Expat Life Passes One Year Mark

A puppy resident of the Sao Mai Hotel, Bien Hoa, Viet Nam
At least there are puppies ...

So, as I write this I imagine a few of my friends back home are still awake, winding down their revels as the first rays of the New Year sun bathe the Midwest of America (in places where it isn’t snowing). Here in Viet Nam it’s New Year’s Day afternoon, which also marks the anniversary of an entire year living abroad, here and in Thailand. In that time I’ve learned less about these two lands and cultures than I would have thought – but then not even life as an expat can keep me long from my appointed navel gazing. In that respect, however, I’ve learned much, much more about myself than I anticipated.

It’s been a crazy, intense year; very exciting, enriching and rewarding, full of adventure and new experiences – all of which I’ve relished. At the same time it’s been a difficult, challenging and even frustrating year at times. There have been days when I just wanted to say to hell with it all and go home to America.

I suppose the most momentous thing in the last 12 months has been my foray into a teaching career; aside from the goal of living abroad, it was my whole raison d’etre for coming here in the first place – a change of careers. But – and it wasn’t completely unexpected – the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Teaching ESL: Not for Me

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching, at least in an ESL context with young learners or otherwise low-level English students, is not for me. I suck at it, to put it bluntly. Furthermore, I didn’t feel any motivation to improve, but rather to just get out of it – it wasn’t fair to the students or myself, otherwise. There are cultural issues involved here, of course, but I think this is at the core of it.

I enjoyed working with adult, advanced students — a situation where I didn’t have to grade my language, and we could actually engage in meaningful discourse. I received largely positive feedback over the brief time I got to do this. But outside of that narrow context, no one was happy with me as a teacher, myself included.

Well, that’s not completely true. The folks in Thailand said they were happy with my performance, and I did establish a rapport with my first grade students that I did enjoy to a degree. Yet on the whole I was abjectly miserable in Thailand – but the how and why are beyond the scope of this particular missive.

I would also add that of all the negative things you hear and read about the ESL industry here in Southeast Asia, they are largely true, to one degree or another, depending on the context. This doesn’t help matters any.

But there is a larger issue at work here. After a decade of telecommuting, setting my own hours and to varying degrees being my own boss, I don’t want a structured work environment anymore. I just can’t — nor do I want — to handle it: one where I have to be at a certain place at a certain time for a specific amount of time, dressed a certain way, blah blah blah. No thanks.

It’s kind of ironic, but the part of the whole ESL adventure I enjoyed the most was getting the CELTA certificate. It was an enjoyable — if intense – course; I couldn’t help but enjoy learning about teaching methodologies, linguistics, and so forth. Like college, for me getting out and applying the knowledge gained wasn’t nearly so much fun or interesting as being exposed to and absorbing that knowledge in the first place. If only I could be a permanent student.

But then, aren’t we all permanent students, really? Well, at least some of us. But I digress.

Of course in my original grand scheme for my expat adventure, I was going to fall in love with teaching, be good at it, and live happily abroad doing it for several years. Alas, that was not to be, but I learned a lot, including some valuable lessons, so I have no regrets.

Living Abroad: Not the Same as Traveling Abroad

I’ve always enjoyed travel – although sometimes business travel could be a pain in the ass – and having a restless soul, I tend to only feel at peace when on the road. Home is always where I lay my head down at night, or so I’ve said. Give me the stimulation and adventure that new places provide, and the accompanying new sites, sounds, smells, and experiences.

But traveling abroad and living abroad are two different things. Being a traveler is not the same as being an expat.

I’ve found that after a time, I tend to want the comforts of home, for awhile – my own place (as opposed to a hotel room), for starters. A coffee shop where they know me and I can hang out for hours on end, writing, reading, or just navel gazing. A place to absorb, ponder, and process what I’ve seen and learned in my travels. A neighborhood where I know where the good restaurants are, and where the grocery store is, and what times it is open. A place where there is a quiet bar with Guinness on tap.

Simple matters, you say. However when you live abroad in a country where you don’t read or speak the language except perhaps a little, and the finer points of the culture escape you, then these simple things become complex matters. Just getting around can be a challenge.

At some point, the stimulation of travel evolves into trials and tribulations of everyday life.

And it is at this point that one misses home. Well, I should clarify and quantify that statement. This applies only to me, of course; your mileage may vary.

But while I do miss friends and family sometimes, what I miss about home is something much more fundamental. I miss being able to get around the neighborhood, buy groceries, or go to a restaurant and order takeout food – without any of it being a grand, epic adventure. Fundamental things, as I say – being able to speak the language, or having an implicit understanding of the cultural norms – a place where I don’t have to pause to consider why the cashier is doing what she’s doing in the manner in which she is doing it.

That’s what I miss most while living abroad: the simple ease of life at home, ease that’s born out of the simple fact that I was raised in that culture, and lived in it for 40 years, and have a native’s intuitive understanding of it, and know how to navigate in it.

At the end of the day, there really is no place like home. Who knew?

And in that sense, I’ve further learned that people really are products of their environment to very large degrees. I’m not discounting the influence of genetics, of course, but environment plays a big part of who we are.

Even if I were to spend the rest of my life abroad, to a certain degree I would always be American. Again, I don’t mean on a political or even a cultural level, but on a fundamental, anthropological level, if you will – my thought processes, the way I see the world at a very basic level – I’m a product of my upbringing in ways I never really considered before.

I used to think I didn’t have much in common with my fellow average American, but compared to the peoples of Southeast Asia, well, I’m a Yankees, beyond doubt.

Confucious Say Take a Picture: It Will Last Longer

Queen Ann of Bien Hoa, Viet Nam
... and pretty girls.

Which brings me to my next point. If you tend to be a bit of a misanthropic loner, then in a Confucian land you will stick out like a neon motel sign on a dark stretch of two-lane highway, ironically enough. If you prefer to keep to yourself more often than not, living in Southeast Asia can be difficult at times, particularly if you live in an area where foreigners are scarce and the people tend to be a bit insular. Community and family are paramount here; here there’s not much cultural room for the individual.

I relish meeting new people and experiencing new cultures; that’s one of the great joys of travel abroad. But there comes a time when I just want to walk to the coffee shop, sit down by myself, relax, read my book, drink my coffee, and not be bothered. When I’m not traveling I want the comforts of home, and that includes being left alone to my own devices. Furthermore, I’ve always been a bit of a wall flower, and happily so – I generally abhor being the center of attention, except on those rare occasions – usually fueled by alcohol – where I might seek the metaphorical spotlight.

Of course, living this way is not much a problem at home in America. But here in Southeast Asia, particularly outside the cosmopolitan centers of the larger cities, it becomes problematic, to say the least. I draw stares wherever I go in Bien Hoa. Complete strangers stop me and want to engage in conversation – some out of simple curiosity, some wanting to practice their English, some with singular motivations of their own that I can’t always divine.

And personal space? Forget about that; that’s a Western concept, and something else I really miss, I must confess.

Again, when one is traveling, this is great. When one is simply living, and dealing with the everyday concerns of day-to-day life, all this gets old – at least it does for the misanthropic loner who is content, more often than not, to keep to himself. The first time teenagers run up to you in the mall to take your picture, it’s amusing. By the third and fourth time, however, it gets fucking annoying.

Okay, there is much more to write about along these lines, but 1,500-some words are enough for now.