Update June 2016

I’ve been absent from social media for a while now.

To say “I’ve been busy” would be a watered-down, unscrupulously typical excuse as given by the majority of people who call themselves writers. I’ve come to loathe the phrase, both in part for that nasty connotation that writing communities assign to such a term, and the blaseity of such lazy, undescriptive vernacular for “I don’t want to tell you [why].”

The same goes for “free time.” What the hell is that?

entrep

Thus, this is an attempt at describing what’s been happening.

First and foremost, a little backstory to those new to my blog, my life, my story.

I live and work in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, where for the last two years I’ve been teaching English as a Foreign Language. While I’ve been technically teaching EFL for about six years total, it was in Viet Nam where I first started handling large classes – and where I both found the opportunity and personal wherewithal to strike out on my own.

I started off teaching classes in my living room. Then moved on to rent a classroom. Fast forward about a year, and here I am renting multiple rooms, with a small team of about seven people, most of them teachers, plus an intern.

Having had some freelancer experience as an editor and occasional English tutor in New York, the idea of being independent (as opposed to working in some corporation – been there, done that) is not all that new to me. I’ll write some sort of inspirational-yet-down-to-earth origin story some other time.

cubicle

So after enough time and enough confidence, capital and allies gathered, we launched Triangle Education in March of 2016.

It’s been an emotional and stressful roller coaster ever since, layered atop the preexisting roller coaster of stresses and emotions that come with living in a foreign country on the other side of the planet. And not for the typical reasons you’d expect to hear any entrepreneur talking about.

Anything you’ve heard about start-ups, any difficulties and issues from managing staff, providing a quality product, and advertising, double the magnitude that difficulty when factoring language barriers, cultural differences, and local, petty corruption – oh the corruption, I’m looking at you, All Of South East Asia – into account.

corruption-corruption-everywhere

And for all the stresses, annoyances, hurdles and other clever thesaurus-derived words for “shit that keeps this from being easy,” I’ve gradually watched a change come over myself.

As something of an amateur philosopher, I’d gone through an existential crisis during my first few weeks as a manager and company owner, small as the operation is nowadays (“By what right can I have people working for me? Is there an inherent hierarchy of worth, even among human beings?”). I’ve since come to accept that it’s not about human worth, which in and of itself can be a sticky topic, no, it’s simply about initiative and drive.

It’s also about stepping out of your comfort zone, coming across (or seeking) opportunity, and siezing it.

build your dreams

I’ve likened running a start-up in Sai Gon to babysitting. Managing staff is one thing; providing a good product (quality teaching and interesting material), while ensuring that the marketing efforts are not deceptive – all while teaching – has got my hands so full that it’s been one juggling act after another.

Sai Gon has something of a burgeoning start-up culture, the likes of which I often hear about but have almost never partaken in. Triangle Education was not founded after attending a meeting and convincing some other starry-eyed foreigners looking for “the next big thing.” It wasn’t founded after I conned some rich guy to fund my idea. I’ll write another article concerning my distaste for the word term “start-up.”

In any case, babysitting – I mean, leadership – comes as a result of a few very simple, yet crucial factors, not least of which the fact that I cannot trust anyone else to supervise the operation for an extended period of time. If I’m not there making sure something is being done correctly, something always goes wrong, whether it’s installing TV-stands into the walls (they drilled holes in the corner), getting vertical banners printed (the mobile stands for said banners don’t fit the prints and are missing pieces), to ordering floor mats and paper cups (local staff didn’t know where to buy them, so they bought plastic instead. I found them on my first stop).

What I’m describing is not limited to my own experience. It falls in line with what I’ve heard other expats express, or hear about, and the things listed keep a lot of other expats from even trying what I’m doing.

Now, I am thoroughly aware of the difference between being a control freak, giving people the opportunity to be responsible, and simply seeing the ineptitude and incompetence of those around you. Everything in Sai Gon is built with the attitude “Good enough for now,” as cheaply and as quickly as possible. Small wonder you see streets cracking and power-and-internet cables embroiled in tangled masses.

img_2418

Image from here, but I see this shit on most street corners.

If I had to describe what I’ve seen in Viet Nam in a single, all-encompassing word, it would be incompetence [ bất tài ], from the government to law-enforcement to construction to business management to corporate policy to restaurant service (let alone the food itself) down to layman’s tasks like ordering godsdamn paper cups.

But one must bear in mind the circumstances — most of the people I meet come from rural farms, or their parents did, and things westerners consider to be “polite” or within the sacred confines of “etiquette” are lost on them. Quality is as foreign a thing as blond hair and blue eyes, and as one student once phrased it: “A fish cannot feel the water.”

What he meant was that if one grows up in an environment filled with trash, you don’t notice the trash. This is both literal and figurative.

Yet, for all the griping of the last couple lines, this is not a gripe post. I love what I do, for all the frustration, and it is of my emotional investment that I care so much. I speak to people on the other side of the spectrum every day, those petty locals looking to make a fast buck, and the indifferent expats going about their life without caring much for the students.

It is because I care that I get so worked up sometimes. I ought not demand perfection, but I do have high standards. Trouble is, my idea of standards is so different from that of the people with whom I work that it is quite easy for there to be a miscommunication.

I think I finally understand what leadership is. It came in the form of a quote from Game of Thrones:

Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if he starts second guessing himself, that’s the end. For him, for the clever little twats, for everyone…”

Ser Aliser Thorne, S4

I’ll write more on leadership later.

Without listing numbers, I’m in the most financially stable position I’ve been my entire life; a year ago, I had a personal vision of myself, and these days I’ve surpassed my own hopes. For next year, I have a slightly augmented version envisioned, and only time will tell whether I meet that expectation. But the point is that, compared to many years of my sentient life spent lost and wandering (from profession to profession) and essentially hoping for the best (in terms of life), things are looking pretty good.

I do not believe in luck. I believe in chance – the chance that I happened to be born in the time and place, with the skin color I have and the language I speak and nationality printed on my passport, cannot be ignored. But, I’ve met loads of other people born in circumstances akin to my own back in the States, and many more who were born in measurably better circumstances, and they haven’t done a fraction of the things I’ve done.

All this is a long-winded excuse, I suppose, for why I haven’t been doing any (creative) writing. I still dream about my novel, and I’ve written in the past about how I may have falling in love with “writing” as opposed to “having written.” Likely I still stand guilty of this, as even the simple goal of setting aside a minimum of 15 minutes every day to devote to creative writing is still something of a challenge to me.

The layman’s excuse is that I’m too busy, that I’m too preoccupied. I think the harsh truth is that other priorities have arisen, and despite my struggle to maintain writing habits and keep in touch with my writing friends, I’m slowly reaching the conclusion that I really need to set it aside for now.

It’s painful, because I retain habits of the writer mantra, “How can I use this?” and, as a result, I still find a multitude of things utterly fascinating (and worthy of distracting research) at any given moment. I meet people, discover behind-the-scenes machinations of organizations, or simply observe day to day life and I want to write and tell stories based on everything I see.

So I can either write garbage on account of being unable to focus on it, or I’ll garner additional stress from the fact that the thought “I should be writing,” is constantly, constantly in the back of my mind.

frere time

I’ve had the underlying goal that part of the reason I’m growing a company – and have my sights on jumping into a new business venture, of which I’ll write in another article – is to free up my life so I can write. After all, being a businessman means you have everyone do work for you, right?

It means that you have loads of free time…right?

I would be a fool to believe that, but only in recent months have I gathered sufficient experience to come to that realization in full.

And yet, creating jobs for people in a developing country, and opening doors for what First-Worlders would call impoverished people, the hunt for opportunity and – more importantly – the ability to seize it when it presents itself, comes with thrills that are unexpectedly satisfying.

And this is just a fraction of my personal life. Meanwhile there are insane environmental scandals happening in Viet Nam that the state-run media is desperate to cover up, there are insane elections happening in my home country, and the current president happened to visit the country  and city (!) where I happen to reside not long ago.

Pictured, a comparison of normal traffic vs. Obama traffic at a prominent intersection near my home:

obama in saigon

I don’t want to brag or nothin’, but I was one of that large stream of people simply trying to get home through the traffic on the bottom-left.

Then, in a few days after this post, I’m off to see what Bali is like for a week.

I thoroughly look forward to this vacation.

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Overcoming That Pesky Block

This is as much a public self-accountability call to act as it is a blog post. Considering the length of previous posts, I’ll try to keep this one comparatively short.

The truth is, I’ve almost lost track of my passion. Almost.

But how is that possible, one might ask?

The answer is infuriatingly simple:

Distraction. And my productivity and sense of inspiration appears to run on a pendulum, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other at regular intervals, ranging from excitement so great I can barely contain it, to feeling so down that I can barely lift myself off my grubby couch.

Maybe I rid myself of the thing.

I’ve come to realize that it takes very little for me to get distracted from things. It is a character flaw that I have struggled with for some time, but only in recent years have I come to really recognize it as an issue. I know not whether I have some form of diagnosable Attention Deficit Disorder, but the idea has been suggested to me more than once.

I would not be anything special were I to confess that I have difficulty concentrating or focusing, least of all on my writing.  But what is worse, being bereft of the solution, or knowing the solution and then simply forgetting it?

The most effective thing I’ve ever done when I’ve wanted to be productive, whether it’s with fiction-writing or editing, is set aside time in a dedicated workspace. Jevon Knights outlines this most effectively in his blog post about the Criteria for the Perfect Writing Space, and not unlike my own tactic, his idea encourages finding a place away from home.

You should really check out his ebook, The Knights Scroll. It’s a collection of short stories, both Science Fiction and Fantasy, and you can download it for FREE. I’ve read it, I dig it, and anyone who reads my material or is remotely interested in the stuff I do and like will enjoy it.

Regarding writing spaces, though, there is seriously no shortage of cafes in Sài Gòn. I mean, you couldn’t throw a shuriken without it sticking into the sign of some cafe nearby.

Please do not try this, or at least if you do, don’t tell anyone I gave you the idea.

I have, however, settled in a is looking to be more of a permanent living situation (a new house), and only recently have I established a secure internet connection, as well as a room dedicated to office work.

The result has been phenomenal.

That and two cups of càphê sữa đá significantly uplifted my mood and filled me with much needed motivation.

I’ve always been averse to being dependent on any form of substance.

But is coffee a terrible thing to want to drink when one’s life purpose is to focus and write?

I think not.

The success of people around me has also been inspiring.  I have no excuse; yes, there are life distractions and responsibilities, but one always had time – even just one hour a day – to write. It’s mostly a matter of getting organized and forming a system.

In fact Lifehacker.com has here a great list of for How To Stick To A Writing Schedule.

Surprise surprise, one of their bullet points is setting aside a place to write.

For me, it’s more complicated than getting up earlier, or walking to a nearby cafe and ‘setting up shop’ every day, which are things I’ve tried and have worked. But now, with a home base and office that feels more secure and organized, I find my stresses and creative energies more easily managed.

It’s almost as though my home, wherever that may be, is a real-life metaphor for my brain. If my home is a mess, then my brain is distracted. If things are in order and my home is clean and organized — even if my workspace is in fact away from home — then I can focus. Perhaps that is, or at least part of, the code I can use to understand my inner-psychology to harness creativity.

And, of course, sweet coffee in the middle of the day helps.

Now to train myself to remember that.

 

 

 

A Profound Experience

This post will be bereft of distracting pictures. Words alone can only express the magnitude of what I have to share.

– – – – –

I had a profoundly emotional experience on July 25th, 2014, but it did not sink in until the end, after I got home.

As per the arranged plan, I met up with a local friend — let us call her Em, a standard term of endearment for a person (male or female) younger than you — one who has been a better friend than many I’ve had back in the States. She took a bus to me, rather than her motorbike, and I met her not far from my current residence. Shortly after, we took another bus to the Saigon Zoo – which in and of itself is a great place, for I’ve seen worse zoos and this one was pretty good. There we wandered about, talking or pointing at and taking pictures of the various animals. Sometimes we sat, continued to talk about all manner of topics, or even teach each other a little of our languages.

Eventually, Em’s friends arrived, as is the Vietnamese way. I had met one of them, Jane, a few nights prior, but the other lady was a new face. Everyone is quick to laugh and smile, and though I sat among the girls unable to understand 98% of what was being said to each other, I thoroughly enjoyed their company. Much could be gathered from their body language and gestures. Hanging around people speaking a language I didn’t understand is something I’ve not only gotten used to over the years, but have come to enjoy.

The friends left early to attend to a task, and we would see them again later that evening. My friend and I continued about the zoo for a while, until came the time we had to leave on account of needing to catch two consecutive buses to get back to her home. From central Saigon we went out to District 9, and while I do not know whether it is the poorest district, it’s along the outskirts and is certainly a poor place. Few foreigners go there.

Our bus careened down the busy streets, honking in the Vietnamese fashion of alerting everyone ahead of its approach, swerving around corners and barely stopping to take on more passengers. I remember thinking that it felt like a bus ride from hell, with that powerful horn blaring and lingering as people on the road calmly stepped aside to make way. Eventually our stop came, and much like getting aboard, the vehicle practically took off again before my feet even left the bottom step.

As Em led me to her home, along narrow streets and steel-sheet roofed shanties, I saw her neighborhood for the first time in daylight. I had been here one night, but only up to the front gate. In her home, her brother awaited, and we seated ourselves upon a bamboo mat on the floor. Angling their only electric fan towards me, cups of clean water were poured, and we sat talking for a short while. Eventually the call from the two friends from earlier would come and we would meet somewhere.

But as I sat in their single-room living space, I could not help but marvel at its simplicity. The ceiling stretched high, the walls mostly barren of décor, and what passed for a kitchen was made up mostly of a portable cooking stove and a mini-fridge. On a wall nearby there hung pots and pans and knives and cutting boards, but little in the manner of furniture or knick knacks found in a home as might be owned by frivolous Americans.

In the loft above us I guessed was their bedroom, a place the brother and sister no doubt shared, and down by the bathroom on ground level near the kitchen a spigot protruded from the wall. I wondered whether that was the shower, or at least their primary source of non-drinking water. All these things I observed without comment or judgment; merely curiosity.

This type of setting is not unusual for the area.

I wasted no time in expressing that it was an honor to be brought into their home, and in as best English as Em could muster, she translated small sentences between her brother and me. It took about three minutes for me to understand he was asking me my favorite soccer team (and no doubt to everyone’s chagrin, I apparently had none).

Thoroughly cooled by the fan, I found myself comfortable in their abode. The amenities were few, and it occurred to me that not only did the brother and sister share a motorbike – a staple thing for anyone, Vietnamese or otherwise, living in Saigon – but everything else as well. Things that Americans take for granted – like private living space and their own computer – were nowhere to be seen.

Em, positive and bubbly as ever, showed keen shyness in the appearance of her living space, and my own interest in their home did not go unnoticed. I, rather than feel anything along the lines of disgust or pity or whatever she might have been afraid a visitor might think, instead found myself filled with joy and pride.

I would express to Em in days to come.

As I sat, I felt a sense of respect well up inside me. One always hears about leaving the countryside to go the city to find a job, make a new life for themselves, but these people were really doing it. This brother and sister had left behind a farm in central Viet Nam, where an entirely different dialect of the language is spoken, to work and form a better life, here in the big city. Every night they returned home to a place that, like so many other things I’ve seen since coming to Viet Nam, bore the appearance of the practical.

I was reminded of clubhouses and sheds, the types of places children would have built in their backyards out of scrap materials. Fun places to play, but nowhere a privileged American would dare lay their head to rest.

From the inner city Expat area bustle to the outskirts of Saigon, the buildings, power lines, roads – everything was put together to be practical, and I derive comfort from that practicality, having always eschewed frivolity and extravagance. But seeing it all in such a short span was a lot to take in at once.

Once the other friends arrived, Em and I took off once more, bidding ‘tam biet’ to the brother and speeding away on motorbikes. The four of us had dinner at another street-side eatery not far off, and I consumed a bowl of noodles that, near as I can tell, is very similar to the other, differently-named noodle-soup dishes I’ve been having. It’s all delicious, and I retain my vegetarian inclinations whenever I can, but it’s impossible to turn down meals as a guest.

Strangely, eating as they eat is not difficult, even as someone whose practiced pretty strict vegetarianism for pretty much their entire life. I would not be the first to announce that the Vietnamese take pride in the quality of their food, so taste is certainly not an issue, and in fact the local cuisine is considered some of the healthiest in the world. But somehow…it’s different eating meat here then back in the States. In America, it felt wrong, guilt-ridden. Here, it seems…practical. Natural.

There’s nothing quite like eating at a restaurant, having the owner approach, and being asked to have your picture taken. Whether the man cherished the moment or sought to use my face for advertising, I couldn’t know for certain, but I was soon informed that I was the very first foreigner to ever eat in that place. When I agreed, many occupants of the restaurant rose up in cheers, followed by laughter as I blinked away the flash of the camera. Looking around, I found myself beset by dozens of eyes.

My friends remarked that I was a star there.

The night went on most enjoyably. As a group we moved to a nearby juice vendor on the sidewalk, the four of us talking, laughing, joking. The girls all acted like sisters. This would not be the first time I witnessed strong-bonded people sharing a good night with good food, big smiles and everything else that comes with being good friends. These are beautiful, smart and positive people, and they’re all working to build a better future.

They work hard, and know how to enjoy life. I could not say this applies to all Vietnamese, but it certainly doesn’t apply to a lot of Americans I’ve known. This small group of people I’ve come to befriend know what life is really about. Working hard, having a good time, and enjoying each other’s company.

Too many of us lose sight of that too easily in the West. It’s something that I’ve always felt was missing during my time in the States. American life almost never made sense to me, especially the corporate life. I had good friends and good times, but here, I’m meeting people who enjoy life, and aren’t seeking ways to avoid it. They face it, they laugh, and I find the enthusiasm infectious.

Here in Viet Nam, life has more of a purpose than I’ve ever known.

After being driven home, as I didn’t (yet) own a motorbike, I felt shame wash over me. Ahead of us loomed the immense apartment complex in which I lived, a landmark building stretching upward from a sea of slums. It looked as out of place as I did in the restaurant, and whenever I looked upon that building, I felt revulsion.

Speaking to my roommates about my experience, I learned they too were aware and compassionate. More on that later.

I truly enjoyed the company of these people, more than I could have ever expected. Even if they chatted among themselves in their native language, I took part in the evening’s events, and generally just relaxed and enjoyed listening to them speak.

What right did I have to live in a place like mine when my friends, who deserve so much more than me, remained in a place that Americans would call a slum?

I reached my 23rd floor room, glad to kick off my shoes and shed my backpack, and sought out the shower. My head swam with images of what I saw, the taste of the meal still in my mouth, the sound of their voices and the roar of motorbikes still in my ears. But most profoundly came this sensation that I struggle so hard to describe.

Where Em lived did not inspire pity, but it did put things into sharp perspective. This girl left her farmstead town at age eighteen to live in Saigon, by herself, went through several years of university, and continues to work six or seven days a week throughout most of the year. She told me for those first few years, scared and alone in the city, she spent many nights crying by herself in the night. Em now lives in such a home as would inspire the most devout of minimalists, and she makes it work.

Gods, she’s lead a life the likes of which I can only bow before.

I would later learn that while Em initially wanted to get a nicer place nearer to her job in the city center, she decided to stay put on account of her friends being nearby. Moving is within her means, I realized, it’s just that she’s happy where she is, near her vivacious, life-loving friends. Her job is but a short commute.

“Life is for laughing,” Em and I had agreed.

It’s people like her who truly have a Rich Life, not the business and money-minded folk in their tall buildings and luxurious apartments.

I found myself moved, inspired. Questioning myself and my purpose here.

For one, I felt that had no right to live where I did. I cannot continue living in a fancy (by my standards, anyway) 23rd floor apartment when there are slums and shanty homes surrounding it, literally across the street. I had already decided I wanted to downgrade, as I was uncomfortable as it was, but now… more than ever I feel like some kind of imposter. I did not come to Viet Nam “to live the good life.” I did not come here to be pampered and be served and entertained like so many expats come to experience.

There are wonderful expats here also, though. I’ve come to bond with a few more closely in so short a time than with friends I’ve left behind back in the States. Several have come to do good things and give back to the community. I recall a young German man who worked with disabled people in District 12, or the delightful Austrian lady who started Saigon’s skateboarding fever. But the majority of foreigners, whether expats or visitors, come to Viet Nam to entertain fantasies of living a “rich life.” And I don’t necessarily hate or judge them for that. It’s just that it’s not for me.

My roommates are among the better type. Kind and friendly and helpful, I related my experience to them, and they described my experience as being in shock. Perhaps so, but a secret dream of mine has been to live deep in an Asian community, and all the opportunities to do so are here, now. Furthermore, though, they understood my position, and my desire to change my living situation.

I came to mingle with the people, to discover romance and adventure in a far off land, and to write my stories.

But as for my fantasy writing…

In America, I wrote Fantasy because I always daydreamed about being somewhere else. I invented cultures and worlds and peoples, stories and adventures about people that never existed, no small part of me wishing that I was there, elsewhere in some fantasy realm. Since arriving in Viet Nam, I have questioned my goals, my plans, for I felt a shift within me; not only in perspective and self-understanding, but in purpose.

“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”― Lloyd Alexander

I don’t feel the need to write fantasy like I used to. I don’t feel the urge to write of other worlds, of exotic places and peoples.

I’m living it.

Furthermore, if I write of my experience here, if I turn away from Fantasy and write about the people and culture of this fascinating place I’m in now, then I might make more of a difference. I might feel more fulfilled, knowing that my words are reaching the outside world and bringing awareness of this exotic, fascinating country.

But regardless of whether I’m writing or teaching…if I’m living in a high apartment, paying with money worth more simply because I was born somewhere else, it doesn’t feel right. Others do it; they come here to pay comparatively cheap rent and have a maid and indulge themselves, to ‘live the good life.’

But it’s not for me.

There, in my 23rd floor apartment shower, I honest-to-Zeus broke down in tears, overwhelmed by it all, and in part laughing at how movie-esque I must have looked. But it was not sadness; it was that same sense of pride I felt when visiting Em’s home. I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of joy for her. She was working so hard to not only improve her situation, but to show foreigners like me the wonders and joys of her culture. And she did not let things that I, as a privileged westerner, might have had irritate, depress, discourage or anger me. She manages to remain positive, strong, prideful and driven.

I am awed by this type of person.

I had grown up in a privileged country, and while my family was by no means affluent, we were not impoverished either. We Americans are always told stories, hearing them as children, that there are people starving elsewhere in the world. But it’s so very easy to forget.

What I saw firsthand that day left a lasting impact on me, and even more so than back home, I actually felt ashamed to be American. To have known what, compared to the people here, is a life of complete luxury. Hearing stories is one thing. Seeing, feeling, is quite another.

There are kind, strong, smart people here who deserve so much better.

Even if everything were to change, if something terrible were to happen or I otherwise was forced to go back to the States, there’s no way I could return to my old life in America.

I considered myself a politically and economically aware individual. I tried my hardest to buy shoes that did not come from sweat shops, or fair-trade foods not covered in pesticides. I always tried to keep eco-friendly, cost-attentive and health-conscious.

Not to say those efforts are meaningless, but gods damn, they pale in comparison to someone who’s left their home to live by themselves in an environment where others barely (or simply don’t) even speak the same language, like when Em came to the South from Central Viet Nam. The dialects between North, South and Central are so different that folks can hardly understand one another.

In an unexpected way, though, I could relate.

As it stands, I realized I can no longer leave this country behind if I wanted to. A few days before drafting this essay, leaving was always an option, whether to another country or back to America. It remained as an option that I could do if I wanted.

But I can’t live here unless I make a difference, either. I can’t live a luxurious life guilt-free, and am in the process of downgrading to a much humbler living situation. I will live among the Vietnamese, not above them.

Perhaps I haven’t yet found the best venue, but I now know that I want to help. It’s not a matter of pity, it’s not a matter of seeing and thinking, “Hey, you know what they need? Some ‘rich’ white American to appear and save them.”

No, it’s that I see that I can make a difference, and that I can help. So, therefore, I must. Before, I saw an open road.

Now I see only one path.

First Few Days in Saigon

If you haven’t read about why I went to Vietnam, you really ought to see my initial reasons here.

~

(Excerpts from the flight)

The thing about being the first of anything is that, by definition, it’s a pretty lonely endeavor.

I embark now upon a great metal bird, movies playing on the mini-screen in the seat before me. The flight is expected to last just under 16 hours, and we’ll apparently be flying over the north pole on the way to Hong Kong.

I will be the first Rebock to do any of these things.

~~

7.5 hours left to go. I struggle to remain awake. Food arriving seconds after writing that helps. It’s technically almost midnight. Lots of movies…

~~~

Transferring through Hong Kong was a breeze compared to Singapore. It’s 6:00am of what, I think, is July 18th, and though the boarding of the final plane is in 15min, my watch, eerily accurate with the time of day, still seems to think that it’s the 16th.

Changi Airport, Singapore, 12:30am.

Changi Airport, Singapore, 12:30am.

Here in Changi Airport, Singapore, the last six hours have been arduous, increasingly spaced by long bouts of simple inactivity. I can’t really do anything, and can’t really sleep yet either. The process has been simply waiting, from one thing to the next; I should be at the hostel within four hours from now, where I expect to finally get some rest.

When checking in my luggage for the final flight, a fellow named Ozzy remarked that my carry-on baggage exceeded their weight limit by about double (this had not been a problem in the other airports). Seeing my U.S. residence though, he recognized Woodstock, but since he asked I informed him I was actually born in Connecticut. This, apparently, delighted him, as he had spent some time working in Bristol – a place I knew nothing about, but I played it up as though I did – and he henceforth decided we shared some form of comraderie. Ozzy then gave me leave to go around the crowd and didn’t charge extra for the carry-on.

Thanks to him, my otherwise problem-less transfers – regarding luggage anyway; at some point in Hong Kong they took a nail file that I forgot I even packed – remained hassle-free.

I’ll see if I can sleep on the final plane. I sit here in Singapore, surrounded by dark windows after 6:00am, with tired eyes, greasy hair, and with the makings of a beard. I sure must look the part of a weary traveler.

~~~~

Day 1

The day I finally disembarked the plane and took in my first breath of Vietnamese air, I became thoroughly aware of the humidity. And the fact that with each transfer, there were fewer and fewer westerners aboard the plane. I might have been one of four on the plane.

Jet-lagged and exhausted, I took the first taxi I saw to the hostel. The first driver did not know English very well, so he brought me to some place a bit further from the airport and handed me over to a more fluent individual – who then proceeded to take me to my hostel. Showing them the address with my tablet, getting there turned out to be easy, and as we drove through the streets, I witnessed first-hand the legendary motorbike frenzy.

Traffic in Saigon is like a living, breathing organism. It’s taken several days for me to put together the words to describe it, as it took me about that long to fully comprehend what, at first, seems like a dangerous, chaotic mess of vehicles and people.

The best way to describe the difference is that in America, and presumably in most other (Western?) countries, there are strict traffic laws in place. Most exist because there is a basic common human understanding that everyone else is unreliable. I can attest to this, having lived in New Jersey, and having passed through New York City more often than any country boy has a right to do. In those areas, I feel there’s this basic understanding that everyone on the road is an idiot, and will hit you if you cross the street. Everyone assumes you’re unaware, whether you’re a driver or a pedestrian, and in truth, most people aren’t; hence the lights, laws, crosswalks, turn signals and all that. It’s much easier to get complacent behind the wheel of an automobile.

In Saigon, it’s sort of the opposite. Horns honk constantly, alerting people around you where you are. Sometimes people use turn signals, and even if they do, the flashing light does not indicate which direction you’ll be turning anyway. Motorbikes weave around each other, around pedestrians, around four-wheeled vehicles who are otherwise locked in traffic or held back by street lights. There appears to be a general acceptance that everyone around you is aware. If you as a driver are not, then it’s your fault for not hearing the cacophony of horns honking, and you will suffer for it.

For the most part, one can cross a road of speeding motorbikes as long as you follow the golden rule: Don’t stop moving, and move predictably. Everyone will simply weave around you so long as you don’t jump in front of them.

Much to my relief, the front looked exactly as the photo advertised.

Much to my relief, the front looked exactly as the photo advertised.

With the beginnings of those thoughts just beginning to simmer in my brain, my taxi arrived at the hostel without incident, and after dragging my luggage through a miniscule alley and inside the building I found myself greeted by a Vietnamese girl who I can best and most respectfully describe as “travel size.” I booked a room, lugged my bags upstairs — the Little Hostess doing her best to carry one of my bags — and on the 3rd floor discovered the dorm-like room to contain a few other sleeping people. 10am, probably jet-lagged as well.

The AC blew on full blast, so after resting a while in that veritable meat-locker of a room, I decided I ought to not fall asleep so early in the day and ventured downstairs to the ground floor. Conversation with the Little Hostess turned out to be no difficult feat; she seemed as eager to speak as I was to ask questions, and her English was passable. I quickly learned that she was quick to teach me some of her language, and so I darted upstairs to retrieve a notebook. In a few hours, various bits of Vietnamese were demystified – having a live teacher works better than any book or recording.

I’ll write about the Vietnamese language in a separate post sometime. It’s a fascinating topic all its own.

Most of that day is a jet-lagged blur. I honestly cannot remember much except that I was there. Apparently I arrived early enough to partake in some of the breakfast food provided by the hostel – baguettes, bananas and sweet coffee. I decided to go out and explore a block or two radius, and it wasn’t long before I was hailed by a motorbike driver. A xe ôm, a motorbike taxi. I decided why the hell not, was given a helmet, and hopped on the back. It took about 10 minutes for me to become comfortable enough to ride without clinging to Old Nine Fingers for dear life.

Word from the wise: Never get on the back of those things without establishing a price first.

Old Nine-Fingers here tried to hustle $200 out of me. Yeah, okay.

Old Nine-Fingers here tried to hustle $200 out of me. Yeah, okay.

When I got back, I described my experience riding, much to the laughter of those working at the hostel (re-enacting the feeling of holding onto a tiny old man for safety has a way of making anyone smile). The remainder of the day was spent drinking tea and forcing myself to stay awake. I don’t remember the exact order in which I met people in the beginning, but over the course of my days at the hostel, other travelers came and went, including a German, two Aussies, a Swede, and a lady from China. Americans are comparatively rare here.

Day 2

I woke up ridiculously early on account of the jet lag, lay in bed waiting for 8am, the time when breakfast was made available for us. When I got down, I found the same fare available, and gladly drank the sweet coffee prepared. Chatting up the Little Hostess, I soon discovered that she had prepared some rudimentary Vietnamese lessons for me on a sheet of paper, and we practiced numbers, some basic phrases, and a few other things. The first things taught were Bao nhiêu? (How much does it cost?) and Mắc quá! (Too expensive!), as foreigners are routinely overcharged for everything. It’s pretty much normal, and the Little Hostess informed me that while yes, there are in fact many good Vietnamese people, there’re a lot of bad ones too, and most of them are right here in this neighborhood.

I asked her more than once if what we were doing was a bother, whether I would get her in trouble for apparently not working at the desk an arm’s length away. Turns out no, as far as I know. Pretty awesome job.

Having befriended a Toothache Aussie the previous day, the two of us went around the block to get something for lunch. Whatever it was I ate, it tasted delightful – some spicy vegetarian noodle thing with a couple of vegetables the likes of which I could not identify (except for the bitter melon. That one’s hard to forget).

Later, having gotten in touch with potential roommates, I decided I would attempt to go and hail a motorbike taxi on my own terms and make the trek to go and see the place. The day waned, though, and as I stood at the edge of the street, I felt suddenly timid and hesitant. I knew nothing of where I was really going except an address and a general idea on Google Maps, though that helped little. The place was far, across the Saigon River in District 2, and I had no idea how I’d be getting back. As the sky darkened, I figured it better to try the following day.

Having exchanged numbers sometime earlier, I texted the Little Hostess, who had expressed I could reach her any time if I needed help with something. Asking how, exactly, to hail a cab/xe ôm, she instead volunteered to take me the place herself the next day, after she finished her shift at the hostel. Overwhelmed, I could not argue – a free ride to somewhere I did not know with someone I could trust?

Count me in.

Day 3

Early the next morning, while watching some silly Youtube videos before heading downstairs to breakfast, a new traveler appeared. Dropping off her bags, she descended back downstairs again, and not long after it neared 8:00am, so I soon headed down for breakfast.

There I met the Chatty Swede who, like most of the other travelers, had made their way to Vietnam from Thailand and Cambodia, and would continue their way north toward the city of Hanoi, and then west again to Laos. Hitting it off with her, she invited me to come along to Bến Thành Market, a major tourist destination.

Getting there was not difficult. The Chatty Swede knew the rough direction, yet confessed after we got started that she had a terrible sense of direction. Having partially traveled the way we went just the previous day in order to acquire a local phone, I at least helped with getting back, but not until after we came upon the legendary market itself.

To understand Bến Thành, one must imagine the tight quarters of a warehouse, organized in such a way as that each vender has about 10-15 cubic feet of space – or much less – and they pack as much of their wares in there as you can possibly imagine. It is a labyrinthine cloister of madness, filled with people intent on getting your attention and selling you something.

Basically a nightmare for someone like me, who despises radio ads and television commercials with a vehemence such as you have never seen. I had a strong bout of sensory overload in that place, between the lights, the sounds, the crowds, and colors, the enclosed space.

But it was bloody fascinating. I had seen its like in South Korea, once.

On the way back to the hostel, the Chatty Swede and I only got moderately lost. Fortunately, we made it back without incident and in good time, as we needed to get back before 5:00pm so I could catch my ride. We arrived at four, and I spent the remaining hour trying to rest. At the appointed time, I descended the stairs again to meet with the Little Hostess.

Sitting behind her comfortably and respectfully, the two of us sped off on her motorbike, weaving through traffic and around all manner of obstacles on the road. Women drive motorbikes just as much as men in Saigon, as it’s essentially the way to get around, though one never sees a man riding behind a woman. Though she was not bothered by it, the Little Hostess pointed it out earlier, to which I replied “If you’re okay, I’m okay.” So on we went. I get the feeling it was more about protecting me from embarrassment than anything else. After all, I looked out of place no matter where I went, so why not on the back of a bike?

She understood the area and direction to which we were headed, but on the way we had to ask for directions two or three times. Eventually we found the apartment complex, and I found myself smitten by the view from the balcony. Everything else seemed in order, so I agreed to move in the next day.

The Little Hostess then, as per her earlier suggestion, brought me to a small eatery near where she lived, as apparently the apartment complex stands only about 20 minutes away from her neighborhood. At the little restaurant, she would introduce me to one of her favorite foods – a spicy noodle soup; not phở, but something different. I remember insisting that I pay for the meal out of simple courtesy, and that plan went all well and good until I realized, when we got there, that there would be no chance this little place would accept credit cards or American cash. She paid – which she tried to do in the first place – and the food was very delicious (ngon quá!). Some of the spices in there would have me tossing a little in bed later that evening, though, but it was worth it.

Afterward, the Little Hostess brought me to a cafe, where I met her younger brother and another friend, and they fed me some sugared coffee. Eventually she brought me back to the hostel again, sometime after 8:30-9:00pm.

Night-driving in Saigon is nothing short of spectacular. The Little Hostess proved to be a safe and reliable driver, not that I had any doubt, but even at night she, like the other six million drivers, took to the streets like a seasoned veteran. Motorbikes here are like horses to Mongolians and kayaks to the Inuit. They’re just part of life.

After laying down in my cot, I was soon accosted by the Chatty Swede beside me, and we caught each other up on our day since the market adventure.

Day 4

We left moderately early, catching a local bus to Đầm Sen Park. The Chattey Swede, who was much more travel-seasoned than myself, had no idea where to go after we got on the bus, and so the adventure began.

A pleasant ride later, we made it, and for the equivalent of $9.00, we paid entry and began exploring.

Đầm Sen deserves an essay all its own. As an amusement park, there were dozens of things to see and do, and the experience was most memorable, but more on account of the company than the rides. Between getting caught in the rain by the crocodile pen, seeing arapaima in some ponds, and taking part in a number of rides, the place kept us occupied for the first half of the day.

For the first time, I experienced bumper cars, a seatless toilet, and strangers asking for a picture. Turns out they meant not that I hold the camera and take a picture of them, but rather that we, the Chatty Swede and I with our fair skin and blond hair, pose beside them and have pictures taken of us.

I have no doubt that the Chatty Swede and I were perceived as a couple in their eyes, and apparently westerners are as much a tourist attraction as the rides. I think I saw one other there at the park.

Not to mention while riding the mechanical bulls – first time riding one of those, too – the Chatty Swede and I outlasted everyone else. We both sensed that the operator had turned up the intensity in an attempt to throw us off. But we were determined, and held on for longer than I could know. For days to follow, my arms remained stiff from the exertion, and so bent on staying atop those things were we that spectators whipped out their phones and cameras to record our triumph. Eventually the operator powered down the machines, and the Chatty Swede and I continued around the park with sore arms and legs.

Sore, but utterly victorious.

We got stares wherever we went, and in one park “ride,” a large warehouse kept cold and filled with ice sculptures, the effect of sticking out in the crowd was emphasized. A hooked conveyer belt dispensed warm coats for people as they pass into the giant ice box, and with the weather being hot and humid outside (having already rained a few times), I looked forward to the relief. And, once inside, I found the temperature to be quite agreeable. To my surprise, the Chatty Swede shivered and felt the cold right away. I walked feeling no need to put up the hood or button up the jacket.

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It felt like a normal spring day in my home country. Surrounded by shivering south-east Asians, many of whom probably have never seen snow in their entire lives, I felt like some frost-hardened northern viking. People stared at me like I was a superhero/villain.

Unlike in Korea or Japan, where often you’ll find rides, train stations, signs, etc. written in the local tongue as well as English, or at least another nearby country’s language, here they don’t bother. Everything’s in Vietnamese except for “toilet,” “entrance” and “exit.” Not to mention a lot of the symbols on the map were just plain misleading and inaccurate. Navigating the place alone made quite an adventure out of the trip.

Throughout the park, as well as Bến Thành Market, the Chatty Swede forced me to make rapid exchange calculations from the local Vietnamese Dong to U.S. Dollars for whatever things that might need to be bought or rented. It turned out to be excellent practice, and I’ve almost got the numbers down.

After a bus ride home, we parted ways on the street just outside the hostel, she with a task she wanted to do, and I to pack my bags. That night, I found myself within the confines of a new apartment, and while the situation is not quite permanent, not yet, it makes for a decent home-base as I make the transition into a more permanent location.

Why I’m Moving to Vietnam

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This almost looks like it fell out of a head full of fantasy.

A week ago today, the magnitude of the events I had set in motion really began to sink in.

Almost a month ago today, the ticket to Vietnam was booked. A week later, I got my visa.

At the time of this post, I’ll be in the final stages of leaving behind the closest thing to home that I’ve felt in few years.

Today’s post is about my big move, from the Catskills of Upstate New York (about 2-2.5 hours north of New York City), to Saigon, Vietnam, clear on the other side of the planet. Many have asked me why I’m doing this, and I’ve provided a multitude of answers. Today we’ll see a compilation of reasons that have me uprooting myself and, quite possibly, living for an extended period of time in a country the likes of which no Rebock has ever set foot.

To more business oriented people, my answer to “why” is for the opportunity to be found there. My skillsets as a writer, freelance editor, and teacher of English as a Second Language have given me tools that have ultimately primed me to become something I didn’t know I really wanted until recent years: to be location independent. To be mobile. Saigon has a low cost-of-living, and is a place frequented by many other people like me. Entrepreneurs, writers, people whose livelihood does not depend on a cubicle and a boss, but on their laptop.

To the more creative and open-minded peers of mine, my answer is that my heart is in Asia. No, I’m not moving for a girl, and while I do romanticize the entire ordeal, it’s not that kind of romance. What I mean by this is that I have always felt an affinity for Asian thought and cultures, having been drawn in that direction since an early age by art and music. To say “Asian,” of course, is a vast generalization, and to narrow it down, I mean South/East-Asia (which I hope comes as no surprise to anyone that that, in fact, is where you’ll find Vietnam). Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City (I prefer Saigon) is a place where I can surround myself with things that I love.

It is a place of digital nomads, one of several such places, where men and women go to chase their dreams.

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My dream, as a creative, is to write.

The idea of having a home base is something special, but the freedom to uproot and go somewhere else is a unique thing few people really possess. It’s not really encouraged by our culture. I grew up in the general area where I’m in now, as of this writing. The Catskills of New York have their charms, and in many ways they were my home for most of my life, but being comparatively itinerant for the last few years embedded seeds of curiosity, wonder, and confidence.

Who’s to say whether I will find a permanent home anywhere, ever, but I have reached a point in my life where I essentially know that wherever that home is, it’s nowhere near where I grew up. Vietnam is about as far away as you can possibly get from New York, and while I am open to the possibility of staying there for an extended time, the distance from my childhood home did not factor into the decision.

If cheap cost-of-living were to be found on the moon, I’d probably jump on that next.

I had a conversation with the Firebeard (you know who you are) before leaving, about the concept of uprooting and planting one’s self in another place. In ancient days, tribes would wander the plains and, sometimes, settle in places to form villages. But others would keep going – over mountains, across seas, through forests. To this day it astounds me to think of our ancestors, after leaving Africa, spending hundreds of generations to spread across the globe. Villages established, nations sprouted, languages formed; everywhere.

And then after these places are formed, there were travelers between them. The Silk Road comes to mind, a long and arduous path rife with danger.

What in the hell possessed people to strike out into the unknown, to risk life and limb to find someplace new, or maintain trade between distant places? Such a journey would likely be the worst experience in one’s life.

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During this conversation, the idea of colonizing new worlds came up. For the sake of argument, we devised a simple thought experiment. Imagine a fully habitable planet were discovered, and a project were set in place to send colonists there. Insert your own reason here. However, it would be such a tremendous draw on the global economy that one ship could be launched from Earth, at maximum, once every 100 years or so. In other words, it’s a one-way ticket, and you as a potential colonist would never have a chance to return to good old Terra.

Yes, on this new world the air is breathable, the plants are edible, and there would be ample other people going with you. Details such as animal life, nasty diseases/parasites, or even tribal races already being there only complicate the thought experiment. So, the basic question is, all this considered: Would you go?

Firebeard decided he would not, and I regard him as one the most adventurous people I’ve ever known. Yet, he feels drawn back to the area where he grew up, and as of this post, to this day he lives there, having traveled various parts of the world but always returning, and is in the process of setting his roots in place.

I said that I would go.

It isn’t so much disdain for what I am leaving behind. It isn’t disappointment with family, friends, job opportunities. It isn’t an inability to “make it” in America or in this culture, whatever American culture is. No, I would go on this one-way ship to another world because if I did not, I would spend the rest of my life wondering, wishing, what it would be like if I did.

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That is why I am going to Asia.

Perhaps I am over-romanticizing it. I’ve no doubt that after I land and adapt, getting over that “honeymoon phase” of moving somewhere new, there will be a couple of reality checks that I’ll have to face. Likely I’ll encounter bouts of loneliness, depression, those dreaded “oh shit, what am I doing?” moments. But there are two benefits to this.

One is that exposing yourself to the possibility of failure is how you grow.

The other is that, as a writer, the key question will not be “What am I doing?” but “How can I use this?”

I’ll be leaving behind family and friends, and am open to the very real possibility of not coming back except to visit. We’ve seen this narrative before in stories, some of the best. The Hero’s Journey, in fact, often begins with the character leaving his/her place of comfort, their home. I wouldn’t dare consider myself a hero, but in terms of the Monomyth/Story Circle narrative, it wasn’t until Firebeard pointed it out that I realized there’s something in common here.

So, in a nutshell, we have:

  • Low cost of living
  • Proximity to like-minded people (entrepreneurs etc.)
  • Job opportunities (Teaching ESL, while continuing my freelance editing)
  • Can continue creative ventures
  • Fascinating culture. This includes a new language to learn, food to taste, music to hear, places to see, and of course, people to meet.

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Today’s music choice comes from Princess Mononoke, a Studio Gibli animated film. Somehow, calling this an “anime” doesn’t sound right to me, though that is in fact what it is. The track comes from the beginning of the movie, after the Introduction of the Problem, and right as the hero leaves his home and family forever. It’s a symphonic suite of the track, as opposed to the original soundtrack.

I feel very strongly about this piece, as I feel the tune and mood it evokes fits strongly with the narrative of my life at this time. Granted, I haven’t fought off any cursed monster boars, nor am I riding a red elk, nor do I expect to set off a chain of events that will change the course of a region. Just this moment, this “traveling between places” moment, is perhaps my favorite part of the entire movie.