Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"Where you from?"

Those who remember the early days of instant messaging and chat forums - ICQ, Yahoo, MSN - will remember a/s/l, the universal way to begin a conversation. Age? Sex? Location? The question had become so common that it had to be abbreviated in that time-pressured era.

I think the travelling equivalent - no acronyms yet, sorry - is "What's your name? Where are you from? How long are you travelling for?" New names are hard to remember when there's dozens of them. As for details about itineraries, they are frighteningly similar once you're in the same part of the world. Travellers often have similar routes, similar time periods on their visas, even similar budgets, so the places we see, and how long we spend on the road, can sometimes be almost carbon copied. It's not unlikely to meet the same faces in the same cities, or to find mutual acquaintances. In fact, most of my plans come from fellow travellers' advice along the way.

But where are you from...? Everyone wants to know what country you left in order to visit this one. I'm someone with Asian heritage travelling within Asia but having grown up in a Western country, and it seems no one knows who I am. I'm pretty sure many people in my situation can relate.

People think I'm Chinese. They think I'm Korean. They think I'm Japanese. No? So they start to zoom out. Thailand. Malaysia. Myanmar. Still no? Those good with accents might guess the UK or New Zealand. Haha, sorry, no, but good guess. Okay, got it! American! The ultimate trump card. Nope, actually, I'm Australian.

Oh... but you look like one of us.

That's the usual response I get from the locals, anyway. My features are quite Oriental, and there are a lot of Chinese tourists in Southeast Asia, so people have gone so far as to start speaking to me in Chinese. Sometimes they look quite proud of themselves, thinking they'd identified my ethnicity and my language in one fell swoop, only to stop when I've given them a dumbstruck look and said loudly and clearly, "English." The disappointment on their faces is like a curtain.

Especially from touts who have their sales line down pat. Touts who want to sell me a taxi ride, a motorbike ride, a massage, a mani pedi, a boat tour, dinner in a restaurant (or if I'm with a guy, marijuana - regardless of the laws or how close the nearest law enforcement officer is). They shake their heads in confusion and momentarily forget they were trying to make money off me. They have to reassess their approach to potential "yellow squinty-eyed" customers.

Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes it's annoying. It's a good reminder to not be too heavy-handed with our assumptions. As important as first impressions are, one cannot judge based only on the outside. This is something we should all know and follow if we want to live in a peaceful world, but travelling helps to really hit it home.

It's gotten a bit better now that I am in Vietnam, my country of background. I hide my ability to understand basic Vietnamese sometimes for my own safety, and once it is finally revealed, locals respond either with outrage that I didn't announce myself as a fellow Vietnamese immediately, or with amusement because I clearly look like a weirdo foreigner. Occasionally they will use me as their agent in trying to rip off another tourist, which is not nice at all, being put in an "us or them" situation.

Other times they just rattle away to me in Vietnamese and are pleasantly surprised that I can respond, but then they quickly and excitedly go beyond my very simple grasp of the vocabulary, grammar and slang, before I can squeeze in the words "xin lỗi, em không nói tiéng việt giỏi" (sorry, I don't speak Vietnamese well). Sometimes they slow down, but if they're a bit older, they kind of sigh and gently let it go...

Luckily there's a word for me here. Việt kiều. Vietnamese living overseas. When they ask me why I know Vietnamese, I bust out that phrase and that opens up smiles and a bunch of questions. Which country do you live in? Where you born there or here? Where are your parents from? They're curious about me. Suddenly I fit into a category.

I can't help but think about how my life would have been different if my family hadn't left Vietnam. I'm sure many việt kiều wonder the same. What kind of person would I be? Would I be a proper Vietnamese girl? Or would I constantly be seeking ways to go against the grain? What's normal for me back home lies outside the box here, but not as far as one might think. Vietnam is an edgy country, and I see change happening all around me. The thing is, my family didn't migrate to seek a better fortune. They were refugees fleeing post-war Vietnam. If my family hadn't left, I may not have been born, period.

I love Vietnam already, and I want to live here, nor would it be hard to find work to facilitate that. I'm sure I'd discover a lot of myself here in the mountains and coasts and forests of this diverse, colourful country. Yet meanwhile, my heart still roots a big part of itself in the dusty red earth and dry scrub of Australia, my beloved old continent. I can't imagine not returning to those sandstone headlands or eucalyptus woodlands after too many years.

So when someone asks me "hey, miss, where you from?", it doesn't really matter whether I answer "Australia" or "Vietnam", because, well, I guess I'm both.

I'm a việt kiều, mate!

Vacuuming On Holiday

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