During my current trip to the U.S., I've come to realize that talking to people about what we do and where we live can be problematic. Usually the discussion goes something like this:
Person: "So are you from here?"
Me: "Yea, but I actually live in Vietnam."
Person: "Wha...what do you do there?"
Me: "I write for a magazine. What about you?"
Person: "Well, nothing as interesting as that!"
After that it can be hard to get someone to talk about their life, because they are so dumbstruck by the seeming exotic-ness of mine. If I'm in a group of people word eventually gets around that I'm "the guy who lives in Vietnam," and all sorts of questions ensue. I don't like being the center of attention, and I am genuinely interested in what other people are doing, so I hate it when this happens. Obviously much of this stems from the fact that Vietnam is an unknown entity to nearly everyone - beyond the war few Americans know anything about the place, least of all its explosive economic growth and modernization over the last 20 years. Several people my age have asked, "So you willingly chose to move there? You weren't deployed in the military or assigned or anything?" Nope, I explain, I chose it, and I can still eat cheeseburgers, watch the latest James Bond movie in a huge theater, and ogle at rich people in Rolls-Royces over there, just like I can here.
I struggle to explain that while what I'm doing is certainly out of the ordinary, not every day is some amazing adventure. I still have to deal with the banality of paying bills, making sure I have enough cash for rent, figuring out what to do for dinner, etc. None of this really gets through, and people usually wonder how crazy it is to live there and what it's like and whether or not I can speak the language.
I also find it interesting that people have trouble understanding that I've established a life in Saigon and that I'm only in town to visit. Numerous individuals, both old friends and new acquaintances, have said something like, "So what did you think of Vietnam?", as if I'm back for good. When I explain that "well, actually I'm going back," a mixture of surprise and confusion follows. New Orleanians are notoriously loyal to their city, and many never leave. The fact that someone would move 9,000 miles away...and stay there for over two years is just bizarre. A common perception seems to be that I'm just on an extended vacation, and when it ends I will return home and spend the rest of my years in New Orleans. It takes some time to realize that I have a career going, and though it isn't the standard 9-5 of America it is steady work that provides me with more than enough income (for Vietnam). I have friends, connections, a deep understanding of where I live, and yes, I do sort of speak the language. It isn't just a joyride.
When we get to the point of the conversation where I'm asked how much longer I will stay in Vietnam once I return in early January, I'll say "until sometime next summer." After which comes the inevitable, "Oh, so you're coming home?" "No," I explain, "not yet, another country, just not sure which one yet." This elicits further confusion, and I occasionally wonder if people think something is wrong with me. I'm so used to regularly talking with people who have lived and traveled all over the world that I don't even blink if I hear that someone is moving to Tokyo or Tasmania. I forget that most people are not used to such lifestyles, and unfortunately these different outlooks can make it difficult to converse at times.