The rain is upon us, day two of three, I’m told. Parts of the city will probably flood, the sewers groaning until they throw up their hands in defeat at the sheer weight of all this water. The first sign was probably the rats, who have been unusually active over the past few days. I should take out my garbage before they all escape for the cozy refuge of my second-floor apartment. The unlucky ones will greet me bloated and belly up when I venture out to work on Monday morning. This probably sounds rather matter-of-fact, especially to those of you who have witnessed my fear of rodents that run amok with jerky little tails. But someone clever once said that dirt is simply matter out of place, so while a rat in Toronto resembles something dirty and exterminable, in Hanoi I see them more as brethren. We’re all just trying to survive this town. And in the end, rats are everywhere.
It reminds me of Gregg Mitman’s Breathing Space. He writes about the history of allergies and how they reflect our cultural and classist ideas about cleanliness and contaminants, but also how our attempts to control allergens in turn produce a multitude of unintended consequences. It’s a glimpse at our collective hubris in action.
Homes in North America are no less permeable than those in Vietnam, really. It may seem that way since North American culture has pursued impermeability and sanitation with gusto. In Canada especially, we try to seal ourselves in (for admittedly pragmatic reasons), but as Mitman points out, this simply changes the relationship we have with the nature within our homes. It doesn’t eradicate it. The difference is that rats are considered matter out of place (unacceptable!) while we either resign ourselves to other companions (dust mites!) or work hard to maintain an illusion of sanitized domestic bliss. There’s a lesson in here somewhere.