Just like living anywhere, there are incredible experiences you have with breathtaking memories of mountaintop views and beautiful people. But for every awe-inspiring moment, there are just as many – if not more – contrasting misunderstandings and frustrations. I want everyone back home to understand that just because I am living abroad doesn’t make each day spectacular. I still have mundane days where nothing exciting happens at work. I still have days where I just can’t seem to get out of bed. I still have some evenings where all I do is eat and sleep. And that doesn’t even begin to describe the bizarre situations or communication misunderstandings I find myself in every day.
Not that I’m complaining, I just want to denounce the belief that every single day living abroad is filled with silver linings and balloons. Reality check, it’s not. I’m not on vacation; I’m here with the ups and downs of living and working in a new place, and all the complications that come with it. I prefer it this way to the honeymoon feeling of being on vacation. You can’t truly experience the beauty of a place without an understanding of the other darker side to it. For this reason, I do not think I would enjoy backpacking though this country, as the more touristy locations only expose the shiny side. When you venture out just a little, you see the real Vietnam.
Sometimes I struggle with the small things. Often I feel like I am just completely on my own to figure things out as I am living solo in an apartment which takes an hour commute to work. The local partner I work with hosts international volunteers who work outbound at other places like schools and hospitals, and I am seeing that they have so much support and convenience living here. Sometimes I become really jealous of that and find myself thinking it would be so much easier just living here; everything would be provided for me and I wouldn’t have all that wasted extra effort on the small things. For example, I had to figure out how to register myself and my visitors with the authorities (it is a requirement in Vietnam for all foreigners), where to go to pay my bills, how to get my phone card, how to get my bus pass and figure out the bus routes on my own. My kitchen composes of one hot plate and a microwave, so I’ve had to be creative cooking my meals. I’ve had some support from the WUSC local office, but the day-to-day stuff I’ve always been completely on my own.
Even going to the market is hard for me because as a foreigner I am charged more and treated differently. Often if they speak no English they will just ignore me. Even when I’m trying so hard with a combination of my limited Vietnamese, actions, and translate ap I often find myself shoved in a corner. What frustrates me is when other foreigners condemn this behaviour as rude. I really don’t think they’re trying to be rude. My suspicion is that they genuinely just don’t know how to interact in this type of situation because it is just too foreign to them, so they just brush it off. I’m guessing not that different from how the average Joe in North America would act if it were reversed.
Foreigners complain all the time about being overcharged for things – from fruit to taxis to Northface jackets. A dollar goes so much further here than dong seems to. When you’re talking about d50,000, it seems like a lot relatively, I think people forget the actual value is only about $3. I’ve seen people haggling over d5,000 or d10,000 which is really only a matter of cents. I’m not guilt-free either; I’ve caught myself doing the same thing before realizing I’m making a big deal over $1. Recently I learned that an average income for a respected position in Hanoi is between $250-$400US. Foreigners teaching English can easily make $20-$25US/hour, let alone my student position living allowance is nearly double that. No, I don’t mind paying an extra $3 for fruit.
When I catch myself getting irritated by all these small things I just remember why in the first place I fought so hard to be here. I don’t want normal; can’t do it. I wanted to be completely independent, travel alone, and figure things out for myself for once while travelling. I had the option for a homestay with one of my supervisor’s family but declined because I wanted to see how I would do on my own and deal with struggles. Honestly, it makes the experience so much more worth it rather than having everything handed to me. Yes, it’s been exhausting, but much more rewarding for each small victory. I get the pleasure to see the real – broken and uncensored Vietnam, not just the tourist version.