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Sometimes ignorance really is bliss

May 10, 2011

I’ve been in the States for a week now. I slept from 10:30pm last night to 10:30am this morning, and now I’m awake at 4:30am. My body is still confused about being here (the double shot latte I had earlier isn’t helping,) but my mind is slowly figuring things out.

The first and most disturbing adjustment began in the Bangkok airport. Living in a country where you don’t understand the language can be a negative thing. It’s a strange thing to be surrounded by thousands of conversations and excluded from all of them. You can’t even eavesdrop! This can lead to loneliness and isolation. It took a long wait in the Bangkok airport surrounded by other westerners with their loud, idiotic airport comments and conversations to make me realize that the silence of ignorance can be blissful. I began to wish I couldn’t understand them.

Another change I experienced was that I started feeling insecure about my shaved head. I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve been stared at for months, even so much as friend elbowing friend to point at me, but it never bothered me. What was the difference? It took my five-hour layover in Bangkok, a six-hour flight to Tokyo, and about half of the twelve-hour flight to JFK to figure it out: I don’t know what Vietnamese people think when they point and stare. I have little hope of ever guessing what is going on behind their whispers and blank looks. Because of this, I don’t really worry about it. But, when I’m being stared at by people of my own culture, I can begin to guess what they’re thinking – and I have a feeling it isn’t all nice.

I believe a lot of my worries were those of a jet-lagged woman. For the most part, I’ve gone back to forgetting that I look any different from anyone else. Today, though, while I was shopping, some of the store clerks were so nice to me that I started to wonder if they think I have cancer. I really hope not. I don’t look like I have cancer. My weight is that of a very healthy woman. My hair is very short, but it’s thick. And, the cut is very intentional. Maybe I’m mistaking sympathy for good ol’ southern hospitality. Maybe I’ve been away from it so long I don’t even recognize it.

Another adjustment I’ve had to make has to do with driving. After eight months away, I wasn’t sure if I’d remember how, but once I started going my hands and feet remembered all the details of driving. However, I found myself being extremely paranoid when making turns or pulling out onto the road. I realized that living in Saigon traffic has trained me to expect traffic from all angles. There are rules, but no one really follows them. So, I look left, look right, check my mirrors, look left, right, left, and then maybe I go. It’s like I’m expecting someone on a motorbike to come peeling around the left side of my car, clip my mirror, ash their cigarette on me, and make a right hand turn at any moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if I made a right turn and found a truck parked in my lane facing me. Or, if said truck had a hammock strung up underneath it with the driver napping inside. So, I’m always prepared. Always checking. I have a feeling I’ll relax just in time to go home, and then I’ll get run over by a motorbike.

When I first arrived I spent a few days in New Jersey/ New York with my sister. In some ways, I still felt like I was in a foreign country. I was walking around like a lost fool half the time studying maps, fumbling with money, not understanding the culture, and half the time, not understanding the language. Since arriving in Atlanta, though, sometimes I feel like I never left. Like my home in Saigon – the chaotic city that never cools down with its streets full of people, bikes, taxis, and food – is a dream. Before I go to sleep at night, I Skype with Jonathan as he drinks his morning coffee, and then we reverse it twelve hours later. It’s all very confusing.

What are some adjustments you experience while traveling, returning home, or switching cultures? I wonder if the disconnect I feel with the place that has been my home for eight months is normal. And, I know I’m not the only person who has learned to enjoy the silence of not understanding the language around you. Or, am I? I’d love to hear about your experiences with this sort of thing.

My parents have a cat. I think they’ve had her about seven years, and she still doesn’t have a name. She mostly goes by Cat. I’ve never really gotten along with her. She’s a bit wicked and likes to pretend to sleep and then swat at people when they walk past. She doesn’t like to be petted or held. This is partially why she doesn’t have a name: my mother wanted to name her cutesy names and we all felt she deserved to be named She-Devil or something similar. I learned today, though, that Cat and I have something in common – coffee. After the bag is empty, my mom tears it open and the cat will lick it clean. She is normally the sort of cat who will run away if you express interest in her section of the state of Georgia, but when the coffee bag is involved, you can drag it wherever you want and she will follow. She even tries to sit on part of it to keep it from getting away. Never a dull moment when Cat is around.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2011 06:48

    I had the exact same experience when I visited home recently. Suddenly I couldn’t NOT listen to all the inane phone conversations on the train or cringe at parents shrieking at their children in restaurants. I realised that while I’m surrounded by constant noise here in Hanoi, my mind stays so quiet and undisturbed. The same goes with not understanding what people are thinking or doing around you: it all adds to the effect of living in a little bubble. And while cultural immersion is a great thing, I like my bubble too. 🙂

    • May 10, 2011 12:03

      Great to know I’m not the only one. I interviewed a counselor recently who told me that withdrawing into the bubble occasionally is really necessary to survival as an expat. Where is home for you?

      • May 11, 2011 00:59

        Well, when I’m in Hanoi I call Sydney “home”, and then when I’m in Sydney I call Hanoi “home”. Identity crisis, anyone?

        I write about my Hanoi “home” here, if you’re interested:

        Looking forward to reading about your feelings on returning to Vietnam after your trip. I’m sure it will be culture shock all over again!

  2. Philosy Kilsaney permalink
    May 10, 2011 07:18

    Nice to meet you, Grace. I don’t know much about you, for example how long have you been living in Vietnam and why you mentioned here that you saved your head, but after reading this, I feel like you are a close friend of mine. The way you express your thoughts and feelings here is sweet and sincere. I have the feeling that you are away from the States for so long that you now feel strange and confused. Is that true? Yes, don’t understand what people are whispering about you is a negative thing, but it could be worse if you understand everything. >””< . I really hope so. I've never have a chance to travel abroad ( honestly, I've never been to the north of Vietnam), so I can't say I have any experiences about culture switching or being confused in your very own land. It's wonderful to read your reflection. Btw, the Cat is a very special creature, isn't she? I think all her little quirks is what makes her lovable. You surely love her a lot, don't you?

  3. Philosy Kilsaney permalink
    May 10, 2011 07:22

    ( Don’t know why the first comment lacked some parts that I said)
    I think Vietnamese people usually point and stare at foreigners, not that your shaved head has much to do with this. Take like this, think of the time when you hadn’t saved your head, Vietnamese people would still stare at you on the streets, right? Vietnamese people, especially those living in the south are forthright; they don’t know how to hide their emotions. When they see something that is very different from their own, they look at it, stare at it or even laugh at it, but they really mean no harm. And yes, traffic in Vietnam is terrible. Mostly because of the people’s lack of awareness, and partly because of the bad conditions of roads. I do hope we will change for the better because I can see more and more people obey the traffic law now. >”< . I really hope so. I've never have a chance to travel abroad ( honestly, I've never been to the north of Vietnam), so I can't say I have any experiences about culture switching or being confused in your very own land. It's wonderful to read your reflection. Btw, the Cat is a very special creature, isn't she? I think all her little quirks is what makes her lovable. You surely love her a lot, don't you?

    • May 10, 2011 12:15

      Thank you so much for commenting. I have actually come to enjoy the way Vietnamese people stare openly. It is such an honest reaction and it makes me feel comfortable to stare if something interests me. I never feel like it is bad. They are probably just curious.

      From what I have heard, the traffic in Saigon is getting much better. I’m glad almost everyone wears helmets now. I think driving in Vietnam makes me a better driver since I have to pay attention more.

      The cat is truly crazy. She makes me laugh and we do enjoy her wild antics 🙂

  4. May 10, 2011 08:16

    I remember going through reverse culture shock upon returning from 2 years in Sicily… the two things that put me over the edge:
    1. Walmart
    2. A brown edged lettuce garnish at some chain restaurant (I think an Applebees)… no pride of ownership, no individuality. Brown lettuce would NEVER happen in Italy.

    Say hi to Cat.

    • May 10, 2011 12:19

      Walmart, yes, Walmart. Last weekend I was in rural Tennessee for a college graduation and we had to go to Walmart. Wow! It was like the people of Walmart (you know that website?) on steroids. Is that what drove you to Target?

      After coming from countries where most restaurants are owned by individuals and families, I can see where you are coming from. Haven’t experienced that yet, but I have taken for granted having the owner and cook within ten feet of me during most of my dining experiences.

      Cat says hello from her hiding spot 🙂 (None of her favorite people are home right now.)

  5. May 10, 2011 13:07

    I love reading your posts. Remember – you are beautiful! And, I love Cat. He and I would probably hit it off….what an adorable picture! I wonder if my Shady would like coffee? 🙂

  6. May 10, 2011 17:51

    Whenever I go back to my native home of NewOrleans, it feels like I’m putting on some old clothes… they don’t fit so well anymore, but they’re mine. I’m familiar enough that I know how to adjust the ‘fit’ but I couldn’t stay in that old pair of jeans for long. I love the food, the noise, the familiarity & casual atmosphere… the way people call you ‘doll’ and know the school you went to. But I start missing the home I made for myself in GA… my favorite places to eat, my people in my stores, my favorite tree on my regular car route.
    I hope you enjoy your visit, but I also know you’re ready to get back to your home soon.
    Now… why did you shave your head? Is it cooler? I have thick hair too… sometimes I imagine how much more comfortable it would be in the summer to have nothing. But my scalp would burn terribly!

    And I’ve never known a cat to love coffee!

  7. Charity permalink
    August 5, 2011 11:09

    So I’m just catching up on you and your blog…. how terribly sad is that?!?!

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