Monday, September 12, 2011

Moving Forward

In order to get a grasp on my new life, I set some short term goals: setting up my classroom, moving to my new place, finally unpacking my bags, attending yoga classes, and socializing with new friends. 

Well, I accomplished all my goals and then some.

My classroom is organized and decorated.  I also set a schedule and finally began working with students.  Connecting with the kids energizes me, and they are the reason I love my job! If I can love my job, then the rest should fall into place, right?  Although my role as an ESL specialist is still undergoing revision, I am now finding more opportunities to contribute my expertise and feel validated professionally.  School is thankfully on an upswing.

The new flat feels good and meets my needs for now.  I have finally unpacked my suitcases, organized my things, and established daily routines.  Although a bit lacking in windows (I have one), the space is quiet and provides a needed respite from the chaos outside.  I am calling it "cocoon-y."  If I can't control the big things in my life, at least I can create a bit of normalcy and feel safe in my little home.

After a long hiatus, I have come back to yoga.  This is significant on many levels.  Physically, I am rebuilding muscles and flexibility.  Mentally, I am focused on caring for my body inside and out.  Emotionally, I am acknowledging the correlations among poses, feelings they release, and challenges they symbolize in life.  Spiritually, my heart is open and connected to a higher power. And socially, I am spending time with supportive and likeminded people.

The greatest gift of living abroad is the friendships that are built in the absence of family.  Amazingly, I have already found caring, generous and well-grounded people with whom to share my life.  I am slowly filling the empty spaces caused by leaving behind people and places.  However, filling is not replacing, and those people are truly cherished and places deeply missed.  It just means that my heart is a little bigger and the world a little smaller.

The homesickness, the urge to go back to Jordan, and the shock of, “What in the world have I just done with my life?” all come and go in waves. The inverses are moments of amazement that this is truly my life, the thought that I must move forward and never backward, and that my experience in Vietnam is a journey with an end that I cannot anticipate (and will be a better person for regardless of the outcome).

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Homebase & Homesick

So I went to bed feeling resolved. When I awoke, I called my real estate agent to confirm that I would take the small serviced apartment I saw in District 1 that was walking distance to school, my good friend, and a nice yoga studio. The clincher was that it only required a one-month deposit and was a three-month lease. I was trading size and my amazing view for proximity and flexibility. The extra bedroom had meant that I’d finally “made it” and eagerly awaited visitors. But in truth, it would only be occupied for 1% of my time in Saigon and I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.  Furthermore, the indoor space I wanted for hosting dinners and house parties is not needed (evidenced by the lack of ovens in all kitchens and abundance of free food delivery).  Restaurants, takeaway, bars and nights on the town prevail.  And the outdoor space that I thought would need to counteract the traffic, noise and crowds of the downtown is still available anytime I want to hop on a xe om (motorbike taxi) and visit my friends in D7.  I need more time to let go of the life I loved in Jordan and reframe my thinking to enjoy how things happen here.
That also goes for my partner, colleagues and dear friends in Jordan, all of whom I miss immensely.  Knowing that they have regrouped and are having great fun (as they should) makes me feel as if I’m missing out.  As I go through the challenges of adjusting to a new country, I keep wishing I could call them or curl up on their couches to talk.  Leaving my partner has been especially difficult.  I am intensely homesickness; however, home for me is not the US, home is where I have flourished for the last two years.  I am fighting the fantasy of returning to Jordan.  What would I return to? I was ready to move on from my job.  Many friends have or will soon move away, and those who stay will adjust to my absence.  The barriers in my romantic relationship will still be there.  I always knew that leaving that life behind would be hard, but that realization hasn’t helped much in midst of the emotional aftermath.  The expat life has provided so many blessings that I would not change for the world, but it has also been filled with tough choices and painful farewells.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Decision-Making Anxiety

Thankfully, my colleagues at my new school have all been amazing. We have bonded quickly and I did not hesitate to reach out when I realized my living situation was not the best. I was comforted by encouraging words and opportunities to socialize.  No one had actually seen my beautiful apartment, but when my close friend from Jordan (who coincidentally now lives in Saigon) finally stopped over, she was impressed.  I was bolstered and we decided to venture out into the neighborhood to explore the street food.  She has been in Vietnam for 6 months already and lives in a back alley guesthouse, so not much can get by her.  But she confirmed the presence of a “ripping off the tourist” cloud that I had suspected was hanging over me.  Additionally, I am always up for a culinary adventure, but the street food options were past my tolerance for exotic.  Lack of cleanliness, intense smells and mysterious innards floating in my soup.  Not a comfy cafĂ© in sight.  After a bit of fun, we made our way back to my apartment, and the tears sprang out again.

I was homesick, lonely (no internet at the apartment yet meant no email or skype), overwhelmed by my last minute job-change, and feeling like I couldn’t make a confident decision about what to eat let alone where to live.  She talked me through the thought that had been sneaking into my brain since the moment I moved in, and we hashed out a plan for backing out of the lease. I sent the text to my real estate agent the next morning and waited for a reply. The biggest question was how much money I would I lose.  His first response after breaking the news to the landlady was that it didn’t go well, so I decided to meet with her myself. Via her extremely responsible teenage daughter, I was able to communicate my need to be closer to my school and other expats.  She did not hesitate to offer me back the full deposit and prorated rent (less the realtor's cut).  She was worried about me being so far from my family and just wanted me to be happy.  There were no hard feelings and we hugged good night when she left.  I'll take motherly love wherever I can find it :-)
The next day, my agent took me around to a range of housing options in several districts, each having pluses and minuses. District 1 was close to nice restaurants, hotels, gyms, yoga studios and school, but it was also crowded, loud and apartments were tiny and expensive. The building on the edge of District 5 where several colleagues resided was much closer to school, but the apartments were lesser quality and equal in price to my current place. I just couldn’t swallow breaking a lease and losing money to move within the same district to a place that I didn’t really like.  District 7 had some quite nice places in a concrete jungle complex for the same price.  Although quieter and closer to the rest of my colleagues, I kept balking at moving so far away from downtown and tacking on another ten minutes to my motorbike commute.  I should mention that all of these places wanted a two-month deposit, plus two months’ rent, plus a year lease.  I had been blessed once by an amazing landlady, but the chance of finding another, were I to repeat my “wrong” choice, was very slim.  After talking it over with my friend, we decided that District 7 was the best fit for me due to proximity to friends, open space, and presence of expat-friendly restaurants and stores.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

From Jordan to Vietnam

The last two weeks have been a rollercoaster of contradictions. Excitement and dread. Relief and regret. Sheer ambivalence at every turn. The three foundational needs for re-establishing my life include: my job, where I will live and who I will spend time with. In each of these, I have had extreme highs and lows since I arrived in Vietnam.

Let’s start with my job. Well, this is the driving force that brought me literally to the other side of the world. I have taught in various capacities on and off for several years. After completing my Master’s degree in International Education and teaching elementary school language arts in Jordan for the last two years, I know I have found the best career for myself. I left Amman feeling confident in my abilities and eager to grow as an educator. Arriving in Vietnam, I feel as if I am a first year teacher all over again. And in fact I almost was when my position was changed last minute from ESOL to Grade 3 classroom. Gulp. Be with the kids all day? Plan for all content areas? I’ve always flirted with the idea of making this switch, but when it was thrust at my unexpectedly, I hadn’t had time to mentally prepare and was freaking out internally. As is my way, I jumped right in setting up the classroom, meeting with the other third grade teachers, and planning as much as I could. But I still felt like I was spinning wheels.

This is also when my housing anxiety kicked in. The school financed my stay in a very clean yet windowless hotel room downtown for just one week. The whole lot of new teachers was scrambling to find accommodations at the same time and it seemed I was one step behind. Half of them decided on one building walking distance to the school but further from Western familiarities, and the other half chose a highrise complex in a leafy suburb about 20 minutes by motorbike from school. I wavered on both locations because my mind was still stuck on my charming, spacious apartment in Jordan for half the price. These were box-like with tacky and/or low quality furniture. The bathrooms in most were blah and I couldn’t imagine snuggling up to watch a movie on any of the couches. So I went online and found some listings I liked in a building in the same district as my school. I fell in love with the apartment as soon as I walked in the door. Simple and high quality furniture, neutral tones, two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and high up with an amazing view. After losing out on other apartments, I jumped on this one. No one was going to beat me to it!

I handed over millions of Vietnamese Dong and moved in the next day. As soon as I signed the lease and the landlady and real estate agent left, the tears poured out. What had I just done? I was all alone in middle of District 5. Yes, it was in the same district as my school, but still a ten minute ride on the back of a motorbike. Certainly not walkable. And I learned very quickly that I was the only expat in the twenty block radius of Chinatown. I have absolutely nothing against Chinese people—and actually one of the reasons I felt at ease signing this lease was because the landlady was so unbelievably nice—but the isolation was intense. I had to haggle hard with motorbike taxis and then get jostled around in dense traffic for twenty minutes anytime I wanted to go somewhere expat-friendly, and when I wanted to come back, no one knew where it was. The route quickly became familiar, but I soon began dreading it. Inside the apartment, I loved the peacefulness, amazing view and super-comfortable bed, but as soon as I stepped outside, the chaos swept over me.