Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sexpats, Missionaries, Hired Guns, and English Teachers; An Introduction to the expat scene.

So, less someone think I'm biased against all things Vietnamese, it's time to talk about the expat “community” here. (It's not just the Vietnamese that piss me off, I'm an equal opportunity critic) I put quotes around community because in my mind, community means some common connection to other people, some lifestyle or belief, some glue that holds people together rather than having them be strangers. Here in Hanoi, we're only a community because of our foreignness. The only thing the expat community has in common is that no one speaks the local language (ok, maybe there's 3 Westerners who can carry on an actual conversation in Vietnamese deeper than “My name is ---. I like food too”), and we are most certainly NOT VIETNAMESE, a fact pointed out every time you are stared at as you walk down the street, ripped off by a local, or asked to repeat your poorly spoken Vietnamese five times. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that Viets don't treat us well, in general, they do (apart from ripping us off), and they are a super friendly people, far more friendly than any Western place I've lived. It's just that their ethnic identity IS their national identity (like every other country except America, Canada, and Australia-immigrant nations), and so the only Vietnamese are Vietnamese.

A couple of other quick generalizations about the demographics before we begin. The expats here are almost exclusively 20-25 years old, or 55+. Straight out of university, or heading to retirement. And dear god, I must be getting old, because seriously, college kids (and those just out) seem like such immature twats to me. Bah, such is middle age.

Anyway, In Hanoi, there's four types of expats. Not EVERYONE falls into these categories, but hey, generalizations are a fun part of life. Without them, where would most humor and ALL social sciences be? I find the only people stupider than someone who never makes a generalization are the ones who believe all their generalizations one hundred percent. Bigots and the Politically Correct are not so different from each other in that regard. So without anymore caveats, here they are, the Sexpats, the Missionaries, the English Teachers, and the Hired Guns.

The (S)expats are often older Western guys (but not always older), who love Vietnam because here they are a white god. Not every guy who dates Viets is a Sexpat, but boy, you can tell them when you see them. You can recognize most Sexpats by the age or beauty difference between them and their Vietnamese girlfriends/wives. Old guy with young girl? Sexpat. Ugly guy with beautiful local girl? Sexpat. Back home, they are usually guys who have a hard time getting laid, but here, they can always find a girl whose lifetime earnings will total what the Sexpat earns in one year. As such, the Sexpat represents a way out of village life for a local girl. And all they have to do is cook for, and have sex with an older ugly guy. And even better, unlike 70% of Vietnamese men, he is less likely to abuse her. 66% of Vietnamese women report that their husbands abuse them.

It's pretty funny/gross to see some guy in his fifties with a far younger, far more beautiful, and often pregnant, Viet wife trailing behind him. Typically the girl speaks little/no English, so that sweetens the deal further, as most of these guys don't want a wife for companionship anyway. They want a good little girl who cooks, cleans, fucks, and shuts her mouth (at least in English). Typically, when they go out to social events, the Sexpat gives his girl a toy to play with, and that keeps the girl occupied while the man hangs out with his friends. An Ipad is the preferred pacifier. The girl sits happily playing, as she would be lost in all the English conversation anyway. The Sexpat's preferred transport in Hanoi is a big, expensive motorcycle with his little Viet girl clinging on to him like a mother chimpanzee and it's offspring.

Because cars are almost useless here, guys with small dicks tend to prefer big expensive motorcycles, and even they are fairly useless for the typical weaving in and out of Hanoi traffic. Those bikes were made for proper roads and highways, not cramped alleyways and weaving around the random fruit seller standing in the middle of the road. Getting around here is all about zigging and zagging through the hordes of people, random open manhole covers, and Vietnamese stopping in the middle of the road to get out their cell phones. The Hanoi Weave is hard to do on an 800cc motorcycle. Not to mention the only time you can get any vehicle going faster than 70mph (and in Hanoi traffic, doing 70 feels like driving at Mach 10) is once you get about one hour outside of Hanoi into the countryside. And even then, there's the goddamned fruit sellers in the middle of the road.

Sexpats are the only long termers here in Vietnam. All the other expats, no matter how much they swear to you "they just love Hanoi", are only here for three years maximum before it starts to even get to them. Most people who “just love Hanoi” have also never lived anywhere outside their hometown. Those who have lived in a lot of different places tend to not be big fans of Hanoi, because the newness of being a foreigner has worn off, and what's left is just dirty old Hanoi.

Saying how much you “just love Hanoi” is the local equivalent of “I wait tables, but I'm actually an actor” in Los Angeles. Essentially it's another pretentious line of bullshit which nobody believes yet everyone tells each other. This city has a higher pretentious twat ratio per capita than a New York gallery showing performance art.

Everyone is trying to out “I-love-hanoi” the other, because everyone considers themselves so hard core because they live in Hanoi, yet being pretentious, they would never say its hard to live in Hanoi. Oddly enough, everyone “just loves Hanoi”, yet absolutely no one lives here longer than 3 years. No one that isn't into banging Viets that is. Sexpats got it good and will never leave.

Which brings me to the second type of expat, the Missionaries. Now, I don't mean actual missionaries in the religious sense, these Missionaries usually work for an NGO, but there's also a healthy dose of them in the education field. NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization, basically equivalent to an international non-profit company. The Missionaries are typically fresh out of their ivy league universities, and after a year or two of either volunteering or working as an unpaid intern, are here to Save the Vietnamese People. They are mostly from wealthy backgrounds.

There's not a lot of money to be made in the NGO field, at least at the entry level (upper management make as much money as their private business counterparts, and somehow, are still always crying for everyone else to give their organization money), so the only ones who can afford to work as a volunteer or unpaid intern for a year are people who are already independently wealthy. Alas, it's always the bourgeoise who lead the revolutions and crusades as their insulated backgrounds breed naïve idealism. Of all the pretentious pricks in Hanoi, these are usually the worst.

As they have been enlightened on poverty, oppression, and gender rights by their professors, they are here to right the wrongs, and guide the benighted Viets to peace and prosperity. As old and corrupt as the Sexpats are, they are naive and young. An army of Pollyannas coming to Save The World. Now, I understand their motivations, and respect them actually. Helping people is a noble goal, and I know the people they do help really appreciate it. However, their naivety and self-righteousness make them a pain in the ass to deal with. Actual missionaries are often helpful in the same way, and annoying in the same way.

The Missionaries are the types that if they were to hear you complaining about anything here, would be the first to tell you "if you don't like it, then you should leave", or that the Westerner neighborhoods are "expat ghettos". Of course, they would never apply such critiques to foreigners in their own culture. They would never tell a Viet that lived in Canada and was complaining about some aspect of Canadian culture "love it or leave it!" No, that would be wrong. Nor would they ever call a Vietnamese neighborhood in their own country an “Asian ghetto”. But hypocrisy never got in the way of self-righteousness. I used Canada as an example, because they are the most politically correct people I've ever met. Like a country of Diversity Specialists or something. Except for my Canadian friends who are reading this, luckily they aren't so uptight. :)

In conversation the Missionaries are either excusing the stupider aspects of Vietnamese culture, or persecuting anyone who happens to point out such cultural failings. “Not better or worse, just different” is their motto. Yeah, ok, so you're telling me the cultural acceptance of domestic abuse is “just different” than ours, which tends to frown upon it? Or not putting a helmet on your child's head as it clings to the back of your motorbike, because you believe that a helmet will hurt a child's brain and neck development (yes, that's an actual reason here) is “just different”? What about the Vietnamese/Chinese obsession with male virility which has put to extinction the Vietnamese rhino, and pushed the Vietnamese tiger , elephant, and bear to near extinction? Ah, right, that's “just different” too. One thing travel and history have taught me is that, yes, some cultures have their shit together a lot more than others. Cultural relativism is bullshit.

English Teachers are the next group. They are typically young kids who are out on their first international adventure, and capitalize on the huge demand for native English speakers to teach conversational English. Few other places in the world can someone straight out of college work 20 hour weeks and live like a king. And that's why they are here, to party their asses off while still making money. They live in kind of an extended spring break.

When people ask me what I do in Hanoi, I tell them I am a teacher, then quickly add in “but I teach History”, to not get lumped into the party happy backpacker scene of the English Teacher. People usually respond, “oh, you're a REAL teacher”, because basically to be an English teacher you need little to no qualifications, at most a six month TOEFL course, and there's little to no course planning. You show up around 6pm, go through the preset lesson plan with the students for a few hours, and then you're done for the day. The pub awaits. It's not a bad life if you're someone who just wants to party his or her way around the world. In fact, I wish I had discovered this gig when I was traveling the world, as it sure as hell beats the digging ditches and serving coffee that I did. Not a bad sort, the English Teacher, but not much for conversation beyond “did you see that chick?” or “I was sooo wasted!”

Finally, we come to our last group, the Hired Guns. Hired Guns are the ones who are only here because of their jobs. Typically embassy workers, business people, or occasionally, teachers, such as Yours Truly. I put myself into this generalization. Most Hired Guns don't care for Hanoi, as they didn't really choose to live here, and Hanoi is a hard city to fall in love with. They tend to isolate themselves in the gated communities or luxury villas, in order to put as much distance between Vietnam and themselves. They are often middle aged, typically trailing a bewildered family. I don't really know much about this type (apart from myself) as they really don't get out much, I only see them behind the dark glass of their chauffeured cars, or at the more exclusive restaurants in Hanoi, which I don't go to. An elusive species.

So, that brings you up to speed on the local expat scene here. Which pretty much sucks by the way. The social scene is very tiny, and it's notable to see someone you haven't seen before. There are plenty of backpacker tourists in the Old Quarter, but they're only here for a quick bit. Every expat has pretty much seen every expat around town. It's pretty incestuous, and as far as incest goes, well, let's say that family tree ain't too pretty.


  1. One question: is "dong" still funny?

  2. So , why stay ?
    Are you stacking up riches?

  3. Yes. Even after almost 2 years, dong is still funny!

    why stay? excellent question! One reason only: its my first teaching contract and my first overseas contract. Honestly if it was just about money, i would have been out of here a year ago. I would rather be poor and enjoy life more, a choice i made for most of my life, but i love teaching, and this is the first step in my career. without this experience i would never be able to get a job somewhere better. Now, i actually like my school, its just t the city that pisses me off. So, at the end of my two year contract, I'm out. to where, who knows? Even if its somewhere else that's a mess, it will be a new flavor of mess!


  4. Keep writing. :) ~ Ancient

  5. Interesting article.

    I just wonder about the following paradox: you deride cultural relativism and state "that some cultures have their shit togethemer much more than others", but also make fun of the political correctness of canadians. So must I conclude that righteous, pedantic, politically-correct canadians are culturally superior to rhino-eating and unhelmeted vietnamese? What is the worst offense?

  6. Yes, I would absolutely agree that Canada has it together way more than Vietnam, on the criteria that it treats its people and its environment better. In the same, although I'm an American, I would say Canada is better than the US. However, my personal preference is to live in the US because I prefer their style of interaction.

    Put simply, there is a difference between the objective and subjective. Objectively, i can put Canadian ahead of the US (less measured harm) but subjectively, I prefer the US (psychological preference). The same, objectively, there's some huge problems in Vietnamese culture, but if someone says "I love Vietnam", i can't say "no you don't!" And proceed to refute their preference.

    Make sense? I appreciate your insightful comment , and welcome your thoughts. (and the fact you read through such a long-assed post :)


  7. I agree that unscathed cultural relativism is just as ridiculous and untenable as cultural absolutism/imperialism, yet it isn't as simple as that. The issue is not only subjective preferences versus objective criteria, it lies in the choice of the latter as well: while we indeed may judge (and rank) cultures following specific criteria (which could be anything, going from human rights or environmental protection to the quality of food and dress, the arts, or whatever),remains the question how to value, judge or rank these criterias themselves, other than by... subjective preference (are human rights more important than environmental protection? Would you prefer a dictatorship were people are forced to not pollute, or a democracy of happy polluters?) To bring up the most hackneyed exemple, the food in Vietnam is obviously a lot better than the food in Canada (which has just about the worst food in the world next to England and Germany, with the exception of Vancouver, of course). One could argue that one would enjoy living more in a polluted country with great food than the contrary.

    This problem somewhat appears in studies that pretend to rank counrties by "happiness" (whatever that is...). First these studies were uniquely based on the personal assessment of the countries inhabitants. Well, the countries were people stated themselves as being the happiest were... Bangladesh, Nigeria, and sometimes Brazil... either very poor or very violent (high crime and murder rates) countries or both. The result was so pôlitically incorrect (and insulting to western do-gooders), that they changed the criteria, distrusting peoples own feelings and seeking "objective" criteria. The "happiest" countries now were just about the most depressing, oppressive, places in the world: Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden.... coincidently, the countries with the highest suicide rates worldwide (one could imagine that the suicide rate should be an indicator of the relative happiness of a country) !

  8. I'm Vietnamese and I agree with you about "Hanoi is a hard city to fall in love with" :) Hope you now in Saigon or Phu Quoc community :)