On travel withdrawal and returning home

So I’ve just resettled back in San Francisco after living and working 5 months in Sydney and 7 months in Ho Chi Minh City. It has definitely been a challenge to readjust to life at “home” and I’ve struggled to accurately convey this to folks who have asked about it. Some common sentiments that are shared:

  • “It must be nice to be back after so long!”
  • “Did you miss life back here?”
  • “Your family/friends must be so happy to see you!”

To all these well-meaning sentiments, I’ve only been able to respond with a hesitant, “Well, yes and no…”. Here I’ll try to shed some light on what it’s like to come back to a place after extensive time abroad.

Everything is dull in comparison

Especially if you’ve been travelling to places with cultures much different than your own, there is a very real “crash” when your exposure suddenly stops. You get bored extremely easily. Nothing excites you anymore. Food tastes bland. All buildings start to look the same and blur together. Even within the most beautiful cities in North America (e.g. Vancouver, San Francisco), you can’t help but get the sense that there’s nothing interesting going on anymore.

It’s all in your head, of course, but that’s what this “reverse culture shock” feels like.

You feel like it was all a dream

As memories of your time abroad start to shift themselves into the long-term part of your brain, you start getting the sense that they could have all been manufactured. The places you went, the people you met – were they real? Did you really live like that for so long?

Looking at pictures helps, but only so much. Those fond memories seem like a world away – and in a way, they were.

You want to leave, but then you don’t

It’s common for frequent travelers to report a “travel bug” they get if they stay at home too long. It’s this wanderlust that drives some to continue travelling for years on end. (Everything being dull on their return certainly contributes to this.)

What is not so commonly reported is that extensive travel has some real downsides – and if you’ve felt them before you’ll stop and think twice before committing to another round so quickly. You’ll remember that the lifestyle includes isolation (a.k.a. “crippling loneliness”), a lack of routine that the body craves (including exercise), and a longing for familiarity that serves as the cruel antithesis of the boredom you’ll feel when you return.

This conflict of feelings may be enough to put you into analysis paralysis – when you realize you can’t be happy at home and you can’t be happy abroad either.

No one fully understands your story

When you try to tell your friends and family about all this, they are most likely going to respond with blank stares or platitudes on how great it must be to travel all the time. And you really can’t blame them – most people think of travel as infinite upside and are unaware of the downsides.

It’s rare to find someone who can truly relate to the entirety of your experience. You’re more likely to be perceived as spoiled or entitled, as this sketch clearly shows:

And it’s a completely fair perception. The lesson here is that it’s important to not take your experiences for granted and do more internal reflection rather than expecting others to understand everything that’s going on.

You’re more alone than when you started

Extended time away from the people you love means that you will start drifting – there is no avoiding it. Despite your best efforts to arrange visits or draw them into your world, the fact is that most people will assume you are “gone” the minute you declare your outbound flight. (They may not even be aware when you return!) You will most likely be left off invite lists to birthdays, housewarmings, etc. as the operating assumption is that you will not be able to make it – and that’s totally fair. But it also results in fewer and fewer opportunities to stay caught up between friends, which ultimately makes it harder to reconnect when you return.

Do you even know what is new in these people’s lives? Not everything is posted on social media. When you meet up again, how much of their story can they catch you up on without omitting the colorful details that make the memories stick? Be aware that your relationships will be reset – most of them shallower as a result.

This is unfortunate, but there are exceptions to be found – notably with those you hold the deepest relationships with. Old, lifelong friends are those that you can meet up with and continue as if you were never away. Hope that you have some of those waiting for you.

 

I believe it’s important to share these experiences, despite them being incongruent with the typical glamorous thought pieces about travel. My hope is that highlighting these challenges will help me overcome them myself, as well as encourage others (like Charlie Guo) to share their own. Feel free to share your thoughts here as well.

Reflections on Vietnam

Vietnam is an amazing country. I never really knew this as an American/Canadian until I spent a good amount of time here. When you’re raised in the western world, you generally don’t hear much about Vietnam unless it’s regarding the war – and that story is a little biased, to be honest. 🙂

Now that I’m wrapping up a ~7-month stint here, it’s time for some reflections. I’ll do it by describing the people of Vietnam, as they represent the values and character of the country well. They also form the vast majority of my fond memories here. These may seem like generalizations (and they are), but obviously the people are incredibly diverse as well – personalities, style, and quirks vary just as much as they do in any other country. I’m just using these as a proxy for takeaways about my experience as a whole.

So without further ado, I’m reporting that the Vietnamese are…

Enterprising

From what I could tell, the number of people in Vietnam with their own individual businesses was quite high. Whether it was a tech startup, a restaurant operated out of their own home, or a simple street cart full of fruit, the Vietnamese seemed to have that spirit of doing whatever it took to build their own financial independence. And of course, they love selling to expats…

Targeted #advertising

A photo posted by Simon Tan (@simtanx) on

Culinary

It is one of the best kept secrets of Southeast Asia – Vietnam has some of the most diverse, creative, and flavorful cuisines around. And with the fierce competition that comes with a country of 90+ million people, locals and expats alike are spoiled for choice. But you don’t have to ask me or check out my Foursquare list of favorites in Saigon. You can also watch Anthony Bourdain describe it.

Food of Vietnam

Creative

From cooking chickens in soda cans to fitting a mattress on a motorbike, you can count on the Vietnamese to come up with creative solutions to life’s problems. And to have a bit of fun as well 🙂

https://www.instagram.com/p/9NKxKWN5Lb/

Young

It’s kind of stunning when you realize it, but there is an absolutely huge number of young people here – probably more than any other country I’ve been to. Almost 70% of the population is working age, and the government likes to point out that it’s the backbone of their robust economy. In addition to making malls and nightclubs extremely lively (read: crowded), it also means you see lots of beer everywhere. 🙂

"Một hai ba… yo!" Also known as #cheers or #ganbei – learn something new every day 🙂

A photo posted by Simon Tan (@simtanx) on

Independent

Vietnam is a fiercely independent country. They have fought to win their country back time after time – from the Chinese, French, Americans… Their spirit is really quite remarkable, and it carries into how they live their lives day-to-day as well. The culture of motorbikes and entrepreneurship are quite possibly a natural effect of this as well.

https://www.instagram.com/p/7G-cCEN5A-/

Suffice it to say that I’ve had an amazing time in Vietnam. I’ve met people I’ll never forget, I’ve had food that I will miss for the rest of my life, and I’ve experienced so many new things that I could just die now and feel satisfied knowing I’ve really lived, if you know what I mean.

Unfortunately, I’ve run out of time here and it is time for me to head back to (relatively boring :P) North America. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Vietnam, but I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t thought of it as a destination before. It’s been a wild ride, and I’m eternally thankful to everyone who played a part in it.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BBSf2NXt5PY/

Cám ơn mọi người!

Charms in Chiang Mai

I was fortunate to have had the chance to stop by Chiang Mai over the New Year’s holiday (because everything is so close together in Southeast Asia!) and thought I would count it as a continuation of a trip I took in 2012 that included stops in Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. In the same style as those previous write-ups, here I present some of the best memories in the form of superlatives.

Best night bazaar: Anusarn Market – not too crowded and a huge variety of goods to haggle over

Most crowded night market: The Saturday night market on Wua Lai

Best local dish: Khao soi, best had at Sila-Aat

https://www.instagram.com/p/BAH3xDjt5NR/

Best vantage point for a sunset: Doi Suthep, on the marble lookout deck

https://www.instagram.com/p/BAFOY1yt5Af/

Best temple for a nighttime meditation with monks: Wat Srisuphan

Funniest temple story: The story of Tan Pra Maha Kajjana

 

Most impressive gardens: Royal Park Rajapruek

Most disgusting yet environmentally responsible showcase: Elephant Poopoopaper Park – it’s exactly what you think it is!

Most surprisingly majestic animals: Elephants, raised humanely at Baanchang Elephant Park

https://www.instagram.com/p/BAKgf9At5Ds/

Chiang Mai is no doubt the cultural capital of Thailand, just as Bangkok is its economic capital and Phuket is its resort capital. There are temples on almost every block and the locals are clearly very proud of their traditions and heritage. (You can see it with every interaction – for example, most people will always pass money or goods with two hands and a bow.)

The city is small enough to cross on foot, but big enough that there are still traffic jams at rush hours. The atmosphere and the attention to detail in so many public areas make you feel like the citizens really take care of the place. The only major flaw is the transportation system, where you need to basically haggle for every ride you take in a songthaew or tuk-tuk and there are no public buses or trains. Fortunately, costs are still low and you can get a ride pretty much anywhere for less than US$4.

It all makes for a great holiday, but it seems that several thousand expats felt so comfortable here that they decided to stay here long-term. It was honestly quite surprising to see so many of them hanging around restaurants and coffee shops – but after a few days, I understood the draw and why Chiang Mai ranks so highly for digital nomads. I highly recommend working remotely there!