When the West Q Meets Eastern

Traveling is an art that only few can master. It is still debatable if I myself can practice this art successfully. I feel that I am always traveling in my life, never really staying in one place for longer than a couple of months. The few treasures in my life consist of whatever can fit into a durable suitcase. The label “home” is tagged to wherever I’ve stayed the longest, or rather where the majority of my things have collected. And where is home? As of right now, it would be Hawaii. But on second thought, that would not be the correct either. When I’m in Hawaii, I am also moving from one house to another, living out of a duffle bag. Whether there is a gray area to be claimed that I have more than one home or a complete disclaimer that I don’t have a home, the conclusion is that I have become flexible. I have attachments in many areas but never any definite roots to a particular place. A place where I might refer to as “home” can be completely foreign to me even after 10 years of residence. In contrast, a “foreign” country that I have never been to before in my life, I can find strong attachments to the place. I have reached these conclusions from the past two years. They have been pointedly emphasized from my journey through Vietnam.

Aside from learning about the religions in Vietnam and its history, I have observed many similarities and differences to the cultures I am familiar with. Overall, I believe I have been part of a diverse student group. Traveling with people reveals things that would normally be unnoticed. I have learned a lot about the students, Bates College, and the west. By traveling with my fellow 15 peers and meeting some Vietnamese locals over the course of one month, I have noticed different cultural points of views about the “west” and the “east”. I am noticing the different perspectives/stereotypes made by both sides about each other. In addition, I have learned a lot about myself. Throughout the majority of the trip, I have been switching lenses. I am constantly analyzing which cultural viewpoint I’m using to interpret a particular event or cultural observation. So for my final essay, I want to draw everything together and analyze how I have perceived the Vietnamese culture and how my observations have affected me personally.

I started this trip basing my opinions and observations about Vietnamese culture from an American/western point of view. I felt most like a “tourist”, or an ignorant American student as I traveled around Hanoi. There was the enjoyment of having the currency inflation in the favor of the US dollar. There was the glib of luxury due to the overwhelming attention and service at every public destination. There was the resentment of getting taken advantage of by the locals. All this was observed from traveling in a large student group and not really thinking about the culture on an individual level. So I thought I was not too overwhelmed or shocked by particular Vietnamese things, accepting things that many people in the group were shocked by. Personally, I didn’t begin voicing an opinion about Vietnam or the culture until a week in Hanoi.

After a couple of days, the thing that began to bother me was being perceived as a Vietnamese/ Vietnamese American girl. It began simply by being spoken to in Korean (on the airlines) and in Vietnamese – things I can just disregard/laugh at. However it furthered into feeling uncomfortable in my own skin and questioning my ethnic identity. I became increasing uncomfortable in Hanoi, frustrated by the conservativeness and rigidity of the society that I felt being placed upon me. I didn’t know how to internalize the pressures that I felt forced to conform to because I had an Asian female face. This hit a breaking point on my first day off in Hanoi when I made the mistake of visiting French Old Quarters with only a single white male. Walking around with a white male, I was harassed by both the Hanoi locals and white westerners. To the Hanoi locals, my attire was not appropriate for the conservativeness of Northern Vietnamese culture. I wore a skirt and a tank top due to Vietnamese humidity. I could not understand the discomfort some of the girls were putting themselves through by wearing long jeans and a t-shirt. I could not join the rest of the girls in my group, wearing short skirts and cropped shirts because I did not have the “white” to protect me. I was also taller than most Vietnamese girls. At a glance, I can see how I would be mistaken for Vietnamese. But my attitude and mannerisms are too western. My conversation with a manicurist discomforted me. To western white tourists, I fell into two categories – I was either a Vietnamese local showing her white boyfriend who she just luckily met a couple days ago or a Vietnamese American. Neither of these assumptions comforted me.

My interactions with both groups frustrated me. Reflecting upon that day, I was more frustrated by the white tourist treatment of me than the Hanoi locals. Sitting in a café full of westerners with my white male friend, I felt their stares more pointedly than the Hanoi locals I randomly pass by. One British senior woman interrupted our conversation, took one look at me and ignored me by speaking directly to my friend about a particular tourist place. Her one up-down glance in my direction told me I had no place sitting there. A waitress at an Italian restaurant refused to speak to me or listen to my orders, directing her attention to my 3 male western companions. Never in my life have I felt so insulted or discriminated against. After that day, I realized I am more Asian American and that this anger boiling to cover the helplessness I initially felt was due to the knowledge and awareness I felt in America, particularly at Bates falling into the minority status.

In some ways, I can relate this particular discomfort to the discomfort I feel at Bates. At both Bates and Vietnam, I feel lost and silenced. Explaining this feeling to my white friend was absurd. I felt ridiculed by explaining my feelings towards him and seeing his reaction increased my frustrations. It made me realize no matter how hard he can try it will be something he will not experience. Nor will he ever see it if he refuses to see it. Spending that day with him made me question our friendship. I realize he really does not know the “Asian” part of me, always placing the exotic “other” / “Hawaiian” label despite the numerous times I have corrected this label. I was stung and isolated by this revelation. Originally I believed he, out of all my white friends at Bates, would understand and be able to relate, which was why I was so eager to travel with him. I forgotten that he has never see the Asian side of me nor really understood the idea of a “Hawaii local.” I am quite sure he began noticing a change in my personality towards him. Throughout this trip, I debated in revealing to him my frustrations and feelings. But every time I decide to, it did not seem worth my troubles. So I fell back into that very same silence that I inhibited when judgments were placed upon me. Then, when he got sick everything took a turn. As I sat next to him in the hospital, I saw how unhappy and uncomfortable he was with this whole trip, how he didn’t want to be here and was searching for a flight home. Listening to his exasperated complaints and exaggerated critiques of Vietnamese medical standards and cultural mannerisms saddened and angered me. I was frustrated by his inability to see how far his status got him in the hospital and how much everyone around him were sacrificing to ensure his comfortableness; frustrated by his critiques on this country that was not meeting his western advanced standards and how he couldn’t see his own ignorance when he was criticizing others’ for their cultural insensitivity; and most of all frustrated by his ignorance to experience this country or rather his refusal to fully immerse himself in the culture, when I had originally seen him as someone who prides himself to be cultured and open-minded. Silently, I questioned his reasons for even wanting to be on this trip in the first place. I also questioned why we were friends to begin with and it occurred to me how he never really knew who I was. I concluded that our friendship was not worth saving. Although I am not Vietnamese, I do relate to a lot of the social and economic problems. There are similar medical standards in China and in the outskirts/rural areas of Hawaii. Poverty is prevalent in China and Hawaii. I was discomforted by the hospital in Hue but at the same time, I was assured myself that it was a source of medical help and any source of help was better than none. I recognize that the people in the hospital are lucky enough to afford to go to a private clinic and receive medical help. Therefore his dismissal of the medical help, the cuisine, the living standards, and the Vietnamese culture and country itself influenced my final decision.

My changed friendship led me to analyze the group I was traveling with, analyzing their words/reaction towards the Asian and Vietnamese cultural aspects. I began seeing the racism and ignorance building behind their judgments and discomforts. I saw how cushioned their lives have been as they constantly surround themselves in tourist things that their wealth has brought them. It made me think about the rest of the Bates population, how majority of the students have the financial stability to support them. Listening to their food cravings of western cuisine revealed to me their lack of appreciation as well as how rich their lives have been to have access to these foods. Questions like “why the Vietnamese people so skinny when all they eat is rice normally a rich gluten?” or “if all the venders selling the same things from one stall another, do they share their profits with each other?” became apparent to me that they do not see the obvious answers before them. At the same time, these questions also reveal the effectiveness of this trip, forcing the students to question their own comfort levels and challenging their economic and social standards in America. They are in no position to judge and criticize the Vietnamese local living standards. They were born into western comfort, many with a silver spoon in their mouths. Everything is culturally different and foreign at first but in the end it is always a two-way mirror, reflecting the facts that are underneath the obvious. One could only hope that this trip bursts the Bates bubble or at least, create a small dent.

Likewise, all this made me reflect upon my own personal bias and comfort levels. I realized that I did not share similar traveling activities many of my peers, such as searching for western cuisine when we had a free meal or looking for western clubs. I preferred to search out local restaurants and eat local cuisine that was distinct to the area in small group. I did not enjoy the same type food as they did; didn’t crave for the things they do nor inspect the food as much as they did; grew more silent in their presence, going along with majority of the day’s plan ahead of me; shopped less; and did not long to return to America as much. This list came from observations and it made me realize how one must be flexible to travel. After weeks of moving from one hotel to another and constantly being on the road, traveling I did grow tired of moving around. As for missing any western food, it didn’t happen. I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to eat. However I did notice that my appetite decreased.

The longer I spent traveling around Vietnam, the more I began noticing things. I couldn’t distinct which cultural viewpoint I was observing through. The further southward revealed the fluctuating rate of Vietnam’s development as a country. I saw a range of Vietnamese locals’ reactions towards us. Their reactions ranged from curiosity to simmered resentment. I began to notice the class differences – the tourists/westerners with the capital, those who work for the tourists directly, the sellers/venders and the servers, and everyone else. The tourist lifestyle versus local lifestyle is a very familiar concept, as I relate to the economic classes in Hawaii and many other tourist destinations. What interested me the most were the conversations we had with Vietnamese youth in contrast to the older generations. Like the youth of Hawaii, many members of the middle class leave Vietnam for better education opportunities. It is hard getting a good paying job in the areas without connections, despite your education level. At every city we passed by, I saw many areas that are getting developed. It saddens me when natural areas are set aside like this, reflecting back to the lands on Hawaii and the increasing skyscrapers shooting up.

The further south we traveled, I noticed a decrease in conservativeness. When we hit Saigon, I knew the pressure I felt was off. I was more comfortable with the city’s culture and western attitude as it reminded me of Shanghai. I also became accustomed to those obvious stares and silent assumptions. People in the southern regions seemed more relaxed and open. I also reached the conclusion that I don’t want to change my appearance. I am who I am and really there is nothing I can do about it. It is not my responsibility to deal with a stranger’s views placed upon me because they do not know me. It is their blatant stereotypes and conservative belief that young Asian girls should fall into these socially acceptable categories. I realized this is a very western conclusion, influenced greatly by Bates education, and the fact that I can reach such a conclusion means I should appreciate this ability – that I am not subjected to the social pressures of this culture because of the lack of cultural roots. Yet I can relate to many of Vietnamese values because these similar values have been placed upon me from the Chinese culture. However, despite my western beliefs, I do not embrace fully western ideology and feel the return back to middle ground and having undefined cultural roots.

So who am I? Which name do I assume? The answer is dependent on the context I am place in. In reality I am all of the above and none of the above. I need to remind myself about which context I place myself in, whether it is by others or myself. Like everyone, I have multiple personalities. However the older and more mature I grow, I realize there is starting to be a consistent personality trait. In the formation of this, I am also forming the cultural lens that I am observing things from and therefore showing me my own cultural bias.