‘Where are you from?’ the woman behind the counter asked me, speaking slowly and clearly but not unkindly. Puzzled at first, it slowly dawned on me that she thought I was a foreigner to Sydney.
I had been living in Vietnam for just eight years at that time and it seemed that I no longer fitted in as an obvious local back in Australia. I didn’t know how things worked any more. Before I went away there was just one telephone company, one electricity company, one gas company in Australia. Now we had competition. I didn’t know where to even start choosing a mobile phone plan. A trip to the supermarket could also bring me undone; I felt overwhelmed by the wall of different varieties of eggs on sale. In Vietnam you bought eggs individually from a street seller, carefully balancing her laden baskets on a shoulder pole. You could select brown ones or white ones, and from what I had seen of village life in Vietnam, everything was free-range.
As I tried to settle back into Sydney, it surprised me to find that living there didn’t feel nearly as convenient as living in a so-called developing country like Vietnam. In Vietnam everything is negotiable. ‘No’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no’; it just means you have to find another way. Nor do you have to wait a month or two for customised curtains or blinds to be made and hung. They arrive the following day. If you need to move house, you ring a truck company 15 minutes before you want to go and they’ll be there. Buying a mattress? A three piece lounge suite? Chances are the seller will put them in a cyclo and put you on the back of his motorbike and escort you and your purchases home. At no extra cost. And instead of Sydney’s unreliable public transport, there are motorbike taxi drivers on every street corner in Hanoi ready to take you anywhere.
Small-talk in social situations back in Sydney was also a challenge. I wasn’t up-to-date on the latest political policies or scandals, TV shows, ‘celebrities’, the British Royal Family, or pop stars. The Vietnam News, the only English language daily newspaper in Hanoi, didn’t go in for much trivia and certainly not Australian trivia, and the Internet wasn’t available then.
Clothes also caused me some problems. As the years passed I found myself adopting a more Vietnamese sensibility in regard to what to wear. Even when I showed the tailor a photo of what I wanted her to make, it always turned out looking a little different, a little bit Asian. My Vietnamese friends always approved, but when I wore the same clothes back in Australia I started to feel slightly wrong. So I’d buy something in Sydney only to find it didn’t quite work when I tried to wear it in Hanoi.
All of this is part of reverse culture shock and it IS a shock to discover that while you’ve been away becoming socialised into a very different society, you’ve changed, and your own society has also changed so that you no longer fit together in quite the same way. It really shocked me to be not only mistaken for a foreigner in my own country, but to feel like a foreigner there.
These days I am better prepared if I go away for a year or two. I put on my Vietnamese wardrobe and my Vietnamese attitudes and persona when I get off the plane in Hanoi or HoChiMinh City. However, it can sometimes be a bit harder to take them off again when I come home to Australia.