Posts Tagged ‘culture shock’

Always sunny

At the end of the summer, I was able to finagle a deal with my employers to allow me to work from home for several weeks, home this time being the US. Nothing refreshes Hanoi more than an extended absence from it. Of course, this is likely true for any place.  Due to my long periods of absence from the US, my trips home always have a romantic feel to them. This trip felt particularly magical. How could it not with all the reunions with much-beloved family, friends, places and food? The shake-up of routine? I often feel the need to remind myself that the magic would not survive the day-to-day of living there again. If I didn’t acknowledge this, I’d have dropped everything and moved back after the first visit or two. I don’t suffer from the reverse culture shock reported by others (Notable exception: American TV, which always blows my mind; while a lot of TV is quite good, most of it seems mean-spirited and ugly). This is perhaps because I visit fairly regularly.

I find it’s true that living abroad has not only helped me better appreciate aspects of another culture but also aspects of my own.  While there are facets of American life and culture that exasperate me – I was there during election time after all – I now appreciate a number of things that I took for granted before.  The three things that stick out the most are the American version of politeness, Americans’ general openness, and the seemingly endless variety of options.

I’ve joked before about the trajectory of expat-in-Vietnam living. We’re at times comically predictable: the newbies all fixated on the same things (street food, traffic, getting ripped off) and declaring the same clichés (I really want to live in a Vietnamese neighborhood, not to live in a Western bubble); the less-than-newbies’ attempts at recreating their lives from home (joining an expensive gym, searching for the city’s best falafel); some of the old-timers’ tendency to sulk and complain, about both Vietnam and other expats.  Although we’re individually different, patterns do emerge.  I find myself now struggling to avoid falling into the trap of bitter expat syndrome.

And it is a struggle. Like my emotions have acquired a hair-trigger in which a mundane annoyance can easily devolve into extreme frustration.  An example: Upon returning, I found that my neglected motorbike had two flat tires. I did what anyone would do and pushed it to a nearby fixit place.  On the way, a parked taxi driver rolled down his window, pointed and said something (probably, “your tires need air”), and gave a hearty laugh. Really not a big deal, but I found my cheeks turning hot. “What is so fucking funny about this situation?” I thought angrily. “Why can’t you just let me do this very uninteresting thing without a running commentary?”  I’m not usually a hothead, but this silly incident peeved me.

This is usually the point when the crazy train comes rolling along, cargo loaded with sweeping generalizations: Vietnamese people are so rude!  Not, that taxi driver was sorta rude or that taxi driver sure has a weird sense of humor.  And just as I think this thought, almost immediately I feel guilty. Not just guilty, but stupid. Like a child throwing a fit over absolutely nothing.  How can I allow myself to go there? Of course Vietnamese people aren’t rude, think of all the favors and kindnesses so many have done for you. Both friends and strangers. Shame on you Sarah!

That’s an example of the very mundane. This line of thought also follows when the police extract bribes from friends, or I see yet another child not wearing a helmet as his parent swerves in front of me without glancing, or I read about government officials’ superstitious affinity for rhino horn, so on and so forth.  Depending on the day, these things, from the small to the large, can send me into a tizzy.  I’m certainly not the only one. Other expats frequently share stories of their overreaction and woe. Maybe they cursed at a delivery guy, lost their temper with a coworker, or kicked the door of a taxi.  I once knew a woman who used to punch people’s helmets while driving next to them on her motorbike.  Very amusing! And crazy! I have yet to totally lose it on a stranger. My reactions tend to run along the lines of defeated sighs or indecipherable mutterings.

A casual search on the internet suggests that expat aggravation is a very common phenomenon, not just in Vietnam but everywhere.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I’m writing about it now in an effort to understand it better.  People talk about “bitter expats” as though they are moral failures.  Yet basically everyone I’ve known who’s lived in Hanoi for more than a year has suffered the symptoms now and then.  It’s gotta be more than just a personal failing. After talking to some friends, here are a few ideas.

From observer to participant: When most people arrive, they’re just trying to figure out how to survive or adjust. How to find a decent thing to put into your mouth so your body continues to function. How to get from point A to point B without getting hit by a bus.  How to find an apartment and buy a bed.  How to make friends with whom one can actually converse, basically the only requirement in the beginning.  All that surviving is distracting.  Then you get over it (falafel successfully obtained!) and get on with daily living. B-o-r-i-n-g.  We came here for adventure, not for living! Why does it now feel like merely living?  The sample is also perhaps skewed. People who leave their home countries to live in an alien culture may have a harder time with stasis and settling down.  Isn’t that what we fled from to begin with?

There’s also a matter of involvement. When I was new, I wasn’t really invested in Vietnam.  I could observe things in a more detached way because, while I was interested, I didn’t actually care much. It was just a place I was wandering through for an experience.  Not yet a home but a strange place I was exploring. The longer I’m here, the more I care about it. Just like in the US, it frustrates me when I see something that I don’t think is right but that can change or get better.  This place is awesome, but it can do BETTER!  I get the same feeling when I see people vehemently denying global warming or fighting gun control in the US – c’mon Americans, we can do BETTER!  It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of it back home, but that feeling is amplified here. I can barely figure out how to call a plumber without my friend’s help, how am I supposed to accomplish anything?

Vietnamese people seem to often have the same attitude.  It’s a little too overwhelming and complicated for me to write about here. But basically acceptance of the ugly things in society, systems, or government seems to be the default.  People will admit that something is wrong or unjust, but then readily explain that this is just the way it is.  No changing it.  Is this also true back home?  In my mind, we’re always railing against something, although not necessarily successfully.   I understand how and why it’s different here, and I just bring it up because the powerlessness of it can be stressful.

Small stressors building over time:  Usually, the things that set me off are very small. That’s what seems so crazy about it. Sure, anyone would get angry after being robbed or directly insulted. But nothing so dramatic is happening. It’s more like minor miscommunications or setbacks. Things that are no big deal can feel like a BIG FUCKING DEAL. Why? 

It’s difficult for me to articulate, but I have the feeling that part of it is the consistent non-meeting of expectations.  Basically, when you’re strolling along in your own culture/community, you’re adhering to ways of thinking and behaving that are unspoken and nearly universal. Social contracts. An easy example is the queue.  You don’t need to have a conference with the other customers at the grocery store and then collectively decide that the fairest way to organize is to line up to pay, first come first serve. Nope, you just do it. You don’t think about this unspoken rule until it’s disrupted, as it often is in Vietnam.  Many of these unspoken courtesies or rules are simply different here. The Vietnamese don’t adhere to ours, and we only begin to adhere to theirs after learning them through trial and error (one embarrassing goof at a time).  These minor disruptions cause small ripples of distress. While each individual breach of expectation is unremarkable, they build up to the point of madness. And that’s when we go crazypants and overreact.

The outsiders: The overarching theme is our outsider status.  I’m oblivious most of the time, and I do live a bubble, so it sometimes surprises me when people stare at me curiously or treat me in an odd, goofy way because I’m a foreigner.  I expected this initially and practically welcomed it. I was gawking at Hanoi, and it was gawking right back. Now, it’s more like, “Yes, I’m here! I’m over it Vietnam, why aren’t you?”

It’s not just the inability to blend in, for there are many places in Hanoi where I feel like I blend in perfectly. It’s something else. Something more difficult to pinpoint.  As outsiders, we don’t always know how to put the things we see or experience into the appropriate context.  There’s too much we don’t see and don’t understand to make sense of it.  So instead, we force it through the lens of our experience, and it just doesn’t fit.

In many ways, it’s liberating to be an outsider. There are few people to answer to and little accountability for your decisions, no matter how stupid. The locals tend to leave you alone as much as possible, a fact that too many take advantage of. This is why many Westerners treat Southeast Asia as their personal playground.  They can be obnoxious, entitled jerkwads and get away with it.  But over time, I think the constant fish-out-of-water feeling has a wearing effect.

A downside to the lack of social responsibility is that it comes with a lack of social support system (i.e., friends, family, and community that know you and are invested in your success). You don’t really have to do anything, the world is your oyster!  So, go on, do something.  The dramas and obligations that preoccupied you back home are blissfully gone, but now what?  Don’t get me wrong, this can be a gift. Hanoi has awarded many with the opportunity to explore and build things that would be difficult to do back home.  But when you’re stuck with little knowledge of the place and people around you, it can also be a burden. While most of us like to fashion ourselves as independent, self-reliant agents, we get lost easily without a map.  With less accountability and support, you need to acquire a stronger sense of self-determination. Or wallow, I suppose.  Not always easy peasy.

Bottled-up: As mentioned, there are things that I find maddening about the US as well (easy considering that I’m from Texas). The difference is that it’s my right to rant about my country and the many idiots who inhabit it. The self- and outsider-imposed censorship that stems from being foreign can be a tough road to navigate.  There’s also the uncomfortable fact that Westerners inhabit a privileged status here.  Even nutcases can land a well-paying job or spouse easily, especially if they’re white.  I’ve seen it!

It’s a lot harder to criticize a culture not your own and one in which you’re treated so well. It irritates me when people imply that saying anything against Vietnam is not ok.  It just feels disingenuous and even condescending.  Vietnam can handle it. It doesn’t need protecting against the inane rants of us foreigners.  Of course, feel free to rant right back, but we all need a little venting, don’t we?


It’s a complicated thing overall. I haven’t written in a while because, well, if you don’t have anything nice to say…  But not just that. I’ve sort of run out of blogging steam in general.

I initially wrote this post back in November 2012 and revisited it again in December, but then failed to post it because my bitter expat feelings waned considerably.  I’ve been feeling much more at peace with Hanoi in general, and I think this is due in large part to my picking apart the issue on my own and with others.  Rightfully shifting the blame and stress from Hanoi to other things where appropriate. Buying a new bicycle and riding around the city more also helped. Exploring Hanoi always charms me, and I don’t know why I so often forgot to do it.

And now it’s February already, and I’m back in the US. Not just for a visit. Moving on home! I’ve written one final post on that, to be uploaded within the next few days or so.  I just thought maybe this post deserved the light of an internet screen before that.


Not always sunny, but lovely nonetheless.

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Us versus Them

A couple weeks ago, while riding my bike to Ben’s birthday dinner on chicken street, my long skirt got caught up in my bike chain tearing half of it off and leaving me rather exposed on the side of the road.  After a dazed assessment of my ability to either fix my bike or walk home half-naked, I called Mitchell and asked him to rescue me, voice shaking due to a surprising show of emotions over the incident.  It really wasn’t a big deal, especially since it was on a near-empty street, so why was I so upset?  I’ve been half-naked in public plenty of times and done far more careless things on a bicycle.  The thing that terrified me was that I found myself in this state in Hanoi.  I immediately conjured up an image of myself walking home in my torn skirt and hearing the slow rising roar of my neighbors’ gleeful, open and focused mockery once they saw that not only was a girl in an embarrassing situation, but a foreigner at that!  You know, the one who walks the dog-meat dog and has two boyfriends and appears to be both rich and unemployed but always tired with bags under her eyes – that one!  Oh, you mean the one who comes home late every couple nights, doesn’t brush her hair, and goes to Café Huong to order tofu, spring rolls, and iced coffee, but every time she tries to say tofu she actually says “toilet paper”?  I have no idea what my neighbors think of me, but my point is that people tend to know their neighbors’ comings and goings around here, foreigner or not.

I suppose the skirt incident could be embarrassing anywhere, but I think the sheer terror it struck in me stems in part from the fact that I, like any foreigner, stick out here in general.  And people don’t seem concerned about occasionally talking about me or making fun of me in an obvious way while I’m standing 3 feet away.  I don’t know enough Vietnamese to know what they’re saying (thank Jebus) nor to tell them that I know they’re talking about me, but I think they’re aware of that fact anyway.  But it goes both ways as foreigners poke fun at the locals as well.  They joke about how fat, drunk, clueless, lonely and snooty we are, and we joke about how noisy, skinny, superstitious, and OCD they are.  (Note on the last one: there seems to be a right and wrong way to do just about anything in Vietnam, and many people can’t handle it when you’re doing something the wrong way – placing your bag on the floor, holding chopsticks stupidly, putting your helmet on your motorbike wrong, parking here instead of 2 inches from here, etc).

Our neighbors

Being an expat simultaneously amplifies and blurs cultural differences.  You clearly see that some values are universal, people on the whole tend to be nice as long as you’re nice back, and we’re all basically playing the same agonizing game of life.  However, the differences that do exist, although often superficial, come into sharp focus because we are so undoubtedly outsiders.   The so-called cultural divide.  It induces culture shock in most newbies, described on Wikipedia this way:

“After some time (usually weeks), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. That sense of excitement will eventually give way to new and unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as you continue to have unfavorable encounters that strike you as strange, offensive, and unacceptable. These reactions are typically centered on the formidable language barrier as well as stark differences in: public hygiene; traffic safety; the type and quality of the food.  One may long for food the way it is prepared in one’s native country, may find the pace of life too fast or slow, may find the people’s habits annoying, disgusting, and irritating etc. This phase is often marked by mood swings caused by minor issues or without apparent reason. This is where excitement turns to disappointment and more and more differences start to occur. Depression is not uncommon.”

I and my friends have gone through such phases, and I still have my I-hate-Vietnam days, usually after a shopping episode.  Nothing makes me hate Vietnam more than shopping.  I haven’t adjusted to the bargaining, the differential treatment of foreigners, and the immense effort it can take to find what you want.  People admonish me when I don’t bother bargaining, but any time I do make an attempt, the shopkeeper is usually unamused, acts like I’m an offensive asshole, and then refuses to talk to me anymore, even throwing the merchandise back into its box in disgust at times.  This interaction doesn’t always happen, but it’s the norm for me.  I’ve stopped caring about getting ripped off as long as it’s by a modest amount.  I can afford it, so who cares if I pay an extra $2?  End shopping tangent.  See, I hate it!  Although, my I-hate-Vietnam days are few and far between, outnumbered by I-love-Vietnam days which are usually triggered by riding my bicycle to new places.

Due to this tendency toward negativity in expats, I’ve seen websites that advise people moving to new countries to avoid the expat scene entirely in the beginning.  We’re a drag apparently.  Whenever we have a relatively mundane problem, we find a way to blame the entire country for it.  Those bags under my eyes that I mentioned earlier – totally Vietnam’s fault with all the pollution and traffic stress.  It has nothing to do with my irregular sleep patterns and excessive drinking habit!  Another result is that we develop a herding instinct and tend to cluster.  Despite our small representation in the general population, our prevalence in some bars and restaurants can exceed 90%.  The grouping together isn’t just a result of our shared culture shock of course.  It’s often simply a matter of the ease of conversation that comes with sharing a language and maybe some background similarities.  Also, the differences between Westerners from different countries are minimized.  If you travel to Germany or France as an American, you might feel out of place, but if you meet a German or French person here, it can feel like you went to the same school growing up.  Anyway, the clustering seems to be an inevitable result of living in another country, the same way the Vietnamese do in America, or how in San Francisco, befriending one French person opens up a whole French community to you.  Meet one, get 30 free!  Is this a bad thing?  No, I think not.  Although, one can easily get caught up in the expat bubble whereby you live on a different plane entirely from the ordinary citizens of Hanoi, like a celebrity without the glamour.   A reality show celebrity?  No, not quite.

Some expats take the opposite strategy of the foreign bubble.  They are on a mission to assimilate, rejecting all things Western.  I read an article recently describing the difficulty of “becoming Vietnamese.”  (“Why would you want to?” asked Mitchell as he weighed the plusses and minuses of Vietnamese vs American citizenship).  It talked about how you can marry a Vietnamese woman, learn the language, adjust as best you can to the customs, live here for 15 years, and yet the locals will still always consider you a “Tay” – the Vietnamese word for foreigner.  This saddened the author.  People frequently accuse expats of having a superiority complex, which can be true although I think most people do when it comes to their own way of life, but the assimilators can also be interpreted as having an inferiority complex.  In other words, they’ve elevated the Vietnamese way of life above that of their own countries, and they look down on and berate other expats and especially backpackers – the scum of the traveling set.  Does this condescension stem from a form of white guilt or self-loathing?   Or is it simply the usual tendency to find a way to feel better than those who are similar to you?  Or am I revealing my own biases against these people?  Maybe they just have a boner for Vietnam.  These people make up a small minority of expats, and I’m obviously not one of them.

The opposite extreme of the Assimilators is worse – expats who incessantly complain about Vietnam and Vietnamese people and even feel persecuted here (Wikipedia calls them the Rejectors and says 60% of expats fall into this category.  Yowza!  If Wikipedia says so, it must be true.)  That word “Tay” makes them batshit crazy.  They imagine or inflate abuses committed against them by locals and should go home, but back home is so expensive!  The only group more worthy of derision is the sexpat set.  You know who you are, all you slutty girls taking advantage of young

Vietnamese pondering over the hapless Tay

Vietnamese men who are in awe of your exotic foreignness and the riches that implies!  To be fair, us Tay can feel excluded or even taken advantage of at times (see the above on bargaining and mockery), and sometimes the word Tay is used in a derogatory fashion.  Occasionally people have reacted negatively towards me or treated me harshly because of my complexion.  It’s rare but it happens. The lady who wouldn’t sell me an orange, the bike guys who wouldn’t let me park in their lot, the various people who have shooed me away for no reason, blah blah.  I think there is a hint of resentment lingering among some people who find us spoiled, ill-mannered, and snobs.  These complaints aren’t entirely misplaced.  However, I’m more frequently treated as a rock star due to my complexion.  People have at times treated me with so much deference that it’s embarrassing.  I’m assumed to be good at my job and my friendship is sought by complete strangers. People have stopped me to photograph me before.  It’s awkward.  And of course this attitude that something or someone is better because they are foreign is going to have a backlash.  (Mitchell managed to induce one of his classes to chant “Yellow Power!” but I’ll let you ask him about that.)  Of course, most of the time, I just blend into the masses.

Can’t we all just get along?  We do, we do!  Most foreigners like being here, and most Vietnamese welcome them.  As I can see the finish line of my own time in Vietnam approaching, I’m starting to do some preemptive missing of the country and my life here.  But as much as it’s won me over, I can’t see myself living here forever.  I have more culture shocks awaiting me in the future.

For a visual of the foreign bubble in action, click here.

Personal side note:  Due to a lack of creativity, sloth, and other things, I’ve failed to update the blog as regularly as I hoped.  But changes are afoot – new house, job, and plans – and will be dutifully documented in the near future.

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