Saturday, September 4, 2010

Getting Unstuck

A few weeks ago, shortly after my friends John, Jean, and Martin left Vietnam, my brain went to Pittburgh, PA...and there it has remained. A deep well of homesickness has overcome me, such as I have not experienced in the 16 months I've been living in Vietnam. After spending countless hours pining over pictures of Pittsburgh's skyline, using Google Maps Street View to navigate the city's streets, and poring over local newspapers and blogs, I decided I needed a radical change. It was time to get unstuck.

September 1, four days ago, I began running again. My official War on Flab and Ennui has begun. I've been awakening at 6:30 AM the last few days, and jogging about 3 miles – out from my house, twice around Hoan Kiem Lake, and back. In addition to the health benefits, this task has also been reminding me of the beauty and magic of Vietnam.

If you want to see Vietnam at its best, you need to get out of the house while the sky is still rosy from the dawn. The streets are a hive of energy. Street markets ablaze in color and movement; old couples taking their morning constitutionals; armies of women wearing Pat Benatar leotards doing aerobics ("fascist dancing") to the tinny disco beat; lines of women beating and massaging each other's backs; early morning wedding parties posing for photos: these are the scenes that greet me as I huff and puff my way around the lake.

To be sure, four days have not been enough to bring me completely out of the doldrums. Once back home, I put on NPR and make my morning coffee, mimicking my Pittsburgh routine. After showering, I sit down at the computer, and check my e-mail and Facebook. For a moment, I could be forgiven for imagining myself in my mustard-colored office back home, with my black stone fireplace and a view of the Allegheny River. More than anything, I pine for my house, an 1890 Victorian brick building in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, that I spent 5 years renovating before jumping to Asia. This house, more than anything, makes my return inevitable.

But I also have solid reasons for being here. In a few short months, I will – for the first time since my divorce, which plunged me into a financial tailspin – be free of all credit card debt. I will then have more than a year to put away money, and if my calculations are right, I should head back to Pittsburgh in spring, 2012, not only debt free, but with a sizable chunk of coin in the bank. While not a lot by some people's standards, these savings will have signalled a fantastic turnaround from the debt burden I carried into this country. And I will have accomplished this reversal in less than three years, doing work I enjoy, and in a place that, when I remember to look at it, is remarkable.

So I have taken on the task of recommitting to the present. The fact is, given the current state of the US economy, my job prospects probably remain better in Vietnam than anywhere back home. This, along with a general desire to shake thing up, was the main impetus behind my move, and the thinking seems as valid today as it did when I expatriated myself.

But the mistake I see many expats make is to treat Vietnam as a backdrop. It's fine to have goals and to envision one's retirement to a cottage by the sea, but treating the present as a means toward an end only cheapens the quality of one's experience. This is true wherever you are. The trick is to carry the goal in mind...and still enjoy the steps along the way.

So the task, zen-like in its simplicity, is simply to be where you are. Just be. Wherever you are, look around. Why are you there? Are the reasons as sound today as when you first moved there? If they are, then appreciate that fact. Get outside and photograph something, take time to smell the roses. The world is filled with beauty that you can only appreciate to the degree that you forget about yourself.

In the big picture, I know that someday I will leave Vietnam. And then there will be times when I look back on this period of my life in Hanoi, and really, really miss it. So best to soak it up while the experience is at hand.


  1. Well said, my friend. Having been in Qatar for 6 years, I have times when I go through similar feelings. I get stuck in a rut, think only of why this place inconveniences me (115F during Ramadan, for example) and long to be anywhere that isn't here. But, I hit the gym (can't run outside in 115F), play with my kids, have coffee and giggle with friends, repaint the house vibrant colors, and remember why I love this place, I really do. The Arabian desert is magnificent, and there are good people here. The expat life isn't all glamour and adventure, most days it's just getting through the same day everyone else is getting through. But in the end, life is what you make it, where ever you are. And you are good at making the most of it all! ~Christina

  2. Hal, thank you for this, really. Here I am sitting in my living room, in the place where I have lived for 21 years, and yet your sense of homesickness speaks to me on a level I cannot quite explain. (Or at least I can't explain it in less than 5,000 words, so I will spare you. ;-)

    About the ability to appreciate all the beauty in the world, only accessible when we forget ourselves, thank you for that reminder, too. I needed to hear that.


  3. Halito. You are a man of poles of feeling. One pole begets the other I observe. All that falling in love with an exotic totalitarian society had to have it's rebound and this is it. But that is what makes you lovable, like oil and vinegar on a salad. I have never been homesick about Seattle from here in my life in Thailand. When people talk about it, I don't get it. I know it's a real thing. Like falling in love. Perhaps because my life is so much better and richer here, and the black beast of depression didn't follow me to the land of smiles and snipers. Maybe it's the sun and fresh fruit or speaking the language. Maybe it's living off the rent money from my house and the lack of financial stress. Maybe it's the time to concentrate on my art and craft without answering the phone, or the pager, beeper, cellphone, iPad or or laptop. I have a different relationship with the social world here which is perversely voluntary. I often wonder why it was so difficult to have this life here, there. I wouldn't make any plans or choices from your homesick mind. Float to the middle. TLB

  4. Hal I love your blog and i was getting worried about you since you hadn't posted in a while. Loved this post because it is something all of us need to hear every once in a while. I also am inspired by your being debt free soon. I am working diligintly toward this end and i finally see some progress. It has been a painful process but I know i will never be here again. Thanks for the inspiration and by the way...any date for the International househunters show??? lisa b.

  5. Hi Lisa - Thanks for your kind comments! I'm gearing up to start posting more regularly, as part of my War on Flab and Ennui. Can't wait to be debt-free, and wish you success on the same.

    House Hunters Internat'l show has no firm air date yet, but I was told it would probably be around December. I'll definitely post the date when I know it! Thanks again for your kind words.

  6. Running late to get ready for work, love your writing. Ennui is one of my favorite words. It's the feeling for the place in between.

  7. Hal - nice post. My favorite so far.

    Don't cry for me Pennsylvania, 'cuz the truth is I never left you.

    I need to visit Hanoi, come to think of it.

  8. Hi, i'm portuguese and recently won a trip to Vietnam, could you give me some feedback about the country? :)

  9. Hi Hal, stumbled on your blog, again! Seems to find me when I need it. I met you at a work xmas do, and thereafter shuffling past in the corridors of CL. I've just come back from South Africa, Cape Town, was there for 5 months. Being back in Hanoi is always good but I'm really missing the proximity of nature, especially the sound and smell of the ocean, and the comforting presence of Table Mountain. Anyway, glad you're still enjoying life in the moshpit! Michelle Vyncke

  10. Hi, Hal!

    Blast from the past here...found your blog through the crooked back avenues of Facebook, and am thoroughly enjoying traversing Vietnam vicariously with you here. What a beautiful, delicious country; your observations are astute and endearing. Looking forward to more. - Dahlia

  11. Hey buddy,

    Stumbled onto your blog while doing some quick research on Hanoi. Good insights in some of your posts. As a former Saigonese now living in the States, I gotta say that you're spot on about many things. Take care.

  12. Hi Hal!
    I've been checking back here for two months, waiting for the next chapter, hoping its positive and wonderful and you're feel optimistic again.
    Vietnam can be hard work -- I hope you find some joy soon.

  13. Sometimes it helps to take a few weeks off and go back to the States. I go back a couple times a year. Actually when I come to America, I become homesick for Vietnam!
    The West Lake Review

  14. Where are you? It's December; I miss hearing from you; hope you're ok and that you'll be writing again soon. Recently experiencing some homesickness of my own, mostly for crisp air, fall colors, cold nights, and recipes involving pumpkin or butternut squash. But just getting out amongst the Vietnamese, where it's Thanksgiving every day, is a good tonic. Best wishes, Leslie (in Hoi An)

  15. Hello Hal, I hope you are indeed "unstuck", and will post again soon. Wishing you all the best.

  16. Tonight I watched the episode of HGTV with you and your apartment search. I think it is SO cool that you moved to Vietnam, learned the language and are teaching English! It looks like you're having an amazing adventure! I just discovered your blog and see that your most recent post is several months old, so I hope all is well with you.
    Kind regards,

  17. Hal - I came across your blog doing some research for my upcoming first trip to Vietnam. Just finished binge-reading. Bravo, thank you.