Illustration by Mads Monsen

Jesse Meadows has gone home to the US for a vacation. Here are what friends, family and acquaintances are asking about her adopted home

 

As I write this, I am home for the holidays in Florida, America’s land of golf courses and retirees. It’s the first time I’ve been home to see my family and friends since I left over a year ago, and they understandably have questions. “My little world traveller!” they say, patting me on the head. “What are you doing in Thailand?!”

 

Some questions are smarter than others. I do my best to contain my eye-rolling and attempt to patiently explain the realities of my life in Hanoi, a place that is hard for most Americans to imagine. And so, after a month of answering the same clueless queries, I’ve compiled my favourites.

 

Do you speak Vietnamese?

Yes, I might reply, I managed to learn a tonal language with a completely different structure from my native tongue in eight months and am now totally fluent. (I did meet a Scottish guy once who managed this, but the majority of us aren’t gifted with that kind of linguistic skill.) This question is usually followed by “But how do you communicate?” to which I explain my regular repertoire of pantomime combined with Google Translate, and admit that, yes, everything is just a little more challenging.

 

Do you have a cell phone?

I do have a cell phone, and it’s 10 times cheaper and easier than it ever was in the States, where you are contractually obligated to pay US$70 a month for two years of your life. I much rather prefer buying my sim the off a lady in the street, even if the relentless text message ads make me feel like I have friends who want to talk to me when really, it’s just Mobifone trying to sell me data packages.

 

Are there bathrooms?

Usually. A girl came out of the bathroom at a bar in my hometown, regretfully informing me that the toilet paper was out and I would have to use paper towels instead. I laughed as visions of holes in the ground and drains in the corner flashed through my head. Can’t be worse than that time I had to pee on a pile of rocks in an outhouse. But most of the time, we have regular old Western toilets. Just don’t ever flush that paper.

 

Do you have electricity?

You know, sometimes I get the feeling my friends back home picture me living in a bamboo hut in the middle of a rice field, riding a buffalo to work and, I don’t know, killing a chicken with my bare hands for dinner. And while there are places in Vietnam where I could live that sort of life if I wanted to, it’s definitely not in the capital city.

 

Is it safe?

My uncle asked me this, right before delving into a rant about ISIS. It’s ironic, coming from a country like America, where school shootings have become the norm, and my dad shows off his gun collection at the dining room table. Sure, sometimes people get robbed, but that happens everywhere. When it comes to violent crime, nobody does it like the US of A. I’ll take a dark alley in Hanoi over the suburbs of Florida any day.

 

Do you tell people you’re Canadian?

Specific to the fact that I’m American, this idea is rooted in memories of a past that Vietnam has collectively moved on from. So no, I never lie about my nationality, though I may add an “unfortunately” to the end, because I’m not particularly proud of it. This trip home, however, has upgraded my feelings about the States from “hatred” to “guilty pleasure”. Fried mac n’ cheese? America is delicious!

 

Do you have a Vietnamese boyfriend?

No, and it’s not that I discriminate, it’s just that I don’t exactly enjoy feeling like any more of a giant white girl than I already do when I go shopping, or break tiny plastic kindy chairs, or get laughed at when I tell the shop girls my shoe size. I don’t really want to be your Amazonian girlfriend. It’s also pretty hard to develop a meaningful relationship when your conversation is limited to the weather, and you’re expected to fulfil some kind of ‘freaky Western girl’ stereotype. I’m still holding out hope that I’ll stumble across a tall, tattooed Vietnamese boy who doesn’t want to wife me up, but it hasn’t happened yet.

 

Do you eat dog now?

This question is laced with judgement from people who regularly eat pigs and cows. I don’t eat dog (honestly I’ve heard it isn’t that good), and dog-meat dishes are slowly becoming less popular, as more and more become pets rather than plates. But you know, different cultures, different cuisines.

 

Do you use American dollars there?

Other countries generally use their own currency. Ours is called the dong, and no, the jokes never get old.

 

So, what’s the scene like?

The scene? You mean like, the entire country of Vietnam? Also worded: “What’s Vietnam like?” this one tends to leave me speechless. How do I explain a whole culture to you in 15 minutes at the bar? To these friends, the best I can say is that you’ll have to come and visit me.

 

It’s been fun, America, but I’m going back to Hanoi now. 

Jesse Meadows

Like many expats before her, staff writer Jesse Meadows stopped in Hanoi on a backpacking trip in early 2015 and just hasn’t managed to leave yet. A compulsive documentarian with a case of incessant curiosity, she loves buying one-way tickets, photographing dance parties and writing stories on the bus. 

Website: www.messyjeadows.tumblr.com

7 comments

  • Comment Link Ron Ron Jan 15, 2016

    na, stop taking yourself and your country so seriously. When ignorance exists in countries as wealthy and as well-educated as America, it SHOULD be belittled. Why? Because it's inexcusable.

  • Comment Link na na Jan 14, 2016

    People ask you questions because you have knowledge about something that they do not. Instead of taking the time to write actual answers for these common questions, you took to belittling these people and "friends" for their curiosity. I highly doubt that no one there has asked you what the United States is like. Do you respond with eye rolling as you do here?

  • Comment Link Jill Jill Jan 11, 2016

    Sorry you get so many silly questions when there's probably so much more meaningful information you want to share. I have gotten the language question but not so much the others. A foreign diplomat gave me this advice before returning to the U.S.--decide what your message is. You'll have just a few minutes of people's attention--why not tell them what they don't think to ask about?

  • Comment Link MikeQ MikeQ Jan 08, 2016

    They say the truth hurts. J and RKB, get over it...

  • Comment Link RKB RKB Jan 07, 2016

    Wow, Jesse, this is more than a little smug. One thing about ignorance is that it spares nobody, but especially those who think they are above it.

  • Comment Link J J Jan 05, 2016

    Little jesse - please renounce your US citizenship.

  • Comment Link em em Jan 05, 2016

    I've been living here for more than 20 years now and when I go back to Canada and meet a new person who asks, "...you live in Vietnam? what's that like" I have a pat answer ("cuz, like you said, how can you address the entire culture in a few short minutes of casual exchange"). There is NO better way for me to either shut them up or continue a conversation with my answer...."Every toilet is an adventure!"

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