The long journey of traveling back home and reverse culture shock
Where are you from?
Home is a complicated word for me. There’s that quote: “Home is where the heart is” “Home is where your family is” blah blah blah….. New Orleans, Houston, Wyoming, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia - all have comforts, nostalgic memories, and an ever lasting impression on the person I am today. I’ve relocated so many times, no wonder I thrive in instability. Moving and traveling so often has significantly developed my abilities to be imaginative and do the best I can with what I have.
My ancestral roots are in Vietnam. I was born and raised in New Orleans, LA, but I don’t know much about the tourist perception/experience about New Orleans. I started high school in 9th ward New Orleans, but (if you know anything about NOLA public schools) I didn’t do too well…..Then mom moved us to Gulfport, MS for high school. After Hurricane Katrina, mom moved us to Houston. I started college in Texas, but fell into the life of vanity, brand names, clothes, clubs, and alcohol. I quit college because I was disillusioned with the idea that working 3 jobs and making money was more fun and important than sitting in a college class. After 3 years in Houston and some traumatic mess, the universe drew me into Wyoming. The University of Wyoming is the only university in the entire state. Coming from below sea level to 7220ft was a disturbing cultural and physical shock. The universe blessed me with the most incredible academic advisor who I visited weekly to complain about all things Wyoming. I am genetically made for heat and humidity. She brought up the opportunity to study abroad in Asia, so I did. Singapore was my home. The perfect country to get my feet wet into Southeast Asia and experience life where I am not the token Asian. Singapore was literally the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. [next to: moving to Wyoming because without Wyoming, I wouldn’t have known about Singapore]. Lastly, during grad school….I fell in love with the idea of studying local perception of marine conservation. Thus, falling in love with all things Indonesia because it was the heart of the Coral Triangle. I spent the last 3 years studying, reading, talking, learning, all things Indonesia. I’ve made at least 5 separate trips to #wonderfulIndonesia.
So when people ask where are you from?….I assess the situation. Ask “what do you mean by that?” because people want to put me into a box or more like know what kinda Asian I am….I usually start with “MY PARENTS are from Vietnam, and I was born in New Orleans”. Then, end the conversation by walking away. Other times, I love playing a guessing game, so people understand how silly they are for asking such an impersonal question.
Vũng Tàu, Viet Nam
Officially done with my Fulbright grant in Indonesia & I made another big move.
Officially a little over a month in Viet Nam. I spent nearly 3 weeks in Sai Gon, and that ish was expensive! So…I made another move/ settled in Vung Tau. The birthplace of my father and still home to many of my fambam. There's so much rich, personal history in this coastal city.
Vung Tau is about 1 hour south of Ho Chi Minh City. Tourism is booming, oil is pumping, and a gigantic Jesus and Mary statues are said to be protecting the city. There's an interesting dynamic going on in Viet Nam…a distinctive migration of old,"western" men and the ever-entrepreneurial spirited Vietnamese citizenry.
My family lives (in what we would call in the US) the not-so-glamorous ‘suburbs’. Twenty minutes from the beach/city area, it almost feels like a gentrification scheme. This city has developed into a full on tourist destination for locals and internationals alike. When I came here back in the early 2000s, It was not this developed and I definitely did not see any white folks. Now, it's a different story. I've seen handful of white women, but most white men lurking the bars and riding motorcycles. The Korean super store Lotte Mart even has signs in Russian.
Sometimes I think I could totally go back into the service industry and make a ton of money. There's so many hotels, bars, english learning centers, etc…. where I could totally thrive and make a decent living.
But, I know I have higher calling. I'll just have to get creative and transfer those hospitality skills into the non-profit conservation field.
Thanks for reading this & your patience with the delays. ♥️ allsmilesThao
Indonesia has this societal normality of “Jam Karet” or "rubber time”. As a Vietnamese-American, punctuality and a sense of urgency has been engrained since birth. I spent a total of about 4 months of waiting around for bureaucracy red tape, gojek drivers, research counterparts, and everyone in between. I quickly got over this and adopted a “C'est la vie”. Otherwise, I would be one miserable human.
Also….I met a boy. 😊 He’s Javanese-Indonesian meaning: he’s super polite, passive aggressive, and has one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever met. He knows 7 different languages. His first language is Javanese, which has at least 3 hierarchical levels using different vocabulary given to social context, Indonesian, Japanese, Arabic, and English. English was his weakest, so we had a hard time communicating the first month we met. Luckily, Fulbright - Critical Language Enhancement Award granted me 3 months of language studies. One of the best ways to learn a language is to get a boyfriend/girlfriend. This took a lot of patience between us because language, norms, and personalities were coming from vastly different upbringings.
After the 10 month mark in Indonesia, he mentioned, “You are so much more patient than when I first met you”. *LIGHTBLUB* I am more patient because I’ve learned to let go of things I cannot control. I’ve become more aware of my energy and decided to focus it more inward rather than upon others.
Learning a new language means, asking questions that might make you feel embarrassed. I was so nervous when trying out my Indonesian for the first time. Here’s the lesson of patience with a dose of bravery.
For the first two weeks of my language course I ate at the same place every single day for nearly every meal.
My language program had a serious rule of no use of English after the introduction day. Since I couldn’t talk to anyone at the learning center, I went directly home without talking to anyone. However, that forced me out to meet others on my own. I ended up meeting with one of the janitors at the canteen on campus. He knew some English and his wife made the best mie ayam in the canteen. He noticed I was lost and just told me to eat noodles, so I hung out with him and his wife for lunch everyday for 2 weeks. As I get older, I feel like I am becoming more introverted. But when it comes to language, I learned to just try, even if I end up looking silly. Indonesians I’ve met chuckle, but in the most heart warming way that it didn’t feel ashamed for making a mistake.
Setting boundaries & Respecting myself
After living with other people for the sake of trying to stretch my grant money, I realized that investing in my own space is vital to my mental health. If you ever decide to live abroad: be sure you have a space to recharge your energy. Not having a place where I didn’t control what I wore, what I ate, or how I acted created a lot of tension for everyone around me. I began to feel depressed and oppressed.
When your basic needs are not being taken care of, it was hard to focus on anything else and research was not as productive as it could have been. Thus, I set boundaries for myself in regards to how others operate. For example, if I know this particular person tends to not be focused on only one task and gets easily distracted, I bring a book because I know I’ll be waiting for that person to finish their task.
Being polite to you, meant disrespecting myself. I was so worried about other people’s feelings and cultural politeness that my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health drastically degraded. There’s a fine line between the two. I am constantly worried about being a proper guest in this country.
FINALLY, I found the win-win solution. Invest in a sanctuary space where I can recharge and be myself. Only then I realized once I stepped outside, I can be grounded with an appreciative awareness in how Indonesia moves and operates.
A Proud Moment for Myself
I've been more active on IG and following a ton of new people. AsianAmerican creators, underwater photographers, WOC travel bloggers, POC outdoors, etc. WHY? Because I am curating a support system that reminds me that I my voice is needed and I'm not alone in this journey to change the mainstream.
One day I decided to message a fellow IG shark lover who's making a documentary about shark finning in Indonesia. We are on the same page. Shark Finning needs to stop. I am an environmentalist too. I love the ocean and all the scary cool creatures in it.
However, I AM SO DAMN TIRED OF SEEING BROWN ASIANS BEING THE PICTURE OF BLAME.
May 25th After seeing a brown Asian girl next to a dead shark..... Here was my message to the storyteller: " I agree with your message. I'm an environmentalist, avid scuba diver, etc. This also happens to be one of my favorite sharks that I've never seen in the wild yet. On the other hand, can we talk about this photo? I feel like it shames low income brown skinned Asians, who as you imply do not have awareness about sharks.... I feel like low/middle income countires get a lot of blame/ shamed for doing the best they can with the resources they have."
Her response: " Hello I can understand why it maybe seem that way (even though you're the only person so far who got that impression from the photo) but it's clear to me you haven't seen any of my work or messages, or posts, because if you had you'd know I have more respect for the fishermen here than my own country. The awareness I'm referring to is for the first world people buying products from this trade...which is why I'm advertising tickets for a film in which that fishery is featured"
My response: " Sorry for seeming hostile or if it seems like I was attacking you. That was not my intention and was hoping to invite you into a conversation about southeast Asian countries an their citizens being misunderstood and blamed for the shark trade industry. Which we both agree started because of the demand from western countries.
I am probably the only person to say this because eco-colonialism is still an underresearched topic and not mainstream.
If the message you want to convery is targeted at westerners who buy the product, then I think a picture of people who buy the products or people having the products in their house as decoration would suffice rather than the same/over used/ typical Asian child to illustrate your message"
FAST FOWARD to June 7th. SHE GOT THE MESSAGE and posted about how fishers here in Indonesia. It's their livelihood, food, their ancestors' work, etc. A light bulb went off. (FINALLY) She also posted Americans in Florida taking a HUGE shark out of the ocean for entertainment.
She never replied to my last message, but she got the message.....that's all that matters.
THE POINT of all this:
I successfully planted a seed.
Someone on IG with over 100k followers which includes literally all the people I admire for their shark and conservation work (Sea Shepherd, PADI, Coral Triangle Center, Subadiver Life) has FINALLY understands. She has now realized that social justice and true representation of the problem needs to be shifted.
It's all too easy & inadequate to blame/showcase Southeast Asians as the problem for shark finning industry. BUT let's be real. We need to target the ones who are making thousands of dollars off of the basically slave labor of fishers.
People are now commenting and applauding her for her social justice attitude now. You're welcome my friend. You're welcome.
I may not be the one making a profound documentary, but I made the shift from targeting low-income brown skinned Asians.
And with that I am proud of my voice.
SCUBA LIFE CHOSE ME
The story begins with the typical childhood experience watching the Discovery Channel with my dad. We would snuggle on the couch while watching all the animal and nature shows. Our favorite is big cats: cheetahs, lions, leopards...
The not-so-typical child Thao also remembers talking to plants, eating flowers that tasted like pickles, and petting green waxy leaves from a plant while standing on a giant ant mound. My dad had to remind me about the hospital visit because I learned to blackout that memory (something I am fortunate/unfortunately really good at doing)
Then the 90s came about and my parents bought us a computer and one of those giant boxed TV that was taller 3ft. More time in doors meant that my melanin skin lost it's golden brown color and my legs were healed from all the Louisiana mosquito bites.
Although life threw me for a whirl wind during my teenage years, high school still gave me a chance to take biology, aquatic science, and zoology. People are still shocked that I've never taken chemistry, physics, trigonometry, human anatomy, etc. My interest was anchored in environment and animal sciences.
I started college as an English major because I loved writing. I've been journaling since 3rd grade. I still have some of the notes that were passed between my friends and I during middle school. S/O to all my Lake Castle homies. Learning grammar, sentence structure, and typing up my english notes to put into sheet protectors was my favorite past time.
Then life took another sharp right turn and I moved to Wyoming to finish out the rest of my undergrad life. I changed my major to political science. I rather learn about the rules and institutions that dictate our lives than learning how to decipher poetry by dead white poets.
Wyoming is a rough and tough western state. My first year in Wyoming included -50 degree F for 3 consecutive days, and I still had to walk to class. So, the following year I packed my bags and scraped enough scholarships and loans to go study abroad in Singapore for 5 months.
In Singapore, I met an awesome Canadian who invited me to go scuba diving in Malaysia with a group of 10 other study abroad students. *When life presents opportunities like this, don't hesitate.* I instantly said YES. There was no prior thought that this would be the hobby that turns into my life's calling.
Scuba diving in Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia made me fall in love with my Southeast Asian-ness even more. I finally felt like I belonged. Never felt like the outsider....until I had speak. Then, my very American accent and isms would expose my uniqueness.
Finished college 2 years later and was craving to get back into the water. I worked as a server & bartender to get enough money to 1. pay off some student loans 2. visit my European friends I met in Singapore 3. my first solo trip to Belize. Two weeks in London, Amsterdam, Scotland, and Wales visiting friends made traveling alone not so scary. *i didnt even see it as being alone because I was just traveling alone until i met up with my friends* Separate blog post coming soon.
Back to work slinging dranks and steaks, I was still craving to get back underwater. Unfortunately, my friends from Texas and Colorado would rather go snow boarding because you don't need a certification to just rent a board and buy a lift ticket. I've always wanted to go to the Great Barrier Reef, but AUS seemed too far away. I found the 2nd biggest coral reef and it was much closer to the US than I thought. You better BELIZE it. Belize has coral reefs, the Blue Hole atoll, and Whale Sharks! I joined airfarewatchdog.com because they have a feature to set price alerts for any destination. At midnight, I saw a sale for Belize and put that plane ticket on my Chase United credit card. I didn't even think about it being my first solo adventure until all my bar guest asked: Who are you going with? Do you know anyone there?..... I gave it no 2nd thought. Placencia was the only place that offered Whale Sharks and the Blue Hole trips. They arranged my domestic flights, airport transfers, and hotel stay. The perfect first time solo female adventurer trip ever.
After making my seemingly out of reach dream of scuba diving and seeing whale sharks in Belize, I felt like I could do anything. Scuba diving was my calling, my purpose, my love.
As much as I love scuba, I also love school. I went back to the University of Wyoming to get a master's degree in political science and environment&natural resources. IOW, I wanted to know how government and policy shape human behavior and the marine environment. I chose Indonesia because it is a democracy with one of the world's most biodiverse marine ecosystems. Indonesia has 7 national marine parks. Karimunjawa National Park consist of 27 islands, but rarely ever makes it onto a map of Indonesia. I wanted to know the fisher's and local businesses perception of their cooperative-management. Turns out public participation isn't as high as most other documents would like you to believe.
Fast forward to 2017, I graduated with my MA and a Fulbright US Student Researcher grant to go BACK to Indonesia.
Currently still in Indonesia with only 3 months to go. Now, I am researching cooperative management in terms the President's tourism policy, choosing Wakatobi National Park as one of the new top ten Indonesian tourism destinations. While also gaining more confidence with practicing my scuba diving skills.
Watching Pirates of the Caribbean 3 like a hundred times, is nothing compared to hearing about piracy stories from someone who's lived it.
Today I met someone who speaks nearly 5 different languages, which includes English and Bahasa Bajo (the local sea gypsies language). He has so many shocking stories about Wakatobi's history, traditional beliefs, and locals who believe in animism. My jaw dropped several times listening to the his stories of piracy happening on this beautiful island only 10 years ago!
Forget writing an international journal article, I rather write a short story book with stories of black magic, haunted scuba diving sites, and animism.
Here's a 2018 article about piracy in Southeast Asia - http://www.thejakartapost.com/seasia/2018/01/11/pirate-attacks-at-two-decade-low.html
Finally settled into my research site.....Wakatobi National Park in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.
After 5 years of reading about the pristine diving here in Wakatobi, I am surprised to find it quite under developed for tourism. Accessibility is quite limited because there's only 3 flights per day and a ferries take longer than 5 hours, sometimes 12 hours....
Unless, you're ultra rich and can afford $300 USD/night at the Wakatobi Dive Resort, which has it's own airport. Let's be clear.... I am not quite there yet, but I'm working on it.
7 months into the Fulbright research and I finally made it to the research site. For those who have done research, it's the typical Murphy's law situation: waiting 2 months for research permits, serious miscommunications with my research partner, flight delays, scheduling conflicts, etc. It's also taking me a lot longer than I realize to get settled into the place and figure out my life.
This is my 4th move since I arrived in Indonesia and Wakatobi is drastically different than the previous places. There's no ride hailing apps, not a lot of good places to eat, and no coffee shops with wifi & ac. True paradise?
PARADISE INDEED. I am getting so much experience DIVING NEARLY EVERYDAY. Going to the same site never gets boring. I see something new everyday: snakes, two of my favorite fish, and hundreds of different types of coral. The coral reef's sheer size is always shocking because it makes me feel so small.
Once I figure out the WIFI situation, I will be posting more stories. I want to write about:
1. travel blogs that showcased Wakatobi and sponsored trips by #wonderfulindonesia that were distasteful. It was shocking to see sponsored trips and blog that did not even go into detail or just wrote about how grateful they are now that they've visited people who were poor and happy. *eye roll*
2. Tourism plans for Wakatobi
3. Tourist who are scuba divers, but not conservationalist. For example: trash in the ocean, touching coral, holding on to coral for pictures, etc.
4. Meeting locals and listening to their stories/opinions about what they want their island to become.
It has officially been one week since Raja Ampat. I spent a stupid amount of hours for layover and delays, but well worth my dream trip. Although only 4 days of diving, it was soul satisfying to be back underwater.
Since moving to the direction of travel diaries, I wanna write about the conversations I had with a few of the people I met. I like traveling alone especially when scuba diving because I am in control of my schedule and activities. There are days when I want to dive and there are days I want to just lay on the beach. Also, when scuba diving, divers tend to be really friendly and always have a story about diving they like to tell.
I was inspired meeting an independent Indonesian woman with a successful (in my eyes) scuba diving "shop". She is a strong 40 year old woman living the life she intended. Diving everyday is a choice out of pure joy, not financial obligations. She saw Raja Ampat on TV, decided she wanted to go, and 9 years later still living there and running a successful business....the only thing she misses from home is her momma. She talked about how Raja Ampat in prior years had so many whales passing through, but she hasn't seen a whale this year yet. She's had to move her business a couple times, but she possess a non-attachment and ability to pick up and start over attitude that I have too. I felt a sigh of relief for my future when I met her.
Her business partner Sandy has a similar story. He saw Raja Ampat on TV, decided to move from a landlocked city in Java to Bali to learn how to be a scuba diving instructor. He made his way to Raja Ampat and doing exactly what he wanted.
We had a conversation about Indonesian's body structure and western body structures. Indonesian have a hard time floating, while my Dutch friend and I need 4kg weights to sink. I got a good laugh at Sandy's reenactment of trying to pass the floating test for his scuba license.
And it's stories like these, which is the main reason for travel. Meeting Indonesians and listening to their stories breaks all the stereotypical images the media portrays.
When there's a pause or delay, use that time to chase one of the many other dreams you have. I am currently waiting on research permits and official letters to come around. Until then, I just booked the trip of my dreams. Going to where Nat Geo and other documentaries have filmed and I am going to experiences these places with my own eyes. Raja Ampat, here I come.
beauty beyond measure
a friend who inspires me to chase my wildest dreams @raymondjakub
Searching and reading a bunch of these "travel blogs" have been quite boring for me. I don't see anything different or new. Thus, I am moving away from the beautifully edited and cookie cutter blog post to a travel diary style.
I'm going to write what I want, how I want, and in a more relaxed format because trying to emulate the other travel bloggers gives me too much anxiety to be perfect. I didn't feel like myself because I was trying to craft the perfect words for the perfect blog post. NAH! I am doing this blog for myself, therefore.....imma be myself.
I'm a lot funnier in person than the well crafted text I usually write for academic purposes or grants. 😂
Not afraid to be me
Back in 2012, I did a study abroad in Singapore for one semester. Til this day, I still believe that was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life. I took full advantage of Singapore's international airport to hop all around Southeast Asia. Unknowingly, I ended up making 3 separate trips to Indonesia.... Pulau BIntan because it was a short ferry ride away to chill on a beach with friends. Bali...because it's Bali and I got to scuba dive with manta rays. Pulau Weh in Sumatra to get my advanced open water certification.
If you haven't caught on my now.... I LOVE SCUBA DIVING. One of the greatest lesson's I learned in grad school is how to turn my passion and hobbies into research. Thanks to some incredible advisors, hours of re-writing my proposal, and a bit of luck....I'm back in Indonesia for the 5th time and this time... as a Fulbright Student Researcher. Researching the Indonesian perception about their marine protected areas. I get to do all the things I love: reading, writing, making connections and hearing people's stories, and scuba diving in some of the world's coveted underwater ecosystems.
Phuket, Thailand 2017
The best way to spend the last day of 2017.
Research does pay off.
Looking for something in between Blogger (not pretty, but easy to start) and Wordpress (gorgeous themes, but code by yourself).
I FOUND SQUARE SPACE. Thanks to a couple friends like @whit.in.wanderlust & Lisa Miles for telling me about it.
I am in love with the customization, simple design, and almost intuitive design process.
I finally feel ready to get moving on creating content and tell you some stories about traveling in Southeast Asia, scuba diving, and living in Indonesia.... all through the lens of a Vietnamese-American living the dream she's always wanted. #manifestthelifeyouwant
Let's get it
taken in Malaysia
As a recovering perfectionist, I am finally writing my first travel blog post after 4 months of coming up with excuses of being too busy.
I love doing research and reading all about a topic before I start the project. Creating a travel blog, making Youtube videos, and taking fabulous pictures for the Insta.... was quite overwhelming.
LIST of things I thought I needed to know before starting:
AdSense for Youtube
Exposure, Aperture, Photography in general.....
After 3 months of a intensive language course.... I finally ran out of excuses. A friend asked me tell a crazy experience in Indonesia. Another friend asked me what's new.... I didn't know how to answer because living here has been so satisfyingly normal.
1. Create a reflection/backlog of the past 5 months which includes: volcanos, scuba diving, and being Vietnamese-American in Indonesia.
2. Finish the last video and get it Youtube ready.....
All because the next 7 months will be full of travel, conferences, more scuba, and research.
Let's get it!