End of the Road

Reasons why I’m ending this blog:

1. I’m tired. I’m bored. Have you noticed how infrequently I’ve been posting? It’s like torture trying to get myself to write a post—I’ll start one, write a few hundred words, check my FB, check my Twitter feed, get a glass of water, leave the tab open for days without looking at it again.

I kept telling myself it was laziness, that I just needed to reinvigorate myself, maybe change up my approach. Post more pictures! Write more vignettes! More character sketches, more writing exercises, stranger and more experimental posts!

Then I realized…

2. I don’t really care about travel blogging.

This was a hard one to admit cause travel blogging did so much for me in the beginning. It helped me get my voice back; I’d been barren for so long, unable to write for so long, and blogging helped me build back my confidence. And more than that, it put me in touch with a community of other readers and writers.

There’s great people who write great blogs, but I realized that I no longer read any of them. I still travel and I still write, but I realized I’m not interested in participating in the travel conversation anymore.

Because….

3. I’m writing different stuff now.

I’m focusing on writing longer pieces, fully consuming pieces that I dive into, that come up around me, that unravel and expand the deeper I go.

Which is great but not terribly conducive to the immediacy of blogging. I’ve discovered something about my writing too—that I don’t know what the hell I’m saying or what a piece is really about until six months after I’ve written it. (A couple months ago I saw a tweet from Susan Orlean where she said that in the course of writing every piece, she comes to a place where she doesn’t know what the piece is about or why she’s writing it.) Which means I need to sloooooow down; which means I need to write things and then let them sit; I need to let them reveal to me what they’re trying to say instead of imposing my own ideas and structure. I need to let them live a little.

I’ve also been focusing a lot more on listening, on not talking so goddamn much. I’m reading more; I’m taking more notes; I’m trying to turn off the mental chatter and just notice. That takes a lot of energy but I think it’s important not just for writing but for survival. In any event, I’m feeling less and less of a need to share my thoughts and insights on every little thing. Largely because I don’t know what my thoughts and insights are until months or even years later.

Thus I don’t have a lot of energy of blogging. Thus I’m mildly to extremely embarrassed by half the shit I’ve blogged. Thus the amount of time I spend blogging is equal to the amount of time I don’t spend listening, and I don’t spend really writing the stuff I’m excited about writing. Thus…

4. I’ve outgrown my own blog.

It happens right? I outgrew the zine I wrote for four years as a teenager. I outgrew a pretty good life in the Bay. I’ve even outgrown the name of my blog, since I’m now 30 and no longer a “girl” by any stretch.

It seems like kinda a waste to give it up now, right? Now that I’ve built something, have some followers. But the idea of ending this blog struck one day and I couldn’t shake it out. I kept thinking, you know, I should do a few more posts. I should write about my return trip to Phnom Penh, I should write about turning 30 in a foreign country, I should write about my upcoming trip back to the Bay, I should I should I should. But I didn’t want to. I’ve got three half-written posts in my Dashboard and I can’t get it together to finish any of them. I’ve got four half-written essays open on my desktop right now—on West Oakland, my own swim team, one of my favorite old drinking buddies who passed away—and all I wanna do is curl up inside those pieces, get lost in them.

So. It’s been a bit over three years of Lonely Girl Travels. We’ve gone to something like fifteen countries together. You’ve been with me as I’ve become an expat, chased a big-ass dream, watched that dream blow up, scurried off to another country and built another life. You’ve been with me as I’ve built my clips and traversed my late 20s and found my voice again. You’ve supported me and given me the space to do all that. You can’t really give a big enough “thank you” for that, but I’m gonna try: Thank You.

I’ll be tweeting here, tumbling here, and publishing all over the goddamn internet. See you guys around.

Not Making It, In Manhattan and Hanoi

Manhattan. Blackout. Metaphor.

AC, bedspread, feet stretched out in front of me, laptop on my lap just the way it’s supposed to be. Picture in the box in the screen; I smile and he smiles — “It’s good to see you!” we both say and laugh.

The background is the same: the narrow walls of the apartment, canvases stacked against them, the dimness that gathers in the closet and the entrance to the bathroom. But it’s Angelo that looks different — tired, I think, for lack of a better word. “How’s the new job?” I ask.

“It’s cool,” he says with a shrug.

“Really?” I ask, unconvinced.

He rolls his neck and laughs. “No, it fucking sucks. It’s just like ‘move this here’ and ‘move this there’ and I don’t give a shit about expensive perfume or whatever.”

Since the last time we Skyped, Angelo lost his job at that hot-shit gallery where he spent his first full year out of university working as an art handler — drilling shit and hanging shit and packing shit, pulling late nighters and driving semis around Manhattan to do $500,000 installations in million-dollar apartments. “Living the dream,” he’d called it.

It’d been what he’d wanted, what he’d thought he’d wanted, a step in the rung of the ladder of the art world. He’d worked his ass off for it — years of interning while taking full-time classes and working catering gigs and living in his ridiculously rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. He’d been flown to Art Basel Miami, and Art Basel in fucking Basel. He’d met some of his favorite artists and he’d gone to big-deal parties and he’d make connections with gallerists and dealers from around the world.

But secretly I hadn’t been surprised when Angelo had first written saying he’d been laid off. He’d been getting sick of it. He’d said as much the last time we’d talked, when there’d been an opening and he’d worked the door to the VIP lounge. “So, you know, I get to like stand there and be The Man,” he’d laughed. “I’ve got the power, right, of who gets in, and I gotta know the right people and I gotta schmooze and be mad like that.” He’d laughed again. “But it’s also kinda whack. It’s all these people pushing around, trying to be all big and in with this person or that person, and pretending the art is way better than it is. And I’m not even in the real thick of it. I get to play The Man for a couple hours, but the rest of the time I’m just, you know, the grunt. The blue-collar end of it.”

He’d seemed characteristically positive when he’d first written with the news he’d been laid off. He was gonna be getting unemployment, had a few good job leads, was using the extra time to get this website together. Then came an on-call gig doing display installations at Saks in Midtown.

It’s been a month now and he seems worn thin: he fidgets, picks at food wrapper, pushes up his glasses, gets up to get a glass of water then sits back down.

“You alright?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Yeah, I mean, whatever. I work til like 3am and then I take a cab home to my rich-boy apartment while all the other chollos haul it an hour and a half on the subway, just to turn around and do it again. And it’s like the only kinda job I’m qualified for, other than catering which is a fake job. Like, I spent all this time in school and all ‘I’m gonna be an artist” and all I know how to do is move shit. I just feel like, you know, what the fuck is it all for?”

He looks down, picks at the empty food wrapper then balls it up and tosses it across the room.

I sigh. “Well isn’t that the question of the hour?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about — the what-is-it-all-for, the fallacy of the idea of “making it.” I’ve been in Hanoi six months now; everyone’s started asking me what I’m doing, how long I’m staying, what the plan is now that the Cambodia-book-project thing fell apart. It doesn’t help that my 30th birthday is looming on the horizon, sitting there like a big fat question mark I can’t see over or around or through.

I want to tell Angelo something now, this thing I’ve been thinking, been feeling churn-churning inside me but don’t have words for yet. “It’s a good thing,” is all I come up with.

He raises his eyebrow. “What?”

“That you got out of that world. That shit wasn’t for you.”

He looks dejected.

“Not like that,” I say, still searching for the words. I sigh in exasperation at myself. “I mean, I know it sucks. I’m no fucking role model — I’ve pretty much given up on writing anything for money. But it’s good, I think, to not get sucked into the scene of it all. To question the whole making-it thing.”

I pause. You’re too smart for that art-world bullshit, I want to say, though I don’t actually know if that’s true.

“Check it out,” I say instead. “I’ve been thinking about this whole thing a lot lately, and I’ve been trying to write this essay about it but it keeps falling apart. Which might be metaphor, I think,” I add with a laugh. “But I’ll send you the link if I can ever get it together.”

“Sweet, sweet,” Angelo says as he cracks open a soda can. It hisses and he yanks the tab off.

“Now tell me about that Sandy shit,” I say.

**

I got the essay together. Kinda. It’s not terribly uplifting. You can read it here.

Til Your Money Runs Out: In Tai O, In Old Clothes

I could live here, I thought. I could stay here til my money runs out. I don’t need to go back; I don’t even know where “back” is.

I thought this as I walked through Tai O last night, down the narrow cement alley of a fishing village on the far end of one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands.

I’d been having fun in Hong Kong the previous three days, running around the city with a friend who just moved here. Running off and on subway cars, in and out of cabs, up and down hills, this cafe and that restaurant and not worrying about any of it.

Something about it made me feel young again—something about the hills and the air and the clatter of street cars, the Chinese characters, the speed and energy of it all. A toy city, trams that move like little clanking trains on a track, beneath tall skinny buildings—“you drew that too tall,” I wanted to tell whoever made them. A vertical city, a vertigo city, hills that remind me of San Francisco, wires in the air like San Francisco, air dry and cool like San Francisco. Homesick city, other-side-of-the-world city, not my real city, blinds clacking in the night breeze above the sofa where I slept, 22 stories up.

I’d been wearing all my old clothes too, things I hadn’t worn in over a year, things that smelled like mold and the bamboo of my wardrobe in my apartment in Hanoi. They were all a little faded though, a little worse for the wear: my jeans had shrunk, my Toms had holes in them, my hoodie was stretched out and linty. But for those first few days I was feeling like the person I used to be; “I feel like myself again!” I’d exclaimed. In the pockets I found boarding passes to flights I’d taken a year ago, on the other side of the planet, what felt like another life—ink blurred and also faded. I’d smiled before I’d thrown them away.

A night to kill out on an island, an excuse to “get away from it all,” though I’m not sure what “it all” even is anymore. Met up with some other friends, took a ferry and a cab up to a big bronze Buddha, “that’s a big Buddha!” Talked about old friends, about Oakland, hugged and parted ways. Bus down, down, down the mountain and into the town of Tai O just as the sun was setting.

Walking through the village, the silence of a day-trip town after all the day-trippers have gone. A fishing village, former village, burgeoning tourist trap, not quite one or the other but perfect in its inbetweenness—the echoes of television sets, voices laughing, the clack-clack of Chinese checkers and the squeak of a toddler’s shoes. Windows drawn and doors open, peaking in at the red altars and television sets, the little line of living rooms and the little line of lives.

Moonlight on the tin houses, a dozen cats crouched in the shadows along a door frame, necks all bent at the same angle. The metal gates drawn and the straw baskets on their bellies, but the smell of fish remaining. The smell of salt, the smell of gasoline, every beach town I’ve ever been in—Puerto Angel and Mirleft and Sveti Stefan, a scattering of places around the planet, all as still and breezy and insect-whiny as here.

I sat down on a stone ledge under a swollen ring of streetlight. Listened to the waves. I could stay here, I thought. Til my money runs out, I thought.

And I thought then of the previous night, when for whatever reason I’d started looking through old photos on my computer. They were mostly from trips I’d taken, a lot of them with an old boyfriend. And it was weird, for the first time the girl in the pictures struck me as another person. Like, I could remember being her but I had this super strong feeling that she wasn’t me anymore.

I’d leaned forward, squinted at the girl. She was prettier than she thought she was; she was skinnier than she thought she was too. Her hair didn’t look that stupid and her skin wasn’t all that bad and she had a lot less tattoos. She had a nice smile and she looked happy, I thought—happier than she thought she was.

What happened to that girl? The question had troubled me, sat in me, stirred in me as I trolled around all day, until I was sat down under the Tai O streetlight.

I’d left her. It’s like I’d been a train—a little toy train—and I’d pulled out of the station of that girl without even noticing, like those moments you look out the window and you think the outside is moving but really it’s you, or you think you’re moving but really it’s the outside, another train passing you by.

She’s gone, I thought, sitting on that ledge in tired old clothes that didn’t feel like mine anymore. She’s stuck there, smiling in those photographs, making silly faces. You slipped away from her, I thought, and now you want to reach out and touch her, smell her, feel the way her body is. Just looking at her hurts.

It’s too much. Sometimes it’s all too fucking much and you just want to curl up in some beach town, some fishing town, walk down the one road over and over, peeking in the doorways, hearing the sounds of TVs, voices and laughs you don’t understand, aren’t a part of—other people’s cooking—and you want to just stay there until your money runs out and your bones get old, weathered by the salt and the wind, become a relic like this, a rock like this—weeds growing up between the cracks.

A Small Kind of Gift: Dancers Behind the Glass

Skyline, sunset, nine stories up.

Sitting in a glass room that doesn’t feel entirely dissimilar to a cage. An antiseptic cage, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, white crisp lines, a little terrace landscaped with rocks and moss in a manner vaguely Zen. I’m early for tutoring, or rather the girls are late, and I’m sitting in the office of a penthouse apartment in Hoan Kiem, a brand-spanking highrise in the heart of the Old Quarter. The city is a muffled din, a streak of smog rising like…

It’s okay, to just be sitting there, killing time. I stare out the window: construction cranes and skeletons, buildings wrapped in that green-mesh scaffolding that moves a little in the breeze. There’s a breeze today, outside that glass; it’s been the most goddamn beautiful day I’ve seen in Hanoi so far, one of those days that makes your heart hurt, that after the months of suffocating heat and before the months of demoralizing cold is so perfect it makes you wanna cry.

There’s a building across the way. It’s taller than the one I’m in, big sign “Office Space For Lease” draped across the tinted glass at my eye-level. A co-conspirator.

There’s this one corner that catches my eye—the way the light hits, the building is all black except for this one corner on this one floor, shot through with a stab of pink. I sit there staring at it, swiveling a little in my swivel chair.

Then I see it—a flash of black. In the window of that one corner, two black bodies move. They turn, dip, step, recede.

They’re dancing.

I lean forward, smile.

It happens again: two silhouettes, arms held, hands clutched, backs stiff and legs sweeping. Like ballroom dancing.

They come in and out, the black of the bodies appearing from the black of the building, cast against the sky.

I count: appear, step, recede. Appear, step, recede.

I smile. I grin. I lean forward in my swivel chair; I want to call out to them. I want to tap on the glass and wave my arms and say something. What? That I see them? That we’re both up there, trapped in glass above the city? That from where I’m sitting they look stunning and mysterious and hypnotic, like a small kind of gift?

Then I see more. I see six bodies, three couples, all backlit; I see ponytails and a pork pie hat, the way a girl’s dress is tied around her waist in a big loose bow. It’s some kind of class, I think; there were six all along and I’d just been seeing the spin of them, one at a time, circling past the window.

The light shifts. It’s sinking and it sucks some of the black off the building. I can see more of their outlines—someone’s wearing a white t-shirt. I can see two of those cardboard filing boxes stacked against the window, by what looks like carpet, what looks like those long plastic Venetian blinds that make a little clacking noise when you brush against them. I imagine brushing against them. I imagine the beaded cord in my fingers, or else just hanging there, half-pulled.

The bodies all stand there, no longer dancing. Their backs are to me, looking out through the glass at the skyline.

I don’t want to tap on the glass anymore. I don’t want to call out to them, say whatever it was I didn’t know how to say. It’s enough that they’re there, ballroom dancing in an empty office building nine stories above the city, flashing black at me like a peek-a-boo, like a light charade, like one of those spinning lanterns you’d see at the science museum gift shop, with the racing horses or zooming rocketships, going round and around in an optical illusion that would always stop eventually, sag to a stop and take the magic with it.

I sit in the swivel chair, waiting for the girls. Downstairs in the kitchen, I can hear something frying, hissing as it hits the oil.

“You Don’t Have To Like It But…”: A West Oakland Story About Vietnamese Culture

Still waiting for someone to explain this one

When I moved to Hanoi, there was this refrain I kept hearing the long-term expats say: “You don’t have to like Vietnamese culture, but you have to respect it.”

Which makes sense, you know; you don’t have to be a historian to know that these are the folks who beat the Chinese, beat the French, beat the Americans. It’s not a touchy-feely, graceful, charming culture; it may be abrasive and loud and pushy, but as they say, you’ve gotta respect it.

Well, I do like Vietnamese culture, at least so far, so it’s a two-for for me. But the longer I stay here, the more I realize that there’s some stuff I already knew about Vietnamese culture, if only in brief glimpses. Now I just have a larger context to put it in.

For example: there’s this story my mom used to tell that keeps rising up out of the fog of childhood memories as I’m walking around Hanoi. It’s one of the many my mom has from her years teaching kindergarten in West Oakland during the 1980s.

For the uninitiated, West Oakland is a kind of urban no-man’s-land, a place where “the rules of normal society don’t apply,” my mom always said. It was the kind of place where you’d see things you normally don’t see in the developed world—packs of stray dogs, unsupervised three-year-olds walking around, shootings in broad daylight, junkies lined up for their morning fix.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about West Oakland too, been working on this monster piece (that currently falls apart right at the climax) about the neighborhood, which I never lived in but had a consistent relationship with my whole 28 years living in Oakland. My dad worked in a fire station there; my brother worked at a swimming pool there; an old boyfriend lived in a notorious punk house there.

So there’s no shortage of stories, and seeing as though I don’t want to spoil what may eventually turn into a workable piece, I’ll keep them to myself for now. Except the one I keep thinking of, the one of a little Vietnamese girl in my mom’s kindergarten class.

In the 1980s Oakland’s working class neighborhoods were flooded with Southeast Asian refugees, from Laos and Cambodia (“We had a bring a translator in to tell the Cambodian boys they couldn’t piss on the playground”), but mostly from Vietnam. Oakland had always had tons of Chinese people, but these new Asians were a different breed; we didn’t really know much about them.

It’s a funny thing to grow up around immigrant communities, because you get these whiffs of a culture. It’s different, a culture in diaspora; everything is cut through the prism of the American immigrant experience, which skews things, makes them not-quite-actually-how-they-are. But you get these glimpses, these insights; you get a vague understanding of what people from Vietnam are like—“tough as shit” was the usual way we summed it up—and while these glimpses are incomplete and reductionist, they aren’t entirely inaccurate.

So. My mom’s in West Oakland, teaching to a population that’s the dictionary definition of At-Risk Youth: majority African-American, low-income, single-parents, high prevalence of drug use and criminal activity in the household. Now sprinkled with fresh-off-the-boat war refugees. #nottheshittheytrainyoufor

In those days the Oakland Public School curriculum had a heavy focus on African-American history and culture. Maybe it still does. I went to a different school in a different neighborhood, but it was still the same jam—teaching subject matter that related to the students’ lives. It wasn’t a bad idea and could have worked, if it’d been supplemented with other curriculum, like say science.

So my mom is teaching away—Follow the Drinking Gourd; Go Tell It On the Mountain; Honey I Love,; “The people walked walked walked / Till their feet were sore inside / Till their shoes split open wide / But still they would not ride”; “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff / Wasn’t scared of nothing neither / Didn’t come into this world to be no slave / And wasn’t gonna stay one neither.” Every month was Black History Month, an attempt to counter the Euro-centric narrative that dominated most public school education. Except it wasn’t exactly inclusive; except it left out all the other kids in the classroom who were also of color.

So one day, towards the middle of the school year, when all those immigrant kids were starting to get conversant in English, a scrappy little Vietnamese girl looks up from her Montgomery bus coloring sheet or some shit and announces, “I’m tired of learning about black people.”

There was a dead silence in the room.

“You know,” my mom would say when she’d tell the story, laughing and shaking her head. “You kinda had to hand it to her. There wasn’t a scrap of grace or tact in there, and you knew her life wasn’t gonna be easy in Oakland—but you know, you had to respect the guts it took to say it.”

The longer I stay in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, the more this story seems to encapsulate a fuck of a lot about Vietnamese culture. It’s not soft. It’s not gentle. It’s not palms-pressed-and-bowing subservience. #fuckthatanyway

But you’ve gotta respect it.

“It’s a Real City!”: Hanoi Through Cambodia Goggles

Tourist time with Uncle Ho!

“Hanoi: Refreshingly Free of Prostitutes”

This was the tagline that ran through my head my first few weeks living in Hanoi. Which perhaps isn’t most people’s dominant first impression of the city. Which perhaps says a helluva a lot more about me and where I was coming from, my Cambodia goggles, than it did about Hanoi itself.

I’ve been talking a lot to one of my friends here about first impressions of places, whether there’s any clout in them or if they’re all just superficial and uninformed and in the long run say more about the viewer than the place itself. (We’ve reached no verdicts but I’ll get back to you if we do.) Particularly we’ve been discussing the tendency of certain travel writers/memoirists to put places into what feels like a pre-determined box—the exotic romanticism of a place like Hanoi.

For instance, if a writer talks about the smells of “verdant green” and “incense wafting” in Hanoi, it makes you stop and think: “Really dude? Are we talking about the same Hanoi?” (“In Hanoi I just smell trash,” another writer friend said.) It’s like some people have already decided what a place is gonna be like and then goddammit, they go out looking for things that confirm that belief, bolster that vision, and seem to block out every other damn thing that may challenge or contradict their predetermined notions.

Which doesn’t actually tell you a whole lot about Hanoi, but does tell you a lot about the person experiencing Hanoi. For instance: last week I had two friends from Phnom Penh in Hanoi. It was another one of those long weekends that riddle the Cambodian calender like bullet-holes, a great excuse for them to bus-it and plane-it up to Hanoi to soak up some autumn breezes, street food and much-need kick it time.

I miss the hell out of my Phnom Penh friends, so it was great to catch up and roam around playing tourist. But one of the funniest things about my friends visiting was listening to their impressions of Hanoi, cause they were the exact same as mine when I arrived here. Which basically amounted to: “Holy shit, I’m in a developed country!”

Cambodia’s really gotta be one of the few countries you could come to Vietnam from and be impressed with the level of competence, wealth and infrastructure. Every time I saw the garbage collectors when I first came here—a mini-phalanx of women with rubber gloves and masks and UNIFORMS—I wanted to cry. When a xe om driver could read the address of where I was going, I nearly teared up. When my landlord installed a new stove top, with actual gas burners, I instagrammed that shit.

Both of my friends had been to Hanoi before, one more recently than the other, but their remarks were basically the same, including:

“People are so fat here!”
“Wow, a mountain bike!”
“Wow, a city bus!”
“Hanoi is like, a real city.”
“It feels like there’s so much more to explore here.”
“The beef is so good here.”
“People are kinda mean.”
“You can really feel that it’s a middle-income country.”

Comments like that made me feel good, made me laugh a bit too—when we stood on the corner and perused the poncho selection, the ones with the clear plastic in the front so you can put it over the front of your bike and still have the headlight visible (what I call the Teletubby Poncho). “The ponchos here are so nice,” running their fingers over the sturdy plastic. “How come people in Cambodia haven’t thought of this?”

All of which is great cause you hear a lot of bullshit about Vietnam—such as this god-awful post lamenting the deformed beggars (??) and fragile (haha!) Vietnamese women—shit that makes you think, “Are you sure you were in Hanoi and not Phnom Penh? Or did you just decide that Hanoi was gonna be a third-world shitshow and look for examples to confirm this belief? And when you didn’t find enough examples, you invented them?”

When I moved here there was a number of people I met who wanted to Tell Me How It Was In Vietnam. Sigh. I suppose they had good intentions, but it all chalked up to “Vietnam is so crazy!” And I just kept thinking, “Puh-lease. You clearly haven’t seen what I’ve seen.” So much so that I tuned out a lot of the lingering dysfunction and insanity of Vietnam, was so enamored with the functionality that it took me a few months to notice the things that really still weren’t developed.

All of which makes you wonder if you ever really see a place clearly, or if it’s all just an endless shifting of projections, in a Jacob’s Room sense. Which is bullshit—of course you can see a place clearly, it’s just a lot harder to do, takes a lot more thought and insight and care, and maybe only comes in fleeting moments of sensory assault.

Either way, it was great to spend a few days trolling around Hanoi in tourist-mode, seeing it again through Cambodia goggles.

Today I Spent $9 on Muesli

It Takes A Village (Or At Least Two Teachers and a Slew of Advice Givers)

I live inside an archway. Do YOU live inside an archway?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But how many people does it take to teach one giant terrified Westerner to drive a motorbike?

So I’m back to trying to learn to drive. I hope people reading this from other locations don’t think driving a motorbike is actually that challenging. It’s really just that I’m mildly retarded when it comes to physical things (or regular things); that I’m a big fucking terrified baby; and that I don’t have a whole lot else going on in my life here to talk about, a life that is small and cozy and pretty darn good.

My first shot at driving was right when I got here. I’d been in Hanoi all of a week; it was 115 degrees; my life was in shambles/3 bags. And I’d still never ridden a bicycle. Given those circumstances I did pretty well. I met an OG expat who offered to give me lessons, one of those weathered old dudes you know has about a million stories hidden in the folds of their baggy clothing and leathered skin (such as, oh, hitchhiking from Paris to Katmandu in 1972).

After the first “lesson” I got demoted from motorbike to bicycle. We borrowed a bike from the neighboring fried fish stall and wheeled it over to the temple across the street, right on the lake—one of those little pockets of stillness in this big crazy city.

It got to be a thing, those first few weeks—meeting for coffee, going to the temple, Daniel clutching the seat and running behind me like I was five. I was equally into the lessons for the bits of stories that would leak out (“The ship docked in Cairo and my mother went out, hawked a ring to buy medicine for me”) as for the bike riding. I’d let the stories distract me from my fear as I tried to pedal on my own—wobbled and fell over as Daniel strolled pensively, snapping photos and smoking cigarettes and remarking, “Six meters!” when I finally started to get it.

There were a bunch of vendors at the temple, selling bottles of water and gum and candies, those little single packets of rice crackers, and they got to know us. They all thought I was Daniel’s daughter, he told me, which was funny cause I was a different race and about a foot taller. They were all quite liberal with the advice too, which they shouted out to me in Vietnamese as though I’d actually understand, in a way that I was beginning to understand as totally characteristically Vietnamese. It didn’t seem so different from the way the ladies at the Vietnamese nail salons in Oakland would bark at me when I’d walk in: “Ok, manicure, you pick a color!”

One lady in particular would get real into it, walk up to the handlebars and gesture and point and rattle on, then stop and smile at me, laugh a little.

“She’s right,” Daniel would say. “You need to look up.”

She was the lady who leapt up and applauded when I finally made it 20 meters by myself. I wobbled past and grinned.

“How old are most people in America when they learn to ride a bike?” Daniel asked later over coffee.

I shrugged. “Five or six.”

“And how old are you?”

“29.” I looked into my coffee, ashamed.

Daniel nodded, took a long drag. “So today you have grown 26 years.”

I smiled.

It was all going great, going just swimmingly, until the next lesson when he’d decided I was ready to go back on the motorbike. It was an especially hot day; I’d come over to his house and he was fighting with his girlfriend; we’d gone to a different temple and I’d fallen over about ten times, shaky from the heat and the frustration, my legs bashed by the foot pegs so many times they’d looked like bruised bananas the next day. I’d also gotten three jobs and a private student by that point, all scattered in a fucked-up hodge-podge of hours. I decided to go on motorbike-driving-learning hiatus until my schedule mellowed and the heat broke.

Which would be about now. I’ve got my regular dude I use—a whole crew of xe oms, actually, who all live on my peninsula, who were mean and yell-y and mad-dogging at first but who now smile and wave at me when we pass, in another way that has started to seem characteristically Vietnamese to me, like I had to earn it.

But not driving in Hanoi sucks. It’s expensive and you can’t fucking go anywhere and you’re reliant on your friends and you get stuck places and it gets even harder to motivate yourself to ever leave the air-conditioned comfort of your bedroom.

Daniel’s busy working as a personal tour guide for eccentric wealthy people, so I’ve nominated my roommate as my new teacher. He seems okay with the role, though I guess he doesn’t really have a choice. I rented an automatic bike—“retard-proof,” Jacob calls it—and for a week now we’ve gone out, toodling around the peninsula in the evenings or the afternoons.

See: Magical. #nofilter

Our peninsula is kinda a magical place, like a little village smack in the middle of Hanoi. It’s got those rural rhythms, the expectedness of things: the bun cha stall that’ll be smoking meat in the mornings; the boys that play football in the road in the afternoons; the evening drink stall; the woman who rolls her clothing and bra cart out at exactly four o’clock everyday. It’s got the village characters too—the homecoming king and queen, who are the proprietors of the cafe we go to, always smiling and graceful and classy; the fat babies; the deranged rooster who shits on the cafe tables; the zealous young woman always kneeling at her altar (“like Carrier’s mom”); the woman who boils her stinky herb tea in the alleyway cause it’s too stinky to boil in the house; the four old military men who march around, “their evening constitution,” with straight backs and high knees, wearing their old army-issued socks.

My favorite person on the whole peninsula is the little water-brained dude. He’s really little, like under five feet and scrappy too. His facial features are a bit squished and his hair is stringy, bald on top cause I see him sitting there, on the bench or leaning on the railing, staring into the lake as he picks at his hair. It’s not so common to see mentally disabled people in this part of the world; they’re usually shamefully tucked away, out of sight, so I like seeing him. I also just like him; he’s got a good sweet vibe to him. We started smiling and waving to each other and when I come down the block I always kinda look for him, get bummed if he’s not sitting there.

We see all the characters as we toodle around, chatting and bullshitting, Jacob giving me pointers that my brain understands but my body can’t follow. Complicated stuff like, “Don’t put your foot down” or “Don’t yank the handlebars.” The neighbors here have also begun to chime in with advice and encouragement—one man making throttle motions, sliding his hands together in a way that indicates that at any moment, any moment he expects me to just soar off in competent confidence. Right, I think, smiling and looking away.

So the other day we were at it, putzing slowly, when we came around the bend and I saw my water-brained friend. He started waving to me. “He’s totally you’re homie,” Jacob remarked as we approached.

“Totally,” I said.

We inched up and my homie started to say something to me in his garbled Vietnamese.

Jacob nodded. “He’s right.”

“What?”

“He says you need to put your feet up.”

I turned to my homie, shrugged my hands in the air. He grinned and laughed.

“This is great,” I said to Jacob as we eased down the alleyway back towards our house. “Like, if you’re ever busy one day, I could just get my homie to give me lessons.”

We laughed, shook our heads at the bumbling ludicrousy of me as we rumbled past the trash bags and kitten cages, the pot of stinking tea boiling beside the gate.

A Year and Counting

The good ole’ lake

A year ago today, I laced up my running shoes and walked down the steep cement slant of my parents’ block for one final run around Lake Merritt.

It was a drizzly cold day, nothing like Indian Summer is supposed to be in the Bay Area, all crisp skies and fogless mornings. It was brisk but in a good way, a way that makes your run better, that invigorates you—that, when you come around the bend to the intersection where you usually cross the street and go back up the hill, you keep going. You go another lap, dodge the geese shit and dinging bells of the bicyclists, pass the cackling dreadlocked dude always posted at the bridge; the patch of trees that smell like maple syrup; the playground you used to go to as a kid; the boathouse you used to drop off time sheets at; the hedge maze they planted when you were a kid that never grew, all the geese eating the seeds so that it’s still just a mossy stump, raising like a ringworm in the ground. Know every step, every inch of gravel, the tree roots to avoid cause they’ll twist your ankle.

Stop back at the intersection, your hands on your knees and breathe. It’s the first time in all your 28 years that you’ve ever ran twice around the lake.

Switch back to the first person: I left my home a year ago today. After that run, I went back to my parents’ house, showered under that gloriously high-pressure nozzle in that green bathroom they remodeled when I was 12 (time capsule letter still nailed to a stud inside the wall somewhere). I said goodbye to the cat (who was so old I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see again, and I was right), and carried my bags to the car.

We went for lunch at a neighborhood sushi joint; I had a seaweed salad; we walked over to Boot & Shoe where I got a cappuccino and a pastry for the plane and said one last goodbye to my co-workers. Hugged my mom. Drove across the bridge with my dad. Looked out the window at the familiar landscape: the skyline of San Francisco, the row of billboards, the bend in the road, the traffic tangling then loosening, roadside giving way to the clapboard suburbs of South San Francisco. Planes arching, Airport Parking and shuttle buses—knowing again every inch, each sign, a route I’d taken a thousand times, it felt like, on a thousand trips but this time I wasn’t coming back.

Hugged my dad on the curb. Walked into the airport, alone.

I was rereading the posts from a year ago, all the commotion and to-do leading up to my leaving. It could have been worse, could have been a lot more dramatic and I think if I’d decided to run off and be an expat any earlier in my life, it would have been. I was struck by the anxiety of those posts—I didn’t remember being that anxious. I’d already edited that out, made my leaving and my last summer in the States into something more bittersweet and stoic than it was actually was. It was hard.

The whole time I knew I was making the right decision, knew that for whatever reason I had to go; I’d grown all I was going to grow in that life there, as good as it was. I felt this kind of bell tolling. I thought the bell was Cambodia, I thought the bell was supporting myself as a freelancer while writing a book on a subject that terrified me. That didn’t turn out to be it at all, but I still believe there was a bell.

I was thinking a lot about what I wanted my one-year post to be about. Nothing is how I’d envisioned it’d be a year ago, when I stood in line at the check-in counter, my three ridiculous bags strapped to my body at various angles. The freelancing dream lasted four months before I had to start teaching. The book project crumbled just about the moment I reached Cambodia. Cambodia, well, that’s another story, one I don’t even know how to tell yet. And now Hanoi—four months and starting to feel like home, starting to get it dialed in to this perfect, almost-cocoon-like existence. A city I hated the first time I visited—who’d have thought?

So I’ve learned a lot. A fuck of a lot. I’ve learned I’m a lot happier working a job that pays my bills and writing for the love. I’ve learned that I’m a shitty freelancer. I’ve learned that I’d rather tell people I meet that I’m a kindergarten teacher than a writer. I’ve learned that you have to deworm every six months, that boiling tap water doesn’t necessarily make it safe it drink, that there’s a kind of humidity that’ll sprout mold on your clothes in two weeks time.

But I think the most important thing I’ve learned in this year is that there’s this placeness, this center at the center of me. Does that make sense? Like, all those posts from a year ago, I was so mad anxious about leaving home for the first time. About not having a base, a place to come back to, my familiar people and places all waiting. Of course I was—I’d never really moved out of Oakland. It was a big leap.

But I’ve learned that there’s a stillness in me. It’s hard to get there and most of the time, I don’t think it shows; I’ll catch myself picking at my nails or digging at the scar of an old wart in a way that I know makes me look nervous, unsettled, like a goddamn lunatic. But there’s this other me, underneath that me, that’s always kinda been there. It’s the me I sink into on long bus rides, staring out the window and thinking about nothing. It’s the me I write from, in the best of times which isn’t very often—when the buzz of that other me dims, turns thin, goes away and my fingers move on the keyboard, almost independent of me, as though one part of me were telling another me a story.

And it’s the me that was sitting in the departure terminal of SFO a year ago, bags checked and pastry greasing up the thin bag, watching a guy in a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass shirt chase his tangle-haired toddler around. There was the surface me, sitting there tweeting some dumb shit, but there was also the center me, ready and waiting to board. A year ago today.

The Xe Om Saga, Part Two: Exactly 100% Like Dating

This, but in 115 degree heat

Remember that humorous, uplifting and vaguely life-affirming post I did a few months ago about finding the dream xe om driver?

Yeah well, that shit blew up.

The funny thing was I kept relating the search for a xe om to dating. Cause it’s totally similar. Which is NOT Vietnam specific; a far wittier and more insightful friend in Phnom Penh correctly surmised that having a regular tuk-tuk driver was always like having a boyfriend—the jealousy, the controlling, the weird reliance you have on them and the even weirder, unspoken power dynamics. (She told a hysterical story about getting into a fight with a tuk-tuk driver that culminated in her screaming, “You are not my boyfriend!”)

So, Hanoi: same jam, different mode of transit. The situation with Da devolved for a variety of reasons, which you can explore here (you’ve all been reading your Vela regularly, right? Riiiiight?!)—but the thing I didn’t get into in the piece is the way in which it was totally, 100% just like dating.

1. Suspicion: “He can’t possibly be interested in me.”
2. Disbelief: “Okay, so he’s interested but there’s gotta be a catch.”
3. Honeymoon: “Holy shit! He’s interested in me! And he’s not crazy!”
4. Settling In/Cracks Emerging: “Everyone’s human, no big.”
5. Ignoring of Flagrant Red Flags: “That’s totally NOT alcohol on his breath.”
6. Increase in Frequency of Red Flags, Combated with an Increase in Denial: “That’s not indicative of scary anger management issues! That’s not indicative of scary anger management issues!”
7. Realization: “Fuuuuuck. That’s indicative of scary anger management issues.”
8. Breaking Up: “But why do I still feel guilty?”

(Here it should be noted that while I’m completely powerless to stop this cycle, I do still have some shreds of self-preservation and have thus not dated in a long time. Like, a really long time.)

The only way in which my relationship with Da was not like dating was in the end: we only exchanged two texts after I dumped him. He didn’t show up at my work unannounced, didn’t harangue me on various forms of social media, didn’t leave sobbing messages on my phone at 4am (cause I don’t have voice mail, thankyouverymuch). And also dissimilar to real dating, I found a new dude the next day; it’s been two months and he has yet to show any signs of mental/emotional instability.

This isn’t just a haha funny thing. I remember when I realized that my patterns in relationships didn’t just apply to the romantic sphere but tentacled out into every relationship in my life: my work, my friendships, everything. Of course the same pattern would hold true for a motorbike driver, right? It’s not like I get to move across the planet and escape this shit.

I guess the crazy thing to me is how much we sniff each other out, without even knowing it. How much we communicate our various forms of brokenness and the compatibility of that brokenness, in some animal part of our brain we aren’t even aware is at work. How much we keep finding different versions of the same people, all over the goddamn earth. Who knew a 50-something Hanoian xe om would evoke the same emotions in me as a 22-year-old Oakland punk? It’s kinda remarkable, really.

But of course the real crazy thing is, after I’d been working on this piece for a few hours last Friday, I headed out to my meeting. I was walking up Xuan Dieu, listening to my headphones and dodging the blinding streak of headlights when whooooo should I see drive by?

Yeah, that’s who.

He said my name and gave a little wave.

Which was totally, 100% NOT like dating.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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