Many Americans have a soundtrack for Vietnam in mind. The songs popular with soldiers in the war – and popular in movies about soldiers in the war – talk about peace, frustration and, primarily, change. Like a rolling stone, I moved here to watch every season turn, turn, turn and further wonder what war is good for. And in my half decade in Vietnam, I’ve found a playlist about change to be perfectly fitting.
What if you had told me I’d wind up in Vietnam for five years? That I’d live here, all of all places, for longer than I’ve lived anywhere other than my parents’ house as a kid? What if I had seen this house as my home instead of the forbidding Haunted Mansion? What if I’d framed pictures instead of using each trip home as a way to offload a suitcase of souvenirs onto my very space-generous mom? What if I had fully embraced Da Nang from the beginning?
Only in Asia. Making fun of mistranslations is a game that never gets old. What’s even better is when there’s a childlike duck painted on the wall next to the cocktail special and a swing set that can also be used as set up space for the Friday night band. Welcome to my friend’s new bar. His name is Tuat. His brother, Wang. Together they wanted a place where families could enjoy a night out together. The result is in the title. Vietnam, how I love thee.
Who owes who in an expat/nation relationship? Does the expat owe their newfound residence eternal gratitude? Does their new country owe them for bringing over their mad dog skills? Or does the balance lie somewhere in between? (Hint: the PC answer is always in the noncommittal negotiated answer).
In the noble quest to find oneself through traveling is it possible to overlap, even infringe, on the paths of others? I read an article today about the detrimental effects photojournalism has had on indigenous tribes in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. The locals there now limit their own development and cheapen their culture for the forgettable benefit of any journalist or tourist with a buck to throw their way once the headdresses are off. Their lives now revolve around sustaining an image of a tribe that has essentially ceased to exist.
Now, I’m not one for sob stories. I have little patience for those who are portrayed as the alleged victim when they, themselves, benefit and enter by their own free will. I pledge with the un-alleged. But it upset me when this article called the happenings of photojournalism in the valley a “human zoo”. This is the stuff of creepy movies and human centipedes.
My travel has always revolved around me; I want to go so I do. I want to better myself, so I take pictures, write in my diary and get to act pretentious at my next cocktail party. I travel for myself. But if travel is truly for the benefit of only one then how can it justify any sort of harm to another? Surely if good (for 1 person) = bad (for 1 person) we’re right back at point zero. Might as well have stayed home and watched TV.
Always I want to qualify things and I have not yet left behind a childish oversimplification in distinction: there is Good and Bad in the world. Easy. Gray in judgment leaves me feeling unfinished. Even after 11 years of Travel I still find myself reverting to classifying all I trip upon with much deliberation but little variation of adjectives.
Most Different equaled Good to a younger me, bored of the Midwest and certain that something more exciting lay just beyond the river bend (Pocahontas reference intentional). Strange, Weird, Confusing all made it into the Good category by their sheer otherness. Then some Different became Good by virtue of confusion. That which discomforted my previously unquestioned suburban ethics was exalted rather than inspected too harshly. In other words, anything done by any sort of formerly oppressed peoples, no matter how seemingly strange, must be Good at its core; nonsensical only because of my ignorant failures. Long live imperialists’ Noble Savage! It made everything easier. And in the heart of my backpacking social scene thinking Good of others meant others thinking Good of you; only the narrow-minded dare condemn otherwise.
They are, after all, comfortable. Can you really blame the slouchy 20-year-old frat boys or the 70-year-old Vietnamese women for wanting to wear them day in and day out? The only difference is that frat boys know they’re being lazy. Vietnamese grannies think they look quite nice. Matching top and pants? How convenient! Who cares if they have snoozing elephants printed all over them?
- You Eat Strange Things for Breakfast
In college it was cold pizza and the occasional mouldy Chinese take away from your roommate’s half of the fridge. Now it’s beef and noodle soup, chicken pate sandwiches or an entire coffee pot’s worth of caffeine in one small sip of Vietnamese coffee. It’s all good for you.
Travel is an empowering verb. To travel is to challenge yourself, often to fail miserably, but also to find new self-respect in those moments when you master(ish) a new language, a new subway system or a new form of chili. Traveling forces you to put yourself out there and take stances on issues you didn’t know existed.
The downside of all this travel-induced decision making is that you can become a little too proud of standing on your own two feet. You feel like the master of the universe the day you can use a long drop without blinking an eye. You can take on the world the day you convince a Nigerian customs agent to let you through without your passport. You become a little too comfortable with knowing you’ll get from A to B, even if you don’t know exactly how.