I've been living in Vietnam for five months now, and over this period, I've found it really difficult to spend time thinking about and reflecting on the experiences I have had, long enough to write about them. I think this is because life in Saigon is immediate and fast paced. You either get on board for the ride or get thrown about in its wake. You do actually have to live in the moment to survive, and those that know me must realise that this has been very hard for me, because I'm a world-class ditherer. Or at least, I was. But, as ever, life finds a way, and somewhere in between the chaos, my thoughts have been forming like bubbles in the background, gradually amassing to the point where they have forced me to find the time to put pen to paper.
So, what have I learned so far, if anything, from the last few months of life in Ho Chi Minh City? One opinion that has become pretty solid in my world view is something that I kind of knew before, but being out in the world has just reinforced it; everybody is looking for something. The thing that they feel is missing from their life. More often than not people think they can find it elsewhere, in another country, another person, another job, another house, a new car, and so on and on and on, and then they get frustrated when this miracle Mary Sue does not fix all of their issues. Take it from someone who has moved to other side of the planet, you can't outrun your problems, they catch up with you eventually. Replacing your reality with another may distract you for a while, but they are still there waiting for you in the quiet moments, sometimes getting even bigger, if you've left things unresolved. But here's the thing, it's not that you can't find what you are looking for in other people, places, things, you just have to know what you are looking for to begin with, and what I think most people are looking for, except for those with a particularly sadistic streak, is happiness. The trick is knowing what makes you happy. I say this as though it's the most simple concept in the world, but it's really not.
How can you know what you want and what makes you happy if you haven't experienced as much of life as possible? At what point do you know when you're enough of the you that you're going to be, to trust your own judgement on what you want? I guess those are the questions I have struggled with for many years. I am also a person who often puts other people's desires and wants first, which is not me trying to make a martyr out of myself, it's just because I've never really known what I want, so why not go along with awesome ideas that other people have? It's not always a wise thing to do though. Being considerate and able to compromise is important, but if you build your life choices around what makes someone else happy, then you could be headed for a fall. Life happens, things change, and if you're not happy with the choices you have made then you end up resenting other people for them, and that's just not fair, because they were always your choices. But the difficulty for me here comes back to those same questions, how do I know what I want?
In my twenties I just wanted to have as much fun with my friends as possible and not think too much about long term planning. When I turned 25 I had a bit of a crisis of identity, what is the point of my life? What have I achieved? At that juncture I decided to write more and my friends encouraged me to write a blog. This made me feel a bit better because at least I felt I had done something that had value, even if this value was only to me. I was creating things that I was proud of, and that was something. Then I got another job, a job where I was treated as an adult with opinions and as an individual with value by both my employer and my boss. This gave me an incentive to really think about who I am and what I want out of life.
And now I'm living in Vietnam. I’ve always wanted to travel, because I have the same dissatisfaction driving me that I've outlined above, that feeling of, ‘why here?’ I wanted to see more of the world before I could begin to decide where my place might be in it. But I'm sentimental and I love my friends and, for all my talk, if it wasn't for my partner initiating the move, I'm not sure that I would have left when I did. He has a few years on me, you see, and therefore has the greater weight of them motivating him to get busy living, as it were. But in retrospect, I am glad that we left at the time we did, any younger and this town would have chewed me up and spat me out again, any older and I think I would have found it way too exhausting. We didn't go looking for a stressful place to experience, Vietnam is a country of contradictions and while my partner had visited before, over a decade ago, this is not the country he remembers nor what I expected, but it is amazing and brilliant in it’s own way. Having said that, living here can be stressful, like, really bloody stressful at points. My life is full of uncertainty and there are few things I can know will happen in the next few days, weeks, months. Here are some of the only things I know for certain that will happen in the next few days:
I will get hit by a vehicle of some kind in some manner
I will fall out of, onto, or over on, a bus
Someone will spit in my direction, shout at me for no apparent reason, or stare at me with Patrick Bateman level intensity
A liquid will drip onto my head from an unknown source. I always hope that it is water, but I'm fairly sure it's often not
I will see a random chicken, or if I don't see it in time, possibly trip over it
I will something that will really anger me
I will see something that will really humble me
I will reach a point of heat exhaustion or just general hysteria that will cause me to suddenly burst into song when walking down the street
I will post inane comments on Facebook just to feel a connection to the people I love and miss
Beyond the above list, I haven't a fucking clue what will happen. It's like living in the Wild West, except with more iPhones. But the good aspects of this are that I have had to adapt, develop and learn a lot of new things very quickly. This is particularly apparent in the teaching bits. I was terrified of teaching and now I just do it and I don't have time to worry about it, I just have to get on with it. Yes it's a constant leaning curve and I make mistakes but it is a pressure cooker of experience that does not allow time for me to be self conscious or scared or self doubting, and I think this is really good for me. Money was the driving force initially, the need to earn and survive with whatever qualifications were within my power to get or take advantage of, but the fact that I have been able to do it in a truly alien environment and actually enjoy it, shows me that you could drop me anywhere in the world and I could have a go at making a life for myself, because I'll have me to rely on, and I finally understand that there is value in that. As a result, all of this experience is helping me to develop the strength and independence I need to have a think about what and who really makes me happy.
This brings me back round to the crunch of my argument, I genuinely believe that all anyone really wants is to be happy, to fulfil the part of themselves that feels lost. Maybe some people have it all worked out from day one, but from what I see in the world around me, this is generally not the case, the majority have to go on some sort of journey or work it out by trial and error, or some seem to just give up entirely. And what is happiness, really? Well, that is a question that can be asked and answered in a thousand million different ways, isn't it? Personally, I think it comes down to acceptance, we want to be loved and accepted for who we are. I know all the books say that you're supposed to ‘love yourself’ first, but how many people are born with an ego equipped to do that without some encouragement? We are always looking outside of ourselves for affirmation, for reinforcement, for someone to confirm that we are as funny and awesome and lovely as we would hope to be. If someone knows you, and loves you, for who you are, and brings out the best version of you that there is, that is not in denial of who you really are, but in celebration of it, then that does make you love yourself. You see yourself through their eyes and recognise your own value. As somebody who does see the value in other people, who finds it quite easy to love, I have found it far rarer to find people and situations whereby my own value is reflected back to me.
It’s not always a person that does this for people, it could be a place or a vocation or anything that makes you feel like you fit. By which I mean, that feeling that you get where every step you made before you found it has greater meaning, every moment within in it is more joyful, and the prospect of your future more brilliant. It makes you make sense. But again, this search that everyone seems to be on, this fulfilment that everyone seems to be looking for, it's not so easy as my cliched words make out. Like a wise man once said, ‘your choices are half chance, so are everybody else's’.** So many people will never find a fit, or they will be looking the other way when it happens by, or perhaps worst of all, they will be acutely aware of when they have, but may not understand how they could ever make it theirs. So my advice would be, if you've found it, and will you know when you have, be braver than the rest, and do all you can to make it yours, because it all comes to nothing in the end. All the things we fill our lives up with that we convince ourselves have value, yet the only thing we will never have enough of, the only thing we will regret missing out on when the journey is over, is time. More specifically than that, it is time spent being happy, whatever that may mean to you.
As for me, well, again, you have to know what makes you happy before you can find it, and for me, the difficulty is not usually being self aware enough to know that I have found it, but more the ability to extricate what makes me happy from what makes the people I care about happy, whether they really are one and the same thing or whether lines have just become blurred. Moving away was a step both towards and away from that, I think, but it is important that it was both, because that's the journey I'm on right now. And right now, there are a lot of variables in my imminent future, and the driving focus is still, what do I have to do tomorrow and will I get through it okay? That is how it has to be for now. But this extraordinary adventure is doing two important things for me, as I said before, it's making me stronger and it is making more independent, so I think that it is definitely a path which will lead my thinking to where I want to go. Or not, but that's just how the dice rolls sometimes, and a reflective person like me, albeit one living in a high octane environment right now, has to be pretty sure before she makes choices that affect the people she cares about, but I'll get there, I think. Or at least, I am hopeful, because the answers to my questions are right where they always were, in me, even if I'm having to go around the world to help me find my way back to them.
I realise that all of that is no way constitutes a travel blog or gives any real insight into life in Vietnam. I'm finding it even more difficult to write about that at the moment and much like the other stuff I'm trying to work through, I'm waaaay too close to the subject to be objective about it and find balance in my observations. There is also so much to say I don't know where to begin. So, just bear with me, if you can, and I'll hopefully have something relevant to say about it soon!
* From 'Missing' by Beck on his album Guero.
**if you don't know where that quote comes from by now, for shame, and I will kick your ass the next time I see you!