Expat Life in Vietnam: The first 3 months
I realize I haven’t been the best at blogging lately. I suppose a pretty full teaching schedule paired with exploring my new city + days off spent at the pool or sweating my culo off have left little time for blogging. Or maybe its the sort of inspiration block common when one finally decides to settle in and stay awhile. I apologize. Here’s the latest on my current situation….
I had been in Vietnam for 3 months officially on March 3. My first official month in Vietnam–January had me searching for work; spending my CV and cover letter to every language school in the city just before the TET holiday (when the country shuts down for 2 weeks). I learned this was not such a great time to nab a good job.
The few companies interested in hiring were looking for teachers to start in February. Under normal circumstances, this would have been ideal for me. I could take a glorious 3 week trip somewhere exotic–to Malaysia or the Philippines or to Vietnam’s tropical island paradise of Phu Quoc. However, my extremely tight financial situation ensured that I wouldn’t be going far. Instead I ate street food, wandered around the city, took a small beach trip to a nearby coastal city and waited to hear back about a job.
It didn’t take long until I had a few decent offers and finally agreed to a part time job at a well-respected language institute with great facilities, plus another with a company that places teachers in public schools. The month of February (after TET, that is) would consist of teaching as many hours as I could, so I’d get a decent enough paycheck in March. I would be working with the language institute on weekends and weeknights; and during weekdays, I’d be in a public Junior High School.
To say that these two jobs were opposites would be a gross under-exaggeration. At the language institute, I’d teach classes of 8-15 students, whose parents pay quite a bit for their attendance. I’d have a teacher’s room filled with loads of great textbooks, computers, a printer + copy machine, toys, games, flashcards, air-conditioning, tea & coffee and a cubby to keep all my goods, plus, perhaps most importantly–other teachers to offer their moral support, advice and company. Here I teach 2 kindergarten classes (not my favorite), a low-level adult class (which begins at the end of March), a placement class where I interview new students and place them in the appropriate level, and one intermediate elementary class, of which I’ve grown a sort of pride and affection, deep in my heart, that I can’t quite put into words.
I often spend Sunday nights (the equivalent of Friday to most Language Institute teachers) out with my coworkers indulging in Western Food at the nearby backpacker’s street and drinking $.60 beer at our favorite breezy, rooftop bar.
At my public school job I have a 10-year-old textbook, a dusty chalkboard, one extremely necessary TA and little else… Here, as one of 3 Western Teachers (I’ve only briefly met one of them, and the other I’ve seen glimpses of), I teach 13, 45 minute English classes of 40+ students over the course of Wednesday plus Thursday and Friday afternoons at a dilapidated, open-air Junior High hidden in an alley off a busy street in District 3. Picture a class of 40, either self-conscious or smart-ass, 13-15 year old Vietnamese students who speak varying levels of English (mostly from none to a little, with a few shining stars), add the fact that it is 90 degrees + humid (no air-conditioning, of course) and you’ll have a small idea of my classes. My first few weeks, I went through several TA’s, until all that were too timid, or low on patience were weeded out and I had 3 different tough discipliners, one for each day.
On Wednesdays, I spend my entire day teaching at this school. After my first full day here, I nearly collapsed in exhaustion into a puddle of my own sweat and tears. After my first full week, I spent so much time talking so loud that the muscles in my throat hurt to the touch and I had chronic dry throat.
But finally after 3 weeks, I had my first Wednesday that didn’t leave me deeply exhausted, angry and frustrated; plus I actually grew to enjoy a few of my 7th grade classes. I’m slowly learning to appreciate this job, which humbles me and exercises my creativity. How do you build an engaging lesson plan for such a large class with varying levels of English to kids who are at the age of easy-embarrassment in a social culture which is dictated by loss of face–with no resources but an outdated, and too-high-level textbook? Let’s just say it’s not easy, but I’m beginning to figure it out.
Though I’ve had some amazing moments, and fun times, my first 3 months in Vietnam haven’t exactly been easy. In a lot of ways they were some of the most difficult of my life. It’s not so much one describable factor; but a collective of frustrations, lessons learned the hard way, and what can only be construed as flat-out culture shock. This is not necessarily a culture that is welcoming or natural to Westerners the way Latin America was. And despite the fact that the cost of living is low, it was a stressful place to be broke; when as a foreigner, I continually get overcharged for the simplest service or food item, taxed, fined or made to jump through hoops to obtain a work visa. It doesn’t help that paychecks come just once a month and that rent + 2 months deposit is required when moving into a new apartment. Those weeks before my first paycheck, I lived in a fairly constant state of anxiety.
One frustration arose when my Vietnamese 3-month multiple-entry, tourist visa expired, and in true Vietnam fashion, I had problems renewing. I had taken a trip over Christmas to Thailand and flew back into Vietnam through the central city of Danang. For whatever ridiculous reason, the customs agent claimed that now I couldn’t renew my tourist visa in Saigon, because I had a recent stamp in my passport from Danang. He claimed, I now needed go back to Danang (19 hours away by bus) in order to renew it. However, in Vietnamese fashion I could renew it without going all the way back to Danang, I would just have to pay nearly triple the price for no other good reason than that government wants my money.
Other frustrations come naturally when dealing with normal life processes such as setting up a new bank account, attending a physical at a local hospital, buying bed sheets, grocery shopping, getting a haircut, finding shoes in my size (in Asia, anything larger than size 7 is considered freakishly large), finding cute clothes appropriate for teaching and comfortable for 90-100 degree weather, and getting from point A to B–all in a chaotic city which speaks, primarily, a very difficult and tonal language and lives by a different set of social rules.
That being said, my days off have become the shining light in my life as I grow accustomed to not only a new profession and a new city, but a new country, with a culture and climate vastly different than my own–I consider these days off vital and important to my well-being and emotional sanity. Currently, I have Mondays and Tuesdays off, though this will change when I begin my adult night class Tuesdays-Thursdays. Now that I have reentered Life With a Paycheck, I can actually make the most of my free days or free hours. I can take day-trips to the nearest coastal city to clock some beach-time. I can bum around the city, indulge in top-notch $15 massages, take yoga or aerobics classes at my neighborhood gym or go out to nice dinners with my roommates.
I can spend all afternoon at my favorite coffee shop; the one hidden down a quant alleyway, above a Thai Restaurant. The one with beautiful murals adorning the walls, padded benches with floral print pillows, and high ceilings; where old-school, French-inspired Vietnamese music plays just loud enough; where my jasmine ice tea is continually refilled no matter if I’m there for 5 minutes or 5 hours. Where there is fast WIFI….
I can spend all afternoon napping and reading on a cushy lounge chair, under the shade of a palm tree beside a lovely pool, in a green park. On my most recent day off, I took the 2-hour (sometimes 2-4 hours depending on the driver or traffic) bus ride to Vung Tau, the nearest coastal city and spent the afternoon making a large dent in my book, eating seafood and obtaining a sunburn. I paid $4.50 to use the lounge chairs, beach and facilities of a fancy resort. It was glorious.
At this point, I feel I’ve probably experienced many of the hardest parts of expat life (though likely not for the last time), and I can look forward to plenty of rewarding work days, important learning experiences, exciting travel moments and relaxing free days in my months ahead.