I am Not An Ugly American, Right? Right?
In Vietnam about ten years ago, I did a terrible thing. I think I have a good excuse for my disgraceful behavior but I’m not sure.
It began in Ho Chi Minh City when I was checking out of my hotel and the desk clerk tried to con me into paying a hefty extra charge for using the air conditioner in my room. I rebelled and after some rambunctious arguing, she backed down.
To her, I was probably easy prey—a gullible American, and a senior, too —but traveling solo in Asia for weeks had taught me a lot about scams. I escaped some. Fell for others. Was often flagrantly overcharged.
So this was the umpteenth time I was being bamboozled and I was fed up. This last attempt especially propelled me into a rage. I resolved never to be ripped off again.
Thirty minutes later, I was still fuming when I boarded an ancient bus heading to Da Lat. The anger was still with me hours later when the driver pulled into a rest area where hawkers were touting drinks, food, and touristy gewgaws at jacked-up prices. All I wanted was a loo. This was easy. A large TOILET sign with an arrow pointed to a primitive outhouse.
Even after I exited the loo, my mood hadn’t improved. Indeed, it instantly got nastier when a scrawny Vietnamese boy, about eight, began pestering me to pay for the toilet.
His demand startled me. There was no sign anywhere stating there was a charge for using it. Here we go again, I thought. I’m a tourist, a patsy. Sure it was a modest sum, but that was not the point. “Toilet. Ten cents. Pay me.”
Still clutching my bag of resentments, I refused to give in and shouted “No!” several times but now the pesky kid was stalking me like a blood-starved mosquito.
The closer I got to the bus, the louder he yelled. Again, I bellowed “No!” and he stopped hollering, but only because – oh my god – he was starting to cry.
Thankfully, I came to my senses and took a closer look at my tormentor. Without a doubt, he was bedraggled, poor. Scam? No scam? Real tears? Crocodiles? It no longer mattered.
He quieted when I dropped the coins into his grimy palm, clutching them tightly. Then, when his sobbing ended, mine almost started as I realized how shabbily I had been treating him.
What a shameful addition to my daily log: Today, I left Ho Chi Minh City, traveled to Da Lat, tormented a young boy.
Eventually, once on board, I calmed down but soon a thought wormed its way into my brain and left me feeling worse. Why didn’t I give him more? Something extra would have made his day and mine. Instead, I returned home with a vivid memory of a howling Vietnamese kid with a moon-shaped face and skin the color of café au lait that haunts me to this day.