Somewhere in Vietnam in 2019.
“So where do you live?”
It was such a simple question. How could I know that this would open up Pandora’s Box?
I blinked for a what felt like the longest second of my life.
It was early, too early to hastily register the words being digested into my brain but not early enough to know that the coffee I just drank wasn’t very strong.
My eyelids were burning, but not from a lack of sleep or a flame dancing in front me.
Well, a flame was dancing, but it was millions of miles away.
The sun. Its crimson and blood orange grin pierced into my line of site.
I had happily continued the small talk with this woman from the moment we exited the terminal on foot then stepped onto the transfer bus that would drive us to a resting aircraft.
It started with a remark I made about her husband’s University of Washington hat, an odd sight to be been in Vietnam.
The conversation was jovial until she had to ask me where I lived.
Internally a mental conflict started to sprout.
I could have simply responded that I lived in California but my heart wouldn’t let me say those words.
I was too far away from home, already weeks into a trip that didn’t have an ending date, living out of a backpack, under caffeinated, and not in the mood to just continue with the typical flow of conversation.
The truth of the matter was that in this precise moment in my life I didn’t know when I’d be settling in a place to call home. I just knew that somewhere in Danang there was a hostel bed reserved for me.
The rattle of the shuttle finally jerked the words out of my mouth.
“Well, ma’am, I guess I don’t really live anywhere.”
I blinked and she blinked.
Damn. Do I really not live anywhere? When was the last time I felt at “home?” Where is my place in this world?
The words came out and I felt my face turn red, probably not from the sunshine erupting into my consciousness. She looked at me like suddenly we’d entered a networking event. Maybe this woman who was sitting a few feet away from me was a guidance counselor in a previous phase of life.
“Well, so what is your….expertise?”
The word expertise rolled out slowly and overly pronounced. Her eyelids narrowed. Her husband offered a soft smile but kept silent. He must have known that this was the wrong lady to strike a casual conversation with.
I wanted to continue in a slightly sarcastic fashion but already she had struck me deep in my core.
What the hell am I good at?
I could have said that I was a college graduate at some point in my life and that I had x experience doing y and z but once again I stopped myself. Why fluff myself up to a stranger in a bus driving thousands of miles away from what I used to consider a “normal” life?
“I don’t think I have an expertise yet, I guess I’m still learning what it is.”
I hoped my travel buddy would interject with a comment but he was smartly listening to music and not paying attention to the conversation.
A few more words were shared between both sides of the aisle. I couldn’t help but feel sullen. We hadn’t reached the plane yet and already I was feeling a gap of purpose and belonging.
My mind was circling these concepts so vividly that anything else coming out of the woman’s mouth would have been greeted with the most default answer imaginable just to stop the internal bleeding of my ego.
“So what do you think about our borders?”
Oh shit. Be full alert Danny. Code red code red.
The words exited her pierced lips and reverberated in my eardrums. A deluge of tension flooded my senses and soon I didn’t care about not belonging anywhere.
I just wanted to be somewhere. The airplane, for example, would have been a fantastic place to be but for some reason this damn tarmac happened to be forever long.
Was it the Vietnamese border she was talking about? California’s border with Oregon? California’s border with Mexico? Nevada? Was it the thin walkway that separated this prying retiree with this overwhelmed and groggy blog author? Did she believe we needed a wall somewhere?
I wasn’t sure if she was being serious but as I examined her expression I could tell she genuinely wanted my opinion on the matter. She must have mistaken my scruff with Keanu Reeves or someone running for city council. Too bad I was just a thirty-something unshaven backpacker who didn’t know what border she was referring to.
I didn’t ask for clarification and answered in most neurtal and diplomatic way possible.
“..Being in the Bay Area…um…we are very diverse…and uh…we don’t directly see the effects of what’s happening along the border..”
What the frick did I just say?
She scanned me for a fleeting moment, determining whether my response marked me as friend or foe. I hoped my words were enough to evade any potential tension.
“My granddaughter is a lawyer in Texas…she’s working to help undocumented immigrants…”
She soon changed the topic and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Whatever missile of awkwardness that was being launched was a dud and the remainder of the conversation reached its organic conclusion once the vehicle’s doors opened upon arrival to the plane.
We said a brief “good luck” and “good bye” and I mentally crossed fingers to have a seat really far away from theirs.
She and her husband continued their journey while my friend and I continued ours.
Nearly two years after that morning, part of me still feels the internal monologue during that bus ride:
What’s my expertise? Where do I belong?
I’m still going through that process.
In the meantime, a blog post here and there is good medicine for keeping positive.
The biggest difference between me now and then is that now I’m ok with not having everything figured out yet. Life is still pretty damn good.
Have a wonderful day, thanks for reading, and I hope you’re doing what makes you happy.
P.S. Have you experienced any random conversations with strangers during a journey that left a profound effect on you? I’d love to hear about it!
Great blog, Dan. It hits hard when we stop giving default answers to simple questions and investigate what they really mean to us. Definitely identified with the “where do you live” existential crisis.
I also had a conversation with a stranger while traveling about six years ago, and it evolved into creating my blog: travel-bugg.org/2014/07/18/so-i-met-a-guy-on-the-plane/
You never know how your words can affect someone’s life trajectory or how we think about the world. 🙂
Thanks for reading Ashleigh, we never know who we will meet and what impact they will have on us!
Everyone needs to not impose on others and think for them on what they feel is acceptable or one should do. Probably older folks growing up in a different era when things were predictable but not the case now.
That’s a good point. Different generational gaps can have a good influence here.