Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Expat extremes

One of the defining characteristics of being an expatriate is the transient nature of your life. What I mean by this is that people are always coming – arriving for a new job on a short or long-term contract – or going – reaching the end of their stint in their temporarily adopted homeland. This has benefits in that you are constantly meeting new, interesting people who have left the comforts of their hometown and own country to experience the wonders of the bigger world and where every day brings a new challenge. Business contacts are made and built up, if that's your thing. This is especially true in Vietnam where “expect the unexpected” should be the official expatriate motto! On the other hand, this transitory lifestyle means that often just as you are getting to know someone and are becoming good friends, either you or them are leaving. It does prevent you sometimes from getting close to people as you often wonder "what's the point?". The life of an expat involves numerous farewell parties and teary send-offs, with promises of "I'll visit you here", or "Let's meet up there", made in earnestness but most often strewn by the wayside of life's busy, well-trodden road.

 In my six-years or so of living abroad - only a 2 or 3 on the expat-experi-o-meter - I’ve had both the ups and downs and have also noticed the very different labels stuck on and boxes people are neatly, but more often untidly stuffed in. This labeling is something I firmly don't believe in, but will attempt to provide my view on the spectrum of expatriatism in Vietnam of which I will try to show the two extremes.

Meet Arthur. On the one extreme , Arthur's the kind of expat the other kind is always joking about over a cheap beer on an even cheaper plastic chair. He’s the guy who lives in his expat bubble in his company-paid villa in Phu My Hung or compound in An Phu. Watching TV shows from home on his plasma flat screen, Arthur rarely leaves the comforts of his villa, and only ventures forth to walk his purebred husky. which he will have to try and sell or give away when his “stint in ‘Nam” is up - "because you, no Western country will receive a dog filled with heaven knows what third-world parasites".  This walk is filled with annoyances - the unbearable heat or incessant, "unpredictable" rain, and taxi driver's trying to hail his attention. If he runs out of milk, he doesn't wander down to the shop - he asks his live-in maid/cook what he pays her a three million VND a month for and sends her down to the shop and reminds her not to forget the receipts (because he has a sneaky suspicion she may be fudging the expenses and stealing from him, but he can't prove it yet)

Arthur has made no attempt to engage in the culture or learn the language, except for the few phrases (in completely the wrong tones) he uses to impress foreign visitors when he takes them for a "cultural tour" around Bến Thành Market or directs his driver to turn quẹo phải or quẹo trái, .   Arthur’s chauffeur drives him to work every day and he only knows a smattering of street names in District 1 like Lợi or Đồng Khởi, as these are where his offices are. He may know where Bến Thành Market is, but ask Arthur where  Bà Chiểu or Dân Sinh markets are and he will stare at you blankly saying his driver will know so no there is no need to learn such insignificant details. Throw him in the middle of Gò Vấp or Tân Phú Districts without his driver, and he will have a nervous breakdown, trying to find a Mai Linh taxi as quick as possible (because the other companies all rip off foreigners, you know, and don't speak English, and besides, he has company a taxi card). 

Arthur has tried phở once or twice, but only at Pho 24 where it is clean, and the suggestion of trying it on the side of the street is just appalling to him. How unhygienic!  Buying a coffee off the street is the scariest. Do you know how or where that ice was made? Mostly, he only orders Western delivery or eats at high-end Western restaurants and occasionally tries Asian food when entertaining business guests, but only in immaculate, air-conditioned surroundings like the Khaisilk group of restaurants. When his one or two-year contract in Vietnam is up, he’ll have some fond memories – mostly of Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties, five-star resorts and good rounds of golf up and down the east coast. Arthur will not know much about the real Vietnam, the people, the culture, the language, but he will feel pleased for his experience in this “hardship post” that his company forced him into, and the kudos this stint would get him around the tie-and-jacket dinner party tables in Hong Kong or Dubai. 

On the other extreme is Jimmy; the expat who assimilates or goes as local as possible. He shares a small apartment or rents a room from a Vietnamese family in District 12 or District 10 for around $100 a month and complains that his rent is too high, and that he shouldn’t be asked “Western prices” because “he’s not a tây ba lô. Jimmy sneers at foreigners who drive motorbikes that are fancier than a Honda Wave, as this is wasting money - showing off and rubbing their wealth in the poor's faces - and he often makes derogatory jokes about Western tourists himself. He eats at the local cơm bình dân daily for under a dollar, hanging out at a bia hơi, quán nhậu or a nearby coffeeshop with his local friends at the weekend and he feels a bit uncomfortable and alienated when he has to hang out with other foreigners, as "we have nothing in common". 

Of course, Jimmy speaks fluent Vietnamese, even knows how to nói lái and knows Vietnamese idioms, endlessly impressing his friends and other Vietnamese, when he busts out his Southern-accented slang. Jimmy knows the latest log standing of the V-league by heart and argues with his friend over whether Becamex Bình Dương can reclaim their former glory. He only shops at the local fresh market and detests driving into District 1. He prefers a weekend away in Vũng Tàu or Bến Tre, fishing, playing cards and drinking shots of rice wine with his girlfriend's uncles than spending too much money at a tourist resort in Mui Ne or a shopping holiday in Hoi An. Jimmy is always arguing with his Vietnamese girlfriend over where the best bowl of hủ tiếu Nam Vang or cháo lòng can be found, and loves the taste of all the things foreigners usually detest, like durian or mắm tôm. He knows all the Vietnamese musicians that are cool at the moment as well as the actors and actresses, and he watched some Korean soapies, but only during the week as he works all weekend at a local English centre.

Of course, these two fictional expats are the exaggerated extremes at both ends of life in Vietnam, and 99% of us are somewhere in between – mostly crowded around the 50% mark. Whatever the case may be, I think all of us can find some resonance in these characters and wherever expat life may take you, there will always be a Jimmy and an Arthur is some shape or form.

Originally written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn - March 2012