Vietnam

Vietnam was the cheapest ticket I could get out of Korea. It was also a place I wasn’t familiar with, so I was interested to visit. I should have done more research or possibly learned Vietnamese because it wasn’t very accessible for a budget traveler at all.

The second I arrived, there were also masses of foreigners that didn’t “do the right thing”. Because of the confusing bureaucratic mess of how visas are administered, I think this kind of confusion happens at every arriving international flight.

You need to have a printed Vietnamese visa already in your passport (I had that, check). You need to have EXACTLY x amount of Vietnamese money in CASH to pay immigration. Every website that helps you secure a visa has altering information, for example some say Euros or foreign currency equivalent is ok. How can people even get Vietnamese currency before arriving in the country? Anyway, since most arrive without the exact dollar amount of currency, or over the amount (because it is weirdly specific), the armed guards take foreigners one by one to an ATM THAT IS BROKEN on the entrance of the airport. You go one-by-one and they walk so bureaucratically (yes I invented that word) slow to get cash out of the machine. Again, as you know ATMs spit out large bills. So there’s really no way around it. It’s not a good feeling to start off a trip with a four hour hold-up trying to leave the airport. Don’t get me started on taxis though.

I stayed with my friend in Hanoi. He had a motorcycle and cush apartment. Even though he had to work a lot, I was able to recuperate from sleepless nights in hostels. I hit up couchsurfers to show me around Hanoi and got to see a lot of cool things and eat interesting food. Although there is a lot of Vietnamese food in the US, I’m not sure if I can find the same things, or even remember their names.

I found a tour to Ha Long Bay. I was on a small, beautiful ship, with about ten other people. It a random assortment of people. I fit right in as being another weirdo. We got to know each other very well. It felt like summer camp or a the beginning of a new program.

Ha Long Bay was absolutely breathtaking. The water is green and the rock formations are amazing. It was so much fun. It’s crazy to know that I’ve been to the place on most screensavers and desktop backgrounds. It was incredible.

Decided to leave Hanoi and get on a sleeper bus to Hue and Hoi An. Hue low-key sucked. I got robbed there, and it’s my least favorite travel story. So I’ll just leave it at that.

Hoi An was beautiful. I spent days just asleep on the beach. I stayed at a beautiful hotel with a single floor converted into a hostel. Their breakfast spread was incredible. I spent my days riding bikes with people I had met. The “downtown” area is really nice. Is there anything better than satayed skewers?

The bus route ended in Ho Chi Minh but by then I was tired of Vietnam. I was exhausted by the constant ripping off I had experienced in every part of Vietnam and decided I was better off just going inwards and turning off my brain a little. I understand that they have a much more dog-eat-dog life than I do, and that it is so much harder to hustle there and make a living. I was just tired of it by the end of three weeks in Vietnam.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has a cult following around the Bay Area. Everyone has a bumper sticker of The Mystery Spot. Well, it seems that way. I finally got to visit. It definitely reaffirmed that Santa Cruz has a strange energy to it, not in the sense the attraction advocated about, but in the attitude that people living here share about it.

Since then, I’ve only been back once. It is kooky, laid-back, and I understand why so many people move there for a breath of fresh air.

Macau

Macau is an interesting place that I visited with my family. When I say family, I really mean a random assortment of… people… that are distinctly related to me. My maternal grandpa is one of nine children. My mom has a close relationship with great uncle #5 because they grew up in the same household. Their children have married other people and their children are included in my “family” because we frequently see each other, if not in Hong Kong, Tucson, or elsewhere. So we went with a lot of people I will just call my family (but really they are my mom’s cousins?)

Macau is dizzying and peaceful at the same time. It’s difficult to describe. One hand, it known for it huge, gaudy casinos, peak of human strength stunt shows, and lavish cuisine. We had hand-pulled noodles in a giant, air-conditioned, ritzy casino. Who knew if it was night or day. But we also wandered around the idyllic cobblestoned streets looking for po-tat and Portuguese food. There are countless Portuguese monuments and colonial-era parks. While it seems new, it also seems “old.” While casinos are seemingly always open, the rest of Macau is sleepy and shuts down by sundown.

Traveling in a large group is tiring but it was a fun experience. There is such culture shock between my great aunts’ children?? My mom’s cousins?? and me because we all have mutual love but don’t have a lot to talk about because of language barriers. However, they still act freely around each other and I was just along for the ride.

San Luis Obispo

My friend was living in LA and I was a new transplant in San Jose. We wanted to meet but didn’t want to drive over nine hours to see each other. We settled on San Luis Obispo, a cute town right in the middle.

San Luis Obispo was having a poppin’ weekend. They were having a succulent and cactus show, strawberry festival, and a few other events. We checked out the beach, Madonna Inn, and also some natural hot springs.

The strawberry festival was weirdly sad because there were no strawberries, like at all. And there were a looooot of tents with distributors of MLM products there. Is this more a commentary of “middle America”? It was confusing for us outsiders, to say the least.

Since visiting, I’ve met a lot of people that went to school here with mixed feelings. Personally, I don’t know if I’d ever be back with the exception of the Madonna Inn. My friend and I had happy hour here but I would love to stay a night in one of their eclectic rooms.

Sycamore Springs is definitely a gem. It is tucked away on the side of a mountain, with private tubs filled with sulfur water. It was so relaxing.

Austin

What is my hometown? I never know how to answer this question. Is it where I was born? Is it where I live now? Is it the “reason” I look the way I do? I usually change the answer depending on who is asking.

I’ve lived in Austin for over twenty years. I moved away only three years ago. When I left, it was definitely time to go. Austin’s infrastructure was never made to support the large population it has now. Because of it’s reputation as a “cool” place with low taxes, a lot of predatory short-term companies, start-ups, and (white) people have moved there.

However, I still cherish my friends who live all over. Many have been pushed up north to smaller suburbs like Cedar Park and Round Rock. Many are east in Manor now. Or south in Kyle.

My favorite thing about Austin is all the good food and drinks. With the exception of real Asian food, it is a fun place to visit with friends if you just want to hangout. My favorite nostalgia spot will always be Chuy’s.

In Austin, I grew up near many watering holes. Jumping into a creek with your friends is really typical here. That’s probably why I have no hesitation jumping into any body of water now. Since quarantine, I’ve heard all the local spot are packed and there’s trash everywhere. That’s a shame.

Hong Kong

I have a love-hate relationship with Hong Kong.

First of all, it is like immersing yourself in a bucket of sweat during the summertime. It is unbearably hot and you are extremely close to a million different smells and people at any given second. I don’t think New York City is as lively or as nearly dog-eat-dog as Hong Kong is. Hong Kong is a place of extravagant luxury but it is also very rough. My mom frequently told us that she was glad she didn’t have to raise my sisters and I there.

I’ve been to Hong Kong four times. I went once as a child, once as a teenager, and two times as an adult. When I was a child, I saw it as a shopping mecca. People who live there often treat it as such. Maybe that’s just the culture of my family or the culture of the upwardly mobile middle class, but everyone who has been to Asia knows that shopping is insanely better over there than in the US. Many trends start in Asia so they seem to be on the cutting-edge of things, design-wise. 

The second time, it was en route to Thailand with my entire family. I already knew at a young age that I would never live in a big city because of uncomfortable it was to have five people crammed into a tiny apartment. My mom grew up with an even larger family in an even smaller apartment. Sometimes I look at her and wonder… how?

I returned twice as an adult, with my mom. Each time, I felt my freedom and got to explore the city. But a part of me still loves when I get to follow my parents around. They have family on all corners of the city. When I’m alone, I don’t have the language skills to be as social. I also don’t have the connections. It’s sad to think about the wealth of connections that will be lost if my parents aren’t around anymore. My mom’s dad is number nine of nine children. She is still connected to every single one of them and their children. I will need to actively preserve the ones I have already established. 

Do all children of immigrants have this exchange?

Mom: Remember ____? He’s my fifth cousin’s second son on my dad’s side.
Me: No… 
Fifth cousin: Oh I remember you!! I saw you when you were just a baby! (Proceeds to list facts about myself I wasn’t aware my mom was sharing)

Philadelphia

One of the best things about having a family member an official tour guide is all. the. discounts! She gets comped to go to museums all the time because she brings large groups of students there. So, following her around a new city is a lot of fun.

Rusty took us to Philadelphia. We had a cold but interesting tour of Eastern State Penitentiary, enlightening walk around the National Liberty Museum, opportune photo session at Magic Gardens, and dinner at the European-style Reading Terminal Market. Hot take: I don’t think Philly Cheesesteaks from Philly are better and I think people try too hard to make the Liberty Bell an icon.

Samara

What is Russia like? It’s difficult to explain to people who have never been to a “second world country.” The West likes to paint Russia as a depraved place but in reality, it’s not that bad. It’s not like the wild wild west. It has nice parts and poor parts. It has problems but also extravagant luxury at times. The divide between rich and poor is outrageous in the US. But I feel like in Russia, it is an even wider gap. The rich control everything and regular people are left with nothing.  

The city that I spent most of my time in while living abroad is Samara. I have so many mixed feelings about Samara. It is the ninth largest city in Russia, with a population of over one million. It is part of Western Russia but at least eight hours by train away from Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is on the banks of the Volga River.

Before coming to Samara, I had been told that it is the “San Francisco of Russia.” That’s one way of looking at it. The city is known for its embankment which sits on a downhill slope towards the Volga River. So I can… sort of… see it that way? The city comes alive in the summer. In the summer, it is certainly a place where people roller skate, lay out on the beach, barbecue, all that fun stuff. 

I lived in Samara for nine months. I had four different jobs. I worked full time as a university lecturer, part time at a private language center, part time at a local gymnasium (a fancy term for private school), and at a work and travel program. The university lecturer job was ok. The differences between American and Russian university students is pretty stark. For one, university is almost free. More people attend university in Russia than they do in the US. Because of that, there is a sense that it is high school 2.0. It is basically a requirement to go. It seems like the stereotype of people who do not go into university when they’re eighteen is that they go straight into the army. They also have a different culture of the army, that there is a higher concentration of recruits from poorer ethnic republics. Another aspect is that in the US, higher education is seen as necessary for job advancement and higher pay. In Samara, that was not the situation because wages are stagnated and a degree does not guarantee a good job, a high paying job, or even a job within the industry. I am aware those are not the outcomes in the US either, but there is more of a match. For example, in my college of education program in the US, every one of my peers became an elementary school teacher, whereas the pedagogy program I worked at in Samara, only a few students pursued that after graduation. 

One of the better jobs I had in Samara was working at a work and travel program. Basically, many countries, such as Russia, have programs that help youth find temporary minimum wage jobs in the US. Often, these are roles in theme parks and stores. Many of my students ended up working in New York City, some in Ohio, some in Wisconsin. It was just what was available or what their other friends had connections at. If you ever wonder why there are so many foreign young people staffing theme parks, it is probably because they are taking a part of a short-term work and travel program. These programs try to get students visas to come work. Often, it is under an “illegal” tourist visa. Many students overstay their visa and never return to their home country. Conditions are pretty bad, and job prospects can be low, so it is understandable that some may not want to return. When I stayed in Turkey, I had also met people who had taken part of a work and travel program to the US. 

I held an informal English club at a work and travel center once a week. Students would come to prepare their paperwork and get ready for an English interview at the American embassy in Moscow. At every turn, there were so many ways Russian students would be turned around. For one, it is expensive to file for a visa. The paperwork is complex. They need to secure a job interview with the park, store, or restaurant, they intend to work. After that, they need to travel to Moscow, which is pretty expensive compared to travel in the US. Most students travel by train to Moscow and find friends to stay with, as hotels are also out of a typical Russian student’s financial means. They can pass all those steps but then fail their English interview at the American embassy. They might not show strong enough English skills. They might not make a convincing enough argument. They might cast doubt that they may not keep to their promise of returning home after the job assignment. It was tricky. At the club that I taught, my job was just to tell students about American culture. It was pretty fun. 

A majority of the questions had to do with what was New York City like and had I ever been to the Statue of Liberty. Students also wanted to confirm of things they had seen in American movies were real – like Fourth of July being a big holiday or frat parties were a real phenomenon. I had never been to New York City prior to traveling to Russia, so I didn’t have much to offer. I told them a lot about Texas, though, but I don’t think I convinced any of them to travel there. 

What is sad to me is that even after such a process, they will be earning below minimum wage at these American jobs. However, I met many happy students who returned summer after summer to work in the same parks. I also met students who stayed and are technically undocumented, cannot return to Russia. I feel like our countries could do better as providing short term jobs with higher pay. Or at least more specialized work. But as the US workplace is mostly monolingual, it’s difficult to think of other solutions.

I also became really good friends with the administrator of these work and travel English club meetings. We had a lot in common and I got to see her again when I visited Los Angeles. Even though Samara got to be dreary at times, I was happy to share traditions like Valentine’s Day and Christmas with young people. 

St. Petersburg

Have you ever been heartbroken and alone in a city? That’s what St. Petersburg is to me. I went there as a shell of a person.

In Russia, I found it easy to just exist and float through life. As a foreigner, you don’t owe anyone anything. So you can check into a hostel, cry in bed, and half-assedly try to socialize. People are all over the place in a hostel, so it’s ok to be weird. It’s relatively safe so you can kind of wander in and out of shops and meander through book stores.

This was my second trip to St. Petersburg. This time, I went in the winter so there were no white nights. Still, St. Petersburg is so  beautiful on every corner. The original French architecture is artificial, frivolous, and overly decorative. I love it all. It is the least Russian city in Russia. You kind of need to search for Russian food amidst all the European cuisines represented in downtown Petersburg.

I got to see some really awesome things there while I was being sad. Even if you’re too busy being your worst self, sometimes you meet some cool people that let you tag along to their adventures. 

With some new Turkish friends, I acted as an unofficial translator and found myself at the Freud Dream Museum and Dostoevsky Museum. It was a lot of fun. 

Petergof is for happy summer days. Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Museum of Torture, is for dreary winter days that drag on and on.

Forget the Hermitage. While it is only the most jaw-dropping, breath-taking museum in the world, this time I decided to visit Kunstkamera. Kunstkamera is the first museum in Russia. They have all sorts of zoological oddities and anthropology exhibits. I guess they are most famous for their weird samples of deformed babies preserved in glass jars. Just Google it to see lots of contextless images. According to this probably-not-very-reliable website, “people ascribed physical abnormalities or disabilities to supernatural powers so opening this museum was a way of raising the awareness of medical conditions that can be explained scientifically as opposed to make-belief nonsense.”

Sometimes a city is engrained in your mind as an emotion. I think that’s what makes traveling so special. St. Petersburg was a place I visited four years prior and opened my eyes to Russian Orthodox iconography. Cathedral of Spilled Blood is still one of my favorite churches in the world. However, a city can be created and recreated in your mind. I am so lucky for the opportunity to have traveled throughout Russia numerous times.

Ulan-Ude

Ulan-Ude is the capital of a small Asian republic in Russia, Buryatia. Buryat people are buddhist and speak both their native language and Russian. Earlier in the year, when a non-profit organization asked some American teachers if they would like to travel to some remote republics, I jumped at the chance to go to Ulan-Ude. How could I resist? I am obsessed with learning about the culture of the lesser-known Asian republics in Russia. I only spent three hot summer days there but they were amazing.

I rode a train from Abakan to Ulan-Ude. That was a two day journey. Have you ever been on a train that long? You start wondering what life would be like actually married to the train conductor. If he’s ugly, he starts to get hot. It’s weird, I don’t recommend it. Also, you’re at the mercy of whoever shares the cabin with you. You could be stuck with a racist. Or some children. Or a man. More likely, just a racist. 

At each train stop, you have about twenty minutes to buy microwave food from snack stalls on the train platform. Microwave food is sort of a weird concept in Russia because in the US, it would be a little shameful if you found out McDonalds or a restaurant was microwaving your food. You prefer not to know that. And they try to hide that. But in Russia, it’s just how things operate. Food at fairs and at train stations just get microwaved (IN THE PLASTIC) in front of you. So imagine dealing with that for three days. 

I don’t know if it’s like this in the US, but you are only allowed to use the bathroom in the train while it is moving. Because the toilet is just a bowl that goes to the outside. There is no septic tank. Your waste just goes onto the tracks. Is that strange? I really try not to make Russia seem like the world’s strangest place because I dislike that kind of alienating and nationalist language but um, train bathrooms are a trip. I don’t think I went to the bathroom in the two days because I was terrified I’d fall through. 

But enough about Russian trains. Ulan-Ude was beautiful the second I got off the train. It’s nice stepping out of the train into a place where everyone looks like you. 

I got into a taxi and the driver immediately asked if I was Chinese. They can spot foreigners right away.

I taught at a school for two days. With the students, we visited an open air Ethnographic museum. I don’t know how problematic that is, but in Russia, it is pretty common to see reenactments of indigenous life. There are just so many ethnic groups within Russia, so they don’t see it as over the top. Many ethnic groups are still alive and attempt to preserve their culture. I don’t know how protected they are by the state (in the West, we see Putin as a nationalist but in reality, I don’t know how ethnically diverse people groups in Russia feel because there’s a wide range in attitudes). 

I also visited a large buddhist monastery called Ivolginsky Datsan. I had just learned in Tuva from a devout buddhist that in order to show respect you should ring the bells and walk clockwise around it.

I also got to visit a beautiful, natural place that was on my bucket list: Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. It is also ancient. Even though we went in the middle of summer, the water was still freezing cold. It is a feeling like no other to be next to a body of water that has seen the world change and remains the same. 

Ulan-Ude is also home to world’s largest Lenin head. Talk about a unique selfie.

I loved Buryat food because it involves fish and dumplings. I had an amazing time there. The people were nice. I find myself strangely at home in Asian-Russian spaces. It feels like everything in my life led an Asian-American encountering those places. I don’t get weird looks or need to explain how I am American but also Asian-presenting at the same time.

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