Dana Filek-Gibson dons her backpacker pants and embraces the inner tourist.
The expat is a noble creature. Sunburned, perspiring, and remarkably gifted at charades, you come to this country with little more than a backpack, in search of adventure and willing to be prodded by small children. At first, it is difficult settling into a new life thousands of miles from home, but over time your courage is rewarded. You begin to navigate the current of one-way streets that is downtown and better understand the antics of parking attendants. Gradually, the daily struggle of fitting in begins to fall away. In the end, you are proud. You are brave. And you are not to be confused with a tourist.
Except when, sometimes, you are. Because despite our love and appreciation for Saigon, everyone needs to get out once in a while. The unfortunate part of escaping the dust and heat of the city is that it often forces us to relinquish our status as local residents. The act is uncomfortable, even upsetting. Suddenly, we are thrust into the same realm as tourists, a people known for their suspicion of ice cubes and their embarrassing style of dress. Local residents and foreign visitors alike presume that we are cut from the same cloth as our western countrymen — a fact that is partly correct, but nonetheless fails to distinguish those of us unfazed by the phrase ‘duck-fetus egg’, or the existence of squat toilets.
Yet there is something within us that grows nostalgic at the sight of a frazzled foreigner trying to read a map. We recall a time when we, too, were comfortable paying a dollar for bottled water or sporting a conical hat in jest. Even now, years on, I sometimes envy portly visitors on cyclos, inching along the downtown avenues in what must be an excellent seat for a nap. But alas, an expat can no longer live out the life of a tourist in the city they call home.
Which is why, despite a certain degree of offense, it never hurts to embrace the labels you are given. Travel is meant to be relaxing, a welcome escape from the stresses of our daily lives. Channeling your inner tourist can allow you the anonymity and freedom to let go of those challenges and revisit the things you once loved but are now too culturally savvy to do without judgment from your expat peers.
Dressing the Part
Admit it: you still have them. Somewhere in the depths of your closet is a pair of hand-woven, hemp-thread, one-size-fits-all backpacker pants that you barely took off during your first months here. Nowadays, in front of your expat friends, you wouldn’t be caught dead in them. But in the sweltering lead-up to rainy season, sometimes you close the blinds, crank the air-con, and wear them around the house. Travel affords you a second chance to sport these ‘clothes’ in a public place. Go ahead, indulge: pull out your ‘Tubing in Vang Vieng’ tank and the low-crotch patterned pants that appear to be made from your grandmother’s curtains. No one’s going to know who you are anyway.
Seeing the Sights
As a result of its storied past, Southeast Asia is full of cultural museums, royal palaces, gold-covered pagodas, and floating villages. By all means, take in these picturesque and educational sites. Ask questions, snap photos, and learn as much as you can. But don’t visit these places simply out of a traveller’s obligation. Instead, remember that you are both a tourist and an expat at the same time: while your contemporaries are out revelling in yet another golden statue of the Buddha, you, too, can make the pilgrimage to sites of western convenience, a rare commodity in this part of the world. Enjoy a blue-flavoured Slurpee at a Bangkok 7-Eleven, or take a special trip to the air-conditioned skincare paradise that is Boots. Wherever your cultural interests lie, embrace them.
Playing to Your Strengths
As a longtime resident of Southeast Asia and a traveller, you are unmatched in your knowledge of cultural practices and your fluency in Asian English. You may still be viewed as a tourist, but your expat know-how is sure to make any holiday more enjoyable. Others may stand about for hours trying to decipher the phrase, “This t-shirt price same same that t-shirt”, while you’ve already purchased your kitschy souvenirs and gone on your way. Only you can decode the intricate system of pointing that comes after asking for directions. And the weeks and months and years of street food that have passed through your system mean that you could eat lunch off a Hanoi sidewalk and live to tell the tale. While some may turn up their noses at your unusual skill set, you are still an expat beneath the Tin Tin t-shirt and the fake Ray Bans; use these gifts to your advantage.