Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Transitioning

Today was my most productive day since returning to the U.S. last Thursday evening. I opened a bank account, joined a gym, and got my bicycle (which I flew back with me) into riding condition. Prior to this I had accomplished practically nothing. I'm still in a bit of a daze from leaving Saigon - saying goodbye to some of the most important people in my life and giving up that lifestyle, followed immediately by the mind-bending odyssey that is trans-Pacific travel, left me in a weak state. Plus I barely slept during my madcap last week in Saigon, during which I spent just one out of the final seven nights in my own bed (not necessarily for the reason you're thinking of, there were several all-nighters thrown in). I haven't felt like doing anything social, and for the most part I've kept to myself, listening to music and binging on episodes of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" to get my travel fix vicariously.

The other day I watched "Lost in Translation" for the first time, which was a terrible idea. It's a great movie, but the isolation and discomfort the characters played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson experience in Tokyo mirror my feelings towards being back in the U.S. It was an unpleasant reminder that I'm caught between two worlds. I had gotten used to living in Vietnam, but everyone expects that, as an American, I will just end up staying here for good. My last three years were an experience that no one here understands. I ordered a beer at a restaurant the other day and the waitress asked for my driver's license. I joked that I hadn't needed it in a while since I had been living abroad, where it is useless, and she scoffed at me. I ran into a neighbor who wondered if living in Vietnam had been "scary". (Mind you, she is elderly and there is no reason the average American would need to know that the country has moved way past the war, but still...) I still want to talk about traveling, where the best places to eat in District 10 are, etc., but here the hot topics are politics (vomit) and the weekend obsessions of college football and the NFL. I still enjoy American sports, but I've been disconnected from them for so long that I have a hard time staying interested for a whole game. I don't mean to sound like I'm hating on Americans, but leaving the melting pot that is any expat community and re-entering the relative homogeneity of a mid-size city is tough. How am I supposed to make fun of British English if there aren't any Brits around?!

Fortunately the food has been amazing. New Orleans is one of the best places in America (or the world) to eat, and I've been taking full advantage of that. Having a fully-stocked kitchen is great as well, I enjoy cooking but didn't have the equipment in Vietnam. (And why would I cook when I could walk down the street and get an amazing meal for $2?) The fall weather is also fantastic; as much as I love Saigon the 365-day heat was tiring. Access to helpful customer service in fluent English is great. The people who helped me out at the bank and gym today were affable and knowledgeable, there was no need for miming and no wondering if they understood my dumbed-down questions.

There are obviously some things that have taken some getting used to. A few times I've forgotten that we have a dishwasher, as I'm used to doing that by hand. Every time I cross a one-way street I still constantly look both ways, since traffic in Saigon can come from any direction at any time. Cost of living is an obvious difference. I'm going on a whirlwind road trip from Las Vegas to LA and San Francisco starting Friday, and the other day I booked a night at a hostel (bunk bed ftw!) in Santa Barbara for $34 a night. $34!!!!!! That's easily a night at a 3-star hotel in Vietnam. On that topic, this six-day trip is going to be considerably more expensive than the 3.5 week journey through Ha Giang and Myanmar I took a couple of months ago. Oi.

Perhaps the hardest part of being back so far, though, is the expectation of everyone that I have all of my next moves figured out. I've been asked "so, what are you doing now?" roughly 5,236 times. (Second on that list is "so you're back for good?") I have to explain that well, I've only been back a few days and am just getting over my jet lag, and I really have no idea what I'm doing anyway. I want to continue writing, and I want to move back abroad, preferably Asia, but that's pretty much all I know. One reason I have trouble connecting with people here at times is that so many people have their next five-ten years planned out - job, wife, house, dog, kids, etc. - while I can't even say what I'll be doing in five months. That was the great thing about my group of friends in Saigon - we were all playing things by ear, enjoying the moment. Perhaps not the most financially logical way to live, but it's a lot of fun. That line of thinking doesn't jive with the prescribed American life though, where everyone is supposed to graduate from college and work in an office for 40 years while raising 2.2 kids behind a white picket fence. Occasionally I do envy the stability of that lifestyle, but then I remember that time I watched the sun rise at the southern tip of India or ate jackfruit in the simple home of an old man in Myanmar while he talked about the past. I just want more of that. I guess that's what I need to figure out during this transition period: how do I keep having experiences like that while making enough money to pay off my college loans? That is the challenge.

8 comments:

  1. I did a study abroad program many years ago. It was only 3 months but the transition back was intense. I couldn't imagine what 3 years would be like. As for the comment on Vietnam I get it. As part of the study abroad program we spent a week in Vietnam. Before arriving all the professors kept saying "Vietnam is a country. Not a war." I never understood that until I came back and told people how I loved my time there. Many scoffed and said how dangerous it was.

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    1. Yea it's amazing how one (admittedly major) event can affect a country's reputation for decades.

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  2. Welcome back to the US. I have been a long time reader of your blog and made a few comments along the way. I have always enjoyed reading your post because I live vicariously through you not only for the expat experience but also seeing the motherland through someone else's eyes.

    I was in NOLA this past week(end) for a MBA conference/mini-holiday. I thoroughly love that city. Well, maybe not during the summer. lol

    I envy you for having the boules (french for balls) to travel to the foreign country and live there. This post hits a very tingling nerve in me. I think we both are experiencing quarter-life crises.

    I stayed at a hostel in NOLA (Bourbon House) and met a bunch of traveling Australians. Listening to their life stories and yours made me question the "prescribed" life that I have been leading. Ironically, the conference I went to is the perfect example of expected life I have been told to live. How do we reconcile the two worlds? One of living to your fullest and one of being career/financially responsible.

    Feel free to pass along the answer and wisdom. Haha!

    From,

    Your loyal reader,

    Tyler

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    1. Yea, NOLA is pretty rough in the summer. If I ever find an answer to your question I'll let you know, and thanks for reading!

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  3. Haha. You'll be back. Being in the west is too bland and safe for someone like you.

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  4. That's how I feel, funnily enough, having moved from Japan after five years to Vietnam. Everyone is a little more eager to hear stories but everyone, from the Vietnamese to the expats, has all these pre-conceived notions and it's hard to talk about the reality of life there without having to jump through all the standard "Yes, we have comic book porn there."

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    1. I know exactly what you mean. I've lost track of the number of times someone has asked "so do they eat dog there?"

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