In Saigon, young, single, female expats are often misunderstood. As the city’s ever-changing foreign community continues to grow, Dana Filek-Gibson looks at the opportunities and adventures life abroad offers these women, as well as the challenges which arise from the way they are perceived by their peers. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Behind the desk in Steve’s office is a picture of a lake, taken somewhere in Australia or maybe New Zealand. It’s the kind of image you’d expect to find on a stock photo website or in a doctor’s office. The only reason I notice is because Steve’s head floats in the middle, punctuated on either side by rolling green hills. We’ve been talking for nearly 20 minutes now and the interview seems to be going well. Not for a job, Steve likes to remind me; he prefers to think of it as more of a ‘partnership’. Steve has a lot of words for things that already have words.
Stretching his legs, Steve’s clunky rubber soles land on the floor and he introduces me to his rubber band theory. It applies to all expats, but especially women – no, make that single women. Our time, he figures, is elastic: every expat has a rubber band tethered somewhere back home, to a person or a place or a career, and from the time you board a plane for Vietnam, that rubber band starts to pull. It stretches across continents and over oceans all the way to Saigon.
Some people carry this tension just fine. Steve says this because he knows: it’s been decades since he left home. He loves Vietnam. He loves his wife. He loves everything here and that pull is something he no longer registers. But women, he tells me, leaning forward onto the desk – young women, single women – well, that’s another story.
Eventually, the rubber band contracts. That tug gets a little too strong and in a matter of months it’s over: the elastic does what it was always meant to do, hurtling a person across time zones, over borders, but travelling in reverse, back to the very beginning.
Steve gestures with his hands, never picking his elbows up from the desk. Ultimately he wants to know how long I’ll be here. It’s a fair question: after all, I’m already four years in. By the time five comes around, Steve says, expats cannot adjust to life at home. It’s not a generalisation; it’s just fact. He has another theory about that.
“So,” he says. “Where are you with the rubber band?”
Push and pull
The thing about Steve, I later realise, is that he’s not entirely wrong. After we’ve exchanged name cards and parted ways, I start thinking. I can’t come up with more than one woman I know who will be here the rest of her life. From the time we arrive in Vietnam most of us are, in fact, on our way out. But something about the theory bothers me, the way it sounds so final. Foreign women leave – many foreign women – and a fair number of men don’t. Still, it’s hard to imagine my life here ending in some abrupt, hormone-fueled return to the American Midwest, driven mad by the noise or the distance or my lack of relationship, a favourite topic among everyone but myself.
Over the next few weeks, I starting asking around. Sometimes to friends, sometimes to strangers, I bring up the rubber band theory. Opinions fall all over the spectrum, from fervent agreement to absolute rejection and everywhere in between. Male and female, single and attached, everyone seems to have evidence which supports the idea and evidence which negates it. As it turns out, being young, single, female and expat can mean many different things.
For Frederikke Lindholm, a five-year resident of Saigon with a Master’s in Gender and Globalisation Studies, the decision to live or not live in Vietnam comes down to what pushes a person out of his or her home country and what pulls an individual to the hosting nation. Though she is currently in a relationship, Lindholm has spent time in Vietnam both as a single woman and as part of a couple.* When I bring up the rubber band theory, she refers to it as “another case of mansplaining” the anomaly that is a young, single, female foreigner outside her home country.
“Expat women here, and probably also around many places, are seen as appendages,” says the 30-year-old Danish transplant. “Not in a decorative sense, not like the trophy wife, but as people that are followers.”
Lindholm does not buy into this assumption. When she first arrived in Saigon in 2008, it was as part of a couple. Still, she chose to come – and stay – of her own free will, a fact which too often goes unacknowledged. For single women, however, this makes the conversation that much more confusing.
“Because life here is seen to be more difficult for foreign women than foreign men,” she says, “I think young, single, female foreigners are put under more scrutiny as to why they would want to come here.”
For men, a stock answer is usually enough, yet young, single women are often required to justify their presence in greater detail or, at the very least, to fit their life abroad into a larger trajectory.
On the younger end of the expat spectrum, 25-year-old Natasha Ozog is in the unique position of attending university in Vietnam, not as an exchange student but as a full-time enrollee at Saigon’s RMIT campus. While she’s grown accustomed to fielding certain questions about her life here, Ozog finds that few people are willing to accept an open-ended response.
“I’ve been in shops where people ask me, ‘Are you married?’ ‘No,’” Ozog explains. “[Once] I came out of a shop and by the end of the conversation [the shop owner] had it in her head that I will get married straight after university to a Vietnamese man and have three kids.”
For Ozog, the move to Vietnam turned out to be much less difficult than she had expected. In fact, the accounting student believes that being female actually helps in the long run, as locals seem to view her as more personable.
“Being a girl I think is a lot easier,” she says. “Maybe [women] are a bit more approachable. Vietnamese are never shy to come up and have a chat.”
As far as relationships go, she is also blissfully unattached and plans to keep it that way for the time being. Because Vietnam is a family-focused place, Ozog understands that the usual line of questioning – about age, marital status and children – is simply part of the culture. However, expats can be just as bad when it comes to divorcing romantic pursuits from the rest of her life.
“People think I’m bizarre for being 25 and not wanting a relationship,” she says. “There’s always that assumption that either I’m lying – I really do want a man – or there’s something wrong with me.”
For the most part, Ozog remains unfazed by these presumptions. There’s something to be said for the fact that in Saigon she can meet a guy and have a conversation without worrying about where the friendship will lead. With romance removed from the equation, Ozog finds her interactions with both local and foreign men are more genuine. That said, she still has a few friends who try to set her up, not to mention meeting the occasional guy in a bar.
“When I’ve met expat men out who are looking for foreign girls, they just don’t understand why I don’t want to go out with them,” she explains.
Ozog knows that her time in Vietnam will eventually come to an end, but she’s also quick to point out that leaving a country does not mean that single expat women are on the prowl.
“It’s like apparently we’re leaving because [of] men,” she says. Ozog pauses for a moment, catching herself before she rolls her eyes. “Or we could be leaving because there’s a whole world out there.”
In expat life, independence is all but a requirement. However, in the realm of relationships, this is seldom a becoming trait for foreign women. For Ramona Slusarczyk, a lecturer at RMIT and five-year Saigon resident, it has been the deciding factor in several of her relationships.
“When it comes to dating, it’s fantastic,” she says. “However there’s no denying that I’m single. It comes to me having a bad character.”
The “bad character”, I later discover, is independence. In fact, this trait is mentioned in every one of my interviews, almost always as a positive. The more women I speak to about the rubber band theory, the more I hear about the perks and freedom that come with living in a foreign culture. While some are gentler in explaining the effect an independent lifestyle has had on their relationships, Slusarczyk makes no bones about her stance on the matter.
“Men come and go,” she tells me, insisting that I write this down, “but what I do with my life remains.”
In part because of this attitude, Slusarczyk feels that dating in Saigon seldom leads to healthy relationships. In her experience, the expat community holds a different set of social norms than the ones which exist at home. There is a feeling of perpetual holiday, she explains, which can lead expats to behave in a way here that they might not elsewhere. Slusarczyk sees this in both the men who feel entitled to a female expat’s attention and also in foreign women who abide certain behaviours which they would not normally accept.
When someone doesn’t fall in line with these new norms, it makes it harder to be a part of the larger community. Many of Slusarczyk’s male friends, for instance, prefer Vietnamese women. While she sees no problem with this, certain behaviours which she views as more prevalent among this group mean that foreign women who are unwilling to behave in the same way pay a price. As an example, she brings up the women, often Vietnamese, who accompany their boyfriends to a bar when they hang out with male friends.
“I would die of boredom,” she says. “I would rather watch paint dry than watch my man play darts.”
Perhaps behavioural norms play a role in the challenges foreign women face in the dating world, but 33-year-old Arlene Tuang also thinks it has something to do with the transience of expat life. The New Zealand native points out that, in many cases, men are more inclined to settle down in a foreign country or find a home abroad. For women, however, expat life is often an adventure and usually comes with an exit strategy, whether that means returning home or carrying on to another foreign country. Tuang, a long-term expat who has lived in Vietnam for five years and out of her home country for nearly a decade, is beginning to feel the itch to move on.
“You get so comfortable,” she says of expat life in Saigon. “Things get easy; you start to get into this rut.”
While the rut is certainly a cushy one, filled with nice dinners, trips to the spa, frequent nights out and other perks, it’s ultimately not the place Tuang or her friend, Ania Semmerling, want to be. Next year, the pair have plans to say goodbye to Saigon’s high life and set off for Africa.
“At the beginning, it was a joke: we’re going to go to Africa and get husbands,” explains Semmerling, who is originally from Poland and has lived in Saigon since 2010. While neither woman is in a hurry to find a partner, both have recognised that Vietnam is probably not the place to start looking.
“I already gave up on meeting anybody here,” Semmerling continues. “I know it’s not going to happen.” Both she and Tuang laugh at the bluntness of the statement. Though they’ve each had relationships during their lives abroad, Saigon is a difficult place to date. This is certainly not either woman’s priority, but both recognise the fact that being a single female expat means that finding a likeminded partner is not so easy.
“Things are more sour and more sweet at the same time,” says Tuang.
*An earlier version of this article omitted the fact that Lindholm is currently in a relationship.