VietNamNet Bridge – Life as an expat can be unbelievably comfortable. Many of us are incredibly fortunate in that our standard of living in Viet Nam is higher than in the places we left behind. The weather is better (for me as a Scot at least!), beer is cheaper than water and plush apartments are affordable for most. It is all too easy to fall into the cosy routine of work, beers, and Western comforts.
Pros and cons: The weather is better, beer is cheaper than water and plush apartments are affordable for most.
Sure, moving to a different country to start a new life is daunting, and it took me a while to get settled. In those initial weeks the expat community and the availability of Western comforts were crucial.
Most people I came across had once had the exact same questions when they arrived: How cold does winter actually get? Where can I buy good cheese? What is the appropriate amount of money to give at a wedding?
But after a while I was bored of it. I decided I had had enough of sticking to my comfortable routine of work - bia hoi - bed. It was time to make use of the fantastic range of activities and leisurely pursuits available.
So six months down the line I can look back at a whole new set of hobbies that Viet Nam has provided me with: ballroom dancing in parks, taking ballet classes (which after a 12-year break was an incredibly painful thing to get back into), joining a Gaelic football team, learning to knit and sew, signing up for French lessons and attending classical concerts at the opera house.
And I'm not the only one experimenting! I have met a bunch of people who have decided to take up new hobbies and explore new activities, from film photography and long boarding, to Kung Fu and hiphop dancing. So what is it about being an expat in Viet Nam that inspires us to take up new challenges and explore the vast entertainment options?
I think for me personally it is the feeling that every single day is full of surprises and challenges. During one single day my mood varies tremendously based on the experiences I make: in one moment, I'm happy because I finally didn't get ripped off at the market, the next, I'm grumpy because I got a bucket of dirty water flung at me (by mistake) walking down my street. If I charted my feelings throughout the day, it would resemble a roller-coaster ride!
Here, I stick out like a sore thumb – I'm incredibly pale (summers don't really exist in Scotland), am unfortunately not blessed with Vietnamese slimness, I refuse to learn to drive a motorbike (one day!) and am still very wobbly on my brightly-painted bicycle.
I've spent close to a year in Viet Nam now, both in Hue and in Ha Noi, and I reckon even after 10 years in Viet Nam I would still feel like I didn't fit in properly. And that is half the fun: the feeling you get when you master new things - that sense of accomplishment - even if it is only ordering a taxi to the right address despite terrible pronunciation, is worth it.
Feeling lost, and out of depth provides a unique opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and fully embrace the fact that you have no idea what you are doing. Being an expat here has taught me to laugh about myself and to accept my many shortcomings: my clumsiness with words (and traffic!), my lack of orientation and the fact that I look like a complete idiot when I occasionally do muster up the courage to go for a run around Hoan Kiem Lake.
It reminds me of being a kid again – the first time you show up to basketball practice and get the ball in the face, the first time you fall of your bike when you take of your stabiliser wheels, the first time you give a wrong answer in front of the whole class. Humiliating, at first. But once you move beyond the discomfort of trying something new, of putting yourself out there, you get the hang of it. And maybe even get really good at it.
Leaving your comfort zone makes room for personal growth and self-exploration. In a way, stepping out into the great Unknown teaches us about ourselves and the people around us. It is never too late to learn a new skill, and the mix of nationalities, talents and cultures coming together here in Viet Nam provides us with ample opportunities to challenge ourselves.
So get up off that tiny plastic stool, finish your beer and try something new. Embrace your inner awkward, it's worth it!
by Amy Louisa Cowan