Every expat has a reason for leaving their home country and living in Vietnam. Some will admit this, others will not and a large percentage of expats are in complete denial, subconsciously unaccepting that they’ve fled anything. They just ‘like it here’. For my first week in the country, I was a member of the third camp. Quickly however, my feelings changed and I now resonate with the foremost category; I am aware and accepting that I’m ‘running’ from something, just unknowing of what I’m running towards.
For the past 17 years, my life has been filled with promising academic milestones. In 2014 this ended and graduation from university took place — an event I viewed as a rigid bridge into the world of taxes, 40-plus hour work weeks, 401ks and road rage. From there, the integrity of milestones frayed: Get a job; get a promotion; make money and then make more money; strive for higher apartment windows and more exotic vacation destinations. And start a family.
Apart from the last one, this new round of milestones appeared more as a pile of rubble than a pattern that, as a society, we should be encouraging or attempting to practice — the rewards are superficial, the demands likely only to increase. For these reasons, I am now seeking an alternative route and oddly, Vietnam is the starting path.
Less is More
There are the obvious benefits in settling here; the cost of living is significantly cheaper compared to Western countries, jobs are abundant for English-speaking expats, the beaches are beautiful, and a beer costs less than US$1 (VND22,500). (If Vietnam were a college, I presume applications would easily surpass that of Harvard’s).
There are other reasons for Vietnam’s appeal. The Vietnamese, while typically collecting a mere $US200 (VND4.5 million) a month, appear far happier than my former classmates who have enthusiastically entered the corporate rat race. Here, the pace of life is slower, appreciation for small talk and friends higher. Boredom doesn’t appear to exist and generosity runs rampant. As is often the case, those who have less actually have more.
With this aura, in a society where coffee is a pastime and people live in the present, the need for contrived satisfaction begins to dissipate. Additionally and just as important, as an expat on the right side of financial inequality, necessities — shelter, food, water and livelihood, are easily taken care of and other ‘needs,’ such as desires and anxieties, can be focused on (if I choose to acknowledge them). At home, with a degree and debt, a US$40,000 (VND900 million) per year salary will not allow for such exploring. In Vietnam, the circumstances are different.
A New Me
Currently, I am six weeks into my sabbatical of self-exploration. I am running towards a better sense of understanding — re-evaluating established milestones and hopefully discovering a more satisfying way of living. I am also reassessing who I am, shedding labels that once felt comforting but now feel unauthentic and constricting. I relinquish ‘Alex from New Hampshire’, daughter of ‘mom and dad’, college graduate, etc. Instead, I am just Alex. Who am I when stripped of the identity that has been applied by others, some fragments cemented since or before my birth? I want to understand myself and my behaviour outside the confines of the familiar.
Here, in a place unlike any other I’ve lived in before, I do not know myself in such a context, and this is a beautiful feeling. Because I am far removed from my normal reality, it is easier to be me, to be whoever I actually am. Most attributes have stayed at home — my fears, doubts, typecasts from others, etc. My humour and immense joy of interacting with strangers has remained, and my ability to tackle the unknown and thrive without a plan is flourishing. (The latter is something I would previously have never associated with myself).
So, in Vietnam, perhaps I am running towards the person I’ve always been, dismissing misguided milestones along the way; shedding all the artificial layers that have blocked my true self from the world, stripping down to the fundamental me.
Most expats are doing the same to some degree, running along their own haywire path. They’re tired of home; fed up with miserable jobs, stressful family matters or simply unsatisfied with their own state of affairs. The reason to depart is not always because of something terrible or negative, but we all do leave for some reason.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken; we go on vacations to get away, we read novels to escape reality and indulge in narcotics to alter reality. We do something to “get away” — in our case, we have moved to Vietnam. As for the ‘I just like it here’ crowd, they may have moved physically, but do they gain anything if they deny any reasons exist for leaving? They’re the same person they were at home; suppressed in a false identity they’ve come to accept, continuing to exhibit characteristics and behaviours produced out of fear and other un-dealt with emotions. Ignorance is bliss, but it can often also be destructive.
For these expats, they’re not running towards anything — they’re skipping backwards and obtaining a nice tan.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Word Vietnam