Riddle me this: what do Spain and Vietnam have in common?
Besides beautiful beaches and a deeply ingrained cultural habit to take a long break in the middle of the work day (yes, the siesta exists here too!)…diddly squat. If you can think of two countries that are completely and utterly polar opposite from each other, think no more: Spain and Vietnam.
One of my followers commented on my “First Impressions of Vietnam” post and asked a wonderful question: “How have your first impressions been in Vietnam compared to your first impressions of Fregenal?” (That tiny Spanish pueblo I moved to in 2014.) It was such a good question and it really got me thinking. And you know what I have to say?
The first couple of months in a new country are always weird. Really, really weird.
There are things you hate, things you love, and things you say “how in the world am I going to spend the next year of my life like this???” Imagine yourself as a fish out of water, trying to create a new life for yourself on land. But really, you’re just flappin’ around trying to survive.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Adjusting to the new language
I remember when I thought I knew Spanish. I remember the first day I was picked up from my orientation in Caceres, Spain by my bright-eyed and eccentric Extremeña mentor and her husband, thrown into their furgo (camper van), and off we went. A 2.5 hour ride of complete and utter gibberish. They kept asking me questions (at least I assumed they were questions), and I gave them lots of smiles and nods and “si, si!” back. Sure, I knew a hell of a lot more Spanish then than I do Vietnamese now (which doesn’t say much), but those accents. Somehow, I managed to get by my first month on my one catchphrase “Hola, soy Casie! Me gusta comer, viajar y escribo un blog!
If I thought that was bad, Vietnamese is WAY more difficult. So, I studied a bit of Vietnamese before arriving. You know, the basics: “How are you,” “how much is it,” “my name is Casie”, and so on. Well, upon my arrival I was SUPER ecstatic to show off my Vietnamese… and NOBODY understood me! Turns out tonal languages are a lot harder than I thought. You can pronounce the letter sounds perfectly, but if you don’t use one of the six tones correctly, you’re shit outta luck. So basically, right now my hands are my best friends.
Adjusting to the work culture
Spain’s work culture, is, uh…let’s called it, relaxed. With a national holiday or saint’s day popping up what seems like every week, not to mention time off for Christmas and Semana Santa, work is secondary to free time. And friends. And family. And life. And the dress code is…well, there isn’t one. My first day of work, I was shocked when I saw my coworkers wearing sneakers, jeans and t-shirts. It takes some adapting, but the work/life balance in Spain is at a perfect equilibrium.
Here in Vietnam, I had post-Spain work shock. Granted, Spain might have ruined me forever. However, I looked at my work calendar and started sweating. I asked my new boss, “Soooo, when do we get vacation days?” He laughed. Apparently, there really aren’t any, besides a couple scattered days in the middle of the week for national holidays and the Lunar New Year in February. So that’s…about 8 days in an entire year? Welp, at least we still get the mid-day 1.5 hour siesta! And then there’s the dress code, or should I say the uniform. Girls where pencil skirts, white blouses and heels. Guys wear button-ups and ties. The problem? I DON’T OWN THAT. Ok, so a shopping trip and a lot to get used to… good thing I like my job.
Adjusting to the new food
Upon my arrival to Spain, there was one word I learned immediately. Jamón. Ham. Oh sweet, sweet jamón de bellota (I’m starting to drool just writing about it). It was mentioned probably 9 times just in that first car ride from my orientation to Fregenal. Then, I arrived: “Hola Casie, encantado! Has probado el jamón ya?!” “Hi Casie, nice to meet you! Have you tried the ham yet?” That was the opening sentence for I’d say 60% of every person I met my first month in Spain. So, jamón…uh, my thought: DO YOU PEOPLE EAT ANYTHING ELSE? I couldn’t find any veggies in restaurants, and I was going through spicy food withdrawals. Although my body went through a severe shock replacing veggies with all-things cured (cured cheese, cured chorizo, cured jamón…), was I going to be happy? Oh yes.
Here in Vietnam, it’s as if the food fairy heard I was going through veggie and spicy food withdrawals back in Spain, and sent me here. While the street food spots can be pretty funky and don’t always meet Western standards of cleanliness, and I often have no clue what the heck I’m eating or ordering for that matter, I love it! The incredible range of spices, herbs, noodle soups, grilled meats and fresh seafood is endless. There are just so many flavors! Every meal is truly an adventure. And when I’m finished with every meal, I can’t wait for the next adventure.
Adjusting to the people
In my Spanish pueblo, the people were loud, boisterous and always ready to sit down and have a beer with you. Luckily for me, that’s how I am too! It was incredibly easy to make friends, despite the fact that I spoke Spanish like a 3-month-old baby. I was taken by their open, inviting ways and “come on and join us!” attitude. While sometimes shockingly honest, upfront and critically vocal about my odd American ways (they always made fun of me for eating lunch 2 hours earlier than them and putting hot sauce on everything), adjusting to the open Spanish way of life was pretty painless.
In Vietnam, the people are also loud, boisterous and social. But in my experience, it’s completely and utterly opposite around foreigners. They are incredibly polite and composed. They are rather formal, give you a little bow every time they thank you for your business and always call me Ms. Casie (who’s that?!). If they have a problem with you, the culturally accepted way of handling it is not going to you directly, but fixing the problem by going around the problem, to not offend anybody. The meeting place is a coffee shop and not a bar, and the preferred drink to socialize over is milk tea, not beer.
I don’t feel the warmth and inclusiveness that I felt when I arrived in Spain and it takes a bit more effort to forge relationships with locals. My weird American ways aren’t criticized or judged here, but the cultural difference is far more dramatic. However, I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to Sunday lunch with my landlord’s family, a night out with my Vietnamese coworkers and dinner with an old Vietnamese friend I met traveling. After all, all good friendships come to those who wait.