Why I love Vietnam

This is the 15th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

I am often asked by people in Australia why I love Vietnam.

The answer is easy: it’s because life here is so easy.

It’s easy living. It’s easy to find work. It’s easy to get around. It’s easy to form networks and friendships. It’s easy to have an interesting life.

Back in Australia, it’s the opposite. There are so many barriers and obstacles that make life difficult. It’s hard to find work, it’s hard to get things done. It’s a completely different mindset in Australia, and it’s about no, rather then yes. It’s wearing and frustrating having to deal with knock-backs all the time.

At least, I think so.

***

I’ve loved Vietnam since 2010, when I first visited this wonderful country. Not having travelled internationally before, I was blown away with how different it was to Australia. It was chaotic and messy and dirty and ancient and beautiful and fascinating, and that was just the landscape!

(Of course, Asia — as I found out — is so very different to Australia. And that’s exactly why I love it.)

But it was something more: I felt a connection to its people, its story, its history. Here was a country that had almost been annihilated by war, many wars, and yet people just got on with things. They hold no grudges (but don’t mention the Chinese), are warm and helpful and friendly. They are industrious and hard working and entrepreneurial, and just want to improve life for their families. And they do this by just getting things done.

This “just getting things done” thing spills over into every aspect of life here in Vietnam, including mine.

***

Instead of a facing the next chapter of my life on the scrap-heap, fighting to be noticed let alone employed, I find I am in demand. This is what it must feel like to be a rock star.

If I walk out of my apartment building, within 20 metres is a mini-market where I can get almost anything I need: eggs, vodka, pesto, curry powder, fresh tomatoes and bananas. Even Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese. Another 50 metres either side are more markets. Another 100 metres up the road, I can have a beer or a coconut or a feed of authentic Mexican, along with a margarita or three. A further 300 metres up the road is a bakery that sells a scrumptious chicken mango salad and delicious iced cocoas and gorgeous baguettes, among other things. Around the corner, another 300 metres away is a co-working space that has friendly obliging management, craft beer and free wifi. My bicycle repair guy is about 400 metres away, as is the nearest public pool. Conveniently within walking distance is really a thing here.

If I want to go further — say one or two kilometres — I ride my bicycle. If I want to go even further, I grab a motorcycle taxi: it’s a cheap, reliable and convenient service.

I mostly work from my apartment, or I go to a co-working space or a cafe (apart from my days at KOTO where two out of three are spent at Yen Vien or the restaurant in Van Mieu). Wifi is everywhere, and it’s free. Work has been easy to find. What makes me ordinary and uninteresting in Australia (English speaking, tertiary educated, fifty plus) makes me highly employable here. Instead of a facing the next chapter of my life on the scrap-heap, fighting to be noticed let alone employed, I find I am in demand. This is what it must feel like to be a rock star.

Because of the writing work I do, I have been wooed by Playboy Establishment and whisked off to Halong Bay to experience luxury cruising. I see my name in print every month. I’ll be travelling to Hong Kong, South Korea and Myanmar this year for work, not to mention Saigon and Danang here in Vietnam. It would be almost impossible for this to happen in Australia.

(KOTO and the trainees keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.)

***

Another day in Hanoi, and another social engagement. My friendship group here is broad and deep and diverse, with friends made quickly and easily. Here is not like home, where I have set groups of friends, and someone would have to drop off the perch to be allowed in. I stayed home a lot, not because I didn’t have anything to do, but because I couldn’t be bothered doing anything. Every day, every week, every month, every year was the same old, same old.

It’s different here. So very different. Yesterday, I did a scooter trip with an Australian-Korean-German-Indian-Vietnamese-Chinese group I happen to have accidentally become a part of. We left at 9.30 and headed west, 50km out of Hanoi in searing heat. It was hot and sweaty and my butt hurt, but it was fabulous. Tonight, I’m having dinner with an Aussie friend and his mate, who has literally just flown into Hanoi.

A few days ago, I was watching episodes of Supernatural with a French friend. On Monday, I waded through floodwater (I’m not kidding… the water was six inches deep) to keep a dinner date with fellow Australians and a UK lass I love hanging out with. A couple of weeks ago, I was slightly hungover, but went for lunchtime Margaritas with a Tex-Mex friend.

A month ago, I went to a bia hoi with another lovely UK lass to watch Game of Thrones. Two months ago, I went to Dalat for the weekend with an American friend. My real estate guy, who is Vietnamese, is a dear friend, as is my Vietnamese teacher. And a fortnight ago, I “visited Hanoi” with my Vietnamese “son”, a KOTO graduate I met in Saigon a couple of months ago — he was in Hanoi for his graduation. This is a snapshot of the things I do, and the cross-section of people who are in my life. It is indeed a rich tapestry.

Everyone I meet is a potential friend, or companion, not to mention my KOTO connections that add a glorious, meaningful depth to my life in Hanoi. Every time I go to the restaurant, I am greeted by at least 20 Hello, Ms Dianes and smiles and waves and (sometimes) hugs. And when I go to the training centre, it’s also like that.

Yesterday, I went to lunch at Pullman Hotel — a scrumptious buffet lunch I’d won in a KOTO fundraising raffle — with three lovely friends who are leaving Hanoi, and I bumped into a KOTO graduate. Or rather, she bumped into me. Hello Ms Diane, she said. I’m Loan, from Class 27.  She was a KOTO graduate. They literally are everywhere. She remembered me from just one assessment task I did with her: a 20 minute job interview.

Qua dep. How beautiful.

***

In Hanoi, I am wanted, loved, admired, respected, valued and needed here in a way I’m not back in Australia. And because of this, I am calmer. Kinder.

I don’t have to fight to get anything done here.

Things just happen.

Is it any wonder I love Vietnam?


 Photo credit: Halong Bay by me.

On learning a new language

This is the 14th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

After only a few days in Hanoi, it was painfully obvious that I needed to learn Vietnamese. I could say thank you, and hello (learned from when I was here in 2010) but it wasn’t nearly enough. Clearly.

Without Vietnamese, I couldn’t communicate with taxi drivers—my main form of transport. I couldn’t tell them where I was going  (I had to rely on Google maps), and I couldn’t tell them where to pick me up (Grab and Uber drivers usually call first to verify the pick-up address).

If I knew where I was going, I couldn’t direct them (left, right, keep going, stop here), let alone tell drivers where to drop me off if I changed my mind about my destination, for example, being dropped off at the shopping centre a kilometre away from my apartment because I had to get milk or eggs or bananas. Or stopping at an ATM because I was out of cash.

And I’m here to tell you that Vietnamese pronunciation is hard. Not as hard as coal mining, mind you, but still hard.

I didn’t know what to order in a restaurant or from a street food vendor, crucial because I am vegetarianish—I don’t eat things that have fur or hair. I didn’t want to accidentally eat beef or pork. Or worse: dog or cat, which are eaten regularly in Vietnam.

Sure, enough people spoke English—certainly it was more prolific than when I was here in 2010 especially among the young—but not being able to speak Vietnamese, well, I felt disabled. Alien. Disempowered.

So I tentatively dipped my toe into a Vietnamese language class. It was taught by a young Vietnamese woman whose English was excellent. Unfortunately her ability to teach was not.

She sped through the alphabet, pronunciation, pronouns, directions and time in record speed.

I lasted three lessons before quitting. I felt stupid and inadequate and slow. What was wrong with me that I didn’t get it? Surely Vietnamese wasn’t that hard?

Turns out it is. Vietnamese is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, especially for a native English speaker.

(Others have argued that it’s easier than we think. The jury is out on that one.)

I found another teacher, and I did ten—count ’em, ten!—lessons on Vietnamese pronunciation. It was only then that we moved onto vocabulary and sentence building. Because if you can’t or don’t pronounce Vietnamese properly, NO ONE will understand what you are saying. Cue blank looks. And I’ve had a lot of them.

And I’m here to tell you that Vietnamese pronunciation is hard. Not as hard as coal mining, mind you, but still hard. Trying to wrap my tongue around the ng sound (fine at the end of a word, but not so much at the beginning), the ư sound (the only way I could make that sound was to pretend I was angry—it was henceforth known as the angry vowel), the o (as in horrible, but more towards the back of the throat) and the kh sound (another back of the throat sound) was impossible, not to mention vowel sounds (i, y, a, ă , â, e, ê, u, ư, ô, ơ and o) PLUS double vowels PLUS the six tones on top of that. And don’t even get me started on the bubble! Gah!

I didn’t think I’d make it to the end of those ten weeks. But I did.

By the end of those ten weeks, I could read Vietnamese and pronounce it properly. I didn’t understand any of it, but I could read it. Which meant I could read and pronounce addresses and menu items. Freedom!

In the meantime, I was picking up all sorts of useful phrases thanks to Google Translate and my Vietnamese KOTO colleagues: no meat, vegetarian, turn right, turn left, stop here, good-bye, you’re handsome, you’re pretty, you’re beautiful, you are so kind, bill please, confused, traffic jam, short-cut, speak slowly, happy lunar new year, I’m sorry, good, not good, no, wait a minute, delicious, no problem, you’re welcome, iced coffee with condensed milk, toilet, hot, too expensive, a little, numbers 1-10, very, fish, chicken, tofu, rain, and a few pronouns.

I also know that Vietnamese would be almost impossible to learn if I were still in Australia. Here, in between my weekly lessons, I speak Vietnamese as much as possible, even when I could just as easily speak English.

I’ve now moved onto communication and I’ve just completed lesson 4: my Vietnamese friends (or in fact any Vietnamese I bump into when I’m out and who I get talking to in my limited Vietnamese) say that my Vietnamese is very good. I have inspired a few of my expat friends to sign up for lessons. My Vietnamese is certainly much better than it was six months ago, and I’m very proud of my progress. And my lessons include non text-book Vietnamese, which is super handy.

I’ll give you an example. Last weekend I had to go to Bangkok for a visa run. I was standing in the immigration queue in Noi Bai Airport. A young Vietnamese dude was standing in front of me. His mate decided to join him and jumped the queue and stood in front of me, next to his friend. I tapped him on the shoulder, looked at him, raised an eyebrow and said: Thật à? which translates to: Really? Are you serious? He looked at me, surprised, and moved back behind me.

And another: yesterday I caught a Grab motorcycle taxi into KOTO Restaurant from my apartment for a meeting. This dude was driving much too quickly to be safe. Em, I said, Đi chậm! That translates to: Young man, go slower! He slowed right down. Mission accomplished.

Now that’s empowerment!

Readers should note that I have never learned a language formally. I always pick up smatterings while I travel—a few words here, a few phrases there—and I attempted to learn Spanish via Duolingo, with some success. I have no idea whether I have an aptitude for foreign languages or not, because I have no benchmark against which to measure aforementioned aptitude: no high school French, Italian or Latin—that was what was on offer when I was in school. I do know that my brain tends to latch onto words and phrases that are non-text book. I have no idea why. Learning the days of the week, time of day, numbers, pronouns, prepositions, sentence structure is hard for me, but I can joke in Vietnamese, and talk in idioms and phrases, for example, shoot the breeze, kiss and make up, bullshit, piss off, how are you, and pardon me. I can even call myself a cougar, which results in raucous laughter, because it means a younger man has to be present for the joke to work.

I also know that Vietnamese would be almost impossible to learn if I were still in Australia. Here, in between my weekly lessons, I speak Vietnamese as much as possible, even when I could just as easily speak English. I get it wrong—all the time!—but people are kind and patient, and correct me gently. And I keep getting it wrong and repeating it until I get it right.

Given then I am in Vietnam indefinitely, I plan to keep on learning Vietnamese. Because how else do you understand a culture—and I mean really understand—other than through its language?


Photo credit: 漂泊的荷兰人 via VisualHunt / CC BY

All my children

This is the 13th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

I have one daughter, but I always wanted more children.

I loved being pregnant, of feeling my baby shift and move and wriggle and squirm. I loved being heavy and swollen, my body adjusting itself to accommodate the life growing inside me.

I loved being a mother. Watching my baby grow and develop: rolling, crawling, walking, then talking, reading, learning to drive, buying a house. Those years have flown past the the blink of an eye.

He was a young man, 22 years old, and I had met him earlier that day. He sat down beside me and put his arm gently around my waist and, after a few seconds, said: You feel like my mother.

My daughter is grown and barely needs me. Not that I’m complaining, although I mourn the relationship we don’t have. In many ways, it reminds me of my relationship with my mother, where I was constantly trying to prove myself worthy of her love, until I gave up and didn’t bother any more.

Don’t get mad, get distant.

But I always wanted more children, and I thought they needed to be of my blood.

They don’t.

Sometimes blood isn’t thicker than water.

Sometimes blood means nothing.

***

He was a young man, 22 years old, and I had met him earlier that day.

He sat down beside me and put his arm gently around my waist and, after a few seconds, said: You feel like my mother.

It was in that moment I realised.

I was mother to more than 100 young men and women, and counting.

Who weren’t related to me by blood.

But felt more like family than my own.

***

I was in Saigon for work, and coincidentally, so were a whole bunch of KOTO trainees—around 30 of them. They had arrived that day, eager yet nervous to start their placement—the last six months of their traineeship. Then they were launched into the big, wide world, forging their own way, their own careers, their own lives. Creating their future. Living their dreams.

Outside KOTO, but forever a part of it. Family.

It was something that Mr Jimmy talked about often: being a part of the KOTO family.

I had worked with these particular young people—as well as three other classes—for the past five months as a volunteer, assisting the English teachers at KOTO. I had formed relationships with these young men and women built on mutual respect and laughter and kindness. And their need to learn English. Being with them made me happy, and—I found out later—the feeling was mutual.

When I heard the trainees had arrived at the restaurant, I walked out to greet them.

Hello! I said.

Ms Diane! What are you doing here? They called my name in unison, grins spread across faces surprised and delighted by my presence. Some came and gave me a hug.

Hi, I said. I knew you’d all be here, so I came especially to see you!

They knew I was joking, but played along. We chit-chatted for a while.

Then they asked: Would you like to see where we are living?

Of course, I replied.

And I did.

***

Later that night, I took a motorcycle taxi to an area in Saigon that was completely unfamiliar to me. I didn’t care, because there were a whole bunch of people waiting for me, looking out for me, making sure I was ok.

They showed me their apartment, proud and grateful that I could share this important time in their lives. As was I.

And then we went for juice, except for me. I had beer.

And we talked. And we talked some more.

And then one young man told me, You are so happy, Ms Diane. Whenever I see you, you make me feel happy too.

I told him the feeling was mutual.

Being around each and every one of them made me happy.

So very happy.

Because, as I have realised, these are my children.

Like the young woman, who clasping my arm as I walked back to the main road to get a motorcycle taxi to my hotel, called me mother. Said I was her mother.

What an honour.

These young people have taken me into their hearts with such kindness, warmth and trust.

***

And the young man?

The one who said I felt like his mother?

Who I’d only just met that day?

Who was he?

KOTO alumni. Helping settle the new arrivals into their life in Saigon. Just as other KOTO alumni did for him.

My new son.

Family.

My family.


Photo credit: Word Vietnam

Reorganising my life

This is the 12th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

I moved to Vietnam for three months.

Or so I thought.

But this wonderful country, and Hanoi—with its kind people, gorgeous food and easy lifestyle—has stolen my heart. And that doesn’t include the fabulous work opportunities that have come my way. And the cheap, cheap, cheap cost of living. My money goes a long way here. My life is full and rich and interesting and varied in a way that it isn’t possible back in Australia.

So when my daughter recently said she was moving out of my apartment in Adelaide, it seemed like a good time to start reorganising my life.

To move here.

To Vietnam.

Indefinitely. Probably permanently.

That means bringing Bella Kitteh over (and all that that entails).

And renting out my apartment (and all that that entails).

I will be leaving friends and my immediate family behind (although, the truth is I kinda let them all go when I left Australia in November).

I feel more connected, wanted, valued, loved here than I ever did in Adelaide. I feel surrounded by it, cocooned in it.

It also means that I won’t be geographically close to my daughter. That bothers me more than it bothers her, and I have to say I’m not bothered by it at all. She is living her life, and I am living mine. Just as it should be.

Recently one of my expat friends—he’s a journalist—asked me a really good question: how do the people you’ve left behind feel about you choosing to live a new life in Vietnam? What does that say about your old life? About them?

To quote Benjamin Button: I don’t know. I’m always lookin’ out my own eyes. In other words, I can’t answer those questions for them, or on behalf of them. I can only answer it from my perspective. From my truth.

The truth is: I was in such a rut when I left Adelaide. Angry. Frustrated. Unhappy.

But I had no reason to be any of those things. I had a secure job, even though I hated it. Money wasn’t an issue. My social life was ok, when I wanted it to be. My daughter was happy and healthy. My cat loved me. But I was so, so, SO unfulfilled.

I wanted more, but I didn’t actually know what that more was. I’ve found that more in Hanoi.

I feel more connected, wanted, valued, loved here than I ever did in Adelaide. I feel surrounded by it, cocooned in it. I feel like I am more me here than I anywhere else I’ve ever been.

Saying Fuck This Shit was the best thing I ever did.

And that is my truth.

It is the truest truth I know.


Photo credit: manhhai via Visual Hunt / CC BY  – 1982 Vietnamese Boat People – Thuyen Nhan Vietnam

On opportunity in Vietnam

This is the 11th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

Opportunity (noun) – a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do anything.

A few weeks back, I wrote about opportunity in Australia… and how there isn’t any. Not really.

Everything is so hard, so difficult in Australia. Too many obstacles, too many barriers. If Australia could just get out of the way of itself, it would be a much better country. And from my vantage point in Vietnam, it’s pretty much fucked (and a lot of other Australian expats are saying the same thing).

Vietnam, on the other hand, is flourishing. It’s one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, if not the world. It’s a vibrant country, driven by industrious, hard-working people wanting a better life for their families.

And I couldn’t have landed here at a better time, because I’m flourishing too.

I landed here on a wing and a prayer… and a volunteering job.

I assumed that a tertiary educated, highly experienced, native English speaker would be in demand. I was correct. English—and what’s more the ability to write English well—has meant that I’ve been able to walk into jobs here that would be a closed door back in Australia.

When I landed here, because I had money behind me, I was able to think about what I really wanted to do. I could have found an English teaching job, which is what most expats do, but I decided not to (I landed a teaching job on my second day in Hanoi. It fell through, and that was a good thing). My goal was to build my writing and freelance writing career, which was impossible to do back in Australia because of those pesky closed doors I mentioned. I also wanted to do portfolio work: I didn’t want to work for one person. I wanted to do bits and pieces.

I assumed that a tertiary educated, highly experienced, native English speaker would be in demand. I was correct.

So this is how easily things have happened…

The first freelance writing gig I landed was writing for Word Vietnam, a beautifully produced magazine for expats. I simply sent an email in December to the editor asking if they needed writers. They did, and I was hired more or less on the spot.

The second gig I landed was an editing job. I answered a call-out for a native English speaking proofreader on Facebook. That’s right: on Facebook. I sent my CV through and again, was hired on the spot. That was in January.

In February, I scored a part-time content writing gig through my expat network. It was writing for a start-up, and even though I decided not to work for them, it was nice to be approached. It was even nicer to be able to say “no thanks”.

In April, my volunteering job at KOTO turned into a paid one. I am now writing funding proposals for Mr Jimmy and work directly with him. This is a part-time role, and my dream job. It involves strategy and writing and travel around Asia.

In May, I was contacted by the Paradise Group, a luxury travel brand based in Hanoi who needed a freelance English writer. This gig literally appeared in my inbox from nowhere. I started working for them last week.

My point is that this kind of thing does not happen in Australia. At least not to me.

And that’s why I’ll be in Vietnam indefinitely.

It’s too good an opportunity to miss.


Photo of the Don Xuan Market, Hanoi by me. 

On beauty

This is the 10th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

By Western standards, I am not a beauty. My face does not have those fine features nor the synchronicity that is apparently pleasing to the eye. My hair is long and graying, and in a perverse act of rebellion, I refuse to either dye it or cut it. I am not rake thin, but my body services me—and those who keep me company in my bed—rather well. When silence is often preferred, I am branded too assertive, too opinionated, too difficult, too particular… while the softness and gentleness and empathy and kindness is conveniently ignored.

The world judges me according to whatever standard it sees fit, and I can do nothing about that except to dodge or accept attempts at contradictory categorisation. I am an ageing woman yet I am energetic and confident and youthful. My mind is sharp: I can think and process and learn as well as I ever could, if not better. While my body is thickening around the middle and everything is going south, I can still run and swim and cycle with the zest of someone half my age. The face that looks out at me from the mirror has lived a life of adventure and laughter and pain and disappointment and joy, with each wrinkle and line and mark telling a chapter of my story. There is beauty in a life well-lived.

(Conversely in Vietnam, where I currently live, the opposite is true. I am constantly being told how beautiful I am by both men and women of all ages, and it’s so lovely to hear these words. With each utterance, I feel Western standards slipping away, replaced with something more timeless and wise.)

While I am not perfect, I can largely go about living my life without being bothered. And everything works. And I am grateful, so very grateful, for that.

I want us to get past superficial exteriors and dig in deep. Get to know people. Really know people. Ask questions, because everyone has a story, everyone has experienced pain.

I have a friend—a young, beautiful friend—who attracts male attention (generally unwanted) wherever she goes. She has long blonde hair, and a lithe dancer’s body. Men see her beauty and want to own it, to possess it. Women are probably jealous of it. But look past her beauty and there is a razor sharp mind, and a dogged determination to live a life of freedom that makes a difference to others. She says what she thinks without pulling punches. She doesn’t suffer fools. She is kind, warm and funny. She has not had an easy life. But I know this because I have gotten to know her: we worked together briefly and formed a solid friendship over eye rolling at our (now former) bosses. Others—men and women—have not had the privilege of getting to know this lovely, young woman.

***

A few weeks ago, I met a young man with warm, brown eyes, and a warm, wide smile. I sensed a gentleness about him from a life that had been lived hard. A soulful acceptance of hardship and difficulty, rather than a bitterness.

This young man had been accidentally dropped—as a baby—into a pot of boiling water. His face has been burned beyond recognition. He has had any number of skin grafts, and still has another seven operations to go. I can begin to imagine what it is to be this young man.

Does he ever wonder why him? What does he do with the stares, of both shock, and of sympathy? Does he feel judged? Are his emotions amplified as and when he experiences kindness and cruelty? Does he ever wonder if he could have been as handsome as the other Vietnamese boys who surround him day in, day out? Does he wonder if anyone will take the time to find out that he is a beautiful soul? Will he experience the pleasures and intimacy and heartbreak of sex and love? And in a culture that is underpinned by family, does he wonder about having his own one day? Were there days when he thought of just giving up?

I started this essay thinking that I would write about never complaining about my looks again because of this young man. That this young man could be any of us. But it’s more than that. I want us to get past superficial exteriors and dig in deep. Get to know people. Really know people. Ask questions, because everyone has a story—it’s what makes us human—and everyone has experienced pain to some degree.

It’s just that it’s more obvious with some than others.


Photo credit: ai3310X via VisualHunt / CC BY

Silenced

This is the 9th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

I have never experienced anything like this in my life. Silenced.

Being with two expat men—one in particular—who refused to let me speak. Who wanted to shut down every word that came out of my mouth.

Who shushed me, telling me I was “too loud”.

That was at the beginning. It should have been a red flag, but I saw it as funny. And it’s not like I hadn’t heard it before. I’m always getting shushed. Just not by a man who wanted to silence me because of his own view of himself.

Who told me to “wait my turn” because he was speaking, and it was clear that what I had to say wasn’t as important or interesting or valuable as what he had to say.

And then, finally, being accused by the one in particular of being “too emotional”… like that was a bad thing.

I left in disgust.

It should have been a red flag, but I saw it as funny. And it’s not like I hadn’t heard it before. I’m always getting shushed. Just not by a man who wanted to silence me because of his own view of himself.

Circumstances over the weekend meant that I was the last woman standing at a very pleasant social occasion that involved gin martinis and me even smoking a few cigarettes (10 to be exact, and I am ashamed about my slide into depravity).

I was the last woman left standing with two men, both younger than I. Men I didn’t know well.

I should have left as soon as it occurred, but I didn’t. Too many gin martinis had dulled my sense of outrage.

I also wanted to prove that what I had to say was worth hearing and of value… even if it meant I had to “wait my turn” to say it.

And I kind of found it amusing. In this day and age, this shut down still occurred? Really?

In the end, after the “you’re too emotional” thing I’d had enough. I said more people should be emotional because maybe the world would be a better place, that wars wouldn’t happen if people became emotional about them etc. etc. etc.

Then I told him that he was an unkind person. One of the worst kinds of people in my eyes.

Then I hugged the other man (because I actually liked him) and left.

In disgust.

To empty Hanoi streets, the safety of a motorcycle taxi with a kind Vietnamese driver, and warm air caressing my skin.

To sanity.

Last word

The pop psychologist in me tells me that the unkind man was both very intelligent and very insecure. He wanted to show everyone how smart he was by controlling the conversation. I have a feeling he doesn’t like women very much, especially intelligent, confident women like me. He could even be a narcissist. The other man—the one that I liked—was going along for the ride. Maybe he didn’t want to rock the boat. Maybe it was easier to go with the flow, even if that flow was lacking in empathy and emotional intelligence. I’m pretty sure, though, he knew that what was going on was not ok.


Photo credit: G. Henry via Visualhunt / CC BY-ND

A close encounter of the delicious kind

This is the 8th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

This weekend, here in Hanoi, I voided an awful sexy times encounter with a Frenchman (aka That French Fucker) that happened at the beginning of 2016.

That French Fucker was someone masquerading as a decent, kind and caring man… until I slept with him… and then, his true colours were revealed. Of course, I only had myself to blame and I vowed that I never wanted to feel that way again. Used. Stupid. Less than. Stupider. Not Good Enough. The stupidest. Cheap. The most stupidest ever. I asked myself that eternally damaging question: what was wrong with me? Why am I so unlovable?

Over the short period of time I had gotten to know him—from the beginning—I thought something was there, something would develop between us. I was mistaken. I had not given That French Fucker enough time to prove himself, because in the lead-up, he seemed interested, attentive, reliable. I confused what seemed to be with what actually was. And I paid the ultimate price: another valuable lesson that my libido was, is and remains a terrible judge of character. That, and I needed boundaries.

I read somewhere (I can’t remember the source) that a woman’s job is to work out whether a man wants her for sex or herself. Time, of course, reveals true intentions. I—particularly with my anxious attachment style—should not be so quick to jump into bed with someone, no matter how tempting.

It never ends well.

This man—who I met in serendipitous circumstances—was a kind, generous, passionate lover. He made me feel beautiful, desirable, cared for.

I thought that that awful, demeaning encounter would be my last* lot of sexy times ever. That I would never have sex again. I was ok with that. I had made my peace with it. I figured that the chances of meeting a man who wanted to have sex with me were fast diminishing. No one really wants to get up close and personal with an ageing woman. Especially here in Hanoi, where the expats/foreigners want gorgeous, petite Vietnamese women (why wouldn’t they?) and the Vietnamese men in my age group mostly are married. And while I don’t a want a relationship, I don’t want casual sex either because I don’t like the way it makes me feel.

Or so I thought.

This weekend, I had a delicious, close encounter of the intimate kind with a handsome, much younger man…

…which will only be a once off.

And, in an unusual turn of events, it doesn’t bother me at all.

In fact, this encounter has left me smiling and feeling wonderful about myself.

This man—who I met in serendipitous circumstances—made it clear almost from the get go that he wanted to sleep with me: banter and touching and double entendres is a powerful aphrodisiac. And despite my previous vow of no casual sex, I decided to sleep with him if the opportunity presented itself.

It did, and I’m glad I did.

He was a kind, generous, passionate lover. He made me feel beautiful, desirable and cared for. Respected. Even when he left my apartment the next day.

And he gave me a precious gift.

The gift of faith.

Faith that there are men out there who see my energy and confidence and intelligence as beautiful.

Faith that my age is not really an issue… with the right man.

Faith that I am a desirable woman.

Faith that that one day, in the right circumstances, love may be possible after all.

*Bear in mind that I have been having This Is The Last Time I’ll Ever Have Sex Again sex since my early 40s.


Photo credit: Graffiti Photographic via Visualhunt / CC BY.

On opportunity

This is the 7th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

Opportunity (noun) – a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do anything.

In Australian workplaces, there exists a strange, mythological beast. This beast is called Opportunity.

Opportunity is a mercurial animal that magically appears in workplaces during times of upheaval. It is hardly ever seen during times of peace and calm.

Employees love the idea of Opportunity. It symbolises all that is fair and good and just in the workplace. Where talent and hard work and going above and beyond is recognised and rewarded with a promotion or a raise, or both.

Managers love that employees love the idea of Opportunity too, especially in times of chaos. They love it because Opportunity is something that can be used to blackmail employees into doing whatever the hell the manager wants.

It works like this.

And I wanted to ram Opportunity down the throat of anyone who dared say to me: It’s a wonderful opportunity. I wanted them to choke on each letter, unable to breath as the words clogged their throat and they ultimately died a long, slow, excruciating Opportunistic death.

An employee is wooed with Opportunity to make him or her do something that they usually wouldn’t, like a job, a task, an activity or even a move to a different location. Sometimes actions that are distinctly unethical occur because of Opportunity. Personal preferences and integrity are sacrificed on the alter of Opportunity, with the vague hope that the God of Jobs (and not the Steve kind) will smile and annoint the sacrificee with a windfall.

I must admit, that in my eight years in the South Australian Public Service, I initially bought into the idea of Opportunity. I wanted to believe it was true. I wanted to believe that I was worthy of all Opportunities that were promised to me. That I was good enough, smart enough, me enough.

I wasn’t. In that environment—the South Australian Public Service—I realised that Opportunity only called on the compliant and the malleable. The easily manipulated. And controlled. And the ambitious at any cost. Generally speaking, of course.

I was not that person, nor ever would be.

Towards what would inevitably became the end of this period of my life, I muttered Fuck This Shit to anyone who listened, and it became my daily mantra.

And I wanted to ram Opportunity down the throat of anyone who dared say to me: It’s a wonderful opportunity. I wanted them to choke on each letter, unable to breath as the words clogged their throat and they ultimately died a long, slow, excruciating Opportunistic death.

Since I started work some 40 years ago (fuck! Has it been that long?) I can safely say that I can count on one hand the number of Opportunities—real opportunities—that came my way.

Opportunity, where I’m from, is a mirage, an illusion, a fairy tale.

At least, I that was what I thought before I came to Vietnam. Vietnam has changed how I view Opportunity, and it’s for the better.

And that’s the subject of my next essay.


Photo via Visualhunt.com.

Crush: extinction

This is the 6th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

Dying. Dead. Buried.

Everything about him that I respected, admired, enjoyed. Gone.

Killed by a single gesture that extinguished all others that preceded it.

The way he made me feel was changed irreparably, irrevocably by that one action.

A flinch. A shrug.

A two second movement away.

Two seconds that communicated more than the previous two months.

Two seconds that said, you are not someone I want to be close to.

Two seconds that said, I am only with you because I have to be. You serve a purpose.

Two seconds that said it was all a pretense, a grand ruse.

Two seconds that said I had been used.

***

We would chit-chat about life, the universe: conversations deep and warm about how happy we were to know each other. How blessed we were to find each other in all the billions of people on Earth. Soulmates.

A coincidence orchestrated by the universe in which we were complicit co-conspirators.

We were friends planning a way to change the world.

One of my favourite things to do.

It was something that neatly unfolded over the passage of conversations, revealing a need, want, desire to do good.

It was exciting. Interesting. Encompassing.

We were wrapped in English, using my beloved language as a way to make things better.

Improve the lives of others.

And enriching our own lives in the process.

Or so I thought.

He asked me to help him with a project. He needed my English.

I loved being in his company. Of course, and without question, I was happy to oblige.

He suggested payment.

I suggested a meal.

He would pick me up from my apartment on his motorcycle, texting or calling me when he’d arrive.

He refused to come up, saying his girlfriend wouldn’t like it.

I was deliciously flattered, because it hinted at what could be, were circumstances different.

We would eat then go to class. Or go to class then eat.

He made sure my vegetarianish requirements were taken care of first.

I interpreted his actions as kindness and caring.

And then we would drive around the lake, the night air cool and damp with humidity, orange and blue and red and green lights reflected and dancing on the still water.

We would chit-chat about life, the universe: conversations deep and warm about how happy we were to know each other. How blessed we were to find each other in all the billions of people on Earth.

Soulmates.

A coincidence orchestrated by the universe in which we were complicit co-conspirators.

***

The very last time we talked, was like any other.

I hopped on the back of his motorcycle after class and we took off in the drizzling rain.

It was cold, and I moved closer to him, seeking comfort from the warm body in front of me.

Weeks before he had admonished me for sitting too close. His girlfriend wouldn’t like it, he said.

I laughed, but complied. I admired his loyalty, his restraint, but resented the distance he engineered between us because it was unnecessary.

Despite my initial crush, I would not overstep. The Italian taught me caution.

But the truth is: I was bored with the absent girlfriend who conveniently appeared in moments that could best be described as bordering on intimate.

Like on the back of his motorcycle.

For the last time, I talked to him over the noise of the engine.

I touched his shoulder lightly to make a point.

Underneath my hand, he flinched and moved his shoulder forward, shrugging me away.

A scolding without words, but I had received the message loud and clear.

And the message was: that despite what he said and how he behaved, he found me distasteful.

I said nothing for the rest of the journey.

No words could breach the chasm that had opened up between us.

I got off the bike, and the hug that indicated the end of our  journey, always instigated by him, wasn’t forthcoming.

I entered my apartment, not looking back.

See ya, I said.

Our journey had ended.

Our friendship was over.

Forever’s time was up.

***

Last word

Over the course of the next few days, we messaged. Or rather, he messaged me. It was clear that he knew exactly what he had done and the exact moment he did it in. He asked me to change, to be not so “friendly”. In other words, to not be me. I said that was impossible, and I could not be friends with someone who wanted to cherry pick my qualities as and when and if it suited him. I said our contact would be limited to work situations. He said he still wanted to be friends, to continue “meeting up”. I said impossible. How could that not be awkward? I avoid him now, and barely speak. When I think about the three months we were “bestie friends”, all I remember is that two second flinch, and how he ultimately made me feel. Ugly, unloveable, unworthy. Ain’t no one got time for that. Least of all me


Photo credit: josef.stuefer via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Crush: evolution

This is the 5th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!  

Four weeks.

Give or take a day or two.

That’s how long it took.

Takes.

For my crush to run its course.

But my crush didn’t just stop.

It didn’t run face first into a firmly closed door, and bloody and smash its nose. I didn’t get a firm “thanks, but no thanks”. I didn’t confess my feelings only to have them stomped on and squished like an unwelcome bug in a pristine house.

There was none of that.

There was talk of a straying girlfriend who was studying abroad, and my heart jumped in protest until the lure of the maybe that—butterfly-light—floated in my general direction. Potentially possible, because we—my crush and I—each kept seeking the company of the other, drawn by a magnetic meant to be that was bigger than both of us.

We are two some kind of wonderful people who have been brought together by time and circumstances to a place of caring and respect and admiration and humour. Of shared thoughts and feelings about how the world is, and how it should be.

Possibility and potential was eventually replaced by realism.

And the girlfriend who refused to disappear.

And a marriage that was being planned.

And realism that forced my crush to transform.

My crush evolved.

Changed.

Into something more. Something else.

Something… transcendent. Long lived. And lovely. Gentle. Kind.

My crush is now my friend.

A bestie friend (his words). And Lord knows, I don’t have too many of those.

Don’t get me wrong: I have lovely friends. Lots of them. Friends I have collected and kept over the years. Friends who are dear to me and who have seen me prevail in times of sadness and joy and frustration and grief and anger.

But a bestie friend? Someone I know I could call if I were arrested and needed to be bailed out of a Vietnamese prison, however unlikely? A friend who senses when I am not me and takes me out for sticky rice and hot chocolate even though he lives miles away and it’s after work and he’s tired and he just wants to go home? A friend who—merely by being in his company—makes me feel a whole lot better and a whole lot nicer and a whole lot more loveable? A friend I can talk to about anything and—regardless of the language and cultural obstacles that sometimes need to be scaled and traversed—who seeks to understand me. Who sees me.

That is so much better than the imperfection of sex, and so much better than the emotional roller coaster of romantic love, and so much better than the selfishness of relationships.

It’s cleaner and nicer because it’s about enjoyment rather than gratification. There is intimacy without complication.

I can talk without awkwardness or expectation or second guessing.

Because we just are.

We are two some kind of wonderful people who have been brought together by time and circumstances to a place of caring and respect and admiration and humour. Of shared thoughts and feelings about how the world is, and how it should be. A meeting of minds and hearts, with a hat tip to the universe that conspired to bring us together.

I have a wonderful friend.

And that friend is forever.


Photo via Visualhunt.com.

An open letter to government workers everywhere (but especially in America)

This is the 4th essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice! 

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. ~ Edmund Burke

Dear government workers everywhere (but especially in America),

You have an important job to do. And it is more important than ever.

Your job is to speak up and out about things that happen in the government organisations in which you work that you know are not right, or are criminal, or even downright psychopathic.

I know that you worry about what will happen to you personally and professionally if you speak up and out. You have a mortgage, maybe two. You are pregnant, or thinking about starting a family. You have kids in a private school, or in college. You have worked hard to be where you are in your career.

I know you are scared.

But the safety of the entire world depends on you being heard—your collective voices being heard.

I know how hard this is. I’ve been there.

I know that most of your leaders (and I use that term loosely) will try to silence you through various means and nefarious ways: they will disrespect and dismiss your views, gaslight you, ostracise and bully you, demote you and perhaps even try to fire you. They will do this because they have their own fears, and you frighten them. You will feel like you are nuts because you don’t subscribe to the corporate propaganda that is being fed to you.

Trust me on this: you are not nuts. You are completely sane.

There are three human foibles that stop others speaking up and out, and they happen all the time in government organisations. I am telling you about them here so you are aware of what is happening. It happened in Nazi Germany.

I know that most of your leaders (and I use that term loosely) will try to silence you through various means and nefarious ways: they will disrespect and dismiss your views, gaslight you, ostracise and bully you, demote you and perhaps even try to fire you. They will do this because they have their own fears, and you frighten them. You will feel like you are nuts because you don’t subscribe to the corporate propaganda that is being fed to you.

Firstly, deference to people in authority. If humans are told (ordered) to do something by a person in authority, nine times out of ten they will, because personal responsibility for the act can be shifted to the person doing the ordering. If a leader orders website content to be deleted or tweets to cease or a wall to be built, minions will carry out these orders because it’s not them personally doing the ordering it, it’s someone else. And they see what happens to people who don’t do as they are told…

Secondly, roles. If a person assumes a powerful role, irrespective of whether they are qualified to take on that role, people will defer to that person. Power is invisible and completely made up, but unfortunately, it’s human nature to prefer a hierarchy—it stops us having to think too much. This, more than any other time in recent history, is a time when we should be thinking. And questioning. And critiquing…

Thirdly, groupthink. If humans are in a social situation, for example, a work meeting, it is almost impossible for an individual to go against the prevailing or dominant view. There is immense pressure to conform to the group, irrespective of how dangerous conformity is. Saying,  I don’t think that’s a good idea, when everyone else appears to think it is can be social apartheid. Humans are social animals and hate not belonging and will agree with an idea even if it’s the most stupid and dangerous idea in the world.

Fourthly, increments. No big thing happens overnight. Things happen in small, incremental steps. One small thing, then another, then another, until we realise that our way of life—and our freedom—has been fundamentally altered. We don’t know how it happened, because we haven’t been paying attention or can’t be bothered taking action or we’re worried about what will become of us if we challenge the status quo, even if we don’t agree with it.

But know this: you are not alone. And you have more power than you think.

The whole world is behind you, cheering you on. We need heroes and heroines, now at this time more than any other.

We need people to say: that’s not right or that’s unlawful or I’m not doing that or are you insane? or even have we totally forgotten what happened in Nazi Germany?

We need good people in government organisations to stand together to say they these things.

We need you to say these things.

And we need you to say them now, before it’s too late.

Love,

Me Xx

PS – You are definitely not alone. Good people are speaking up and out.