Wednesday, 25 May 2011

We are one, but we are many

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a group of Vietnamese post-graduate students who are about to move to Australia to study. It was an event eerily similar - but exactly the opposite - to the pre-departure briefing I attended in Canberra before first coming to Vietnam on a volunteer programme. 
(Nathan gets to wear a pin like this for work all the time.) 
At that briefing, I hung intently, and a bit desperately, on the words of anybody who could tell me what my future life in Hanoi would be like. I can still remember every titbit of information and advice that we received: Bring a suitcase-full of tampons! Don’t wear sleeveless dresses! Never turn your back to the family altar! We were also shown how to transform your jeans into a life-jacket should your ferry be sinking. What we were to do with our suitcase full of tampons in this instance, I’m not sure.

At the exact opposite briefing, the students going to Australia were just as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I was eighteen months ago. They wanted to know all those little practical details which you focus on because you don’t want to ask the big question: what the hell am I getting myself in for?

Returned students spoke about their experiences, just as happened in Canberra, and, naturally, their advice was the same, but exactly the opposite to what we received.

For example, in Canberra we were told to take lots of clothes with us to Vietnam because we’d be too fat to fit into anything. This was sound advice. It’s a common experience here in Hanoi to be physically restrained by sales assistants from entering a shop because they don’t want your seam-ripping, button-popping fatness anywhere near their clothes. “Nothing for you!” they shout.

The returned Vietnamese students reported that when going to Australia you should also take as many clothes as possible, otherwise you would face the indignity of… having to shop in the children’s department. Was there a part of me – a big, fat part of me – that thought “SUFFFFAAAAAAH!”? Yes. Yes, there was.

Before coming to Vietnam, we were told to prepare ourselves for the noise. “Bring earplugs!” I dutifully wrote in my notes. Returned volunteers displayed photos of the motorbike traffic and we reeled in terror. Despite this, nothing could have prepared me for the near constant, bone-rattling, brain-addling noise. A friend here was recently trying to make the outrageous claim that he regularly experiences silence in Hanoi, supposedly in his bedroom. He was then forced to add, “I mean, until the printing press downstairs gets started.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese students advised their counterparts that Australia was silent. Not quiet, but silent. “It is very strange!” they said. They then showed a photo of what could be any suburban Australian street (houses, trees, footpaths, parked cars) and the audience literally gasped. “So empty! No people!” I admit that in comparison to Hanoi, the scene did kind of look post-apocalyptic. Chatting with the departing students over lunch, one girl told me that her biggest concern about Australia was that it would be too quiet, something she had never experienced. She was going to Adelaide, so I had no reassuring words.

In Canberra we were told to expect strangers in Vietnam approaching us and wanting to be our new best friend. Don’t give your mobile number to anyone you don’t know, they said, unless you want to be called at 6:30am and invited for pho every morning, until you either relent or change your number. Newly arrived in Hanoi, Nathan failed to heed this advice, cheerily supplying his number to a young man called Kenny whom he met in a coffee shop. What followed deserves an entire blog post in itself. Let’s just say that Kenny did actually call Nathan his “BFF 4 Life” in one of his several thousand text messages.

At the Hanoi information session, one of the returned Vietnamese students reported that at first Australians seemed to her to be rude and unfriendly. She then realised they weren’t being rude, but just valued privacy and independence. Very. Highly. I couldn’t help but wonder if she realised this after being charged with stalking. Very well-intentioned, Vietnamese-style stalking.

I have often thought about what it must be like to be a Vietnamese immigrant in Australia, concluding that I couldn’t possibly imagine how strange and difficult it is for them. It never occurred to me that I already knew. Of course the things I find strange or difficult here in Hanoi will strike a Vietnamese person in Sydney in the same way. No derr.

I left the information session feeling a real affinity for these exactly the opposite people and completely confident that in a few months’ time they’ll be starting blogs about the confounding and hilarious behaviour of Australians.


  1. I think this is my favourite blog entry, by anyone, in some time.

  2. I can't believe I've spent my whole life without the potentially lifesaving knowledge of how to turn my jeans into a life jacket? I must confess, I still don't know what to do with even a single tampon (this could be gender related). Maybe a whole suitcase full of tampons could be used to plug holes on a leaking ferry - I wouldn't need the life jacket jeans after all!

  3. Anonymous I: Thank you so much! I strive to please.

    Anonymous II: I'm surprised you've not drowned! I have personally worn my jeans as a life-jacket on almost all the sinking ferries I've traveled on. Here is a video to show you JUST HOW EASY IT IS (while STANDING in a SWIMMING POOL):

  4. Thank you for this hilarious piece! As a student who studied in Australia and now have returned to Vietnam and experienced the reverse culture shock, I highly appreciate all the experiences you are describing.

    I think, though, that the orderliness of Australian roads has managed to give me a phobia of Hanoi traffic which isn't a good thing now that I'm back! :)

  5. Thanks for your comment Hien. I experienced reverse culture shock too, when I went back to Sydney for a holiday. I just couldn't get over how much SPACE there was. Everywhere! Doing nothing! I really started obsessing over nature strips... little bits of extra space for no reason at all. Just because you can.

  6. I look forward to hearing more about Kenny :)


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