Chinese New Year

Celebration of the Year of the Horse officially ended on the day of the Lantern Festival, the 15th day of the new year. 15 days of feasting, drinking, covering various corners of Shanghai to visit relatives close and distant, at the end of which my holiday spirit was nowhere to be found and I was more than glad to face the rest of the year with quiet acceptance.

Right in the middle of all the busing, taxing around, tired of having to choose between entertaining guests that are not mine and hiding out in my sister’s room, I left the house to have lunch with a girl friend.

The Korean restaurant we had originally planned on visiting was closed for Chinese New Year so we went to get dim sum instead. I’d hardly warmed my seat when she asked me how my trip to Vietnam was.

“Great,” I responded. “I want to learn Vietnamese this year.”
“Do you have a boyfriend in Vietnam? Is that why you go back every year?”
“If I had a boyfriend in Vietnam, would I only visit once a year?”

How could I explain to her why I loved Vietnam? That if Europe stayed in the past and China focused on the future, as friends have postulated, then Vietnam was the present. That for someone whose thoughts are occupied by nostalgia and worry, the present is like waking up from a long nap, pulling aside the curtains, finding the world outside covered in snow and seeing it anew.

My girl friend stared at me for a minute and suddenly chuckled.

“What is it?” I asked.
“I was just thinking about how unpredictable life can be.”

Another pause in the conversation as I sipped my tea and stared out the window.

Conversations with Strangers -Saigon

“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.

“Why not?”
“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.

Hanoi, Vietnam

On the first day of the new year, I arrived in Hanoi, wide-eyed and afraid. I was afraid my visa would somehow fail me, afraid the driver I had arranged through the hotel would miss me, afraid I would be left in the middle of nowhere…

It’s my first solo international trip and I didn’t know what to expect.

It turned out I was afraid of all the wrong things. I should have been intimidated by the motorbikes swarming the city streets, making every street crossing a suicide mission, but months of crossing the streets of Shanghai had prepared me. I should have been overwhelmed by the impossible maze of Old Quarter and frustrated by how often I got lost, but instead I relished in my ability to decipher a map missing half the street names. Someone should have warned me about the local boys, the ones too brazen with their stares and too eager to please, yet without them, Hanoi’s charm wouldn’t have been complete.

If every city had its own word, “chaos” would be the one for Hanoi. With more character than the pristine of Singapore, the bustle of Hong Kong, and the paradox that is Macau, Hanoi claimed my heart with ease. How readily I fell for this city surprised even me. More than anything, I fell for the people of Hanoi, with their easy smiles and beckoning hospitality.

Too soon, I had to say goodbye — my trip has just begun and I have at least half a dozen more cities to explore. As the taxi drove me out of city center to the airport, a tinge of nostalgia hit me. Until next time, dear Hanoi.