I’m all pleased with myself because the waiter at this little dessert joint just told me that I “look like Vietnamese.” My uni student friends took me here to try the sticky rice-flour balls in a sweet sauce, Thuong and Hop and that crowd. They’re so excited that I like it, and they give me a long list of foods that I must try in Vietnam before I leave. I write them all down in my notebook: bun cha, com ga, pho bo.
Then Hop turns to me and says, “tell us something about America.” All of my on-top-of-it, good-traveler feelings go away and I just feel guilty, thinking they will want to hear about pop culture, or politics…I don’t like pop culture and I don’t know enough about politics. I want to run away from all that, it is easier to fold up my long legs and sit in a tiny plastic chair and somehow blend in with people who look nothing like me. In Korea they told me I looked like a Korean, too.
They are all watching me eagerly. “In America,” I finally tell them, “if I want to do something, I do it. Even if my parents and my friends tell me I should not do it, I still do it.” Grossly over-simplified, but I realize I am talking about individualism.
And later, back in my room, I will realize this: it is a naive, rookie mistake to completely reject your own culture and call that being a good traveler. The more nuanced and mature approach is to learn how to pick out aspects of your own and other cultures that you identify with, the parts you’d like to keep, and try to turn away as much as possible from the parts that you don’t. This is the closest we can come to transcending culture, which is the real individualism. I imagine that the more different cultures we see, the freer we are from the grip of one–be it our own or running away from our own, which are in some ways the same thing.
They are all staring at me around our low plastic table with wide eyes. I feel I’ve said something very basic, but it does seem to be a new concept for them. For all my disapproval at the rapid westernization of Asia, this is the one thing about America that I do hope influences them, one thing I miss about home. I wonder if there are other things that I miss, now that I’m letting myself think about it.