Friday, 6 January 2012

Foreigners on the flip side

One of my favourite blogs from 2011 is Photastic USA, written by Huyen, a Hanoian who has moved to America with her husband Ben. While living in Hanoi for three years Ben kept a near-daily blog about his experiences living in Huyen’s country, and in a neat role-reversal, Huyen has now taken up where he left off, only writing about living in Ben’s country.

Huyen’s blog reveals that the expat experience, no matter where you’re coming from or going to, is, in many ways, a universal one. She writes about her first Thanksgiving with the same wide-eyed excitement as me when I wrote about my first Tet; she writes about snow with the same awe that I feel for the Hanoi summer; and she writes about commuting in NYC with the same terror experienced by any expat in Hanoi traffic:

“To be honest, if Ben did not go with me, I would cry in the station because of being scared. The crowd in the bus station is not the worst thing. As soon as we step out of the station, I saw a huge crowd of people on the sidewalk. I was surprised and asked Ben: Are all of them going to work? Ben said he thought so. It was really overwhelming how many people walking on the sides of streets in New York. Everyone was also in hurry to work. They walked so fast. I felt like I would be pushed if I just stopped for a second. One thing came out of my head that understand now how foreigners in Vietnam are so scared and nervous about the rush hour in Hanoi.”

Like me, she marvels at the differences between Western and Vietnamese weddings, and then, like me, decides that she prefers the traditions of her new country rather than her own. Also like me, she writes a post on the novel attitude to pets in her new culture:

“If you go to Vietnam and you see many signs of places with dogs or cats pictures, those are called Dog or Cat Restaurants. And you might see a lot of people inside. When we were riding bicycles in California, I saw a sign with a Dog and Cat picture, but I was surprised when the sign actually said: Dog and Cat Hospital! I stopped right away and told Ben: "Oh my god, I think my parents will be very very surprised when I show them this sign." So I asked Ben to take picture of me in front of the hospital. When I first moved here, I felt a little bit strange seeing how pets, especially dogs, are treated here. They have their own beds which I did not even have when I was a kid.”

She struggles with the local food, with its lack of rice and vegetables (although in one awesome scene she wows a crowd of guys at a barbecue by hoeing into some pig’s trotters), and has difficulties remembering and pronouncing American names:

“At first, I thought every one would easy to remember my name because my name is just one syllable, not complicated at all comparing to some American names like: Elizabeth, Sebastian. Also, there are a lot of last names in America comparing to few Vietnamese last names. Also, it was very hard for me at first to remember and say right every one’s name here, as I told Ben in Vietnam that all white people look the same for me.”

I felt that if anyone could share some insight into the experience of foreigners abroad, it would be Huyen, so I emailed her to ask if living in America has changed her perspective on what it’s like for foreigners living in Vietnam. In all honesty, I thought I knew what her answer was going to be; based on her almost universally positive writing about her new home, I assumed she would say that it’s much easier to be a foreigner in America. But I was wrong:

“When I first moved to the US, I was nervous that everyone will treat me different from American. But from meeting new people, I realized that no one really cares I am American or not. Actually I wish everyone think I am foreigner because I will be treated as a foreigner: people should talk slowly to me, and should understand that I am not used to everything in America (I did not know how to get around at the beginning). Then I think being a foreigner in Vietnam is much better. Everyone thinks that foreigners do not know many things in Vietnam, so local people will be very friendly and try to introduce new things to foreigner. I also feel like Vietnamese think foreigners are special people.”

This was pretty mind-blowing for me. It’s one of my pet peeves living here how often I’m told I “don’t understand” how to do things, and am mothered by well-meaning Vietnamese people who believe I don’t know how to carry out various basic tasks “correctly”. These tasks include, but are not limited to, using chopsticks, parking my bicycle, carrying my shopping, opening doors, wearing clothes, and generally just existing. But Huyen is right: for all the times I’ve complained about being treated like a child, or having my autonomy compromised, there’s been ten times as many occasions when I’ve benefited from the instruction and assistance of locals just because I am, as she says, “a special person”.

It’s so easy to focus on how foreigners in Vietnam are treated unfairly - especially when you’re getting ripped off every day - but I’d have to think very carefully before saying I want to be treated the same as everybody else. Would I want to be surrounded by people who assume that I speak fluent Vietnamese? And in many ways don’t I actually count on being mothered to get by here?

Huyen continues:
“I do not really see foreigners treated different in America because it is very hard to tell if somebody is foreigner. This is so different from Vietnam, because being foreigners in Vietnam really makes you have a lot of attentions everywhere you go. I think it is so exciting and interesting being a foreigner in Vietnam, except you probably have different price range for mostly everything.”
Next time I complain about the “foreigner price”, I’ll remember what it’s actually buying me: the luxury of being treated like a foreigner. Sometimes special treatment isn’t such a bad thing.

Thanks to Huyen for her brilliant blog and for answering my questions. I really hope you continue writing! And happy New Year to all the foreigners around the world, all of us eating unfamiliar food and struggling with unpronounceable names, wherever we may be.


  1. Another awesome post Tabitha! Happy New Year and see you soon. Ange

  2. LOL! The parallels are hilarious. Too bad she misses out on the rock star treatment though. Its the thing that makes me laugh the most. Told someone I liked their bag once....they tried to give it to me. - Vietnamnat

  3. Super post, loved hearing from you too Huyen!

  4. Thanks Ange! I hear the Year of the Dragon is a fortuitous one for starting blogs... ;)

    Vietnamnat: That is superbly awkward. I'll never compliment anyone ever again, just in case.

    Karen: Huyen should take all the credit.

  5. Hi Tabitha, thanks for this blog, I am loving it (I'm a friend of Ange) - you bring such a wondering perspective, it makes me be more "wonder-full" even walking down the streets of Petersham! I was always annoyed at being treated like a child when living in China - but Huyen's exactly right, it's helpful (if sometimes a little claustrophobic) and I couldn't have gotten along without it. I also had the experience of admiring a painting at a friend's house in China and having to awkwardly refuse when she tried to press it on me. Lucky I was living in such a small room!

  6. Great food for thought Tabitha. Happy new year (and new beginnings) to you both.

  7. Thank you Tabitha for your great post about my blog. I feel so bad that I am very lazy with my blog. I will try to keep it going.

    Happy New Year to all the readers!

  8. Kerryn: Thanks for your comment. I think it's really interesting how behaviour which I can find belittling is actually being bestowed on me because I'm "important"! Sounds like you had a similar experience. Hope Petersham continues to provide you with much wonderment!

    Dani: Thanks Dani! Looking forward to reading about more of your adventures too.

    Huyen: Thanks for commenting! I've put a lot of pressure on you now, sorry. Hope it pays off with more posts, though. :)

  9. Tabs! Did i tell you that i hung out with Huyen and Ben in New York when i was there in November? They are friends with my mate long who lived in Hanoi for a few years just before you. I met Ben's brother and all the guys who were still wowed by Huyen's trotter consumption.
    Living in Melbourne, I still get the occasional thing that confuses me. eg. What on earth is a grey lead? Why can't people reverse park?
    See you soon!

  10. Well, I never! Small world etc! You should write a blog about being a New South Welshman living in Melbourne. Probably just as foreign as Vietnam (grey lead?!). And yes, see you very soon! Exciting!

  11. I still remember the first day I went to Sydney CBD 4 years ago .There was a big crowd of people gathering and I was exctied thinking that there must be something happening . It turned out that they just waiting to cross the street. Come on man , there no car just cross it. Now I kinda get used to it .Not a problem to me anymore

    1. I too am amazed now by how obedient Sydney pedestrians are, and how impatient Vietnam has made me... I will need to start my cultural re-integration programme soon.

  12. I'm a bit behind in reading your blog, but it's worked out well because I've found this post the same day that this article was sent to me by a mate dividing her time between Vietnam and Japan.

    It's not all relevant to Vietnam (at least not in terms of my years in HCMC) but I was nodding my way through most of the article. Enjoy!

  13. great
    thanks for sharing this.


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