“A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.” ―
I first began visiting Southeast Asia over twenty years ago, so it probably comes as a surprise to readers that I haven’t written about my adventures (or misadventures) there. In fact, I have written while in Asia, and about Asia when back home―but I haven’t published any of it. Besides, when you’re on vacation, who wants to work? Mostly I just wrote some poems.
My SE Asia adventures date back to 1998, when I immersed myself in a foreign culture for the first time. No matter how much I studied that part of the world, I still hardly knew what to expect. Excitement, apprehension and curiosity accompanied me all the way there.
Initial impressions of far-flung lands always begin from the airplane window, and with their emerald tropical greens surrounded by the bluest of waters, the islands I first saw drew me in immediately. By contrast, Hawaii looked like a tourist trap, even from the air.
The Opposite of the Car Culture
America is truly a car culture. But like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, you don’t think about it until you’re no longer in it. Much of Southeast Asia’s public transportation is by tricycle—a motorcycle housed by a metal frame that can seat as many as four passengers behind or beside the driver―or simply on the back of a motorcycle, which locals call a “motorbike” in English.
For longer trips, or on major thoroughfares, travelers can typically ride in a larger vehicle: a songthaew in Thailand or jeepney in the Philippines, a colorful jeep-like bus. Automobiles are a rare sight here, with the exception of taxis or vehicles belonging to the wealthiest of residents.
The Myth of Universal English
The idea that you can easily find people who speak your language quickly dissipates when you visit a small town: unless their business happens to require it, so few locals have any command of the English language that a translator is almost essential. If not for the luxury of having someone with me providing translations constantly, I would have had to endure long waiting periods while someone went off in search of an English-speaking person.
Of course, that was the case in the late 1990s. Nowadays one can use a smartphone app for basic translations from any language to another. Still, these programs are unlikely to take into account the many subtle regional dialectical differences among Southeast Asian provinces.
Above all, the massive cultural disparities between North America and Southeast Asia provide the biggest shock to the system. These days, the “woke” culture in particular would be horrified to learn that lighter skin is still considered more favorable than darker skin all over SE Asia. People ranging from local beauty pageant queens to ordinary citizens are known to bleach their skin in an effort to look “caucasian…” or, at least, less “Asian.”
Whatever the ongoing challenges in this developing part of the world, there is always much charm and beauty to be found. And even in the busiest places, the pace of life somehow seems less frenetic than here in the west. Perhaps that’s why, whenever I reflect on my many trips to Southeast Asia, I always feel relaxed—and thereby somewhat disinclined to put myself to work writing about them!