My time in Vietnam ended in Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals prefer, Saigon. It was hot and sticky, and I was for once glad to have packed shorts. The city felt more modern then the rest of the country, more metropolitan, and more like the rest of SE Asia. The traffic was indescribable, the shops were bustling, and western companies were around every corner. The country’s first McDonald’s was under construction when I visited. Beautiful monuments and official buildings cluster in upscale districts, wedged between designer malls for wealthy tourists. In the less pristine areas, taxi drivers harassed tourists for fares, something unheard of in the rest of the country. In some ways, even this was refreshing. In the northern parts of Vietnam, there is a stiffness. In Saigon, it feels like the city has collectively decided to breathe.
I just think it’s good to have your luggage stolen every once in a while. What would you do if your passport was inside? Say you don’t have lodging for a night. You’re renting an apartment and you don’t have hot water so you have to go and talk to your landlord, but the guy doesn’t speak Japanese. Those experiences build character. When face with a challenge, you’re struck with the feeling of conquering the world. You feel like you can do anything, like a new seed has sprung up inside you. You seen afraid of things you can’t do, like speaking a different language. Your little comfort zone break down, and you begin to think before you act so you won’t wind up doing something foolish. You stop panicking as much. It’s a good thing.
Amrita, by Yoshimoto Banana (214)
Last week Super Typhoon Neoguri hit Okinawa. It brought with it record breaking winds and torrential rain. On Monday evening, the supermarkets were crammed with people buying last minute provisions: bottles of water, canned foods and energy bars, extra-bright candles, matches and lighters. Even though every family on island keeps a fully stocked typhoon kit, this one looked to be a bad one, and doing those few last minute purchases helped to create a false sense of safety.
When I came home on Monday night, I filled my tub with water, checked the latches on all my windows, made sure my balcony was clear, and locked the door, slipping the emergency chain into place. It stayed that way for two days.
The thing people don’t tell you about typhoons is how incredibly boring they are. Provided you’re in a safe place, and my third floor apartment, with it’s concrete walls and metal barred windows is definitely safe, the biggest hardship of a typhoon is figuring how to fill the hours. While I can happily spend an entire weekend at home, when all of a sudden I’m unable to go out, stir-craziness sets in. I get restless. I pace the rooms of my apartment, I watch hours of television without being able to say what I saw, I read the same page over and over. During Neoguri, I cooked enough food to feed me the rest of the week, carefully packaging individual meal-sized portions in tupperware in my fridge. My lunch today is the final container.
The entire time, lightning flickered through the sky and my apartment howled as wind swept through cracks. My shoji rattled in their tracks, the paper covered with violent shadows. From my window I watched a large tree in my apartment’s parking lot be decimated by wind. The branches were torn off one by one and flung across the ground. When Wednesday evening came, not a leaf remained. At times, it was scary. I worried I would lose power, water, or gas. I worried that the ocean level would rise and sweep away my car. I worried that my friends who were in less safe areas would be hurt. Every hour or so my phone would ring loudly, and the screen would come up completely covered in Japanese. I recognized the characters for “emergency”, “evacuation”, “danger.” My neighborhood was never one of the ones on the list that followed.
Then it was gone. After leaving Okinawa water-logged and covered in debris, the typhoon began to head up to the main islands of Japan, losing power as it went. It gradually dissipated into a Tropical Storm, and finally dissolved all together.
Back in Okinawa, we are still doing repairs. The road by my house is closed, the bridge that I normally take to go to school completely swept out. Silt and rocks still coat the roads, and there are areas of the city where stop and street lights still aren’t back on, although business and residential areas have all had power restored by now. But we are lucky. This storm was a killer. Even here, in a wealthy developed nation, on an island designed to withstand typhoons, two lives were lost. Neoguri marks the start of the Okinawan typhoon season. As the summer continues, I can only hope that Neoguri is the worst one heading our direction this year.
Hidden in the dense foliage surrounding a Mekong tributary, was a small factory for making rice paper and coconut candies. The area itself was beautiful. The factory floor was open air and breezy, looking out over this small stream.
The process involved in making the rice paper was fascinating. It was a lot like what you would do to make a crepe. First the batter was prepared. Then it was spread in a thing, round layer on a hot plate. After it was cooked on both sides, the thin pancake was left out in the sun until it was dry and crispy.
I got the chance to taste test a bunch of different varieties. Some were sweet, like a thinner fortune cookie; others were more like tortilla chips. I was surprised by how universally delicious they were!
Living abroad has a lot of upsides. You get to grow familiar with a new culture, learn a new language, see the world. It’s an amazing experience, and if you have the opportunity, definitely go for it.
That being said, it can also be very isolating, and while social media has done a lot to shrink the world and make it easier to stay in touch with loved ones oceans away, it can also make things harder by barraging you every day of images of what you’re missing.
When I lived in the States, the 4th of July was always one of my favorite holidays. Barbecue, music, dancing, fireworks, and an amazing sense of community–what’s not to like? It’s also, obviously, a distinctly American holiday. It just isn’t celebrated anywhere else.
That’s why I was so happy this year to be invited to America for a 4th of July celebration. The U.S. Consulate in Naha, Okinawa, had a huge garden party, and because of my volunteer work, I was lucky enough to get an invitation!
A marine band kicked off the event, followed by the posting of the colors. Then the fun started, with a jazz trio, dancing, barbecue, dunking booth, and lawn games. It felt just like home, and was everything that my expat heart could have hoped for. Happy Birthday America!
After a long trip down to the south part of the country, during which the weather magically became warm and tropical, we spent a day touring the Mekong Delta. This area was absolutely beautiful–villages on the river, ships zipping across the wide triangular bay, and small boats hand-paddled up narrow tributaries. While there we saw how rice paper and coconut candies were made, but that’s a story for another day!