Prior to moving abroad five years ago, I tended to socialise with friends from outside of the work setting. This wasn’t anything necessarily deliberate and also didn’t mean that I had drawn a thick line in the sand separating work and home life (I still developed friendships with colleagues too!), but it was just the way things worked out at the time. Saying that, since working in the environment that I have in Vietnam, I have become more aware of drawing a line of some sort between my work and home life, if just to avoid some of the anxieties surrounding office social cliques. Something that I feel is heightened when in an environment such as the one I worked in.
It was Friday night and the last day of the formal induction period for the new staff and the school had arranged a social evening on site for all staff to get acquainted. I had been in Vietnam for less than a week and whilst still suffering some of the effects of jet-lag during the week, I had also been busy setting up my classroom, opening a bank account, filling in countless pages of paperwork for work permits and health insurance, and generally finding my feet.
It was the first time that I was going to properly meet many of the existing staff and the event was going to test aspects of the social anxiety I sometimes experience in novel situations. I can remember heading for safety once I arrived into the arms of the group of other newbies, but after a couple of drinks I ventured out to do some meeting and greeting. Alcohol can be good like that.
I managed to chat to a significant proportion of colleagues over the course of the evening, who provided valuable insights into adjusting to life in Vietnam, plus gossip was traded about the underbelly of the school itself, a necessary rite of passage when you start at any organisation. But it was at this time that I also made what turned out to be a classic social faux pas, I chose not to continue the merriment at a club in the city, having turned down the invite from an existing colleague Jane. I was tired from the amount of information that I had absorbed over the course of the week, and also from having to maintain the friendly work face to a heap of new people, so I just wanted to go to bed. At the time I thought little of it.
It was only a few weeks later at a birthday celebration for a colleague who had arranged afternoon tea when I noticed something was up. I joined a group of female staff on the taxi ride as we all lived in the same staff accommodation. After making a few attempts at small talk, I realised that I wasn’t gaining any ground, and in particular, Jane appeared to actively excluding me from participating in any conversation, with chat focusing quite deliberately on their activities over the weekend. I tried to push down the feelings of discomfort and hold onto the fact that I was 31 and not 14 years old. Surely, I wasn’t getting blanked?
Well, it turned out my intuition was correct and I was getting blanked because as soon as we arrived at the venue, the group scuttled to the last remaining seats at the table leaving myself and one other colleague who had also arrived in the same taxi without a place to sit. Heather had been sat up front on the journey and so although we had been introduced and chatted before on a few occasions, we didn’t know each other very well.
The woman who’s birthday we were celebrating immediately came over for a chat before apologising about the lack of space on the main table. Subsequently, the cafe owner sat Heather and me together with another late-comer to the gathering on a table a few metres away, where, aside from a few people passing to stop and chat over the course of the afternoon on their way to the bathroom, we were largely on the periphery of the action.
It was a strange and memorable afternoon for a number of reasons, but two things stand out now that I look back. Firstly and most importantly, I discovered a wonderful connection with Heather that day and we are still incredibly good friends, and secondly, it transpired that the reason for the cold shoulders from the rest of the group was due to the fact that they saw me as ‘boring’, because I hadn’t hit the clubs with them a few weeks previously. It was, in fact, Heather who told me this, and at the time, her admission upset me. I couldn’t even see past how ridiculous the whole thing was for a long time afterwards. But perhaps the craziest thing in all of this was that Jane didn’t appear to see past this too, and she would barely exchange two words with me when we passed in a corridor at work during the entire academic year, although she did seem happy enough to glare at me instead. I felt like a teenager again who had been refused a seat at the popular kid’s table (quite literally in the case of this particular birthday party).
The events at the birthday party and other situations that followed involving Jane and this particular group of women were reminiscent of the film of ‘Mean Girls’, and as much as I tried to ignore the feelings of inadequacy that tended to bubble up after yet another awkward encounter, things only became easier when she left at the end of that academic year. Looking on the bright side, at least I wouldn’t have to see her again.
Part of me wonders if it is the nature of working abroad and moving in a transient foreigner/expat (I am not a particular fan of the latter term) bubble that means relationships develop out of necessity to connect in the first instance than any real, true bond. I would partly agree with this sentiment because as humans we all have a desire (more like biological need) to connect with others and much like dating, you may have to look around and dig deep to find people who you share common interests with. However, saying this I did make some wonderful friends in my (now) previous teaching position, and many of whom I worked with fairly closely at a curriculum level.
As much as I found aspects of the above experience and others difficult and confusing during my time at the school, it taught me a number of things (as life is all about looking for those lessons when looking in the rear mirror, right?). Firstly, good friends are hard to come by and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have reached a point in my life where I don’t have the energy to deal with friends who are continually flaky with their time for me or friends that want only a superficial connection. It’s those friends that have your back during the good and the bad (and hopefully assume that you’re not boring because you don’t want to attend a social event), that make a friendship worthwhile.
Secondly, I have finally realised that not everyone is going to like me. Gosh, this has been one of the hardest lessons to learn! As a fully paid up member of the people pleaser club and having spent a significant chunk of my teens, twenties and dare I say it, my thirties too worrying about what someone else thinks of me, it makes me want to scream. That’s not to say that the mental energy was all completely wasted, it is sometimes important to at least consider another person’s viewpoint of something you may have said or done but when it verges on obsession (as it has at times with me), it becomes thoroughly exhausting. That mental energy could have been better spent elsewhere.
To that end, I am going to be more self-aware of the bonds I create and particularly the ones I actively foster with colleagues when I start my new position.
- Names have been changed