Can’t Hide These Chinky Eyes (Panama Edition)

WHY there is a third installment to my Chinky Eyes series makes me laugh.

But WHY this series exists at all makes me sigh with frustration. The reality that we do not and never will live in a color blind world, that it is the human condition to make presumptions about others based on what they look like, the color of their skin, the shape of their eye sockets…and then to act on those presumptions…it saddens me.

But you didn’t come to my travel blog looking for social commentary, did you? I didn’t think so.

You may recall my chinky eyes being called out while I traveled through various countries:

1. Chinky Eyes in India, Ireland and Italy
2. Chinky Eyes in Slovakia, Croatia and Hungary
2.5. And even a Chinky-Eyed honorable mention in Denver, Colorado

3. Let’s add Panama to the list!

Only, this time, the culprits weren’t the locals in the respective country. It was a fellow traveler and red-blooded American.

I was staying at a beachside hostel in Bocas Del Toro, on an island called Careneros. The hostel was called Gran Kahuna and this was the view from my $14/night dorm room:

Ahhh yeahhhh. It was paradise.

October 4, 2014: I was by myself, and had just returned from a day trip around the archipelago.

My day included snorkeling and a visit to the majestic beauty known as Isla Zapatilla:

So pretty, right?!

Well, it didn’t start off so glorious. It was rainy season. This means the first half of my day actually consisted of me on a speedboat, zipping into the eye of a STORM and getting pelted with rain.

Here’s a photo I took before realizing we were actually heading straight into it:

It was bad. Like, burning-red-marks-across-my-back-that-made-me-look-like-I-just-got-whipped-in-a-50-Shades-scenario-gone-BAD bad.

Here’s me coming out the other side, pretending it wasn’t so bad:

But the storm cleared and it turned out to be a gorgeous afternoon. The trip was a success.

Here’s Isla Zapatilla from the ground:

When I returned to the hostel that evening, a group of guys at the bar asked how my trip was.

  • There was Nick from Swaziland, currently residing in London.
  • There was Dan from Melbourne.
  • And there was Bobby, the American from Lake Tahoe.

They had originally booked a similar excursion, but decided to cancel when the day started with such a torrential downpour. The guys had seen me brave the rain and get on my boat that morning, and wanted to know:

Was it worth it?!

I gave them an emphatic YES-it-was-totally-worth-it, and went on to tell them all the details of the trip. The warm, turquoise waters, the reefs and colorful fishies, the white sand beaches, the whale sightings.

Nick and Dan listened with enthusiasm, asked questions, and mused, “Damn, we should’ve just done it!”

Bobby, on the other hand, sat quietly, and watched me talk as if he was watching the Twilight Zone. His eyes were wide with intense wonderment, his mouth hung partially open in astonishment.

I thought, Wow, this guy is reeeally into my story.

But then he spoke. And it became clear that it was not my story that was blowing Bobby’s mind. It was something else.

“Where are you FROM?” Bobby asked, eyebrows furrowed in curiosity.

“California,” I replied.


“Wow. Your English is reeeeeally good. Just…wow.”

The rest of us just sat there.


What was I supposed to say to that?! Thank you?? You too???

Stone-faced, I replied simply, “We do speak English in California.”

I wasn’t upset. If anything, I was embarrassed for Bobby. Here we were…world traveling backpackers, presumably internationally-minded, brought together on an island in Panama, surrounded by people from all over the planet, having unique cultural experiences…

…and this guy’s shocked that Asian girl speaks good Engrish?

Really, the only information he had on me to invoke his surprise was what I looked like. That’s the only thing he had to go on.

I was amused to discover that Bobby had actually been traveling in Central America for about a year. I’d have thought he’d be a bit more…I dunno…culturally competent.

But the more time I spent with him, the clearer it became that Bobby was of the frat boy backpacker variety, “fratpackers,” as I like to call them: backpackers who stick with the party circuit and don’t venture far from the hostel. In other words, Bobby’s not traveling to seek cultural immersion or worldliness. He’s here to party.

It’s neither this nor that. I meet people like him all the time when I’m traveling.

Just because someone’s a traveler, doesn’t automatically mean they’re culturally competent. And similarly, just because someone has chinky eyes, doesn’t mean they can’t speak English. Right?

I made the assumption that because I was among travelers, I was among culturally competent people. And Bobby made the assumption that because I appear to be Asian, I don’t speak fluent English. We both made assumptions, and we both were wrong.

Only, his assumption was based entirely on what I looked like.

I let Bobby carry on about how impressed he was with my English speaking abilities, digging his hole of cluelessness. I felt so bad for him.

Dan sat there wide-eyed, as if to say, “Um, did that really just happen?”

Nick, too, was embarrassed for his friend. He tilted his head towards me and mouthed the words, “I am SO sorry.”

Later that night, a huge group of us all went to the Pickled Parrot for some live reggae and cheap drinks. Nick pulled me aside again and apologized profusely for Bobby’s ignorant comment. He’d been traveling with Bobby for some time, and swore he was a good guy.

I had no doubt Bobby was a good guy, and by then, I’d honestly forgotten about the whole thing. I told Nick it was no big deal. These things happen to me all the time.

“That doesn’t make it ok,” Nick replied.

Hmm. Nick was right. But what am I supposed to do in these situations? What is the proper response?

Do I say something? But what do I say? And why? Is it even my duty in the first place to teach every ignorant person I encounter how to not be ignorant? That would be exhausting! I meet ignorant people all the TIME!

Spending time enraged by people’s faults and weaknesses is completely wasted energy in the life of a traveler. The people I meet while traveling run the gamut from wildly fascinating and intelligent and compassionate to shockingly dumb and ignorant. My time with fellow travelers is generally brief and fleeting, so I try to make the most of that time by finding something I like about them and putting my energy towards that instead. And if I don’t find something I like, I move on. Time is precious.

I actually went and sat down next to Bobby at the Pickled Parrot that evening. Live reggae music filled the open-air beachside bar as we had a couple beers and bonded over our love for Panamanian food. Bobby told tales of his travels in Central America and his big plans for when he’d eventually go back home to the States.

Somewhere in that conversation, I thought maybe I’d find some redeeming qualities in Bobby. But no. I didn’t. Can’t say I didn’t try.

And that’s ok! Fortunately I had my new local friend, Felipon, and a very cool German girl named Jana to hang out with instead. Swazi Nick, I would end up running into again back on the mainland where we would explore Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo together.

I simply moved on. ‘Tis the beauty of traveling.

Perhaps I’m optimistic, but I like to think that Bobby has since met more English-proficient chinky-eyed people and developed at least a rudimentary cultural competence.

I’ll never know, and that’s ok with me.

Until my next chinky-eyed adventure (and there will be more!), I leave you with some more photos I took in Bocas Del Toro, Panama:

Welcome to Bocas Del Toro

Gran Kahuna Hostel, Careneros Island

Lone Palm Tree

Fresh Fish Delivery

Careneros Boys on Deck

Next Door to Gran Kahuna

Happy Hour

Coconut Kid at Starfish Beach

Exploring Careneros

Chicken Patacones at the Pickled Parrot

Chronically Pensive Felipon

Hammocking at the Pickled Parrot

Cacao Fruit (so delicious!)

Surfboard Ding Repair

Gracias Bus

Bocas Houses

Hammocking at Playa Bluff

My Careneros Buddy


  1. Great post Thy! I love your photo of Coconut Kid- so cute.

    • Thanks Loren! Yeah, she was a cutie pie. She had a pile of like 30 coconuts on the beach, and waddled them one by one into the water to wash them by hand. It was the cutest thing! I must’ve taken a dozen photos of her!

  2. Hey! Haha I loved it. I mean that guy was in the moon but the way you described his cultural un-competence, it is really funny.
    And you know here in QC is sorta the same… Even people is used to be surrounded by expats of all parts of world the stereotypes are so darn annoying. With me … Aaargg…. when they listen to me speaking in French… They automatically switch to English… Because they think I’m not capable to speak French… Which is stupid… Only for my accent… I’m already used to that but depending on the attitude sometimes I feel its insulting. BC you know… “Dude if I’m actually talking to you in your native language (which is my 3rd) its BC I feel confident to do it ” (even yeah its an extra effort)
    Hope everything is going well with you my Californian girl :)
    Take care

    • I know the feeling! People often switch to English when I attempt to speak their language, but most times, I think they do it with good intentions. They feel bad, and wanna help me out, when really, it’d be more helpful if they’d keep speaking in their own language so I can practice!

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