Oh Cr@p, I Have Culture Shock

So here we are in Vietnam, reunited as a family, after my unplanned solo parenting adventure in Europe.

Miss M and I have been back six weeks, yet it still seems like our new adventure hasn’t started.

Since we arrived, I have been battered quite severely by culture shock, a fact that has left Darling Man completely baffled.

“But you lived in Vietnam before,” he said. “You know what it’s like. Why are you angry about things now?”

But this angry and frustrated-about-everything mood is not just about Vietnam. It’s about trying to set up our new life AND look after a toddler AND fulfil my work obligations AND organise home help AND get Miss M settled in day care, all without Darling Man. Because he went back to work three days after I arrived. And he’s working Vietnam-style, out of the house 12 hours a day, six days a week.

And I really miss him.

I have been sick almost the entire six weeks. First the remnants of the flu that I caught in Switzerland, then a feverish stomach bug Miss M brought home from day care, then a terrible flu that included a gross hacking cough.

It has been a tough ride, and I’m almost as baffled by the culture shock as Darling Man.

It seems the culmination of so many disappointments, starting in Chiang Mai when we first discovered that getting a Schengen visa for Darling Man wasn’t a straightforward operation and continuing in Europe with the news that there would be no family cycling and camping holiday. And all made worse by loneliness and a conga-line of diseases.

So now I seem unable to cope with things that should be mild annoyances. And it seems like every little thing is just so damn difficult.

Things like the internet only working intermittently. For no apparent reason. And always cutting out when I’m trying to meet a work deadline.

This is how the internet dude hooked up our internet

Things like getting furniture into the house and into the correct rooms.

Things like getting plain sheets instead of headache-inducing patterned ones.

Things like working out how to do a grocery run when the wet market is too stinky for Miss M and the nearest supermarket doesn’t sell meat.

Thinks like Miss M suddenly peeing in her pants again, after months of happily using the toilet.

Things like Miss M getting sick and vomiting EVERYWHERE and on everything, including our entire stock of sheets during the course of one night.

Thinks like the mosquito-zapping racquet I bought not working. And the mop bucket I bought not working.

Things like a fish-seller yelling at me for taking her photo. Which is kind of understandable because I didn’t ask permission. I just started taking photos of fish, then unthinkingly moved the camera to include her. But it made me miss Chiang Mai, where people smiled at crazy Westerners with cameras.

Our new fish

And the home help. Part of our returning-to-Vietnam adventure was having a live-in helper. (Most people translate người giúp as maid but the literal translation is help-person and I like the literal version better. It sounds so much less colonial.)

A helper was supposed to give me time to work for money, to work on exciting creative projects that may or may not make money and to hang out with Miss M.

But the helpers are not proving particularly helpful.

We are on our third helper in less than five weeks and I don’t think this one is going to last. Partly for security reasons – she keeps leaving the house without telling me and leaving the front gate unlocked, a big no-no considering the local crime rates. Partly because I’m annoyed by her laziness – she cannot or will not look for tasks that need to be done. If she is not told explicitly to do something, she’ll take a nap in the spare room. And these naps can last several hours. Another part of the problem is that I cannot understand her accent so the communication barrier is almost impossible to cross. (She’s from a border town and even Darling Man says her Vietnamese is hard to understand.)

Our second helper left after three days, after receiving a call that her father was dying. So she jumped on a bus to go home to look after him.

Our first helper was sacked because I could not fit my working schedule around her demands – no cooking because she wasn’t paid enough and leaving at 3pm because she wasn’t paid enough. She considered the salary adequate when she thought she would be working for a Vietnamese family but when she realised there was a Westerner in the house she decided the salary on offer wasn’t enough, so began listing all the things she wouldn’t do. Oh, so helpful.

I got tired of her constant demands for new cleaning equipment when Darling Man and I were able to use the existing equipment to clean the house before she was hired. I also got tired of her standing beside me while I cooked. (In Vietnam, standing beside someone while they do something is considered helpful, apparently.) Miss M didn’t like helper number one for some reason, so I couldn’t leave them alone together because it would trigger a toddler tantrum.

I just basically could not handle the woman and could see no way to manage her long-term and keep my sanity.

I also could not actually concentrate on work while the first helper was with us because she kept tapping my arm and trying to tell me things. I KNOW it’s probably hard for a poor Vietnamese woman to understand that staring at a laptop perched on top of an ironing board is working, but it is.

My ironing board "office"

I thought this part of the helper problem would be resolved when we bought a desk and installed it in the spare room. But it didn’t. She would come in and try to talk to me anyway.

My "proper" office

For the first few weeks we didn’t have transport. So I was spending a fortune on taxis, driven by taxi drivers who accidentally-on-purpose couldn’t find places so drove around in circles for far too long.

So I’ve been waiting to bounce back. Waiting and waiting and waiting. And I haven’t bounced yet. Not even when I realised that the pants that wouldn’t do up in Switzerland are magically loose.

I wanted to bounce back before I wrote about “the troubles”. But I think it’s just starting to seem weird that we’ve been in Vietnam so long and I am not writing about it.

But the fact is I am NOT HAPPY JAN*.

So, sorry if I sound overly-whiny. I think that’s what culture shock is. An excess of whiny-ness.

I am hoping our crazy trip to Vung Tau this week will cure the culture shock and help me enjoy Vietnam once again.

I’ll let you know what happens.

*For the non-Australians, “not happy Jan” became a figure of speech after this ad campaign:

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7 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. LOVE this. one of your best posts yet. and why? because it’s so honest – and we’ve all been there.
    wandering educators recently posted..Why and How to Travel with Only a Carry-On

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Dr J. I thought my whiny-ness might come across as poor little rich girl syndrome. (Even though I am not rich. Or little.)

      I hope to get back to regular programming soon. Funny stories rather than whiny stories. 🙂

  2. glen says:

    Good luck – hope it starts getting better!
    glen recently posted..Goats on a hot sod roof – Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, Door County, WI

  3. EJ says:

    Hmm… Intermittent internet? I think the picture tells a thousand words.

    Moving around can be frustrating and having to deal with the demands of helpers who are not working out, plus being ill can be really frustrating. I hope things get better. I really enjoy your posts.

    • Barbara says:

      Thank you, EJ.

      Things are getting better. And I’m getting better too. Only coughing every so often, instead of all the time. Being sick really made everything seem so much worse.

  4. Now you’re talking lady! Arced up or what 🙂 Sorry to be laughing through your pain but I’m loving the thought of Miss M vomiting on your sheets. I hope they were the patterned ones. Hang in there girl.

  5. jan says:

    I was with you right up to the NOT HAPPY JAN. That add really worked! As you can see my name is Jan – you can imagine how people love saying that to me! lol
    No seriously, I am feeling for you. I think you should go on strike. Lay in bed, eat Tim Tams and drink beer. Send Miss M to work with Darling Man!
    jan recently posted..Otherworldy Travellers at Brisbane Airport

    • Barbara says:

      Oh, sorry about the NOT HAPPY JAN reference. But the phrase sums up a particular form of frustration, right? It’s a shame for you that the name Jan is so much part of the saying.

      I can see that I’m coming out my great slump because if I read your comment about Tim Tams a few weeks ago, it would just make me start complaining about how the Tim Tams available in Vietnam are made in Malaysia and they don’t taste right. But I don’t even feel the need for Tim Tams! I must be almost cured. Miss M has gone to work with Darling Man a few times during “the troubles”. She had a ball too!

  6. […] I suffering culture shock, home help problems, and intermittent internet like Barbara from Dropout Diaries.  […]

  7. Sometimes adjusting just plain sucks. Seems like you’ve had such a bad run of it with visa woes and a sick toddler. Being sick yourself surely won’t help. I hope things get better soon. Looking forward to the positive post when things start going right again!
    Bethaney – Flashpacker Family recently posted..Tips for Travelling to the Perhentian Islands

  8. Amaya says:

    You definitely don’t come across as too whiny and I can totally relate to your troubles.

    Often “culture shock” gets worse–not better– the more time you spend on the road.

    We’re six years into our world cycling adventure.

    Some aspects of travel I once just chalked up to the charm of life in the developing world now drive me bat-shit crazy.

    Water cuts, power cuts, crappy internet, people who ask me where I’m from and where I’m going to all day long…

    From the sounds of your previous comments, things are looking up. Glad to hear it.

    Spoil yourself a little and don’t feel guilty about the grumpiness.
    Amaya recently posted..Top 5 Reasons to Go Bicycle Touring in Kosovo

    • Barbara says:

      Holy moly, a six-year bicycle tour. I am in awe!
      Thank you for saying I didn’t sound too whiny. I think I was though. I am feeling far less whiny now. I even caught myself singing in the shower this morning!

  9. robin says:

    Keep your ears up, as K would say.

    The next good bit is on its way.
    robin recently posted..Las Curvas

  10. Ayngelina says:

    You know someone once pointed a camera at me and took a photo and I was really uncomfortable, since then I can’t take a photo of someone without asking. It was a tough lesson.

    I know things are bad but they will get better, after all they can only go up.
    Ayngelina recently posted..Learning how to scuba dive

    • Barbara says:

      I know, I know, I know! I usually always ask to take a person’s photo.
      The lesson was more in my reaction — wanting to go back to Thailand. If I didn’t feel so crappy I would have just apologised and deleted the photo but instead I got upset. I think this incident was the first one that made me realise I had culture shock rather than all of Vietnam being out to get me.

  11. Whitney says:

    I feel your pain. It’s not an easy thing getting settled with a 2-year-old. We’ve been in China 4 months and still have yet to purchase a comforter and mostly use takeaway containers for bowls. Hope things are starting to get better for you.
    Whitney recently posted..I Am Not Impressed, Shanghai Zoo

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks Whitney, things are getting better. But it really has seemed as though ever little thing is 100 times more difficult than it should be.

      I hope you get a comforter and some bowls soon!

  12. Michi says:

    I went through a major culture shock phase when I got married and returned to Spain (after having spent a year hiatus back in the States).

    I had lived here for two years before the hiatus, so coming back to Spain and feeling differently toward it was a huge letdown. I think I’m just realizing it now (2 years later) that culture shock must have been what I was going through. Suddenly, all of the bureaucrats in Spain were incompetent. Siesta was a waste of time, and wouldn’t it be so much better if I could come home at 5pm, instead of coming home at 10pm and being too tired to eat? Why wasn’t there proper insulation in the buildings? Oh, the list went on and on.

    My culture shock lasted about a year and half (I wasn’t a grumpy old man all day everyday – but the occasional setback would could bring tears in seconds). I think it finally went away when I flew to California to visit family and friends for a few weeks. I was refreshed and came back to Spain with new eyes and a fresh slate again.

  13. […] lose some of my chins stat. Secondly, now I’m really enjoying Vietnam again, after my bout of culture shock last year, I am noticing the colours so much […]

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