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.