Monday, October 19, 2009

That Time I Was In Asia: Vietnam Odds and Ends

• I'm not saying that the communist propaganda is blatant, I'm just saying . . .

• While in Hanoi we saw a water puppet show. It's a puppet show that takes place in water. Here's what I wrote in my journal about it: "Show lacked developed plot. Everyone was chasing something – fishing, hunting, courting. The symbolism was heavy handed." While that's douchey, it's no where near as douchey as the guy who sat in front of me videotaping the entire thing. Like no one from home was going to believe he went to a water puppet show? Or am I to assume that a few weeks after he and his wife get home this dude's going to be like, "Hey honey, let's open a nice bottle of wine and watch the water puppet video." I just don't see it happening.

On the plus side, the music was mesmerizing. At one point Brooke leaned over and said, "Is that guy playing a fish?"

• One day I wanted to get a foot massage but was afraid the masseuse may try to jerk me off with her foot.

• Best conversation of the trip goes to an exchange I had with a random girl working at our hotel in Phú Quốc island (Slogan: "It's Relax Times!"). She was probably 19 (35 maybe?), pretty, and a bit shy. Regardless, when Brooke left to go inspect prospective rooms for us to rent, I stayed behind in the lobby watching soccer on TV. A couple of minutes in, this girl walked over and sat down on the couch next to me. We exchanged smiles, and then the questions started. Clearly, she enjoyed practicing her English. Our conversation unfolded like Chapter One out of an ESL textbook.

Her: "Do you like to sing?"
Me: "No, I do not like to sing. Do you like to sing?"
Her: "Yes, I like to sing. I am the best at singing."
Me: "Do you like to dance?"
Her: "Yes, I like to dance. Do you like to dance?"
Me: "Yes, dancing is very fun."

And so on and so on utilizing every other verb you learned in freshman year Spanish. Then after we had exhausted the list, there was an awkward silence before she continued.

Her: (pointing outside to where Brooke went) "Your wife?"
Me: "My girlfriend."
Her: "You swim now?"
Me: "No, we drink beer now."
Her: "Oh! How many beer do you drink?"
Me: "Five."
Her: "That is a lot!"

(pause)

Her: "How many beer your girlfriend drink?"
Me: (contemplating) "Six."
Her: "Wow! She is the best drinker."
Me: "(gleaming with pride) "Yes, she is."

• Of course there was a fish at baggage claim.

• If our friend who is currently teaching English in Vietnam hadn't warned us about the death-defying act of attempting to cross the street, there's a good chance Brooke and I would still be standing outside out hotel in Hanoi wondering what the hell to do.

I tried to get a good video to show how truly hazardous it is, but every time Brooke and I crossed the street, we did it together. This way, if we died we would die together, and the other person wouldn't be left to explain to our grieving relatives how their loved one died while trying to get a good video of crossing a Vietnamese street for [redacted].

Luckily, I found this video on YouTube, shot by a less forward-thinking couple.

Basically, you just had to accept the fact that you may crap your pants. It was a real possibility. On the plus side, it really conserves energy when you are forced to stop and think about how badly you want to get to the other side of the street. Is it really worth it? Indeed, I imagine entire Vietnamese families have decided where to live based on what side of the street they were currently standing on. "Well, well," they might say staring out at the sea of menacing motorbikes, "this corner seems as good as any!"

• I love the idea that Vietnamese people are learning about America through MacGyver. Like I go to Asia and assume everyone knows martial arts, and they come to America and assume everyone knows how to escape from a meat locker by combining seemingly useless items into a chemically engineered blowtorch.

• When Brooke and I told Buffalo Joe that we wanted to start a website called ThingsOnaScooter.com, he seemed confused. "Yes, we carry many things on a scooter," he informed us with the nonchalance of an American being told about a website called ThingsInYourSUV.com. But I challenge anyone to name something that you think wouldn't fit on a scooter, and I will shout back in your face that you are dead wrong. One time I even saw a scooter on the back of a scooter. I can honestly say it changed my life.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

That Time I Was In Asia: Halong, Baby!

Brooke and I liked to play this game where we came up with tourism slogans for Vietnam like, Vietnam: Where the only thing harder than the language is your bed. Ha, get it? But seriously, the mattresses were like coffins.

Anyway, it turns out Vietnam's actual official tourism slogan is "Discover the Hidden Charm," which should be read more like an imperative challenge than a whimsical suggestion. "Go ahead," they defy you, "just try to find the charm. It is exceptionally well hidden."

So after three days of meandering through windy alleys in Hanoi trying to ferret out the charm, Brooke and I decided to take off for less congested pastures – Halong Bay. The picturesque cove is home to thousands of limestone isles which jut up out of the water like geological erections. We had heard that it was a UNESCO (I'd link to it but their website is so boring) World Heritage site, and while we had no idea what that meant it sounded very important. Since it's a four-hour drive from Hanoi to the coast, most people make an overnight trip out of it. To those people we say, "Hey, lame-os. Want another Stella d'Oro treat with that vagina?" We hired a driver, woke up at 7:00, and made a day of it.
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Our driver is ten minutes late, and Brooke and I are pissed. There's two good reasons for this: 1. Clocking in at $180, this is the most expensive thing we've paid for yet (hotel rooms included). Hanoi is absurdly inexpensive; your whole perception of worth is skewed by ¢15 beer and $2 cab rides. Couple that with the fact that in Vietnamese currency it cost 3.2 million dong (giggles), and you can't help but expect to be treated like royalty; and 2. Americans are treated a bit like royalty in Vietnam. Maybe it's the tourism dollars we bring along, or the curiosity of our progressive demeanor in a throw-back communist setting – whatever the case, I've never felt cooler than I did in Vietnam.

When our driver finally does show up, the tour guide with him apologizes profusely. "Traffic," he explains in what is probably the best English I have heard a Vietnamese person speak the entire time we've been there, which is still just like being the thinnest kid at fat camp.

Immediately it is made clear that the driver doesn't speak English – perhaps doesn't speak at all. The tour guide though (a Vietnamese guy who is 25-going-on-16-year-old-girl) is clearly very excited for the ride. He introduces himself as Quay, but tells us to use his nickname, Buffalo Joe. When Brooke asks how he got his nickname, he says, "Because I was born on the back of a buffalo while my family was escaping the flood," without a hint of excitement, as though she had asked Fat Albert how he got his nickname and he replied, "Because I'm fat." Skirting the obvious follow-up questions ("Was it at least your buffalo?"), Joe starts inquiring about us.

Joe: "What is your profession?"
Me: "We are writers."
Joe: (genuinely shocked) "No! I think actors. Or FBI agents."

It's about here where I start thinking that Joe should be the best man at my future wedding. I mean, I really can't explain the rush you get when a Vietnamese person assumes you are an FBI agent, but I have to imagine it's akin to the way George Clooney feels every time he looks in the mirror.

My excitement is short-lived though, because the more I chat with Joe, the more I come to understand just how out of touch he is with American life. For example, he mentions going to askmen.com for all his dating advice – and not in the sarcastic way. And after seeing the Steve Carell/Anne Hathaway film Get Smart, he assumed that everyone in America had a handgun because they "were fun." Finally, when he pointedly asks why all Americans are fat (cute!), I try to explain how in America fresh, healthy food can be more expensive than fattening, processed food. I use McDonald's as an example (of which there are none in Vietnam), and again, Joe is shocked. Somewhere down the line, Joe got it in his head that McDonald's was a very expensive restaurant, "one of the nicest in America." He pulls one of those comically overdone double takes when I tell him that it costs more money to cook a plate of rice, vegetables and fish than it does to buy a Big Mac.

This leads to a long conversation about some of the hardships Brooke and I have faced in trying to find something undisgusting to eat in Hanoi. Joe gives us a few recommendations, at which point Brooke, never afraid to ask the hard questions, acknowledges the Marmaduke in the room and pipes up with, "Do you eat dog?"

A bashful look comes across Joe's face as he answers that yes, he does eat dogs. Everyone eats dog. Remaining true to my non-judgmental attitude, I kind of just nod my head, the way you might while looking at a particularly well-trimmed hedge. Brooke, however, presses on. "But they're so cute! What do they taste like?"

"All different," Joe replies.

"We have a dog as a pet. But you wouldn't like him," Brooke says, showing Joe a picture of Puppy on her iPhone. "He's one of the little fluffy ones."

"Oh!" Joe shouts excitedly before catching himself and continuing more slowly. "Those are the most delicious kind."

And with that – Joe's confirmation that Puppy would be a hit delicacy in Vietnam – I think it's safe to say the final gauzy layer of the cross-cultural veil was torn down. You win, Vietnam. You're fucking crazy. Hand jobs, mixed meat, Buffalo Joe and his John Grisham fantasies – I don't get it, and I probably won't before we leave for Cambodia in three days. But you know what? I want to make this work. So I'm just going to accept you for who you are, common ground be damned.

We arrive at the dock in Halong Bay and Joe walks us out onto the pier. There are about a hundred boats – in Vietnamese they're called "junk" (giggle) – all docked at odd angles. Joe says, "Choose." Fuck yeah, 3.2 million dong (GIGGLE)! That's more like it. Brooke and I choose our junk (GIGGLE) and climb aboard.

Halong junk

Halong junk 1

Halong junk 2

For the next five hours, we have the entire boat to ourselves. Brooke and I have a few beers, and before you know it the two of us and Joe are like old friends. We're laughing, swapping stories about communism and Mad Men, and having a grand old time. When the boat moors at one of the limestone islands so we can go explore a cave, Joe makes an entirely too loud comment about the attractiveness of two late-teen blond girls there with their father. We all laugh – except the father. No matter, we're having a blast. For the first time, Brooke and I can honestly say that unlike most soldiers in the 70's, we are having a terrific time in Vietnam.

Note to hidden charm: You've been Westernized™.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

That Time I Was In Asia: Massage in the First Degree

In the few short, hot hours we had been there, Hanoi had managed to effectively put us in our place as Westerners far, far from home. Fine. I'm no ethnocentrist. There's no better or worse – just different. Granted their different is objectively more nauseating than the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, but still – no judgments here.

So instead of retreating to our hotel, we decide to shake off the E. coli from lunch and walk down a block to a massage parlor that our taxi driver had pointed out to us on our drive in from the airport. (Wow, I never realized how seedy that was until I wrote it out.)

We walk in the front door and are met by three exuberant Vietnamese women dressed in brightly colored uniforms. We say massage. They say massage. It's pretty clear we're there for massages. We're led through a curtain, up a set of stairs, and into separate rooms.

The set-up is less what you might expect from a spa and more like a cleaned-out storage closet. There's no towel or slippers – just a table with a comically baggy pair of cotton shorts laid out. Through some not-altogether-internationally-recognized hand gestures, it is agreed that I will take off all my clothes, put on the skorts, and lay facedown on the table.

My escort leaves the room. Suddenly, I catch a whiff of excitement (which looking back may have also been terror or food poisoning). I'm getting a massage in Vietnam. It's all gone by so quickly that I've hardly had the time to digest that I am halfway around the world. This wanderlust, combined with severe jet lag and the perpetual state of confusion caused by not understanding a word of what is being said around you, is my only excuse for the piss poor judgment Brooke and I have shown thus far – including our choice of massage parlors.

The masseuse comes in and, with a swiftness that can only be described as catlike, jumps up on the table and sits on the back of my thighs. Then she cracks her knuckles and starts hitting me. Hard. Initially I'm concerned – not unusual when someone smacks you as hard as they can. But since she's doing it with her hands formed into some kind of dual-fisted karate chop, and the blows are producing this unique hollow cupping noise, I assume she must be using an ancient Vietnamese technique designed to release my chakra. (This traditional massage beating would prove to be a common occurrence, leading to the creation of our second vacation game, "Crime or Cultural Norm.")

It goes on like this for a while, her hitting various parts of my body; me resisting the urge to defend myself. Things almost boil over when she is massaging the back of my legs and, as she runs her hand up my skorts (without the least hint of modesty) half her hand swipes clear up my unclenched butt crack. I lift my head off the table with a start but quickly compose myself. Be cool, Dan! Be traditional!

Finally she tells me to roll over and, while straddling my shins, starts tickling my kneecaps. Now I admit, in hindsight this is where I should have known that something was wrong.* But at the time all I could think was "Who am I to question the ancient art of Far East massage? Maybe all those Western massages I've gotten are just pale imitations, like a shot of Starbucks espresso compared to a café in Florence. You know, you can't go off to the other side of the world with a closed mind and expect to come away with a broader perspective, educated worldview, or any of the things you were hoping to find when you planned this trip in the first place. That would be the height of ignorance."

Unfortunately, by the time I'm done thinking all this the masseuse is unabashedly cupping my balls. "That's not very traditional," I think as she continues coming on with the aggressiveness of a summer camp counselor. As she reaches over for the bottle of massage oil while leaving one hand firmly ensconced on my genitals, I sit up and start saying "No" in as many internationally recognized ways possible. A wave of confusion comes over her, and if facial expressions could be translated into words, I'm pretty sure our conversation would have gone something like:

Her: "Are you sure you don't want me to jerk you off? I believe in America they call it a "happy ending," and it is quite popular, especially as a humorous nod towards perceived Asian customs."

Me: "While you seem like a very nice girl with a surprisingly strong grip, my girlfriend is right next door and she frowns upon other women fondling me, whether paid for or not."

After a longer amount of time than it should take for someone to remove their hand from underneath your baggy cotton shorts, she climbs off the table and leaves the room. I get dressed, find Brooke sitting in a bizarre waiting room with two Vietnamese women staring at her, and say, "Let's go."

We silently put our shoes back on, pay, and hurry outside. I am the first to speak.

Me: "We need to regroup."
Brooke: "Definitely."

(Pause)

Brooke: (hesitantly) "Did she hit you?"
Me: "Hard. And she touched my privates."
Brooke: "She just kept whacking my head like she was mad at me."
Me: "At least it only cost $11."
Brooke: "True. You can't put a price tag on being beaten and molested."

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* Brooke would later modify this experience into the educational game "Massage or Molestation" where she would touch a part of my body and I would have to determine whether it was the good kind of massage or the bad kind. Either I have a ton of erogenous zones, or this game was tougher than it sounds.

Monday, October 12, 2009

That Time I Was In Asia: Lunch in Hanoi

Vietnam homes

There I am, sitting on the floor at LAX next to some pay phones, positioning myself near one of the few available electrical outlets. Our connecting flight to Taiwan doesn't leave for a few hours, so I'm recharging my laptop, which contains the entire second season of True Blood (don't ask).

As I'm sitting there preparing myself for the thirteen hour flight ahead, an Asian-American girl sidles up next to me, opens her backpack, and proceeds to empty out about five large bottles of vitamins and supplements and a scotch tape dispenser. She waits a beat, and then asks me if I would watch the items for her while she takes care of something. I agree and scoot a little closer to the pile in a gesture meant to bolster her confidence that I could effectively guard her supplements. Then she leaves.

airport supplements

After about ten minutes I start to wonder if she is coming back. Then I wonder what I would do if someone actually tried to take a bottle. I mean, supplements are popular, and not exactly cheap. What would I say? Would I take a punch for these supplements? I ran through all sorts of scenarios in my mind: someone bigger than me eyes them suspiciously, and without saying a word I get up and walk away; an attractive woman compliments my supplements and I give them to her as a gift; a skateboarding punk comes whooshing by and tries to swipe a bottle, but I tackle him in time and when the Asian-American girl comes back she gives me a $500 reward.

Just as my imagination has moved on to the thought that maybe the supplements are in fact a bomb, the girl comes back. She thanks me profusely, and we have a chat in broken-though-respectable English about destinations and such. Then Brooke texts me that I'm needed at the ticket counter, so I say my goodbyes and run off.

I didn't realize it then, but that would be the most English I would hear from someone other than Brooke for the next five days.
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When people say off-handedly "everyone" in Vietnam speaks English, they mean everyone understands the word "water" or "toilet"(though not “bathroom,” which resulted in a curious incident for Brooke that she will recount at a later date). They do not mean that everyone understands things like "What am I eating?" or "Why are you hitting me?" – phrases that over the course of our stay would prove to be infinitely more useful. Which is kind of ironic, because when Brooke and I planned this trip we said the whole reason we were going to Southeast Asia was because we wanted to feel totally out of our element, to experience life differently. In retrospect (i.e. after peeing in a hole in the floor a few times and, if you're Brooke, hiding the used toilet paper behind a bucket of water because you don't know what to do with it) it's funny how innocent the intentions sound.

Vietnam toilet

Still, we wanted the real deal. We didn't want to be the losers who land in New York City and eat dinner at Planet Hollywood. We wanted to dig our hands deep into the soil that is the Vietnamese culture and then wipe them on the seat of our pants. And just like that last sentence, we were really stupid.
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We arrive in Hanoi, drop our bags in the hotel room, shower, and decide to go right out for lunch. We ask someone in the hotel lobby if there is a good place to eat nearby. He says something about water and points left, but that is the extent of it, setting a precedent for the trip: No matter how you say the word "restaurant", it won’t translate into Vietnamese. In Spanish it's "restaurante"; Italian "ristorante"; in French there's the verb "restaurer". In Vietnamese it's "danh từ." And don't think you can pronounce it, because you can't.

Taking the non-verbal cue, we head left outside the hotel. And lo and behold, up ahead there is a lake! But the road splits around the east and west bank of the lake. We stand there confused. Sensing our confusion, a kindly old woman sitting outside a shop shouts something at us and then points down the street to the left. "Amazing!" I think. "She knows we're looking for a place to eat and is pointing us in the right direction." We say thank you and go off down the street. (If this logic seems erroneous to you, two points!)

It's not exactly an ugly street. Maybe by my bourgeoisie Western standards it would be more aptly categorized as a lane than a street. And the shops would be bodegas. And the restaurants would be holes-in-the-wall. But damn it we're in Vietnam, so we're doing it Vietnam style.

We continue down the street, slowly casing each eatery. Since the annual climate change in Vietnam ranges from hot to unbearably hot, and air conditioning is something of a luxury, most small stores have no front door. Instead the entire front of the shop is open to the street. Which is how Brooke and I found ourselves uncomfortably standing in the middle of what looked like a cute café with a family eating lunch, but turned out to be someone's cute living room with a family eating lunch. (We would later turn it into the popular Vietnamese street game "Living Room or Restaurant.")

Rattled but not discouraged, we exit the nice people's home and see a bunch of happy-looking people sitting outside on a grassy strip on the bank of a scenic lake. They're all eating and drinking beer and there seems to be too many of them to belong to the same family, so we assume we've found our place.

gross Vietnam soup

The décor is minimalist: small tables set up on the grass with mats for diners to sit on. Some teenagers are sitting in the street on miniature plastic chairs (ubiquitous throughout Hanoi). We follow suit, and a young boy – who may or may not work at the restaurant – brings us a menu. It is entirely in Vietnamese except for the first three items, which are described as "chicken," "fish," or "mixed meat." Our confusion must be evident because the boy jumps in and points to "mixed meat." Brooke seems skeptical, but in the spirit of authenticity I take the waiter/street boy's recommendation and order one mixed meat. Brooke orders two beers (she is fluent in “beer” in 27 languages).

Vietnam soup

A few minutes later, the boy comes back with a big metal pot, portable gas burner, a bowl of dry ingredients (noodles, leaves, spices, etc.), and our beer. The pot is full of some sort of liquid. He turns on the portable gas burner, and leaves. We are actually kind of excited – apparently we ordered soup, and it was going to be prepared right in front of us. How traditional!

Our excitement quickly wanes when the boy returns. In one hand he is holding condiments; in the other, a large plate of various types of raw meat and fish, all cut up and divvied into distinct piles. He puts it on the table, and Brooke and I look at each other with an incredulous gaze that says, "Authentic?" Before I can decipher what exactly is on the plate (I successfully identify squid and clams), Brooke begins the age-old soup dance: Make eye contact with one of the teenagers, pick up a plate, nod. If you get a return nod, proceed. If you get a giggle, stop. This goes on until the waiter/street boy motions for us to put the meat in the soup, which, in turn, begins the age-old "But how do you know when the meat is done?" dance.

Vietnam meat

You know when you went to Colonial Williamsburg when you were a kid and there was a woman dressed in an old-timey costume whose job it was to churn butter? And the eight-year-old version of you looked on in horror in learning that this was where butter comes from? But then when she was done, she took a sample, spread it on crackers, and since everyone else was trying it you had to try it too, but when you did you were pleasantly surprised at how delicious it was? That's exactly what didn't happen here.

I let the pot boil. Brooke takes the opportunity to second guess my choice of mixed meat. Finally the street boy comes over and motions for us to put some of the soup into our bowls. By now, we have drawn a crowd of kids delighted by the sight of Westerners who don't know how to cook their own soup. With so many people watching now, Brooke and I feel compelled to try it. In an effort to avoid the meat portion of things, Brooke reaches for the dry ingredients bowl, but the boy seems to think that this is a crazy thing to do – as though the noodles were just for decoration and Brooke was attempting to eat the table's center piece.

Luckily we are starving (and authentic!) so we start in. "Do you know what this one is?" Brooke asks, holding up a piece of white meat. "Not sure. How about this one?" holding up something round and gray. At one point I swallow a fish bone and think, "At least I know that was fish."

It goes on like this for a few minutes, us eating mostly in stunned silence, before Brooke looks up at me and probingly says, "This is really authentic."

"Very," I respond. "One might even say it's too authentic."

"Yes," Brooke agrees. "This is the deep end of the authenticity pool."

Vietnam bad food

Even at this point we're thinking that perhaps we should stick it out a little longer. When in Vietnam . . . But then Brooke turns my attention to a woman behind me. I look over my shoulder and see her sitting on one of those little plastic chairs, transferring what seems to be animal entrails from one bucket to another. I do a double take, thinking perhaps I am exhausted and had watched too much True Blood on the plane, and if I just shake my head from side to side I would instead see a woman petting a doe-eyed golden retriever.

No such luck. And with that scene, Brooke and I simultaneously come to our senses. We really look around. The décor isn't minimalist, it's trashy. The lake isn't scenic, it's polluted. The people aren't happy, they are barefoot and drunk. In our quest for authenticity, we had stumbled into the most authentic thing of all: the shitty part of town.

Vietnam West Lake

We ask for the check, which is met with some confusion because there's so much mixed meat left to finish. But we insist, pay 200,000 dong (about $10), and leave feeling worse for wear. Like Icarus, we flew too close to the authenticity sun and burned our stomach linings. Hanoi: 1, Us: 0.
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If anything good came of that meal, it's that we took away a valuable lesson (or as Brooke says, "It's imprinted on my brain like a dead bug on a windshield"). Sometimes it's okay to be touristy.

And with that we decided to treat ourselves to something very touristy – massages. But even as we washed our hands of the genuine Vietnamese soil, little did we know things were about to get much, much dirtier.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Back in the U.S.S.R.A.

Here's something they don't tell you on CNN – Asia is nuts. Mind-boggling. And not in a good or bad way, but in a uniquely ambiguous way, where one day you find yourself saying, "This is insane," but even you don't know if you're referring to the three live pigs strapped to the back of a scooter or the 15-cent beer you're drinking while watching it drive by.

So how was it? Well I saw things I'll never be able to unsee, ate things I'll never be able to uneat, pooped in places one should never have to poop in, and was (pulling cardigan tight across my chest) taken advantage of by more masseuses than I care to count. And it was awesome, and there's stories behind it all.

Unfortunately I can't tell you any of those stories right now because I am literally falling asleep at my desk. I mean, I knew going in there was an 11 hour time difference, but apparently I had no concept of what that means. Honestly I still don't. All I know is that somehow through the magic of time zones and jet engines, I left Thailand Monday morning and landed in Los Angeles on Monday morning. I almost cried trying to wrap my head around it before Brooke just pat me on the head and said, "Does Dan need a hamburger?" and I let it go.

So yeah, we'll hold off on the stories for now. Oh, and as for the devastating natural disasters terrorizing Southeast Asia that so many one of you posted concerned comments about, thankfully Brooke and I managed to avoid the worst of it. In fact, having no internet or TV, we had no idea what was going on until we got to Thailand with five days left in the trip. We had just checked into this great oceanfront resort on an island called Ko Samui, and when we went to the room to drop our bags off there on the coffee table was a newspaper.

Before I could finish saying "Holy crap" the phone rings. Brooke and I look at each other inquisitively. I pick up.

Me: "Hello?"
Mom: "What is wrong with you?! Why haven't you called? There's a frickin' typhoon you know!"
Me: (imaging my mother on her cell phone being pulled in a rickshaw on her way to find me) "This is weird."

I have no idea how she tracked us down, and I didn't bother asking. But I learned a valuable lesson that day: No matter how different Asia may be, there's some things (like a mother's loveable insanity) that always remain the same.