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On the Other Side of the Window: a Peek into Different Worlds

A little fern stem pokes out from a wall


It has been more than 16 days or so since we entered lockdown in Hanoi. Has it been 16 days? I'm not sure.Time without routines slips away like water droplets on a lotus leaf. Each household is given tickets for grocery shopping and all eateries are closed. I'm left with no reason to go out, not even to linger on the short walk between home and the supermarket. The only way to connect with the outside world is through my window.

I find myself once again a little kid of 30 years ago, home alone when my parents had left for work. Many kids who were born in the 70s and 80s in Vietnam were usually home alone like me. We were all little kings in the mighty kingdoms that were our houses. 

At that time, my only corridor to the world was the window — painted green with rusty iron grids. My first window was in an old apartment in an old khu tập thể, or residential block, in Nghia Tan. 

Sometimes when looking out of the window, I saw another little kid sitting on the balcony of the neighboring "bird cage," two hands holding the iron bars, his legs dangling. We were two little prisoners. I often put my hands out of the grids to catch some silky flowers of sunlights or to poke at the little invisible creatures floating in the air. Once, I put my head out just to feel the air but it got stuck between two iron bars. Right at that moment, I heard thunder rumbling and a few raindrops fell on my head. I started to sob, envisioning my next five years (which was the furthest a four year-old could think) as a balcony-head girl who needed her mom to spoon feed her every meal. Fortunately, the rain started to get heavier, interrupting my melodramatic scenario and forcing me to find a way to pull my head back inside. After several rotations and a few bruises, I finally managed to liberate my head from the two iron bars. 

My family moved to khu tập thể Kim Lien, another old Soviet styled residential area, when I was six. The apartment’s only window was in the bedroom that my sister and I shared. It was actually a part of the living room partitioned by a large tv cabinet and a thick green curtain. Our window looked out to a concrete jungle, and a little further away, there laid another residential block which was also in the Kim Lien area — the center of my attention. 

This residential block looked exactly like block C7 where my family lived, or any other Soviet-style residential block in Hanoi for that matter. All of them were little boxes the colour of ochre, stacked on top of each other. Each box sheltered one or many different lives: on the balcony of one box, an old man in white tank top and shorts was hanging clothes, at another window, a student completely absorbed in a comic book, and yet on another ledge, a calico cat was gracefully tip-toeing.

And just like any other nhà tập thể, disarray sprouted from every corner: an unruly bougainvillea hooked its green fingers on the third and fourth floor's balconies’ tangled electric wires spread their dark web with knots coming out from the most unexpected places, and at the rooftop, fishbone antenas swayed a stiff rendering of Danse Macabre whenever there was a breeze. I had grown up with that window of "harmonious chaos" and only realised that it had become a part of me when I moved to a new country where everything was clean and well-ordered. It was pleasant yet alienating. The manicured bushes looked like lines of overly trimmed nails, and my condo's rule banned curtains of any color other than brown and yellow. Only when I walked into a bustling wet market, soaking in all its noises, smells, movements and lively chaos, did I start to feel a familiar warmth from the new place I called home. 

Mark Strand, "89 clouds" 

Windows are where city dwellers like me get to connect with nature, even if that nature is just a piece of grey sky, a streak of wet clouds, a drop of rosy sunlight or the soft silhouette of a leaf on the wall. When my family were living in Kim Lien, my sister and I sometimes stayed up to wait for fireflies. We switched off the light and hushed each other, waited quietly until some sparkles appeared in the velvety night. I was six. Those were the first times that I saw fireflies. When I looked at them from behind the iron grids of my window, I felt like Tinker Bell just sprinkled her magic dust on me.

Our third window was in khu tập thể Truong Han Sieu, looking out to a wall. My sister and I shared a room which was an extended "birdcage" almost touching the opposite building. Looking out from there, the sky shrank down to a blue gutter between the two metal roofs. On cloudy Sundays, I often lie on my bed, listening to Dindi, watching clouds drifting away. It looked as if gigantic cotton candies were slowly fluffed at some far corner of the sky. Those were the sweet innocent summer days.

"Sky, so vast is the sky
With far away clouds just wandering by
Where do they go
Oh, I don't know, don't know"
- Dindi. Antônios Carlos Jobim


Whenever I'm upset, I look up to the sky. My dark mood can never taint its crystal surface or weigh down the clouds. Clouds are detached from my earthly concerns. Whether I'm relishing a success or feeling defeated, kind or mean, the gentle clouds always come visit me at my window; their vast white wings an eternal hug. These days, I hear COVID news everywhere I turn. What will happen tomorrow? Having certainty is a privilege. My friends and I tell each other that we should meet up immediately when we can do so again, take a walk the moment we want to walk, get a milk tea when we have a craving for milk tea. Because we never know. We should appreciate all these trivial little things that make life wonderful the moment we can. When?

Every morning, instead of getting up right away, I linger on my bed, looking up to the clouds. On the ground: things arise and disappear; collisions, fractures, separations. Up there: the boundless sky and quiet clouds inching away, indifferent to the impermanence of life on Earth. 

Looking in someone's window is touching them with your eyes. You see them relentlessly stir-frying food in the kitchen while shouting at a bunch of rowdy kids who are fighting over a piece of deep-fried prawn.  And if they look out, their gazes might touch yours, all sweaty, gulping water at the other side of the road. 

When you go to a new city, aside from windows, open spaces such as balconies, yards or rooftops give you a glance of life - the heart and soul of that city. Only five minutes ago, standing in front of rows after rows of concrete walls, you felt like the city slammed its door in your face. But now, only four floors up from where you were, suddenly there are so many warm hands holding yours.

In Udaipur, India, one December afternoon on the rooftop of my hotel: I was enveloped by an exuberant air. The city came alive. Short-tailed gray squirrels danced their jittery choreography, disappearing into the cement roof. A group of monkeys, bored of pondering their monkey lives (perhaps), were now scratching their butts or picking lice from each other's head. Flocks of pigeons swooped down close to me and rose up again, like metallic waves from an ocean of sky. From time to time, the chimes of bells and solemn prayers reverberated from the Jagdish temple nearby. On the rooftop of the opposite house, two kids were whispering into each other's ears, giggling. On the rooftop of the crimson house, a woman in a scarlet sari was hanging clothes and a scarf the colour of the house. Down below, on the sunny courtyard of my hotel, a plump white cow was sprawling, deep in his siesta. His nose bulged, his legs twitched. Did he transform into a wild horse in his dream? 

My hotel in Jaisalmer was in the Golden Fort. From the parched stone bench on the hotel's rooftop, I could see the fort's amber-colored sandstone, cobbled streets, piles of garbage lining the fort's walls and dozens of kites soaring up gracefully from town.

Looking down from the 20th or 30th story, the city loses its liveliness, shrinks to mere rows of toy houses. The inherent shapes, colors and textures of houses and trees vanish - what's left are a few abstract grey lines. The street sounds — the high-pitch cries of street vendors, the thump of a football being kicked around from a court nearby, the "snip snip" of scissors as workers are pruning street plants or the Southern shriek "Đụ má" ("Fuck!") which somehow feels melodic to the northern ears which are used to swear words containing only underdots ("dấu nặng") — cannot reach to the high floors. Even vehicles' aggressive sounds are crushed into an indistinguishable hum in the distance. Saigon, Jakarta, Bangkok or Singapore easily becomes a nameless city, merely a collection of muted squares.

Hanoi is on a strict lockdown. Each trip out starts with a relentless quest for reasons and countless considerations. At the end of each quest is usually the end of the trip that hasn't even started. I use Window Swap as a temporary remedy for the suffocation of the lockdown. It's a website where users can share short videos of the view from their window, any window. To the viewers, Window Swap is a trip around the world through windows. Y Mai's window (could it be Ý Mai - a Vietnamese name?) opens on a dreamy afternoon in Paris: sleepy old houses surround each other with indigo shadows;plump clay chimneys basked in sunlights, their reddish brown colour radiates. The street is quiet; there is only the non-stop chatter of birds. Adri Y Noa's window reveals an early morning in Montserrat, Buenos Aires. The sun is up but the small street is still deep in night. Delicate wrought ironwork on balconies of the houses opposite look like lace ribbons knitting into each other.

There are also windows that offer familiar sceneries. The honey-yellow wooden window of Srujan in Hyderabad opens to clusters of slender leaves of a sữa tree and a mossy rooftop, glittering in the drizzle. Once in a while, a bird tweets softly. Its trill seems to tremble every time a car honks in the alley.

Ryan's window in Taichung opens to a concrete jungle and a construction site. Two excavators move back and forth, diligently gouging piles of broken bricks out of flat walls. Soon, what is left of this building will be merely heaps of broken pieces. On the same ground, there will be a new condo, the name of which I don't know but perhaps something to do with the future, like the slogan, "A new future" written on the construction fence. Like all the khu tập thể that my family have left behind, decades ago, perhaps the building that is being demolished now was once a symbol of hopes and dreams.

Beautiful views do not guarantee joy. The carefree air surrounding a window in Milano — potted plants basking in the sun, glorious sky, footsteps tip-tapping on the street — reminds me of what I'm desperately missing. The window in San Fernando looks out to a busy street in the evening; families are taking a troll and diners chat while sipping wine in sidewalk restaurants. In front of the opposite restaurant, a crowd is listening attentively to a flamenco singer singing passionately in the searing sound of the guitar. Only four months ago, I could still go to jazz night at Minh's Jazz Club or a ả đào night at Dao Bar to sketch. Would I have another opportunity to go to these places this year? Would they still be there?

To look out of someone's window, you have to be invited into their home. You walk into that warm and mysterious kingdom, passing their objects — artifacts and fossils of their lives. Oriental paper lanterns, a straw hat, two felt sofas with back patches decorated with red squares, and on the table, a magazine, the cover of which is of the same soft grey color of the sofas. These objects are like books half opened, whispering stories about the life of a stranger — their dreams, their loves and their loneliness. A half drunk glass of red liquid and a jar of brown sugar shimmering in the blue light of the wet sky outside. What did the owner of this window think ten minutes ago when they were holding the glass in their hand, sipping the curious red liquid while looking out to Wale's fierce rain?

There is an accidental kindness in the Window Swap's videos. In a subtle way, people who share videos of their window view are also allowing viewers — strangers to them — an intimate glimpse into their private life: their footsteps on their wooden floors, the clickety-clack of their keyboard, their child babbling to his toy, their hand opening the shutter slammed shut by the wind, the small round bathtub they made with wood and painted blue, embraced by the thick vegetation in their garden. "Opening" windows is not merely "travelling" to the outside world — it is about feeling at home wherever you are. 

References

Window Swap: https://www.window-swap.com/

Popova, M. 89 Clouds: A Poetic Celebration of Clouds and Everything They Mean. [online] Brain Pickings. Available at: <https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/02/89-clouds-mark-strand-wendy-mark/> [Accessed 05 August 2021].

Linh is an independent researcher who has been rediscovering the joy of looking at the world (and being a part of it) through sketching. When she’s not doodling, Linh writes essays for O mai sau Hanoi, a blog she’s managing with two other friends.

This essay was first published on O mai sau Hanoi and was adapted with permission from the author.

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