In my senior year of college, I still didn’t have much of a plan for what to do after graduation.
Studying writing and psychology didn’t provide the clearest of paths and I wasn’t one of those kids who’d had an internship every summer. But I did know three things:
I liked working with kids.
I liked traveling abroad.
And I didn’t want to move back in with my parents.
Taking A Risk
I wanted to take a risk and do something out of the ordinary.
There’s no better way to grow than getting out of your comfort zone. So when Sonya, my girlfriend at the time started talking about teaching English in Asia, I was intrigued. It wasn’t a logical move or something that was expected of me. But it would be something I would never forget.
In the spring of our senior year, we made a plan. We applied online and within a week got jobs teaching English in Shenzhen, China. This seemed a little quick but what did we know? How long is it supposed to take to get a job in Shenzhen, China, (a city I’d never heard of before)?
Anyway, we both graduated and took a one-month course to become certified to teach English. This wasn’t required by the way; they pretty much let anyone be an English teacher.
So we were prepared. And a little terrified. Starting life in China and teaching classes of 70 kids is a lot for a 22-year-old to take on. But hey, you have to try something, might as well make it an adventure.
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So now the visa process. China sucks. Just like America, they make it hard to get into their country. The process involves getting your documents signed by a local notary, then stamped by someone at the state level, then taking them to the Chinese consulate in New York. And sometimes to process involves getting your application rejected a week before your flight.
The company that hired us was not phased by the rejection of our visas. Apparently, this happens all the time. And apparently, it isn’t a problem. Just come in on a tourist visa, they say, and we’ll get you a work visa when you get here.
Now our bullshit detectors were going off. Should we trust a company that wants us to enter the country illegally?
So we tell our online recruiter, the man who found us this company that we are a bit sketched out. He assures us that there is no problem and that he trusts the company completely. The unwavering trust of this stranger in a Chinese company that hired us without an interview is not entirely comforting.
Our confidence is not buoyed by the fact that they said we could come in on a tourist visa when we were flying through Bejing. Flying into China and then flying to another Chinese city on a tourist visa is not legal. When we bring this up, the company helpfully suggests that we switch our flight to fly through Hong Kong.
That’s when we go to plan B: Vietnam. The cost of living is low and they have the highest salaries of English teachers in all of South East Asia. Also, Vietnam sounds dope, right?
So we nicely tell our recruiter than we’ve gone in another direction and he tells us to go fuck ourselves. But we can’t be happier to start our new lives together in a country neither of us has ever been to.
We’ve read online that you can just show up in Vietnam and get a job. And unlike China, they don’t mind you coming in on a tourist visa. So we book a flight to Hanoi and that’s that.
My only other experience living abroad was when I studied in Spain during college. I loved waking up every morning knowing that I would have to speak Spanish in order to go about my day. Speaking another language has always made me feel alive and present in a way that life at home never did.
So we decided to get on a plane to Hanoi with no return ticket. We’d figure out the rest when we got there.
Sonya has us watch Frozen on the plane and falls asleep on my shoulder. The sixteen-hour flight is the longest I’ve ever been on but I can’t be more excited to see the twisting rivers and deep green mountains as we fly over northern Vietnam.
We’ve arranged a taxi to our hotel and the driver is waiting for us as we step out into the furnace that is Hanoi in August. People are lugging suitcases around as if it’s normal to live in 100 degrees weather at 90% humidity.
Our driver loads our suitcases into his small sedan and drives us into the heart of the city. We’re dazed from the trip and don’t talk much as we watch motorbikes speed around us, going with or against the traffic. It doesn’t seem to matter which side of the road you’re on.
We slowly get to the heart of this dense city, all the while the streets are getting more narrow and congested. Chickens walk by in the gutters, avoiding men sitting on plastic stools drinking green or light beer.
The driver parks more or less in the middle of the street and we haul our suitcases through the swerving masses and up the steps to our new hotel. And now it’s begun. We flop on the bed, sweaty after dragging the suitcases up the stairs, well sweaty from being outside at all really.
Sonya looks a bit panicked. This was her idea after all. But I feel nothing but excitement. I’m in love with her, in a new city, and our whole lives are ahead of us.
We spend the day practicing crossing the street and getting money out of ATM’s. Nothing is easy here. Some of the restaurant owners speak English, some point at menus, but everyone is friendly or at least awkwardly polite.
On our first full day, we taxi to an air-conditioned western-style café and apply for jobs. We send resumes to three or four places. The next morning we go on our first interview. It’s really that easy.
Being a teacher is as foreign an experience as living in Hanoi. Standing in front of a group of Vietnamese kids and guiding them through a lesson is both a challenge and a thrill. It was quite the transition. All of a sudden I go from being a sleepy-eyed student in a lecture hall to standing up straight in front a group of twenty bored teenagers. Teaching a class for the first time is a daunting prospect but like moving abroad, it’s a sink or swim type of mission.
Before moving to Hanoi, I’d never interviewed for a job before. But I walk into the interview room with confidence and I’m able to smile and look enthusiastic. It isn’t hard because I am truly excited to be there.
Sonya and I are both hired to teach at a language center. The company has good reviews online and we want to move out of the hotel and start our lives so we take to the jobs and begin several days of haphazard training that involves our boss reading a handbook and joking about Vietnamese girls in his confusing Manchester accent.
The company sends a real estate agent to take us to look at apartments. He shows up on a motorbike and asks us both to get on. At first, we think he’s joking but at this point, we’ve seen families of five on bikes so we get on. We look at five apartments and pick number four because it has high ceilings, large windows, and is a block from a lake.
It feels great to move out of the hotel. It’s only been a week and we have jobs and a place to live. It feels like we’ve cheated somehow. We’re just kids. And now we pay rent and will be running our own classes.
On the day of my first class, I’m planning in the teacher’s room when my boss comes over. He tells me that they’ve switched my schedule and that I’ll be teaching a different class. It starts in fifteen minutes. I haven’t prepared for this one but he says that’s fine. Just bullshit it. This seems like strange advice but this is my first real job and he’s my first real boss so maybe his casual attitude is normal.
I walk into the classroom and face a group of 20 teenagers.
They don’t know that this is my first day and that I’ve never taught before. I introduce myself and start some light teacher-student banter and wonder if they can tell I’m a fraud. But when I ask them to open their books they actually do. I can’t understand why they’re listening to me. The class goes fine and when I teach them again in two days I don’t feel like an imposter. I’m just their teacher.
I stayed in Hanoi for a year and taught every age group from pre-school to advanced adults. I taught at many different public schools as well as the language center. By the end of the year, it felt natural to walk into a class, gain command of the room, and start teaching.
Moving abroad without a plan is not for everyone. It can be anxiety-provoking or possibly foolish if you don’t have the funds or a way to make money. But there’s something to be said for jumping in at the deep end. Just like teaching a class for the first time, it’s hard to truly prepare for real life. All you can do is just go for it. So why not go to the extreme and do it in Vietnam?
Hanoi is where I had my first job, my first apartment, and started my life as an adult. I could have done it in Boston or New York but there was something kind of magical about doing it somewhere totally new. It wasn’t always easy but I know I’ll never forget waking up to crowing roosters and the daily loudspeaker announcements from the communist party.
I never would have had the amazing experience of living in Hanoi if I were afraid to take a risk. And I wouldn’t have become a competent teacher or learned to speak Vietnamese (at least enough to buy food and order at restaurants) if I’d made a safe choice and moved back home to Boston.
Graduating and moving to Hanoi was a difficult first step into adult life. But in doing it, I proved to myself how capable I can be. Sometimes taking the risk is the hardest part. After that, things don’t seem as scary anymore.
For more info on what it's like living in Hanoi, check out this video: