How I got to 6 months in Vietnam
A rollercoaster of uncertainty, fright and loneliness, mixed with bursts of excitement and optimism has brought me to this point. Moving to a new country is not always glamorous, despite what I may lead friends to believe on Instagram. But the lessons the experience has taught me, and the challenges it has forced me to overcome, I value. I also think it’s changed me more than I could have imagined.
The first lesson I learned was self-reliance. Originally, I planned to spend my time teaching in Vietnam with a close friend, but she had to leave shortly after our arrival in late October due to unforeseen circumstances. That caught me off guard, and at a time when the culture shock was fresh like a new wound. I didn’t really see how I could do it by myself. The language barrier, the noise, the crowds... the unfamiliarity of literally everything seemed too much to go it alone. After some deep despair, I sucked it up and told myself I’d stay for at least six months. If I wanted to go home at that point, or to somewhere more comfortable (New Zealand and Australia beckoned), I would.
The following few months were slow and, admittedly, they were difficult. My anxiety was sky high much of the time. When Christmas rolled around I was the most homesick I’ve ever felt. (I haven't lived at home in five years, so that meant something for me). When holiday music played in stores I felt angry. I looked at flights back to Canada several times. During a period that’s meant to be spent with comfortably with family and friends, I was feeling the opposite. Granted, I had a few friends who made all the right efforts to combat our collective melancholy, but Saigon just wasn’t anything close to home. It was another planet. I was out of place.
Then, the New Year came and I, probably for the first time, made resolutions I would follow. They essentially boiled down to getting out of the rut I was in. Refusing to let my own anxiety swallow me, I set small goals that eventually lifted me up. I began meeting more people, getting out of my comfort zone in social situations and at least attempting to communicate with locals rather than hiding from the language barrier.
Somehow, I got here. It’s like I blinked at that moment and ended up at the 6 month mark. I know that time heals and forces you to adjust, so I attribute a lot of that progress to time. There’s also luck, luck that I met the right people and luck that Saigon is a city full of expats – a definite ‘it is what you make it’ city for foreigners. But I also worked. Hard.
In Western society we tend to define the word “work” purely from a career standpoint. We preach that kids should hard work in school for the pay off of a good career throughout which they will continue to work hard. I realize that’s how capitalist society functions, and admire people who enjoy that lifestyle and who have worked their butts off to start businesses, to become successful artists, doctors and lawyers. But why don’t we emphasize the value of different work just as much? Parents work on their family’s wellbeing. Partners work on their marriages and relationships. People work on themselves: on their mental and physical health, their individual goals, their hobbies and their happiness. Where’s the section for that work experience on a CV?
I have been constantly learning since I arrived in Saigon 6 months ago – from others and from myself. I think the overarching lesson that I’ve grown to understand is the true value of independent life experience. Building a life for myself across the world has been one of the most rewarding accomplishments I’ve ever worked for. Much of that value is in living somewhere fascinating, and being surrounded by newness and stimulation – that in itself is fulfilling. It’s also partly due to the fortune that I met incredible friends who help to soften homesickness and make things fun. Then there’s the fact that Saigon is home to, I’m sure, one of the friendliest cultures on the planet. Lastly, there’s a sense of achievement and self-growth. All of these elements come together in my reflection on the past six months.
I know I’m lucky in a lot of ways and I won’t deny that – not everyone has the chance to jet off in search of self-realization and a new life. I try to check my privilege often. But I do think that a little recognition of non-career related accomplishments is an important practice. I’ve learned that moving somewhere new won’t necessarily erase loneliness, existentialism, anxiety, self-doubt, family trouble or any other number of personal issues that we all deal with some version of. I’ve also learned that doing things for yourself is sometimes one of the most rewarding things you can do.