The digital nomad journey is lonely, and hindsight is 20/20. I constantly find myself thinking about things that I am doing right now or reading about new ideas and think, "Why didn't I do this earlier?" Why didn't I rent out my apartment to AirBnb when I was away for summers during college? Why didn't I quit my stressful job earlier? Why didn't I try online teaching earlier?
In senior year of college, my roommates told me that my freshman self had called and asked my parents for permission for my roommate to ask her gay guy friend over. I was like...what? I did that? Was I that much of a good girl? I wasn't a homophobe -- was I? I had absolutely no memory of that event. But then again, I do remember joining the Catholic club briefly for my first semester at Berkeley and singing along to Catholic songs. I must have been a different person then. I'm probably a different person now. Things that would have seemed crazy to my just-out-of-high school self are my daily life now. Hell, I've traveled to more than ten countries across Europe and Asia, some of them solo, and now I virtually teach kids in China from home while wearing pajamas. This from a teen who was so shy and awkward she sometimes took a full day to come up with a response to the small amount of people who did actually talk to her.
Even back then I wanted adventure though. I just didn't know how to get it. Some overprotected Catholic girls go to college and run wild. Me, I finally embraced the wild notion that I would write. I also embraced a member of the opposite sex for the first time. That was nice.
I keep wondering when this crazy journey crashes and falls, and I have to go home and be "responsible" again. Neil Gaiman has the same fear, so in a way, I already have something in common with a famous writer. Which will also lead me to becoming a famous writer.
Gaiman has a speech on Youtube where he talks about goals being like a mountain. Imagine the mountain as your goal, and whatever decision takes you closer to the mountain at the moment, you take it. I feel like I'm climbing that mountain, and when I look back I start to see parts that could have been climbed easier and with less effort. On one hand, it makes me smack my forehead. On the other hand, does that mean I'm growing? I hope so. I'm a 26-year-old American with the hopes and dreams of a young, idealistic boy. Also with the financial savings of such a boy. Gotta keep climbing.
A strong woman doesn't have to be a man. There is nothing wrong with a physically strong, more aggressive type of woman, but neither is there anything wrong with a gentle woman. This goes for men too, for strength does not mean lifting dumbbells and making witty comebacks and wisecracks.
There have been a lot of strong superwomen in movies coming out in America in the past few years. Wonder Woman, General Okoye of Wakanda in Black Panther, and Captain Marvel of the Avengers. You can also see a shift from the traditional "damsel in distress" trope to modern "strong, independent woman" theme in recent Disney movies such as Brave, Frozen, and Moanna. Some of these new movies pull off the new "strong, independent woman" trend well and some do not.
Don't get me wrong, I'm on board with the shift of storytelling away from helpless damsels in distress. As a human who lives through hardships and strives to rise to the challenges of life, I find the "damsel in distress" trope degrading and harmful. It implies that a woman in trouble just sits there doing nothing to better her own situation, which is not the case in the real world, and in any case, is a harmful mental module to follow.
So I understand why it's refreshing to see women who are the opposite of empty porcelain dolls. It feels empowering. But I would like to go a step further and see stories differentiate between physical strength and mental strength. And I would like to see that mental strength also involves not just fighting, but loving. The best of superheroes, the best of people, are not just the ones who can lift weights. They have something more. We saw this in Brave, when Merida (on top of being a badass archer) developed understanding for her mother and diplomacy skills to harmonize the feuding warlords. We saw this in Moanna, whose bravery in the face of self-doubt eventually allowed her to save her island. We saw this in Wonder Woman, whose strength was her compassion to help those who were suffering around her. Whereas in Black Panther, yes I know everyone loves it but to be honest General Okoye and her band of woman warriors was just another jump on the "strong independent woman" bandwagon that Hollywood has been taking lately. So is Captain Marvel in Avengers' Endgame, with her snobby "I can do it all by myself" attititude. There's a scene where Thor summons his hammer right next to her face and she doesn't flinch. Impressive, but that by itself is not enough to show strength.
What I want to see in future stories is a woman that has the feminine traits of being nurturing, emotional, and social and is still strong enough to defend herself and others. The new lazy version of the "strong, independent woman" is about being physically badass and not giving a rat's ass about what others think, but just as an ideal man doesn't just go around pumping his guns and ransacking the place, neither does the ideal woman. It's great to be able to fight, but true strength also involves knowing empathy and compassion. Let's make sure modern stories celebrate femininity instead of stamping it out.
P.S. My new Twitter account is up @dinhhoaitram, and I have added one shitty short story to my website as promised. What does one even do on Twitter?
I've been thinking. I've been thinking a lot. I've been thinking so much that I haven't been doing. Last year I left my old life to start a new one in the hopes of gaining more time to write. In the pursuit of my dream I quit my job and flew to Europe with a one-way ticket with the vague intention of teaching English in Vietnam. The goal was to teach English, recuperate, and meanwhile teach myself web development so I could eventually become time and location-independent enough to form exciting experiences and write.
Since I left California in March 2018, a lot has happened. I've had a lots of ups and downs in relationships, career, and health. I kept thinking, "After this is over, then I'll write. Then I'll draw, then I'll create." I kept thinking there will be a time when I can do whatever I want, whenever I want without a worry but worry is always there. Maybe you just get rid of the things that you really cannot bear (toxic jobs, toxic relationships, crisis health issues) and then keep going. It's hard to write when life is hard, but life is always hard. I asked myself, is anything really stopping me from writing or drawing right now, just for 30 minutes a day? The answer was no, so I realized I was stalling myself.
Another thing I worry about is that my product is not good enough, but then I end up hoarding "unfinished products" with the elusive thought that I'll be done "someday". The "I'll finish someday" thought is an excuse that allows me to procrastinate, both with wrapping up my writings and with sharing it to the world, therefore exposing myself to criticism. I've been both lazy and afraid.
Now is the time. I have sufficiently recovered from a health issue that had me bedridden for the past two months. There is literally nothing stopping me from writing. In the next week, I will add a few stories to my website, possibly talk about the health issue, and polish my social media presence. Maybe Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. Stay tuned.
Five minutes after I close the laptop, I get a ping and look down at my phone. "VIPKID here you cooooome!" says a first email in bold, followed by "Mock Class Passed!" in a second email. That's all I have a chance to read before I'm jumping up and down like a frat boy on coke, smiling wide. I run down and tell my friend's landlord's four-month-old puppy, "I did it!" and dance around with him, his paws in my hands, his smile enthusiastic as my own (this was the case before and after my mock class). The mock class was a one-hour online interview in which I taught English to an interviewer in Michigan pretending to be a Chinese kid who didn't know English. I prepped hard the week before and felt like I was in Berkeley again with the amount of time I prepped. I watched many mock classes on Youtube and practiced in front of the mirror. I was anxious because the alternative to getting this job was that I would have to apply for a physical teaching job. This would mean I would once again spend most of my hours in a conventional teaching environment, trapped in one location yet again in the good old 9-5. But I did it! I passed Mock 1 without having to do Mock 2 which is the common route for most applicants, and I managed this despite being late about one minute to the interview and pissing off my interviewer. My past years as a behavior therapist paid off. I've spent two years practicing calm and patience in the midst of temper tantrums while working with clients with autism. Hence, even when my interviewer was pissed, I was able to mask my stress and behave friendly and apologetic enough to win her over to my side. I don't recommend being late though; my lateness was due to a tech issue which I will make sure to resolve for next time. Wi-Fi in Vietnam sucks. Yay, my first online job! Tomorrow I print materials and start working on getting bookings. Since I'm considered an independent contractor, I'm responsible for building a client base and opening up my available hours. One hurdle passed. Stay tuned in the life of Princess Chicken, Conqueror of Chicken-Eaters. I'm going back to Europe next month.
Light floods through the etchings of the decorative panels above the doors. It's quiet here compared to the Dark Cave that didn't let me in because the cave was so full of people. There were counters for visitors' information, ticket sellers, men guarding the motorbike lot, loud groups of Vietnamese, young ladies applying sunblock, men on phones, groups of Westerners on tour.
The church is empty. There the light again glints through the chipped cracks of the dark doors. All I hear is the wind and the creaking of wood. Yet I feel peace in this place that costs nothing. I love empty churches. Even though I'm a bit of a fallen angel, as I sit backwards on the pew with my feet on the bench, I feel safe.
With no Catholics around to judge me for my scanty clothing and disrespectful sitting stance, my tattoo and my dreams of lavender hair, I actually love being in houses of worship. Even if people judge me, God doesn't. And I do feel something here. If not the presence of a heavenly dude who sent his son down to Earth to die for my sins, then some sense of tranquility. This place reminds me that people, who are for the most part assholes, do have a sense and need for spirituality.
And what spirit this place has. Rosettes of wall etchings glow a-golden in the humid July afternoon, bordered by teal-green vines a shade darker than the pastel sea-green walls. The burnished wood softly shines. This alternating soundtrack of wind, silence, and creaking wood. How sublime I feel writing here, while sweat trickles down my chest between my boobs. Am I a stream of consciousness in a series of mountains and valleys, a part of this country? I'm wearing the dope jean jacket I found in the middle of the jungle. It keeps out 90% of the wind and sun when I am motorbiking and gives me 100% style. Thanks "Mr. Ken". He probably did die from a tiger mauling. I couldn't wash out the blood stains. RIP.
We throatily sing in Bulgarian and Vietnamese to the old French tune of Frere Jacques as a group of people walk by our bench in the pitch-black darkness. One of the group approaches and gives us a free joint of tobacco and weed. She feels sorry that we have chosen to drink anise alcohol with sparkling water. She can smell how bitter it tastes from a mile away and she feels sorry that our souls are going to die from it. It's good that we strolled the Berlin cemetery the prior night, because now we know our future housing situation. But you finished it, my friend, the whole bottle minus my tiny contribution; props to you. Your determination to not waste food or drink is admirable; it tests the limits of human willpower.
Okay, I drink three sips of the stuff before the fire burns through my stomach and kills me. We float back in time to the cemetery where we discussed family while meandering along dark paths under darker trees. Grass grows over tombstones; angels fly back and forth. Jesus has somehow teleported to a different region of the cemetery. From beyond our shadowed forest glows a red and white cinema sign, bordered by a rectangle of golden lights. It is the only reminder I can see of the outside world. Will we ever drift back to the Heart of Gold hostel? Will I ever leave this cracked old Hollywood memory behind?
I walk with you and feel peaceful. American cemeteries are not as forested, lush, and secluded as this. Here I can incorporate Bulgarian inefficiency, talking about anything and everything until the sun rises, walking a block in the wrong direction before turning around. This being inefficient is horrible for the deadlines and timed appointments of the living, but perfect for the wandering ways of the dead. Hey, maybe this way I will stumble upon sticky Turkish ice cream again. I wander deep into my thoughts.
Some time later, I glance upon my surroundings again. Well, my friend, it seems that in wandering, I have ended up somewhere far away. This new place is tropical and humid, filled with the dust of motorbikes and hot, panting chickens sleeping in the shade of flat, green-leaved trees. I feel sad when I think of the uncertainty that I will ever see you again. But lucky for me, Royal Chef and Advisor of European Affairs, you still like to shit on my favorite things and debunk feminist atrocities through the digital world, and I'm sure you have even more to say about my writing, so it's not possible to get too sappy. It's what I want, even though it makes me fluff up in indignation sometimes, because then I can improve upon my craft. But thanks for the occasional compliment. I have a fragile egg-o. Bokkok! Ahem. A hen.
Thanks for cooking moussaka and tarator for this stray cat of a human being. Right now, I'm sad for no reason so I'm rewatching "Girl, Interrupted", which is a movie about a girl in a mental hospital. I've forgotten the plot. One year ago I was in a mental hospital too. My mind keeps rewinding to that moment. Every time I have fun with a new human being, I feel a little bit of fear. People tell me it won't happen anymore, that I'm different now. But even though that Me died, I still feel haunted by my past. Maybe it's like being a former prisoner. Sometimes you think back to how it felt to be behind bars, not knowing when you'll be released. But I think the dominant feeling I have is one of hope, actually.
Will I ever be happy? I don't want to be happy all the time anyway. I wonder why I keep asking myself that. Maybe it's a socially-trained question. Remember when we were drinking "scalding" turmeric tea and you told me I was normal? The guy nurse at the hospital said I looked normal too. I felt you were concerned and trying to reassure me. Yes, you're right, I am normal in the ways I have developed in reaction to my environment. It's just that I have a tendency to be sad sometimes that brings me to the brink of danger. Melancholy. I don't mind, because emotion fuels writing. The psychiatrist at St. Helena said I was normal. He said I was just off the path of following my self's dreams. And since I hadn't actually tried to kill myself, he let me leave after only two nights there. I'll try my best to take care of myself, and live long and happy. Maybe I can be like a mix of the Dalai Lama and Edgar Allan Poe.
Like my previous post, this post is long and meandering. Looks like I've incorporated Bulgarian inefficiency into my writing as well. I had fun all seven nights in Berlin of having you bash on my favorite books and movies. I already liked the taste of blood, so thanks for turning me into a full-fledged vampire chicken who sleeps at 7 AM when the sun has come out and people are beginning to go to work. The girl in "Girl, Interrupted" is saying she wants to write, and has just been diagnosed with BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). That's what they diagnosed me with too, but I think it's a gift to be able to adapt my personality to different situations. I'm an actress, and the world is my stage. I'm glad I didn't take drugs for my depression even though it was hard. I knew unhappiness was telling me to change my life. If I had taken drugs and become functional through them, I think I would have forgotten my pain. Then I don't think I would have changed the root cause of my unhappiness, which was that I wasn't writing. I wasn't loving myself, traveling, feeling the exhilarating freedom of writing. Did I say writing?
Where does the future lead? I don't know, but I wasn't lying to you when I said I love myself. I have loved myself for over a year now. It feels pretty strange. Thanks for calling me pretty.
Vampire Princess Chicken the First who is also a Stray Cat
P.S. The woman below is not me but I like her, so here she stays.
Let me tell you about the time I became a national fugitive running away from the IRS for tax evasion. It started when I met a fellow skater Aliana in Amsterdam at the Marnixstraat skate bowl near Centraal train station. We chilled that day and she invited me to skate the next day with her friend.
The next day I rented a bike. Amsterdam is crazy about its bikes. The way there are bike lanes set up, and the way people ring their bells when biking past each other, it feels like I'm in a chill version of Vietnam's motorbike culture.
I met up with Aliana's other friend Marc around noon and together with Aliana we biked to Veldje 14 skatepark, about 25 minutes by bike south of Centraal. Marc talks about a variety of subjects that day, including a part about trouble paying taxes back in England. The day was blue and clear and warm save for a few clouds. There had been the forecast of a thunderstorm but that turned out to be a joke worth a few drops of rain that vanished in a minute. Besides the larger number of bikes and tall blond people, I could have sworn that I was back in California for a bit.
We skated and ate some Dorito ranch chips that instead of being labeled "Ranch" were labeled "Cool American Flavor". I got a kick out of that. We Americans are so cool in Europe (and Asia). The Cool Kidz. So we ate those, skated, and a Dutch dude came by who was clearly on something. He missed every trick he tried and would go around smashing the fences and gates until the wires gave way and hung loose. At one point he pulled a steel rail into the middle of the park and proceeded to then ignore it for the next ten minutes. it was like watching an avant-garde modern art film. As night fell I played pretend-DJ by connecting my phone music to a fancy amplifier at the park that looked like a DJ station. I played the "Flying Microtonal Banana" album by King Gizzard the Lizard Wizard, and later Marc and I talked about going to check out the Red Light District and the Blue Light "chicks with dicks".
As night fell Aliana went home; Marc and I biked to his place and chilled to some music, then he pulled out LSD and some "weird rocks" some stranger had randomly given to him. We decided against the rocks and took the LSD before biking over to the Red Light. I walked around for a bit before realizing that it was a very stupid idea for anyone, especially me, to have to pay for sex (50 euros for 15 minutes) when I could just get it for free. We went back to his place and watched Pokemon. Pokemon on LSD, though, is lit. The neon graphics, the music, the deep moments, everything. I fall asleep eventually and wake up when the sky is a pale blue, around 6 AM. Kaleidoscopic lights are still stretching across my visual field, and when I look in the mirror, the lines of my eyes grow like vines across my face. But overall my thought process seems clear and calm, at least to me.
One of Marc's many sentences from the past 24 hours roots itself in my psyche -- the sentence about "paying taxes back in England". My stomach drops. Did I pay my taxes back in the US? Is filing taxes a thing? I pull up the IRS website on his laptop and come to this understanding -- filing taxes is a necessity, and not doing it can lead to bank accounts being frozen, even jail time. I don't even remember how I came to the conclusion that I hadn't filed taxes anymore. It's been a few weeks since then. But I spent the next twenty-four hours deciding that I had unwillingly become a national criminal, and was going to have to be on the run across countries like James Bond. I sent money to different people in case my bank accounts were going to be frozen so I could have them send money to me while I was abroad, and called the IRS and set up an online account and sent myself snail mail so that I could get a verification code...
About a month after this I signed in to IRS online and held my breath to see that my poor, student-debt ridden self owed a balance of 0.00. What? 0.00 for years 2014, 2015, 2017. Wait. My mind settled on the term "tax return". If by now, Reader, you are already shaking your head, you may know unlike I did that filing a tax return form is the same as "filing taxes". I had done this all previous years that I worked since graduating college. And so a month of paranoia came to an end. Yes, yes, keep shaking your head in shame. I still do. It is interesting, though, that even though my mental capacities returned to normal about one day after taking LSD, a paranoiac thought that took root during the LSD experience itself remained in my mind for a month afterward. I just assumed during the entire month afterward that I had not indeed, filed taxes, even after the effects of LSD died down.
Trolled by acid,
I loved my experience with Helpx. One of the reasons I loved it was my hosts were away for 99% of my last two weeks here, leaving me free to dance along to my favorite songs in the kitchen while I cooked mushroom omelette. Then I played Assassin's Creed II on the Xbox, or went to hold the chicken while staring at her feathers, feeling the sun dance on my skin. There was no one to explain myself to, no one to force myself to smile at. My least favorite time was my first week here where I socialized with my hosts during every meal and in-between. Sometimes I got bored but wanted to be polite so I forced myself to listen and converse. After four days listening to people, including a child, tell me about things and how to do things, my mind was screaming for solitude the way waterlogged lungs scream for air.
Socializing in groups for more than two days nonstop is hard. A fact in the life of Đinh Hòai-Trâm. I love people (sometimes) and find them fascinating (occasionally), for certain amounts at a time. Then after my social battery is dead it doesn't matter if you are the Dalai Lama or want to give me a million dollars, I'm done. Well, you can give me the million dollars first.
My reflection as I explore affordable methods of travel are that I enjoy my right to solitude. Hostels are good because I can still leave whenever I want to get my alone time at a secluded park or church. I'm not obligated to talk to anybody or stay within anyone's space. Whereas work-for-travel methods such as farmstays are okay but not ideal. I mean, I can do it, but I don't enjoy being at someone's constant beck-and-call. I might as well be back in California working for actual money. At least then I have my nights and weekends off from people.
I'm lucky I had an unconventional Helpx experience where I was basically just house sitting and left alone. I loved biking in the countryside while listening to my favorite music, eating choux puff pastries and all the French cheeses, and drinking red wine. I loved talking to myself and the dog and the chickens and the goat and horses about my experiences. I felt some loneliness, but ironically a few days after my hosts left the house I started enjoying my solitude more. This makes me wonder if loneliness is really a case of missing people being around. Or is loneliness a state of disconnect to one's surroundings? When my hosts were here, I felt lonelier. When I am browsing social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram aimlessly, I also feel lonelier. Maybe loneliness is less about who's around, and more about feeling disconnected. I've been off Facebook for a day now and it feels great. Two more days of my social media fast. This post will automatically share to Facebook, but it'll be nice not to check who views it or comments on it.
Maybe house sitting is something to explore. Hostels are confirmed good on my list, whereas work-to-stay situations like Helpx, WWOOF, and working at hostels are now last on my list. House sitting is a gray zone yet to be explored. I loved it this time.