Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I have been home for one month now. For the most part, the transition back to american culture has been smooth. Everything is familiar, and it's easy to embrace the convenience of everyday life once again. Still, many things remind me of Vietnam, and I continue to notice stark contrasts between our culture and theirs. Many of their customs have rubbed off on me, and it's difficult to break them.

Let's just take the example of eating out. Now I find it strange for the waiter/waitress to take drink orders and then disappear for five minutes before coming back for meal orders. I'm used to rushing to choose what I want to eat and drink at the same time, since the waiter is ready to hear it all at the start in Vietnam. When eating something out of a bowl, like rice or noodles, I have to resist the urge to bring the bowl close to my mouth for scooping. And at the end of every meal, I'm always looking for the toothpicks. Some places don't even have toothpicks here, which causes me to feel a little confused. Why wouldn't I want to pick my teeth after a meal? And when I do pick it, I absent-mindedly cover my mouth to make sure no one sees what I'm doing. The same happens when I yawn, and I have to get used to the fact that other people yawn with reckless abandon. In addition, I'm trying not to cringe when I see people wearing shoes when walking around the house. I could go on and on...

Driving a car at first was a little strange, after becoming so comfortable on a motorbike. I missed the sensation of being outside and exposed to the wind and sunshine while I drove around. Being in a car feels like you're not even moving. It's like I leave my house, I enter a room, the room is transported, I leave the room and find myself in a new place. I look at motorcycles I see on the road longingly, but I also am turned off by the gigantic, garish models I see most people driving here. I'm much more interested in scooters and vespas rather than big harleys.

The weather of course was another shock. During the day here, it can get as hot as Vietnam, but it's not nearly as humid. It's actually somewhat pleasant, and when other people around me are complaining, I don't see what the big deal is. In Vietnam, it stays warm all through the evening and night, and being outside at night can still be a sticky, sweaty time. In America, it actually gets chilly at night even in the summer, and I cross my arms to feel warm even when other people still say it's hot. I wonder how winter will feel for me.

I would say the biggest shock, though, is the advertising in America. The food advertisements on TV are ubiquitous, especially at night, and they show the unhealthiest foods at the latest hours of the night. They show burgers up close so that they cover the screen, and I can't help my mouth from watering, but I know in real life that they're actually quite greasy and disgusting. This pervasive advertising, though, seems to be a major part of our culture, and probably part of the reason why we're so unhealthy. I don't recall fast food commercials or anything like that in Vietnam. Instant noodles and such would be advertised, probably because there was just a bigger audience for that. In America I have also noticed a huge prevalence in media commercials, advertising movies, electronics, etc. When a new movie comes out, it's advertised so frequently that you'll hear about it on every commercial break for every show on every channel. And then after it comes out, it's forgotten, and the next movie is advertised. Everything is so ephemeral when it's so consumeristic. New product, then it's old, see what's next.

So, I'm progressing through my reverse culture shock, and I'm re-acclimating to America even as I miss certain things about Vietnam. I wish there were nice, inexpensive, well-decorated coffee shops here where one could bring their laptop or chat with friends. Unfortunately, there is mostly just starbucks and duncan donuts, with boring settings, expensive drinks, and I think the wireless costs money to use. It's not the same as a cafe filled with trees and ponds where you can while away the hours of the day.

Looking back on the past year, and reading some of my old blog posts, it seems like it was a dream. When I read certain things, I can't believe they actually happened. It was almost like a second life I lived over there, where my personality and habits changed, and when I came back here they are slowly changing back. However, I would say that the experience of living on my own, teaching English at different schools, and meeting new people really did change me in some ways. I think it transitioned me from my college stage to my adult stage of life. I learned greater independence, confidence, and open-mindedness. I learned what it means to be a man on his own, either here or abroad. And I learned that teaching is a fascinating and worthwhile profession, but it is probably not something for me in the long term. If I try something which is unfamiliar, I can succeed at it and attain new strengths, but in this case I can also better understand my own personal areas of interest. So for the next stage of my life, I will be entering law school, and taking the experience I've gained in Vietnam to prepare me for whatever unexpected challenges await me in the future.

Hen gap lai!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


After Hanoi, I went to China.

I wish I had spent longer there. Three days was a bit short to spend in Beijing, although I saw all the big things that I had planned to see. Because I was only there three days, I was able to spring for a better hotel room, and treated myself to a sumptuous peking duck dinner on the last day. With longer time, I could have seen some different temples and museums and zoos in the city, but perhaps that will have to wait for a future date.

I had some interesting impressions of Beijing because it was the first city I came to after leaving Vietnam. It was like coming back to civilization again. There was a wide, well-paved highway from the airport to the city. There were actual criss-crossing highways in the city. There were subway stations and decent buses. Everything seemed much less crowded in general. But the biggest change was the lack of motorbikes. Sure, there were a few here and there. However, it was mostly cars and bicycles, and they didn't constantly fill the streets. It was actually quite pleasant walking down the street. I didn't notice pollution per se, but the skies were pretty hazy during my whole time there.

One other difference was that there seemed to be less English everywhere as in Vietnam. I think since Vietnam relies more on foreign investment, they realized the importance of putting English translations on signs and restaurants and such, but the Chinese seem to be attempting to be more independent of America, and all around me I saw chinese symbols that I couldn't even read. When I asked my hotel for a place to eat, they wrote two symbols on a piece of paper, and I had to wander down the street trying to match the symbols to a sign. I felt that the Chinese were also not quite as friendly as the Vietnamese, but that may just have been my impression.

I took a hiking tour of the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai, which was 10 kilometers. I severely underestimated the strenuousness of it. A lot of the area was old and unrestored, which was really cool to see, but it was tough climbing up and down steep staircases and ramps that were falling apart. I was completely exhausted not long into the hike, but I kept on moving and eventually I finished it. While I was walking, an older mongolian woman was following me with a bag of things to sell, and she kept fanning me and chatting with me and helping me climb down steps, until the end when she asked me what I wanted to buy. I was thankful for her company so I bargained down some good quality chopsticks from her.

When I first entered the great wall, there was a group of chinese who were all taking pictures. A few of them asked to take pictures with me, which I guess is something they do. So I posed for a few pictures with them, and they seemed happy at that. I couldn't imagine someone trying to do that in America, though.

In Beijing, I checked out the Forbidden City, which was full of old temples and palaces, and one could really spend hours and hours in there. It's very crowded and full of people from all different countries, with automatic audio guides in about 30 languages available. The guide explained everything to me, so I understood the gist of the chinese imperial history. Mostly I just liked looking at the architecture and hearing about the meaning behind certain statues.

And now, some pictures: