Since I first started journaling seriously at the end of middle school, I've attempted to do trip reflections on the flight back home from any major travel experience. I spent the last month in Southeast Asia, so it only feels right to try to do the same, even though various mindless movies are tempting me from the in-flight entertainment system.
My family really enjoys travelling. Part of that probably has to do with the dispersion of family members across the globe, but I'd been to Europe and multiple cities in China before I could even really process and understand the places I was going to. Many of my international trips have been to places where I have some grasp of the local language - China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ireland, even Peru. This summer, I got to spend time fully immersed in unfamiliar places with near zero language understanding. We spent about ten days in Vietnam, visiting Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, and Halong Bay. Another ten days were spent in Thailand for Bangkok, Ayuthaya, and Chiang Mai. In addition to the language factor, this was the first foreign trip I've taken since gaining an interest in anthropology and cultural understanding. More than any other trip I've taken, I found myself striving to understand the local cultures, and constantly checking my thoughts and impact as an Asian-American tourist. Full immersion was quite difficult, given the fact that we did stand out as obvious tourists, but we strived for an authentic experience whenever possible (mostly with food). Being vegan in Vietnam actually led the way to a more local experience. Many vegan/vegetarian restaurants in the cities in Vietnam that we went to are run by Buddhists, and did not attempt to cater to tourists. They were often small, very low cost, family run, and off the beaten path. Ordering and paying involved a lot of pointing and writing, but many sincere moments were found here, where bright smiles and little head nods spoke more than the languages we didn't know how to speak. These tiny moments were the highlights of my trip. In my experience, being vegan in a foreign country often does provide more opportunities for exploration and local interaction than I think I would've had if food was more widely available to me.
The food scene in Thailand proved very different, but incredibly satisfying nonetheless. Veganism in Thailand also has religious roots, but I noticed that many restaurants in Chiang Mai have taken a health and animal cruelty stance. The food we had was flavorful and fine-tuned, with spectrums of tastes I sometimes didn't even know how to process. There was a restaurant there called "Vegan Heaven", and I think that's a fair title for Chiang Mai. Our interactions with restaurants there were a bit different - we provided amusement in Vietnam for our inability to handle the unfamiliar currency, but entertained in Thailand through the sheer amount of food we ordered (and finished).
Other than our food adventures, we spent a lot of our time visiting historical and religious sites. Hanoi's Museum of Ethnology, Ayutthaya's ruins, Hue's Imperial Palace, and the various ornate Buddhist temples of Bangkok and Chiang Mai were fascinating glimpses into the past. Unfortunately, I still don't think I had enough context to draw mental connections between history and the present, which I would want to better understand in future travels.
In addition to Vietnam and Thailand, we spent a bit of time in Hong Kong and half a day in Seoul. In Hong Kong, I was fascinated in the role of language, and how the use of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English can change how locals treat you. My family speaks Cantonese, but my parents chose to teach me Mandarin as it's a more "universal" language. Mandarin is not well-received in Hong Kong due to the political resentment of mainland China, so I often attempted Cantonese or spoke in English in an effort to distance myself from tourists from China, who I felt very little connection to despite my ethnic background. The tension between languages was interesting, and I wonder how the relationship will continue to develop in the coming years.
In Seoul, I was fascinated by the society wide obsession with cosmetics and fashion. I think it's fair to say I've never felt as physically insecure as I did walking through the subway stations of Seoul, where the first thing after the ticket turnstiles is a full-length mirror. I didn't spend enough time to really understand the obsession with appearance, but it was definitely the place I felt most out of place in during the trip.
I found the past month to be a wonderful learning experience. Packing as lightly as I did was exciting – being able to move from one hostel to the next with a small backpack made travelling a lot less stressful. As with most fun experiences, it ended too quickly. Next pre-work adventure: Alaska!