My mantra when I lived abroad was Try New Things. I wasn’t always successful in the trying, but I did my best, because when was I ever going to get the chance to try these things again?
I Tried New Things every day on a visit to Vietnam, but the end result wasn’t necessarily pretty. Especially the day we went to see the tunnels at Cu Chi and took a slight detour en route to visit the Rice Paper Lady.
This industrious (and very patient) woman made rice papers to sell to local restaurants. She was the living embodiment of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule: she’d been making these papers for a long time, and it showed in the nimbleness of her fingers and the easy rhythm of her work.
We watched her take a scoop of rice-and-water mixture and pour it onto a hotplate. She used the flat bottom of the scoop to spread the mixture into a perfect circle, covered the hotplate with a rattan lid for about half a minute, then used a chopstick to coax the rice paper first onto a cylinder, then onto a bamboo screen.
She made about a thousand perfectly-formed rice papers a day, eight per screen. The screens were propped up against the walls so the papers could dry in the sun, and the crackling sound they made as they fluttered in the breeze sounded like gentle rainfall.
Our guide asked me if I wanted to try my hand at paper making. I didn’t, because it looked easy — a sure indication it was going to be damn hard. But I didn’t want to look like a wuss in front of my children, so I accepted the offer with what I hoped looked like genuine enthusiasm.
You can see the results in the video below. The poor lady was quite agitated at the sight of the mangled and misshapen blobs I produced. After making two of the saddest looking rice papers known to mankind, I slunk out of there with my tail between my legs.
My clear unsuitability for rice paper making aside, two things made it a memory I’ll always cherish. First, it was actually more fun than I expected, and we laughed hard that day. (My ineptitude made for a lot of good-natured teasing on the drive to Cu Chi.) Second, I had Tried a New Thing, and that’s always good.
Perhaps with another 9,999¾ hours of practice, my efforts might have turned out differently. I think the Rice Paper Lady would have collapsed under the strain long before that point, though, so I’m quite happy to have left the work in her expert hands.