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Redefining Normal in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam
By Sherry Ott | On 24 Feb, 2014
(A Day in the Life of an English Teacher)
It has only taken three short months for my definition of ‘normal’ to change. Once you live in a foreign culture for a while, you adapt to their definition of normal in order to get by and make it through each day. As I go through a typical day living and working in Ho Chi Minh City, I often wonder what my friends in the US would think – would they think this was normal? I’ll let you decide.
I am woken up by the doorbell. It is my cleaning lady. The cleaning lady smiles at me, leaves her shoes outside my door, and comes in and cleans the whole apartment for the next three hours. She not only cleans, but she also does my ironing that’s hanging on the top floor of the apartment. All of this is done for the grand total of $6. After three months in Vietnam, this seems like a totally normal price to me. Never mind that I used to pay $60 for my cleaning lady in NYC and there was no sign of an iron being picked up.
As I putter around getting my breakfast, I notice a stream of ants in my kitchen. Back in NYC I would have panicked and called my “super.” But in my Vietnam life, I remain calm as I knew these annoying critters would find me in this tropical environment. There is no reason to panic; I am prepared for the ants. Every piece of food I have is in its own little piece of plastic armor: a zip lock bag. I take my cereal out of the box and immediately put it in a zip-lock, my tea bags are zip-locked, my crackers are zip-locked, and my pasta is zip-locked. So, why the hell are these ants in my kitchen?
I motion to my cleaning lady and point to the trail of ants. I don’t need to speak Vietnamese to communicate this message. We watch them march up into the cupboards and around the secure zip-lock bags. My cleaning lady speaks no English, but she assesses the ant situation and mimes the action for a spray can and makes the ‘Psssttttttt’ noise, pointing towards the ant army. Apparently there is an international sound for bug spray. We have a whole conversation without saying a single word.
I continue to go through my morning routine and lather up with mosquito repellent as if it’s Victoria’s Secret lotion. I also spend the morning working on my ‘other’ jobs – writing and website consulting.
It’s about lunch time, so I dodge the motorbikes driving on the street and walk over to meet my personal motorbike taxi driver, Nam. We speed off to the post office where I pick up a package that was mailed to me at my school. I go inside, and try to read the signs for about 10 minutes – however I still don’t understand where I am supposed to go. I proceeded to wait for 40 minutes in a line. I finally get to the window and give them my claim slip and passport number and a post office employee goes out back and brings me a CD-sized envelope. All of this time spent waiting for an envelope — why couldn’t it have just been delivered to my apartment? My normal life in Vietnam is a constant test of my patience – the key to survival here.
Nam has been waiting for me the whole time at no extra charge. I get back on the motorbike taxi and he takes me to school to teach my elementary students.
I am teaching a lesson reviewing the past simple tense using the song Yesterday by the Beatles to help them understand the concept. After about five times of listening to the song, they are able to put the lyrics in order and we all sing the song for the fifth time. I hate karaoke, and yet I find myself belting out “Yesterday” in the name of learning. What has happened to me?
Nam picks me up after work and we head back to my apartment. While sitting at a busy traffic light, inhaling petrol fumes he asks me in broken English, “You drive motorbike? I teach you.”
“Yes, I do want to learn how to drive myself, but I’m scared!” I answer in excitement.
He says, “Easy, I teach you in one hour.”
With this last statement he starts to pull over to the side and slow down. I realized he means “learn NOW,” not “learn in general.”
“Oh, no, no, no – I cannot learn tonight! There is too much traffic and I don’t think I’m ready!” I say nervously.
Nam seems to understand my sheer terror at the thought of learning to drive a motorbike during rush hour and so he speeds up again and heads towards my apartment. I wonder if Nam understands that if he taught me how to drive, he would have one less job. However, I love his ‘just do it’ attitude, so when he drops me off at the little mini-mart across the street from my apartment, I say, “I can go on Saturday morning and try to learn.”
Nam seems very excited about this, and we make a “driving lesson date.” God help me.
At the mini-mart, I stand in the aisle looking at bug spray for about 15 minutes. As usual, I am shopping by pictures. Everything is written in Vietnamese on the can, but I recognize the pictures of ants and bugs. I decide to go with the Vietnamese brand instead of Raid, mainly because it is a quarter of the price. Plus, it makes me laugh. The one piece of English on the can reads “kills most pets.” If it kills most pets, surely it will kill my ants. I also pick up a jar of pasta sauce and head back across the street to my apartment. I walk past the lovely ladies who work at the brothel in my alley and smile nicely while saying “xin chao“ (hello). I love my neighborhood.
I spray for ants and watch old MTV videos from the 80’s on TV while my pasta cooks. Since Vietnamese apartments don’t seem to come with forks, I eat my pasta and sauce with chop sticks while watching Pat Benatar. Finally, I put the padlock on my door and go to bed.
Just another “normal” day in my life in Vietnam.
Sherry is a long-term traveler, blogger, and photographer who did her CELTA at Teaching House, got a job teaching in Vietnam, and hasn’t stopped moving since. She writes about her around-the-world adventures on Ott’s World and is a co-founder of Meet, Plan, Go!, a website and travel event teaching people how to take their own traveling career break or sabbatical.
Latest posts by Sherry Ott (see all)
- Challenges of a Middle Aged TEFL Teacher - February 29, 2016
- Missing the Old, Embracing the New: A Food Adventure - January 18, 2015
- Overcoming Fear: Driving a Motorbike in Vietnam - October 2, 2014