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Now it is time to talk about experiences involving one of my identities in particular. We have had a couple meetings during the school year that mentioned how our social identities and the way they are approached can affect our experiences abroad. A former participant of the same program spoke to my cohort about some things that happened to her while she was in Vietnam, like touching her hair. Therefore, I had some point of reference about what may come while here, but what I am experiencing is much more intense.
To set the scene of sorts, I am a Black male with my hair currently styled in cornrows. I sometimes keep it short or a few inches long, but my hair is easier to manage when it braided, which is why I decided to go as I did. On several occasions while walking with local Vietnamese speakers, they would get questions from other locals about my hair and how I got it styled in such a way. I am not getting as much touching, but there are a lot of questions. The only people to touch my hair were kids a couple days ago from the organization I work with, but I do not mind people touching my hair, and I really like kids.
However, the big problem I am facing is with the Vietnamese locals taking pictures of me, both with and without my permission. After the first couple times it happened, the staff at the partner organization in Ho Chi Minh City told me that the locals do not intend any malice with their actions, and that they are not generally exposed to international people, let alone a Black person. So, I began to loosen up a lot. I usually do not like having my picture taken back home, but I don’t mind it too much here anymore. After all, this is an intercultural experience and I genuinely want to know how Black people are treated in other parts of the world in which they are also in the minority. I have known how Black people are treated in the United States all my life.
One major experience happened while I was at the Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. A guy pulled my arm around his shoulder while his friend took a picture. I have learned that the Vietnamese have different perceptions of personal space, and I figured neither person spoke English. So, it did not bother me that much because I would prefer this treatment any day above the way Black people are treated in the United States. Also, there would be people taking selfies while intentionally getting me and my face in the picture, or they would just outright put their phones in my face. I would say that I was probable in ten or so different pictures, but not once did anyone ask permission.
Another major experience happened when I traveled outside of the city with the organization and kids I was working with. While we were hiking up a mountain to a large statue of Jesus Christ, I was overwhelmed by the staring and people wanting to take pictures. You would not believe how it had become unless you were there. Almost everywhere I turned, there were people staring or someone wanting a picture. I was in a lot more pictures here than at the Independence Palace. At one point, I noticed a man walk up to me, get about two feet away from my face, and start recording me on Facebook Live. I even told another student on the program that it felt like I should be in a zoo with everything that was happening. However, like I said, I would rather people treat me like that because I am a Black person over the way people assume I am involved with crime and gangs over in America. Even with all the uncomfortableness associated with these two, and other related experiences, the Vietnamese people I have encountered are really nice, friendly, and welcoming.