Tag Archives: expat

Far From Home

19 Dec

Homesickness (noun): experiencing a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it.

me tam coc

Ask any expat in Vietnam whether they have ever experienced homesickness during their time here and, for the majority, the answer will be a resounding ‘yes’. The degree as to which individuals have been affected by this affliction, of course, varies greatly but it is something that most expats can relate to on some level.

Moving to Vietnam, I suffered from fairly severe homesickness. After travelling round South East Asia without so much as a backwards glance to the UK, it was upon settling in Hanoi that the longing for home soil hit me. Hard. Setting up a whole new life anywhere is a hugely daunting prospect and when in the context of such an alien environment, it can quickly escalate to a stressful situation. The intimidating language barrier, questionable local customs, down-right terrifying traffic and unfamiliar menus can quickly leave the hardiest of expats feeling overwhelmed and disgruntled. For most, over time these feelings mutate, fluctuate and progress through a series of highs and lows.

By definition, the very nature of homesickness is caused by spending time away from wherever you consider to be ‘home’. Therefore, while it cannot always be completely attributed to the environment of your host country, the two are closely linked. In Vietnam, a country evoking strong reactions from many, it stands to reason that homesickness can be related to the culture shock that many experience here. It is harder than, for example, relocating to Australia or a similarly Westernized country.

There are said to be four stages of homesickness.

Vietnam Traffic

Vietnam Traffic

The Honeymoon Period

As a new arrival in Vietnam, the initial feelings are those of euphoria. I felt as though I was part of a cheesy 80s movie montage, spinning around, eyes agog, mouth agape, soaking up the sights and sounds of the markets, hawkers, rickhaws and continual flurry of street life unfolding in front of me. Everything is exciting and during this phase, you generally feel a sense of wonder and intrigue for your new surroundings. ‘You have to walk on the road because pavements are used for motorbikes?! What a novelty! Oh Vietnam, you are funny.’

Irritation and Hostility

After a few setbacks these initial feelings of wonder soon turn to frustration and you become aggravated by the very same things which intrigued you at first. ‘Is it too much to ask to be able to walk down the street on a bloody pavement?!’ Near death experiences are no longer a novelty but frequent and frightening. This is often the worst stage of culture shock and often during this phase, expats will question their choice of moving to this new and alien environment. Whether a fleeting thought or a serious consideration, it has probably crossed most of our minds at some point or other when having a particularly difficult day in Vietnam.

Gradual Adjustment

This stage of the homesickness phenomena usually lasts the longest (hence the gradual part). Over time, you are able to control any underlying feelings of frustration felt towards the locals, other expats and the particularly irritating banking system. You start to accept your host county and feel guilty when feelings of resentment creep in. (‘None of us will ever be OK with the spitting but, well, the air quality is pretty bad so it’s kind of understandable, right?’) Fortunately for us, many factors assist the progression of this transitional phase. The wide-spread availability of free wifi means that keeping in touch with home couldn’t be easier. The internet also plays a huge role in the formation of expat circles and meet-up groups with foreigners and locals alike, allowing you to create groups of friends quickly.

Adaption and Biculturalism

While it is very rare that an expat will ever completely assimilate to living in Vietnam, this stage of homesickness sees you adjust to the culture and view it as ‘home’. Having managed to pick up some ‘Tieng Viet’ you can now bargain at your local market without offending anyone and, in fact, you have a vendor who you know will give you a fair price. It is now that you can appreciate the quality of your new lifestyle and feel warmth towards the country and the people hosting you. That said, certain things most likely continue to frustrate and perplex on a daily basis. The difference is, you now feel entitled to these opinions in the same way you would your home country.

A fifth stage that sometimes rears its head unexpectedly is that of reverse culture shock upon returning to your home country. You feel yourself yearning for the parts of your daily routine abroad that once got on your nerves. You almost get run over every time you cross the road using the South East Asian traffic stopping hand wave. (To be clear, this DOES NOT work in Glasgow. I have tried.) People stare upon taking your shoes off to go in to the local supermarket. The accepted custom of shouting ‘Oi!’ to attract the attention of a staff member in a restaurant is frowned upon. The feelings of longing that you once felt for your homeland are reversed. And it’s confusing.

I’m leaving at the end of the year. When I tell my expat friends they unfailingly ask me when I’m coming back. Every time. When I tell them the truth, which is that I have no plans to return, they all smile knowingly as if to say, ‘you’ll be back’. Maybe they are right. I can’t help but wonder what it is about this country, and its ability to evoke such strong reactions in people, that holds them here and entices them back, just when they thought they had enough?

Advertisements

What’s Next? An Ongoing Question.

31 Oct
Palm trees of Hanoi

Palm trees of Hanoi

I am the kind of person who finds it very difficult to just ‘be’. Just exist and be happy. It is a frustrating truth that I am always thinking, ‘what’s next’. In some ways, I suppose this kind of attitude can be attributed to successful people, always striving to achieve more. In other ways, it is the attitude of a perpetually unfulfilled person, always striving to feel content. Needing more than they have.

I am not sure which category I fall into.

If I’m honest, I have been planning my next move since I first arrived here. Not satisfied with achieving my long-standing goal of living and working in Vietnam, I have been guilty of trying to put time limits on everything from the start. “How long will I stay here for?” “When should I think about booking a flight to X, Y or Z”, and so on. This is something I have longed to do for years and now that I was actually here, living it, doing it, I couldn’t help but always be looking forward to the next thing.

The way my brain works, I always feel like I have to be planning my next move. Working towards something else.

I did consider leaving Hanoi earlier and going to Australia to pursue my current career in TV. But as I had finally come to a decision to book my flight to leave in August, I started to doubt myself and all of a sudden I was overcome with love for this city. The air seemed clearer, the traffic less dangerous, the people more friendly and the beer suddenly colder.

It’s a bad habit I have, and a common one I’m sure, to always wonder if the grass will be greener.

I wonder... Is the grass greener over there?

I wonder… Is the grass greener over there?

After lots of thinking and planning, I decided that I would stay in Hanoi to work as a teacher, rather than applying for an Australian working visa. I’m glad that I made this decision as I think that leaving earlier would have been a mistake.

Working here as a teacher, it is more than feasible to work very part time hours and still make enough to money to survive on comfortably. In fact, 20 hours per week is considered to be a ‘full time’ role. I work about 10, and that is enough to survive on.

Being here has given me the time and freedom to do things that I always wanted to but never seemed to get round to doing at home. I was always too tired to go to the gym and could never find the time to do any writing. Since arriving in Hanoi, I have taken up dance classes, pilates and started writing on a daily basis.

Yet, rather than fully immerse myself in this lifestyle for the duration of my stay, I have spent a lot of my time thinking about ‘what’s next?’ I have never had so much freedom and, just as I prepare to leave, I have come to realise that I will probably never have it this easy again. So, my time in Hanoi is now coming to an end and while part of me wishes that I had been more decisive in the start and spent less time planning my next move, I am mainly just very excited about the travel plans that await me.

So, what is next?!

Well, the timing has worked out perfectly and next week I will fly from Hanoi to Hong Kong where I will meet one of my very best friends, at Hong Kong airport. Our flights land about 30 minutes apart and it’s going to be an emotional reunion. I’m talking movie montage style: slow motion, arms spread, running through the airport towards one another and throwing ourselves dramatically into a long-overdue embrace. At least that’s what I’m hoping for. Something along the lines of this:


No pressure.

Anyway, after spending a few days in Hong Kong, we have three and a half weeks to travel China. From there, Laura is going to Australia to work for six months and I will go to visit for four weeks and do some traveling. After this part of the journey is over, I return to Vietnam to say my final goodbyes before heading back to Scotland.

As much as I will be sad to close the page on this chapter, I am incredibly excited to start the next. I have always dreamed of visiting Hong Kong and I can’t wait to cuddle some pandas in Chengdu! To visit the Great Wall of China will be incredible and driving the Great Ocean Road in Australia is one to tick off my bucket list. The fact that I get to do it with one of my favourite people in the world is equally amazing.

It will be strange to be on the road with a new travel buddy. John, my boyfriend, is staying here to finish up working in Hanoi. We have spent practically every single day together this year and it will be interesting to travel with someone else. I just hope Laura can put up with my sleep talking, ridiculously bad sense of direction and embarrassingly low tolerance of local spirits.

What not so long ago, seemed like an endless year stretching out in front of me, is fast coming to an end. But before then there will be lots more to come on the China and Australia leg of the adventure. Watch this space.

If anyone has any recommendations or suggestions for traveling in China and/or Australia, I would love to hear them! Are there any places I shouldn’t miss?