One Year in Vietnam — Part II: Picking Up the Pieces

CONTEXT: I’m a Vietnamese who lived in America for almost eight years, first for school, then for professional career. Last year, I returned home. This is my recollection of that journey.

Read Part I here: https://medium.com/@longpham91/one-year-in-vietnam-part-i-the-lost-soul-f9efde20ad2a


An aerial silk dancer performing her rituals. Taken @Envy Club, HCMC, Vietnam. New Year’s Eve, 2017.
“How easy it was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives we imagined.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘Americanah’

Utterly lost, I reached back into my American identity looking for refuge and solace.

I held on to my subscription memberships (Spotify, Netflix…), to my American address, driving license, bank accounts, and so on. I flashed that fancy Chase Sapphire card everywhere I went. I used my US driving license instead of my Vietnamese national ID to get into places. I sought out American expats to hang out with, positioning myself among them, as one of the American folks living far away from home.

I bragged about my time in America a lot, about things I’ve achieved, people I’ve met, places I’ve been, girls I’ve dated, and so on. I boasted about that startup that I had left America and come back to build. I exaggerated constantly about my achievements, my capabilities, and pretty much my American-ness. I wore that American badge with sincere sense of pride and prejudice.

Then time passed. As weeks flew by, the bubble began to crack, and reality kicked in, hard. I was dipping into my savings, that I had intended to use for something more meaningful. I moved into the family house with my sister and my aunt, squadding a 15-meter-squared bedroom, with nothing more than a bed, a desk, and a wardrobe. I started relying on my family’s money and support nest.

I wandered the cities for days, rotting in coffee shops doing God-knows-what. I started using Tinder again, looking for girls eager to be flashed by the whole American thing. I went out all the time, looking to score all sorts of deals with people that I normally wouldn’t even come close to, left alone hanging out with as buddies. I was losing myself, worse than ever.

Dontoburi, Osaka. 2016. Created with Prisma.
“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.” — Jack Kerouac

Then, as fate would have it, I went to Japan. I stayed there for three weeks, wandering around the country: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, etc. I met a lot of new friends, those who were also lost and trying to find themselves again. There was the Californian fresh college graduate who was running away from an abusive family; the Australian sous-chef who fled Melbourne wanting to become the next Gordon Ramsey; the English couple lamenting Brexit as they made their way through Asia, vowing not to return to the UK; the Canadian mountie escaping his own obsession after almost fatally injuring a teenager. There I was, the Vietnamese returnee from America, completely void of an identity, and I fell right in place.

As my Japan journey drew near its end, though, the cloud began to lift. All those people I met, those places I went, those experiences I had, made me realize one thing: Maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t matter whether I can find my identity or not. I can be American and Vietnamese, all in one. I began to reclaim my sanity and dignity. Once again, traveling saved me.

I returned to Vietnam, my mind clearer than ever.

Hard Rock Cafe, HCMC, Vietnam. January 2017.
“Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” — Isaac Newton

On the personal level, I stopped going to expat meetups, hanging out with the wrong crowds, and pushing myself back into the right path. I started training again, eating healthier, and picking up community events that I could volunteer and meet more Vietnamese people, like teaching English for children and adults.

I also made peace with my family. When I left many years ago, I was madly infuriated with everyone and everything at home. I cursed the limitations of the family life, blaming it for hindering my full potential and desire to conquer the world. Yet, when I came back, they still greeted me with such love and compassion. My family provided me with a nest much needed for me to slowly put myself together. They supported me emotionally and financially during my lost phase, without a single word of lamentation. For that, I owed them.

I started hanging out with my family more, over dinners, talks, drinks (or “nhau” as we Vietnamese would call it). My family was just as nosy and poky as ever, especially when it came to my personal life. However, this time, I already knew that everything they did and talked about resulted from love, and it became so much easier to swallow and get along with.

On the professional level, I proactively threw myself out there, hosting and moderating events within the startup community. Through those events, I reconnected with a whole lot of old friends, as well as making plenty of remarkable new friends. Afterwards, I frequently joined my Vietnamese friends, old and new, in their hangouts, lunches, dinners, drinks; listened to their life stories, their daily struggles, and their hopes and dreams for a better future. I shared their frustrations, their aspirations, their optimisms for our country, our society, and our generation.

Before I could fully grasp the reality, I already slowly learned to embrace my Vietnamese-ness again.

Lunar New Year dinner with the family. Feb 2017. Bien Hoa, Vietnam.

Coming Up: Part III: Moving On.