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Tips to Overcome Culture Shock While Teaching English in Vietnam
Written by: Laura Nalin
Last Updated: January 21, 2021
Overcoming culture shock in Vietnam wasn’t the easiest task for me. There are certainly days where Ho Chi Minh City feels like the Wild Wild West. Men and children are often urinating on the side of the road, I see animals - living and dead - tied to the backs of motorbikes en route to slaughter on a daily basis and my entire neighborhood loves singing karaoke at the loudest possible volume at all hours of the night. It’s honestly not the easiest place to live, but I love it.
I wasn’t 100 percent smitten when I first made the move to teach English in Ho Chi Minh City, but it quickly grew on me. In the beginning stages, every single moment of my day felt like an adventure; crossing the street, ordering coffee and communicating with locals is wildly different to what I was used to when I lived in South Korea and New Zealand. It was an exhilarating feeling waking up at the crack of dawn to the tune of a rooster’s crow and a man on a rickety bicycle screaming down my hem, or alleyway, about the bahn mi he had to offer. It was wondrous to be able to purchase a massive amount of fruit and vegetables for less than $5 USD, and it felt really lovely to smile back at all the locals passing by.
And then one day, something in my mind switched. Despite the fact that I initially loved zooming around in Saigon’s organized chaos, one morning I started to feel so much disdain toward every single human driving the wrong way down the road. I was annoyed by the fact that Vietnamese parents don’t make their young children wear helmets. I was disgusted by the fact that parents once assisted their child with peeing into a water bottle in the same elevator as myself on a gloomy Monday morning. The notion that I was more than likely getting scammed several times a day truly ate at my soul. All of this will more than likely happen to you, too.
And that’s okay.
Living and teaching English abroad is often romanticized - as it should be - but people often overlook the fact that it also comes with a slew of challenges. One thing that has benefited me overcoming culture shock in Vietnam significantly is reminding myself that I’m willingly living in the country; I always try to create solutions to any problems that should arise. For instance, I was tired of feeling scammed at the markets, so I started to learn how to speak their language. I’m certainly nowhere near fluent, but it’s calmed my nerves. I’ve learned to accept aspects of the culture that I can’t change, and that has been extraordinarily liberating.
Do I still have days where I’m [internally] screaming at the bank teller for giving me different information on one day than she had the day prior? Yep. Are there days where I’m literally screaming at motorbike taxi drivers for taking the longest route possible despite their Google Maps displayed clearly in front of them? Once a week. It’s all about balance, right?
What I’m trying to say is, when you begin to feel agitated, the best way of overcoming culture shock in Vietnam is to just wholeheartedly embrace every source of your frustration. It’s certainly a challenge, but a major perk is you won’t be that annoying expat complaining about everything under the sun. The biggest perk of all, however, is that you’ll be fully seizing each moment and making memories that last a lifetime.
Laura is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native who recently moved back to Chicago after teaching English abroad for nearly six years in both South Korea and Vietnam. During her time abroad, Laura served as an ITA Ambassador providing a wealth of knowledge and content to our alumni and prospective students. A natural helper and leader, she’s currently in the process of earning her Masters in Counseling Psychology.
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