When I booked it to Vietnam fresh out of college, I’m not sure I was a real person yet. I still wasted the occasional Friday night trying to fit in at sleazy, sweaty clubs drinking far too many UV Blue and lemonades. I still clung onto the shreds of my Catholic guilt. And I still felt ugly and out of place in my body.
But luckily I had Southeast Asia to slap me in the face.
There is a sense of eat or be eaten, sink or swim, when it comes to moving abroad. I grew up in Iowa, where you’re taught that hard work and a smile are really all you need to get by — and in Iowa, I haven’t seen evidence that this isn’t true. In Vietnam, however, you need a backbone — one that defies any and all Western constraints of femininity.
You need cojones.
In America, I was too self-conscious to have cojones. Being aggressive and larger than life, knowing what you want and speaking up for it — these seemed like qualities that would compromise what little femininity I was privy to. I was already nearly six-feet tall, intelligent enough that “statistically” I’m less likely to marry, and never have I once shied away from a firm handshake. I was Geena Davis in a sea of Marilyn Monroes, and I wasn’t okay with it. I was a strong female, but I tried not to be — so really, I was neither.
And then I immersed myself in a culture where the only person who can and will give you a leg up is yourself.
The first time I noticed this was when I went to buy a few bites of watermelon from a fruit vendor. She was patrolling the streets near Bui Vien with her plastic, squeaky, two-wheeled cart. She was leather-skinned, short, stout, very maternal-looking, and felt no shame in looking at me dead in the eye — charging me four times the going amount. I imagined her thinking, “Boy, the pale ones sure do pay off generously.” I know this isn’t a unique story, but it ignited something in me nonetheless.
For awhile, times like that continued, and they gutted my sense of self. I vowed to be acutely aware of never being taken for a ride, got a bit of Vietnamese under my belt, and refused to lower my chin. Between those things, I must have seemed competent and willing to assimilate. Because of this, others — locals — mysteriously allowed me power. I could feel it. I clung onto it as it grew and grew, and with each day I felt more and more in control of my surroundings. Slowly my stares evolved from doe-eyed disbelief to stares of defiance and rebellion. Travel was stoking the fires of a don’t-fuck-with-me vibe, and it would pay off kindly.
The art of bartering is a good place to start for any female who needs to go head-to-head with a culture or head-to-head with herself. It demands that you choose your own stance and stick to it for no reason other than what you’re demanding feels acceptable. It’s the edge of what you’re willing to do, and you will go no further. Really, all of life is just one giant barter — either you cave or they do. By spending my first months avoiding the Big C and buying everything I needed at local markets — mostly Tan Dinh — I learned these lessons and got much, much better at buying fruit. I became more manipulative, too — knowing just when to make someone laugh, being more animated and expressive to open myself up, easing the situation by making myself a spectacle — it all worked in my favor, and, more importantly, it all worked.
These life lessons just don’t happen back home. The aisles of Wal-Mart hardly cater to self-expression and exploration unless you’re trying to return something damaged without a receipt. I was used to putting on a trendy shade of lipstick and a smile to get what I wanted, but this was completely different turf — Southeast Asia demanded that I burn my bra, don my Hillary Clinton power suit, and rock out to a Katy Perry song like I was riding a giant mechanical lion instead of a shitty Honda wave.
Empowerment became addictive for me.
Eventually, this how-dare-you attitude came to life whether I was bartering at Ben Thanh or merely sitting at a stop light on Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh. I drove down the road, guarding my precious sixteen inches of space with an invisible laser shield. I stood dangerously close to the stranger in front of me in every queue, making eyes at potential cutters. I barged out of elevators to make sure I didn’t get sardined inside for another useless jaunt upwards. And I became willing to throw a few elbows and didn’t worry about breaking a nail while doing so.
This newfound sense of self allowed me to stare back at the eyes drilling into me, studying my blonde hair, freckles, and bare legs. I didn’t want to stare at the hairs coming out of their moles, but I’d do it on principle just to prove my point. Driving down the street was a zoo, sure, but elevators were much, much worse. I can’t recall the number of times I heard remarks about my stature only to turn around and join in on the conversation in Vietnamese — putting each gossiper in a state of visible horror.
Losing my sense of shame didn’t always come at the expense of others and it didn’t always involve cultural differences — there were moral ones at times, too. I vividly remember a group of women spilling a few barrels of rice in the middle of a semi-busy street on the outskirts of Saigon. They were sweeping up as many kernels as they could with their woven brooms while angry, harried men careened through their mess. The men paid no mind to the wheels of their motorbikes defeating the women’s work as every spewing kernel was an ode to their victory. As soon as I could, I pulled my bike up perpendicular to the street, angled it next to one of the women’s parked bikes, and blocked all motorists from zooming by. I faced glares, furrowed brows, and a few angry shouts — but, my way, the women were done in minutes and hopefully that week’s livelihood was spared.
And, sure, there were times when my backbone might have gotten the better of me, too. Once a taxi slammed on its brakes at a yellow light and I pancaked myself into its back-end. My bike lay in a pretzel in the middle of a busy road, blood was trickling steadily down my shins, and several of my things decorated the street. The driver came out of his taxi steaming, yelling and attempting to grab my keys, holding them hostage until I coughed up a handsome sum. I held my cool until he started grabbing my arms — to which I responded “Don’t you fucking touch me.” I pointed at my bloody legs, yelled a few expletives, and threw out an uncomfortable amount of eye contact until he finally gave up. I turned to the crowd that had gathered, bowed, picked up the pieces of my bike, and regretted nothing.
Well, sort of. I was proud, but I wasn’t. It was like emerging from a really good, totally necessary one-night stand that you hope you never have to have again.
That being said, there were times when my new attitude saved my ass, too. Being thrown into a foreign environment and actually surviving helps you realize you’re not useless and you’re not weak. There’s a strength in your core that is undeniable, and travel brings that realization to the surface.
When two men drove up beside me to wrestle my wallet from me, I knew I stood a chance. All I needed was a split second’s burst of “Oh, hell no,” and my muscles were in action defending my turf. After a quick tussle, they drove away empty-handed. Without knowing I could handle that situation, I’m not sure I would’ve tried.
As any expat knows, once you become a person somewhere, you’re bits of that person anywhere. Years later, I still see this woman pop out. She gives a stern glance to rude cashiers for just a second too long. She openly yells at people on their cell phones in movie theatres. She wears heels to top her out at a solid 6’1”, and you know what? I like her. She’s a new-age Marilyn Monroe. She’s Emma Stone meets Natalie Portman, she’ll never drink UV blue again, and, thanks to those experiences, the world is her fucking oyster.