Short personal story: mary ann oxendale
Somewhat Less than Normal: Notes on Actually Coming Home
At the beginning of December, I left Saigon after just over four years in Vietnam.
Husband and child in tow, I landed first at my parents’ house, then in a tiny studio flat on the campus of my surprise new university job. Four months later, we are in the forest, in the house I grew up in, the house my parents built when I was a toddler.
After 25 or so years of living in vast, sprawling cities, far, far away- as far away as my impulses to dive into the unknown and unexpected could take me– I have landed with a thud back into the same rural, spartan architectural framework I walked away from at 17.
Here are a few things that we don’t have out there, in the woods at the bottom of the river valley, half an hour from the nearest town, an hour from my job:
cell phone reception
shops, cafes or amenities
traffic of any sort
Here are a few of the things we do have:
bears, deer, elk, cougars
a perverse density of very tall trees, mostly fir or similar
a loud nightly chorus of frogs
a river accessible from several directions
some neighbours, scattered, many with big pickup trucks
About a year and a half ago, when we first started putting together plans to leave Saigon, we coined the term WWLIC (pronounced wihwillik)- When We Live in Canada. It was shorthand for all of the things we wanted to be, to do, to make, to imagine, to fathom— as soon as we could get out of Saigon, out of the mad traffic, out of the never-ending Masters’ degree, out of the crowded, moneyed, ambitious Phu My Hung, the affluent Asian expat neighbourhood in south Saigon, where we had spent the past three years dodging SUVs and teaching largely pleasant but directionless rich kids.
We used the term with increasing frequency and urgency.
I mentally compiled lists detailing how I would become a better, more creative person WWLIC
I would learn how to make fancy macarons (grinding my own almond flour! making filling from my garden’s own fruit!), run 10k regularly, learn another language (not under duress), grow heirloom chilies and tomatoes and tomatillos and brew up amazing hot sauces (to sell in the Saturday morning market alongside the sprout and soap people), walk and cycle everywhere.
There were intimations of lavender fields and honey bees.
I would sleep and wake at reasonable times.
I would be calm and patient and rested, reaching out to long lost friends and family.
There would be dinner parties and cafe dates.
I would read novels again. Proper paper book novels. Smart novels.
I would stop feeling exhausted by unmotivated students or ridiculous drivers.
I would recognize and appreciate the amazingness of a well-regulated social system and formal driver training.
WWLIC I would become my idealized better self that had been put on hold for decades— because I was fully convinced that it was this, that, or the other in Vietnam or China or Turkey or wherever that had limited my potential as a grown up person.
It was the traffic, the students, the one-year work contracts and precarious work permits, the language barriers, the cultural differences, the impermanence of it all. I was a temporary person for my entire adulthood and had fully absorbed the implications of this, skidding over the surface, looking around and thinking, oh, gosh, when I settle down, I will learn to do this or that, I will invest in this, commit to that.
Come the realization of WWLIC, I’m still in that temporary mindset, categorizing life by school terms, by the year, by the contract. I see ends and deadlines where I should see an expanse of time, of possibility. I secretly doubt the notions of permanence and stability.
Everyone warns you about reverse culture shock when you return home after a reasonable chunk of time living away. I’m not experiencing reverse culture shock. Canada is pretty much as I left it twenty five years ago, and that’s fine. I remember how to live here, how to speak here. I remember the limitations, the pleasures, the privileges, the frustrations.
The things that annoy me now are the things that annoyed me in the countries I used to live in, but I had dismissed them as cultural quirks exacerbated by culture shock or the lingering remnants of cultural discord that I had yet to resolve. I’m still annoyed by traffic, for example. Instead of 15 cortisol-rich minutes on a scooter through Saigon traffic, I now drive an hour to work, quietly cursing tailgaters and aggressive guys in oversized trucks, full-beams blinding me at 6:30am. Apparently driving in general bothers me, not just the chaotic, indifferent rivers of vehicles in Vietnam or the aggressive Shanghai taxi drivers or the bold, brash Turkish ones.
As the months back home increase in number, however, I’m increasingly surprised by my own actions, reactions and interactions. It’s no longer about my outsider status in a country that I temporarily reside in. I genuinely have no more excuses for not doing all of those bettering ideas that had been brainstormed and carefully collated in Saigon.
Four months in, I’m still not sure how to talk about coming home.