WHAT ART REPRESENTS FOR ME.

The first thing I remember drawing was a large smiling sun with my canary yellow crayola. I was around three and still potty training. I was so serious about it that I insisted my Mother put the potty next to my work station. My ‘art studio’ was fashioned from a large square slab of cracked marble propped up on two crumbling cinder blocks but it felt like another planet to me. My whole world. Nothing could force me to abandon the details I had planned for this drawn landscape until it was molded to my exact specifications. Not even a basic human need.

My first art studio.
My first art studio.

That was 32 years ago and I’m still just as obsessive about my work. I have only completed two or three pieces out of hundreds that meet my standards of perfection in 32 years of pursuing life as an artist.

I’ve never had extreme judgement when I admire the work of other artists. I always find something within the concept, the technique or the emotional content that inspires me to say…”Damn, I like their work.” I never expect perfection from other human beings. Never. That’s impossible. So, why do I expect it from myself? Massive Insecurity. The ego can be a harsh mistress that controls every human impulse we have. Hell, I’d still rather piss myself then leave my art when I’m on a roll.

But things have changed since I willingly left everything I’ve ever known behind me. It is the craziest thing I’ve ever done and in the wake of that impulsive decision…a strange and almost unnerving calm has slowly crept up into my ego’s domain from the softest parts of my being. For the first time, I can see myself as that 3 year old child from a 36 year old woman’s perspective. She is here with me. Always with her tiny furrowed brow; her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth in tortured concentration as she grips her crayon so tight it breaks in her small, trembling hand. She’s still trying so desperately to achieve something she can just be proud of for once. She’s never been allowed to color outside the lines. Not by anyone. Not even by me. But, flinging myself into the unknown also means I need to let her, and in turn myself, make mistakes.

And so, as I sit on a creaky motel mattress in the middle of the noisy, crowed streets of Vietnam I realize that I can be her soft place to fall. I am all she has ever had. And when it comes to the deep-rooted pain of my childhood..she is all I have. She is finally enough.

I am starting a new painting soon. An Asian landscape with a large smiling sun overlooking a rainbow colored lake. I’m gonna wing it this time:)

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Selling all my possessions and facing the unknown.

We believe that letting go of our material goods somehow means we won’t be a whole human being. But does donating or even trashing that haggard teddy bear our eighth grade boyfriend won us at a carnival really mean we are less than we were before? When I decided I needed a drastic change and began paring down my thirty-six years worth of baggage into two suitcases, a strange thing occurred. It slowly felt right to finally be free from defining myself by my possessions. I felt I was returning to a natural state of being.

Many mementos held cherished memories. Others held the worst of my life’s traumas. For so long I had to hold on to them to hold on to myself when in actuality the opposite was true. I had to let them go to find myself and that was terrifyingly freeing.

Perhaps we hold on to the past because if we didn’t who would we be? We would finally stand fully in our present power and actually have to take responsibility for how our lives turn out each moment. The scariest part? Trusting yourself with yourself. The fact is, we are not our past. The past and the future are not real. They don’t exist. All that is…is right now…and right now…and right now.

No matter where you go – there you are…and so are your insecurities.

Insecurities don’t get left behind with that couch you gave to charity before you moved or that box of cookbooks you sold at the garage sale. They’re always with you; like a terrible 70’s song stuck on repeat and drilling into your temples until you think you’ll go full werewolf if you don’t find respite from it.

No matter what their culture or background, I haven’t been to any country yet where the people weren’t desperately trying to hide their own insecurities from the rest of humanity. It is the human condition and always will be. Accept it or let it grind you to dust. It doesn’t change a thing. Others will try to make you feel small to make themselves feel bigger. We are all absolutely terrified of others seeing who we believe we really are-which is usually the worst possible view we can have of ourselves.

I am guilty of the same facade. It’s exhausting to keep myself in check in the moment and not let the reflexive display from others probe me to react. It is easier to lose my sense of self by playing the blame game. Our sarcasm, cynicism and judgements are ultimately successful in distracting others from seeing our own perceived flaws. If we’re pointing out what’s ‘wrong’ in others, it’s almost impossible for them to see what’s ‘wrong’ with us through the ruffling of their own feathers.

But the more I travel, the more I notice it happening in myself and those around me. By recognizing it more I’ve actually been able to change my automatic responses to all the Houdinis trying to trick and misdirect me away from SEEING them. The fragility of the human ego is all-consuming. A monkey on our backs doesn’t even touch the epic power of the ego. It is an alpha silver back; violently whipping broken tree branches around and bearing its teeth to prove its bigger then any self-love we may acquire. And beware when things actually go our way! Then it turns into fucking Kong Kong; beating its chest on the highest peak it can climb and roaring in our ears that we’ll never be good enough.

But sometimes…once in a while…you meet a person who, even if only for a split second, show their true self in all it’s Technicolor terror and insecurity. In that moment it’s not only incredibly refreshing but also heartbreaking beautiful. That is when I love people as I would an abandoned puppy or a dear friend, or a lover. We are all terrified of revealing our vulnerable filthy selves for other people to crush with their opinions of us. Why? Because we truly believe that we are a failure…stupid…ugly…dirty…worthless. When the truth is…we are all scared, struggling children.

To see ourselves and love ourselves as we would a dear child is the final step to being comfortable in our own skin. And, my God, can you imagine the freedom and wonderment life would hold if we simply let it happen?

When you’re feeling very small and insecure…

Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour
That’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned
A sun that is the source of all our power
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour
Of the galaxy we call the ‘milky way’
Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars
It’s a hundred thousand light years side to side
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick
But out by us, it’s just three thousand light years wide
We’re thirty thousand light years from galactic central point
We go ’round every two hundred million years
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe
The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whiz
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space
‘Cause it’s bugger all down here on Earth

-Monty Python – Galaxy Song Lyrics

HANOI, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 12

9 April – 2 May, pt. 5: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

Adrian Cronauer: Mayday! Mayday! Dragon-Lady with incredible figure at 11 o’clock! Stop the car.
Edward Garlick: I can’t do that, sir.
Adrian Cronauer: Aw, Edward, you don’t understand. I’ve been on a small Greek island with a lot of women who look like Zorba, I never thought I’d find women attractive ever again. And now that I do, you won’t even turn the car around? Thanks a lot.
Edward Garlick: You have a very important meeting with the top brass…
Adrian Cronauer: -Oh, there she is again! How did she get ahead of us?
Edward Garlick: That’s another person, sir.
Adrian Cronauer: She’s beautiful and quick. Speed up, check her stamina. Oh my God, they’re quick, they’re fast, and small. Ha, ha, ha, ha! I feel like a fox in a chicken coop!

Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam”

The People and the language of this country are, well, interesting. Let’s get started,

The People
In general terms, the people are friendly, but they have manners that could be construed by westerners, including myself because I never got used to it, as rude or even downright disgusting, especially with the men. Street peddlers can be aggressive and annoying, but some people we met were extremely generous. No one here has apparently ever heard of the term “personal space”. They love to touch you, sometimes inappropriately. They are not aware that from our perspective, there are boundaries. It seems like a blindingly obvious social rule to us, but it doesn’t exist to them! Like every member of the human race, they are judgmental, and they prefer to pass judgment on foreigners in their own language.

The Language
Make up a bunch of words that rhyme with “gong” and “home”. Now, do that while simultaneously imitating the sounds of a cat in heat. That’s what it sounds like to most Americans. We tried learning the language to a certain point, but once we realized we weren’t staying, we kind of gave it up. We found that saying “thank you”, like in Hong Kong, brought smiles to the locals, especially the woman I buy cigarettes from. We also learned to say, “no problem”, “sorry”, “hello”, and “excuse me”. I think we did pretty well most of the time, because we mostly got that smile and a bow back from people. We also found that the younger the people were, the more inclined they were to want to speak and learn English. I even taught some of the hotel staff some of our more “colorful” metaphors.

The Hotel Staff and Guests
We made a lot of friends in this hotel – some fellow guests, but mostly the staff, many of whom my wife became Facebook friends with. The guests were more hit and miss. There was a big ugly man from Austria that had a Vietnamese woman for a wife. She seemed VERY submissive, and he was just a misogynistic prick, blatantly checking out every attractive woman he saw. And he constantly complained, loudly, about what was wrong with this place. I kind of get it, but at some point, just shut up and leave! Then there was the hippie expat who now lived in Baja. He was a very nice guy, but damn, he could not stop talking! He could have you trapped in a conversation for over an hour without getting a word in edge wise!

Almost everyone on the staff was friendly, nice, and generous. The housekeeping staff were shy, but polite for the most part. One of them looked a little like a pissed off Himalayan cat, but when she’d leave after she was done with her shift, having already changed out of her uniform…damn, she had a body on her! The girls at the reception desk were all so sweet to both of us, and just beautiful. One of them could’ve EASILY been a model had she lived in America. Another one felt close enough to me to cry in front of me over a man she loved living in Malaysia, but whom her family didn’t approve of. They are both on Facebook with my wife, as is one of the doormen, who gave my wife a Buddhist beaded bracelet. He was a sweet kid (21 y.o.), as was our closest friend here. His real name is Phu, which in Vietnamese translates to “rich”, hence his Anglicized name, “Richie”. We always spoke at night, smoking, sometimes having a beer or two. If you’ve been on my wife’s Facebook page, you probably saw a video of him and me singing. She also has pictures of him with his girlfriend. Together, they are so adorable, had we had the money, we would’ve adopted them! They look cute enough to be in a commercial for the ASPCA, without the sad Sarah McLachlan song.

 

But one guy heavily contributed to us hating this place. His name is Joe, the one that greeted us when we checked in here. Picture the stereotypical snake-like brother-in-law, who works as a used car salesman. That was Joe. He was not meant to be a day manager for a hotel. This place also runs tours, and he was more concerned about that, than taking care of the issues in this dilapidated hotel. Hotel staff are supposed to be about customer service, and as someone who has worked in customer service for a long time, I know what that’s supposed to look like…and it doesn’t look like him. He likes money WAY more than he likes people. In fact, I’m not too sure if he cares about his guests at all, unless it’s somehow profitable for him to do so. If you are ever in this part of the world, stay away from this hotel!

The Men
Men here are incredibly lazy, with the exception of those previously mentioned on the hotel staff. I see tons of them, spending the entire day, sitting in front of cafes, drinking tea, coffee, or beer, and smoking with other guys, doing nothing, while their wife works, takes care of the kids, cooks and cleans. They are rude; they love blowing snot-rockets wherever it strikes them, and based on what I saw, they may have invented “man-spreading”. To the few that have jobs, I apologize for this generalization. But to the rest of them, get off your lazy fucking ass and help your wife out for a change! I will give them one thing though. Unlike America, there is NO rape culture here. In the household, and in most businesses, the woman is so in charge, I don’t think it ever crosses their male minds. They know most of their wives could take them in a fight, or belittle them to the point where they’d be rocking back and forth, curled up in the fetal position if they tried. Still they have access to all the money, whether they made it or not, because all laws here still favor the man in terms of divorce and finances. So all the women here need to do is kill their lazy-ass husbands and make it look like an accident!

The Women
Now we’ve seen women, AND men, of all shapes and sizes here. We’ve seen a few bigger girls, even a one or two that were taller than us! But if I could sum up the women here in two words it would be: stunningly beautiful. That’s not just a description of them physically, though. Yes, most of them are 5-feet, 6-inches, or shorter, slender build, but some are just slim all the way down, but most, to put it delicately, have some curves (guys, you hopefully know what I’m alluding to). But their personalities, once to talk to them for any length of time, are beautiful too. Speaking from a platonic perspective, they are sweet, soft-spoken, and very polite. And their manner of dress is stunning, more formal than our own, and meant to accentuate the female form. It is impossible not to be enchanted by them, so long as you only LOOK, if you’re married (like me). If you’re single, though, and you’re patient with them, take things slow and respectfully, and can put up with all the other crap here, in the long run, I’m sure you won’t be sorry.

Well, that brings us up to date. Tomorrow, May 2nd, we check out at noon, not a moment too soon, take a taxi to the airport, and wait for our flight at 5:30, and head to Hong Kong to spend the night in the airport, until our flight to Taiwan the following morning at 9:30. However, despite any difficulties as a result of spending a night in an airport, we’d rather spend a night in an airport in Hong Kong, than spend one more night in this Vietnamese ‘hotel’. And we’re looking very forward to going to cleaner, if not greener, pastures. I already have a lot of options to teach there, so things are looking way more promising than they were here. Still, a couple of things to keep it in perspective for you, and especially for me:
The other day, I was standing outside our hotel, having a smoke, listening to “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix. Think about that for a moment. I was listening to a song that was made at the height of the Vietnam War. Now, here I am, 45+ years after it was recorded, listening to it in what used to be the capital of North Vietnam. We have gone down the rabbit hole!


It’s been only five weeks since we left Oregon, and my wife and I have seen more countries in that time, than we have in our entire lives up to now. In just five weeks, we’ve gone from the United States, to Canada, to Hong Kong, to Vietnam, and now, to Taiwan! Wow.
On that note, thank you, Vietnam. For better or worse, we’ll never forget you.

– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston