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.