That time a white backpacker at a Da Nang hostel told me he was going to write a ‘part On the Road, part TripAdvisor’ book on Japan

Karen Cheung
Oct 29, 2017 · Unlisted
The TV at the common area just plays episodes of HIMYM 24/7

In hindsight, this was almost definitely entirely my fault. I should have known better than to book a hostel called “Barney’s Backpackers”.

Not Barney, like the loveable purple dinosaur. Barney, like Neil Patrick Harris’ character in How I Met Your Mother. This entire hostel in Da Nang is filled with in-your-face HIMYM memorabilia, from photos of the characters plastered all over my locker door to yellow umbrellas on its menu. For one very stupid second, I almost had fantasies that this place was somehow expressing solidarity with my hometown’s democracy movement three years ago. But no, it was just HIMYM.

You thought I was joking didn’t you

I carried my luggage up three floors to my six-person dorm. There was a white guy, too young to be a gap yah backpacker but too old to really be backpacking, on the upper bunk of one of the beds. I say hi like the polite Asian girl I am, because based on previous experience of travelling in Southeast Asia, if I don’t take the initiative everyone would assume I’m from a native of Thailand/Vietnam/Indonesia or whatever country I had found myself in that weekend, and I would spend entire stretches of days talking to mostly no one, or with locals via Google Translate.

I’m an extrovert. I need to talk to recharge, was what I reminded myself when I opened my mouth. I forgot how much bad conversations drain me and leave me worse off.

“So where are you from?” I asked. “Japan,” he replied.

“Oh?” I said, trying very hard to tell my eyebrows to stay put. Do you speak Japanese then? I did not ask.

“Well, I lived there for ten years. I was raised in Chicago.”

“So what brings you here?”

“Man, it’s a long story. It’s a very long story. You ready? I got kicked out of the country.”

“What? How come?” Except I don’t think I really wanted to know. But I was still polite.

“I overstayed my visa for ten days. Well, two months and ten days. But they said if it had been under two months it would have been fine. Can you believe them? They uprooted my entire life because of ten days. I had a big show to play. I was supposed to be dj-ing at a big thing tonight. Tonight! But they said no, they can’t let me stay, because of ten days.” Two months and ten days, I mentally corrected him.

“Their whole culture, has this completely boxed-in mentality. They can’t think out of the box. You know, if you were in Japan, you won’t even be allowed in certain places? Onsens, beaches?” He waved a hand at my tattoos.

“I’m going to write a book about it. About my experience of living in Japan. It’s going to be a part Jack Kerouac On the Road thing, part TripAdvisor. About their boxed-in mentality.”

“Um.” I looked at the door, praying for someone, anyone, to walk through the door and save me.

“Your English is very good. You sound American, actually. Did you ever live there?”

“No, I spent my whole life in Hong Kong. But I went to an international school briefly and I have family in Singapore, so I was raised bilingual. Have you ever been to Hong Kong?”

“What?” He said.

“I said, have you been to Hong Kong?”

He grinned. He had heard me. “Sorry, just listening to the way you say ‘Hong Kong’. Your accent. Do you watch a lot of TV?”


By some miracle of god the door swung open and four girls walked in, two of them wearing the most hideous banana print shirts I have ever seen in my life. They’re from Denmark and Sweden, I later learned.

“Aren’t they great? We bought them in Hoi An today. We thought, these things look so ugly — we must get them!” they laughed.

“I don’t like Hoi An.” Mr I’m-gonna-write-a-book-about-Japan said. “It’s so touristy — not like Da Nang. You know, my grandfather fought in the war here, and he died here. So it’s a trip to pay respect to my family history, in a way. Do you know, some people in Vietnam don’t even know that there was a war? They were taught that Vietnam has always been unified. Isn’t that crazy?”

Everyone fell silent for about 30 seconds.

“Anyway, weren’t you guys at that party thing in Hoi An last night? I was on the other side of the river, and because I went there, I got to see all these things that other people didn’t see. I don’t like Hoi An. Everyone is always trying to scam you, trying to pressure you into buying things. And it’s made for tourists. It’s not like, real untouched Vietnam. Did you guys bike there?”

“No, we just took a bus. I prefer to be sleeping on a vehicle, and that doesn’t really work too well with riding a bike.”

“It’s crazy — it’s pretty much the same price. It’s so cheap to rent a bike here, and you get the freedom of going anywhere you want. I want to be in control, you know?” He said. “Anyway, that’s the real way to explore Vietnam.”

“So what else did you do today?” One of the girls asked him.

“I went to see that new Thor movie,” he said, with zero irony. “I know, the first two movies really sucked, but they really redeemed themselves with this one. It’s so good. Anyway, I’m thinking of checking out that rooftop bar later, with the view. You girls want to come along?”

He headed into the bathroom to take a shower.

“So, are you guys taking a break from work or school?” I asked the girls politely.

“I just finished my master’s, I did law. I’m trying to delay my adulthood,” one girl replied.

“That’s cool! I did law too.”

“Oh, where?”

“University of Hong Kong.”

“Oh, my school had exchange programmes to go there too. But I lived there when I was a kid, so I thought it was kinda stupid going back there.”

“You lived there! Where did you go to school?”

“Korean International School.”

“Ahh. What neighbourhood is that in?”

“I don’t remember, to be honest. It was so long ago. I lived in Stanley. We were in Hong Kong on this trip“ — she gestured at her companion — “and she wasn’t that impressed. And then I was like, let me show you my ‘hood. And it was so nice, so unlike the rest of Hong Kong.”

I escaped the room to get dinner with Ngan, a Vietnamese girl who has been living in Da Nang for the past couple of years. “You know, I’ve hosted maybe 50 couchsurfers. But I’ve stopped. I realised towards the end that all the conversations were pretty much the same. And in their couchsurfing requests they always say, ‘I can teach you English.’ I hate that.”

As I walked into the hostel after the meal, he was still loudly chatting to the Vietnamese staff there about Japan. “If you work in Japan, you can actually make enough to live somewhere else. You work in Southeast Asia, you can’t. Sure, you can live pretty comfortably there, but you can’t go anywhere else. There. I just gave y’all a free lesson.”

I went upstairs and booked myself a hotel room for the next day, far, far away from Barney’s.


Karen Cheung

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Hong Kong journalist and writer. HKU literature & law grad. Always shovelling cultural snow. Stalk my writing:

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