The Discomfort Zone

4 min read

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I am a curiosity here; an oddity for sure – a rare bird, a wild animal, the most foreign of foreigners. People stop and stare and tap their friends and their children so that they too can get a look at the apparition. I have not brought my most powerful self here. Or have I? My soul reminds me that I am always exactly where I am supposed to be and have never not been and that it is in these discomfort zones that we gain the most insight in the purest of the definition of the word.

One of my defense mechanisms is here. She is new to me in ways but in other ways very familiar. She is new in the way that I am now only seeing for the first time that she exists. She is a part of me for sure and I am her but she is not my essential being. She is no more me than the clothes I wear or than the armor I choose except she acts unconsciously. I love her and am grateful to her without being fully aware of all that she has done for me because I know that she would not have persevered this long without being a great contributor to my survival. I don’t know yet what she requires or desires but have no doubt that she will reveal herself to me soon.

She does not smile naturally. Perhaps she is insecure about her smile. Perhaps she is insecure about everything. I rise to the occasion in spite of her. Smiling at the gawkers until my smile forces them out of their stupors and they smile back. Perhaps they are surprised that “it” (me) is interactive so their smiles also do not come easily. I think that my shock of natural hair with its now orange highlights from the sun and sea do not help my cause. I realize that conformity is key in a communist country and I, without them even having the benefit of knowledge of my ideals and philosophies, am as non-conformist as anything they’ve ever seen.

I wonder if it is fear that they are experiencing. Perhaps because of movies and TV shows where people of color are often portrayed as criminals. I am relieved if it is fear and am bemused by the thought of people in an “emerging market” country with far less than the least of the citizens in my country thinking that I should want and/or attempt to take from them. It is not fear though as they do not automatically grip their handbags or wallets at the sight of me. I mindfully observe that entire line of thinking and quickly make peace with the conditioning that had me think any of this in the first place. In the peace I ultimately surmise that the Vietnamese reaction to my presence is borne simply of sheer logistical novelty; they have either never seen or rarely see the likes of me in their midst.

I am reticent when the few who dare to speak to me ask me where I am from. Seems my American Shame is alive and well and here in a country that we once destroyed, it is with good reason. I think of President Obama’s visit a few weeks prior. While he may have endured the looks, he probably chalked it up to being the President. Would he chuckle to know that he would have received a similar reception if he was not the Leader of the Free World and just a man of color?

I am in a fishbowl not unlike the one that I have been in for my entire life. As always, I am on my best behavior. Having recently clocked and checked my 16-year old rebellious, alcoholic self, “we” are as saintly as they come these days. Funny to have worked so hard to shed the burden of representation of an entire family, a gender, a nationality and a race to then have it all come flooding back in a mere couple of days which I suppose only confirms that none of it was ever actually shed. Or perhaps more accurately, it is the current defense mechanism who is still unsatisfied that carries those burdens so here they all are front and center for another chance at reckoning.

I am literally dizzied by the voluminous traffic whirring by in opposite directions at a speed that seems to be far too fast for this city street. A boy of about seven or eight on the back of a motor bike that his mother is driving points me out to his sister who sits behind him. A toothless elderly lady on the back of another motorbike looks at me and laughs with a gaping black smile while speaking into the ear of another elderly lady who drives the bike who, thankfully, has the good sense not to divert her eyes from the extremely busy road to have a gander at the unicorn sitting at the roadside coffee shop.

The heat is oppressive in a way that is surely distinctive to Southeast Asia. The pollution adds to the weight of the air here. There is a breeze so I’m not entirely stifled – yet. The sun, gratefully, only seems to shine in the early morning when it is rising and before the morning rush hour has had the opportunity to create its daily ascendant haze. It is a bittersweet blessing to be protected from the scorch and burn of the equatorial sun by a layer of smog.

I have come to love the discomfort zone…far more than the comfort zone. Is there a word for it when one finds pleasure in discomfort? Can it really be called masochism if the pleasure is not sexual in nature? I bet the Germans have a word for it. “Schadenfreude” is what they call deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune or failure. What if the failure is emotional and one’s own?

I writhe in pain in one moment and celebrate the awareness of it in the next. My somewhat detached stance means that the ups and downs of the proverbial emotional roller coaster here are experienced as sweet, validating dichotomies of the universe and nothing more. I am traveling with a beautiful man that I love who, also in his discomfort zone, is exposing his defense mechanisms. His other selves have the potential of baiting and triggering mine however safe in the knowledge that we are on a parallel journey of self-discovery means that the introduction to his emotional bodyguard serves only to bring me a more intimate knowledge of my own and a newfound patience for both.

While I am experiencing the cultural exchange in the form of social pleasantries between the Vietnamese and all of my selves as less than pleasant and one of trepid tolerance, the food without a doubt speaks to and soothes my soul. The warmth that I seek, perceive as non-existent and its apparent lack thereof that I insist upon constantly contrasting, both subconsciously and consciously to my Thai experience, is delivered consistently in the form of transcendent bowls of pho.

What is it that I taste? Is it love? Is it suffering? Is it grief? Is it joy? It is perhaps all of the above: salty, sweet, spicy, aromatic, hot and cold all at the same time. Herbs, meat and fish so fresh they taste like they were just picked, slaughtered or caught that day juxtaposed against broths with such depth of flavor that they taste like they have been simmering since the beginning of time. Such intensity of flavors in a broth would be overwhelming on its own so they add rice vermicelli whose whiteness, both in color and lack of flavor, creates the most perfect balance on my palate.

My taste buds and heart feel the love that my eyes and protective child selves cannot. I am once again reassured that I am always exactly where I am supposed to be and that I can be happy anywhere. And a newer realization gains additional merit for once again it seems that I am actually happiest in my discomfort zone.


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  • Reply
    Michael Scott Novilla
    January 15, 2021 at 6:31 pm

    So beautifully written! Bravo.

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