Foreign Celebrity Syndrome

In Culture, Vietnam by Nick4 Comments

Do you ever feel jealous of celebrities?

As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, if Channing Tatum and I both walked into a Taco Bell at dinnertime, only one of us is getting requests for autographs on the cashier’s forehead.

Luckily there’s an easier way to build a following than hitting the genetic lottery or “leaking” a sex tape.

If you’ve been disappointed by the lack of crowds forming whenever you step outside, I’ve got great news for you. You can become an overnight sensation just by hoofing it to a foreign country.

It’s true—the age of stumbling upon a lost civilization and becoming their god is long gone. But we can come pretty damn close.

The thing is, as a visitor to another country…you don’t really have a say in your celebrity status. It’s a product of all the tourists who came before you (or DIDN’T), good and bad.

Vietnamese people are almost all curious about outsiders.

They’re respectful enough to (usually) not pester you, but it’s easy enough to get them talking.

Earlier today I stopped by my favorite smoothie cart for my second cup of the day. But first, I had to tell my favorite/only joke I know in Vietnamese. And you can only use it when ordering smoothies. OK, it’s a pretty situational joke.

Bit of a tangent, but Vietnamese humor is way different than you’re probably used to. Sarcasm is NOT understood or really considered funny. Everything is more literal, and puns are common.

Anyway, I walked up to the owner—giddy like a kid who just learned a new curse word at school and isn’t really sure what it means.

“Cho em sinh tố thanh long, không hạt” (Give me a dragon fruit smoothie, no seeds.)

It almost looks like ice cream

Hint: those are seeds, not ants or mouse shit

“We don’t have dragon fruit” was her initial reaction. The look on her face was one of concern for my utter blindness and lack of Vietnamese language skills.

Then the light bulb lit up. Was this silly foreigner making a joke? Now, that’s something I can get behind! She laughed and put her hands on her hips. I’m such a rascal.

At that point one of my friends randomly rode up to the curb. The guy lives almost an hour away on the other side of the city, but he’d been right across the street taking pictures in the office next to my house.

Well, that’s all it takes, folks. The other smoothie customers were standing up to see what all the commotion was about. How is this guy talking to people without pointing and grunting? They leaned in, hovering over Madame Dragon Fruit.

A young couple pulled up behind my friend to order coffee. I could feel their eyes boring into my soul as they waited, mouths slightly agape. I wanted them to think I was Bono or Tupac.

Right after my friend drove off, an old, toothless man who before was forced to watch from the sidelines hobbled up to me and reached out his hand. At first I thought he was begging for money, but right away he started firing off my favorite questions. It’s almost like I have a personal assistant handing out my talking points to every stranger I bump into.

“OK, you can ask him about his nationality, age, favorite food, where he lives…he’s really good at food, but not much else. Don’t make any sudden movements! He scares easily.”

I can do this all day.

“Where are you from?”


“How old are you?”

“Hai mươi bốn.”

It’s OK for you to clap now.

The old man decided to up the difficulty. The next round of questions was in Vietnamese.

Tricky bastard! I shook my hand and made a few incoherent noises. I was waving my white flag, but he wasn’t having any of that sass.

At this point we had been walking side-by-side for half a block, but now he grabbed my arm and kept plugging away at his interview questions. This was perfectly natural—me, drinking my smoothie, escorting an octogenarian across the street on his way to god-knows-where. I was still expecting to be robbed at this point, so I kept my free hand on my wallet (which really just signals “HEY! All of my money is in this pocket!”).

Well, karma decided to make me look like an asshole yet again. Gramps just wanted some company, so we parted ways after playing Frogger with half a dozen buses and roughly 17 million motorcycles. That was probably some high-ranking politician’s grandfather, and I just blew it.

Sure, you’re not really a celebrity. What I mean is that you’re an exciting curiosity.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. Ride your motorcycle down any alley right after the elementary schools let out, and watch the hordes of children chase after you.


Might as well be paparazzi, right? They ask easier questions, anyway.

And don’t worry—no one is going to accuse you of being the Pied Piper.

I remember when I started bringing my exercise notebook to the gym with me. You’d think I was lifting weights wearing nothing but cowboy boots, the way people were looking at me.

Of course I was the only dude who brought a freaking book to the gym. Good luck making gains if you’re reading, bro!

About a week went by, and finally someone had the balls to come up to me and ask who the hell I thought I was and what I was doing. Or rather, he got his friend to do it.

“Hello! My friend wants to know what you are writing here.”

“Oh, well…I write down the weight I’m doing, how many times, which exercise. So I don’t forget.”

He seemed satisfied with the answer, and told his silent compatriot in Vietnamese. Then he came back for more.

“He wants to know why you don’t write at home. He says it will save time.”

I didn’t really have an answer to that; plus I now had an audience. I had broken my vow of silence. Now people knew I wasn’t mute, and to this day I receive endless questions about my book of secrets.

As a westerner, sometimes it’s difficult to wrap your head around. It’s polite to ask how someone’s day was. But you expect the answer to be “fine.” Anything other than “fine” is messy. It takes effort and empathy to respond.

“Hello sir, welcome to my humble smoothie shop. How was your day?”

“Oh, terrible! I just got laid off, my dog ran away and my girlfriend left me—but not before she carved her name into the side of my pretty little souped up 4WD! Carved her name into my goddamned leather seats!”


That’s our culture. It works for us, but that’s not the reaction you’ll get here.

If you decide to visit Vietnam, everything will be brand new and exotic. But you’re pretty damn exotic, too.

I’m curious how you feel about conversations with people from different cultures. Did you find them to be more open, or less? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. Beth q

    You rascal (hands on hips). Makes me want to learn another language.

    1. Author

      I know how to order food and count, but that’s about it. Vietnamese is really hard. I’m going to do a post on essential daily Vietnamese in the future. Would that be something you’d be interested in?

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