I proudly remember how for the first 2 years of high school I was considered quite tall and got to stand for the annual class photo. From the 3rd year onwards however I was eclipsed as puberty prevailed in others. From then on I sat in the front row, demurely folding my hands in my lap. Not that I am short – I am 167cm tall – which by western standards makes me an average height. I would also describe my build as average – you will have to take my word for it as I have no intention of publically disclosing any vital statistics! So I pretty much blend into the crowd. But in Vietnam I am tall. In Vietnam I would go so far as to say I am Amazonian. In Vietnam I am exotic.

This week I have been contemplating what it’s like to be - what I romantically like to call - exotic. I have yet to reach the stage where I do not notice that people outright stare and heads turn as I walk by. I do not live or work in the tourist centre or in a heavily expat populated area and have yet to encounter another westerner as I walk my home and office neighbourhoods. The reactions of the children particularly delight me as they look in awe. The more confident ones wave and shout “hello” and when I respond back with a “hello” and a wave they squeal with delighted laugher. The shier ones stare with quiet concentration as they peak out from behind their parents’ legs.  Even though I am an obvious object of attention, I have never once felt remotely scared as the attention is either of a curious ( what is she doing here? is she lost? ) or delighted ( how wonderful! a westerner is here! ) nature.    

Even simple things like demonstrating proficiency with chopsticks are an act of diplomatic wonder. I try to tell them that Australians eat a lot of Asian food and we all have basic chopstick skills, but still they are enchanted. My name also scores brownie points, as ‘Xan’ and ‘Thi’ are not uncommon Vietnamese syllables. In fact Thi is a very common middle name, so when people see my name written out they exclaim “your name Vietnamese”. I quite like the way it is pronounced ( “Suntee” ) and have no problems responding when that name is used.

The reactions that humble me most are when I go to the villages to visit the Kiva clients. There a westerner is definitely exotic! Word spreads as I attend a community meeting or go to a client’s home and from nowhere an army of children appear and a choir of “hello, hello, hello” reverberates.  The SEDA staff introduce me and I am automatically given VIP status – the best chair is dusted off, fans are brought out turned on and pointed in my direction, cups of tea are thrust into my hands and refilled the split-second they are empty. The first few times I tried to tell them to please ignore me and not make a fuss, but that provoked even more fuss, so now I have learnt to graciously accept and thank my hosts for their hospitality. I think that throughout the entire length of my stay, the pride, hospitality and industriousness of our clients will continue to humble and inspire me.         

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