Rocking in a wobbly green plastic chair outside of what could only be reasonably described as a decrepit gray shed of a “restaurant,” my eyes skimmed toward the bustling street, where a flurry of cars, mopeds, and swearing yellow people whirled around me.
Waiting for our order, the eight of us sat patiently; ‘Americans’ and ‘Viets’ together, communicating with awkward mumbles, attempting any semblance of broken language to one another in short bursts — barely audible in the storm of yelling, car horns, and clinking glasses.
A sonorous clamor of chaos.
“Holy shit it’s loud, huh?” I yell hoping to garner any recognition.
“Yeah dude, definitely not Lancaster,” my cousin Ben, yelled back.
“It’s better,” my other cheeky cousin Brian quipped.
His tone reminded me how much we had changed since our first trip three years prior. Well — the first trip with mostly developed pre-frontal cortexes.
No longer the bratty Americans that trotted and stomped loudly around a developing country demanding our rings kissed and whims catered.
We had grown, in some capacity, better able to challenge a few rooted misconceptions. Those changes allowed us the chance to enjoy the country with some focused clarity.
Of us, Brian had changed the most- less entitled and pretentious to our own culture. We were young adults now, mostly. High school seniors and college freshmen ‘ready’ for life, but still clinging to our parents for navigation.
“Oh, really?” I asked wryly, knowing he hadn’t felt that way previously. Brian was notorious for throwing silly tantrums: only-kid syndrome.
Our first go-around, his complaints of choice rung of “ew this place is dirty” and “ugh, there are so many homeless people here.” None of us were entirely innocent, that school of thought haunted all of us privileged Asian American spoiled pricks.
Returning after three years, we were older, more mature, and willing to listen and understand the origins of our heritage. That is not to say the platitudes and ‘ye-olde tales’ didn’t wax off of us on occasion though.
Having spent the bulk of my childhood with mixed feelings about being Vietnamese, mostly negative, I stood on my ancestral soil willing to sample my origins.
Growing up, Asian identity was not a cool trendy fad it has recently become. It earmarked a distinction from my peers and served as a reminder I remained in the control group.
I didn’t like it.
I wanted to grow up white. A blank slate. No preformed judgement or misplaced projection. None of that “Asian shit.”
Asian heritage felt like a weight I begrudgingly slinked around my shoulder; a knapsack of cultural shame I wore out of my parents’ desire for me to retain as many fragments as possible.
That weighed on my mind. I spent nights before the trip anxiously awaiting my arrival at the proverbial motherland.
Months of family prepping, planning, suitcases, travel bags, panicking, and living accommodations were distilled into a week’s execution.
The journey to Newark International Airport was a daze:
- Waking up early in a mad dash to fit everything I had into a small briefcase to later cram into a small overhead compartment.
- Ten people cramped in a hot and clammy van driving from Lancaster to New Jersey.
- Shuffling about an empty airport and awaiting our painfully late flight.
- Once we boarded, the agonizing 17-hour flight ensued. Spending that long on a flying bus of sweaty, uncomfortable people and crying babies is not necessarily what most people hope for when they travel.
- All the typical aspects of flight followed: drowsiness, desire for palatable food, quiet, the yearn for more legroom, and to sleep in a horizontal position.
- As time passed, the anxiousness that I had experienced turned into a loathsome feeling of ending any movement entirely, hating myself and the subsequent baby that would not stop crying and the indifferent parents that spawned such evil.
- With a brief layover in Shanghai, the small break signaled the final stretch that was left in our flight. The smiles on everyone’s wary faces were a welcome sight opposed to the exhausted droops stamped throughout the flight.
- Watching the plane inch closer to Saigon from each of our respective monitor embossed seats let us know it wouldn’t be long now.
- The tires of the plane popped out and the plane hit the ground with a thud, bouncing upwards from the return momentum. Almost immediately, all of us were hit with a thick, hot, clammy wave of air that greeted us as if to say “Welcome to the tropics, go fuck yourself.”
Inside the airport, everyone dispersed into an ocean of faces to retrieve their respective luggage, which left Brian and myself behind to our own devices.
Wandering through the airport was a fruitless exercise that felt like hours had passed, but was actually 15 minutes. Onset panic hit my cousin faster than myself.
In a pitchy high strung voice, he asked me, “Dude, how did we get lost? I don’t think we’ll survive man. How did we even get separated?!”
“It’s fine, we’ll figure something out,” I answered unassuredly, shying away. I was at odds, fundamentally lost in a sea of foreign faces that were simultaneously familiar. Strange.
After several minutes of pacing around the old, outdated, yellow-walled 70s styled airport, we were able to locate the rest of our family and regroup.
The feeling of being lost entirely in a foreign country without any way of communicating with others is terrifying. The irony was not lost on me being fully Vietnamese but having no means to verbalize anything meaningful to anyone. It was a reminder as much as it was to touch back on our roots, we were tourists foremost.
Driving to my uncle’s estate, déjà vu washed over me. I had forgotten how molecularly distinct Vietnam was from living in the States, which ill-equips for the rapid cultural change.
Poorly paved roads with areas left untended, peppered by litter and an ashy khaki cloud billowing across the streets. Water that cuts through parts of the city polluted with trash and unsightly additives. People begging for food and money, trying to get anyone nearby to buy various forms of trinkets, dolls, lottery tickets, etc.
These aspects of Vietnam forge a vivid contrast in what could be typically viewed as “normal” or “typical” from a suburban American perspective.
The first night echoed the same themes as most nights: fancy restaurant, urban excursion, and rendezvousing to the same cafe at the center of Saigon.
Vietnam’s food reflects much of the country’s culture: rustic, homey, unpretentious, refreshing.
Most of it flavored with fish sauce, Vietnamese liquid gold in its sweet, sticky, saltiness. The smell though: Sunday morning breath from the rear end of the throat after a night of drinking — sorry, heavy drinking.
Much of the food in Vietnam is light, flavorful, and unfilling after years of developing an American palette.
After another day of romping through the city, we visited my wealthy uncle’s farm, where a party was hosted for our family.
His farm had mostly everything I remembered from my first visit: a pet monkey, various puppies scurrying about, a crocodile, and a fully stocked pond of fish for anyone to patiently wait and cast their rod for 2 seconds before a bite.
In my years absent from the country, my uncle drained the water encompassing much of the farm prior, which made traversing around the grassy terrain easier. Wooden planks were previously used as miniature bridges to walk safely between the islands.
The farm was vast: 5 acres of land, undisturbed by the outside world, seemingly self-sufficient. Surrounding the farm were miles of untouched, undeveloped tall grass, cut by a river.
The mood of the farm was slow, breezy, laid back, while everything occurred at its natural tempo. Workers, never in a hurry, walked to and from huts while music played overhead from a 70s PA system suspended by metal poles.
The day was spent drinking, eating, and browsing. Our own club, our own party, in the middle of nowhere.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, workers lit torches that illuminated walking paths. Music enveloped the property; we had ourselves a ball.
I think the most memorable night for me was a soiree on a ship that toured around the bay of Saigon.
Fluorescent neon lights decorated the exterior of the otherwise plain and aging white ship.
Music and karaoke go hand-in-hand at almost any Asian gathering, accompanied by a large sum of alcohol ranging from Heineken, Tiger beer, Hennessy. Everyone has their fun badly butchering renditions of Vietnamese songs in hazy delight.
I am confident not a single business transaction goes by in Asia without drunk karaoke as a means of validating the agreement.
While that madness swirled around me, I took myself to the balcony. A sight. Lights from the city lasered out miles into the ocean.
Skyscrapers touched the endless night sky while gray wispy clouds anchored themselves stagnantly.
Photons dancing on the water created a skyline on the bay as the music played faintly in the background of my memory.
The vastness of the ocean was especially apparent once the sun had set; dark abyss and rocking waves cradling the boat made for a rich adventure.
I could peer into the soul of Saigon on this ship, blessed with scenery not shown to everyone.
Those singular moments provide some clarity.
If you wear glasses, it’s the moment when an optometrists slides a magnifying glass down. Is everything in focus? No — but it’s only a few powers away from being right.
Could I have understood those brief moments if I was anyone else? Could I have enjoyed them the same? Could I have if I white, black? If I was born here?
I don’t think those answers matter. The fact is… they only exist in speculation. I cannot control nor change the compounds of my origin. And maybe it’s insulting I would think to apologize for it.
That momentary revelation helped me consolidate some of the conflicting emotions I had. A seminal acceptance of identity.
Maybe it’s okay I am who I am, regardless of how superficially angsty that comes across.
The smell of dirt and grass intersected with urban aroma still pops in my mind occasionally. The city, the people, the pace. My amygdala fluorescently lights with reminiscing when they come to memory.
I’ll be back one day and we’ll see how much I learn then too.