Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. – Rainer Maria Rilke
I crossed the border into Vietnam by bus from China. It was one of those buses that stop in every small town, stop when the driver needs a restroom, a bite to eat or spots a friend to talk to, invariably turning what should be a three-hour ride into an all-day affair. I was reading a story about the origin of the Vietnamese people, that they were descended from the love of a dragon and a fairy. But I’m interrupted by the woman next to me placing a bag of dried fish between us as an offering. Food as a bridge to friendship. I graciously accept, of course, but truthfully, I can’t stand dried fish – it’s a flavor I’ve never gotten used to. Crunching a handful of minnows, I wonder what I’ll do if they make me gag. But I’ve long accepted the wisdom sold to me as a kid by my Auntie M: Choke on it. And hope that someone at the table knows the Heimlich. At least have the courtesy to draw attention away from your rudeness.
I used to ride “yellow dog” buses like this one, as a kid. The same single-bench seats made for two can uncomfortably fit three or four if necessary (and it always becomes necessary) along with some chickens and a goat in the aisle. I’ve seen sheep ride on the roof. It sounds a bit uncivilized where I’m from, but compared to the bus loads of “civilized” children I chaperoned on school field trips, I’ll take this bus any day. Although, the guy next to me is sitting atop two full gas cans, while the man in front of him chain-smokes cigarettes and ashes on the floor. The greasy drip marks on the metal cans and the unmissable odor of gasoline have me wondering how to convey that the laws of chemical reactions and worst-case scenarios make this a really bad idea.
Maybe the guy next to me sees the look on my face because he starts laughing at me, and says, “Những con chim đang ca hát.” I don’t know a lick of Vietnamese, and the only word I think I understand is: dragon. He makes this flapping gesture with his hands, like wings. Or an explosion.
Not speaking Vietnamese I ask, “Hey, do you think this bus is up to code? Y’know, regulation-wise?” He laughs, saying, “Hôm nay là sinh nhật của tôi,” but to me it sounds like, Control over anything is an illusion. ‘Cept fear.
“‘Ex-cept fear’, or ‘Ac-cept fear’? ‘Cuz those are two totally different directions, right now.”
“Tám mươi ba năm của máy bay.” Same direction, he may have said, miming the flapping-explosion again, chuckling.
We didn’t blow up that day. The worst-case scenario didn’t happen, it rarely does. A good thing since I still had another four months to go on the trip. Before starting, I imagined all the worse-case scenarios in leaving for a long voyage into the unknown and they were paralyzing. Actually, the number of worst-case scenarios on that bus ride alone was paralyzing. None of them came true. Not a single one. Neither did the second to worst-case scenarios nor the third. All those fairy tales of fear I’d been sold weren’t worth the price of admission. Trips like that one can blow your life onto another course if you let them.
I turn to the woman next to me smiling at the whole exchange. “What do we have to lose?” I ask. Her surprised expression tells me we’re not speaking the same language. Maybe she heard, Pink panties are my favorite. That’s irrational, I know, but that’s the crazy-making nature of fear, and now I’m worried things are going to get really awkward and this is going to be one helluva long ride out of China. So, I turn to her again, “I didn’t say ‘Pink panties are my favorite’. Just so you know.” But I’m not sure what she understood. Maybe, You’re a dragon, I’m a fairy. All I know is that she doesn’t smile. Only nods and turns to face out the window. And slowly takes back the fish leaving the bridge crumbling between us.