When I originally thought of it, I didn’t realize how appropriate the title of my blog would prove to be. Hanoi certainly has eaten me, chewed me up and spit me out. It’s time to go. It’s beyond time to go.
No, I’m not about to launch into an attack on Hanoi or Vietnam. I love this place. Even when I’ve struggled immensely with it, I’ve always loved it. However, I stopped loving my life here a while ago. I also recognized this fact long ago, but I’ve had various reasons for staying. Job, friends, stability, comfort, bun cha, husband wants to open a bar. Good reasons. One of the biggest motivators for staying, however, has been my own complicated feelings about this city and my own insecurities surrounding those feelings.
I see a tendency in expats, including myself at times, to blame their problems on Hanoi. To refuse to examine themselves, their own actions and attitudes that might be making it harder to live here than it needs to be. I didn’t want to be one of those people. I fought against becoming the bitter expat stereotype I wrote about in the last post. I reminded myself that Hanoi is great. What a great city to be in! To see! What amazing people! What opportunities! What life! I still feel this way. Any time someone writes to me asking for advice about moving here, I emphatically encourage them to do so. Hanoi’s been so good to me in so many ways. I also feel that – at least for people not facing crises like poverty or abuse – each one of us is primarily responsible for our own wellbeing. I say ‘wellbeing’ rather than ‘happiness’ because happiness is a fickle thing indeed. I’ve quoted this before, but again:
“Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.” Robertson Davies.
Or as Louis CK puts it: “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”
(Ok that YouTube clip is more of a tangent to this post than anything, but I just love it so much!)
So when I started feeling dissatisfied here, getting frustrated on a fairly regularly basis, I looked inward. Taking for granted that no, it can’t be Hanoi, it’s obviously me. I just need to change my attitude, meet new people, find new interesting things to do, exercise more, take a cooking class…or something. There’s some truth to that certainly. But a friend of mine recently helped me realize that it’s a mistake to downplay place. Amazing as Hanoi is, it’s not for everyone in general (some people surely hate it the first week), and it’s most definitely not for everyone forever. There are some expats who move here, build a good life, and never want to leave. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just not the case for me. It comes down to the fact that Hanoi isn’t my home. I’m an outsider here; I don’t belong here. I’m so thankful I came. I gained so much from living here. So much. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t feel like home, and it likely never will.
I suspect that there are many expats who don’t leave because expat life is so easy in Hanoi. They stay out of fear or complacency, not love. I worry that this has been a big driving force for me in the past two years or so. That’s hard to admit to myself. (And to the internet. Darn you oversharing problem!)
It may seem odd at first glance, but I’ve likened expat life in Hanoi to living in the suburbs in the US. Shhh…hear me out! True, the chaos of Hanoi is the antithesis of American suburban life. Unlike Hanoi, in suburbia you can’t just wander down the street, plop down on a plastic stool, and munch on some food of questionable origin while a Chinese businessman offers you cigarettes and interrogates you about your life. So, I concede that Hanoi is infinitely more interesting if for no other reason than it’s a big city, and big cities are always more interesting than suburbs. However, I’m trying to focus specifically on expat life in Hanoi, or at least a certain brand of expat life that I’ve come to see as the norm, or if not that, at least a very common phenomenon.
What I see is similar to what’s known as ‘golden handcuffs’ – a phrase used to describe when your employer pays you a buttload of money so you don’t leave, even if you hate the job. Things are so easy in Hanoi that it can be hard to let go of it, especially for just vague, creeping feelings of dissatisfaction. Suburban life can be similar. Yes, I’m bored out of my mind and suffocating, but it’s so nice! It’s a five minute drive to Whole Foods! In that way, the Tay Ho area feels like the suburbs to me. We live in Hanoi technically, but what we really live in is a sort of shoddy replica of our lives back home. (A note: If you constantly hang out in the Old Quarter, you’re not totally off the hook in this regard either.)
Don’t get me wrong, living in Tay Ho is nice, and I realize that the previous ‘shoddy replica’ statement is unfair. I lived deep in the heart of Tay Ho, and out of the 30 or so people who lived on my alley, only four of us were non-Vietnamese. I get annoyed with uppity expats who shun the neighborhood completely because it’s not Vietnamese enough. As if they’re living a very authentic Vietnamese lifestyle. Oh my Jebus, don’t even get me STARTED on that topic, I won’t stop. (Cue sassy hand gestures). That said, there’s some truth to the statement. For me at least, I suppose I can’t speak for others. The result in my own life is that I started to feel closed in. The big city suddenly felt very, very small.
I’m writing about this for a few reasons. There’s the above-mentioned oversharing problem but also I wonder if others can relate to it. I’ve seen so many ‘bitter expats’ in my time here. People who are completely lovely, smart, and well-rounded, but who also lose their temper over minor inconveniences or complain bitterly about this country. It took me months before I could post that last entry, I think because I feared that it would just reveal what a crazy expat I’ve become. But I don’t think that’s accurate. I don’t feel any resentment towards Hanoi or Vietnamese people at all. It’s more complicated. I love Hanoi but don’t love living here anymore.
Life lessons from an old lady expat: If you live in Hanoi, I recommend that you enjoy all the beauty and joys of the city while you’re here, but don’t stay out of complacency, and don’t feel guilty if you just gotta go. If you’re feeling dissatisfied, it doesn’t mean that you hate Hanoi or failed at being an expat. It just means it’s time to go. I know, pretty obvious, right? But it somehow took me a long time to really understand it.
So, this is my last post. I’m leaving Hanoi suddenly and under sad circumstances. I won’t overshare about that. It feels like I’m leaving on a negative note, which saddens me. Saying goodbye this week was heart-wrenching. So hard! This city and country still hold a special place in my heart, and I know I’ll be back many times to visit. In the meantime, I’ll continue trying to convince my fellow countrymen to pack up and move to Vietnam.
Thanks for reading these past few years. Wish me luck as I bumble along my new way.
My cutie pie nieces playing in the snow in Kansas City.
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