Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am Vietnamese.

Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am Vietnamese.

I grew up as an only child in a Vietnamese household surrounded by a 1980’s American southern town. Learning to speak English when I was at school while learning to speak Vietnamese at home posed plenty of innate challenges like getting an ‘r’ to not sound like a ‘wah’ and an ‘l’ to not sound like a ‘wah’….well, come to think about it, I spent a lot of time trying to not have many things sound like ‘wah.’ To top this off, I was not the stereotypical Asian kid…silky black hair, thin and almond eyes…I was the super-sized version with frizzy hair and wide eyes so I was often asked, “What are you?” As political correctness became more popular, it evolved to, “Where are you from?”

I was constantly asked this. And still am.

After my sarcastic responses that ranged from Conyers (the suburban city on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia where I grew up) to Yemen wore out, I now say Vietnamese with a sigh because I know the response every time will inevitably be, “Really? I would have never guessed.” And 99% of the time, I’m asked this by another Asian (literally, it’s the first thing they say to me after hello) so once I disclose my heritage, I get to hear how they are amazed that I’m Vietnamese because they themselves are Vietnamese and I look like no one in their family and surely I don’t look like anyone else in my family so there must be ‘something else’ in me.  It’s oh so fun.

When I booked my trip to Thailand as my first country in Asia to visit, I mentally prepared myself for this question to be asked of me throughout the entire trip. And since I tend to face my fears or annoyances in full force, I decided to include Vietnam as part of the trip to see if I could get to the root of all this confusion about me. And even more so, I wanted to understand what the fascination was behind always wanting to know which Asiatic country an Asian was from. Maybe it’s to gain a sense of community? That’s my best guess and maybe that’s why it’s never occurred to me to ask the same question because I have never felt like I was part of that community. Well, this is going into a completely separate subject so I digress…

Thailand surprised me. Not once in the week and half that I was there, was I asked where I was from. I even tried to coerce the question out of a few people I talked to by asking how long they lived in Bangkok, whether they enjoyed it etc to pry the question out of them. At first I thought maybe they weren’t interested in knowing more about me, but they would ask a barrage of other questions about my travels and history but not once was I asked where I was from.  In Phuket, I went to a local restaurant and even tried a “well, this is definitely not what I grew up with” to see if I would be asked but again, no questions about my heritage.

Ceremony in Hanoi

In Vietnam, I had the same experience. Time after time, I would talk to a local and not once was I asked that inescapable question. But what I did learn to do was to take full advantage of this, specifically when shopping. Bargaining is widely accepted when looking to purchase something so I would inquire about the price in English and ask any questions in English…and if it was something that I wanted, I would start bargaining in Vietnamese. Jaws dropped every single time I did this and I started my own little competition to see how far I could get someone’s jaw to drop.  The winner was when I saw tonsils.

And this is when I realized the answer to my question: Not one person that I encountered in Vietnam realized I was Vietnamese.

This sums up the range of reactions I would receive when telling someone I am Vietnamese.

After I started speaking in Vietnamese, a few people would then ask me where I was from and again, it was followed by disbelief…and sometimes what I perceived as amazement…but every reaction solidified my acknowledgement that I did not carry whatever traits signify my heritage. I did talk to a few locals in length and learned that they had assumed I was a Westerner and well, a Westerner is a Westerner. It didn’t matter if I was from London or Detroit. They also talked to me about how in Vietnamese culture, it is very important to have a sense of community because in many areas, the community is just like extended family. I suspect this is the same for other Asian countries and it answered my question as to why I’m asked this so much when in America. Maybe they simply wanted to see if I was part of their community.

I thought this experience would bring some sort of enlightenment to my past and why I do certain things that I do…maybe feeling like an outsider all these years is why I want to experience the world to see if there is a place that I would ‘fit in’…maybe this is why there’s some reason I’m never physically attracted to another Asian…maybe this is why I love Asian food because it’s the only thing I can relate to…maybe this is all psychobabble that a therapist would say to me. Because I didn’t have any of these feelings. On the contrary, this experience gave me the most overwhelming sense of fulfillment. I was still an unknown in my own home country and I realized I was absolutely okay with that. I kinda felt like an undercover agent walking around the streets of Hanoi, knowing no one suspected I could understand what they were saying…and I like the fact that I’m a mystery to anyone who tries to guess my heritage because only I (and well, my family) know the real answer. So next time I go get my nails done, at the same salon I’ve been to for the past 5 years, and am asked yet again, “where are you from?” I will say, I am Vietnamese. And you?

Are you a Traveler or a Tourist?

Are you a Traveler or a Tourist?

I once visited Rio de Janeiro with a friend who woke up one morning determined to eat breakfast at Dunkin Donuts.  Dunkin Donuts…really? The first rule I made for myself from the very first day I traveled was to never eat at a U.S. chain restaurant and this included domestic destinations as well. Even if I was stuck in the Sahara desert and had nothing but a McDonald’s to quench my thirst…I would move on like Moses until I found a local watering hole. I travel to experience something different and for me, eating at places that I can have just as easily at home defeats the whole purpose.

After this incident, I started paying more attention to other foreigners wherever I traveled…and became amazed at how many times I would see Americans gathered in a Hooters in Singapore when there was amazing street food and a local bar right next door…or spending hours inside an environmental museum in Iceland but with no plans to visit just one glacier or volcano there….or watching a group walk up to the most gorgeous cliff in Peru, take selfies and then walk away without spending just one second enjoying the view…I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

So I began to ask around…why would you spend time and money to go somewhere and not want to experience everything it has to offer?

Here are some of the responses I received:

“When I go on vacation, I want the comforts of home and food that I’m used to.”

“It’s just easier to find a familiar restaurant because I don’t have to worry about language issues and ordering something I didn’t mean to order.”

“My ideal holiday is to take what I like at home and plop it into a different scenery.”

“I feel safer being surrounded by Americans so prefer to stay in American places.”

“I just wanted to get a good photo for my Instagram feed.”

This sums up the mentality of the perfect tourist. And in my mind, I imagine the perfect tourist wearing a Northface jacket or clearly branded clothing while clutching their guidebook (most likely in their phones these days) in one hand and a digital SLR camera in the other hand… they will respect the local culture and customs but don’t have a desire to partake in it or learn about it….at a restaurant, they are looking down at their phones more than talking to each other or new company…and in landmark destinations, they are exploring it with their Viator tour group and not daring to veer off the beaten path.

This is what I imagine because this is what I’ve been.

puerto vallarta
on the beach in puerto vallarta, mexico

I’ve been this perfect tourist and don’t think there is anything wrong with it and at least it’s helping the local economy. One example of a perfect tourist trip for me was when I went to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where all I wanted to do was to get away from the stresses of my life at the time and not think about anything. I had to search for a Spanish speaker and swear I saw more Americans than locals. I sat my happy ass on a beach chair every single day and ate whatever the hotel served (still no US restaurants though). I didn’t go visit any local neighborhoods or explore anything outside of our little bubble. I did nothing but relax and it was marvelous. Every once in a while, all I want to do is go decompress and being a tourist is the best way to do this.

But this is not why I travel.

I travel to get out of my comfort zone, experience what is local or native to that area and learn what drives that community and people. 9 out of 10 trips is for this very reason…to open my mind, be immersed in a different culture, volunteer with a group, explore the less-traveled areas…some of my favorite days have been when I’ve gotten myself lost on purpose just to see what was around the bend. I don’t often feel homesick when traveling because the foreign country becomes my home…Duolingo takes a backseat because some of my best language lessons have been during a drunken bar conversation….and I’ve noticed that I don’t spend as much time reading traveling books anymore because I’m focused on creating my own story.  And I never imagined myself being like this…but something happened when I took my first solo trip that brought out this side of me and it’s become my passion. And I’m so thankful it did. But I also know there is still that tourist traveler in me…and maybe I’m writing this as my soliloquy to justify its existence but I’m not ashamed. Nope, not ashamed at all.

So are you a traveler or a tourist? Perhaps you’re like me and you’re a traveler that occasionally moonlights as a tourist. Does it matter? Nah, there’s no wrong way to explore this planet but for me, it’s been useful to realize the difference and just embrace it.  At least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself.

A Break Up After Love at First Flight

Love at first flight.

Those who travel can relate. Post travel depression or (PTD). It’s real. We fall in love with the anticipation of a trip, we thrive in the exhilaration of making plans and we feel free once we arrive at our chosen destination. But coming home after spending days or even weeks abroad can trigger post travel depression and is quite difficult and can feel like a break-up after an erotic, tumultuous love affair.

You are probably all too familiar with my story.

We fell in love at first flight.

Your price, your destination and even the allure of free entertainment while I spend 8 hours in your lap is just enough for me to spend hard earned dollars on you.

We were destined to be together. My American culture coiled with the foreign one you offer. Weeks were spent planning our moments together. The things we would do, the people we would meet, the sounds of your native language that I would attempt to speak with my untrained tongue and most of all the lasting memories we would create.

I arrive.

I’m energized and excited to see you. I adjust my circadian rhythm to yours almost immediately and each morning that I am with you, I wake up early to explore.

Uninhibited, I seize the day as if it were my first and last. You have such a profound effect on me that you make me feel like the shapeshifter goddess; Athena.

I morph into a sociologist who is conducting qualitative research; I sit in a café and observe your people. An art critic examining the soul-manipulating pieces of art that hang in your galleries. An archeologist that studies the delicate details of your unearthed treasures. A conductor commanding the chatter and the sounds of your city.

Whenever I can, I touch you. In you, I am immersed.

In the quiet of the evening, I attempt to journal the day’s events, but the words turn into unfinished poetry. A subconscious act because I don’t want the love affair to end.

Our last days are near.

I sensed it when you asked me to meet you at the souvenir shop which I consider as one of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell. I know this routine. I have done this before. As I slowly peer down at my list of “Please bring me back…”, I pick out the best magnets and shot glasses hell has to offer. Death feels like it looms.

Yearning to stay, I know I can’t. Not this time anyways. I rebelliously pack my bags with carelessness because a packing strategy no longer matters. Except I pack the bottles of wine and shot glasses with love because those are important. But that’s the only love I show because now my soul is becoming hard. Like a wrongfully accused prisoner who barely escapes death row, I am now bitter.

The flight home is delayed by hours because we struggle with letting each other go. The Delta staff hands me a crossword puzzle with a sympathetic smile to comfort me. They say they are “sorry”, but their English assaults my ears.

I arrive home even though I prayed the pilot would drink anti-gravity serum and we could fly forever. Or at least until I earned enough sky miles to fund my 401k of future travel. I’m slightly excited about breezing through customs with my global entry privilege, but overall my arrival home is anti-climactic.

My parakeet, that I don’t even have, barely recognizes me. I am different and it is seen on my tanned face and in the color of my vibrant Tibetan fisherman pants that I will never wear again and besides they don’t match anything in my “full of black” closet. And I wasn’t even in Tibet.

Everything is just the way I left it. Frankie’s ashes still in his little box even though I secretly wished he would have risen from the dead upon my return. The ability to use hot water when I want it. The flyers for 24-hour pizza delivery service and even the full-size refrigerator. All still there. Even the towels that I threw on my bed after a hurried shower. A reminder of those early days of our relationship where the only thing that mattered was being with you.

The first few days back home, I try to recreate you. I go to restaurants to smell and taste you, but it’s not the same. I frame my receipts from our dinners together along with the Metro tickets and labels off your favorite beer bottle.

I invite friends and ask them to leave their shoes in the foyer, because my culture has changed to yours. We play a game of Charades where every guess I blurt out is in your language, I have suddenly become fluent. I try to share stories but they just want to sip the wine and fumble with the magnets I brought them.

I post “more than enough” of pictures that are proof that you existed, that we existed. I only get a few likes and maybe a “So glad you made it back!” comment from mom. Friends and family have semi-acknowledged my return yet, showed their amazing support while I was gone.

Girls Gone Abroad - Love at First Flight
Girls Gone Abroad – Love at First Flight

No one understands the pain I am in. I tattoo a symbol of us on my wrist. As therapy for my post travel depression, I blog. My unfinished poetry is slowly forming stories that help me soothe the pain of our break up.

While I allow my pain to flow from heart to keyboard, I see it. A little, flashing, attractive blurb somewhere in the right side of my screen…it peeks my interest and my heart rate.

Butterflies form in my the upper most part of my belly at the temptation of a rebound. I click.

And so it re-begins. Love. At first flight.

Top 4 of My Favorite “Dumb American” Language Blunders

A polyglot, I am not.

I’ve definitely been exposed to various languages, including the kind that my Grandmother would tell me NOT to use in her presence. Whatever the f*&$ that meant…I dunno. I have definitely not mastered any yet and have made many language blunders.

My fascination with foreign languages started early in life when my brain was in a much more malleable state than present day.

Living in California at a young age, I learned Spanish quickly through semi-immersion meaning every Wednesday, Ms. Luna would visit my class and translate what my teacher was saying. He only spoke Spanish and getting a B in class was not acceptable whether I was being taught in my native language or not.

Later when I thought I was the shit at speaking Spanish, I was placing post-it notes of Spanish words all over household objects to help teach my grandmother the difference between “la sal” and “el sol”.

Then came French.

While spending a summer in Phoenix, my Uncle Steve had picked me up from my grandparents’ home (where the post-it notes were everywhere including the “piso”) to bring me along for a ride to go pick up an olive tree from an elderly lady’s home.
While I waited for him to load up the tree into his truck, I sat with this lovely lady in her small, dusty room that had floor to ceiling bookshelves jammed with all kinds of books shoved in at various angles just so they could fit. I am pretty sure that her wobbly end table was supported by a stack of books.

We didn’t say much for a while. Through the yellowish film on the window, I could see blur of my Uncle Steve struggle with the olive tree while fidgeting with his face mask. He’s allergic to olive trees.

“You can pick any book you would like as long as you promise to read it.”

Do I hear a challenge in the old woman’s voice?

Suddenly, the books seem to have tripled in quantity and began to hover over me.

Bellowing in deep baritones, I hear…. “PICK MEEEEEeeeeeeee….”.

You know this didn’t really happen, but in a kid’s mind if someone tells you that you can have something; a gift, it’s like – suddenly….so overwhelming that everything suddenly appears to be massive and weird shit happens.

So there goes my little nerdy-ass 9-year-old finger…. tracing along the books, leaving a clean, dustless trail until it finally rested on one.


Falling towards me was some more dust and a book that had a faded yellow cover that sort of matched the film on the window.

“Lex Jeux Sont Faits” by Jean-Paul Satre written in a bold, black letters like an important headline.

Girls Gone Abroad - Le Jeux Sont Faits
Girls Gone Abroad – Le Jeux Sont Faits

“I’ll take this one, please.”
She mumbled something, but not sure which language. I think I was too proud of my choice to notice what she said anyways.

Yeah. I read it.
With the help of a French-English dictionary compliments of the local library, because back “then” we didn’t have keyboards readily available under our fingers.
It took me awhile, but I did it.
I’m not even sure I still have that old book, but from time to time, I wonder what ever happened to the old lady and her books.
Years later, Uncle Freddie brings me a stash of things that someone was giving away and among the bounty of gifts was a German language learning book.
No, I didn’t read that one entirely, but I did learn that nouns are capitalized and I know what a der Ofen is.
Reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was much more enjoyable than trying to learn German.

No offense, but French was less of an assault to my ears.
I went on to study French, Spanish and Italian.
And now Portuguese since I will soon have a Brazilian Son-in-Law and I want to know all the bad things he says about me. I dabble with Arabic.
A polyglot I certainly am not, but knowing enough of those languages has earned me the title of the “linguistics one” from the Girls Gone Abroad team.
However, earning such a title does come at a cost of embarrassing language blunders. Allow me to share.

Here are my top 4 favorite dumb American language blunders:

Girls Gone Abroad - Francobolli
Girls Gone Abroad – Francobolli

1. Francobolli vs Franco Belli , Rome, Italy

Confidently walking into a store, I asked a man, “Hai Franco Belli?”. He moves his glasses down his nose to “eye” scold me.

Yep. That look.

Whatever book he was reading, (which I am pretty sure was not “Les Jeux Sont Faits”), he slammed shut and walked away from me.
I asked if he had beautiful French (or Frank) when I meant to ask for stamps.

My grandfather did not get a postcard during this trip.

Girls Gone Abroad - Knives
Girls Gone Abroad – Knives

2. Cuchillos vs Llaves , Bogota, Colombia

Know the difference between these two. Including how to say “Peanuts”.

For whatever reason, I often confuse these two which is not a good thing when trying to tell a security guard that I have the keys to the apartment we are renting which should serve as proof that we are indeed authorized to enter the unit.

Security guards don’t really like knives as they don’t hold the llaves to their hearts, they can only cut them out.

Girls Gone Abroad - Line in London
Girls Gone Abroad – Line in London

3. Line vs Queue, London, UK
While in London. I arrived to the club where I was meeting a friend who was already inside.

“Hey, I am here! I’m out front! The line is really long!”

“Then cross it.”

Shoving my finger further into my right ear so I could hear her better through my left ear pressed against the phone, “Huh?”
“CROSS it!”

“I can’t! It’s LONG!”

A few moments later, my annoyed friend appears at the door of the club, asking me what the bloody hell is wrong with me that I can’t cross a line.
I swear I looked down at the ground and stared at it thinking…” What the f*&$!” (sorry, grandmother!)
You wait in a queue, not a line. How was I supposed to know this??

Girls Gone Abroad - Morto
Girls Gone Abroad – Morto

4. Marito vs Morto, Sicily

An Italian taxi cab driver insisted we were going to be married. I learned of my future all the way from Cefalu to Palermo.
I told him several times he was not going to be my dead.

When we arrived to Palermo, he cried.

Marito is much more romantic than morto.

You better believe that because of these mistakes and others I haven’t mentioned, I’ll never mess up those words again!

Now that I have told you four of mine, please share some of your language learning blunders so that I know that I am not alone.

Escúchame, ¿tiene la miseria? – and other misspeaks.

#1 Rule When Traveling – Learn a Few Key Phrases

Listen to me…even when I don’t speak your language.

There have been many times my eyes have glanced over a piece of paper with horizontal, faded blue lines which served as perches for various foreign words.
Foreign words strategically chosen and written very close to their English equivalent so there would be no confusion as to which word belonged with which because in a time of desperate moments, you wouldn’t want to make a mistake. (Hint: There have been desperate moments – but I will save that blog post for later.)
Sometimes, if I were lucky, Michelle would even provide the phonetic pronunciation and I would be given a brief tutorial.

Survival words. “Please?”  “Thank You.” “How much for this cocktail?”
The paper, once bright and white, would soon become soft and fuzzy by the many folds and unfolds that it would be forced to experience during the course of a trip.
Sometimes even when a word is mastered, we still pull out the paper while speaking. Kinda like a gesture to ask for forgiveness and a little mercy for tearing up their language.
And yes, the medium is paper because paper will always be available when wi-fi is not.
Michelle showed me the first magical piece of paper in 2007 when we went to Greece. Since then, she’s done this for every trip, well…except for Morocco and Bogota.
We wrongly believed that Moroccans only spoke Arabic and there was NO way we were going to attempt Arabic with or without a cheat sheet. Maybe tip #2 should be to conduct research prior to your trip.

Michelle didn’t write out a list for our trip to Colombia either. Quite possibly because they speak Spanish in Bogota and most Americans know a handful of Spanish phrases.
And we knew a handful of phrases and managed to get by, but it is always just that one word, letter or pronunciation that can make the biggest difference.

For example:
While sitting at Moulin Bleu enjoying a very generous cocktail happy hour, Michelle asks the bartenders, “Excuse me, do you have any peanuts?”
After a slight pause, the bartenders exchange looks and burst out laughing. Even the fellow bar patrons contributed to the jovial moment. Alicia and I just figured that there must be a peanut shortage and how dare someone ask!?

Michelle hands over her phone pointing to the little screen. More laughter. Her phone is returned to her with a correction.
Evidently, she demanded that the bartenders “listen to her” and asked if they had poverty (or misery).

“Escúchame, ¿tiene la miseria?”

Mystery solved.

Google translates “peanuts” to “miseria” and only Michelle can explain how she got “Escúchame”.
While we didn’t get peanuts, we did get a little plate full of snacks, enough laughter to give our abs a workout, and a memory that could never be bought.
The rule was and always will be that when traveling to a foreign country, don’t be that dumbass American that can’t at least say “please” and “thank you”.
But DO be that American that at least makes an attempt even if you are asking a waitress if they have poverty, telling the security guard you have knives, or ensuring your Uber driver goes forward and not left.

However, careful planning and paper is recommended.

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