By: Dana Crosby
I wasn’t able to study abroad in college, so after graduation, my top priority was to live abroad for an extended period of time. Teaching abroad seemed like the most sustainable, feasible option. I enrolled in International TEFL Academy’s online course, worked two jobs to save enough cushion money until I had a consistent paycheck, and set my sites on Hanoi, Vietnam. It was high time for me to “find myself,” “get out of my comfort zone,” “scratch the travel itch,” and “find a cure for my wanderlust”. This is a story about clichés.
People will talk to you about how good it is to “get out of your comfort zone”, and (spoiler alert!!) it is. But why? The answer is multi-faceted, so I want to focus on the role of personal identify in creating one’s comfort zone and how it’s affected when we exit said comfort zone.
First of all, what is a comfort zone? Making a generalization, and obviously not speaking for anyone and everyone, a simple Google search will tell you a comfort zone is “a place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress.” I find that feeling safe and at ease arises from a ratio in which what you know, understand, and can manage, outweighs what confuses, overwhelms, or scares you.
Comfort often arises from existing in a majority, whether it is in terms of knowledge, race, language spoken, or socio-economic status.
Transitioning abruptly from belonging to the majority to the minority of a society forces a certain type of self-examination.
To flip that ratio sends one, arms flailing, legs kicking, mind spinning, out into space, grasping for something to identify with, to dock yourself to. Living where your normal habituations (such as social routines, typical diet, and exercise regime) are impossible or very difficult to maintain leaves you feeling ungrounded. In Vietnam, I was decidedly in the minority. In the US I was surrounded by fellow Americans, whereas in Hanoi, Americans made up only a small fraction of the ex-pat community. Also within the ex-pat community, I found most people had been abroad before, whereas I had not. Insecurities bubbled up: Was it obvious that I was a rookie? Was I acting like a stereotypical American (What does that even mean?)? Whereas most women were petite with black, straight hair, I was taller than most Vietnamese men, with an athletic build, and curly, blond hair. I was very obviously not Vietnamese. I was very, painfully, obviously in the minority.
I tried to learn some Vietnamese, so I could be the foreigner who obviously lived there. I rode a motorbike so I wouldn’t be the tay who lived there but still taxied everywhere. I bought my veggies on the street and haggled with the old woman so I wasn’t the tay who only bought food from the grocery store. I avoided the tourist part of town so as not to be mistaken for a pesky backpacker, there to teach some classes for a few weeks to make some quick cash and buy another plane ticket to different SE Asian country, never to be seen again. Nevertheless, I was then the tay girl who arrived at the restaurant on her motorbike, or the tay who could get by ordering in broken Vietnamese or the tay who attempted to buy groceries on the street, and all the while, was yet another foreign English teacher in a city filled with them. All assimilation aside, I was still another foreigner.
No matter what I did, the vast majority could only instantly recognize me as an alien. Although I began to understand more and more about the country and the culture, to a Vietnamese person, I still had much more in common with any tourist passing through as part of an organized tour group than I did with the Vietnamese themselves. I wasn’t a member of the majority and after awhile, I gradually realized this wasn’t likely to change. I was learning a new meaning of ‘majority rules.’
I struggled against being the blundering foreigner for so long. ‘I’m supposed to be finding myself,’ I’d think, ‘Why do I feel like I’m less myself than ever and why am I struggling against being something that I completely, undeniably am?? I’m not like every other ex-pat here, am I?”
This phenomena is a perk of actually living abroad for an extended period of time, rather than passing through: You are there long enough to notice expectations and assumptions, to feel how they confuse and frustrate you, and you’re there long enough to get over it and grow a thicker skin. After awhile, you get used to the stares even in restaurants you frequent and laughing strangers asking to take selfies with you. You expect to be charged more when haggling. You come to enjoy the grins on people’s faces when you butcher a phrase in their language.
This is the priceless part about living in another culture, the part that you can’t order off of Amazon or hope they have in your size at Macy’s. Being presented with a novel set of insecurities, guilt, successes, trepidation, etc. to wrestle with and having the majority force their perception of your identity upon you via their treatment of you and their palpable attitudes is utterly priceless. Whatever the stereotype is and whom it addresses - whether women are expected to behave a certain way, for Americans to hold a particular worldview, or for all foreigners to be wealthy and not able to handle spicy foods - being able to perceive the majority’s expectations of you, and actively choose whether or not to represent them is liberating.
Equally if not more important, is accepting that sometimes you are powerless to defy a stereotype or that the energy it would take to evade it is not worth it. I found that serving time as a walking cliché was in service of my personal individualization. Experiencing being a member of the finite minority based on language barriers, appearance, ignorance of customs, and ethnicity was constructive and informative to grasping my identity. My ability/privilege to opt out at any point may have altered the intensity of not belonging. At any point, I could have returned home to be a member of the majority. Ironically, after almost a year in Vietnam, I found myself gawking at tourists as much, if not more than the Vietnamese around me. Why was I staring at them I wondered? Simply put, they were novel to observe.
Since my return to the US, I’ve been trying to carefully examine how stereotypes and clichés inform my experience, and reveling in the acceptance that identity and the concept of the comfort zone are both an internal state and a contextually dependent sensation.
Dana Crosby is a 24 year-old from Coos Bay, Oregon, USA. She holds a BA from Willamette University (Salem, OR), where she studied Neuroscience and Studio Art. After earning her TEFL certificate from ITA, she worked in Hanoi, Vietnam, for approximately one year. Currently residing in the US, she is searching for a job that is as satisfying as teaching abroad, and is seriously considering leaving the US to teach again.
To learn more about Dana's adventures, check out: Teaching English in Hanoi, Vietnam: Alumni Q&A with Dana Crosby