Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Gatekeepers

Most of us past our mid twenties will remember that famous scene from Ghostbusters where Sigourney Weaver, wearing that tawdry red dress charred from the apartment fire, asks Rick Moranis, “Are you the Key master?”
In reply he asks, “Are you the Gate Keeper?”
They embrace and begin making love in a half destroyed apartment complex while horrible scenes of slimy ghosts wreaking havoc take place below them.  After a few weeks of staying at my friend’s house here in Hanoi, I too have found the Gate Keeper.  Not in any sexual sense, good God I hope not, for my Gatekeeper seems to be about ninety years old.  Okay, maybe a conservative eighty, but I still don’t think he’d be any competition for Sigourney even with his own red dress.  Maybe I have a thing for Sigourney Weaver...I do really like the Alien series...especially when she’s clad in underwear shooting the Alien out of the airlock.
I digress.  My gatekeeper is an old Vietnamese man who is, not surprisingly, married to an old Vietnamese woman.  They’re an odd pair and really don’t seem to have much else to do all day than check on the gate.  Let me paint a picture of the alleyway: it’s off of Kim Ma, a major road, and there is a narrow passageway with peoples flats to the left and right; at the end of the passageway is a gate the opens to three or four other houses including our own. At night the gate is kept securely closed with a padlock; during the day it is merely a large metal peg that can be unhooked, via a small swinging opening, from either side.  The old couple, day and night, have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the gate is always shut. 
Periodically throughout the day the old man or woman will potter down to the gate, jiggle the metal peg, look out at the busy street through the bars, usually look disapprovingly at our house, and then potter on back home.  Even if the gate is left unfastened for only a minute, they are well aware.  Once I walked to the end of the road to throw out our trash, a thirty second journey, and on my return was met with a look of death from the old woman.  She gave me a good talking to and there was little confusion, despite the language barrier, what she was upset about. 
I can’t help but feel there is a little partiality to yelling at us rather than the other residents in the alley.  I’ve seen others leave the gate wide open and drive off without giving the old couple a thought.  When this happens I’m always worried that I’ll be blamed for the transgression; in fact, I sometimes close the gate for others fearing chastisement by my wrinkly neighbours.  Again, I don’t see them yelling at the others, just us.  Is it because we are the only people that allow this kind of treatment, is it just racism, are they in some way trying to be nice by showing how much they care about our safety?  If so, why do they also insist on looking through our rubbish?
 I think about this and I also think how I’ve never seen them outside of the gate.  I think of their age and wonder if they are more frightened of the world coming in, or that they might be forced out into the world.  The city’s changed rapidly over the past few decades, so much so they might not even recognize it.  I imagine that, in a way, it has changed to such a degree that they are actually living in a land foreign to them.  The only comfortable place is home, or rather that small area behind the gate; the gate through which they watch the world change.  The only contact they have with that changing world is probably us: the foreigners, no less strange than Slimer, who need to be told how life is lived behind the gate.

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