Wed, 11 Jan 2012 07:23:33 +0000

Let me tell you about this kid I met. She is 15 and she is nothing like me.

First off, we live two days apart. She lives in Sa Pa, Vietnam. From New York, it takes a plane, an overnight train and a two-hour drive up a foggy mountain to get to Sa Pa. There, you reach a frigid hotel without heating — and waiting outside are dozens of girls wearing florescent headscarves. They're trying to sell you shit. 

But you don't know that yet. You think they're super friendly, super bored and super colorful village people.

Later, you learn they are Hmong — the mountainous, nationless people of Southeast Asia. And in Sa Pa, they follow you everywhere except your bedroom. It's a sales technique: One of them picks you and asks you question after question; they hook you by winning over your friendship. So this 15-year-old girl — the one who is nothing like me — picks me. And she asks me questions. But I've never been out-prodded, so I take over the question-asking: "Have you ever left Sa Pa?"

She hasn't, of course. In fact, she speaks four languages — she learned from the tourists — but she's never been down this mountain. As for me: Within two weeks, I travel halfway around the world and back.

She starts to take out factory-made crap from her backpack — stuff made in China, but she claims she made it herself — so I ask her, "Why aren't you in school?" She says she's already finished secondary school. After that, school costs money, which her family doesn't have. As for me: I'm 10 years older than she is, and still in school.

We start to walk up the mountain, and she asks me if I'll buy her stuff. I say maybe, which is a lie. She asks when I'll buy it, and I say tomorrow, which is also a lie. So she makes me pinky promise to buy her shit tomorrow, so I pinky promise, which is cute — but still a lie. I never bought any of her stuff.

At this point, she gets clingy, so I walk faster through a busy street market. But she sticks right by my side, still trying to ask questions. So I beat her to it: "What's your favorite food?"

She says she eats rice and vegetables, or sometimes just rice. Later that day, just a few kilometers from her house, I ate chicken, beef and pork. Oh, and rice and vegetables, too.

The whole time, I'm thinking she's nothing like me. She wears florescent; I wear black. She lives in a remote mountain village; I live in a huge city. She sells scarves; I write about hockey. But then I ask her what she does for fun, and she says, "This. I ask people questions about their lives because I like to know about them." And then she says, "I also tell stories about what I hear from people." I ask her why she does it, and she says, "I want to leave Sa Pa, but I don't have money to go to somewhere else. And I don't know how."

Recently, I've been getting a lot of e-mails from prospective graduate students. They want to know what I did to get into my program, ITP, so they can emulate it. And pretty much every time, I write a lengthy e-mail about what I did. You could call it advice, but it's more about me — about my decisions and accomplishments. I don't brag, but I do write as if I did something right. And maybe I did. After all, I'm pursuing a secondary degree; I get paid to write; I live in Manhattan. I must've done something right. I must be special.

The past two weeks, I've been in Vietnam. And it's now confirmed: I am special.

When I'm cold, I find a heater. When I'm hungry, I eat. When I'm bored, I play. When I'm curious, I study. When I feel stuck in the world, I dig myself out — I move to New York, I become a journalist, I apply to grad school and, when I feel really stuck, I have thousands of dollars to travel halfway around the world to visit a mountainous village in Vietnam — and, when it gets too cold or too boring, I leave and come back to New York. And it all takes just two days.