The morning before the typhoon hit, I sat down for a Skype date with my parents: my morning coffee and their evening wine, the usual football and grandchildren updates punctuated by the cut-outs of the faltering wifi connection.
Until my dad said he had something to tell me: for the first time, he was struggling with depression. Or anxiety. He wasn’t sure, really. No one was. All he knew were the symptoms, how it’d been building in him: insomnia deepening and paranoia flaring. Worries he knew were irrational would overtake him. He’d get agitated, snap at my mom, then apologize and retreat to the garage, where he hermited himself among his half-made sculptures—wires sticking out from underneath the clumps of clay, I imagined.
“It’s like there was this animal stalking me my whole life,” he said. “And it finally got me, and dragged me into this hole, and now I can’t get out.”
He sounded real matter-of-fact as he told me, almost like we were discussing the weather. Which we did not in fact discuss. It didn’t occur to me to mention Typhoon Haiyan, which after wrecking havoc in the Philippines was now poised over the waters off Vietnam. I didn’t think to mention the fact that the center of the country had been evacuated, or the news I’d heard that the storm would make landfall in Hanoi on Sunday night.
I was stuck on the thing he said about the animal. It was the exact analogy I’d used to refer to my own depression, which came crinkled on the edges with visual and auditory hallucinations: as a lurking beast that followed me, slipping along the edges of every day. Even now, with years of medication, treatment and recovery, I still catch glimpses of it. Even now, I still put a lot of effort into keeping that beast out.
It’s a force and you feel it, I wanted to say. Even when you want to think it’s gone, you can still feel it out there, waiting. You’re always waiting for it to hit.
But do you really say something like that? To your dad? “Hmmm,” is what I said instead.
No one knew anything about the storm or when it was supposed to hit, which was apropos for expat life in Hanoi.
I got dinner with some friends that night. We sat on the floor, ate caramel pork and sticky rice, and they told me about the art opening they went to. At some point Jacob thought to tell me, “You know that big storm, the one that killed all those people in the Philippines? It’s headed straight to Lan’s hometown.”
Our mutual friend was from the center of Vietnam, from a town known for its traditional Mỳ Quảng dish and not much else. “Has her family evacuated?”
Van nodded. “They evacuated all the towns in the center, 600,000 people.”
Jacob let out a low whistle. None of us looked at one another. What could we say? When things like this happen, all you can do is feel your distance, your powerlessness. All you can do is watch.
So I shoved more pork in my mouth. “And what about Hanoi? We’re not supposed to get hit that bad, right?”
Van shook her head. “Just the tail end, they say. So maybe some flooding, but not much.”
I kept chewing. During the summer monsoons, Hanoi floods all the time—darkness that creeps in and accumulates, humidity that rises, pressure that builds in you like tea kettle steam. Just when you feel like your skin is about to burst, the sky rips open with a lash of lightning. Downpours hit like fists and the drainage systems can’t keep up, so the alleys flood. The first couple times, it’s something to behold. But then you get used to it, learn to live with it: to take your shoes off, roll your pants up and wade to your front door, yesterday’s trash floating past as the rats scurry up the telephone wires.
Basically, we’re not new at this. A little flooding, a little lashing from that beast, is something we can handle.
So I told them instead about my conversation with my dad. I told them how he’d always been such a tough old dude: a retired firefighter who before that had pounded railroad spikes for a living. The kind of guy who, after his little brother died of AIDS, preferred to not talk about him for five years, instead of risk crying. I told them how weird it was to have my dad reveal vulnerability, something so intimate and from so far away. I told them about the stalking animal.
Jacob raised his eyebrow. “That’s intense.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Remember that thing I showed you that I wrote? Where I used the same analogy?”
Jacob nodded. And because there wasn’t anything else to say, no other way to make sense of it or rationalize it or tell ourselves it was going to be okay, I dipped some rice into the murky thick sauce at the bottom of the pork pot and watched it soak up the brown.
When I woke up the next morning, I heard rain and thought, “Shit, a day early.” I had a lunch date with a friend and was hoping not to have to mess with a typhoon on the ride over.
I tried to check storm news online but it was hard to get any solid information, the way it’s hard to get any solid information as a foreigner in Vietnam. Websites are blocked, censors stringent, the propaganda so thick you learn to develop your own filters—the way I barely even hear the announcements that crackle over the neighborhood loudspeaker anymore. There’s a particular impenetrability to Vietnam, and after a while, most of us expats just give up and live with the not knowing.
There’s a Hanoian Facebook group, most of it hearsay—apartment ads, newbie questions and requests for native English teachers—but I gave it glance. Someone had posted a link to a page that led to a satellite feed, a chart I couldn’t make sense of. An indiscernible mass of color swirled and chugged and crept towards the coast of what I recognized to be Vietnam. It was over the sea, I could tell that, and it was coming for us, I could tell that too. But I couldn’t determine anything else: what the colors meant, the speeds or winds or strengths, when the storm would hit Hanoi and at what severity. Everything was in Vietnamese, a phonetic language I can read with a bit of accuracy—sounds I can make but don’t know the meaning of.
I spent a few seconds watching the mass twitch on the screen, creep towards an aerial image of my city, my apartment, me. A little flooding. All you can do is watch. I gave up and closed the tab.
It stopped raining, at least long enough for me to stay dry on the motorbike ride over to the café, where I drank coffee and gossiped with my friend for a few hours. By the time we got up to leave, the sky had darkened again. There was a twitch in the air, winds agitated and mounting.
“When do you think it’ll hit?”
“I dunno. I heard tonight.”
We stood there for a moment, staring up and trying to determine if the gray above was more ominous than any other tropical storm.
In the end, we couldn’t tell.
I spent the evening watching movies I’d downloaded, with my headphones on cause the sound was such crap. Most of the movies had been recorded in theaters. You could hear people in the audience cough, a stray cell phone go off, could glimpse people’s shadows sneaking down the aisle. Once the recorder slipped and the angle went askew, everything sideways, rustling, strange.
Around eleven I took my headphones out. Outside my window, the winds were getting louder. They moaned like something out a horror movie. I could hear the nervous rattle of the windows in their panes, could feel the gusts of wind that snuck through the unsealed gaps. I had the image of my apartment as a little tugboat in a big angry sea. I conceded to myself that I was a little scared.
On Facebook, a friend reported that one of the big international schools had canceled classes the next day because of the typhoon. I read a few other posts from foreigners asking what the hell was going on. “The government is sending people text messages telling them to stay indoors,” one person responded. I checked my phone. There were a couple extra text messages, in Vietnamese, but they looked the same as the promotional texts the cell phone company sends. I sent a mass text out, asking if anyone had any info.
Someone else had shared a link to the same indiscernible site, and I clicked again, though I knew it was pointless. The same map appeared, the same colored orb twitching, only this time closer to what I recognized to be Hanoi.
A few minutes later a co-worker texted: Some info: winds of 70kph at 2pm tomorrow.
I did the conversion into miles and sighed. A California kid, I still didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t know what anything meant—one of those moments when you realize how little you understand of what’s actually going on, and I don’t just mean in Vietnam. You sense how precarious and small and foreign your life is, how it wouldn’t take much for something to wipe it all out and drag you away. You never know; today could be the day. In that moment, all I knew for sure was the sound of the branches rusting outside, the wind beginning to moan, the thump of the windows shaking. All I knew was that it was coming.
Before crawling into bed, I glanced at the window, the glass inside the big French shutters. I closed the curtains. A buffer in case the glass broke, I told myself, so the shards wouldn’t fly all over my bed.
And then because there was nothing else to do, I set my alarm, turned off my light and fell asleep.
The storm hit around 4 a.m. At least that’s when I woke up, when I heard something pounding on the windows, demanding to be let in.
I rolled over, clutched at the pillows, told myself to go back to sleep.
Then I heard it: not a boom or a howl, but a gentle, quiet creak.
I rolled over and saw the shutters had opened. They hinged like an elbow and waved. The wind blew in and made the curtains do a tangled dance. I watched them.
The storm was coming in, touching everything, running its fingers across my face. But it was a tropical storm: the wind wasn’t cold. My terrace blocked the rainwater from getting in. It was oddly mesmerizing to lay there and watch the curtains dance. And since I had a couple hours before the sun rose and my alarm went off, I didn’t get up to close the shutters. I didn’t fight it. I just lay there and watched.
When the light changed and I finally got up, I wedged the shutters shut, jammed the latches down and drew the curtains shut.
I pressed my face against the window’s glass and peered out. Outside, the rain was coming down sideways and the wind was howling like it had an actual voice, like it had something to say. The street was empty, no motorbikes or bicycles or cars. It was silent. I couldn’t hear any honking or the morning announcements that usually blare over the loudspeaker.
I Googled “typhoon Vietnam,” and got a couple links that wouldn’t open: “This page cannot be displayed in your location.” I tried to find the link to that indiscernible colorized graph, but it seemed to have been deleted from the Facebook page.
I thought of the scene from Their Eyes Were Watching God. I thought of the scene from Salvage The Bones. I told myself not to be ridiculous. There are things bigger than you, I told myself, things that can take you out, things you can’t fight. You’ve always known this. You’re not new at this.
But typhoons I was new at. Between the winds, there was this charged silence—there were no loudspeakers or construction noises or horns honking like most mornings—and as I stood there waiting for the coffee to brew, I realized I could hear a bird singing. That was a good thing, I told myself: animals are supposed to have a better sense of these things, right? The way dogs bark before earthquakes and critters evacuate before a tsunami. I didn’t actually know if that was true, but it seemed believable in that moment—that if something so small could survive out there, so could I.
I kept thinking of the bird as I pulled on my rain boots and put on my plastic poncho, the phrase “their eyes were watching God” playing through my head. On the motorbike ride to work, I kept bracing for strong winds, the kind that feel like some invisible hand pushing you, but I felt nothing more than a gust. There was lighter-than-usual traffic on the main road, but there were still motorbikes, still buses, still people squatted beneath umbrellas on plastic stools, billows of steam rising from metal vats.
At the kindergarten where I work, all the foreigners kept asking the Vietnamese staff if they knew what was going on. “Is it coming to Hanoi?” a semi-frantic British mom in gumboots asked.
The Vietnamese women clustered around their phones and shook their heads. “The storm changed,” they told us, trying to translate what they read. “It came north. It came for us.”
But a lot of people didn’t seem concerned at all, just annoyed at the rain and how hard it had been to get a taxi. Only six of my students made it to school that day. During circle time, I asked them if they had heard the wind that morning, if it was scary.
Tahira shook her head. “I not scared,” she told me.
“No?” I asked. “You’re braver than Ms. Lauren.”
She thought about this a moment, then smiled and repeated, “I not scared!”
She pointed her small thumb to her chest, and I believed her.
By my lunch break, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. My feet were sweating into their boots as I walked to the Western café. There was blue in the sky, a quality of blue I hadn’t seen for weeks, and the air was piercingly clean. The typhoon had washed away some of the smog, and I could breathe deeper, the air getting down to the part of my lungs that’s normally choked and closed in this city.
The café was swamped with tweens in flip-flops and shorts, and parents who’d stayed home from work. Everyone was drinking mango smoothies and talking about how lucky we were.
I checked my email and there was a message from my mom, about fifteen minutes old. She was trying not to worry, she said, but she was hearing news of the storm and it sounded bad. Did I have enough water and food for a couple days?
I laughed. Now that the worst had passed, she was worried. It hadn’t even been as bad as a normal summer storm, I wrote her.
Except for the wind. Except for the way it wrenched my shutters open, and except for the way I let it, watched it, stared and did nothing as it entered.
I didn’t say anything about that part—how mesmerizing and easy it had been to finally let that beast in. I thought about my dad. Sometimes fighting gets to be so much work. Sometimes all you can do is watch.
But I didn’t mention my dad, because she hadn’t either.
After lunch a rumor whipped through the school that the storm was headed back to Hanoi. I couldn’t really understand how that was possible, but the parents came early to pick up their kids nonetheless. We all stood in the garden under the gathering clouds and waited.
But it never struck. New clouds gathered and parted, and there was even a sunset that evening. I saw it, through the windows of my apartment, the glass now sitting still in the panes. I could see farther than usual, straight across the lake, which the smog usually obscures. The air was so clean I considered going for a jog.
But instead I opened my laptop and read the reports, the story that had been constructed: After devastating the Philippines, the weakened storm, now a Category 1, took a sudden and unexpected turn north. That’s when the government closed all the public schools in Northern Vietnam—apparently what the text message I’d received had said. The typhoon had hit the coast of Vietnam near Hai Phong, a shipping/smuggling/gangster town a few hundred kilometers away. I scanned pictures of the wreckage: over-turned boats, roofless shacks, uprooted trees—pretty tame, all things considered. The government lauded itself for its preparation and forward-thinking.
The storm was gone, the colorized beast dissipated, dispersed, having dragged its weakened body into China to die. I traced its path, just to have a narrative for what I’d seen: it grew here, started here, traveled this way, moved across the water, struck us here and crept off there.
Someone tweeted a link to an article in which Australian scientists postulated that climate change influenced the strength of the typhoon. “There’s likely more of these types of superstorms to come,” they said. I retweeted the link with the hashtag #noshit.
And sitting there at my desk, the windows unwobbly and everything sealed and still, I pictured it: a place in the ocean where the storms were being born. A pressure point where every toxic thing we’d thought we’d escaped was being stored.
I pictured there being a storm for every one of us, with each of our names on it, stirring and gathering force—little clots of color that the satellites can’t read and the weathermen can’t predict and the governments can’t forewarn of. I pictured the particles agitating, the winds starting to twitch, orbs of colorized pressure taking shape, creeping off, coming on an uncharitable course for each of us.
I pictured the way it will come one day, not so different from the way it came that day: the way it will push across the ocean, cut cross the islands, darken these skies. I pictured the websites all failing and the TVs going silent and the text messages coming too late, in a language we can’t read.
I pictured it coming at night, when everyone is sleeping. I pictured it making this landfall and breaking these windows, flinging off these roofs and wrenching open these walls and entering us, coming for us—our mouths all open and our eyes white in the dark.