Along the path less taken

Basket boat
A bamboo basket tour, Thu Bon River

By Erika Braeger '12

 

            I have spent nearly the past two years living as an expatriate in Asia.

 

            Even when I write this, I am still in disbelief that this is my reality. I always dreamed of living abroad, but as I got older, it became something I tucked into the back of my mind.

 

            I think society pushes us to believe that the path in life is university, followed by career, marriage and home ownership with kids somewhere in between. But I had trouble subscribing to this formula. I believe my educational experience at Pitt-Bradford played a large role in my rebellion.

 

            I watched my other classmates take internships, move across the country and trek the road less traveled after graduation. I went to Backpack to Briefcase to perfect my resume

 

and network because I felt the norm was worth a go, but one of the speakers there said something that has become a personal mantra: “Spend your money on experiences, not things.” I never forgot it.

 

            After graduation I completed the Disney College Program by recommendation from another Pitt-Bradford alumna, which I loved. I was immersed in the Latin culture of Orlando, Fla., and constantly met people from all over the world. I came home and felt extremely bored. I thought back to “spending on experiences.” I took weekend trips, went to concerts and sought out various cultural events. I was still very bored, and my life felt like a broken record.

 

            My dream of living abroad resurfaced. But what recent graduate is financially able to go on an indefinite holiday? Working abroad was the answer, and I quickly had a teaching offer in Shenzhen, China. I was excited, and honestly quite nervous. I literally had no idea what to expect or what adventures were coming my way.

 

            When I landed in China, I did not know a word of Mandarin. After about five minutes, I was kicking myself for not studying basic phrases before coming. Many of my friends and family would ask, “You don't speak Chinese. How do you do anything?” The answer is a series of gestures, pre-practiced phrases and my translator app. It always felt like small victories when I could get my point across without words.

 

            I did not experience any horrific culture shock per se, but culturally some things that were rather annoying. I discovered that children in Asia learn by rote. I quickly realized that I needed to phrase things like a textbook would and to avoid abstract questions.

 

            There were also expressions that I believe were directly translated out of their vernacular, such as “wait ten minutes.” People often said this to me in situations in which I felt I did not have a moment to spare. Things I felt were important - such as class cancellations and events - I was told about at the last minute. I learned that maybe is a strong but polite word to make a request.

 

            I was warned of the health hazards of drinking cold water, so anytime I was served water, it was boiling hot. During a tropical summer, hot water was the last thing I wanted to drink!

 

            In Asia it is rude to walk into someone's home with your street shoes. When I went to friends' houses, I was given a pair of plastic slippers. Some of my local teacher friends even had them in the office. But I've adapted; it is an essential part of living abroad in another culture. Now, when someone tells me to wait ten minutes, I relax, I say maybe to make polite but urgent requests and I have a pair of plastic slippers in my house.

 

            During the Chinese New Year holiday, I had a whole month off. Such long holidays are unheard of in Western work environments, which, for me, is another reason not to leave Asia. I backpacked down from Bangkok to the islands in Thailand where I took cooking classes, spent a week at a yoga retreat and enjoyed lots of time in the sun.

 

            Back in China, I was invited to go to my friend's Chinese New Year celebration in Tianjin. We had a huge dinner, followed by endless dumplings and watched a cheesy countdown program on TV. Afterward we lit fireworks in the street. In my western mindset, it seemed like a hooligan thing to do, but there were so many Chinese doing the same, so my friends and I joined in.

 

            Next, I went to Harbin, China, for the Ice Festival. I have never seen such large and colorful structures. They were made of ice. As fantastic as this month-long holiday was, I felt like I had seen what I wanted to see in China, and it was time to try teaching in a new country.

 

            A close friend told me that people only leave if they don't like teaching or Asia. I liked both, but I wanted more. My friend was working in Saigon, Vietnam, at the time, and she loved it. I quickly had an offer in Hanoi, Vietnam, the capital, and have been happily living here since August with no plans to leave.

 

            Hanoi is lovely. It has exactly what I want in a home-away-from-home. There is an excellent network of expats who share similar interests. There are lots of trees and lakes and, thanks to the French influence, a never-ending supply of cute local coffee shops with decadent pastries. I overcame my fear of motorbikes, and, if you get a moment, Google “Hanoi traffic.”

 

I actually enjoy driving in it. I live in a shared house with people from the United Kingdom and Luxembourg, and I drink more tea than ever. Less than a ten-minute walk from my front door is a market selling fresh fruit and vegetables, amazing street-food stalls and an arthouse cinema.

 

            Living abroad has brought with it a lot of hurdles, but the growth and changes I have experienced far outweigh the struggles. I have become very patient in situations that are stressful to most.

 

            Now, if someone tells me to “wait 10 minutes,” it is all the assurance I need. I used to be meticulous about planning ahead. Now I realize that anything can change at the last minute, so I've shed my A-type personality. I have tried new things that I wouldn't have done back home: I've hosted meditation/yoga club events, experienced the Eastern medicine “fire cupping” and ignored Western food safety standards by trying all the street food, no matter how dodgy it looks.

 

            My plan when I came to Asia initially was to just fulfill my dream of living abroad. I wanted to be fully submerged in the culture, something that is difficult to achieve when you are just traveling. But in my time here, I've discovered that I am very passionate about teaching. I don't think this could have been possible had I stayed in the states. Coming here was definitely a leap of faith, but I couldn't be happier with my decision to live as an expat in Vietnam.

 

Erika Braeger is a 2012 broadcast communications graduate. She has spent her time since graduation as an expat in Asia and doesn't regret it one bit.