Looking Back on a Father’s Death

Sculptor August Rodin's Falling ManWell, Dad, it’s been three years.

I sometimes wonder where I would have to go to escape the trappings and reminders of this time of year. The remote jungles of New Guinea or Argentina? The deserts of Africa? The Moon?

Then I wonder: were I ever to actually find such a place, would it really matter? Would it be enough to keep from thinking about what this time of year means? Would it be enough, when each hour, each minute that ticks by echoes and reverberates in my conscious, making me almost preternaturally aware of the passage of time, as it ticks down to these two black anniversaries looming – each moment resonating in me like the telltale heart that beats under Poe’s floorboards.

No, I suppose it wouldn’t. And as I’ve remarked before, part of me doesn’t want to forget, painful as it is to remember, painful as it is that your last breath lingers in a corner of my mind, and will for as long as I have one.

I did manage to forget about this time of year for awhile yesterday and the day before. I had just moved into my temporary apartment – because my actual apartment that I’m renting (in the same building as the aforementioned room) won’t be available until January 3. Upon moving into this temporary room in the same building I found not one but two roaches. Granted one was dead, and here Southeast Asia, frankly, as in any warm climate, there’s really no avoiding the occasional roach; you’re going to find one in your bathroom sooner or later. Still, it’s not a welcome site on your first day in your new pad.

But Wait, There’s More!

Then I woke up yesterday to find the hot water heater isn’t working. Okay, roaches and no hot water – maybe I should have spent more time apartment hunting, eh Dad? Maybe the extra money I was spending on that guesthouse was money well spent. At least it had hot water and no roaches.

Then last night, I log onto my bank account back in the United States just to verify the funds I believe I have in there, before I buy some plane tickets and hotel reservations for a trip next month. After all, Dad — even though I know you would look askance at my spending habits, being a child of the Depression and whatnot – some of what you and Mom tried to teach me permeated my thick skull: I make it a point never to spend money I don’t have. So a glance upon logging in reveals that there is considerably less money than there should be in my account – specifically about a $1,000 less.

I look closely at the recent transactions and see a bunch of transactions that show up as international ATM withdrawals – withdrawals that I never made. Four of the five of these transactions all appear on the same date as the day that I last used my card myself. I remember specifically when I last used it, as I have a local account with an ATM card here in Viet Nam, which I use for day to day cash needs. Furthermore, I save all my ATM receipts (again the influence of you and Mom).

Yeah, I know, if I would just use banks instead of ATMs, and actually deal with people this wouldn’t have happened. But you know, Dad, I’ve been using ATMs to do my banking since 1988, and this is the first time something like this has happened. Yes, I should probably consider myself fortunate, mucking about in parts foreign, that this hasn’t happened before.

But what’s really odd is that I still have my card in my possession. And no, as I answered to the customer service person I talked to last night, I never let anyone else use it, and it was never out of my possession. While the ATM codes within the transactions listed in my account are somewhat inscrutable, it appears that these transactions took place in Russia – Stalingrad, in fact.

Russian crooks here in Viet Nam have somehow spoofed my ATM card. Fuckers. Not sure how; even if they were able to observe me enter my pin, would my card have been out long enough to capture an image with high enough resolution to see the number on the card? Could they have hacked the ATM machine, either electronically or physically?

Furthermore, is it too late to nuke what remains of the Soviet Union? Where’s Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger when I need them?

Damned if I know. I just know I’m not going to use the ATM’s in the backpacker ghetto of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City anymore. And since I don’t have access to nuclear weapons, I’ll just have to bend over and take it. Of course I don’t know that they were actually Russian; just because the transactions show up as having taken place at a Russian ATM doesn’t mean the thief or thieves were Russian.

Anyway now those charges are disputed, my card is invalidated, and I have to have a bunch of paperwork and my new card delivered via courier to me here in Viet Nam at my expense. The bank will only ship it to my address of record – that being my address back in the States – so it falls to me to arrange to get it here; one hopes one can trust the employees of Fed Ex.

So yeah, the last thirty six hours have kind of sucked, but such is the life lived abroad. You deal with these sorts of things when they arise or you go home. On the other hand, I had my first observation review with my boss at the school where I’m now teaching – the observation having taken place last week – and that all went well. Even so, it has occupied my thoughts of late. To say that I’ve been preoccupied these days would be an understatement.

And yet, Dad … and yet.

Underneath it all, I’m still acutely aware of the passage of time; acutely aware of just what time of year it is. Despite the fact that temperatures are still approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and the weather is humid; despite the fact that the trees are green and flowers bloom and local fruit is readily available – despite this I know that it is winter and the time of dread anniversaries.

The trappings of the season one finds in Viet Nam, and indeed much of Southeast Asia – a secular version of Christmas with skinny Santas in flashy gold outfits and sappy versions of Christmas songs I never knew existed until I came here (I hear covers of Wham’s “Last Christmas” 10 times a day; it’s a terrible pop song so be glad you haven’t heard of it) – these all serve as reminders as well. The fact that they are almost always seemingly culturally out of place only make them stand out that much more – that and the fact that it’s all unironically and unapologetically consumerist in nature.

So here we are Dad, three years to the day down the road. Well, I’m here, anyway, but you are not.

And that is indeed what this is all about, isn’t it? The fact that you aren’t here, that you are gone, never to return. Actually as I write this it is only the early morning of December 16 back home in the States, so technically the anniversary of your death won’t be for several more hours yet. But here on the other side of the planet, that day is already here.

And even though three years of passed – and what eventful years they’ve been in my life – you’re still never far from my thoughts. It is rare that a day passes and I don’t think of you or Mom, for one reason or another.

A Road Less Traveled?

It seems hard to believe that three years have passed since your death, and that it will be 11 years in January since Mom died; this time of year always makes your deaths seem so close to me in time. Like my memories of her, some of my memories of you have begun to fade, while others sharpen. As my own age begins to catch up with the age you were when my earliest memories were forming, those childhood images I have of you seem to gain clarity.

It boggles my mind to think that when you were 42 – well, in a few weeks I’ll be 43, won’t I? – that I was already two years old, and that you had three older children, two of which were teenagers already. There but for the grace of God (or more precisely, vulcanized rubber) go I.

I suppose it’s somewhat ironic, this, considering the country where I live currently – many if not most of my students have parents my age; often they are even younger than I. Here in Southeast Asia people find it even more incomprehensible than you and Mom did that I have no wish for marriage and family – that someone would chose to be solitary, and happily so. Some of my students got me a piggy bank for Teacher’s Day here in Viet Nam because, according to them, I need to save money in order to get married. Then one of the Vietnamese people I work with asked me the other day If I had ever married; I told him with a smile that I had dodged that bullet. I added that I was engaged once, though, but that I had wised up before it was too late.

He looked mystified and just said “Oh, I’m sorry,” because in his world view there could be other response to this than condolences. It was one of those “Toto-we’re-definitely-not-in-Kansas” moments I relish living abroad. I grok a little bit more about the local culture and that of my own, and consequently myself – and this is a wonderful thing; it’s ultimately why we travel, yes?

I only wish you could be here to talk about all this in person. There’s so much I’d like to tell you about the last three years. I count myself fortunate that I at least had a few years to get to know you not as your child but as a fellow adult – albeit one whose life took very different turns than your own (sometimes to your chagrin, I know). I think I was only just beginning to come into my own person as a fully-formed adult – yes, I hear you laughing as you say that when I was in my 20s you didn’t think that day would ever come – when Mom died. I rue the fact that I was only just beginning to get to know here as one adult to another when death took her; if there is any sort of justice in the universe someone will have to answer for that after my own death comes.

In any event Dad, once again know that you are gone but not forgotten – that you never could be. That in some ways, even though life goes on, that time passes, that the ghosts remain quiet for long stretches of time, know that I’m still standing by your bedside watching impotently as entropy takes you away from me, that even as it does this, that I declare that it can be damned along with the entire universe before I will forget

Wherever you are now, know this, Dad.

Even though my siblings and I let you down in such a horrible way, I hope your spirit can find some solace in this.

Back in ‘Nam … and the Classroom

A portrait in ink done by a student and aspiring artist of the Lego school of yours truly, Jeff ChappellSo yeah, I took some time off. I took some time off from pretty much everything.

I know that sounds dark, ominous and sinister and whatnot, which ordinarily might not be entirely surprising for me and mental effluvium receptacle that is this blog. But this is not the case. Rather, after I left Viet Nam and returned to the States in March of this year, I basically just goofed off for the next seven months. I got lazy while I recharged my mental and spiritual batteries. I kicked back and thought about what it was I want to do – that is, when I wasn’t playing video games, building/tinkering with computers, experimenting with barefoot running, and generally loafing about reading in cafes and bars.

Writing – including blogging – as you can see, was not on that list. I thought about writing a lot though, if that counts.

As always, I’m grateful beyond words for my parents having made it possible for me to have this as an option at this point in my life. But on the other hand, while they left me some money, they didn’t make me independently wealthy, at least not to the point where I could continue a Larry Darrell-esque lifestyle indefinitely. This was coupled with the fact that I was only home about three or four months when I began to get itchy feet (which I anticipated would happen).

Hmm … that link should generate some interesting web traffic. But I digress.

So after much thought about the present and the future, today finds me sitting in a cafe in Sai Gon, where it’s pissing down at the moment of this writing. I’ve been back in Viet Nam a little more than a month now, having arrived via Thailand, where I spent three weeks avoiding floods and goofing off while eating Thai food and indulging in light debauchery.

Fiona, a Vietnamese student expounds upon the word "cold."I’m teaching ESL once again, and so far three times has proven once again to be a charm, on the employment front. Several months ago, when I first began entertaining the notion of giving it one more go, I recalled that my journalism career was marked by two unpleasant episodes before a satisfactory situation was found. Thus I reasoned it might be so with teaching English.

So I took what lessons there were to be learned from my previous experiences, and employed them in my search for a job. Thus I find myself once again back where I started: I’m working for the school where I took the CELTA course here in Sai Gon. Is it a metaphorical bed of roses? No. But neither is it a manure-laded bed of thorn bushes either. In fact I’ve managed to avoid the biggest pitfalls of the previous ESL episodes of my short ESL career.

More on all this later. But for now, let it suffice to say that I’m back in Sai Gon – pho and ca phe sua da for breakfast and geckos barking in the middle of the night – and back in the online saddle with the urge to write and blog once again.

Of course the real reason I came back to Southeast Asia, so I wouldn’t have to rename this site.

Postscript: Wondering about the images? Well, the first one is a portrait of me done by one of my students who is an aspiring artist of the Lego school. Then there is teenage Fiona – that being her chosen English moniker for class – who felt my stick figure drawing used to elicit the word “cold” needed to be embellished. And last but by no means least are the three elementary artistes, three of my Vietnamese youngsters who are clearly excited by the arrival of Christmas.

As always click ’em to big ’em.

 

A Vietnamese Christmas, as depicted by Jeff Chappell's elementary ESL students.

 

Vietnamese kids are excited by Christmas too -- at least those in Jeff Chappell's ESL classes.

Living Abroad: It Ain’t Vacation

*insert voice over* Previously on the Gecko’s Bark:Yearning to Travel Abroad (Again)

Living abroad ain't all double rainbows over Bangkok, you know. So in that last wall of text I was going on about how I found myself with the urge to travel, now that I’ve been home three months. Since I put up that post I’ve talked to a few friends – sadly, they’ve never been beyond the borders of North America – about living abroad vs. traveling abroad.

Keep in mind that this is my experience, and mine alone. Others I’ve talked to that have lived abroad have had similar experiences; others completely different. Your mileage (kilometereage, if you live outside the United States) may vary, of course, should you choose the expat life.

Whaddya Mean, I’m Not on Vacation? Living Abroad …
It’s All Fun and Games, Adventure and Excitement, Isn’t It?

But let’s define living abroad. After all, if you’re alive, and you’re abroad, technically, I suppose, you’re living abroad. Obviously that’s not quite what I mean.

Living abroad, as in you’re living an everyday life: you’ve got a place of employment and permanent place to live (semi-permanent, perhaps, but you get the idea). You become a regular part of a neighborhood; the people that run the corner coffee shop know what you drink without having to ask (although in most parts of Asia, they will anyway as a matter of course). You’re not on an extended vacation or trip; you’ve got a daily routine.

But therein lies the rub of living abroad vs. traveling abroad. The same things that you may not like, or are ambivalent about, at home, don’t really change once you get established abroad. If you have a commute to work, you’ve got traffic to worry about. The same problems you encounter renting an apartment or house in your own country can be the same problems renting in a foreign one.

Routine is routine; the mundane details of everyday life don’t magically disappear because you’re in some far off exotic locale. Novelty only goes so far, and what’s more, it won’t iron your work shirts for you.

Living abroad ain't sipping ca phe sua da in a coffee shop everyday ... well, actually it is, in Viet Nam.Furthermore, living abroad, you have the added layer of not speaking the native tongue or understanding the local culture, except perhaps in a very broad sense. Sure you’ve read the culture chapter in Lonely Planet, and watched a few indie films made in this country, but this will only get you so far (and not very).

Everyday things that you can take for granted back home – driving to work, going to the grocery store, meeting friends for coffee, going shopping for clothes – becomes an adventure abroad. At first, the adventure is fun and stimulating; you’re learning a new language and a new culture in ways you never could otherwise.

This is a good thing; this is what you signed up for.

But on the other hand, after a few months, you just want to buy groceries, as opposed to having an adventure. At some point, after that novelty wears off, not having an adventure everyday starts to sound pretty nice.

And trust me, even after you’ve been there for months, there never is a routine for the expat; every trip to the grocery store has the potential for adventure, if not outright debacle. I suppose if you’ve lived there for years, are fluent in the language and understand the subtle nuances of culture – you can avoid unwanted adventure.

Of course a lot depends on where you choose to live abroad. Speaking of which, I’m going to go off on a tangent, but one neatly encapsulated by a drop-down box, for your reading convenience. Feel free to skip altogether and come back later, if you wish.

[learn_more caption=”Morons Looking for the *Real* Culture”]People – especially those who really don’t have a clue about travel – talk about finding the real culture.

I must have heard it a thousand times before I left, a thousand more while I was there, and a thousand more in the months I’ve been back. But what about the “real” Thailand or the “real” Viet Nam?

You hear it all the time among travelers and would be travelers; it’s a near constant refrain in any backpacker’s ghetto. “I want to experience the real insert country/culture here.”

This attitude is so unbelievably racist and elitist as to boggle one’s mind. You know what? Do Thai people live there? Yeah? Well guess what? That’s the real Thailand. No, Suphanburi isn’t like Nong Khai; neither of those two towns are like Bangkok. But they’re all real Thai cities.

If I could give people traveling or moving abroad for the first time one piece of advice, it would be to get that stuipd idea of what’s real out of your head; lose that mindset that you need to see a quote-unquote real place. You’ll miss the real place, the real culture, and the real people altogether if you do. [/learn_more]

I think the level of everyday adventure you experience as an expat can vary with the type of place you chose to live. If you do live in a more cosmopolitan place abroad – say Bangkok or Hong Kong, Paris or Berlin, for example – you’ll find it easier than living in a smaller town – but not for the reasons you might think. At least if you’re like me.

In these places it’s easier to be anonymous – you’re just one of many foreigners. But in the small town, you will be one of a few, perhaps even the only one. This can be good; it can even be pretty cool – again, you’ll learn things about this foreign culture you wouldn’t otherwise. It can also be bad; you’re always “the foreigner.” Eyes will follow you wherever you go, and you will always be the center of attention – the least detail will be the subject of endless fascination to the locals.

Sometimes you’ll even get treated like you’re their to entertain people, like they expect you to break out into a song and dance routine for their amusement. It’s a rare occurrence, but it does happen. In Thailand, where it happened more often to me than in Viet Nam, I came to think of them as “hey falang!” moments.

Hey! You! Funny Looking Foreigner! Amuse Us!

A hey falang! moment is when you are walking down the street, minding your own business and some guy(s) will literally jump in front of you, get in your face and shout “Hey, falang! HELLO!” and then laugh maniacally with his friends at your nonplussed expression. It’s something that someone would never do to their fellow natives, but don’t think twice about doing it to a foreigner.

Even the Thai Ronald McDonald is mocking you, falang! I keed, I keed ... Again, it’s rare, but it happens. It happened to me a number of times. Sometimes it’s just alcohol and curiosity combined with self consciousness that fuels a hey falang! moment; other times it’s people genuinely being assholes.

But it can happen in any country; I’ve seen my fellow Americans bust out the U.S. version of hey falang! and treat foreigners in a public place, such as a shopping mall or restaurant, in ways they would never even dream of treating another American. I’ve seen it happen the streets of Paris; I’ve seen it happen on the streets of Dublin, too. It can happen anywhere (except maybe Japan) so please don’t get the idea that it’s a Southeast Asian thing. It’s a human thing; we’re dicks like that, homo sapiens.

Ignorance knows no political, social, economic, ethnic or cultural barriers, unfortunately.

But I’d say the hey falang! guys you run into are the exceptions that proves the rule: the large majority of the people you meet in Southeast Asia will be very polite and treat you with courtesy and respect. Once they get over their embarrassment that they don’t speak English, that is.

Can you imagine being in any Western country where people would be embarrassed because they met a foreigner on the street and couldn’t speak that person’s native tongue very well? Me neither.

But the bright side of the hey falang! experience is that it gives you a new found respect and sympathy for immigrants. It isn’t easy always being under the spotlight; it can be particularly unpleasant when you’re just trying to go about your everyday life. In fact, sometimes being the foreigner is just plain depressing.

Being the Big Man on the Foreign Campus

Brando as the Ugly American in not-quite Viet Nam.It can be particularly distressing if you don’t like being the center of attention, that is (like me). Some expats love it, though. They get off on the fact that they are the center of attention wherever they go – that they have de facto rock star status. That they are the big expat fish in the small foreign pond.

And I’m not just talking about the stereotypical fat, ugly old guy who has been there 20 years and still can’t speak the language – the one with the cute local girlfriend young enough to be his daughter. Sometimes you’ll meet expats that have a deep love and respect for the local culture who have gone native to a large degree, while still enjoying and even encouraging the attention derived from their foreign rock star status.

I have trouble comprehending both of those types of expat. But live and let live; to each their own.

For myself, I found that after a year living abroad, I was tired of being the foreigner. I was tired of being a rock star and not being able to set foot outside my apartment without stopping conversations and traffic. I got tired of causing a ruckus at the supermarket or a snarl of traffic, just by mere presence. It made me spiritually tired in a way that doesn’t happen here in my native land, where I can walk down the street and I blend in with the scenery – no one gives me a second thought.

On the other hand, there is that lack of adventure in the life at home. Stimulation – the constant moment-to-moment simulation of the alien that one finds abroad – is lacking. It’s perhaps telling that one of the first things I missed about living in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam was riding my bicycle in in the chaotic maelstrom of potential death that is traffic there.

That’s the beauty of traveling abroad: you get all the benefits without all the hassles of living abroad, aside from the occasional hey falang! moment. Or any inopportune moments you choose to be a dumbass.

I think for me there needs to be balance between travel and home. I don’t think I could be happy staying at home for very long at this point;  but then I don’t think I can live abroad indefinitely, or even travel, indefinitely, had I the financial resources to do so. If only I could find a way to travel and work in some meaningful way, something that I enjoy that I can do on the road … hmmm …

Balance: the ability to return home to the familiar and process all that I’ve seen and experienced while away, then once that’s done and I’m spiritually rested: it’s time to hit the road again. When the restless sets in – when the passage of time and the sense of motionlessness becomes acute: then it’s time to go.

As for you, well, again, your kilometerage may vary.

Postscript: Almost forgot: “falang” — it’s actually spelled farang, but the “r” is pronounced as an “l” anywhere in Thailand except Bangkok (in my experience). Just like the r in “krap” is usually omitted and pronounced kap (as in cop) seemingly everywhere but in hiso Bangers.

Anyway, it’s a Thai word that means foreigner, but specifically Western, caucasian foreigner, as opposed to say, someone from another Asian country. To my knowledge it has no negative connotation, but like any word, in a certain context I can see how it could be perceived as an insult.

Yearning to Travel Abroad (Again)

Warm Sultry Night Breezes Awaken the Wanderlust Once More; There’s Still Much of Asia to See …

Kanchanaburi Clouds a la HDR #1
For the first time since I got back from 14 months in Southeast Asia – about three months ago to the day – I found myself missing it. I don’t mean missing the food or certain experiences or friends made there. I mean truly missing it, as in finding myself wishing I was back there.

While other people were barbecuing yesterday – there are few people left who actually celebrate Memorial Day weekend in the traditions of previous generations – I was perusing photographs of Thailand and Viet Nam and pricing flights on Travelocity. In the still of the small hours before dawn, lying in bed and not reading the book in my hands, a warm intermittent summer (like) breeze coming through the window, I kept waiting for the silence to be broken by the territorial bark of a gecko …

I think it may be the weather. For the first time since I’ve been back, it’s been hot, this Memorial Day Weekend – yes, I know, but here in the Midwest of America, we rock the traditional. It’s not summer yet, but it is; correspondingly the first cool weather here presaging autumn usually happens around Labor Day. And I should clarify: it wasn’t hot as in Southeast Asia hot – hotter than Africa hot, incidentally — not by a long shot (long shots being measured in amounts of 10 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent more humidity). But hot for this part of the world — cool for the part of the world pictured above.

Or, for an Ohio native who has been acclimated to Southeast Asia, comfortable. It’s rather ironic; this time last year I was living and working in Suphanburi, Thailand, a couple hours northwest of Bangkok and thinking there was no way I could ever get used to the heat.

And yet now that I’ve been back home for three months, having returned at the tail-end of winter, I realize just how acclimated to the weather I had become. Friends keep remarking about how hot it is, to which I just laugh, because I’m thinking: “Ah, how nice, it finally got warm.”

After a few winters on the 45th parallel, I’ve never complained since about snow or cold. After a year spent in Southeast Asia, I’ll never complain about the heat and humidity.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that anyone who complains about the weather at all is just silly – weather is what it is; it’s generally not a surprise. Either appreciate the climate for what it is or STFU and move; there’s really only these two choices in that regard.

But I digress, as is my wont. I think the warm weather reminded me of Southeast Asia in a way that nothing else has (perhaps nothing else could) since I’ve been back.

At least that’s part of it. Another part of it was boredom. For the first time since I’ve been back, I found myself bored yesterday, which is unusual in and of itself. But it was a long holiday weekend, friends were off doing traditional Memorial Day weekend things and the weather was warm, heralding the sticky summer to come. I found myself uninterested in my usual diversions and daydreaming about traveling again, specifically to Southeast Asia; there is a lot of it I have yet to see.

I’ll get to Angkor Wat in spite of my dumbass self, someday.

Beth Orton's Central Reservation: a great album to listen to while wandering across lonely, corn-cordoned highways at 3 a.m. on a sultry summer night.Upon reflection perhaps it wasn’t boredom so much as restlessness; the change of seasons always makes me restless. The passage of time – or, rather, awareness of it – always makes me antsy in a vague, quiet sort of way, almost subliminal or instinctive. Anxious for movement.

Time marches on and so must I.

Yesterday for the first time since I’ve been back I thought seriously about buying a car – something that I really would rather not, if I can avoid it. But then, warm summer nights are made for restless, introverted souls to drive aimlessly and listen to Beth Orton.

Living Abroad vs. Traveling Abroad, Slight Return

The change of seasons is one of the things I missed most about America during my year abroad, though, and specifically my native Midwest. No surprise there; I missed the change of seasons when I lived out west, in Arizona (for 18 long months) and Northern California for five short years. Not sure why that is; I just know that stasis tends to make me nervous. And restless.

There are really only two seasons in Southeast Asia, hot and ridiculously hot – or, in more colloquial terms, fucking hot. The onset of ridiculously hot season usually corresponds with the region’s rainy season, so we could call it ridiculously hot and humid season. To a Midwest American native, there never seems to be any change of seasons there; it’s almost as if time just stands still.

Notably though, I don’t find myself yearning to move back to Southeast Asia to live there, but to travel there and across it. There is a considerable difference between living abroad and traveling abroad. I’ve had enough of the former for now; I’m not sure I could ever really get enough of the latter, at least not for very long.

I wondered when I came back to the States how long it would be before I began thinking about leaving it again. Nnow I know: three months.

I’ve remarked on this before, this living abroad compared to traveling abroad, but I’ve actually spent a lot of timing thinking about it low these last three months as I reacquainted myself with (mid) American life. Living abroad I think is something everyone should do for at least one year in their lives – it’s an amazing experience that will forever alter how you see yourself and the world (at least it should. If it isn’t and it doesn’t, well, that’s a reflection on you – a piss poor one). I’m sure I’ll want to live abroad again at some point in the not-too-distant future – where I couldn’t say, but somewhere abroad.

More on this tomorrow; this wall of text is long enough today.

Postscript: Wondering about that picture? I took that photo in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, near the border with Burma (Myanmar). Not from Bridge over the river Kwai.

Postscript, slight return: here’s the promised living abroad vs. traveling abroad pondering and pontification.

Pizza, Burritos and Guinness, Oh My!

Coming Home:
Reverse Culture Shock, Recalibration of an Expat Mind

Judy Garland: Jeffrey I don't think we're in Oz ... er, Viet Nam anymore!Forgive me Internet for I have been busy; it’s been more than a month since my last confession post.

What can I say? After 14 months abroad, being at home as been an endless distraction. I revel in the mundane of the every-day, middle-class life of Midwestern America; it has been a lot of reverse culture shock, but in largely good ways. My gods, the water pressure in the shower nearly knocks you down. And the water … it is so hot! Hot, hot HOT!

What’s more you can drink the water straight out of the faucet. And sometimes it falls from the sky, but not in drops, but in these strange and beautiful ice crystals, which sometimes accumulate enough to blanket everything in a whisper-sigh of white and silence.

What kind of crazy land is this?

Why, I can walk down the street, and no one pays me the slightest bit of attention; here I’m just another face in the crowd. I’m not the center of attention wherever I go; random passersby aren’t so astonished by my mere presence that their inattention knocks elderly women to ground. I’m just another nondescript citizen.

I like it; I can be the wallflower that I was meant to be.

But even after a month I still catch myself wandering out into the middle of the street in the middle of the block to cross, much to the aggravation of drivers who have little tolerance for my foreign ways. But do you know what happens when they come to an intersection here? Oh my various gods, they … they stop! If you’re turning left, do you know what the drivers behind you do? They either pass your on the right, or they actually just wait.

They wait for you to turn left! They don’t pass you on the left! And if you are the one turning left, you have to wait until no oncoming traffic is present! And get this – drivers generally don’t cut you off! No, really! It’s generally not done!

I know, huh? Crazy, whacky place this America is.

Pizza: Food of the GodsAnd the cheese! They have cheese here! It’s everywhere! In grocery stores, in restaurants, cheese! And cheese in burritos! ZOMG! Burritos! And pizza! And Guinness! My goodness my Guinness. I can actually walk. Walk down the street. Walk two blocks. Two blocks from here there is a bar. It is a bar that servers Guinness.

See what this means? I can have Guinness. I can drink Guinness whenever I want. It is only 1:20 am.; I could stop typing right now, put on my coat, walk those two blocks and have a Guinness. Because many of the bars here have Guinness. And they’re open – open until 2 a.m.

Astonishing. Simply astonishing. Think your Midwestern American city is sleepy? Try living in Southeast Asia for a year outside the tourist ghettos – your hometown will seem ridiculously cosmopolitan.

The Truth About Living Abroad: Is There One?

So what have we learned? We being the royal “we,” as in “I” – just because I feel in a third-person plural kind of mood. Giddy, even.

Well, I have learned many things during and from my time abroad. I’m still processing it all, which is somewhat confounded by the fact that I have to recalibrate my psyche to life in my home country and culture. As I’ve remarked before, I think I learned more about myself than anything else. There are certainly truths to be gained by living abroad for a year, but are they universal? I’m not sure.

In fact, the older I get and the more I travel and experience the world, I tend to think they are not; We may not go through life with blinders on, but we certainly do go through life with filters on, whether we realize it or not and whether we want to, or not. Your Viet Nam isn’t my Viet Nam; my Thailand isn’t your Thailand.

The truth is, we shall never be separated again, Guinness, my love.Show me someone who claims that they do see the unvarnished truth of a matter – be it the truth of what their neighbors are like or the truth of what their nation’s culture is like – much less someone else’s culture – and I’ll show you someone that is deluded and biased. That is not to say though that these other truths of other people are not of value or that we can’t glean something from them. As such over the forthcoming days and weeks – I have more time on my hands these days – I hope to elucidate my experiences and what they meant to me – my truths, if you will.

I’ll start with one big one: traveling abroad and living abroad are two very different things. Before I left I suspected it would be; now I know it to be true. Of course living abroad is also an incredible, amazing and  fun adventure. But at times, however, being a stranger in a strange land is a mental bitch-kitty, as my father might have described it.

But that’s all the truth and lessons learned for now; there will be more later.

In the meantime, let it suffice to say that I’m generally happy to be back. One can’t go home again, it’s true, but then half the fun of coming home is seeing what has changed and who has changed – and who and what hasn’t. And one doesn’t truly appreciate one’s own culture and country until you’ve been away a long time – there’s one of those subjective truths, to be sure. But I didn’t realize just how much I had missed some of the more mundane aspects of life here — logical, orderly traffic, pizza whenever the mood strikes, Guinness, fiber optics – the list goes on.

What Do I Miss? Cheating Death Daily

But it’s a two-way street (you’ll see how clever this bon mot is in just a moment). Every few days I catch myself thinking I’d love to get a bowl of phở and aCà phê sữa đá afterward; alas, I can’t do that.

The Boy Who Lived! (the urban bike nerd, Vietnamese edition)And I actually miss riding in traffic in Viet Nam on my bicycle, in much the same way that the seasoned veteran misses the adrenaline-fueled, danger-laden battlefield – happy to be home, perhaps, but the intoxicating lure of danger and violence beckons still. When I would get home from the grocery store or the bank in Bien Hoa, I would feel vibrant and exultant. I would look back on a thousand near-misses as I bobbed and weaved through the chaotic, exhaust-choked ballet of motorbike and taxi-cab death that was traffic that day (and every day) and think “Alive! gods, I’m alive! I live to ride another day! Victory! Hell yes!”

Traffic here at home is not nearly so crazy, and I grew up with it here, so I know how it works and what to expect. I don’t wonder if I’m going to buy the proverbial farm every time I leave the house. That’s good, yes, but it’s also not terribly exciting. When I get home, I’m just “getting home” – there is no laughing at having cheated Death once again.

Now see what I mean? How many people who have lived in Viet Nam – or , let’s broaden our scope and say, Southeast Asia – and now that they are back home in the West, would say that one of the things they miss most is riding a bike? Truth and experience – it’s subjective. But if I had to pick one thing I miss most about everyday life in Viet Nam, it would be that.

But then, that probably says more about me than it does about Viet Nam.

P.S. One of the aforementioned distractions is pictured here below; this post was composed on my new desktop rig. One of the common myths about Asia is that you can buy cheap-ass electronics. And you can – but there is a caveat. If you want leading edge technology – and I’m a nerd and I do – you’re going to pay more, at least in Southeast Asia. This same system you see being built here – Intel i7 950, Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti, 6 gigs of DDR3 RAM, coupled with a 24-inch monitor with 2ms response time – would have cost me several hundred dollars more in either Thailand or Viet Nam. I know, because I priced a number of systems and components a number of times, because after about six months I was jonesing for video games – not to mention Photoshop and 3D rendering. And this is actually a generation behind the leading edge.

This is also true for camera equipment – I know that because I’m a dumbass.

Getting my computer and gaming nerd on: building my own rig.

In Which I Screw Up Bad

Being a Dumbass: You’re Doing it Right

Red would say I'm a dumbass.First off, THERE WILL BE BLOOD CURSING – in this post. It will employ a number of top-shelf four-letter words, in fact. If this offends you, stop reading now. Seriously. Stop and go somewhere else.

Okay. Here comes the first one: this post should really be titled “In Which I Fuck Up Bad.” There are screw-ups, and then there are fuck-ups. This was a fuck-up. It was also a theft; specifically it was a pickpocketing.

But this doesn’t change the fact that I was complicit in this fuck-up; I know better than to walk around downtown Sai Gon at night in the middle of a crowd during Tet with my wallet and phone bouncing around in my pockets.

This is particularly true considering the fact that A) I’ve been in Sai Gon during Tet before, so I knew what I was getting into; and B) I’ve never put myself in that situation before – I’ve always erred on the side of caution in these circumstances. I almost never go out at night — particularly in a place like Sai Gon or Bangkok — with my wallet, phone, ATM card, cash etc.; I only take the cash I expect/want to spend and a copy of my passport in a travel wallet which hangs around my neck underneath my shirt. If I think I might need my phone for some reason, it also goes around my neck or else is somehow secured on my person.

I didn’t do any of that, this time. I was in Sai Gon for one night before I was supposed to catch a morning bus to Cambodia; I wanted to travel there before I return to the States. I was staying in the backpacker ghetto in District 1 of Sai Gon at my usual hotel; I had just bought credit for my phone’s sim card and exchanged a bunch of Vietnamese dong for U.S. dollars. I realized I needed razor blades before the trip, and rather than buy them in the backpacker ghetto, where they would no doubt be more expensive, I had the brilliant notion to walk to the super market in a shopping center in downtown Sai Gon – the center of District 1, where Tet revelry was already underway.

As I got near the shopping center, the crowd was literally jammed together shoulder to shoulder, barely moving (think Times Square on the calendar New Year’s Eve) and spilling out onto the streets, where motorbikes are wheel to wheel, not moving. About this time I’m thinking I should maybe be worried about pickpockets – yeah, I’m prescient like that. I then got jostled on my left, turn around and look, and felt fingers in my right-hand pocket. I whirled around, but too late; wallet is gone and no one visible except a thousand people milling around. Then I felt fingers in my left-hand pocket, whirled around grabbing for that hand but only caught air and a glimpse of a short, tiny woman with black hair quickly shoving her way quickly through the crowd, which closes in behind her in her wake (short woman with black hair – nope, no one like that in Viet Nam; should be easy to find). I made a vain effort to follow her, but she was lost in the crowd in seconds.

Cash, ATM card, keys to my apartment, and phone – all gone in the blink of an eye. It’s an expensive moment of complacency. Like driving a car: it only takes one moment of inattention – fiddling with the radio, sending a text – and blammo! Metaphorical shit hits the fan and you’ve just killed a bus full of nuns carrying babies, as well as your stupid-ass self. And the nuns were blind and the kids were refugees (what was the name of that Cincinnati band? Damned if I can remember).

Why did I do this? I did it because I’m a fucking goddamn idiot. Why did I walk downtown, in that crowd, with my wallet full of cash, my ATM card, and my phone – none of which I needed; I had planned to go right back to the hotel?

Fucking. Goddamn. Idiot.

I got complacent – I’ve been over here for more than a year, and while there have been plenty of trials and tribulations, none of them have resulted from my being stupid. I had begun to think of myself as the experienced travel and wise expat, I suppose – I know what I’m doing, mucking about in foreign parts; sure no problem. I’ve been drunk at 4 am in downtown Bangkok and stayed out of trouble; I’ve been out all night partying in Sai Gon without incident.

Right, so there I go, Mr. Complacent Smart Guy, Mr. World Traveler, off into the crowd, preoccupied with his trip to Cambodia. One moment of inattention — one moment of complacency – one moment in which I let my guard down – and I get “a duck in the face at 250 knotts.”

Bad Timing: You’re Doing It Right

Even the cat thinks I'm a dumbass.This might have been an expensive inconvenience at best, had I had my usual precautions in place, and had it not been Tet, the week-long celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year. But somewhere along the line, I cashed in my traveler’s checks that I had been carting around for nearly a year and never bothered to replace them – complacency for the loss. I had a stash of emergency money back at my apartment, which of course did me no good; my apartment is an hour away from Saigon, and my keys were in my wallet (fucking goddamn idiot!). Granted, I can break into my apartment’s front door in under a minute, but I had taken the precaution of locking the security gate as well as the front door – because I was going to be gone for a week or more and it can be broken into in under a minute, if you know the trick.

And it was during Tet; this compounded the problem to the nth degree. I had no way to reach my landlord (her number was on my phone, but she was more than likely out of town for the Tet holiday). I had no way to contact a locksmith (more on this later). I couldn’t get home anyway, as I have no money at this point, at all – actually, I had plenty of money, just no way to access it.

A long and frustrating 48 hours ensued in which I had nothing to eat and very little sleep and walked for miles all around Sai Gon.

The first thing I did was call my brother back home in the States – Skype for the win. Fortunately I had the foresight to put his name on my bank account before I left on my overseas adventure. He was a trooper; within a few hours – while he was working, mind you – he found time to go to my bank, withdraw cash on my behalf and send it to me via Western Union.

This went off without a hitch; unfortunately the next day all of the banks and other places with Western Union outlets were closed in Viet Nam for an entire week because of the Tet holiday (although it didn’t officially begin until the following day). I must have went to 20 different Western Union branches all over District 1 and District 3 that day, seeking one that was open, to no avail.

The issue of face further complicated the issue still further and sent me on several wild goose chases in search of Western Union. I don’t want to tear off on a tangent explaining the concept of face, however; it’s a difficult concept for Westerners to grasp, much less explain. Between Thailand and Viet Nam I’ve been in Southeast Asia more than a year, and have spent some time in China and Japan, and I still don’t have a firm grasp of this Eastern concept. I’ve even talked with some long-term Western expats here and in China, and even they have difficulty explaining it.

Let it suffice to say that it is a common aspect of cultures throughout Asia, particularly where there is any historical Chinese influence. When you ask someone a question for which they may not know the answer, given the context it may constitute a loss of face or at least a perceived loss of face, especially when a foreigner is involved. Consequently you may not get a straight answer. I’ve learned to recognize the body language and facial expressions that indicate when I’ve inadvertently asked a potentially face-losing question – but I was desperate, so I kept asking and kept looking.

And most people I asked did indeed tell me straight up: no, they didn’t know where a Western Union branch was likely to be open and that I wasn’t likely to find one because of Tet. But there were a few folks who assured me that if I just went to such-and-such a street or such-and-such a bank, I would find an open Western Union branch, and in every case, this turned out to be bullshit.

But don’t get me wrong; I’m not faulting anyone. While I would have preferred they just say “I don’t know” or “I can’t help you,” rather than send me on a wild goose chase, I realize it’s a cultural thing (albeit a frustrating one for us forthright Yankees sometimes).

And, as I say, I was desperate; I was facing seven days with no money, no food, and no place to sleep (or at least no way to pay for my hotel). I know several people that live in Sai Gon; they were all out of town for Tet, naturally.

This is what the Sai Gon police were thinking ... Furthermore, people – from friends to acquaintances to strangers – seemed reluctant to help as they were preoccupied with Tet; one Vietnamese friend couldn’t even be bothered to try and call a locksmith – “Oh, it’s Tet, I wouldn’t be able to reach one – not for another week.” Um, geez, dude … could you at least try, maybe? Another friend, a long-time American expat, his only suggestion was to go to the police. I eventually did, which involved no less than six different visits to three different police stations before a) the proper jurisdiction could be established and b) someone would actually take the time to deal with me. Needless to say this was also as pointless as it would be back home in the States – and I’m not faulting the police; they have bigger problems to deal with than some dumb-ass getting pickpocketed during the biggest holiday celebration of the year.

Buddhist Precept: Don’t be a Dumbass

So to make a long story, er, um, somewhat less long, I sold most of my camera gear for significantly less than it is worth, but for more than enough to live on comfortably in Sai Gon for a week (about twice as much, actually). In the end it was this or sleep outdoors and dumpster dive for food; no one came forward and volunteered a floor to sleep on, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask – make of that what you will.

The day after Tet was over; I came back to my apartment, asked the neighbor to call a locksmith – lucky for me the girl across the hall speaks English considerably better than I speak Vietnamese – and I was in my apartment within 15 minutes.

As the Buddha tells us, “work out your own salvation; do not depend on others.” Ironically I posted that quote on Facebook in the aftermath of all this, and an expat friend responded about how warm and helpful the people of Viet Nam were – unlike our compatriots back in United States. I couldn’t help but point out that I have friends back home that would have offered me a couch to crash on without me having to beg — unlike here, evidently.

I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, or trying to indict an entire culture – again, make of all this what you will.

And In spite of my own complicity in this festival of fuck-uppedness, I do not exonerate the thief anymore than I would exonerate the rapist because the victim dressed provocatively and flirted. I would remove the genitals of said rapist and would go upside the head of the pickpocket, given the chance. In fact, I’ll admit it: I would enjoy getting my violence on with this person; I would happily shed copious amounts of their blood.

But it hasn’t soured me on traveling abroad, nor has it soured me on Viet Nam. This could have happened anywhere there was a crowd during a holiday in a city – provided I was there to be stupid, that is.

And it could be worse. I could be as dumb as this guy.

Uh ... whut?

Oh Noes! The Foreigner! Dun Dun Duh!

In Which I Take Down Four People with My Mere Presence

Brando as the Ugly American in not-quite Viet Nam.I’ve been wondering pretty much since about the third day I’ve been abroad here in Southeast Asia – so that would be more than a year now – as to when my mere presence would bring others to harm – that an accident would occur in which life and limb would be endangered, merely by the fact that I was physically present. I had assumed it would occur while on my bicycle.

I was wrong.

No, it happened in a supermarket at the mall. A 20-something young man, an old woman, and her two grandchildren all came to grief for the simple fact of my proximity to them. That is, me, “The Foreigner!”

Dun Dun Duh!

Perhaps I should explain by offering some background. In the larger, more cosmopolitan cities here – cosmopolitan being a relative term – such as Sai Gon or Bangkok, foreign people are not that uncommon. It’s not unusual to see a foreign person walking down the street or even on a motorbike, and unless there is a potential financial transaction involved, most locals don’t give foreigners a second thought.

That is, except when you emerge from the usual circumstances – like, say, being a foreigner and riding a bicycle in Sai Gon traffic. Don a helmet while doing this and you become a matter for spectacle.

I wasn’t in Sai Gon very long when I acquired my first bicycle here and used it to cruise around District 1 and District 3, with occasional trips to District 7. This was unusual in and of itself, but I also wore a helmet – here, everyone who rides a motorbike or motorcycle wears a helmet; it’s an enforced law. But no one who rides a bicycle does.

The first time I nearly caused an accident merely by my presence as “The Foreigner” – Dun Dun Duh! — was not long after I acquired my Vietnamese mountain bike. I was riding to a nearby movie theater to purchase tickets for Avatar 3D. It was Sunday, which is a big day out for most Vietnamese; many working class people work six days a week, and Sunday is their one day off. Consequently Sunday is the big day/night to go go out – you’d think this would make Saturday night the big night to go out, but generally, Sunday night is the night Vietnamese people tend to party hardy.

So there I am riding my bike on a Sunday afternoon a little ways outside of District 1, where it’s less common to see foreigners. Traffic was busy, but not absolutely crazy, the way it can get later on in the evening. A guy passed me on a motorbike with his wife on the back, as well as their two children (I’m making an assumption, of course; it might have been his sister, niece and nephew, for all I know). Again, most people wear helmets on their motorbikes here, although it’s pretty common to see helmetless children, unfortunately. No one had helmets on this particular motorbike except the driver.

As this guy passed me, he did the classic incredulous double-take that I would soon become accustomed to in the course of the ensuing year. A foreigner on a bicycle in Sai Gon traffic! No way! He was so amazed and amused, he had to slow down and comment. Looking at me, he pointed at my bicycle, then pointed at my head.

I shrugged my shoulders and lifted one hand in the universal “what?” gesture. I at first thought he spied some sort of mechanical issue with my bike. He pointed at his helmet, knocked on it, then pointed at mine again and laughed out loud, gesturing once more at my bicycle.

“The Foreigner” wearing a helmet while on a bicycle! What a crazy maroon!

Bear in mind, while all this is going on, we’re moving, in traffic. About this time we come to some rough spots in the road. Like any large city with heavy traffic, there are places on Sai Gon roads where the asphalt is in various states of disrepair. No more so than in any rust-belt city located above the Mason-Dixon line back home, but there are blocks with potholes and rough spots that will take a motorbike down if the driver isn’t paying attention.

This guy hits a pothole; his motorbike wobbles. He panics, brakes hard, people behind are suddenly whizzing by on his left and his right; one of the small children behind him leans perilously off to the right to the point that she’s parallel with the road before her mother clutches here to her chest as her husband fights to get the bike under control. I immediately increase pressure on my brakes, thrust my butt out over the rear wheel and get my gut on the seat – mountain biker instincts die hard – and prepare for a quick stop; traffic is dense enough that there’s really no room to maneuver; it flashes through my mind that if he goes down I might have to try and bunny hop over him to avoid a crash myself.

This all happened in a split second, of course. Fortunately he manages to get the bike back under control. He looks back at me, laughs once more — this time at himself, I suppose — and speeds off.

Don’t get me wrong. The majority of motorbike riders in Viet Nam and Thailand – well, I’d say less so, in Thailand, but still a majority – drive reasonably safely (given the conventions and rules of the road here, which differ considerably from those of North America). I frequently draw double-takes while on the road, true, but rarely do they endanger anyone.

But this guy, well, he was, if I may put it bluntly, a stupid idiot; he put several lives in danger just to laugh at me for doing something out of the ordinary. But aside from idiocy, there is the troublesome fact that he almost pulled a Darwin maneuver on his whole family merely because I’m “The Foreigner.” Had I been a Vietnamese guy puttering along on my bike, this incident would have never taken place.

At the time I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I’m still not sure.

How Do You Say “Back Off, Jethro!” in Vietnamese?

Again, I’m not judging all Vietnamese. Go to any country, and put a foreigner on the road who’s dressed a little different from the way the locals go, and a similar situation could arise; idiocy  and poor judgment are universal. America, et al, is no exception.

But this phenomena seems to increase when you take “The Foreigner” – Dun Dun Duh! — and put him in a smaller, more rural environment. In Suphanburi, Thailand, I was “The Foreigner” all the time. Wherever I went, heads turned, conversations stopped and cries of “Falang! Falang!” would inevitably follow behind me.

Here in Bien Hoa, an industrial city/suburb of Sai Gon about an hour north of the city center, the community is not rural per se, but it’s certainly much less cosmopolitan than Sai Gon; foreigners are few and far between, as there is no tourism industry here. The only foreigners here are a handful of ESL teachers or business people of various stripes – or washed-out ESL teachers like me, of course.

I ride my bicycle here even more often than I did in Sai Gon. Needless to say, with the exception of my 3 a.m. rides when I have the roads to myself, I draw all sorts of attention when I ride and frequently distract people who should be watching the road. As noted at the beginning, I have always figured it was only a matter of time until the law of averages caught up and someone bit it hard because they couldn’t resist staring at “The Foreigner.”

Saturday night that finally happened. But it wasn’t on the road.

Through unfortunate miscalculations, I found myself on Saturday afternoon with nary a crust of bread to eat in my apartment, much less anything else. Granted, I eat out a lot, but I get tired of always eating out at times, since I’m “The Foreigner.” Besides, I was jonesing for some fast food; it had been several weeks since I had indulged. So off to the mall I went.

The mall here on Saturday, as I had been warned, was an utter, chaotic madhouse. Jam-packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-to-wall people. The Big C supermarket in the mall even more so – they must have 50 checkout lines, and they were all packed. The fact that Tet, the Chinese New Year holiday, begins next week I’m sure only compounded the problem.

After having forded this seething mass of humanity to procure my goods, I slowly made my way amidst the checkout-throng, looking for a line that was slightly less crowded than the rest. As I made my way in one direction I noticed one guy in the endless line of people making their way in the opposite direction do the slack-jawed double-take look in my direction, yet again. It was one of many, true, but this guy was so awestruck by my presence that he also had to strain to see what was in “The Foreigner’s” hand basket. I had already begun to make my way past him at this point so he leaned back trying to look over his shoulder and mine to get a glimpse.

Again, this also happens many times when I go to the supermarket. But this guy, he was special – in several different ways. He leans over so far, desperate to get a glimpse at my groceries, that he actually falls over. As he falls, he instinctively thrusts out a hand for balance or to grab something, and inadvertently cold cocks an old woman behind me right across the jaw. She pinwheels around, the groceries in her hand flying everywhere as she falls. Fortunately, perhaps – at least for her – she fell on two small children, ostensibly her grandchildren.

So, four people on the ground, one of whom is an old woman, the other two, small defenseless children – all because of the presence of me, “The Foreigner!”

The movie master of macabre: Vincent Price.Insert evil, maniacal Vincent Price laugh here.

No one was seriously hurt in their various falls – at least as far as I was able to determine. As the invariable cluster of onlookers swelled and mall security responded, I was gradually shuttled to the back of the crowd, as the fact of three generations of people prone on the floor of Big C was apparently an even bigger spectacle than “The Foreigner.” Since there didn’t seem to be anything for me to do, I made my way to a checkout lane (despite the excitement the nearby lines had diminished only slightly).

Now, it’s one thing for someone with personal space issues and mild anti-social tendencies to be the constant center of attention every time he sets foot outside his door for an entire year (you’d never guess I use to sport several unconventional facial piercings, eh?). When something like this happens … well … wtf? Wtf  am I supposed to feel? Wtf am I supposed to do? I make light of of the situation, but it’s inescapable — an old woman was knocked down not because of something I did, but merely because I happened to be near her.

It’s like I’m in my own personal existential/absurdist play. Do I laugh to keep from crying? I keep waiting for the director to come out in a fog of cigarette smoke. “Non! Mais non! You must … how you say, express more ennui! Disgust and ze … perplexité of ze expat life, ze life lived abroad, oui?”

In any event, it’s hard not to take it as a sign that it is indeed time to head back to a land where I’m just another face in the crowd, and not … “The Foreigner!”

Dun Dun Duh!

Of course then the question becomes, how long will I be home before the wanderlust kicks in again? And where will it take me next time? But that’s a question for the future.

Puzzlement Abroad: the Mysteries of Expat Life, Like Garbage and Monkeys

Garbage piled in the middle of the street in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam.One of the interesting and fun things about traveling abroad or living as an expat is that one sees things for which one has no cultural context; things that are mystifying and therefore fascinating. Beyond the initial shock, it is always an interesting puzzle to figure out the local context in which the seeming anomalies should be placed – the so-called “ah ha!” moment.

It’s gratifying and enlightening when one solves the puzzle. It opens up new perspectives – new ways of looking at the world, and consequently a better understanding of the culture  you find yourself in.

But it can be frustrating when you can’t find the missing puzzle pieces, particularly when what mystifies you is a frequent occurrence; it adds to one’s sense of alienation. I think I’ve become inured to those sorts of things though; it’s best to just accept it and accept the fact that you don’t understand it, and be content with that, as many others before me have said.

Nevertheless, even after a year of living in Thailand and Viet Nam, I sometimes still see things that cause my jaw to drop, sometimes literally. Take for instance, the picture above, taken with my craptacular phone camera (in the dark, with no flash, in the rain: it’s a miracle there is an image at all, praise be to the levels adjustment in Photoshop).

Nancy Drew and the Case of the Garbage in the Street

Here in Biên Hòa, Saigon and I assume every city in Viet Nam big enough to have municipal garbage collection, people place their garbage in the street, next to the curb. That makes sense the world around, I think.

But then the other evening I was walking home from the coffee shop, and I see all of this garbage piled in the middle of the road – literally, smack-dab in the middle. As you can see judging by the size of the bicycle and the man scavenging said pile, it was of considerable size; certainly a traffic hazard in the dark, to be sure.

And it wasn’t scattered haphazardly, as if it fell off a truck or something. It was stacked up with neat precision. Some one piled it there deliberately.

Why? Why would you do this?

I’m not passing judgment and I’m not putting down my neighbors; I’m sure in their cultural context there is a rational justification for this. I just can’t figure out what that is (but then there are things about my own culture I’ve never been able to fathom adequately).

One could argue that they didn’t want to block the drainage culvert on the corner curb, which you can (barely) make out in the right of the photo; just prior to this it had been raining rather heavily. But then there is a sidewalk area at least 10-feet wide here – wide enough to park motorbikes two deep and then some. So why not pile it on the sidewalk if you don’t want to block the drain? Why pile it in the middle of the street?

I’ve been here long enough that not much catches me by surprise anymore, but this was one of those times. Right after I took the picture some kid came cruising along on his moto with his poncho draped over his headlight; he swerved at the last second to avoid it, wobbled on the wet pavement, and regained his balance at the last moment.

You might chalk this up to the fact that people tend, as a culture, to live in the moment here – at least much more than we do in the West. It’s a Buddhist influence, I suppose. It’s one of the things that many foreigners, myself included, find attractive about the cultures of Southeast Asia. But it also has it’s downside, I’ve noticed: people tend not to think about potential consequences of actions as much as they could and perhaps should.

Again, I’m not trying to judge – simply trying to understand why someone would pile a mound of garbage in the street.

Granted, I’ve been here two months now in this particular neighborhood, and this was the first time I’d seen such a thing. Perhaps there was some sort of extenuating circumstance that I’m not privy too that would explain why someone’s garbage was piled in the middle of the street.

Loudspeakers and Monkeys and a Bear, Oh My!

Loudspeakers and Monkeys and a Bear Oh My! Bien Hoa, Viet Nam street scene.Then there are times when you see things that don’t necessarily mystify you from a cultural anthropology standpoint but are nevertheless stunning because it’s something you just wouldn’t see back home. Case in point are these pickup trucks bearing loudspeakers, monkeys and a bear.

I was sitting at the aforementioned coffee shop working one afternoon when I started hearing a loudspeaker above the usual traffic din; someone was doing their best carny tout routine in Vietnamese. It got louder and louder until the trucks you see here stopped and parked across the street while the loudspeaker guy – by this time it was nearly deafening – continued to prattle on. He seemed to go on for 15 minutes, but I’m sure that is only my perception; in reality it was probably more like five.

This kind of loudspeaker-atop-a-vehicle advertising is not uncommon here, though. What was amazing was the small captive bear and the captive monkeys.

Why are there monkeys held captive with ankle chains in the back of this pickup? Why is there a small, tired looking bear being agitated by a teenage boy? Is the circus in town? A traveling miniature menagerie? And what is this guy prattling on about, seemingly forever?

I’m sure if I could speak Vietnamese beyond being able to order food and tell a cab driver which way to go, I would know and it would all make sense. I tried to ask the girl who works at the coffee shop, but she speaks no English at all.

Thus, it remains a mystery.

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.

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.