Oh Asia, How You’ve Changed

by Caitlin
Woman in crowd


My mom’s very favorite expression is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It means, the more things change the more they stay the same.

I’m sitting in the Mandalay airport in a little café where I’ve ordered a quiche loraine waiting for my Air Asia flight.

I was last in this part of the world, South East Asia, in early 2016. I lived here, but in Vietnam, from 2013 to 2014. I’ve never been to Myanmar before. But it’s familiar.

I just popped into a souvenir shop to see if I can divulge of my final Kyats before boarding my flight to Thailand. The shopkeeper stalked me around the shop. Like, I could feel her breath on my neck stalked me. If you’ve ever been to South East Asia, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, when you go, it can be a fun game, see how fast you can get them moving, see if you can get them to run into you when you stop abruptly. It’s their form of customer service. Being, quite literally, right there should you have any questions. It’s invasive to us. It hasn’t changed a bit.

When I walked into this café, in the background as I repeatedly attempted to log onto the Wi-Fi with a password that I was given several times in different forms, none of which worked, was ‘My Heart Will Go On.’ Short of watching the Titanic, because nostalgia, when was the last time you heard that Celine Dion song? It played through, then there was a pause before it repeated itself, in part, stopped mid-way, paused, and repeated again. Classic Asia.

But, plastered on the windows I’m staring out to watch my gate for the start of boarding, are ‘we accept Visa’ and ‘we accept MasterCard’ stickers. Back five years ago, or even three years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt of even asking. Why bother, the answer would have been ‘no, no credit cards.’ This was a cash based society. I wasn’t racking up points and applying for credit cards left and right back then.

Young Caitlin

On top of all the credit cards, everyone has smart phones. Everyone. Not just foreigners. And data. I used to thrive with my Nokia brick. I’d drop it, it’d split into three pieces; front, back, battery, I’d retrieve the pieces from the dusty, dirty ground, squeeze and pop them back together, press the red phone button to power the thing back on, and I’d continue sms-ing. One text charge at a time. I’d pop into circle K’s to top up and I’d put all the info I needed to send into one text because, more texts, more charges. Data? Smart phones? I did Wi-Fi on computers and text and call on rock-esque cell phones.

I’m on my way back to Vietnam, eventually. I’ve been missing it for some time. Maybe even since the day I left. But I’m nervous. How will it have changed? Will I recognize the place that used to be my home?

Back to my mom, who said to me when I said this to her, ‘you could say the same about NYC, it’s always changing.’ No, it’s different I’m sure. New York is clear on its identity. Your local restaurant might disappear one day to be replaced by something else. But you’ll always recognize the city. I’m nervous about my city though. Ho Chi Minh, will I still know you?

But then again, my city might look at me and say, ‘Oh Caitlin, how you’ve changed.’

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