In November 2015 I packed my things into a big suitcase and moved half across the world to Thanh Hoa city in Vietnam to live and work here as an English Teacher. I still remember the mixture of fear and excitement I felt as I prepared for my big move, for my first English teaching job, for my first time living abroad on a distant continent, in a completely different culture. I was scared but also proud of myself – I had already lived abroad before and now I was going to make my big dream of living and traveling in SE Asia come true. I was doing what I had set out to do a couple of years ago – I was creating a life for myself that I could continuously keep falling in love with.
As with all the places I’d been to before, I was curious to discover how this new place was going to change me, what kind of relationship I was going to have with it. I’ve always thought of places as people – friends, lovers, family. Each place felt personal to me in a different way.
Soon I discovered, however, that just like with people, not all relationships with places are the good ones. Upon my arrival to Thanh Hoa, I felt immediately that this wasn’t a place for me. I couldn’t quite define the feeling or understand it, but it was there, it was palpable, and I didn’t feel good about it. I tried wandering the streets like I always used to do to get the feel of the place, but nothing around me felt right, I felt disconnected and distant from everything that surrounded me. During those first few weeks, I couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck here for an entire year. I was terrified.
This is what I wrote in my private diary only a week after starting work in Thanh Hoa:
“I hate this place. I don’t like pretty much anything here, except for my job. I wonder if maybe I have overestimated myself. I feel like I have jumped from an insanely high precipice without proper equipment. Mom says I can go back if I really can’t stand it here, that it would not be such a big deal and that it would not be a disgrace.
The thing is, for me it would be. I don’t care what anyone else would think, but I couldn’t live with myself if I just gave up, cowered away, went back home without giving it a proper try. There is more to me that that, I know.
I have jumped and there’s no going back. Gravity has only one direction. I will either fall or break, or I will learn how to fly again.” (November 14, 2015)
I kept telling myself that this was just the beginning; that I needed to go through the initial culture shock, that I needed to push through, and eventually things would get better. So I decided to stay and put some effort and make the best of the situation I was in. I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy, but I convinced myself that I had to find a way to open my heart for this place that I disliked so much right off the bat. I also needed the money if I was going to make my dreams about traveling SE Asia possible. I kept telling myself that, if nothing else, at least I would be able to save a decent amount of money here.
So I stayed. But eight months later, I still feel the same way about Thanh Hoa as I did at the beginning. I’ve not grown to love this place, not even the tiniest bit, no matter how hard I tried. Don’t get me wrong, there were good things and good moments about my experience here. But overall satisfaction with my accomplishments here was much lower than the level I expect from myself in life. As the months went by, I started feeling lonely, bored, insecure, and like a failure. I felt like my dream had turned into a really bad movie.
So as June approached, I decided that it was time to leave and travel again. Time to see the rest of Vietnam instead of being stuck in the place that has been turning me into some other Nina, a person unknown to me, a person I didn’t like at all. I announced my resignation at work in advance, notifying the school that I would be leaving mid-July.
So now, as the end of my expat life as an English teacher in Thanh Hoa has come to an end, I have decided to turn my mistakes into valuable lessons that I can carry with me on my ongoing journey of getting to know myself and this world.
While thinking about this article and analyzing myself, I ended up writing a much longer piece than I originally intended to, so I’ve decided to split it into several parts. Those who don’t feel like reading everything can still just read the titles and get a grasp on what I learned. Each subtitle will be posted as a separate post, and those who want to read more of my musings can follow the links by clicking on the subtitles that they wish to know more about.
So, here it is, 11 pieces of advice to myself and anyone else who might relate to it, based on my own mistakes and actions during the past nine months of my life:
- Choose a place that speaks to your soul.
- Living in a hotel is NOT a good idea!
- Get on that motorbike!
- Accept the fact that you’ll often have to ask and rely on help of others.
- Having a good, well-paid job is not enough (for me).
- The quality of relationships with people around me is my primary driving force.
- Loneliness comes from within me, and it is damn hard.
- Falling in love just can’t end well if it becomes your only real source of happiness.
- I need to be surrounded by beauty.
- I actually kind of like working with kids!
- Last but not least: listen to your gut – if you keep feeling like something is not good for you, you’re probably right.