Solo Traveling as an Asian-American

Patrick Lin
11 min readSep 20, 2019

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Lesson #1: appreciate when you find people willing to take photos for you.

The Allure of Independence

One comment I often hear from friends, typically after I’ve spent some time extolling the virtues of my recent solo Asia trip, goes something like:

Wow that sounds like you had an amazing time! Traveling solo sounds too stressful and lonely for me though — I could never do it.

I won’t sugarcoat it: while I think solo traveling has been invaluable for my personal growth, it’s definitely not for everyone. We’re all in different life phases and traveling with different intentions.

To me, it’s something that simultaneously relinquishes and empowers me with control over my experience. Traveling forces me out of my bubble to see new perspectives in the world. Traveling solo gave me full agency over my plans, but also forced me to negotiate my identity in new settings. Without the crutch of familiar faces to socially insulate myself, this proved isolating at times, but I ultimately engaged more deeply with both the destination and other travelers.

One challenge with travel friendships is they often end as quickly as they begin. I’d build up a social circle in a city, only to shed it days later when we departed for our next destinations. And I couldn’t choose who ended up in my hostel room, city tour, or bus ride — places where I’ve both made fast friends and also steeped in quiet solitude. A benefit of constantly meeting people, however, was that I got really good at perfecting my pitch to cover backpacker small talk — name, where you’re from, where you’ve been, etc. I tried to keep it light:

‘I’m Patrick from San Francisco, I’m doing my quarter-life crisis eat-pray-love journey for three months through Southeast Asia. Like 90% of people you’ll meet from SF, I work in tech. Basically, if you ever walk into a Starbucks and connect to the free wifi, you can thank me for that.’

That Question

Simple, right? But when I first started traveling, it was often hard for me to even get to this point in a conversation.

For context, hostels are hubs of social activity, with bars, dining rooms, or other common areas for travelers to mingle. Some will host activities like pub crawls and family dinners, but in most cases, you fend for yourself. There’s added pressure from the rapid-fire nature of travel relationships, where a single conversation could determine whether you explored a city alone for the next three days, or with a set of companions you could happily follow and tag on Instagram. (Over time, I’ve learned how to enjoy solitude, but that’s a topic for another time). As a self-conscious introvert, making friends from crowds of strangers was already a struggle. Culture shock, not to the destination, but to the demographics of the European and Southeast Asian backpacker trail itself, made it harder. When I first left my bubble at home, I hadn’t been prepared to enter another — one that overwhelmingly white.

After a lifetime of living in the relatively diverse SF Bay Area and blending seamlessly into the tech industry, I’ve rarely been so conscious about my ethnicity. I had forgotten the subconscious feeling of vulnerability when walking into bustling rooms full of people where nobody else looked like me.

For reference, after three months of travels this last trip, I met a grand total of one Asian-American (and one ethnically Vietnamese German) in all my hostels, with whom I immediately bonded over these sentiments. It was a reminder that even though I went to a 40% Asian school and live in a 33% Asian city, we are still just 5.6% of the US population.

This came with a few challenges. For one, it was extremely rare for anyone to approach me first. Understandable, since the only Chinese people many travelers have ever seen are the Mandarin-speaking tourists crowding their capital cities by the busload. When I did make introductions, I could often see eyebrow raises by the time I said ‘San Francisco’ — surprise that 1) My name was Patrick and not Wang Wei or something and 2) I spoke fluent English. At times I’d hear responses of ‘oh I thought you were a local’ or ‘you don’t look like you’re from San Francisco, where are you really from?’ — the classic question minorities here have all heard before.

While these questions were more out of ignorance than malice, I struggled with this sense of otherness a lot more during my solo Europe trip two years ago. I can still recall how I spent that New Years’ Eve at a Budapest club. After immediately losing the hostel companions I’d met only two hours prior, I wandered aimlessly through the pulsing crowds, conspicuously aware of how badly I stood out. Failing to even find any English speakers, I eventually just stood alone in the corner until midnight, clutching a beer in a feeble attempt to blend in. Surrounded by nothing but hundreds of towering white bodies, I felt like a complete alien.

Now, this anxiety would fade after starting proper conversations in most other settings. But a lingering foreignness always persisted. A sense of ‘I’m not like them that fed personal insecurities around group acceptance.

Would that circle of British lads think I’m weird if I barged in? Why do other travelers always seem to make closer friendships — do they just bond over their shared whiteness? Why don’t I ever have saucy travel flings? I guess nobody actually likes Asian guys right?

At times, these thoughts outright stopped me from approaching certain groups, with the default assumption that I wouldn’t fit in, while in others, I’d subconsciously withdraw and just take a backseat in conversations. Viewing my race as a liability only fueled these self-fulfilling prophecies, in retrospect.

Cultural Ambassador

I gradually learned to stomach these misgivings and double down on being proactive during my recent Asia trip. I came to realize that most people, especially those you find traveling internationally at a young age, aren’t trying to intentionally discriminate. For the less traveled, often European, backpackers, I’m probably the first Californian they’ve met at all, let alone a minority one. I tried to tell myself ‘they’re more afraid of you than you are of them’, and if nobody approached me, I could either sulk alone and cry racism, or take the initiative myself. This became easier as I developed self-confidence and openness around my background.

First, even though I don’t look it, I’m a native English speaker which is a huge privilege and advantage when socializing. If other travelers can overcome communicating in their second/third/fourth language, I can get over my perceived feelings of ostracization.

Second, I simply added to my pitch: ‘…and my parents are Chinese, in case you’re wondering why it looks like I’ve lost my tour group’. This did a few things: pre-empt any confusion with humor, get a laugh over the shared traveler experience of dealing with mainland tourists everywhere, and most importantly, help transition small talk to deeper topics.

I welcomed people’s curiosity. Given the chance to ask questions, conversations often quickly went from ‘wow that’s cool, do you speak Chinese?’ to elaborating the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin, comparing the tonality to Thai/Lao/Vietnamese, and discussing the Asian diaspora experience.

I’d sometimes have to field questions I’m less qualified to answer: why are Chinese tourists so rude and come in such large packs, what’s happening with the Hong Kong protests, does Vietnam like China? Having only lived in America I’m obviously biased, but I’d still try to offer perspectives on Chinese and broader Asian culture and history.

One time in northern Vietnam, a few travelers were lamenting how absolutely barbaric it was for locals to butcher animals out in the open, and even eat dogs! I tried to nudge at the ethnocentrism. Would I ever eat a dog? No, but I’m also lucky enough to never need to. I told them that when he was a kid, my dad’s family in rural Guangdong cooked a neighborhood dog he had taken care of two years. He told me how much he cried when they butchered it, but ate at dinnertime nonetheless. ‘Better than crying from hunger.’ Sounds terrible to us, yes, but he also used to eat any frogs, forest rats, and even snakes they could catch. If you could barely afford rice, bok choy, and got meat once a month for your kids, wouldn’t you try to feed them?

More lightheartedly, I also shared how my grandparents used to buy live chickens from Oakland Chinatown and slaughter them in my backyard, the pungent steam in the kitchen as my grandma boiled the feathers off turning it into a no-play zone. One time, a would-be burglar hopped our backyard fence at night, saw my grandpa hacking meat apart with a bloody cleaver, and immediately jumped back over. Our neighbors even called the cops on us once after seeing bloodstains in our yard. I recounted the time my family steamed one of our pet fish after it died and served it at dinner (would not recommend — very bitter). Or when they gathered the eggs from an abandoned bird nest on our porch to hardboil. I still think of that time whenever I see quail eggs!

They carried the resourcefulness required to survive the Cultural Revolution into my early life, and while Vietnam is another country, the attitudes villagers have towards animals might justifiably differ from those of us wealthy Western urbanites.

The Tour Guide

Being an Asian-American in Asia also led to interesting interactions with locals. When asked where I was from, my answer elicited both curiosity and skepticism — I didn’t look like a typical American, but I also didn’t look like part of a Chinese tour group.

For example, in Ha Giang, I did a four-day motorbike tour around the mountains of rural Vietnam with a group of around 30 other visitors, none of whom were Asian of course. At one point, we stopped at a tour site to visit a cave. The ticketing guy, an old, squat man lounging on a plastic chair, saw me with a pack of white people and immediately shook my hand, breaking into jovial Vietnamese banter. Taking a moment to process what was happening, I gestured with a wave of my hand and said ‘oh no sorry, I’m not Vietnamese’. He must not have understood as he paused for barely a second, clapped me on the arm, and resumed his stream of thought. We all laughed as the entire group and I tried to interrupt him without avail, until I pointed to my face and loudly repeated ‘CHINA. CHINA.’ Maybe I should’ve asked for a ticket commission.

This happened a lot, especially in Vietnam where understandably there are similarities in appearance and also ethnic Chinese locals. Every other restaurant I’d go into, the waiter would take my order, hear my English, and then immediately ask where I was from. Although part of me got tired of disappointing locals, I eventually learned to pre-empt the stares, reciting ‘tôi là người trung quốc và mỹ’, which they appreciated.

Foreigner(s)

Another time, I was ordering crepes in the tiny border town of Houayxay, Laos with another (white) American. Like many ‘stores’ in Laos, the stand was just a counter in front of the guy’s house, with the open double doors revealing his small single bedroom, wife, and baby inside. When his baby started crying, his wife took over the stand as he picked up the child, cheerily bounced her in his arms, and pointed to my companion. ‘Look, falang, falang!’ — ‘foreigner’ in Lao. Curious why I hadn’t been the subject of the baby’s entertainment, I protested ‘what about me? I’m a falang too!’ He retorted as if I was crazy — ‘No, no, no. You not falang. Look like us.’ I was skeptical, but without any further explanation, we grabbed our crepes and walked back to the hostel. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that falang originally meant French, referring to Laos’ colonizers. It only expanded to describe all white foreigners later. What am I called then?

Crossing Borders

There were other encounters where I was grateful for my culture, from finally meeting another Cantonese speaker in Halong Bay (he owned the hotel that ran our cruise and shared his life story) to discussing my upbringing and Eastern vs Western family values with a Québécois tea shop owner, who had married a Vietnamese woman and recently became a father in Ho Chi Minh City.

Another happened at the Thai-Laos border stop. The afore-mentioned American and I crossed to Laos on the last bus over and were being forced to either wait for more passengers to fill a tuk-tuk or pay an exorbitant fee for a ride into town. To make matters worse, as the only captive foreigners (i.e. customers), two locals kept trying to rip us off on overpriced boat tickets with some high-pressure sales tactics, promising that if we bought their tickets, one of the drivers would take us immediately. Honestly, it was probably a difference of less than $10, but after adjusting to Southeast Asia prices, scams became more a matter of principle than actual financial burden. We decided to wait.

After deflecting on our boating plans for long enough, the female salesperson finally dropped her ruse and switched to small talk, asking about my background. She leapt with excitement at my response. ‘Chinese! So many Chinese travelers here but they never know English. You can teach me!’ With nothing better to do, I was happy to oblige and dove into an impromptu 30-minute lesson, tapping into my extremely rusty Mandarin to transcribe some phrases, teach her Pinyin (Chinese romanization), and rehearse pronunciation. She picked it up quickly, which was unsurprising when I found she already spoke Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese, all of which are difficult tonal languages.

Afterward, I joked if we could get a free ride now that I had helped her. She said no, but that one of the drivers was going home early, so we could catch a ride at one-fifth of the asking price. That was a win in my book! She also found out that I work in tech and immediately added me on Whatsapp ‘so I can ask you when my internet is bad’, and offered her consultation if I had any questions about tour sights in Laos and Vietnam. So if you ever cross to Laos overland, say hi to Noina for me — maybe she’ll be able to pitch you Luang Prabang boat tickets in Mandarin now.

The Fluffy Stuff

These interactions, whether serendipitous or challenging, ultimately brought me a newfound appreciation for the richness of my identity.

At home, it’s common to feel like yet another Asian-American tech employee with immigrant parents who pursued the American dream through self-sacrifice and a tiger-parent, education-focused upbringing in order to climb the social ladder through wealth acquisition, etc. etc. Yet abroad, I was a confusing anomaly straddling two cultures that many had never seen before.

There were times where I grew tired of playing the ‘token’ role, of course, obligated to explain my background at every turn and somehow represent all of China and Asia in conversations. Anyone who’s been in a minority can relate. But these experiences also made me more aware of the bubbles I place myself in back home, and taught me to embrace my heritage. Feeling like a special snowflake can be nice, but more important is finding the self-confidence to own that difference, even when it isn’t easy.

Is there a bias against the unfamiliar? Maybe. I still can’t control how others might perceive me at face value. But for those that I do engage with, hopefully I can share a new perspective on what an ‘American’ looks like.

I’d be curious to hear if you’ve had similar experiences. How has identity affected how people interact with you when traveling, versus at home? Did it change your perspective?

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Patrick Lin

Often wandering and wondering. Personal musings on identity, philosophy, and travels. Photography and more at patricklin.net