Frustration

In this post: an email from Brian (our resident director of this program) and my own current emotional state.
In a future post: Hue, and pictures from Hanoi and Hue.


A partial email from Brian, our resident director of our group:
“Finally, I would just like to mention that this is the time in the semester when 60 years of international education at CIEE says many study abroad students can start to feel frustrated, irritable, or bored with the host society, and/or develop a strong longing for ones home campus and society (a.k.a. homesickness). If you are feeling elements of this, don’t worry: It is entirely normal. When you first came abroad, everything was new, amazing, and interesting. Now things are becoming mundane.

While sometimes your initial reactions to this stage of the study abroad experience can be on the face negative, you should take heart that these feelings mark a significant maturation in your career as a global citizen. That certain aspects of your life in Saigon have become ordinary and routine indicates that you have gone far beyond the normal tourist experience of this country. Eating soup with working class Saigonese, riding the bus, and shopping at a suburban Coopmart are all things that relatively few foreigners get to do here. None of these are earth-shattering experiences in themselves, but collectively, they have made each of you a changed person. It is rather inevitable that you will carry certain attitudes and habits that you have acquired here with you for the rest of your lives.

I should also say a word about a curious phenomenon I have observed over the past five academic years in Vietnam. It is that around this time in the semester, study abroad participants can sometimes start to take out their frustrations with the host society and their homesickness on completely innocent people: local citizens of the host society, VNU administrators or faculty, (sometimes!) CIEE staff, and not infrequently, one another. This rather kneejerk reaction is, of course, misplaced, even though it can sometimes lead to a very fleeting sense of self-satisfaction. However, I tend to think that by stepping back for a moment and taking stock of what you have accomplished in the past two months, any discontent you may be feeling on a day to day basis here will tend to fade, at least to the point that you do not create unnecessary negativity in the lives of others.”

This weekend I was about ready to deck the next motorbike driver/cyclo/shop seller who harassed me. I am so sick of everywhere I go there’s SOMEONE who wants SOMETHING from me. The xe om drivers. The people who try to get me to eat at their cafe rather than the identical one next door. The vendors that grab my arm as I pass by. The woman who wanted me to do a tourist boat ride and hovered for a good five minutes, repeating the same phrase in Vietnamese, before she finally left. The guy who asked me three times if I wanted a shoe shine and after I responded with a “No” in two different languages he got a quite loud, sharp, frustrated, “NO!” The begger who stood behind me while I drank my che and moaned the same phrase over and over again, hand out stretched, bumping my shoulder periodically. I want to be able to walk the streets and not get harassed half a dozen times per block. I just want to fucking be left alone. I don’t want to be touched. My need for personal space has skyrocketed since I got here, despite the fact that I miss the casual touch of my group of friends, the hugs, the cuddling.
Decking a strange Vietnamese citizen would probably be a bad idea. I have restrained myself and will continue to do so.
I miss Hollins. I miss being busy. I miss having so much to do that I don’t have time to mind-numbingly watch tv or read or talk online, sometimes not even going out to eat because I’m too tired to deal with getting ripped off because I’m white, with getting the wrong thing on the menu because they assumed I wanted the Vietnamese version of American food, with getting stared at, with the damned harassment I complained about above. I miss being in the loop of what is going on with friends and family. I miss Candace and Rose and Becky and Sean and so many others. I miss having coffee with friends. I miss not being stared at if I go out for coffee on my own. I miss having my own space and doing my own thing. I miss Hollins classes and professors. I miss it being less than 30C (at night!). I miss not sweating all the damned time. I miss not being surrounded by people who would be too small to fit into a US size 0. I miss eating things without thinking to myself, “In what form will this come out of my body?” I miss eating things that don’t have the legs, head, and skin attached.

At the same time, I wouldn’t travel any other way. I have little respect for travelers who come to a country, suck its monuments and natural sights dry for two weeks or less, and then leave thinking They Have Experienced A New Culture. I have no respect for travelers who do that, think they are better than the Vietnamese, and treat the Vietnamese they encounter as no better than servants. Traveling should take at least a month in a culture. Get out of the tourist district. Rent a room. Go grocery shopping. Drink the local coffee with your neighbors.

No one is allowed to point out, “You’re in Vietnam, and you’re not allowed to complain.” Yea? Fuck off. I’ve been here for two months. That’s a long freaking time, in a radically different culture where I only have a barely functional grasp of the language – and I have two months more. I’ve already begun to appreciate how lucky I am back in the states, how I am privileged in so many ways just by the fact that I’m American. I miss those things because I’ve learned to value them in a way that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t spent two months in a different culture. I am lucky and privileged to even be here at all, and I know this. But that does not change the fact that right now, I would rather be in Roanoke than Ho Chi Minh City. And I’m not exactly a fan of Roanoke.

I turn 21 tomorrow (or rather, around 10:30am on Vietnam’s April 12th?) and I hate that I feel the need to remind people of this. The only reason why I do is because I’m missing terribly the party a la Hollins style that would be had if I was back home.

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3 Responses to Frustration

  1. Steve Stander says:

    I do understand your frustration, though I think it a lot worse in your case because you are a women. This patriarchal society can be harsh at times.

    I enjoyed your post, the honesty resonates with many travellers here. I have lived here for 2 years now and all I can say is that in time one kind of becomes numbed to all the issues the should upset one.

    I hope that you have a super birthday.

    Steve

  2. melissa e says:

    Amy,

    I don’t know if this will help you or not, but remember how I relayed some advice and stuff between you and my dad before you left? He lived in Asia for years. I sent him a link to your blog after you wrote the entry about eating dog, because I’ve heard him talk about that before. He called me then to tell me how badass he thought you were, and just called me again after this post.

    My dad just told me how proud he was of you (this person he’s never even met)–he thinks you just crossed the line from tourist to “us” and have learned what every good international traveler should.

    And then he waxed rhapsodic about his memories of his time in Asia. I don’t exactly understand how he bridged from your frustration to his best memories, but I know that they were somehow connected for him and I hope that, in a few months, they’ll be connected for you, too.

    Also, what I tell first years? Is that even if they could, I know they wouldn’t WANT to be people who could jet away from everything they know and love and not ache some. Stretching is supposed to hurt.

    Happy birthday! I’ll drink a whiskey sour for you.

  3. Uncle Jon says:

    Hey, if it makes you feel any better, this is what you are missing in the USA: (1) protracted news coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith saga (Larry Birkhead is the father, not the other guy), (2) Don Imus just got the sack for referring to Rutgers women’s basketball players as “nappy-headed hos” (yes, he really did) , (3) all charges have been dropped against the Duke lacrosse players (I know you were biting your nails about that one), and (4) the usual Washington BS (Bush is still President, and it turns out the only thing worse than a Republican Congress is one run by Democrats). And I think the big hit at the box office is “300,” a computer-generated film about hand-to-hand combat. Oh, yes, and a no-talent teen hearthrob named “Sanjaya” is still in competition on the American Idol show. I’ve probably missed something — my point is that you really don’t miss being here as much as you think!!!!

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