Thursday, January 20, 2011

First impressions of Earth

I've met a number of expatriates here over the last ten or twelve days. Saigon is a very big city--far and away the largest I've ever lived in--but I don't think the community of foreign English teachers is of quite the same scale. Foreigners like to hang out at a handful of bars, somewhat segregated by profession, and thus by country of origin. Many English teachers hang out at a bar called Hung Vy on or near Bui Vien in District 1, the heart of backpackerdom in Vietnam. I've run into groups of French expats in another bar not far away from there, lamenting the lack of a good vin ordinaire. Germans live here, too, but despite the profusion of Hammer and Sickle flags, I've yet to meet a single Russian.

It's a strange little world, all its own, a kind of Neverneverland peopled by aging Lost Boys. Female English teachers seem to be a bit on the rare side; so far I've met exactly one. Whether English, American, Scottish, Australian, Irish, Canadian, or New Zealander, they seem to have moved to Asia for a narrow spectrum of reasons. And whatever the specifics, they are running from something. Something specific, like poverty, or PTSD, or a felonious past--or more generally, running from responsibility, from parts of their home country they find stultifying, from sheer ordinariness. After all, in Vietnam we are all a bit like rock stars.

We can afford to live like rock stars; when you're making 500,000 VND an hour, and a beer costs 13,000 during happy hour...well, the direct costs of drinking cease to matter. Weed is apparently very cheap here too, and also--apparently--very, very bad.

I met one expat from England who smokes three or four J's an hour. Living in an amiable fog, he's charming and friendly, the perfect dissolute old Public School boy. Old darling, he calls me as he introduces himself for the fourth time in 15 minutes. Old chap. "I say," he says, "my best mate's name is Owen. We served in the Royal Artillery together in Wales."

"I know," I tell him again. "You've told me."

"Terribly sorry, old darling...what did you say your name was?" I tell him. His handshake is firm. His eyes are vague. "Owen--that's my best mate's name. We were in the Falklands together."

I have joined their ranks. I'm in the club, provisionally. A lifer, people tell me: I'm a natural, adapting quickly to this strange antipodean existence. And if this is Neverneverland, does this also make me a Lost Boy? The waitress brings me a beer in a sweating glass. An ice cube the size of my wallet sits in the mug. To drink, I have to hold it out of the way with my nose. A drop of meltwater slides down and into my eye. I eat quail eggs; salty snacks and cold beer, perfect on a hot day, even in a strange form.

I'm not sure I like the idea. Are they happy? Do they ache at the sense of displacement? After all, everything is different here, and yes, superficially better for us white, male, English-speaking foreigners. Nevertheless... Do they use the cheap beer to float away the nagging sense that they could not succeed at home? Am I staring at one possible future?

What does being here say about me?


  1. I'd say that being there is a new experience from which you can learn, and can pad your resumé in the future should you need it to. It's a bit of adventure, it is horizon-expanding. It is something most of us have not experienced.

    Depending on what you do with it, of course. But I am certain you will use this not just for Good, but for Awesome (as Strong Bad says).

    Also, regarding the forgetful Brit: That reminds me of the time when I told Keir, Sean, and Brian that my favorite Beatles album is Abby Road. A dozen times.

  2. I think it says that you suffer from classic western capitalistic discontent (I should know as a chronic sufferer myself). For as much as we try to ignore the advertising and materialism of western society it still works it's way into us and makes us constantly look up at who has more cool stuff and judge ourselves by that standard.

    We all want to feel good about ourselves, but you didn't go to Vietnam just to be able to buy lots of stuff that would make you feel good. I think you went to Vietnam because you are searching, not running.

    I think what it says about you is that you are human.