When Emily Clements finds herself alone in Vietnam after her best friend suddenly departs for Australia, she tries to make the best of her opportunity to see Southeast Asia. Only nineteen, Clements quickly picks up the language and goes out of her way to meet Hanoians. This memoir of her year in Vietnam is not, however, a typical expat book about immersing oneself into another culture. Instead, it centers on the way women are conditioned to put our feelings last.
The word ‘no’, as always, got stuck in the grate at the back of my throat. The grate shoved there at some point in my socialization to make sure I never said anything to endanger my niceness. Don’t be selfish: a phrase so often repeated to little girls that literally means, Don’t put yourself first.
Most women and girls can relate. International travel and being nice to others don’t always mix well, as The Lotus Eaters can attest; it can be especially problematic in Asian cultures where the concept of saving face is so important.
Clements, refreshingly, doesn’t entertain the usual victim-blaming, but rather shows how difficult it can be for women to travel alone and stay safe. It’s not about staying away from “bad elements”, because Clements finds danger in simple encounters with hotel staff, bartenders, and other people one would normally not consider threatening. Her ability to learn Vietnamese and navigate alone in a city far from home disqualify her as being either unprepared or incapable, yet she still finds herself in dangerous situations.
In one harrowing scene when Clements travels to Laos to renew her three-month Vietnam travel visa, she finds herself in the middle of Songkran, the new year water festival. It’s great fun, but when Clements meets a local man who offers to show her around, he instead takes her to a hotel and locks her in a room. With no way of leaving, she can either fight back and risk getting hurt or do what he wants and chalk it up to bad luck.
All this time, I’d thought that if I was nice enough, if I shaped my wants to what other people needed, then I could keep a measure of control. I had been running away from a Worst Case Scenario and yet here I was.
Clements finds herself in many similar situations, some more grave than this one. It can be difficult to come to the realization that there are some pretty awful people in the world, no matter where one travels or lives. But it’s not until the end of the book, when Clements has been living in Vietnam for a year, that she makes an even more disturbing realization. When she thinks back to her problematic relationships and friendships, she can see that these people viewed her in a way that isn’t entirely human.
Jake saw me, pulled me from my sister’s bed. The man with the Sanskrit tattoos saw me on the back of a trailer in Laos. Vinh saw me and dragged me to my knees. Tegin, all those years, saw me. A dog, collected by the scruff of the neck. Thrown in the dust and kicked and loved and kicked and loved.
Depressing and daunting, but not very different from what we read when certain Hollywood producers and world leaders make the news. Clements’s story of one woman’s journey of self-realization just happens to take place in Southeast Asia.