I haven’t been writing as much as I intended on this trip. I have a lot to say, stories to recount, but have admittedly been slacking a bit. I invite all of you to check out the blog of my girlfriend, and travel partner, Suzanne Miranda on her “Cocktail Napkin Travel Guide” website for more stories, photos and writing of our recent adventures.
In a whispered voice behind me I heard “I hate the balds”. I glanced over my shoulder to see who would so boldly declare their disdain for me.
Standing in a park in Can Tho, Vietnam a little boy, who could be no older than 7 had just given me the middle finger with quiet words while I stood watching acrobats rehearse for the upcoming Tet celebration.
Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Being removed from the larger cities, there isn’t much English spoken, so it came as a surprise when the English language was heard so clearly from a local.
Despite the little boy’s unbridled hatred for my alopecia (and presumably, westerners), my girlfriend decided to spark a conversation with him where he answered in short sentences, abruptly, seemingly annoyed with us, only to mutter “I talk English” as he walked away.
Despite his attitude towards my lack of hair, he made me laugh.
Prejudice and racism isn’t an American problem, it’s a world problem. We get comfortable in our neighborhoods, cities, countries, and expect things to “look” a certain way. I’ve been fortunate to grow up in the racial majority in my country, and sometimes forget what it’s like to be on the other side.
I grew up in Iowa. West Des Moines, my hometown, was a majority white middle class suburb full of tract housing, extreme mortgages, and a car for every 16 year old. If I look back at my class pictures from Kindergarten through High School I would say that 99% of the faces were white. WASP immigrant descendants. It’s just who we were. Nobody thought differently, and we all looked the same (I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s not far from the truth).
My first experience with true racial discrimination and prejudice happened when I moved from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea to teach English.
My first class consisted of sweet second graders who were eager to learn, who loved “Tim Teacher” and thought his demonstrations of singular and plural pronouns were hilarious. Towards the end of the day, as the students got older, the respect diminished. Instead of students looking on with respect I was met with cries of “Teacher, you’re ugly”, “Teacher, you’re fat”, “Teacher, you have a big nose”.
The kids were just the start, however. Most United States citizens (especially the caucasian ones) don’t think much of how we’re perceived outside of our own boarders.
While living in Seoul I found myself refused service at restaurants, kicked out of cell phone stores (greeted by shop owners making an “X” out of their arms as I entered… I could point to what I needed!), and stared at by locals. I was a foreigner in a land of xenophobics.
One day in Seoul I was making my way to the Nakwon music arcade to buy some saxophone reeds. On the subway train there, I sat down, when an old man walked up to me and told me in broken English, “I hate you!”. I was alone, sitting on a train, reading a book. No behavior to the contrary of any other passenger on that train, other than being a foreigner. In contrast, just 20 minutes later, another old Korean man shook my hand and told me in broken English, “Thank you!”.
What did these experiences teach me? The kid in that park in Can Tho, Vietnam most likely learned to hate “the balds” due to country history, parental attitudes, or a foreign caring English teacher who demanded more from the students.
I don’t care if someone says “I hate the balds”, or “I hate foreigners”. The more we travel, all of us, the better.
I think it’s a good thing I’ve experienced the prejudice I have. It’s nowhere close to the levels some of my friends and colleagues in Chicago have experienced, but it gives me an understanding of what it’s like when someone stares, or crosses the street to avoid being on the same side as you, or refuses service.
“I hate the balds” is what that Vietnamese kid said. I smiled, and laughed. I am bald, and White, just like he is Vietnamese, just like some of you are Black, Asian, Indian, Latino, or a mix of everything. No need to be anything else but understanding.
It happens, minding your own business, maybe walking down a beach, maybe swimming in a pool, or even worse, on a night train hurtling down the rickety tracks equipped with only a dirty, wet squat toilet and no toilet paper. Stomach seizing up, you feel that urgency through the whole of your body. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a reality of travel for most.
I’ve experience all of the scenarios above, and this time I was somewhat lucky that I wasn’t in a dire “run for the hills” sort of emergency. I knew it was coming. It always does, for me, at least once, every time I travel to this part of the world.
Day 3 in Sihanoukville, Cambodia was wrapping up. We booked our minibus to the provincial town of Kampot that afternoon headed toward the boarder with Vietnam. On our last night Suzanne and I headed out to an English pub across the street from our Chinese hotel for some food and a beer. Meeting new friends, the night carried on a bit, but we cut ourselves off and headed home.
Upon waking up I should have known something more was amiss. Too groggy, and queasy for what I had drank I dismissed it as a simple hangover, waking up only when Suzanne had told me she was headed to breakfast.
What followed isn’t suitable for readers stomach’s. Just know, I was in pain, terrible pain, and what I hoped was just a hangover was certainly something much much worse. It might have been in the food. It might have been in the beer. It might have been the ice. I wish I knew.
A two hour bus ride to Kampot followed. With my uncanny luck, I was given a backwards facing seat on a minibus with a tall French man sitting opposite me. Even better, the minibus didn’t have space behind the last seat for baggage, so it all was piled behind me, leaving my seat at an 85 degree angle. Super comfortable! The next two hours was an exercise in willpower. Head down, sweating profusely, thoughts on the wind through the window rather than every bump in the road. I spent my time wishing for a flat tire, or a bridge out. I wanted out.
We finally arrived in Kampot, and delirious with whatever ailment I had, agreed to a windowless room with a fan, and copious amounts of black mold. I just needed to lay down. So, Suzanne left to see the town I made a point to visit on this trip (I missed out on five years ago) while I lay in bed, sweating, under blankets, running to the bathroom every five minutes.
French colonial ruins, fresh pepper and fish, dusty backroads and a slow moving river. Not for me.
The next day I swore I was better, but a joyful trip to breakfast to eat some food proved otherwise. I hadn’t made it halfway across the street from the guesthouse before I was running back. But, I soldiered on, determined to see the town, the sun, and get on with my days. Punctuated by a move to a guesthouse with a window, and two long naps, I survived. However, eating only a baguette and some water in the span of two days leaves you with very little energy. I managed to survive a two hour sunset boat cruise, an exercise in body control and willpower, only to fall asleep at 8:30.
The following day I decided bed was the best place to be until I could manage 30 minutes without a toilet.
Kampot, I wanted to love you, but saw you only in a short burst, and in photos from my girlfriend.
I’ve managed to eat in the last day, and resume somewhat normal body functions, albeit, still extremely tired.
You take the good with the bad on the road, and soldier on. Self deprecating posts aside, I’m sad I’m closing in on the halfway point of my trip. Now in the small coastal retreat of Kep, Vietnam awaits!