On Fitting In
In the supermarket in the expat enclave of An Phu in Ho Chi Minh City, anxiety suddenly stabs me in the stomach. There are so many unfriendly Western faces.
Unfriendly might be too strong a term. The faces are tired, are not enjoying the supermarket and the people who own the faces aren’t in the friend-making zone. Not even the flushed-face young couple in matching yoga pants. No endorphin-filled outward warmth emanating from them.
I feel a bit sick. Where will I fit in in my new expat life? I’m not getting a welcoming vibe from this group of new neighbours. (Possibly because at this point in time I have wet hair and a sick-cat-caught-in-the-rain aura from the Swiss flu that is still bothering me, three weeks on.)
The first time I moved to Vietnam, full of excitement and enthusiasm about my new life, I started out in Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker district. Everything was new and exciting and I only noticed other people who were similarly giddy. I was interacting mainly with the other students in my four-week English teaching class, who were all – apart from one – Vietnam newbies.
Together, we marvelled at the exotic and frenetic nature of life around us, tried to pay attention in class, made valiant attempts to do our homework and drank lots of cheap beer.
Then the class ended and the camaraderie dispersed somewhat. I found a job and had a new circle to explore – the standoffish Vietnamese teachers, the world-weary experienced expat teachers and the strangely formal school staff. This new world was all-consuming… and a bit stressful.
In the next phase of my expat-dom, I worked for a local newspaper, alongside some of Vietnam’s most intelligent up-and-coming young people. The real Vietnam opened up to me. I was able to talk to people about their country, people with excellent English and an eagerness to share. And we discussed the news of the day, as well as any other topic that came to mind. I learned so much about Vietnam.
It was during this period that I met Darling Man and fell in love, with him and with Vietnam. Midnight motorbike rides, dancing til dawn, eating at street stalls, more cheap beer and romantic holidays throughout Asia. Bliss.
Life was exciting and interesting and wonderful and we had two great circles of friends – Darling Man’s Vietnamese friends and my expat friends. We decided to add to the amazingness of our lives with a baby.
But shortly after the baby arrived, so did news that I’d lost my job. Panic ensued, as did a job offer in Singapore.
Singapore expat-dom started well, in a five star hotel, all expenses paid. We found a house and I slipped back into the corporate world with surprising ease.
Darling Man, however, struggled to make friends even though he braved a few mothers’ group meetings. He jokingly referred to himself as a desperate housewife and experimented with eating ice cream during the baby’s nap times. (And still managed to lose weight!) I wasn’t as lonely as him because my day was filled with work in a chatty office where people regularly organised after-hours activities. But my Singapore expat life wasn’t the exciting fun-and-friend-filled life I’d had in Vietnam. We decided to pull the plug on Singapore.
Next up was our Chiang Mai experiment. It was an interesting experience, existing in a 100% expat bubble with very little contact with the locals, totally unlike how either of us had lived before. In some ways it was nice, just the three of us with occasional social interactions with adventurous Westerners. But it was a bit weird, too, having no local friends, moving in Western circles in a beautiful exotic Asian city.
Now we are back in Ho Chi Minh City and Darling Man has dived back into his old life, renewing connections, friendships and hanging out with his family. I still have some friends here – many have left — but they’ve been functioning perfectly well without me for two years. I’m not sure where I fit in.
I miss Chiang Mai, I miss Singapore and I miss Ho Chi Minh City of 2008. I hope when I shake off the last of this jetlag and the flu, I’ll discover the charms of Ho Chi Minh City of 2012 and find my place in it.
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339 days ago