The honeymoon is over…now for happily ever after

The rollercoaster of emotions teachers feel when they move to a new country is not only perfectly natural, it’s backed up by research. One international teacher explains how to ride it out

Sarah Cullen

Honeymoon

Eyes forward. Maintain a steady pace. Trust that the bikes will pass around you. Try not to breathe in the thick soup of fumes. Never go near the busses.

I recited the rules I had read about crossing the roads in Ho Chi Minh City under my breath as I made my way across a dual carriageway, alongside four of my new colleagues.

We all did our best to seem unflustered as we waded into the heaving sea of traffic that permanently flows through Vietnam’s biggest city, but when we reached the far side unscathed we were ecstatic. We even high-fived.

A happy start

We were firmly in the “Honeymoon” stage of Sverre Lysgaard’s Model of Cultural Adjustment, which plots the curve that expats experience as they adapt to a new culture.

It starts from the giddy height of ‘honeymoon’ (“yay! Everything is so new and different!”), with a sudden drop to ‘culture shock’ (“oh GOSH, everything is so new and different…”), followed by a gentle climb up to ‘adjustment’ and a final destination of ‘mastery’. The whole process can last more than two years.

It’s also known as the “Expat Rollercoaster”, and I genuinely believed it wouldn’t impact me.

Preparation won't save you

Being a teacher, I had revised for my move to Vietnam like it was a test. I had read endless blogs about expat life and compiled long lists of cafes and parks to visit. I had researched all the creature comforts difficult to find abroad and packed everything from bras to a “make your own halloumi” kit.

This wasn't new to me either- I had spent the majority of my childhood as an expat on a small island. I even moved abroad with the express intention of finding a challenge. I was so prepared. The Expat Rollercoaster still hit.

You don't know what you don't know

I quickly realised I had prepared for the culture of Vietnam, but not for the life of an expat. I hadn’t realised how small the social bubble can feel and in many ways, the life of brunches and manicures was far more alien to me than the local culture.

I was also blindsided by missing things I hadn’t even realised I liked - trashy magazines, cold misty mornings and supermarket sandwiches are all things I hadn’t given a second thought in the UK, but whose absence loomed large abroad.

Technology blurs the distance

In addition, technology has advanced a great deal since Lysgaard wrote his theory. Facetime and cheap mobile data meant that the only thing between me and my loved ones was the time difference.

I spent evenings cooking dinner with my mother whilst she brewed her morning tea, or brushing my teeth before school as my friends sang to me on their way home from bars. This blurring of my old life with my new made the initial move easier, but only prolonged my journey to the ‘Mastery’ stage.

The end of the curve

However, I did reach the final stage. I discovered that finding joy in the mundane was an experience that lasted well beyond the honeymoon stage - a neighbour gifting me a bag of avocados, a taxi driver laughing so hard at my use of Vietnamese slang that he had to pull over briefly, and above all working with my pupils.

I taught local children, and they were passionate about teaching me everything they could about their culture. But full cultural adjustment and mastery came when I realised how familiar they all were.

Every student I’d previously taught also existed in Vietnam: the quiet bookworms, the posturing cool kids, the wholesome sporty teens and the desperately enthusiastic Year 7s.

The highs and lows of adolescence turned out to be universal, and helped me to recognise that life abroad wasn’t all that different.

The novel becomes everyday

Some months after that first road crossing attempt, I passed that same stretch of road. I was astonished to remember how challenging it had felt; it now seemed quite serene to me.

Everyone who writes about life in Vietnam offers advice for crossing the road, but it’s a cliche for a reason. Navigating the traffic requires the same approach as the Expat Rollercoaster; keep looking forward and go with the flow. And celebrate the wins, no matter how small.

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Sarah Cullen

Sarah Cullen is an English teacher at the British Vietnamese International School in Ho Chi Minh City.

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