Depression, Banking, Cycling: A Day in the Expat Life

Urban Bicycling NerdToday was one of those days in paradise where I just wanted to take my toys and go home. Tuck my tail between my legs and skulk back across the planet. Today was one of those days where I just wanted to say “fuck it.”

Being prone to depression I’m not unfamiliar with such feelings; fortunately they are few and far between these days. But sometimes they do appear, like an unwelcome visitor whom you just can’t seem to find the courage to tell to go to hell. In retrospect I’m not sure why he chose to visit today — while this day has had its share of frustration, as far as a noob expat life goes it wasn’t terribly frustrating. And it came on the heels of a fun weekend in Sai Gon, so there’s really no reason for me to feel this way.

Lack of sleep? No. It’s true I didn’t get as much sleep as I normally do the night before, but still got about 5 or 6 hours. Sai Gon kept me up a bit, but I wasn’t in party mode, so no, that’s not it. Diet? Granted I skipped breakfast (which for me comes at lunchtime for normal people), and while that is enough to make me cranky or irritable, it’s not enough to make angry and depressed.

So why?

The fact that it’s Christmas time, a time of year that I associate with death and loss? The two-year anniversary of my father’s death is just nine days away (Mom’s, of course, comes in January — but she went into the hospital Dec. 3, if memory servers me). While it’s easy here to ignore the fact that it’s the dreaded Yuletide season, there are reminders though, even here. But Here in Viet Nam these reminders — Xmas muzak, Christmas trees, lights, etc. — are so far out of my normal Midwestern winter holiday context that it just makes me laugh.

So I don’t know.

Such is the nature of depression; it doesn’t need a reason. It’s days like these that I almost think that I should cave in and jump on the anti-depressant bandwagon, but that’s a fundamental line I just can’t bring myself to cross. start messing with brain chemistry and you start messing with who you are — what makes you, you.

Is tinkering with that worth having an even emotional keel? Again, I don’t know. No, that’s not true; obviously I don’t believe so. Maybe not with 100 percent certainty, but no, I don’t believe that it is. Even in my darkest days, I couldn’t bring myself to, despite my therapist’s suggestion to the contrary.

I’m not putting anyone else down for going that route — although I will say that I think the majority of people that use anti-depressants probably don’t need them. But it’s a deeply personal decision that no one else is in a position to judge or to say otherwise what you should or shouldn’t do. It’s jut not an option for me.

Anyway, whether it was the cà phê sữa đá, the bag of CreamO’s cookies, or the lengthy bike ride that has left endorphins and rubbery thighs in its wake, I feel somewhat better now. Just cranky now, I suppose.

Making an Ass out U and Me

Again, I’ve been gazing at my navel and my shoes trying to deconstruct this feeling — not sure why it’s here. Granted my trip to the bank to pay my rent ended up being this epic adventure that took several hours this afternoon. At one point I gave up trying to find this specific bank branch and tried to enlist the help of a cabdriver to take me to *any* Agribank branch, but couldn’t convey what I wanted.

So, it was back out on the bike, and this time I found it with no problems — I was actually quite close the first time, I just didn’t think it could possibly be down a dirt road. I was wrong — you’d think I’d learn not to color my instincts with Western bias by now, but apparently not.

Then the bank guard made a fuss, I’m not sure what about — whether it was the fact that I was parking my bike in the near-empty motorbike lot, or the fact that the bank was close to closing time, or what. This isn’t what set me off; I was in a depressed and angry mood before I set out this morning (morning being normal people’s afternoon of course).

But by this time, I wasn’t up for any hassle that I perceived to be bullshit, so I did what I would normally not do in Southeast Asia, because it usually doesn’t work — scowled angrily and asked in English with what was no doubt an angry voice: “What’s the problem? Why can’t I park here? No one else is here, and the bank is still open!”

I didn’t really think about what I was saying; I reacted instinctively from my gut — which is to say an angry and depressed gut.

This kind of reaction is usually the absolute dumbest thing you can do in this situation — confrontation backfires in Southeast Asia more often than not; culturally it’s just something people rarely do. It’s a loss of face for you and potentially for the person you are pissed at — and a very difficult thing for Western foreigners to grasp. Usually the sort of reaction I exhibited just makes things worse.

Normally in a situation like this I would smile and plead or feign helpless ignorance, if the other person knows no English and I can’t make myself understood with my pidgin Vietnamese. Or just shrug my shoulders and walk/ride away.

In this case, however, it worked. The bank guard backed off and left me alone — except for gesturing to the open side door of the bank. It may have been that he wasn’t trying to tell me not to park my bike, or trying to keep me from walking into the bank 20 minutes before they close — it may have been something else entirely; I don’t know.

Inside the bank, between the copy of my lease, pidgin Vietnamese and pidgin English, the English-to-Vietnamese dictionary on my phone and various hand gestures, I was able to hand over the cash and deposit it into my landlord’s account. Mission accomplished.

After this was done I actually felt rather elated — perseverance and self-reliance for the win. One has to take joy in life where one can find it. Now it was finally time for coffee and relaxing — and stretching my quads.

As I noted before, this wouldn’t normally be something that would make me depressed; it’s just the way things are when you live in a foreign country and haven’t learned much of the language yet (at least in my experience); the simplest tasks can become epic challenges. After a year though, I’m used to that — even expect it, chalk it up to learning, and move on.

While I was searching in vain for the bank, this attitude seemed to escape me for some reason, though. Usually I would have been happy regardless of whether or not I found the bank, as I was out riding around on my bike, and that’s almost always a good thing.

I, Am Not a Clown … I … Am … a Man!

John Hurt in The Elephant Man: he was a man, not an animal.Then, later in the evening something happend to me — twice — that used to happen in Thailand quite often, but fortunately doesn’t happen much here in Viet Nam. Twice I got the “hey foreign clown, entertain us” attitude from the locals.

I don’t think I’m going to elaborate too much just now; I’m going to save this topic for another time — I know I keep promising that; this dovetails into the whole Thailand vs. Viet Nam thing, the why-did-I-leave-Thailand-to-come-back-to-Vietnam subject that everyone always asks about.

But this post is getting long enough, and I have to settle down to work here soon. Let’s just say it’s one thing to be curious; it’s one thing to approach a foreigner and ask to speak English, or just to ask them where they are from and have a brief conversation. Even though It’s not something I would do, being more than a little bit of the misanthropic loner, I understand it and even welcome it, more often than not — I’ve made some great friends here who intially approached me in just that way.

But it’s another thing altogether to have someone jump up, get in your face so that you have to stop walking, and shout an exaggerated and obviously smart-ass “hello!” It’s another thing to have them and their friends laugh uproariously when you respond in kind — albeit stiffly, trying to be polite — because you got the crazy foreigner to respond and impress your friends.

Again, it normally doesn’t bother me, although at first it used to drive me bonkers when I first moved to Suphanburi, Thailand. It just goes with the territory, literally and figuratively. Besides, I realize it’s just ignorance (sometimes mixed with alcohol), not mean-spiritedness, usually.

But this evening, after this exact scenario happened twice in the span of 20 minutes, it really pissed me off — the bicycle-induced endorphins receded and the anger and depression came back. It was hard to walk away, that second time. Really … really … hard to walk away and not cause a scene at best,or do something that everyone involved would regret — me most of all — at worst. But I did.

Such is the life of the expat, I suppose.

Urban Warrior Bike Nerd, Viet Nam Edition: Facemask Protection

Urban Bicycling NerdBeen wondering wtf with regard to that picture above? I’ve been wanting to capture a photo of me in my facemask and helmet to see what I look like when I bicycle around Bien Hoa (the air quality is pretty chunky on the roads between the traffic and industry here).

You may be wondering if that mask actually does any good. I wonder too. You see a lot of Vietnamese people wearing masks when they ride their motorbikes, or are just walking around on a busy street — you see this all over Southeast Asia. All I know is, when I don’t wear my mask, my lungs burn — no joke.

Placebo affect? When I take off my mask in the middle of a ride, or when I get home, I’m immediately assaulted by a zillion smells — smells I didn’t smell with the mask on. So yeah, I’ll stick with the facemask.

I think the majority of the masks people wear do not do much good, at least in terms of particulates. After trying several of the cloth masks people wear here, I invested five bucks, or 100,000 dong — heh — in the industrial-grade mask you see in the photo. It actually provides a decent seal against your mouth and nose, once you get it positioned right. Not the most comfortable thing to wear, but if you fiddle with it long enough, you can get an acceptable fit dialed in.

Editor’s Note:

I actually wrote this a few days ago and decided to wait before posting. Whenever I write something like this, it seems it’s usually best to wait a few days. It’s not self-censorship as it is self-editing; sometimes these kinds of posts about depression or angst just make for crap writing, plain and simple. ‘

There are some posts on here, when I go back and read them, I cringe — not because of the private and personal nature of them, but the writing is just painfully labored. But after a few days, I deemed this one acceptable, so here you go.

3 thoughts on “Depression, Banking, Cycling: A Day in the Expat Life”

  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and well-written blog. You have put into words what I totally failed to convey to family and friends about being a Westerner in Southeast Asia. It’s been a while for me (I worked in China in 2002-2003), but the sentiment still remains. The shock of not being able to communicate actually catapulted me into quite a few years of studying Chinese. I’m Ok at it, but there are no plans to go back – and if there’s something I would love to do, it would be to go back and actually TALK to people as opposed to just volleying their “hellos” or putting up with them staring or following me…

    Thank you, again. Next time when people don’t seem to understand my descriptions, I’m sending them here 🙂

    1. Hey Anneke, yes, it’s kind of hard to describe to someone who has never actually lived abroad. You know it’s funny you should comment just now; the other day I met someone casually, a Taiwanese person who has been living in America for the past year. He speaks very good English, but we still shared a lot of the same experiences and reactions.

      Oh, and good luck with the Mandarin!

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