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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Traveling to a newly reopened Asia allowed me to be myself again

After attacks and racism against Asian Americans like myself at home, I found relief on the other side of the world

Chris Dong in Bangkok. (Lukhorn lee)
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At eight years old, I traveled to Asia with my parents for the first time. When we returned to our home in New Jersey, I had a schtick that probably annoyed my parents to no end.

“Tsing Mat Kau Gaun Tsae Mun. Please stand back from the doors. Doot doot doot doot doot!"

For weeks, I would repeat the Hong Kong subway system’s automated door-closing announcement, relaying it in both Cantonese and English.

I was a broken record, sound effects and all. At least I could say that I was practicing my broken Cantonese.

The trip was one of my earliest travel memories abroad. And it was a formative experience for someone who still very much geeks out on the same trains, planes and travels today.

Between that first trip and now, I have visited Asia about a dozen times. In late March, I decided to return to my favorite region of the world, with stops this time in Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.

Where you can go in Asia right now

With many countries finally reopening borders after a lengthy pandemic closure, it is now significantly easier for me (and any other vaccinated tourist) to enter. As of earlier this month, you will need to get a pre-departure and arrival coronavirus test to enter Thailand, while both Vietnam and Singapore only require a pre-departure test.

When I arrived, I had the unique experience of traveling to areas largely untouched by tourists for two years — especially Vietnam. But there was also something much more significant about my solo journey.

Over the past two years, for better and for worse, a spotlight has been cast on Asian Americans. I’ve been filled with courage seeing so many Asians getting noticed and rewarded for who they are. But I’m equally filled with unease as anti-Asian attacks continue in my home city of New York and elsewhere, from the Atlanta shootings last year to the Michelle Go subway death.

Words can do damage, too. As a reporter, I’ve been warned not to leverage my identity as an Asian American for personal gain or “weaponize my status as a minority.”

Now more than ever at home, I feel this duality of wanting to be seen while also wanting to hide.

The beauty of traveling in Asia, though, was that I didn’t have to grapple with this push-and-pull of either being too loud or being too hidden; I could simply just be myself. And it came with a sense of relief that I otherwise wasn’t expecting.

Although I am Chinese American, I look generically East Asian. My parents emigrated to the United States when they were teenagers, but growing up, we didn’t talk much about their background or upbringing. It’s this disconnect from my own family history that makes me feel a desire to connect with a greater Chinese and East Asian community.

Early on in my two-week trip, I meandered along Yaowarat Road late in the evening in Bangkok’s Chinatown. I was in the largest Chinatown diaspora in the world, and throngs of locals were shopping for durian at the stall beside me. Even though I’m not Thai and don’t speak the language, I felt connected to those around me.

How to plan a trip to Thailand

That moment was small, yet significant. I felt myself letting go of some of the physical and mental tension of the past two years.

While in Southeast Asia, I connected with friends, experienced cities as locals would and, most of all, reinvigorated my sense of self in a place where I didn’t have to worry about how I looked.

After all, I was in Asia as a tourist. I was in a privileged position to ignore any local tensions between minority groups and momentarily forget the microaggressions or discrimination that continued back home.

The irony isn’t lost on me that what makes living in the United States so wonderful is also the very thing that makes me feel a sense of sadness and trepidation — and a strong desire to return to Asia.

The power of reclaiming my Asian name

I love the diversity of America, yet there seems to be a constant need to bucket people that are different into separate categories, driving us further apart.

On my final evening in Singapore, my friend Kai mentioned his unease about visiting the United States right now. His country, as he explained, is sheltered from the overt racism that so many minorities face in the United States and elsewhere.

In Singapore, diversity is essentially enforced by law, with the country’s Malay, Indian and Chinese populations living side by side. With over 80 percent of Singapore’s people in public housing, each building enforces quotas on how many residents of one racial group can live there. While it may seem authoritarian and nanny-like, Kai said, he believes that it works to create a semblance of social harmony.

Of course, racism exists everywhere, and Singapore is no exception. But as Kai stood on an MRT subway platform in Singapore, he didn’t have to dart his eyes around as the train approached, something that’s now become second nature to me while taking the subway home in New York. In the back of our minds is the question: “Will another Asian person get pushed onto the tracks?”

The two weeks I spent in Southeast Asia gave me newfound perspective of what it means to travel as an Asian American. While I have always been on a continuous journey to embrace my Asian-ness, the last couple of years in the United States have forced me to fully grapple with it. Recent anti-Asian violence feels like a cascading effect of phrases such as “China virus” or “Kung flu,” words used at the height of the pandemic.

But this recent spotlight means so many of my Asian American peers, friends and colleagues are speaking up about injustices, or just sharing their nuanced experiences with others for the first time. And I know, along with so many others, that we cannot return to a status of invisibility or silence. There is no going back.

I think fondly of those moments abroad as an eight year old, and I can now see how it helped foster my sense of wonder. With this most recent trip, that wonder has transformed into a form of adult empowerment.

For all of this, I can thank my trips to Asia. And I can’t wait to go back and hear those train doors close again.

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