home abroad

It has been almost six months since I left the United States, in search of…well, I suppose I’m still not really sure. It is strange because, after this long…160 days, 4,000 some odd hours…I cannot pinpoint the moment when this trip ceased to feel like vacation and started to feel like my Life. Somewhere between the thousands of miles clocked on winding roads, the days spent meandering around unknown and unpaved streets, and the frustrations of language barriers, unsuccessful bartering, and ill-equipped maps, the foreign has become familiar, and Asia has become my second home.

I am, at my very core, a human that thrives on routine and familiarity; I have always loved vacation, but am also well acquainted with the end-of-trip feeling of excitement at the prospect of returning home. Prior to leaving, I wondered how, as such a homebody, I would fair when putting myself far outside this comfort zone — when I wouldn’t know what day or month or perhaps even what year I would return. I was terrified that I would spend so many days in Asia homesick; wasting my precious opportunity here on wishing to be elsewhere. And while these thoughts are sometimes present, they often sit quietly upon my mental back burner…not completely eradicated but not often fully realized.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that I thought I would be ready and willing to go home at any given point on my adventure. I thought I loved home enough that it would trump anything else I experienced or felt while living here. But six months in, I am writing this and the thought of leaving Asia is accompanied by serious anxiety. I am realizing how much this continent, these countries, and this adventure has already become a deeply entrenched and meaningful part of myself and my life.

My dad was here visiting (!!!) , and said seeing me here feels the same as visiting me in Portland — I suppose I had not fully realized how comfortable and natural living here had become until his confirmation. There is no other place I can imagine myself being and no other thing I can imagine myself doing at this point in time. And to be honest, that scares the literal shit out of me. This is the first time in my life I have felt so detached from my home — in many ways, I really feel like an adult; penning my own story and sense of identity, completely responsible for my choices. Perhaps this is merely a byproduct of my age, and being fresh out of college, but it is a strange sensation to be experiencing half way across the world.

I suppose that pieces of ourselves can be found (and forged) all over the world — maybe all “foreign” places are just a home waiting to be discovered and realized…waiting for us to arrive and make ourselves comfortable, waiting to teach us something, waiting to help us grow and reflect (and become adults). Humans are so much more adaptable than we often realize — both physically and mentally. For anyone reading this who doesn’t believe they have the balls to move abroad: you undoubtedly do. Some days are uncomfortable and some months feel more foreign than others, but you can find comfort and peace in such unfamiliar places. For now, Vietnam feels like home. And I, of all people, never would’ve expected that.

If I know anything, it is that time will inevitably pass — one day, I will be sitting on a plane back to America, unable to believe that my adventure to Asia is over. The mere thought of it makes me emotional — the excitement of returning home, and the deep loss of leaving (my new) home behind. I never expected to develop a life here, and I feel torn between these two vastly different places. It’s strange how travel can take what feels like a permanent piece of our selves and deposit it somewhere far away. What does it really mean to be home?

laurenhayden8:

First few days in Vietnam have been so much fun! It’s been good to be back with my sister especially. These pictures were from probably my favorite meal so far, breakfast at Hanoi Social Club. It is a bit more Western influenced but the Vietnamese eat soup for breakfast, and when it is hot as hell soup doesn’t sound too appetizing haha. The coffee here is so addicting too.

SO HAPPY MY SISTER IS HERE!

emotional musings on my day off

Today is my first day off in five days. I worked 10am-7pm almost every day this week. My job is rewarding and amazing and challenging, and ultimately just exhausting; for an introvert like me, having to speak constantly and to be in charge of humans all day leaves me blissfully drained. Yet I’m grateful for my inability to zone out at work; I’m grateful that teaching, by its very nature, forces me to always be present.

This morning I did my usual grocery run – winding through a maze of alleys near my house, I end up at the “market,” which is effectively just a street full of Vietnamese men and women selling various goods. There are cages squished full of live chickens and ducks; there are motorbikes squeezing and weaving through streets that are hardly wide enough to walk through; there is the aromatic fragrance of fruits both identifiable and not; there are large metal tins overflowing with water as confused fish swim their last moments in shallow circles; there is yelling and haggling and morning conversations that I don’t understand, but am quite certain I’ve heard numerous times before in many different languages.

I make my usual stops – the vegetable lady, who I can all but guarantee has the best selection on the street, from whom I pick up two carrots, a bell pepper, a broccoli, two tomatoes, two cucumbers and some mushrooms. The avocado lady, with whom I’ve developed a silent friendship as we pick up and squeeze various avocadoes in her woven basket, each trying to find the best one. The pineapple lady, who mesmerizes me with her precise and impeccable cutting skills – as she shaves and cuts three, I look to the flower lady next to her, who has pieced together a bouquet of baby pink roses for me. As I admire her wrapping the flowers in newspaper and bamboo twine, I catch a glimpse of the elderly woman next to her doting a sharp knife. I see the duck in front of her, placed upside down inside a wide funnel – his head twists painfully at the bottom of the funnel, and I see the blood dripping down his white feathers. Unable to look away, I watch her make small deliberate cuts and reach her fingers inside the live ducks neck. I grab my flowers, pay for my pineapples, and hurry back home, unable, even now, to get that image out of mind. I spent less than $4 there.

I catch bus #32 downtown – I can pretty much assure that I am the only white person in all of Hanoi who has a bus pass, so you can imagine how Vietnamese people react every single time I take the bus. I feel like I have to physically peel their eyes off of me – my weapon of choice being the ultimate bitch face. 10 minutes later I get off on Dien Bien Phu and feel a few errant raindrops on my arms. Hanoi has the kind of rain that doesn’t fuck around – as soon as the sprinkling begins, you have about two minutes to get inside before you’re caught in a downpour. I race down the street to Joma, a French bakery inside a cozy villa, order a latte and a $0.75 cent chocolate crossaint (half off yesterdays pastries!), and settle on a leather bench in front of a sprawling four-pane window. As I predicted, in true Hanoian fashion, raindrops begin to batter the window with a seemingly angry force as the now-shiny leaves on the tree outside try to both hang on and drink up.

As I write this, I’m listening to Justin Vernon’s unplugged version of Beth / Rest, stripped down to just the vocals and piano, but every few seconds I hear the boom of thunder over my music. I think about my morning, I think about my week, I think about rain which somehow just inevitably makes humans nostalgic and I think about comfort – the comfort of being inside, of being safe from this storm, but also the comfort of truly feeling at home thousands of miles away from where I’m from.

I can see my to-do list on the table, numbered carefully from 1-34, consisting of items ranging from grading to groceries, to the names of people I’ve been meaning to read about to reminders to set flight alerts for Malaysia. I think about all the times, again and again, that I have let this list control me – how often I have let it dictate my life. Because ultimately it’s not about the list – it’s about the desire to do things, to be productive, to be my best self.

But that means it’s also inevitably about self-criticism, it’s about distraction and pressure and guilt when not everything is crossed off. It’s about getting so caught up in being good at life, and in the benign details like forgetting rice at the grocery store, that I forget about the bigger picture – I forget that I live and work in a foreign country, that I’m alone and independent and free and doing something that two years ago I never thought I was strong enough to do. I forget to stop and realize that I saw an old woman cutting the neck off a duck in an alleyway in Hanoi, Vietnam, where I buy produce from beautiful women who I bond with despite being unable to speak a single word to each other, and how many people can say that?! I forget to put away the list and drink this beautiful and strong soy latte and just fucking enjoy it.

I think about being 22. I think about people telling me they’re jealous of my adventure, about people telling me my life is so exciting, about people telling me I’m brave. And I think about how and why it is so hard to admit these things to myself, how hard it is to accept them as true, to give myself credit when I deserve it.

So consider this a sentimental, rain and falsetto-induced open apology to myself — because I’m sorry for all the times I was too critical to say I’m PROUD of myself – of where I am and where I’ve been and where I’m going. I’m living and creating an adventure to be jealous of, my life is so exciting, and I am brave. I’m 22 and buying pineapples out of bamboo baskets from wrinkled, smiling, faces and paying for them in Vietnamese Dong. I owe it to myself to stop and remember that I am making the life I’ve always dreamed of. I am exactly where I am meant to, and want to, be.