There are many great things to be said about the Hanoi expat community. Overall, I’m thankful for its existence as it’d be really difficult to live in an Asian country without the benefit of a cohort of English-speakers to help wade through the confusion and isolation. That said, the nature of expat life in Hanoi amplifies one of my most stubborn and reviled of personality flaws – my tendency toward social ineptitude.
To the point: I’m awkward. Like, really. My awkwardness is the most loyal of travel companions. It has doggedly followed me from childhood to adulthood, from state to state, and even, alas, overseas into Vietnam. It’s who I am. I’ve spent too much time self-psychoanalyzing the situation, and here’s the little that I’ve learned. Whether or not I’m able to act like a normal, functioning human being with thoughts and emotions as opposed to a creature with only grunts and needs is highly dependent on whom I’m interacting with. It’s really hit and miss, and this is no clearer than when I first meet someone. With some people, the initial meeting runs smoothly and effortlessly. I can even pull off charming and articulate at times. With others, I lapse into a state of fright and autism. I get jittery, my eyes shift frantically to and fro, I’m afraid of being touched, I forget basic vocabulary and repeat phrases over and over, and my brain’s hardware crashes. When this happens, I search the wasteland of my empty mind for any topic of conversation to bring up, and all that I can find is the physical state I’m experiencing at that moment – the weather (it’s cold), injuries/illness (my knee hurts, I barfed yesterday), and immediate outside stimuli (it’s noisy). That line of talk usually gets me nowhere, and it signals the time to start planning exit strategies.
The anxiety produced by non-compatibility and long conversational pauses puts me into a state of fight or flight. And, as you could probably guess, flight inevitably wins out. This means I enact one of the following strategies:
a) First and foremost, I flee.
b) If fleeing is not an option, I find a small space to crawl into such as a box or trash bin.
c) I curl up into a compact, impenetrable ball.
d) I pull my hoodie over my head and tighten the draw strings.
e) I stop moving and breathing so as not to draw attention.
f) I faint and play dead.
Cats, being awkward creatures themselves, are perfect for demonstration purposes:
I’ve given up on futile efforts to force extroversion and charm into my skill set, trying instead to accept and work around my limited abilities to interact with people. Doing this as an expat in Hanoi is like going through social anxiety boot camp. Let me explain.
One of the best and worst things about the Hanoi expat community is that it’s very small. It’s the quintessential small town in a big city. I know loads of gossip about people I’ve never met. It’s amazing how frequently you meet and see the same people over and over. This is due in part to the smallness of the social groups; chances are that a random person is a friend of a friend. While it doesn’t seem like we are few in number, we are very predictable and attend the same venues with unrelenting regularity. If an especially cool event is happening, you’re guaranteed to see every expat you’ve ever met in Hanoi at that event, unless of course, they’ve left already. In sum, we are swimming in a very tiny, incestuous pool.
On one hand, this is rather nice. It’s great to run into someone you don’t know too well but really like. The flipside is that you are also repeatedly confronted with people who, for one reason or another, make you want to cringe, throw up in your mouth, cry or run. For all the reasons cited above, the latter group of individuals far outnumbers the former in my case. It’s not that I necessarily dislike these folks. I can only think of a handful of people who I dislike in Hanoi, those against whom I have plotted elaborate and childish revenge scenarios. No, usually these people are just regular people who turn me into the socially awkward Gollum I so despise. I often give them names, mostly to help Mitchell remember who they are and why I’m afraid of them. Actually, he has a few to add as well, but once they’re on his list, they’re basically automatically on mine too. These include*:
- Desk man
- Data entry girl at work (there are many of these, who only make me nervous because I can never remember if I’ve met them before, and I feel like an asshole for not remembering. But there are so many of them! A small typing army!)
- Frenchy (aka, that girl who my friend slept with and then treated in an ungentlemanly like fashion so now she hates me, I think)
- Box man
- Party girl
- Glasses girl
- Chomp chomp
- Agent mustache
- Mr. Grumbles and sidekick Nooky/Nuoc-y
- Vanilla café girl
- Korean businessman (who always demands English teachers of me)
- Evil research lady
- MORE! (douchebag who harasses the workers at Vine restaurant to give him more wine at their weekly wine-tasting night)
*Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Wait, that doesn’t make sense.
Their numbers are many. One would think that my being here for nearly 3 ½ years would mean that I’ve outlasted them, but they tend to only replenish and multiply. Part of the problem is that there are so many people that you’ve seen a fucktillion times, but the chances that you’ve actually met this person at one time or another are about 50/50. I’m constantly worried that I’m snubbing people that I’ve met at a random party and forgot about a year ago. Then I make it worse by hiding behind furniture when I see them, so that if they didn’t feel snubbed before, they sure do now.
What I think I’m trying to say with this confessional piece is this: If you walk by only to find me cowering in dumpster, hand clenched into a claw and hissing at you, please don’t take it personally. It’s just me giving into my insecurities and propensity toward neurotic shyness.