“Where are you from?” He asked.
“California.” It was the first answer that came to my mind. Close enough to the truth.
“I’m from Shanghai.” He said.
“Really?” Then in Shanghai dialect I asked him how long he’d been traveling.
I had just arrived at my hostel in HCMC, a mixed door room for eight, white and pristine. I was unpacking my camera when he came into the room and started a conversation. It’s rare to meet a solo Chinese backpacker in SE Asia, even more rare to meet someone from my hometown. I dropped my guard instantly, a little too quickly.
“What are your plans for tonight?” He asked.
“I’m meeting up with a friend who’s here for work.”
“Do you want to go check out the nearby street and grab a beer until then?”
I believe there is an unspoken backpackers’ code. Under any other circumstance I would’ve declined his invitation. But when you’re a solo backpacker meeting another solo backpacker, friendliness is expected. And though a red light flashed for a second in my mind at the mention of alcohol, I dismissed it, it seemed unnecessarily rude to turn down a seemingly innocent invitation now that we were conversing in Shanghainese, which just might be my most native tongue.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I twirled the ring on my finger, a ring I had worn specifically for this trip, a ring that was going unnoticed by everyone except for me. I mulled over the question, it gave me a punch in the chest as recent events came to mind. I contemplated lying but a lie would lead to more questions and more lies and I am a terrible liar.
“No, I don’t.”
It was late. We had returned from the bar where I met up with my friend and his coworker. I had found a quiet spot in the hostel to do some writing and he had found me in the dark.
“What kind of question is that?”
“I think you’d make a good girlfriend, a good wife, don’t you think so?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been anyone’s wife before.”
“I mean the overall feel you give off…”
“Can I be your boyfriend?”
I laughed, it was the only response to such a ridiculous proposal. He went on to justify his question. And even though I have no desire to be with him, found absolutely no spark between us, felt nothing except mild annoyance towards him, for a second, a second, I imagined how easy it’d be to say yes. I felt tired of swimming upstream, tired of swimming at all. It’s like that dream where you’re running as fast as you can, lifting your feet and putting them down, and getting nowhere, an invisible force holding you in place, an invisible wall stands between you and the other side, the other side being happiness.
Except in my dreams, I leap. I soar. I push myself off the ground and land on rooftops. In my dreams, acrophobia does not exist. So I declined. He asked again and again I said no. He got up to leave, standing over me and asking me again if I were certain. Whatever he thought he could offer me, I wanted none of it. I offered him a handshake. He pulled me in for a hug. I was surprised to find him shaking like a leaf. I forced my way out of his grip.
The only evidence of the episode was a message on my phone from him telling me he’s arrived in Singapore. I deleted it without reply.