Sede Vacante

The light is on but no one is home.

Finally coming home with lessons learned

Bubble of home.

It’s been an interesting 10 weeks to say the least. It’s the longest I’ve spent out of the country, and away from my wife since we tied the knot so many years ago. I signed up for this gig because I wanted to learn some new things–always a good thing for old dogs like me.

Perhaps it was apt that I ended up in Ho Chi Minh. I don’t think I would have learned these lessons anywhere else. In most other places, it’s so different that the novelty lasts quite a bit, and you can easily distract yourself from the strangeness of a place by the fact that there are new things to see. The funny thing is that HCM is a lot like Manila. The area where I live in, Phu Nhuan, reminds me of the backroads of Cubao or perhaps Old Manila. Just when your mind is about to adjust to a level of comfort something just slams into you that reminds you that you’re not back home. You’re in the twilight zone, in some strange twisted mirroring of the reality you used to call home.

The first thing I’ve learned is that I’ll never make fun of expatriates ever again. Well… except for Abhishek maybe. Because making fun of him is like stealing candy from a baby–so easy and so much fun. I’ve always known in my head that moving to a strange land is a difficult thing. I’ve always had the utmost respect for our overseas Filipino workers. And yet, I’ve always made fun of the expats and their funny ways back home. I’d mock their extravagant spending and at the numerous horror stories I hear from them. It always seemed to me that they made life in the Philippines sound so overly dramatic. Oh god, you can’t find fleur de sel? What, you had your mobile phone stolen from you four times? It always just seemed that foreigners were so wussy and weak.

What I’ve learned is that after two or three weeks, the novelty ends, and you’re no longer playing Ian Wright in the little travel show fantasy you’ve got running in your head. By the fourth week, all you’re trying to do is feel at home. But you can’t. And the constant little bouts with unfamiliarity that would merely chaff perhaps a week before have become full-blown sores.

Take the food, for example. Don’t get me wrong, the food is great. I’m eating so little not because the food is disagreeable. It’s just that I’m not used to it. It’s too heavy and too light at the same time if that makes any sense. And it’s annoyingly only slightly different from what we get back home. It’s like a strange ingredient or spice thrown into your favorite dish. It’s just… wrong to you, and it’s so annoying that you’d rather not eat it and piss yourself off.

Now multiply that experience across all the little things that happen in your daily life. Imagine watching TV, or crossing the street, or buying cigarettes. Now throw a little wrench in that experience that makes it annoying. That’s pretty much what it’s like after 8 weeks. Almost unbearable, but not unbearable enough that you have a reason to actually go nuts or go home.

I coped as best I could. I stayed home most of the time, and opted to try to create a little bubble of familiarity back home. When I wasn’t at home, I’d go to the restaurants that actually served something that was familiar. And yes, these places are considerably more expensive than the norm. And you know who goes to these restaurants. Foreigners. Not tourists, mind you. But people from other lands who just want to escape the alien world outside even for a few minutes. I’ve always wondered why expatriates seemed to prefer to hang together, even if they came from different countries. Well, it’s because they usually share a common tongue, and more importantly they share the common experience of displacement.

Expatriates hanging together

And yes, apparently, music, art, and beer are all universal languages. I’m sure my favorite brown brother would add sex to that list. But that’s a different post entirely.

The second thing I’ve learned is life is all about language. Well, it’s not really something new to me. Philosophy of language was always a strong point of mine. But I’ve never had to actually live out the experiments to prove the theory. Everything we are, as individuals, and as a species, is tied to our language. Think of the many words that exist in English for which there are no equivalents in Filipino (yes, I’m bilingual like many of my countrymen). You can’t really talk about those things with someone who speaks only Filipino. It doesn’t exist to him. Not until you’re able to express it in his language. Not until such point that an equivalent exists in his language, until the point that he can express the reality himself.

More relevantly, all of my skills, experience, and talents, are ultimately tied to language. And here I am working in an office where few speak any of the languages I speak. Suddenly, I’m only as good as my interpreter. And all my ability to lead is diminished significantly. I can inform and instruct others effectively enough–there are some things like mathematics and accounting that are happily relatively language-neutral. But I cannot inspire, or even encourage. Those are perhaps the most powerful weapons in anyone’s arsenal.

Thankfully, some in the staff do speak English. And those that do seem to be able to subsume and represent quite well my own skills and experience to the staff. And yet, ultimately, I’m little more than a cripple here. That is until I can learn Vietnamese. Don’t worry, I’m working on it.

The last thing I’ve learned is that my wife has become the rock in my life. It’s so easy to take for granted someone that you see every day. And like the comfort of familiarity, and the power of language, it’s something you need to lose before you actually appreciate. All the discomforts I’ve had to endure here are actually trivial. Just small things that feel big because of their constant presence. Being away from my wife is probably the toughest thing I’ve had to endure here.

When we got married, we pretty much agreed that life is just one big magnificent and beautiful storm, and we were little more than mice, just trying to stay warm, trying to stay alive and find human meaning in all of it. And the best we could really hope for is to find someone to share a nice cozy little hole with. To live out the storm and even revel in it because finally we were no longer alone. Just mice in a storm.

Well, it’s 530am, and this mouse (more like plump sewer rat, actually) is finally coming back to the hole for the holidays in about 4 hours. I haven’t even packed yet. I don’t really care.

Oh, and Mark… quit smiling you fucking noob, I’m taking you back here in January.

See you all in Manila.


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