I never actually knew what the term “expat” meant until recently. An expatriate is someone choosing to live in a foreign country and carve out a new life there. This is a very common practice in certain parts of the world such as here in Vietnam. A lot of expats journey here, fall in love (with the place, the culture, a person etc) and decide to stay longer term. And then there’s the teachers. A huge amount of English speakers throng to the steam box to play the teaching game with foreign children every year and from the kids I have met here they are doing a very good job. The majority do seem to be American expats and I do find evidential proof when talking to Vietnamese English speakers. I can often detect the American twang of an accent laced within their dialectical pronunciation of English words. It’s subtle but it’s there and i find it quite amusing.
Most people that see me walking the streets of Hanoi assume I am one of the teaching crowd. I am a white English speaker living here but that is where the similarities end. Firstly I am not a teacher. I am here to impart knowledge but for a zoo full of adults who do not speak English rather than a classroom full of children eager to learn. I am here to do that job instead of doing a job in order to be here. Vietnam was never on my list of places to go and after a month here I still struggle with it on a daily basis. If I’m honest I really enjoy the moments when I forget that I am actually in Vietnam. Some countries just clash with you and this is one of them. But most expats here are the opposite. They love it so much they stay for years or decades. They embrace every aspect of the culture they possibly can and face all of the challenges of the country with a smile rather than a scowl. They are looking forward to all their Vietnamese adventures further afield from Hanoi instead of staying put within the confines of this dusty and intense city.
Having said this I have come across a few who have stated that they don’t have a life here. They began with all the aforementioned idealisms but actually the routine of the rat race has caught up with them and it fast becomes a work/life balance struggle of which I escaped from nearly a year ago. It scares me that this can happen even in such a foreign place deemed a Mecca for most travellers but it also makes me happy that others have had similar experiences to myself. I know most expat teachers here aren’t on a vocational trajectory interlaced with moral agenda and a hunger to instigate as many positive changes in the same way that I am but we can share some similarities despite out different opinions of our current habitation status.
And if that is not the most overly long ostentatiously sounding sentence you have ever heard then I don’t know what is!
Talking of the places in which we live brings me to another massive difference. I do not live in “Tay Ho.” For those of you wanting to move to Hanoi, the odds are that home will be in Tay Ho and you will be happily surrounded by a mix of Vietnam and Western cultures clashing and embracing in equal measure.
Sadly I am not one of those people.
I made the decision to live as close to Thu Le Zoo as possible in order to concentrate on the work I am doing there. I do not regret this decision but it has made things difficult when searching for western influences. Ba Dinh district within Hanoi actually has a Japanese/Korean flavour but is still dominated by Vietnamese who cannot help but gawp when they see me walking through the alleyways.
A friend once said to me that it is important for you to spend at least a part of your life in a place where you are the minority. This is very good advice and really opens your eyes to a lot of different mind sets. However, I have been the minority my entire life in terms of my personality, my eating habits, my fashion sense (or lack of it), even my career but it takes a bit of time to get used to this sense of it when the minority you are now in is cultural, racial and frankly uncomfortable.
It almost feels like I am actually becoming like one of the animals in the zoo I am working at. Selfie requests from complete strangers are a normality, passers by daring to say hello just to hear me parrot it back to them and locals asking me a lot of questions just to find out who I am. It is all a hugely surreal experience, particularly because expats generally aren’t seen in the particular area where I am. Ba dinh is not a tourist hotspot like the old quarter and it’s not expat-centric like in Tay ho.
At this time of year as the Vietnamese summer sizzles and scorches and boils you alive there is a mass exodus of expats. They jump ship as the weather becomes unbearable (and believe me I wish I was part of the leaving party when the mercury hits 40 degree celcius!) As most of the expats were departing, confident in their new place in the world and sad to be leaving it, I was just arriving, wide eyed and terrified of this new location. Even after eight months of travel, finding a home within the constant shifting tides is still difficult.
Being an expatriate comes with a fair amount of assumptions from what I have discovered on our travels. I’ve come across many expats who hated their homeland so much that they moved elsewhere permanently. Spain, Norway and New Zealand all had expats that we met that were nicely settled into their new lives and their new environment. In fact in New Zealand it’s such a common occurrence for Brits to head over to the Pacific side of things that we have a nickname (pommies) and services to help us find housing, jobs and even shift our pensions across.
However I am most certainly not an expat that hates home. As much as I was sick of the UK when we left, I long for the comforting familiarity of it with every fibre of my being, particularly whilst in Vietnam. I’m probably the most unorthodox version of a Vietnamese expat there is but a month within this country has already persuaded me to at least attempt to understand what the draw is for so many expats. There certainly is opportunity, brilliance, charm and differences so far from the norm that they become experiences. However for me I see it as an achievement of survival, 1 month down, 2 more to go.