12 August 2006

Paint/Pictures/Sign Language

You can’t simply bang a nail into the wall and hang a picture in Vietnam, or in about any other country I have lived in. I can’t remember where I was living when I found this out for the first time. Hammer and nails waiting, I carefully tapped my knuckles on the wall searching for a stud. Tap, tap; nothing. Tap, tap, tap; nothing. It finally dawned on me that there were no studs. They were cinder block walls. Great, in terms of soundproof apartments, but hell for hanging pictures easily. On many occasions I have tried the hammer and nail method, only to chip off large amounts of plaster and break the nail.

The few things I had had in my apartment here were light enough, and unbreakable enough, to use those sticky-backed hangers. However, I brought back glass framed pictures from California, and framed a few other things here, so was in need of real picture hangers. I was a bit unsure of calling my realtors, who send out the service men when needed. These guys are lovely, and usually get things sorted on the second service call, but I was concerned about them drilling into my walls. I couldn’t remember who it was who drilled the wall to hang my extremely heavy, full-length mirror when I moved in, but they managed to leave a fairly large hole and used an old screw that was probably scavenged form a building site. Granted, it does the job, but is not very pretty.

I did call the realtors but stated that I wanted someone who could do the job well. My regular electrician/plumber showed up with a helper. There were already two, expertly done hooks in the apartment when I moved in. I showed them and hoped they understood that that was what I wanted. When worker number two pulled out a drill with a half-inch bit, I started to worry. I tried to explain that it was too big. He pulled out a plastic anchor and demonstrated how the drill bit needed to be that size. I was doubtful, but waved him on. Thirty seconds later I was all but yelling, looking at the giant hole and chipped plaster.

The boss guy came over and pulled out his box of recycled, rusty screws, saying that these were what they needed. Not on my walls. Again, I pointed to the ones already in place. He finally understood and went out to buy some new fixtures. The drilling continued, with a smaller bit, but with chips and trashed-up walls. He kept saying it was no problem, and would grab a picture to show me that once it was hung, you wouldn’t see the mess. I tried to explain that I didn’t care if it was going to be covered, and in some cases, it wouldn’t be. I finally gave up and let them put in ten hooks, all the while calculating how much of my deposit was being lost.

When they left, I set about doing repairs. I had tried to ask if they might have spackle, but that conversation got nowhere. Not wanting to go out and try to find some, I used the old college apartment/get the deposit back trick: toothpaste. After that dried, I brought out the acrylic paints and tried to mix a color that would match the walls. It looks ok, if you don’t get too close. When I finally finished doing damage control and hung my things, I was very pleased.

But there was a problem; I had one, big, empty wall that needed something large. I have fabric hangings and photos on all the other walls, and this wall needed a painting. I paint a lot of things, but they are never on flat surfaces. I do designs, not proper paintings. Also, I don’t think I have ever done anything two-dimensional. Now was the time to try.

Vietnam is known for its copy artists. You can buy first rate, original reproductions of just about anything. There is also original work and portraits from photos. Several of these stores are on the main tourist street in town and I thought they would be the place to buy a canvas on a stretcher board.

I’d never before even walked into any of them, but remembered one huge place in the bottom level of an old building. So today, I went in. The cavernous ground floor had ceilings that appeared about two stories high. It looked like nothing had been done to the place for one hundred years other than to have paintings displayed on all the wall space and stacks of pictures leaning against the walls.

I walked in and towards the back where the sales people sat around on low stools. Off to the left, three young men were busy painting large pictures, occasionally glancing at small pictures from an art catalogue or postcard. At least one man looked to be doing an O’Keefe, although I am not certain. Another was reproducing a postcard picture of a young Vietnamese woman in traditional dress, leaning on a cart. I glanced at his sample then back to the picture. It was the same except that in the painting, her dress bodice was transparent and she had a set of giant boobs in all their glory, jutting out at you.

I asked the sales ladies if I could purchase a blank canvas. It took a few minutes before I was understood. I had a choice of three sizes, and took the 80cm x 80cm. They cut the canvas and stretched and stapled it for me, wrapped it in paper and made a string handle. Total cost; $7. Leaving, I was getting really excited about going home and getting out my paints and playing. Then I realized that I only own small bottles of acrylic paint and this was a large hunk of canvas. I needed paint.

Le Loi street, a few blocks away, is lined with little stationary and art supply stores. I looked at the sky, knew it would soon start raining, but another trip into town to get paint when I was so close didn’t seem like the smart thing to do. So, with canvas slung from my shoulder, umbrella held up, I went in and out of shops, searching for paint. Everyone had oil, but no acrylic, and I was starting to get soggy. I finally found my paints, purchased about 5 tubes, and flagged a taxi before really getting drenched. My blank canvas is now on the wall while I get inspiration about just what to do with it.

Once home, I remembered the linen pants I had had made and needed to pick up. This is also the country of inexpensive tailors but all the ones that had been recommended where very far from where I live. Going in for a fitting or two would cost more in taxi fares than it would in clothing. But a few months ago I met a neighbor who has a store on the back side of my building. She employs deaf seamstresses, gives them good working conditions, so is making enough to get by, and also providing employment for people who might not find work as easily as others.

The pants I had designed were perfect and the construction excellent. I took in more linen for two more pair and designed a top that they could make out of the left over fabric. As I was explaining what I wanted to one young lady who spoke limited English, and another who spoke well, they called down two seamstresses. The ladies signed between themselves, and a little to the one young woman who did not speak English very well. When things got confusing in the ensuing translation to me, or vice versa, the deaf women wrote in Vietnamese and then it was translated for me. I did a drawing and pantomime of what I wanted and the seamstress understood immediately, but then needed to assure the sales lady that she really did understand.

After all the measuring was done, the seamstresses mimed rocking a baby. (did I have children?) I shook my head and then mimed the same question to her. She nodded, held up one finger, then did the American Sign Language sign for boy. I about fell off the chair. It has been twenty year since I took sign language, but some things you just don’t forget. For the next twenty minutes, the group of us either signed, spoke English, or Vietnamese. It was incredible. Sometimes I signed to the deaf women and then said it in English. Or they would write a word in Vietnamese, which was translated to English, and I would remember the sign, which was the same in Vietnamese Sign.

Sign language is different in different countries so I was really surprised. But then I remembered that ASL is based on French Sign Language, and of course the Vietnamese version must have been brought over by the French. When I signed a question regarding this, the deaf ladies said that there were some similarities, but I that it was a different language, and that indeed, it was based on French Sign. Holy Crap! I had the most extensive conversation I have ever had with non-English speakers in Vietnam, and it was in sign! Every time we found a mutual sign, all of us would hoot with laughter and disbelief that we were communicating. God, if only everyone else in this country could sign, I could get along really well. I have a very limited sign vocabulary, but if I get stuck, I just keep gesturing, and deaf people seem to pick up on gestures with much more ease. Also, I didn’t feel hesitant at all about trying out signs, where as I am really bad at even trying to use Vietnamese in public. I am really eager to get back and sign some more.