As Dana Filek-Gibson finds herself binging on a diet of sandwiches and DVDs, she realises she is in need of a few more judgmental people in her life.
Once, when I was 12, my parents went on vacation and left my brother and me with Julie, a total stranger. There are a number of reasons this was a terrible idea, beginning with the fact that Julie rode a tricycle to work — yes, a tricycle — and wore fanny packs on purpose, but I’ll spare you the finer details. The bottom line is that, from the moment my mother and father pulled out of the driveway, this woman watched us like a hawk. I couldn’t cross the street alone or use utensils by myself or make the five-minute trip from our front door to the bus stop, which I could see from the edge of the property. From outfits to television programs to meals, Julie questioned my every decision with a raised eyebrow or a snide comment, like it was any of her business. Fortunately, her reign of terror didn’t last very long, but those were perhaps two of the most oppressive weeks of my life.
Because obviously, at 12, I was practically a grown woman. I wore training bras and had a poster of the Backstreet Boys above my bed. The notion that I could somehow make poor decisions was frankly absurd. Julie — or anybody, for that matter — had no right to judge me. When my parents returned from their holiday, my brother and I were so vocal in our outrage that they are still apologising for her to this day.
But I have come to realise that, as much as it pains me to admit, perhaps Julie wasn’t so bad after all. More than a decade later, I have moved to Vietnam and made mostly good, responsible decisions. I have steady employment, a comfortable apartment, several friends and something of a social life. But what I’ve discovered more and more each day is that Vietnam is a country of many friendly people and very few rules. This has its perks; I can, for example, enter the parking garage through the exit ramp or show up to my office job wearing cut-offs. But the absence of judgment is not always a good thing.
My first six months in this country, for instance, at least 85 percent of the meals I ate were sandwiches. Plastic take-away bags littered my kitchen. Banh mi became my go-to breakfast, midday snack and sometimes dinner. I once photographed a sandwich and sent it to the folks at home, explaining individual ingredients. In hindsight, of course, this whole sandwich obsession was a bad idea — by the time I had snapped out of it, the only real friends I had were street vendors — but in the moment it made sense to me.
When I finally realised I was eating my feelings in bread and losing what little grip I had on reality, I did what any other human being would do and blamed everybody else. How could people have allowed me to be so self-destructive? I truly believe that if even just a few more people had looked at me funny for visiting the same banh mi cart three times in one day, perhaps I would have come to my senses much sooner.
As a person of many impulses and very little willpower, peer pressure is one of the only reasons I don’t (always) go out dressed in sweatpants or eat cupcakes for breakfast. And while most people have no trouble scolding me for things I don’t care about, like having a suntan or not having a husband, what I really want more than anything is for somebody to raise an eyebrow when I watch the entire 74-disc James Bond collection in one sitting or go shopping to postpone laundry day. If only someone were here to mock me for my poor decisions, perhaps I would spend more time and money on productive pursuits. I hate to say it, but perhaps we could all use a little Julie in our lives every now and again.
Dana Filek-Gibson is a Canadian expat living in Ho Chi Minh City.