Repatriating: Some Observations
I’m missing Hanoi like crazy. So much so, that when I see pictures, I get quite teary. I have flashbacks where I see myself walking to the supermarket, cycling to Keep Hanoi Clean, strolling to my Vietnamese lessons at Oriberry, chilling in my apartment and waiting for my Vietnammm order while rain pours down in sheets, taking a Grab to the Old Quarter, going out to eat a cheap and cheerful vegan buffet with dear friends. I miss the conversations, the convenience, the connections. I miss the many things to do. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful to be home in Australia. I am. And while I’m down at times, I’ve had no symptoms of the crippling anxiety that ate away at me in Vietnam.
I knew repatriating would be hard, but I didn’t know how hard it would be, and in what ways. The things I predicted would be difficult are, but not in the ways I thought.
1. Missed connections
One of the major things I loved about Hanoi was how easy it was to feel connected to the city and its people. There was a thriving and vibrant expat community that helped and supported each other. There was always lots to do, and whatever was on was super accessible and inexpensive. And it wasn’t just expats: the locals were always up for a chat and being friends with a foreigner. Hanoi, while a city of eight million people, felt more like a village and I loved that sense of belonging it fostered. I’d found my tribe.
It’s much harder to get connected and feel that same sense of belonging in Adelaide. It’s taken quite some time to find activities I want to do, and with people I want to do them with. I’ve joined an expat Facebook group which has regular coffee mornings and lunches, which has helped. I’ve found a choir. I’ve found a ‘stitch n bitch’ group. I’ve found a writers’ group. And mahjong. I’m taking Vietnamese classes once per week, as well as Skypeing with my tutor in Hanoi. It seems like I’m doing a lot, but I don’t have many friends, save for my sister who I don’t see often because she lives 200 kilometres away, and another dear friend who lives about 100 kilometres from me. And, sadly, my relationship with my daughter hasn’t improved. I rarely see her. Sadly, some days I don’t get out of bed, because there’s no point.
2. It’s not working
One thing I thought would be challenging coming home is finding work. And it turns out that this observation is both true and false. I landed a job almost as soon as I returned to Adelaide. But what should have been an interesting role with a national peak body was not what I thought it would be. It was all the things I hated in an organisation: chaotic, reactive, no systems. I left after around six weeks, feeling like a failure because I. Physically. Just. Couldn’t. I subsequently signed up to do a barista course, thinking that this would be a way into the exciting, flexible and interesting world of cafes. What I found, after doing the course and applying for work, was that cafes rarely hire anyone with less than two years’ experience. They didn’t say anything about that in the brochure.
Since then, I’ve applied for a gazillion marketing communication roles. And customer service roles. And temp roles. I’ve had a couple of interviews, but so far, nothing. Is it because I don’t want full-time work? Or I’m old? Or don’t have transport? Who knows. So I’ve swallowed my pride and applied for JobSeeker. And I’ve finally found a volunteering job in a cafe where I can work on my barista skills. In many ways, my expenses in Australia are considerably less than when I was in Hanoi, but I find that I’m worrying about work and money more than when I was in Vietnam, maybe because I’m looking down the barrel of the aged pension and I don’t have enough superannuation for a comfortable retirement, like most women my age.
3. An inconvenient truth
In Adelaide I don’t have a car, mainly because I wanted to replicate my life in Vietnam as much as I could. In Hanoi, not having a car wasn’t a big deal. Within a few hundred metres of my apartment in Tay Ho were supermarkets, bars, cafes, restaurants, cheap street food eats – even the gym and a pool. If I wanted or needed to go any further than two or three kilometres, and riding my bicycle wasn’t practical, I took a Grab motorcycle taxi or the public bus. Life in Adelaide is similar, but without the convenience – supermarkets and cafes are kilometre or so away, and bars and restaurants are at least two or three kilometres from my unit. Not exactly close, or convenient, so I ride my bicycle to the supermarket, or go when I am in the CBD. There’s no need for me to worry about going to a bar or restaurant because I have no one to go with, really, although I could do MeetUp outings if I wanted to. Even if I did have an active social life, I rarely go out at night.
Would my life improve if I had a car? Maybe, but the truth is I can pretty much get anywhere I want to using public transport, DiDi or hiring a car. A car doesn’t fix the inconvenient truth that Australia is not a convenient country in which to live, mainly because it’s so big. And it doesn’t fix the fact that finding my tribe has been difficult. Starting again, again, is not easy. I would argue that it’s even more difficult the second time around.
4. Street eats
A big part of living in Hanoi was discovering the food, language and culture – so enticingly different to Australia. I would often stroll to the bún cá place close to my apartment for an early and cheap lunch. I’d chat to the owner, and other customers in Vietnamese, while I waited for my bowl of steaming fish noodle soup. Sometimes, I’d splash out and have French toast with mango at Joma Bakery, or a falafel burger with crispy fries at Valhalla. Then there were the vegan buffets at Peace Vegan and Veggie Castle that were always delicious. Ma Xo, The Republic, Hanoi Taco Bar and Gon Veggies & Bites, Sawasadee were also firm favourites. And there’s nothing like a sinh tố bơ (avocado smoothie) or sinh tố xoài (mango smoothie) on West Lake after a cycle with friends. And an iced coconut coffee at Cong Coffee or nước mía đá (iced sugar cane juice) from my favourite street vendor when the Hanoi weather was hot, humid and horrid.
I have struggled to find good, cheap, authentic Vietnamese food in Adelaide. Yes, there are restaurants purporting to sell banh mi or bun bowls near me – convenience is a major factor because transport – but the dishes have been westernised and are not authentic, and the food is expensive. I did find a restaurant recently on Morphett Street – near the Central Market – that ticks all the boxes, and the owner is happy to chat to me in Vietnamese whenever I eat there, which is every couple of weeks. The flavours are exactly like Hanoi street food, and it makes me happy.
5. Bright spots
While repatriating has been harder and more psychologically taxing than I imagined, there are wonderful things about being back in Adelaide. I love being back in my unit with its dishwasher and washing machine and gas oven and garden. I love that I have a bath in my bathroom. I love that I can walk down to the river, which is near where I live, and be close to nature and breathe in gorgeous fresh air. I loved the lack of pollution. I love that banking, while frustrating, doesn’t make me break out in hives. I love how easy it is to shop and get everything I need in Woollies or Coles or IGA. I love that supermarkets are a magical fairyland where all my wishes come true. I love that I can get my Asian shopping fix at the Central Market and at my local produce market. I love that I don’t have to worry about immigration knocking on my door and demanding my papers, or being blacklisted and deported. I love that if I get sick, my expenses are covered by Medicare. I love seeing my sister. I love that I have two chickens digging in my garden. And I love that Bella my beloved cat is finally home with me.
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