Reflections on South-East Asia

While filling out a form today, I had forgotten my address and telephone number in the states. The only thing I can conjure now is my passport number. I just realized I’m going to be flying on September 11th – FOR 26 HOURS STRAIGHT! Dangerous! No wonder these tickets were so cheap…

Here’s where I went–not including the month in Korea, since that’s old news by now:

I visited 11 cities, the rest was horrendous bus rides.

I’m in Thailand again, Bangkok. I don’t care to write about the protests and state of emergency here, since none of my Thai friends give a damn about it and I certainly haven’t seen any political action yet.

I’ll take this last blog to reflect and indulge myself on the time spent on the road. And on race.

Racially, I’m half white, and half “other,” as I like to say. The “other” has given me a brown tint in my skin, which has made traveling in South East Asia an especially revealing experience. Here are the stats:

Pro: Walking into tourist sites without having to pay, since I look kind of like a local.

Con: Being spoken to in the local language, and everyone assuming that I understand it and know what’s about to happen to me.

Pro: Getting to know the locals mush easier than the white people can, and not being seen as “a customer” but as a curious traveler.

Con: Feeling racially alienated by every Australian or Danish person I meet. “He can’t be half white” they say. “He’s lieing” they say.

Pro: Especially at night clubs and bars, the locals don’t notice the brown foreigner has walked in who intends to steal their women.

Con: At times, not getting the extra attention and becoming overwhelmed by a sense of loss.

Pro: attempting the guise of the bourgeois local, who all the locals respect and bow to.

Con: Nobody believes I’m American except Americans and the Brits.

To put it simply, being brown allows me to be more tactful in straddling the line between the foreigner and the local, though I can never fully be either one. Let me present my guises, in the interest of full disclosure:

Meet Nico

Nico the Filipino student. He is poor and lost from his traveling group, but boy wouldn’t it be nice if you bought him a drink? He’ll tell you everything about what it’s like living in Manila and how he feels being in a foreign country for the first time (Even in Cambodia, they think the Philippines is a shit country).

I take the guise of Nico when I don’t want to spend too much money someplace, when I’m being solicited, or when I want a woman to buy me a drink just for the hell of it. “Nico” is of course an Eastern European name, so the fun never ends. My most mad misadventures occur as Nico, since being Filipino automatically shoves him into the “exotic underdog” category. And everyone loves an underdog.

Nico took some time to master. At first I was amazed at how fast people pulled out their wallets for me, or just stopped trying to sell me things on the basis that I’m a poor, lost Filipino student. When I was testing Nico, I was found out a couple of times, but even that I could use to my advantage.

Of course I can’t pull of Nico with Americans or British, they know immediately that I’m full of shit. Aussies and just about any other whites don’t believe me when I tell them I’m half white anyway, so they have no problem seeing me as a Flip and ignoring me from that point forward (or using me as a photo prop). In that sense, I have no ethical dilemmas about using Nico. If you think it’s so unbelievable that I’m American, then screw you, I’m taking all your money, and you’ll find my middle finger up in all your photos of the “exotic SE Asians”.

Wildcard

“Wildcard” is just a nickname for a chameleon guise I inhabit when I meet a local family, or am just out during the day-time trying to meet locals and get in to their parties. The role is that of a prodigal son. Wildcard’s mother belongs to whatever race I’m trying to talk to, but being an innocent American, upon his mother’s death, Wildcard has returned to her natural “people” in order to savor the memory of his mother.

I didn’t fully inhabit Wildcard until Vietnam, since there are so many American-Vietnamese people, it’s a very believable story. There my name was Van Nguyen, and I met many a family, shared many a drink and had many a good mad time with the locals. I can’t begin to emphasize the amount of cultural capital this experiment yielded unto me. I learned so much about Vietnamese culture from families forcing me to try every food and meet every girl and fall in love with their country in every possible way. When a family or local gang meets Wildcard, they see it as a chance to instill a sense of national pride in their own wayward son.

Wildcard knows nothing about your language, your culture, your ways–but he wants to come back to his roots, to discover the “truth” behind his history. Won’t you help out this poor American existentialist?

Adrian the American

Following the same pattern as “Wildcard,” Adrian is a full American visiting his long-lost race, but he’s not interested in the culture or returning to roots. He’s interested in aid, investment and research.

Adrian is an American in study–a master of linguistics, economics, financing, urban development, you name it. He’s here to study the land, the culture, get statistics, all that nonsense. Under Adrian the locals suddenly become different people. They suddenly shout “My God–we are so poor!” or they say things like “They all lie, there is free food in every temple!”

Adrian is not here to travel or mess around. He’s not here to shop, go tubing or do anything fun, because this is not a vacation for him. He’s an American with a pen and a pad, trying to get the truth of your urban environment for investors, politicians and study groups. People are honest with Adrian. They don’t want to sell him things, or show off their country, or get help from him in any immediate way. Adrian serves a higher purpose, he can offer some sanity amidst the rock-and-roll tourist capital that submerges everything.

I’ve had amazing conversations with Korean and Japanese investors to prepare for the roll of Adrian. When investment capitol comes into play, suddenly things get serious, and a local says “you know, we make it seem like X, but really, it’s X.” Being brown only adds to the trust that people place in Adrian, since he is racially “one of them.”

I would say I’m most like Adrian. When I talk to locals under a guise, I’m Adrian about 20% of the time, “Wildcard” about 30% and Nico about 50%. Sometimes I’m just me.

It’s a Race!

I’ll be back in Seattle soon, where race is ridiculously politicized and masked in “safe words” and absurd “toleration training” that forces people to treat each other differently based on gender and race–since someone might get offended! As if Seattle isn’t one of the most segregated places in the States.

Race to me is just my body as it was when I was born, and has nothing to do with who I am except that I’m perceived as “not white”. In America this was never a problem, nobody cared, I was called an “island hopper” just as facetiously as I would call others “chinks” or “Nazis.” In Las Vegas, it’s all in good fun.

But of course, the world is not like where I grew up in Vegas and Portland. Especially outside of America, race is the biggest signifier of one’s identity, and even having “a brown tint” can make the difference in the type of bus I ride on, the treatment I get, the people I meet. Because race is class.

I’m repulsed with the way tourists in these countries view race. Because I’m somewhat brown I get alienated immediately, and many tourists, when I tell them I’m American or “half-white,” think I’m a liar, a local just trying to be “cool.” And they laugh. Isn’t it cute this brown local thinks he’s one of us? He even dresses like us! Hahahaha

I have never and will never make attempts to get back to my “roots”–whether they be white or “other.” I end with Badger Clark’s “The Westerner”:

The Westerner

My fathers sleep on the sunrise plains,
And each one sleeps alone.
Their trails may dim to the grass and rains,
For I choose to make my own.
I lay proud claim to their blood and name,

But I lean on no dead kin;
My name is mine for praise or scorn,
And the world began when I was born
And the world is mine to win.

September 10, 2008. Travel Blogs.

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