People often ask me how long I plan to stay in Vietnam. I know that when I first arrived, in my mind I thought maybe 10 months. Ten months came and went, and by then I had signed onto a year contract at my second job here. The contract ended, I’ve done some traveling, and I’m starting a new job. I’m nearly two years in, and the answer is, I still don’t know.
Living abroad has been such a tremendously invigorating and enlightening experience on so many levels. Truly, it’s a never ending education for me, and I could never dream of reciprocating the amount of unconditional generosity, acceptance, and kindness that I have encountered in this country. Though I came here to teach, I have learned so much more not just about the world we share, but about what I, myself, am actually capable of.
I didn’t know I would eventually own and drive a motorbike in the heaviest downpours of the monsoon season, wading through knee-high floods in slacks and dress shoes. I didn’t know I’d be eating meals regularly in what are essentially people’s living rooms opened to the public for a few hours each day. I didn’t know how such a (relatively) small country could be so heavily dominated by one culture and yet within that contain such a rich diversity and complexity and depth. I didn’t know I would pay for Vietnamese classes to (very gradually) get a basic grasp of the language, and that my desire to understand and articulate myself within this culture would grow exponentially and with such intensity. I could never have anticipated just how much this country has become an inextricable part of my identity and, should the day come that I find myself ready to leave, I don’t think its mark on my life will ever fully be lost.
The hardest part of living here, I think, is finding a sense of community. I’m used to the constant comings and goings that make cities such dynamic and evolving places. But what I’ve really had to adjust to is knowing that people who leave aren’t just moving to another state or another city; in most cases they’re leaving for good, and they’re returning to their lives halfway around the world. You learn, more than anything, that cultivating relationships isn’t always something you do for the sake of permanence and support; they can be beautiful and meaningful and intense despite their brevity. And apart from that, you increasingly learn to find that stability and that support from within yourself. You find people who you appreciate and who appreciate you just as much to traverse through this part of the world together. And when it’s time for one of you to leave, the other must once again reach within to that place of stability, release, and continue forward. You learn to not only receive the love and the support you need—you learn to let it go.
Of course, I’m referring to my relationships with expats here. And that, I think, is a big driving factor behind my desire to learn the language and become more and more familiar with Vietnamese culture. My Vietnamese friends have been such a tremendous and steady support, perhaps often without even knowing it. Of course the kind of support and care I’ve found in the local community here is much different from what I get with fellow expats; and it is no less needed. And apart from my Vietnamese friends, living here has given me a renewed faith in the kindness of strangers—who may be “enterprising” enough take advantage of the situation to overcharge you, but who are often the ones saving your ass nonetheless.
I’ll never forget the night I was on a road trip to Vung Tau, a beach town just south of Saigon. I had lived here for about 3 months so relative to now, I knew next to nothing about anything except how to point at what I wanted when I ordered a banh mi. My motorbike broke down and my friends, who were using my phone to navigate, continued on in the rush of traffic; they couldn’t have known I had broken down until they were much further ahead, and I wouldn’t have caught up to them if they had stopped. At around 9:00 at night I found myself on the side of the road in rural Vietnam with a broken-down motorbike, alone and with no phone.
Looking around, I saw what was, during the day, a motorbike repair shop and what was now fully a residence, a family sitting outside around a table having a meal together. I don’t remember their names, but there was a boy, his older sister, a mother, a father, and an uncle. Not knowing what else to do, I sheepishly pushed my bike up to them and made some kind of gesture to indicate that my bike had broken down. There was no hesitation; much to my bewilderment, they seemed genuinely excited and overjoyed that I had chosen to dump my problems on them in the middle of their family dinner. My mind went back to all those times when I was a kid at the dinner table, and my parents would express their contempt at anyone who would dare make our phone ring during dinner hours. In this case, however, they insisted that I sit down while the father got his tools and proceeded to take apart the entire engine. While I waited they offered me food, poured me so many shots of rice wine I lost count, and practiced what little English they knew with me (mostly the kids who were learning it in school). Eventually I used one of the kids’ phones to contact my friends in Vung Tau, fortunately only 15 minutes further down the highway. About an hour later my bike had been fixed and reassembled, and the man asked me for an amount that seemed far too little for the amount of work he had done, so I insisted on paying him double which brought the total to around $10.
A lot of expats here have stories similar to mine, whether they were in distress, or merely unexpectedly finding themselves the recipients of tremendous hospitality. This isn’t a perfect country and like anywhere in the world, things aren’t always so rosy and picturesque. There are challenges that I face living here every day, and some days are genuinely hard to get through—despite the fact that here, as an English-speaking foreigner, I am among the most privileged and well off in this country. Sometimes that knowledge and the accompanying guilt alone makes me question whether or not it’s okay for me to be here.
But I’m learning. I’m learning, and always will be learning, how not to distance myself from my own care and beyond that, the care of others. I’m learning how to give back as someone who has inherited such enormous privilege. I’m learning not to see myself as merely a pawn in the systems of power, nor am I without agency in a foreign country and culture. I am capable of learning and changing so much more still, and when it comes to my experience living in Vietnam, I feel an overwhelming sense of admiration, respect, and gratitude.