I met with a financial adviser even before many of my friends knew I was going to quit my job and move abroad. I had worked hard for five years after graduating from college to save and to be financially independent. I didn't want that to go out the door just because I was taking a risk and going on an overseas adventure, without a job waiting for me. My financial adviser knew my entire situation and helped me find a debit card with his institution that reimburses me for all ATM fees, no matter what. This has been truly wonderful, not only in Vietnam but for traveling throughout SE Asia. However, when I asked about my retirement rollover funds that hadn't showed up in my account yet, I found out that my institution can't advise people who are living overseas, regardless of citizenship. They wouldn’t even answer my inquiry. I contacted my former employer, and my mom received a check from them in short order. She had to handle the deposit for me. Thankfully I had put her on my accounts. In fact, my adviser had recommended it. Sneaky, huh?
I was able to find a credit card meant for travelers without foreign transaction fees, though I find it funny that I was required to use an American address in connection with the account. So I used my parents' address.
Then I discovered that I couldn't stop my mail altogether, so I forwarded my mail to my parents, too.
I submitted a poem to an online publication today and was asked to include a mailing address on the form. I can’t think why. Yet I still dutifully typed in my parents’ address. You see, the mail system in Vietnam isn’t the most reliable. The women at the front desk of our apartment recommended that the apartment phone number be listed beneath the address on all incoming mail, so the delivery guy could call them if he didn’t know where to deliver it. And even though this is a fully online publication that pays next to nothing (“token payment”), if my poem gets published and something is sent in the mail, maybe a free pen or a pin, I don’t want it to get lost.
I rent out my condo to cover my mortgage and the cost of my (cheap) rent here, as well as to continue to build equity. My mom collects the rent from my tenants and deposits it in my account monthly.
Financially, long-term expats seem to fall into some combination of the following three camps: 1) reliant on folks at home (me) 2) reliant on employers that are equipped for international financial dealings or 3) having more of a cash-based financial strategy. I don’t see myself moving into camp #2 anytime soon, and obviously #3 isn’t ideal for retirement saving or looking to move back to the States, particularly in a nation with a weak currency.
Despite my hard work over the last five years, and my attempts at preparedness, my financial independence has been stymied by living overseas. I'm lucky to have parents who are willing and able to take care of these things for me, but it sometimes feels like the financial equivalent of living in their basement.
Furthermore, many American-based organizations and institutions do what they can to get you to call a toll free number, having limited hours for live online chats and burying their email inquiry forms. Live chats functional only during business hours on the West Coast are the worst for my time zone—they essentially represent the hours during which I’m sleeping. Ironically, I found this customer service sinkhole when booking an international flight through a third party travel website. You’d think a company that I paid to get from one foreign country to another would have this one figured out.
Leaving the States for this long has helped me realize how navel-gazing Americans truly are, from media to business. The media spends so much time talking about what’s happening in America, or how international events affect US. And international customers simply aren’t considered in most customer service efforts.
I’ve toned down my American consumer mentality with Vietnamese retail and dining experiences. My experience would be ruined if I didn’t—I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. But I’m nonetheless indignant when American organizations don’t cater to me while I’m living abroad. I’m a paying customer—and I’m still paying taxes, after all!
What’s scarier than the unknown?
Whether it comes from outside or within
today or tomorrow?
How can a place so different become normalized?
Unfamiliar accent marks blur into a patterned bokeh
Foreign (native) language nothing more than a melodic soundtrack for
Repeated movements mapped in pencil, traced over again in ink
Neural pathways hardening
Glutton for the punishment of routine
Sacrifices made for ease
I continue to add to the second most depressing spreadsheet I’ve ever created. It’s called “VietnamJobResearch.xlsx” and I’m on row 131.
As promised in a previous blog post, it’s time for me to write about my job search experience here in Da Nang. The following highlight reel consists of some jobs to which I’ve formally applied and have been documented in my Excel file. Others were more informal, passing my name along and the like, and haven’t been documented until now. This list is not exhaustive and merely represents oddity or what I hope is entertainment value.
Some of these things may pull through yet, you never know. And I have so many people here looking out for me, it’s amazing, and I couldn’t be more grateful. But, still, it’s quite the list, eh?
So far, here’s what I’ve been paid to do since arriving in Vietnam:
I’ve been here for four months, and this doesn’t feel like near enough.
However, I’ve started this blog, have submitted some poetry and personal essays to literary journals (because why not?), am more than 30 pages into a screenplay (that may never turn into anything other than a file on my computer), and have read 9 full books, two halves (one that will become a whole, one that won’t) and a dozen or more short stories. I’ve spent many a morning in a cafe and afternoon on the beach (including a cool-off swim today because I was sweaty from sunbathing on November-freaking-19th, my fellow Michiganders!). I can’t speak as much Vietnamese as I’d like, and I’m still shaky on a motorbike, but there’s time.
Today, before my swim, over a lunch of $1.25 spring rolls, I met a small-in-stature, long-haired, quiet-talking Brit-turned-Kiwi who’s on his fourth trip driving up and down Vietnam on a motorbike. He told me this is his favorite place in the country.
I haven’t found a full-time job, it’s true. But, on the good days, I’m able to see that all of this, the whole damn thing, is worth so much more than a paycheck. Help remind me when I forget, OK?
We were told to be careful in Bangkok—watch out for scammers and keep your belongings close. Only ride in cabs with meters.
Bangkok was set to be one of the most popular tourist destinations in 2015 before the bombing in August. Obviously the scammers alone didn’t ruin the city’s reputation, and the customs line at BKK on Halloween night was full of people speaking all sorts of different languages, holding passports in various shades of red, green, and blue.
I struggle to point the finger at people trying to make some money off of those who have far superior spending power. Where do you draw the line between scamming and simple negotiation? It isn’t always clear. In Vietnam, I’m frequently “scammed” in the sense of having to pay more for something than a Vietnamese person would. There’s no getting around this, and I’ve come to accept it. In Bangkok, things were a bit more stark.
Following the directions provided by our hostel, we used the subway system in the airport to get closer to our destination, with the goal of picking up a cheap cab to carry us the rest of the way. The hostel’s website told us how much we should expect to pay. We got off the subway and walked down the street, encumbered by our bags. We were easy targets—countless cabbies shouted in our direction. Two in a row pulled up to us, then pulled away when we asked if they had a meter. One guy said yes, he had a meter, then when I showed him the address of our hostel on my phone, he drove away, almost taking my arm with him. We walked down the street a bit and found a man who seemed nice enough, with good English. We should have noticed that his meter started at 30 baht (a bit less than a dollar). The drive wasn’t far, and the meter racked up a bill of 250 baht. The hostel website said we should expect to pay 70-120 baht, based on traffic. Too late now. Phil took out the change he had received from buying the subway tickets at the station and passed over a 500 baht bill. The taxi driver called him out—it was a 50 baht bill. He had been given incorrect change at the official-seeming subway ticketing booth, in the airport.
We had a sour taste in our mouths.
But, our acting Thai grandmother replaced that taste with delicious, complex, spicy-sweet-salty flavors when she spoon-fed us, one after the other, on the streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown that night. We had ordered from the stand next to hers.
We were only in Bangkok for two nights, with one whole day sandwiched in between. We kept our to-do list short, and, as always happens, it was shortened by necessity as we went on.
Traveling from place-to-place takes some time in Bangkok. It’s a large city. (This was clear from the 49th floor of the Marriot, where we sipped $14 beverages. It was worth it.) So we spent a fair amount of time on the subway. That’s where I noticed how much makeup the young women were wearing, and how many seemed to be constantly applying more, then taking photos of themselves. It’s not such a big surprise that the Siam Paragon was the most Instagrammed place of 2013. An Australian man who was staying in our hostel and planning to move to Bangkok with his family in the months ahead told us the mall was worth a visit. He was right. We got lost in the basement food court, and there were Ferraris parked in display rooms on the second level—or was it the third? That place was gigantic. Commercialism was flaunted in Bangkok.
Phil remarked on the many groups of homosexual men and transgender Thai people we had passed—something we don’t see much of in Da Nang.
In Chiang Mai, it was explained to us that some of these are self-identified “ladyboys” or “katoeys”. We also noticed women who drew on traditionally male aesthetics—later research led me to the phrase “Thai tom” (as well as “dee”). Whereas gender identity seems to be quite clearly defined in my corner of Vietnam, gender fluidity seems to be a part of Thai culture and identity, or at least that of young, urban, progressive Thai people.
Chiang Mai itself is a hippy backpacker mecca, full of loose pants with wild prints, dreadlocks, murals down every soi, and 2pm garden beers. We found it to be a lovely place to visit, particularly for someone coming from a place with less Western influence—bookstores, English everywhere, Mexican food—but figured it would be difficult to live there with such a transitory population. And traffic was a mess. We may have sat through the longest traffic light of our lives at Nimmanhaemin Road. (Note: public transport is a contentious topic among expats.)
My favorite part of Chiang Mai was wondering through the sois (small streets, almost alleys) stumbling upon cute cafes, tiny shops, guest houses galore, acoustic music sets, and temples (called “wats”). Monks in orange and yellow robes dotted the streets, passing behind us while we withdrew money at an ATM. At one of the larger wats in the Old City, Wat Phra Singh, we peeked into a temple building to see a monk sitting crossed legged on a cushion and staring at his smartphone—was he scrolling through Facebook, or looking up the translation of an important religious text? We’ll never know.
My second favorite part was renting a motorbike and riding behind Phil as he drove up Doi Suthep, a national park, to the Wat near the mountain’s top. Motorbike travel is the way to go. We’re used to it in Vietnam, and it was great to have that freedom. We passed by people sitting on benches in covered truck-style red-painted taxis with the backs open, like those that carry migrant workers but a bit smaller and intended to be fancier, and felt smug with the cool air on our faces. It cost us about $7 to rent one for 24 hours.
The food was incredible—I have a newfound respect for the many colors and flavors of curry. Because food was such a pivotal piece of our trip, I can’t single it out as a favorite or least favorite part. Though Phil would tell you it was his favorite. And I don’t want to start writing about it because I’m no expert and it would open a floodgate. Overall, if you’re in Chiang Mai, you really should try khao soi (note: spelling varies) as all of the travel guides recommend, and you ought to make it to the food cart gatherings at the North and South Gates for some street food.
Lastly, while spending time with elephants was the part of the trip I was most looking forward to, and though I’m still glad we did it, I left feeling a bit disappointed. The Elephant Nature Park felt too businesslike for my taste. We were picked up in a branded van. On our way to the park, we watched a short informational video starring an Australian actor on a huge screen that came down automatically from the van’s ceiling, followed by a clip from a television show featuring the park. Most of the elephants that lived at the park were being rehabilitated, having stepped on land mines or been used for hard labor, and I appreciated that they had a safe place to live out their days. But we seemed to spend most our time waiting because, as our tour guide said, “Too many tourists, not enough elephants.” Our guesthouse owner, who was born in a village outside of Chiang Mai, said that the group isn’t bad, but it is a business, and that they have to send their ill and injured elephants to another hospital in the area. That is apparently the place to visit.
Like the dishes the country is known for, our trip to Thailand was a gift of contradictions in complex harmony—scammers and grandmothers, commerce and dreadlocks, ladyboys and monks, curry and coconut milk.
I love a lot of things about living in Vietnam: being near the ocean, how cheap everything is, cafe sua da, the food, changing my perspective, all of that stuff. But today, to distract myself from the itching, I’d like to talk about one thing that I hate about living in Vietnam, and that is the mosquitos.
There are two things that are important to note here. One is that there are also mosquitos in Michigan. But those mosquitos tend to only come out at dusk, and are only around during certain times of year. Mosquitos in Vietnam also have an affinity for dusk, and for the wetter weather. They didn’t strike during the heat of the day in the hot hot months when I first arrived, but they are ever present now that we’re into rainy season.
The second is that mosquitos love me. I am to mosquitos as a fine steak is to Ron Swanson or an expensive martini is to Lucille Bluth—a delicacy that, once tasted, becomes quickly devoured. They must seek out more. You don’t need bug spray if I’m near you, because all of the mosquitos in the area will bite me, leaving you unscathed. This has always been the case. But now I’m a deer lick in an overpopulated forest, and it’s simply uncool.
“Wear bug spray!” you shout at your screen.
If only it were so easy. After arriving in Da Nang, I found out that most expats brought their own bug spray from home, or had their visitors bring it to them. The only thing that exists here is an odd lotion that smells much too sweet to be effective.
While I was preparing for my move to Vietnam, I did some research on immunizations. My health insurance didn’t cover any of those that I needed, so I went to a place specializing in pricking overseas travelers, with a set rate for a consultation and supposed low costs for the shots themselves. I hate shots, but I love being prepared, and the latter won out.
The “immunization clinic” was in a large brick building full of suspect small businesses and little-known offices that I had driven by many times without ever noticing. After consulting the directory near the only front door that functioned, I walked down the dim hallway and into a sterile empty waiting room, a row of chairs lined up against a wall that was covered with a dated world map. I peeked around the corner to see an elderly woman sitting in a chair behind a desk. Her profile on the website had said she had done immunizations for corporate travelers earlier in her career. I ducked back around the corner. She said, “Come in,” as if I had knocked on the door to her house and she couldn’t be bothered to get up.
This woman provided me with a consultation that was intended to strike fear into my presumed-medically-and-geographically ignorant mind. Among other things, I was told never to go barefoot in Vietnam and not to eat the fruit or vegetables.
“But I’m going to move there. As in I plan to be there for a year or more,” I explained. Who can live without fruits and vegetables for that long? I like fruits and vegetables! “And I’ll be living near the beach.” Nobody wears shoes on the beach, lady.
“You can never be too careful,” she dismissed me callously. Every white-blue hair on her head was just where it should be. I didn’t find the result remotely pleasant.
In addition to stabbing uninsured people with needles, this woman also sold a variety of other goods, displayed prominently on her desk in the impermanent-but-deliberate vein of a Mary Kay saleswoman.
My lecturer then brought up malaria, turning the page in my immunization handbook—which came bundled with the depressing consultation, as a take home—to a map. Vietnam was highlighted as a place where malaria had struck.
Referencing the map, she said, “Would you like some malaria pills? I can write you a prescription.”
I looked closer and found a note about Vietnam that said some cities, including Da Nang, were safe from malaria. I pointed this out to her.
“Well I’ve never known a mosquito smart enough to distinguish city borders!” she exclaimed, clearly disgusted, though it wasn’t clear whether this disgust was with my flippancy or for being called out.
“Can I get a shot for malaria?” I asked.
“No. You have to take a pill every day. I have people come to me asking for more all the time.”
What was this, a narcotics dispensary? I had worked to get myself off of all prescribed medications and didn’t want to take a daily malaria pill if it wasn’t necessary.
“That’s OK,” I said.
“If you won’t take the pills, do you at least want some bug spray?” she asked, nodding toward one of her displays. Bottles of varying sizes proudly proclaimed the high % of DEET in their contents.
“DEET?” I asked. “As in the stuff that destroys earth’s atmosphere?”
Now the real-life Mrs. Medlock not only though I was stupid and unprepared but worse, I was a stupid, unprepared, tree-hugging hippy. And a hard sell.
“If you want to stay safe, this stuff is the best,” she sighed.
I passed, she pricked me a few times with vaccinations for other perilous diseases, and I was on my way.
If only I had listened and bought a bottle of DEET bug spray, I’d be wearing it every day until it was gone, walking around smelling like a chemistry lab but free of the leper-like bites that cover my ankles and feet and sometimes weird places like under my right eye. How did that one get through? The itch is constant, but not consistent. Some of the bites open and leak, and one even swelled up to a weird clear dome blister that I eventually had to pop after it didn’t go away on its own in an appropriate period of time (judged by me to be three days). That one might have been something other than a mosquito. I can send you a picture if you want to see it, but probably shouldn’t subject innocent eyes to that oddity.
“You need to develop an immunity,” joked a friend.
That is one shot I would be happy to sit through, and pay for, even if it came with a giant heap of condescension. But unfortunately it’s not on the menu. I am.
While waiting for the band to go on at Chiang Mai's North Gate Jazz Co-op, Phil and I ordered a pint of Sang Som (Thai rum) and wrote some poetry together. In the first poem, we each wrote a line or two (or more), then passed the pen. In the second, we limited ourselves to one word at a time, back and forth. They haven't been edited.
North Gate Jazz Co-op
A piece of home abroad
Or is it?
A taste of spice overseas
Or are they borders?
Sounds of Chicago
Patterns, colors of the East
Lindsay Alexander and Fruteland Jackson would be proud
Following the guidance of strangers
Mom and grandma might not be so proud
“There’s an American in the room”
And a man with a loofah on his back
Ok, it’s just hair
Twenty people wait for music
Or maybe only two
Geckos cast thicker shadows than peeling paint
Saucer plates make for Sang Som carriers
A simpler solution than calculating change
Too bad outside drinks are not welcome
No calculator required
“Minimal” states her bag
Will it produce the desirable effect?
Tangled cords are a part of jazz
The cadence of preparation
Less harmony, more camaraderie
Though it’s loose now
And we wait
Jimi Hendrix on the case
Buddha in the shrine
On the floor
Anticipation is key
A minor key
Possible it’s pentatonic
Will this, you be worth the wait?
If not, you’ll be the one getting drunk tonight.
Five and that’s what it says
I heard four chords
Familiar like winter
When common folk
Or their kinfolk are not exposed
These soundwaves guide them like gravity guides matter
Sometimes they take less than what curiosity unfolds
Sometimes they make all the factors form a clear resolution
If we applaud when the time is a propo
Then we know we have met the end.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.