ Everything looked quite easy, but I knew it was one of those annoying tricks that seemed simple when other people showed it, but were absolutely impossible to realize by your own.

From the Monument, we went across the Nothumbria Street with its numerous lively cafes, restaurants, and shops. Everything that one needs for shopping therapy and refreshing oneself was located here. Eldon Square, which was once considered to be the biggest trade center in Europe, could alone satisfy the needs of a moderately obsessed shopper, like me. The street looked really lovely when I first saw it. Fresher’s Week. I was rushing through the Nothumbria in search of the SIM card to end what I called “mobile phone isolation”. Even in a hurry, I could still notice people sitting outside of Costa and Starbucks, drinking coffee and eating those delicious creamy cakes that make your eyes itch before your stomach could even react. Unusually warm weather in the end of September had added a holiday flavour to everything. Old couples, children and adolescents – relaxed and happy – were sitting in specially allocated red and green areas in the middle of the street. It was a really lovely scene, one which makes you want to throw off all the burden of daily routine and enjoy what seemed to be an endless colorful summer.

While stopping to say goodbye next to the Sport’s Center, Joumana and I decided to play piano together some day.

‘Gosh, I would never think that the instrument would be in the Medical Building,’ I laughed, when Joumana told me that she often played music there. ‘A really nice location for the piano. And a very obvious one too!’

‘You should have seen my reaction when I first found it!’ she replied and I tried to imagine what an engineer student like her was doing in the Medical School, but it was quite a long story. The main thing was that we kept meeting regularly after that day, and I was really happy that one of the strangers became known enough to become my friend.

The taxi stopped next to the entrance of my apartment blocks. I came out to the surface,from the depth of my thoughts. I would not be surprised at all if someone would tell me that I had quite a complicated way of thinking… Certainly, I did. My mind liked to wander, without a specific goal, recalling memorable events and making random connections. Now I switched my attention again, as Richardson Road was already greeting me with its high dark-brown buildings and narrow rectangular windows.

‘Welcome to the Swedish prison!’ I thought, trying to be funny with myself – I recalled what Richardson Road was teasingly called on one of the online forums. The tower-like exterior, brick-wall layout of the rooms with a combination of nice wooden furniture certainly did create the similarity with a high-class prison. But appearances can be sometimes misleading. Ricky Road, as it was also called,was known as the most sociable accommodation area of the university with outgoing parties and free music sessions, coming from the speakers of numerous windows. Most of my best memories of waking up from noises at four in the morning were connected with Ricky Road…But today was really quiet – the majority of students were still on holidays. I returned to my flat dragging two suitcases filled with Ukrainian salami and Vietnamese instant noodles – a good reminder about home, sweet home. Everyone, except for my Malaysian flat-mate, was still enjoying their last holiday days away from Newcastle. I opened the door of my room and a yellow sticky-note came into my sight “Welcome! (smiley) Don’t worry be happy! (smiley)”. There were definitely enough crooked smileys produced by my bad drawing to make me feel better.

This was one of numerous self-made crazy notes that I usually stick all over my room during what my friend accurately called the “identity crisis”. You know, those moments when you are so overwhelmed by the university work or so mentally exhausted, upset or homesick that you start questioning yourself with absurd questions, like who you are and what your purpose of life is? Just like the guy George from the film‘The Art of Getting By”, who did not do his Calculus homework, because he realized that life is quite short and one day he will eventually die. Sounds really strange, but this situation did happen during the hard times in the university, especially when you are far away from home.

When everything goes on right and you have enough time to fool around, to be stuck on Facebook or to go to the parties, your mind cleverly loses its ability to be thoughtful. Every philosopher is born during the time of crisis. My Russian friend and coursemate from Latvia, for instance, gains an amazingly global view, when she starts panicking and questioning the purpose of taking our course or leaving her home country to study abroad. I usually end up persuading her that we are pretty lucky to study in Newcastle and UK and that we should make the best of our life here, at the same time silently panicking over the purpose of my own assignment. Yellow sticky notes became my life ring since I have arrived to UK. I had placed one of those small spirit encapsulators in front of the exit door before leaving for the winter break. It certainly helped.

I started unpacking my baggage. Clothes, snacks, books and souvenirs – all looked thoroughly mixed together, as if after spending some time in the cocktail shaker. At the same time, I was also thinking about the possibility of meeting my friends and exchanging news. It is interesting, how we sometimes end up discussing random things about culture. Foreign country is definitely a place, where you start thinking outside of the box, becoming aware that people can perceive you differently and in turn discovering something new about yourself and others.

You know, you look like Japanese today,’ my Russian friend Inna said one evening, after starring at me for a while. Then she hid her face in her palms and start laughing. ‘Oh my God, I don’t know why, but you even act like Japanese!’ I felt a little offended, but amused at the same time. It was one of our joint dinners, when we would cook some Slavic dishes and enjoy them in my flat.

‘Really?’ I replied, trying to make myself look utterly offended and at the same chewing cheburek, the traditional meat bun. ‘You know, not all Asians are Japanese.’ I pronounced this obvious statement with quite an instructive intonation.

‘I know you are not. Japanese was just the first thing that came up to my mind!’ Inna was still laughing. ‘But actually you look Asian today.’

‘Duh, who do you think I am then?’ I asked ironically, however beginning to understand what she meant. Sometimes you can forget that a person in front of you is Asian, if she regularly mumbles random lines from Russian or Ukrainian songs or excitedly speaks about the Soviet comedy “The Adventures of Shurik”. One gesture and one phrase can reveal an absolutely new aspect about a person you seem to know – like a dark unexplored corner of the stage is uncovered from the red curtain with a quick energetic move. Suddenly you realize that this person also belongs to another world, somewhat different from the one you inhabit. I was not aware of a particular thing that I did to cause such a confused reaction from Inna, but this incident did make me realize that I can be quite a complex stranger to become known, like all other strangers finding the right way in their journey.

The daylight from my blinded window has painted the whole brick-wall room into golden stripes. I finished posting the status ‘Back to Newcastle!’ on Facebook. Looking at the profile pictures of my friends in Newcastle reminded me of our time before the winter break.I recalled the day when my Vietnamese company was returning from the Bonfire Night.

It was my first time riding in a two-storeyed bus in England. We were sitting at the back, next to the group of tomato-cheeked children and a singing man, perhaps their dad. It was quite amusing to observe the following scene: the man would cry out the main chorus line of the song ‘I am Sexy and I Know it’, while children would repeat it, bursting into a jingling laughter. Passengers sitting in the front were laughing too. This was one of those stereotype-breaking moments. After living in Newcastle for a while, I came to the conclusion that local people were really opened and good-humored, always asking ‘Are ye alreet?’ with their special Geordie accent.

Amidst those cultural occurrences, our Vietnamese company started talking about ghosts, which by itself was also quite amusing. Find a country, where people would talk about spirits without even questioning the fact of their existence, and this would be Vietnam. The tradition of ancestor worship, which was a big part of Vietnamese culture, certainly did influence our way of thinking. If you believe that your great-great grandparents are still somewhere close to you and can still protect you from misfortune, it would be useless to discredit the whole idea, even by a scientific proof.

The conversation among my friends made me think of my own beliefs regarding this paradox. I realized that believing in living spirits was so closely intertwined with Vietnamese traditions that it became a natural part of people’s perception. It was just me, dropped out from the cultural environment, but following my family tradition in Ukraine, who was especially confused. I think that is why Vietnamese parents have difficulties with calming down their children after the horror movies. Instead of confidently claiming that the Ring girl does not exist, they would probably say ‘Don’t be afraid, honey. Your ancestor, who by the way was a great warrior of Nguyen dynasty, would be protecting you!’ This conclusion did not sound comforting at all, but it was one of my first serious attempts to question Vietnamese way of thinking and, ironically, it happened in England.

‘Perhaps we should call the immigration police?’ asked Joumana. “I’m sexy and I know it” song, alongside with Vietnamese stories about ghosts, was gradually disappearing, replaced by the bustling sounds of Starbucks on the other evening. Luring smell of coffee, clinking of numerous mugs, plates, and glasses and loud voices of visitors talking and waiters calling out the orders. ‘Small United Nation’ – that’s how we jokingly called our group – consisted of me, Joumana and two of her friendsfrom Latvia and Rwanda. The fact that most of us were living outside of our home countries have given a rise to numerous jokes about us, as illegal immigrants: ‘Are you sure that you have the right to live in UK? Do you have visa?’ or ‘I am going to migrate to the library in few minutes!’ followed by a reply ‘I’ll call the police!’. I really enjoyed those random and culturally inclined talks over a cup of coffee. Perhaps, for people passing by our round table and overhearing our “come ons” and “really?”, we looked like students, who were creative enough to organize an informal seminar away from the university and closer to the coffee machine. In reality, the issues we were discussing came out quite naturally from our heads, as they were all part of our lives, whether it was media’s misrepresentation of Africa, stereotypes about the connection of Muslim people to terrorism or the influence of Russian language in both Ukraine and Latvia. We all came to England with our own stories, and now we were sharing them.

The rider on the horse passing by my window has filled the whole street with the clattering echo. I was still unpacking my last suitcase, but stopped, approaching the window and moving aside a blind to enjoy the whole spectacle. A white-greyish horse was walking alongside the road in the most natural and careless manner. I would probably take a picture of that caballo if it was walking on the Ukrainian roads. The horse would look really dramatic standing in the midst of mood-suicidal traffic jams – a stranger among the well-known growling engines. But here, in Newcastle, only a Vietnamese ghost would make me grab my camera and take a snap. Seeing animals with four feet was not unusual for Newcastle. My friends have told me that this spring the cows will be grazing on the grass field in front of my window. I really hoped I would be able to see them without witnessing any extra tragic events – there was a sad story circulating among students, about the cow, which was stolen from its grass field and brought to the nearby accommodation called Castle Leazes. After being locked in the elevator, the poor creature was given several up and down rides. I do not know what happened to the cow in the end, but I am sure it experienced a really severe cultural shock.

As for me, I have fully settled down in my room now. My phone started ringing – this was my family calling from Ukraine. I threw a glance at the yellow footnote before answering. It was hopeless – I still felt homesick. But I guess each of us does feel the same way at a certain point of our journey – homesick, sad or lonely. I do not know where all of us are heading and what our final destination is. I do not know for sure about myself either. But we all came here, to England, from different worlds with our own unique stories and readiness to learn new things. It would take some time to get used to the fact that I started a new page of my life, but I know for sure that for each stranger, which becomes known, and for all of those, who are too well-known to be strangers, it is worthy to continue our journey. In this way, the road itself becomes as meaningful as the final destination.

This story was shortlisted for the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts International Student Short Story Competition 2012.

A report on all of the entries by International Student Marleen van Os can be read here.