In the five month gap between deciding to come to Vietnam and actually arriving here, it was the chief occupier of my thoughts. Whether it was obsessively googling travel blogs on company time (sorry, Amazon) or fretting over what kind of footwear I should take, it’s safe to say that I thought about my life here a lot. For various reasons, I’ve been thinking about the period before I left quite a lot over the past few days, and it’s interesting to consider the differences (and similarities) between my expectations of TEFL in Saigon and its reality. So here are a few of them;
Expectation: “The heat will be unbearable. Will I constantly be hot and frustrated? Will wearing denim shorts lead to heatstroke?”
Reality: The heat is fine. Sure, it gets very hot here (I’m currently receiving a lot of snapchats bemoaning the heat wave in England that make me chuckle because WELCOME TO MY WORLD) but the Vietnamese know how to deal with it. Unlike the UK, which is hot roughly 1/52 weeks per year, most places here are air-conditioned and there’s plenty of shade. It is a little baffling when the kids moan that they’re cold when the classroom AC is set to 25 degrees (in my opinion, if it’s not below 20, then what’s the point?!), but it makes sense when compared to outside temperatures. Plus, I don’t spend as much time outside and walking around here as I do at home; Saigon is not a walking city. Sure, I could do without feeling in need of a shower the second I step outside having just had one, but the heat really hasn’t been something I’ve struggled with (and even my doctor warned me about the dangerous redhead + heat combination, so I’m pretty pleased about this one!)
Expectation: “I’m sure I’ll have days where I’ll vow never to set foot in a classroom again.”
Reality: (Am probably speaking far too soon but…) Still waiting. However, I’m not sure how representative this is because class sizes at my school are very small and therefore easy to manage. During my TESOL course I did have one student who made me wish I had the power to fast forward time (or vaporise cocky pre-teens) but it was all part of the learning curve and it didn’t put me off.
The Working Hours
Expectation: “20 hours a week is full-time? Pshh, easy. I work double that right now.”
Reality: 20 hours (or 27 in my case) is a lot less than I was working back home. However, I’ve realised what a huge difference the spread of hours can make. Days when I start at 8am and finish at 9pm feel like they go on forever, despite the five-hour break in the middle of the day. I miss the flexibility of my working hours back home as that makes a huge difference too, but this is just part of the teaching experience, and bizarre hours are (according to those travel blogs I perused when I should have been working) common amongst ESL teachers across the globe.
The Low Cost of Living
Expectation: “This is probably just some glorious myth about Vietnam.”
Reality: All hail street food and cheap beer. What’s great about Saigon is that there’s something to suit every budget- you can go upmarket in a way that would rival the west, or you can get a bowl of pho for £1 and a beer for a fraction of that. Here, I can afford to rent a room, pay bills, feed myself and have plenty left over, whereas on the same salary back home I’d never be able to afford to move out of my parents’ house without a rich boyfriend or some serious saving.
Expectation: “I’ll have plenty of opportunities to travel and explore Vietnam- and neighbouring countries too!”
Reality: lol. To be fair, I should have travelled Vietnam a little first before coming directly to Saigon- didn’t really think that one through. I did visit the paradisical Phu Quoc island, which I loved, but I’m itching to explore more of this amazing country; sadly, money and my working schedule mean it hasn’t been possible so far. Many of my friends have already done so, and I always feel a tinge of jealousy when I hear their stories. I know I’ve got it all to come, but I did think I’d have seen a little more of VN by now. Hopefully, when I have a little more free time each week I can make some overnight trips to nearby places and I’m definitely planning on doing some exploring with my sister and friends who are coming out later this year.
Expectation: “Every day will be an adventure!”
Reality: Not quite. It definitely did feel that way at first, especially as an Asia-virgin, and the brief but unsustainable partying period between finishing my TESOL and starting work was certainly fun, but I came here to live. Whilst I’m rarely- nay, never- bored here, not every day is a big crazy adventure. I’m realising that living in another country isn’t always exotic and glamorous, it also means dealing with similar issues you do back home, but in a different culture. Travelling is a means to escape from the daily grind, but creating a life for yourself somewhere means you don’t just get to enjoy the bars and nightlife. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- I really feel as though I’m becoming more independent and responsible. Plus, I get to spend sustained period of time experiencing another culture and truly getting to know it, rather than simply passing through. Besides, it certainly doesn’t mean that there’s no adventure- there’s definitely enough excitement here to keep me happy! This whole experience is an adventure, most definitely, but not every day is memorable.
Expectation: “I’ll meet people who are just like me!”
Reality: I’ve befriended a lot of people who are very different to me- and that’s most definitely a good thing. Back home, my friends and I are all pretty similar in terms of where we’re at in life, and most of my close friends are people I went to school with and grew up around (you lot had better be reading this!). I assumed that everyone I’d meet our here would be of a similar age and background to me, but that’s not the case at all. It sounds cheesy, but I’ve realised that friendship is based a lot less on things like age and accomplishments and more on your attitude towards life.
Speaking of friends…
Expectation: “I’m not sure I’ll cope with being away for so long.”
Reality: It’s just become the norm. Granted, I haven’t actually been away for that long, but before coming here the longest I’d spent out of the UK at a time was three weeks. That’s not to say I don’t miss home, because I do. It’s just not a deep, miserable, weepy kind of missing; it’s more thinking fondly of my friends and family, and enjoying the thought of the eventual reunion. It’s wishing you could share some of the new places and experiences with them. It’s seeing something funny that you know someone back home would appreciate, and wishing they were here to see it too. But, on a very soppy and cheesy note, I know it’s okay to be away because everyone will still be there when I go back and it will feel like I was never away.
Expectation: “The food will be amazing.”
Reality: The food is amazing.