Dana Filek-Gibson offers some tips on popping the expat bubble.
One afternoon while eating shoulder-to-shoulder on the street, my friend Linh cheerfully announced I was adopted. If Linh were anyone else, like my real sister, I might have taken this as an insult. Instead I spent the rest of lunch beaming, despite the fact I’d painted curry spots all over my shirt. I was finally Vietnamese enough for a Vietnamese person.
Moving abroad is not unlike grade six: you’re new, you’re funny-looking, and everybody in town already has friends. Saigon is another place in which we all must learn to survive. Just as we once discovered coping mechanisms and awkward social behaviour, we adapt to Vietnam and the strange customs around us, mastering the international language of charades, hunting down every local shop that sells cheese, and trying to convince our friends we never visit Pham Ngu Lao. In many ways, this alone is a unique cultural experience.
And yet, I know people who have lived here for years and still aren’t sure what banh xeo is. While we are all guilty of this on occasion, there are some among us who live daily on takeaway burritos and HBO reruns. These things are indisputably enjoyable, but I suspect that anyone who comes to Asia is, or once was, looking for something more culturally engaging than Entourage. Thankfully, as someone who has been called Vietnamese not once but three times, I am able to offer my unsolicited advice on how to enhance your day-to-day expat experience in Saigon.
To state an obvious fact, expats are not tourists. We pride ourselves on fitting in, even when we don’t. The simplest way to spice up your everyday routine is to act like you are not, in fact, a foreigner. Do what locals do. Master the art of driving heavy, unsecured objects on your motorbike, for instance, or train yourself to execute the signature Vietnamese squat-sit for more than 10 seconds. While no one at home would describe pajama sets as sensible or something you wear in the daytime, it never hurts to try one on and gauge the reaction.
Once you’ve mastered looking and acting like a local, immerse yourself in Vietnamese news. There is a whole world of things you would never know, if it weren’t for local publications. What is a chicken beauty contest, and why does it exist? Are we angry at China? What is the price of gold this month? In my experience, there is at least one piece of genitalia-related news a month in Vietnam. Stay abreast of these stories; they are incredible conversation-starters.
Last but not least, cultivate a new hobby, like exercising in the park or that board game played by old men in their undershirts on the sidewalk. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, learn how to cook Vietnamese food without burning yourself. I’ve chosen speaking Vietnamese, which is a fabulous party trick, and occasionally useful when someone understands me.
Regardless of what happens, the idea is to step outside your ever-expanding comfort zone. Since coming to Vietnam, my personal definition of reasonable has grown to include nose-picking, public urination, and people driving motorbikes with their eyes closed. It’s best, I find, to keep pushing those boundaries as far as they’ll go.