Diane Lee - How to live a big, messy, satisfying life

How to live a big, messy, satisfying, happy life

Regular readers will know that my relationship with my mother was fraught, to say the least. It was characterised by restriction and control and violence. And fear. An overwhelming fear that I was not safe, would never be safe. And that I was not enough. Would never be enough. Of course, this is was from the perspective of a child but some 50 years later, I still bear the scars — scars that still weep with blood and tears in the right situation, which — usually and invariably — involves a man because attachment.

I did not want to be like my mother, so I learned from her what not to do, mainly from her “shining” example, and also from my own mistakes. I have made many, many mistakes over the years but, luckily, I have few regrets. I love my life, particularly since I moved to Hanoi, Vietnam. Moving here has been calming, cleansing and cathartic on so many levels. I have learned to trust again, which is a big deal for me. I’ve also learned that I am powerful and beautiful and interesting and enough. More than enough.

One thing I wanted to do differently from my mother was to embrace life and all that it entails: heartbreak, happiness, fear, joy, uncertainty, mess. I’m proud to say that I’m living a big, messy, satisfying, happy life — a life very different from my mother’s. It’s not a simple thing to do, particularly when the world demands that we plan and order and control our lives as much as we can. And it’s not easy. You have to be comfortable saying: Fuck that! to the world and just do things on your own terms.

Trust your gut, take risks

When I moved — I was inexplicably drawn to Vietnam — people said two things to me: You’re so brave and I wish I could do what you’re doing. I had chucked in my very secure government job (I was paid out, so had a financial safety net), and decided that I would give it three months. That’s all. If it didn’t work out, I would keep on travelling or go back to Australia and work out what to do from there. It didn’t matter. I just knew I had to go.

I had no idea what to expect and how it would work, but it did. The risk paid off. Of course, not everyone is comfortable taking a leap of faith like moving to another country. But you don’t have to take a giant leap. Take tiny steps, baby steps, if you have to. Move ahead in inches, not yards. Challenge yourself to try something new, or do something you’ve never done before. Talk to people you don’t know at bus stops or on buses and trains or in queues. Try food from a different country. Drink beer if you don’t drink beer, or wine if you don’t drink wine. Learn to paint, or fly a kite. Start a blog. Self-publish a story. Explore another suburb or town. Then try taking a trip on your own. It’s empowering. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, with each small risk you take, you’ll lose the fear that’s holding you back. And most of the time, the fear* is unfounded.

*False Evidence As Real

Embrace the unknown

Vietnam is not like Australia. It is not an English-speaking country. It has been torn apart by wars over hundreds of years. It is communist (actually communist-capitalist). And it seems chaotic and disorganised. The hum of motorbikes tooting their horns as they whizz past, lives lived openly and vibrantly on the street, the constant sound of construction and enterprise. Underneath it all, if you can overlook the chaos and mess, is a zen. The Vietnamese are warm and kind and funny and laid back. Nothing much phases them (I have yet to see road rage occur here which is super surprising given the traffic situation).

This zen makes it easy to be open to new situations and trust that people really are genuine and acting without an agenda. I find myself saying: Sure! to things that have crossed my path, and apart from nearly dying in Cao Bang, (and let’s not mention Cambodia) it’s been largely positive. I’ve been on a road trip to the north of Vietnam where I was the only foreigner. I’ve said yes to jobs that have involved travel and had me meeting all kinds of interesting people. I met a Vietnamese man crossing the road in Saigon who I dated* for six months, and while it didn’t end as I expected, it was an experience. I’ve travelled with to Myanmar with a friend when I usually travel solo. Recently, I went to Phu Quoc Island with a man I barely knew, but it seemed like a good idea (I wanted to see a few of my KOTO kids who were working there) so asked him to go with me (Sure! he said). My point is that saying Sure! means that you have to believe that people are by and large good, and that they mean you no harm. You simply have to put you trust in the Universe.

*And by dating I mean we were pen-pals with occasional benefits.

Date outside your gene pool

I have had three lovers since I have been in Vietnam. Two have been Vietnamese and one has been, well, of mixed heritage. In a country of almost 93 million people, dating, in my experience has never been easier, and is so much easier than it is in Australia, for example. Apparently, with my vibrant personality, silver hair, white skin and green eyes, I am considered exotic. Men approach me, and quite regularly. Oddly, many of my single female friends complain that they can’t find decent male company here — but they are staying inside their gene pool, claiming they aren’t attracted to Vietnamese men because they are “too small” (both in stature and other areas). Not my experience at all…


If you date outside your gene pool, particularly when there are language issues and cultural barriers (real or perceived) you open yourself up to being with someone who may or may not understand you… and vice versa. Tolerance, patience and clear communication are what matter. And enjoying being with someone who can add a richness and depth to your life in undefined, unexpected ways. I have found Vietnamese men to be lovely to be around: kind, respectful and thoughtful. In my experience, they don’t “hook up” and they actually date: you know, that really weird concept where a man takes a woman out for drinks and dinner and music… and breakfast or brunch the next day…

Of course, being in any kind of relationship, involves risk, uncertainty and vulnerability irrespective of who we are involved with, or how long. We can never really know how things will turn out because, in the end, you never know what’s coming for you…

Cultivate interesting friendships

Until I came to Vietnam, I did not understand how important friends are. Sure, I had them and — of course — had a great social life and enjoyed their company, but friends were not the be all and end all for me. Most of them I had accumulated through work, and when I changed jobs, I often changed friends. A few friends have known me since I was in my teens and twenties, but most are recent additions. I liked my own company and as an introverted extrovert was relatively happy my socialising at work. The weekends were mine, and if I didn’t see anyone, I was happy with that as well.

Here in Vietnam, friends (both Vietnamese and expat) are made very quickly. You meet someone, decide you like them pretty much on the spot and they become a fixture in your life — this is necessary, because otherwise you’d end up lonely and isolated. Everyone helps out everyone else, because we are all in the same boat — out of our comfort zone, in an unfamiliar country. But the wonderful thing about my friends here is that they are all so interesting because they are so diverse. They are like a United Colours of Benetton ad: Nigerian, American, British, Indian, Australian, American, German, French, Brazilian, South African, Canadian, Irish, Vietnamese. Most have lived and worked abroad, some for many years, and it certainly makes for interesting conversations. Interestingly, I have more male friends here than I ever did in Australia…

Find your bliss

I have talked before about working in Vietnam, and how many opportunities there are here. I knew I wanted to be a freelance writer and editor. I knew I wanted portability. I knew that I wanted balance and freedom in my working life. I knew I wanted time to work on my personal projects. I knew I wanted to be able to walk away from a project if I didn’t like something about a client or the work I was doing. I didn’t know how it would work or come together, but all of this has been remarkably easy to do here. I define success differently now: am I working with good people on interesting projects and being paid well so that I don’t have to dip into my Australian cash? I don’t care about climbing corporate ladders or playing office politics. I just want to do my thing, my way.

I have walked away from work and jobs that haven’t suited me and aligned to my values, things that have proved to be too difficult (usually owners, managers or founders), or too crazy (third-party clients). What I have learned is that something bigger and better will invariably take its place. Recently, I was worried about losing a big client (they had me on a generous retainer) who had decided to move in a different direction, but I have found teaching work which is less stressful, takes up much less time and pays about the same. I have a regular editing job that pays well, and I’m regularly contacted about writing gigs.

All this makes it very easy to find pet projects to work on here in Vietnam because the barriers to entry are so low. All I can say is stay tuned for more…!


Photo credit: The Hyper-Psych Art of Michael J Bowman on Visual Hunt / CC BY

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