How long have you lived overseas?
I've lived in Hanoi, Vietnam since August 2009.
What made you decide to leave the US?
I was living in San Francisco in a rent controlled apartment and it was actually great in some ways. I knew a lot of creative people, artists, writers and everyone was doing something cool. I went to a lot of great shows and ran a small press and wrote and saw amazing poetry readings. It was a great time to be young and trying to make something. But, I also had a career that I hated and was bad at and felt stuck and lost and depressed the majority of the time. I was in debt and unable to pay my student loans. My boss at the corporate textbook publisher sat me down in a meeting and told me that I was a dreamer and that we had to figure out how to make it work for them. The corporate world was just not for me. Then I had a close call with a city bus on my bicycle and I went to my friend Truong Tran's for dinner and he said, "Alan, you don't have a mortgage, you're not married, you don't have any major pieces of furniture. You could go anywhere. You could go to Vietnam." This planted the seed and after a short time, a weekend I think, I quit my job and started making plans to leave. I came to Vietnam with a backpack, a few books and a little bit of money. I initially came to Hanoi in August 2009 with the plan to teach English for six months and see where it took me.
What do you miss about not being in the US?
I miss people the most. There are friends who I see now only once a year if that and it's a bit sad to only keep in touch through things like Facebook or gmail. In the end it's only a simulation of the people I know and love. As much as we are psychic and mental, we are also physical and being in the same space as a person you love is important. There is really something vital to eating with friends, getting drunk together, talking in person, just being together. I also miss libraries, museums, used bookstores, and unpolluted air.
What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?
Hanoi is a city of 7 million plus people. There are practically no emission regulations and millions of motorbikes on the road coupled with a construction boom that is also largely unregulated and thus the air is DIRTY. The traffic is a nightmare. It's noisy. I have a smokers cough even though I quit smoking years ago. There's also arsenic in the water and food poisoning is a regular occurrence. I had a friend who got poisoned from wood alcohol in counterfeit vodka.
The challenges in particular for foreigners in Vietnam are in navigating the shifting legal status of being here. The government is constantly changing its policies on foreigners living and working here. The requirements for work permits and work visas are in constant flux. At some point there may be six month or year visas available at an embassy in Laos or a travel agent in Pnomh Penh, so expats working, running businesses, or even married to locals might take a flight to take advantage of these. At other times only three month visas are offered. If you are lucky enough to get a work permit (which requires a degree, medical check, police clearance and five years experience in your given field) this becomes much less problematic.
Also expat relationships are very transitory. People move in and out. Nothing feels stable. Nothing is permanent. It helps to not be attached and even better to be detached.
In terms of language, Vietnamese and English couldn't be more different. Vietnamese has a western alphabet thanks to the French and the communists, but for much of its long history Vietnamese was written with Chinese characters. Like Chinese the language is a monosyllabic tonal language. As a result small shifts in intonation and pronunciation can drastically alter a word. You could be in a market asking a seller how much for her pork meat and inadvertently asking her how much for her cunt meat. In English we intone contextually and rhythmically whereas in Vietnamese the tones are for meaning. When I first prepared to come here my friend Truong taught me to say, I don't have any money and fuck your mother. After arriving I took some lessons and wandered around writing down words into a notebook. Later, in my little old quarter hotel I would look up the things I had written in a dictionary and try to make sense of them.
There are so many beautiful things about the language. The sense of time and definition is much looser than English,mut the sense of community context is deep and rich. In Vietnamese there is not just an I and You, but a whole shifting ensemble of pronouns indicating age, status, gender, hierarchy and most of all relationship. English in comparison feels like a brain in a jar regarding other brains in jars next to the colorful family of aunts, uncles, children, teachers, fathers, sisters, babies, and friends in the Vietnamese pronoun lexicon.
My Vietnamese is still very basic but I can read and write and speak some. I can buy things in the market and answer the same basic questions about how old I am, where I am from, how long I've been here, am I married, will I marry a Vietnamese girl. Etc.
What are some of the pleasant surprises you've encountered in your new home?
Paul Bowles once said or wrote something like, I can think of no greater freedom than to be a foreigner. Coming to a place like Vietnam decontextualizes you. You become untethered from the dominant culture and the gap between self and other widens dramatically. As a result your identity becomes somehow freed from context. It's both alienating and liberating. Who knows if the things I do are weird, special, mediocre, or normal, because here I am a foreigner. It gives me a pass in a weird way. Maybe it's the remnants of the colonialism or decades of war or just due to being an other. Regardless it is an interesting position to be in.
Asides from that, Vietnam in particular is a very human place. People eat on the floor in rooms facing the street with their doors open. When a neighbor dies, black flags are hung outside and a tent is erected where funeral music is played all day and night. The grieving family are wrapped in white cloth and even later they wear black badges to let everyone know about this status. The Viets are constantly looking after one another. A regular greeting is, hi, did you eat yet? I go to the markets and see every part of an animal used. Sidewalks are transformed into eateries, places to drink and gossip. Time is marked by the consumption of rituals. I am constantly full of awe and wonder.
What are some of the unanticipated problems?
Arranging legal documents to work here was a bit of a hassle but not hard. When I first came, I got scammed and ripped off a lot. I had an employer not pay me a whole month's wages. Also having your friend group scatter across the globe is weird. Meeting the cultural police at poetry readings. Being checked up on by government officials randomly outside your house.
What are some advices you have for Americans who also want to get out?
If you want to get out and you can, do it. Get a TESOL or CELTA and teach English in Asia. Don't work for free in one of these scam volunteer programs. If you're a teacher go to an international school job fair and see if you can't get a job abroad.
--Alan Banes (35-years-old)
All photos by Alan Banes. When I was in Hanoi in 1999, my last time there, I didn't see people staring at cellphones in cafes, but the other images are familiar. The Hanoi of skyscrapers, including one of 70 stories, didn't exist, and there were no luxury shops downtown.