The West in 72 hours

Asian tourists look for space, spectacles and a decent bowl of noodles.

Somewhere along Pierce Ferry Road, on a bus driving away from the Grand Canyon, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Lien started to give me a massage. An index finger on one side of my right lobe, her middle finger behind it, she began to rub, up and down, up and down, with the ferocity of a coyote digging a rodent from its den. She paused, took a tiny triangular bottle of liquid the color of dark beer from her purse whose contents smelled strongly of camphor. She removed the cap and turned it upside down on her fingertip, thrust her finger decisively into my ear canal, and twisted.

 

Nguyen, 48, lives in Ho Chi Minh City with her husband, Tran Phuoc, and their 12-year-old daughter. Lithe and sophisticated, she had abundant black hair cut in layers and luminous bisque-colored skin, which she protected devoutly with a broad green scarf. She had come to the United States to visit her sister, who lives in Los Angeles, but also to see the West: Its low points and high points, its shimmering vistas and legendary infrastructure, its neon-blighted cities and unfathomable stretches of open space. Like me, she and her husband and child were traveling on a bus operated by San Francisco-based Lassen Tours, which caters to tourists from Asia. She had been assigned a seat next to me because she was among the few in our group who could speak a little English, and our buoyant guide, a 52-year-old Hong Kong native named Raymond Tse, suspected I was lonely.

I wasn’t, though. Not really. By the end of a third day among people whose cultures, food choices, languages and political landscapes differed radically from my own, I had learned to negotiate a certain place of vulnerability and belonging. People had begun to smile at me, with the grounding relief of recognition in their eyes; they held open doors, waved me along to walk with them. Language is just one of the many ways in which humans communicate, I thought, and not always necessary.

I did, however, have a headache. We had just left the Grand Canyon’s West Rim, on Hualapai Nation land, when it hit; I had told Nguyen about only because I needed to stop talking. The dry desert air, hatless hours in the sun and the dehydration that comes with the fear of infrequent bathroom breaks had all conspired to drive an imaginary knife into my right sinus cavity. So Nguyen let me fall silent, and went about her work. Finished with my ear, she moved on to my forehead, then to my head itself, making vigorous circles with her fingertips that pulled on my every fine hair. My eyes flooded with tears.

“I learned it from a book,” Nguyen said of her massage technique. She uses it on herself and her family whenever her city’s suffocating pollution makes them sick. When she finally let up, about 50 miles from Las Vegas, I felt weak, exhausted, emotional. But the headache was gone.

Li Qiang and Peng Lan watch a recording of the endless straight highway on Li’s phone as the bus makes its way toward Death Valley.
Brooke Warren

“You need to learn to do it yourself,” Nguyen counseled. “And this, too.” She grabbed my right hand, pressed her thumb hard in the space between my thumb and forefinger. I yelped. “Do it everyday. For your headache. For the pollution.” She took my other hand, yanked it toward her, pinched hard. I was cured.

I had taken Nguyen’s ministrations as more evidence that people on this trip felt at ease with me, but in truth Nguyen was almost as much of an anomaly as I was. We were both navigating language difficulties, both eating unfamiliar food. While our bus sometimes took on a couple from New Zealand or a family from India, the vast majority of Lassen’s clientele is Mandarin-speaking Chinese.

This is a recent phenomenon: Though China has been the fastest-growing tourism market in the world for a decade or more, Chinese tourism to the U.S. didn’t really take off until 2010, when Obama’s Commerce Department launched Brand USA, a marketing effort aimed at foreign visitors. Two years later, Obama streamlined the review process for Chinese tourist visas, and the results were dramatic: In 2010, more than 800,000 visitors came to the U.S. from China, 52 percent more than the year before. In 2014, more than 2 million came, making China the fifth-largest source of foreign visitors to the U.S., behind only Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Japan.

A robust industry has grown up around them. I chose Lassen Tours for its bilingual guides; a couple of others I tried seemed to prefer Mandarin only. Hotels along tour routes deliver congee-and-dim-sum room-service breakfasts; retailers hire Mandarin-fluent staff. At tourist sights, Chinese passengers spill out of buses by the hundreds, relishing low-priced opportunities to cover a lot of ground at a breathtaking pace, without the complications of traffic or language.

I wanted to see what the West looked like to them, to experience anew the places I take for granted. I wanted to see how tourists from Asia adapt, in so little time, to a land that must seem as extraordinary as the moon.

 

Tourists walk along a salty pathway 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.
Brooke Warren

My journey had begun three days earlier, in San Jose, California, when I boarded Lassen Tours’ imposing luxury coach with a married couple from Shenzhen, China, Liu “Lili” Lei and her husband, Liu Lian Min. She was slight, prim and impeccably dressed, in black-and-pink two-toned ballet flats, a white blouse and a black-and-pink skirt. Her husband was equally trim, with salt-and-pepper hair and a handsome square jaw. A few moments earlier, when they walked up to the meeting spot in front of a restaurant in San Jose’s predominantly Asian North Valley, I had cloddishly asked, in English, whether they were waiting for the bus. Liu tittered and made fluttering gestures with her hands; I mimed a driver at a colossal steering wheel, commandeering what probably looked like a tank. “BUS?” I said again, following the American-tourist rule that if people don’t understand you, speak louder. She nodded her small head rapidly, and we laughed.

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San Jose is just one of several cities from which Lassen collects travelers; when we boarded, the bus was already full of passengers who had loaded up in San Francisco, including the photographer I’d be working with, Brooke Warren. Lassen operates a daily web of intersecting routes originating on the West Coast and winding throughout the West. Some veer off to Disneyland; some go to Los Angeles, still others, in the summer, head north to Yosemite. Gams of tour buses form in fast-food parking lots to take on new passengers and let go of others. Tse ushered them on and off as if he were guiding ducklings across busy streets.

“If you go to Las Vegas, you are going to stay on my bus,” Tse said, articulating his words as if English were a tonal language, like Mandarin. “If you are going to L.A., then in the half day, about lunchtime, you will be on your bus. To L.A. OK?”

Tse, who came to San Francisco 30 years ago, wore smart sunglasses and a long-sleeved striped shirt over jeans, his short black hair combed neatly back. He entertained in two languages, Mandarin and English, although the latter had but a tiny audience: A family of three from India, Warren, and me. Nguyen’s family and a hip-looking couple from South Korea, Park Young-Gu, 40, and his wife, Zo Sun-Hwa, 39, understood Tse’s English little better than his Mandarin.

That never stopped Tse from ribbing Park and Zo, almost constantly, with stereotypes that would make a sensitive American blanch. “Kimchi! Hyundai! Samsung!” he would shout at them, explaining how Koreans and Chinese “all used to be one big family,” which is why Koreans can still read Chinese letters even if they don’t understand a word of Mandarin.

Tour guide Raymond Tse rattles off the itinerary for the day.
Brooke Warren

“Today we go to the factory outlet,” Tse announced from his perch at the front of the bus, microphone in hand. “The ladies will love it. Especially the Korean.” He stared directly at Park and Zo, seated near the front of the bus. “Korean, crazy shoppers! But first we stop for lunch. I don’t think we can find Korean barbecue, sorry. No kimchi!” I looked over warily at Park and Zo. They were in hysterics, and I came to see Tse’s razzing as a sign of affection. If without a common language, they could still nod and wink at their own comic assumptions, then they could all unite as Asian and be counted among Tse’s fold. Zo and Park delighted in his solicitousness.

Our bus would be traveling through the Central Valley to Barstow, California; then the next day to Death Valley to see the lowest spot in the contiguous 48 states at Badwater. On the third day, we would arrive in Las Vegas, where, for an additional fee, we could board one of two buses to the Grand Canyon — a four-hour trip to spend one hour at the South Rim, or a two-and-a-half hour drive to the Hualapai Nation’s West Rim where we’d stay for a luxurious four hours. All of it would happen in three days.

“We always try to provide as much of a program as we can in 12 hours, even if we have to skip a restroom stop and have no time for lunch,” said Tse, who used the pronoun “we” when speaking for both Americans and Chinese. “This is the way we prefer to do it. We don’t want to finish a national park in one day. We want to finish a national park in a half day, or one hour. You can look at the itinerary of our Grand Circle tour. In seven days, we see the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell.”

“Five days,” corrected our bus driver, Dale Marlar. “One day to drive out, one day to drive back.”

“Okay, five days! It is impossible,” Tse said. “But the Asian market, that’s what they want. Up at 6 a.m., no breakfast. Rush, rush, rush. Then they come home and people say, ‘What did you see?’ They say, ‘I don’t know! I forgot!’

“That’s why,” he chuckled, “they take so many pictures.”

 

Lili Liu has her picture taken in Caesar’s Palace.
Brooke Warren

We crossed from the coast into Central California and headed down Interstate 5, past infinite groves of blooming almond trees. I looked back through the bus full of passengers; everyone was sleeping. As the scenery grew ever more dreary with monoculture orchards — grapes, olives, oranges, oranges, oranges — even Tse retreated to the back of the bus for a snooze. Later, crossing the soft green Tehachapi Mountains into the Mojave Desert, he perked up to narrate again: weather, geography, how deserts form in the rain shadows of mountains. He explained that space shuttles launched from the Mojave’s Edwards Air Force Base, “because the weather here is perfect, never raining.”

We got to the wind-scoured, dust-battered Mojave Desert city of Barstow at 5 p.m. as promised, to shop at the Tanger Outlet Mall. I rushed off the bus to find out which store would be the one all Chinese people love. Coach? Ralph Lauren? Ugg? To my disappointment, however, they didn’t crowd into one store. Instead, they dispersed, like a vapor, absorbed into the retail miasma that had settled over the desert. I sat outside on a bench, watching Marlar and his fellow bus drivers clean yellow bug splatter off their enormous windshields.

I had expected to report that people returned an hour later loaded up with bags of shoes, clothing and other items to be repatriated back to their country of manufacture. But they did not. A 20-year-old engineering student from Taiwan, Henry Lu — whom photographer and now collaborator, Warren, had unearthed from the crowd as a rare English speaker — bought a new pair of sunglasses. Lili Liu acquired a handbag from Coach. Most people returned to the bus early.

My bus mates’ frugality notwithstanding, Barstow, a cheerless city that exists where the old Route 66 and the railroads converge, has been carefully calibrated to the needs of the Chinese shopping tourist. The Ramada Inn smoothly processes tour bus arrivals and features a restaurant in the parking lot called, simply, China Town Buffet. When we first pulled up, the restaurant looked dark and deserted, but later it lumbered into action like a powerful, efficient feeding machine. The lights flickered on; steam coated the windows. Inside, two long lines of stainless steel chafing dishes were being loaded with food.

At the Sunglass Hut, where Henry Lu peers into the mirror, about 70 percent of paying customers arrive via Asian tour buses.
Brooke Warren

At the Tanger outlets in Barstow, California, tour bus riders and roadtrippers flock to buy items at stores like Claire’s and Coach.
Brooke Warren
Everyone arrived at once. We each paid $10 and got a plate on which to pile mussels, shrimp, green beans, pork dumplings, mixed vegetables, egg rolls, sesame balls, rice, and several kinds of noodles. Everyone joyously elbowed up to the dish they wanted, pushing without a hint of enmity. I had learned to pronounce the sounds dui-bu-qi; once when I blurted them out, Henry Lu’s mother turned around and beamed, “Excuse me!” But the phrase turned out to be mostly irrelevant; no one cared who shouldered whom aside to grab a serving spoon. We sat at long family-style tables and ate as one, washing it all down with tea or Coca-Cola or Tsing-Tao beer. Sometime in the middle of the meal, two young local women walked in, their hair dyed blond with streaks of pink and blue. They surveyed the scene for a few minutes from the doorway, turned away and left.

The next morning, I peered into the windows of China Town Buffet. It looked clean, unoccupied, inert, as if it had been conjured up the night before only to evaporate when its patrons moved on. As if only when another series of tour buses returns from the Tanger Outlet tomorrow night would it rise up, serve, and then vanish again, like a Mandarin Brigadoon.

Telescope Peak, at 11,000 feet the highest point of the Panamint Range, rises up to the west, covered with snow, as we descend into the Badwater Basin. It was hard to know if everyone was looking out the window to drink in the spectacular beauty of the painted mountains, or staring at the horizon in order not to vomit; the bus listed and floated down the mountain like a sailboat crossing rolling swells. A long white salt flat gleamed in the sun.

Baaaaad-WATER!” Tse declared, counting the feet as we descended below sea level. “Two hundred ten, two hundred twenty.” He described the ocean that once filled this valley, told of temperature extremes in the summer that will kill you if you’re not careful. “But not today. Today nobody will die. Today we have only 65 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 65 minus 32, which is 23; 23 divided by 9, which is 2.5; 2.5 times 5, which is craaaay-zee! OK, everybody, I don’t understand how America is still using Fahrenheit.”

He pointed to a sign on the bluff over the salt flats. “Sea level. See? That is the line. I went up last night, put that sign up there for you.

“This,” he says, “is Essential California.”

We pulled up behind three other tour buses along the road. We joined the scattering of visitors wandering out on the salt pan, reading the interpretative signs, taking pictures. People from our bus forced their cameras into my hands, pointing to themselves and each other, then pointing to me, miming a shutter squeeze. I nodded and smiled, focused their cameras and took their pictures, raising a finger before they dispersed to say, “Wait! One more.”

In the line for the pit-toilet bathroom, a tall Asian man dressed in jeans and a pressed Oxford shirt came up behind me and asked to go first: He’d been on another bus, holding it for an hour. When he emerged, he told me his name, Xu Cho, and said he was living in San Jose, working as a software engineer at Samsung. He had come to the U.S. 20 years ago, when he was 25, and had lived all over the West. He ended up on a Lassen tour because his sister, visiting from Shanghai, got fed up with him working during his family’s visit and booked a trip for herself, their parents and Xu’s wife without bothering to consult him. “I should have rented a car to drive them,” he said, “but my sister beat me to it.”

And yet he admitted there were advantages to the bus tour: You never have to worry about getting stranded in the desert with a broken-down car; no one micromanages your driving. His bus was spacious and not even close to full, and it was bringing him and his family to places where they rarely felt the crush of a crowd. China is beautiful, he told me; it has its own breathtaking views, high mountains and waterfalls. One-fifth of China’s territory remains uninhabited by humans, and China has its own national parks — 225 of them, to be exact. But “whenever there is a national holiday, every tour is full,” Xu said. “The trains, the cars, the airplanes, the hotels — everything is booked.

“You are not going out into nature at those places. You are going into the crowd.

“Here,” he said, “look!” He spread his arms wide. “So much room. It is hard to get to anyplace in China where you can go like this.”

“Not even the Great Wall?” I asked.

“Especially not the Great Wall.”

Korean tourists Zo Sun-Hwa and Park Young-Gu take a selfie at the salt flats in Death Valley National Park.
Brooke Warren

We arrived in Las Vegas on the eve of the Lunar New Year. City billboards beamed welcomes in Chinese lettering, gift shops touted special sales celebrating the Year of the Ram, or the Goat, or — if, like us, you’d just come from Death Valley — the Year of the Bighorn Sheep.

Vegas hotels have dedicated bus areas, with driveways to smooth cumbersome steering ratios and obviate the dangers of driving in reverse. Our hotel, the 4,000-room, Medieval-themed Excalibur, had a rotunda specially designed for large arrivals. Our keys appeared in an instant, and we filtered out like invading mice through the ding-ding-deeduly-ding-ing of slot machines and a haze of cigarette smoke wafting from strategically placed bars, to elevators that would lift us with the silky speed of pneumatic tubes to our precipitous rooms.

Those of us who had bought $25 tickets to a city tour assembled in the lobby at 4:30 p.m. to board the bus, which deposited us a few hotels away at Caesar’s Palace. We were a mish mash of travelers who had come on different buses from various locales; I recognized only Henry Lu and his parents from our original group. In the mob gathered at Caesar’s to watch an animatronic King Atlas dispatch his feuding children with a fire-breathing serpent, I met Nguyen Thi Ngoc Lien and her family, who had just arrived that day from Los Angeles. Together, we headed out onto the Strip: A pulsing, chattering juggernaut of humanity, impenetrable to flip-flopped bachelor partier and panhandling veteran alike. When two large white men in a pickup truck wanted to make a left turn through our fast-moving mass, they stooped low. “Ebola! Ebola! Ebola!” they shouted out the window. Our sea of people parted to let them through, less offended than stunned.

Elderly people, children, young adults, no one dallied or flagged. Tse had given out his cellphone number to rescue any strays, but as far as I know, no one used it. Everyone negotiated every move without incident. We walked and walked and walked. To the Mirage to see a simulated volcanic eruption, to the Bellagio to watch fountains dance to Frank Sinatra, to the Venetian, where a tall blond man who looked like a college basketball player directed, in faultless Mandarin, each person to a counter where, in exchange for their personal contact information, they were given a ceramic mug in the shape of a Venetian villa.

In the flicker of free time before loading up the bus to go to dinner, we lingered on the Venetian’s second-floor balcony, listening to a string quartet play traditional Chinese music. By the time I climbed up there, Warren was already ensconced in the crowd camera in hand. “People are starting to speak English to us,” she said, in a slightly amazed whisper, and introduced me to her new friend Sunflower Li, 40, from Guangzhou. Li had her hair cut in a tight bob, which framed big eyes and full lips, and she spoke with pronounced confidence. “The song they are playing is called ‘Two Butterflies Die for Love,’ ” Li explained. It tells the story of a boy butterfly who waits for a flower to open so he can declare his love for the girl butterfly inside it. When it does, he finds the girl butterfly, dead.

We followed Li and her young son and husband into the night, onto the bus, to the long strip mall that qualifies as Vegas’ Chinatown. Tse escorted us into a second-floor Chinese restaurant, but just as quickly showed us out: The wait for food was averaging 45 minutes. He herded us all downstairs to a Taiwanese restaurant instead, where the ordering process involved peering at dishes behind a plate-glass display and then sitting down to order.

David Sun, 14, stares at a free fountain show in Las Vegas, where hordes of spectators watched through phone screens as they recorded the spectacle.
Brooke Warren

Raymond Tse tells 10-year-old Leo Liu Jun to sit up straight while playing video games as they wait for the tour group to reconvene in the Venetian in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Brooke Warren

Warren and I were completely helpless here; Tse had to lead us like little children through the choices while Li ran interference with the wait staff. Finally, we were presented with a plate of pickled and steamed vegetables and a bowl of noodles to share. Tse thought we wouldn’t finish a whole bowl each, but after watching Li’s husband across the table slurping and biting off his noodles back into their broth, we realized we wanted our own. Li demanded a second. While a Chinese soap opera played on the overhead TV, all pink-and-green hues and histrionic gestures, and Li translated the story — “it’s about a robber, and he is pleading forgiveness” — we watched, imitated, slurped, bit and drank our respective meals down to their dregs.

Both Warren and I had lived in other countries, places where we had learned the languages and tried our best to blend in with the locals. But our Chinese friends were having none of that. It occurred to us both in the same moment that we were not observing a troupe of Chinese visitors in the West attempting to adapt to our culture. We were traveling on a mobile China as it moved through the American West. And the American West was expanding — with restaurants, shopping and spectacles — to include them.

 

In May of 2013, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang launched a public harangue against badly behaved Chinese tourists. Enough with the loud talking, the nose-picking, the tagging of other country’s artifacts, he said. Chinese travelers need to straighten up. The following October, China’s National Tourism Administration published a 64-page Guidebook for Civilized Tourism.  Among the advice: Wear a clean shirt, don’t greet people by asking where they’re going (as they do in China), and please don’t slurp your noodles.

Noodle-slurping — a practice I wholeheartedly support — aside, I observed none of the forbidden behavior on Wang’s list among my Chinese cohort. No rudeness, no slovenliness, no inappropriate shouting. I never heard a complaint nor heard of complaining; no one ever lost her temper, nor was anyone ever late. The people on my bus were unflaggingly cheerful, polite and generous; they evinced no cynicism about cheesy Vegas spectacles nor tedious landscapes nor California’s flagrant water squandering. Only once did I see anyone behave with textbook insensitivity, when, in the gift shop at the Old West-themed Hualapai Ranch on the Grand Canyon’s West Rim, a large man with a distinct Mandarin accent demanded to know if the young woman at the cash register was “a real Indian.” When she answered that she was in fact Mexican, the man persisted. “Who is a real Indian? I want to meet a real Indian!”

I followed the man out, hoping to get some insight into the nature of his inquiry, but I was waylaid by the chaps-clad jesters at the West Rim’s Cowboy Village, who grabbed me and threatened to throw me in their jail for wearing a striped shirt. (Now that, I thought, was rude.) But I suspected I already knew what he was after; Tse had talked about it on the bus. Ten thousand years ago, “during the glacier period,” as Tse put it, people from the distant Asian continent had trekked north to Siberia and crossed the iced-over Bering Straight to take up residence in North America. “The ones that stayed north, they are the ess-kee-MOH,” Tse said. The ones who moved on farther south, “those are the Native American Indians. Which you will meet today.”

McDonalds was one of the only restaurants the tour stopped at that did not serve Asian dishes.
Brooke Warren

Tse reported the Bering Land Bridge story as established fact, but in reality “Beringia” remains a theory, alternately proved and disproved whenever archaeologists dig up new remains and analyze ancient DNA. If such a migration did happen, most scholars agree, it wasn’t 10,000, but 40,000 to 12,500 years ago. Still, Tse said, many Asian people delight in the notion that Native Americans might be their relatives.

I thought this might explain why the clientele at the Hualapai Nation’s Grand Canyon West attractions is, by anecdotal estimates, 90 percent Chinese. A Native American tourist ambassador stationed at Eagle Point, Daniel Powskey, confirmed that Chinese visitors ask him a lot if he thinks the Chinese and Native Americans are related. He also told me he doesn’t particularly appreciate the question: “We have our own creation stories,” he said, “which say that we were put here at the beginning of the Earth.” He declined to tell me any of them because the February weather was spring-like, and the animals might hear.

Judging by the response to the story among my fellow bus travelers, however, Tse might have exaggerated the Beringia story’s appeal. Only Sunflower Li allowed that “it matters a little bit, as a story.” No one else seemed to care. I was confident, at any rate, that Beringia was not what brought Chinese tourists to this side of the Grand Canyon in droves. Nor was it the story of the late David Jin, the Chinese-born Las Vegas businessman who collaborated with the Hualapai Nation to develop the Skywalk, the glass-bottomed platform that protrudes 70 feet out over the 4,000-foot abyss. Most of the Asian visitors I observed were happy to save the $30 admission to the Skywalk and perch themselves, arms stretched wide, on rocks extending over the canyon, mimicking flight. They, like everyone on my bus, likely had one compelling reason for choosing the Hualapai Nation over the National Park Service’s South Rim: The tribe’s view of the Grand Canyon is a whole lot closer to Las Vegas.

And they came to the Grand Canyon, as Nguyen put it, to see “the power of water.” When we first arrived, I had boarded the small shuttle bus from the airport terminal to the Hualapai Ranch with Zo and Park, who sat quietly looking into the cellphones they used to help them interpret the sights. Nguyen had warned me that “Asians don’t show emotion,” but as we rounded the corner to the Hualapai Ranch and the Big Ditch came into view, both Koreans rushed to the window and cried out, Samsungs in hand. Seeing it through their eyes, I did the same. We celebrated together by positioning ourselves, two by two, at the window with the landscape behind us, taking smiling pictures of each other in pairs. We were never able to exchange more than a few fought-for words, but in that moment, we were friends.

 

Tourists take pictures with the piles of fruit for sale at Casa de Fruta in Pacheco Valley in Northern California, along State Route 152. The tour bus stopped at roadside tourist destinations, like Casa de Fruta, beyond listed stops at National Parks and cities on the itinerary.
Brooke Warren

Joshua trees in bloom floated by the bus window on the way back to Vegas, each creamy tip fitting each branch like a neat little cap. Nguyen’s husband, Tran Phuoc, asked me to write down the word for the plant on my notepad; then he looked it up in his handheld translating machine. “It’s a name?” he asked. I told him yes, and explained that the Mormon settlers thought the Joshua tree’s upturned limbs looked like a man praying, and so named the plant after the prophet.

I spoke clearly and slowly, never sure that he understood; the story comes so packed with bizarre details that making sense of it would take a month. Tran seemed satisfied enough, though. He handed me his business card, identifying him as the dean of a major engineering school in Ho Chi Minh City. “Come to visit us,” he said. Then he switched places with Nguyen so he could nap next to his daughter.

Nguyen’s English was halting and fragmented; our conversation felt like two people finding their way through a maze in the fog, feeling around for clues, heading down dead-ends for long minutes before realizing we’d taken a wrong turn. Still, it went fairly deep. We discussed her country’s environmental troubles, cultural differences in childbearing, even the war the U.S. fought on her home soil. Unlike the Chinese with their expedited visa rules, Vietnamese travelers endure long waits; Nguyen’s visa took two years, “because they thought I was going to come here to live with my sister.” Then they looked at her passport and saw that she had been to Malaysia, Singapore, China. “They saw I was a traveler, and they said OK.” But in all her travels she had never been anywhere, she said, where the horizon stretched out so unbroken.

“We have some open space, some parks,” she said. “But they are all very small. This,” she said, gesturing to the window and the miles of uninterrupted land beyond it, “it makes you feel different. So good. So much room.”

We parted in the Excalibur’s rotunda; I thanked her again for clearing my headache, and resolved to stay in touch. I caught up with Sunflower Li and her family as they were heading back to the elevators, looking tired and not at all interested in navigating a second language. I said goodbye to Tse, and thanked him for his help. Then I headed to the most American bar I could find, to have the most American of drinks: A rich, cold, hoppy beer. Then a few sips into my IPA at the MGM Grand’s TAP Sports Bar, it dawned on me what I was drinking: A brew the 19th-century British had formulated with preservative hops for export to India.

We live in a global village, I thought, and there is no way out. Nor, I realized, do I want there to be. 

A Lassen Tours bus driver cleans his windshield after a day driving across California.
Brooke Warren

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News. She has also written for Sierra, Capital and Main, TakePart, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times

Brooke Warren is a photojournalist and HCN associate designer