Just 48 hours was all it took to turn the tropical paradise that is the island of Phuket into a head-first vomit trip towards the toilet bowl, violently throwing up everything I had consumed since morning (yogurt with granola, one small bottle of Chang beer, and shrimp Pad Tai included).
Welcome to the story of my Thailand vacation (brace yourselves kids, this is just the beginning).
And perhaps it was the fault of the twelve RMB Pad Thai (but hey, I’m in Thailand, so I should eat local, right?), or the salt water I swallowed canoeing to James Bond Island (“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.. of food poisoning”), or even the five hours spent swaying on the rolling waves on a schooner in Phang Nga Bay (did I mention I get really seasick?), but something about Thailand was not sitting well with me. Who knows, after the trip I may never eat Drunken Noodle or Tom Yum Soup ever again. On Day 2, a monkey, sitting on my canoe, ate a banana less than a foot away from me. But in the end, despite the intestinal distress and surviving solely off of coconut water and potato chips for the following three days, escaping Shanghai and coming back two shades darker was worth it (or so I keep telling myself).
Of all of the emotions I expected myself to feel upon leaving Shanghai (relief, exhilaration, that feeling of clean air you get when smog no longer fills your lungs), homesickness wasn’t supposed to be one of them. And yet, by Day 3, I found myself missing Shanghai, thinking fondly of the bottles of Japanese Sencha I pick up from Familymart on my way to work, steaming bowls of Guangdong pumpkin congee (oh, how they would have helped with the food poisoning), and the sea of Shanghainese people I wade through every morning around 9:00am. With everything that’s happening for me back in the US right now, I’m still struggling to figure out exactly where ‘home’ is. But the longer I stay in China, the harder the question ‘Where are you from?’ is becoming to answer.
In Thailand, I am a Chinese tourist. When people ask me where I am traveling from, I answer ‘Shanghai’, not giving in to the raised eyebrows and expectant faces (“But where are you REALLY from?”). Even when I tell those who ask that I was born and raised here (not true at all, but a girl can indulge in a carefully embellished backstory on vacation, right?), I still get the probing (and admittedly too personal) questions of where my family is from because I (obviously) don’t look Chinese. This feeling must be similar to what it must be like to be a second- or third-generation Asian-American in the States, having to deal with the pestering questions (“No really, I was born and raised in Fresno.”).
At my core, I am utterly American and it’ll take more than years of Chinese stoicism to beat out my US-fostered optimism or the inclination to smile at complete strangers on the street. Yet in Thailand, I’ve been traveling like a Chinese local: I’ve grown far too used to saying 谢谢 to thank people or 不好意思 when bumping into strangers. My initial instinct when approaching someone I don’t know is to use Mandarin (albeit not incredibly grammatically). I’ve also been forgetting to tip (though seriously, how much tip can you leave on a meal that costs a little less than $3?), more out of force of habit than out of being impolite. And to top it all I’ve been counting everything in RMB in lieu of USD (100 RMB for an oil massage? I could do worse). What I’m not used to coming from China are the jeering looks and comments from men that two girls traveling alone (that’s us) received on the trip. In China, although the locals do stare (it’s more of a cultural thing), no one makes lewd remarks. The worst I’ve gotten is hand-waves and toothless smiles from 50-year old rural grandpas.
In Thailand, that is not the case. Men are jeering. They splash water at us in the lagoons, try to make conversation, wave (a little too) enthusiastically. At least in China, the staring is polite.
Food poisoning and creepy men notwithstanding, Thailand’s beaches are devastatingly beautiful. The sun is blindingly bright, the water is that perfect shade of clear aquamarine, and the air smells of the sea and the lush trees. But with the clean air, comes a certain sense of isolation. Getting to our resort on Phi Phi Island took a bus ride to the pier, a 1.5-hour ferry to the main isle, a 20-minute ‘water taxi’ which culminated in wading through water and climbing an isolated beach, followed by a 10-minute Jeep (although the car couldn’t have been bigger than a golf cart) ride. The remoteness was startling, as if I was living in my own personal Robinson Crusoe nightmare. All I could think about were dried grapes, surviving monsoon season, and cannibals. And something about that is so terrifying.
And so to sum up the trip:
- Nights I ate Pad Thai for dinner: 3
- Nights that I’ve thrown up said Pad Thai: 3
- Nights I had plain rice for dinner: 2
- Chang beers consumed during entire trip: 2
- Thai oil massages: 3
And now I’m back in China. Flying into this country for the third time was not like flying to china for the first or even the second time. Something about knowing that I have a home (and a residence permit here) makes the return to China more comforting. More familiar. For the first time, I’m coming to a place that I know, a city where I recognize the streets on my way in. A city that will feel more and more like home.