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Country-Hopping in Shaky Southeast Asia

On 01, Aug 2014 | No Comments | In Culture, Malaysia, Thailand, Travel, Vietnam | By kanannie

My parents have been worrying sick over my well-being for the past few months. While they were mostly fine with us traveling through Europe (except for a brief conversation I had with my father about Russia), they were secretly alarmed when we told them Southeast Asia was next. In true Japanese fashion, they tried to hide their concerns from me.

Demonstrators being sprayed with water cannons. (Cheng Ko/Reuters)

The Taiwanese student demonstrations were on the news every night and they silently beared it until we were a few days away from leaving. My mother asked why we felt the need to go to Taiwan, right now, in the midst of these demonstrations. They got annoyed with me when I responded that I wasn’t planning on participating in the protests.

Student protesters occupying the Taiwanese Legislature. (Ashley Pon/Getty Images)

Protesters during a peaceful demonstration against the trade pact. (Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

A protester holding up a sign. (Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

A protester scuffles with police. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

A press conference in the Taiwan Legislature. (Wally Santana/AP)

Two weeks into my gastric issues in Vietnam, China started stirring shit in the South China Sea and bullying Vietnamese boats in Vietnamese waters. My parents were terrified. When I told them that we were watching the developments and we would be careful, they responded with a barrage of angry questions. “Why haven’t you left already? Why do you want to stay in Vietnam so much? Do you understand that Japanese factories were torched? Do you even watch the news? Why aren’t you leaving when the Chinese are escaping through the closest border available?!” I imagined a horde of middle-aged Chinese women with curly perms, colorfully patterned clothes and Louis Vuitton bags on their arms screaming and running along a dusty road towards the Cambodian border while deeply-tanned tuk-tuk drivers waited on the other side to whisk them away to Nowheresville, Cambodia.

Chinese nationals cross the border into Cambodia during the height of the riots. (Reuters)

Chinese nationals arriving in China after leaving Vietnam. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

A Vietnamese protester holding a sign.

Vietnam was tricky because at the height of all this, we were in peaceful Da Nang, away from the brief violence in Saigon and Hanoi. Leaving meant we would’ve had to fly to either city before making another connection to Bangkok or Siem Reap. Looking around at the cyclo drivers passed out on their vehicles or the mototaxi guys perched horizontally and so comfortably on their mopeds or the men laughing together in cafés sipping ca phe sue da and watching the world go by, it was hard for me to imagine them accusing us of being Chinese, much less chasing us out of the country with torches and pitchforks. Perhaps they abhor violence from the years of it they endured during the war, but from what I’ve experienced the Vietnamese are not violent people. The violence that occurred at the factories were probably partly caused by years of resentment at the poor treatment of the workers at the factories by Chinese managers.

Chinese workers attacked and injured during the factory riots. (Adam Ferguson/New York Times)

Chinese workers attacked and injured during the factory riots. (Adam Ferguson/New York Times)

Protesters in Bien Hoa. (AFP/Getty Images)

Damage supposedly sustained to a Vietnamese boat by being rammed by a Chinese boat. (AP)

A Chinese Coast Guard boat spraying a Vietnamese boat with water cannons.

We stayed, and nothing bad happened to us. It’s not like we were hiding or trying to blend in either. The Vietnamese picked us out of crowds as foreigners from a mile away. I got Japanese and Korean pretty consistently in their guessing games, with N getting Singaporean, Hong Kong Chinese, Malaysian; anything but Vietnamese. Only one time at the height of this tension, a cyclo driver in Hue yelled “China!” at us as we walked by. When we stopped and told him we weren’t Chinese, the driver put up his fists and said, “No China!” The two cyclo drivers lying in their cyclo seats next to him barely lifted their heads to acknowledge what was going on. By this time, my parents were giving me the silent treatment via email, and I imagined them irritatedly trying to comprehend the inner workings of my mind as they watched the same footage of factories burning as the news played it night after night.

A burned Chinese factory. (Reuters)

I hesitated before emailing them about our next stop. Bangkok was on the news with what the military insisted wasn’t a coup, but then backtracked and announced that it was indeed a coup. We discussed with fellow travelers we met along the way who had similar plans and concerns about the media restrictions and curfews imposes by the military.

A protester being hauled away by Thai soldiers. (Christophe Archambault/AFP)

Soldiers blocking the way as the army chief and rival groups held meetings.

More than 1000 pro-democracy protesters marched in central Bangkok. (EPA)

When I finally let my parents know a couple of days before leaving for Thailand, I felt the rage reverberate from our home in Tokyo. To this Thailand decision, they responded with a terse, “We disagree with your choice but no matter what we say, you’re going to do whatever you want to do so there’s nothing we can do.” By the time we landed in Bangkok, the military had announced the end of the curfew, allowing us to fully appreciate the sleepless city.

A tourist poses for a photo op on a military vehicle. (Rufus Cox/Getty Images)

Protesters being arrested by police during the coup.

We were horrified on a Thai island as the tragedy unfolded in eastern Ukraine, with the downing of Malaysia Airlines 17 by (let’s not beat around the bush here) pro-Russian militants. My fear of flying had gotten worse after Malaysia Airlines 370 disappeared before we left on our trip, and doubled again with this new incident. A week after the crash, I told my parents we were flying to Kuala Lumpur next and made sure to tell them we were flying Air Asia. They replied that with everything going on, they were deeply worried. But I doubt they were as scared as I was, bumping through the border with our amateur pilot.

Pro-Russian separatists survey the scene of the Malaysia Airlines 17 crash in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

Malaysians arrange candles during a vigil. (AP)

A pro-Russian separatist walking on the wreckage of the plane. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

Ukrainian honor guard members attend a memorial ceremony. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

A woman in Hrabove in eastern Ukraine cries during a memorial service held for victims of the crash. (Vadim Ghirda—AP)

“Southeast Asia is a world apart,” my mother had said to me during the Vietnam crisis. “It’s a world you don’t understand even if you think you do, and different from anything you’ve grown up with.” But I already knew that. I knew that Southeast Asia would turn the world I thought I knew upside down and expand my limited worldview, but that’s what I had wanted. Besides the minor inconveniences and my insignificant “first world problems”, it’s been an eye-opening experience and my worldview has been turned on its head. Compared to the countries I grew up in, Southeast Asia might be a tumultuous region, but it has also taught me so much via its people and cultures. I’m grateful to have had these experiences, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else this wonderful region has to offer.

In the mean time, I know my parents will continue to worry as they remain glued to the news. I wish they wouldn’t work themselves up, and instead be happy for me. The other day, my mother told me that she and my father were talking about how it must get boring to be lying on a beach all day. “Don’t you miss working?” Oh, mom.

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