Friendship in the Making

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

A Love Letter to Vietnam

There is an undeniable spirit about Vietnam, whether you are in one of the sprawling fast-paced cities, trekking in a rural wilderness or relaxing on one of the many stunning beaches that the country has to offer. In the three years I lived in Vietnam, I witnessed this spirit within its people and their approach to everyday life, but I would also argue that I only scratched the surface with what the country has to offer. To that end, it would be utterly impossible for me to condense three years of living in this remarkable country to one post, so, I have summarised a few of my experiences here and I hope to write more in the future.

If I had to describe Vietnam in a few words; aspiration, vitality and warmth (and not just in terms of the tropical climate) would be some of the words that first spring to my mind.

In contrast, it took me a few months to warm to Vietnam when I first moved to Ho Chi Minh City back in the summer of 2014. It wasn’t as though I hated my initial impressions by any means, but I had completely underestimated the culture shock I would experience. I had gone from living in the UK, then Spain and then upping sticks to move to the other side of the world. To a large extent, the culture shock stemmed from fear. When I initially moved to Spain, it felt ‘safe’, what with relatively quick and cheapish flights to and from the UK and additional comfort provided in that many locals (at least where I was living) and amenities provided assistance in English. I hasten to add here, it was a priority of mine to integrate into the local community and so I did take Spanish lessons both in the UK prior to the move and once I arrived.

In comparison, moving to Vietnam meant that I was required to stand on my own two feet and here I was, an early 30-something-year-old woman who had actively chosen to leave her then partner for a job pretty much on the other side of the world. Part of me wonders if perhaps consciously or not, many of my decisions up till this point had largely been based on what was deemed ‘safe’ or not.

For the first few months, I found myself conflicted about the move to Vietnam. Work was busy, having received a promotion early into my contract together with planning new courses. I was also struggling to establish and foster new friendships (partly because I was stressed from work), my then partner was based in another country and I was miles and miles away from family and friends. I was lonely and felt as though I had made a terrible decision.

However, much like my initial feelings about when I went to university where everything is SO BIG and SO SCARY at first (well, that might have just have been me), once I started getting out there and exploring, I began to find my feet. Thrown together through the same circumstances, I connected pretty quickly with another newbie at the school and we would regularly explore restaurants and coffee shops at weekends with her partner. Slowly, other new friendships formed and, although I enjoyed being able to investigate on my own, sharing these experiences helped provide me with the grounding that I needed to feel more at home.

It was only when I opened my eyes and started to look outside of the walls of the school and head into the metropolis that is Ho Chi Minh City, that I felt drawn in by the vitality and warmth of the Vietnamese people and its culture.

I have read in a few travel guidebooks that Thailand is known as the country of smiles, but I would argue that Vietnam is a strong contender for that crown. One of my lasting memories will be the kindness of the vast majority of people I met. Even if words failed both parties (I did learn some basic Vietnamese, but gave up after six weeks as I found it incredibly hard to get to grips with the different tones…), a smile, a brief nod together with various hand gestures and my basic Vietnamese, usually meant we could all be understood, plus a great deal of patience from my Vietnamese counterpart.

I recall thinking early on about how different my previous life had been in Spain to that of being in Vietnam (as if I thought they could in any way similar!). When I had first moved to Spain it was still suffering the effects of the economic crash in 2008; such as high unemployment rates and a high demand of people seeking social support. Another noticeable facet of this in the coastal area where I lived, were the countless abandoned building sites in which companies had either gone bust or had chosen to cut their loses. Concrete shells dotted the landscape that originally had been intended for residential use but now acted as a graffiti artist’s paradise.

In contrast, the building sites I saw in Vietnam were enormous and appeared never ending. High-rise luxury apartments cover swathes of land, and in the south, these are predominantly built on swampland. A concern certainly for the future if sea levels rise as they are expected to with climate change. And of course, with an average Vietnamese person receiving a salary of less than USD$7000 a year, I wonder who is going to be living in these luxury apartments… but despite this, I can’t shake the feeling that Vietnam has ambitions to ‘go somewhere’ after nearly a century marred by war and conflict, and this boom in construction is one way of illustrating this.