Monday 11 January 2016

On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

From the day that I first arrived in Vietnam as a development worker, I was regularly asked the same questions. Firstly, “Do you have a family back in Australia?” then, “Do you have a wife?”. When I’d reply in the negative for both, they’d ask, “Well, do you have a girlfriend?” and I’d shake my head, and they’d give me that pitying look - like it was the saddest thing in the world.

Truth be told, the day that I left Australia for Vietnam, I’d been on the receiving end of a “surprise breakup”, so every time I responded to this question it felt like another turn of the knife in a broken heart. However, for my female friends in the development sector, it was all the more tragic in the eyes of some locals - the sad tale of the “christmas cake” who was no longer desirable after the 25th.

Of course, this was simply a cultural difference, and for most 25+ year-olds from Australia, being single and working abroad is no big deal. There’s always time to meet a partner and settle back at home later on, and who really needs to start a family before they’re 35, really? But for now, we’re at the prime of our lives, emerging in our professional careers, and taking the opportunity to work at strange and exciting places around the world, right?

But the longer I’ve been working overseas in the development sector, the more I’ve started to notice patterns. New arrivals who had recently gone through breakups. Couples in long-distance relationships - many which didn’t last, and those that made it, did so only by the skin of their teeth and not without their share of emotional angst. And of the older expats, many are either divorcees, or seemingly permanently single - having, by their own admission, decided that they’d worked too hard on their career for too many years to jeopardise it all for a relationship or family.

That said, there are certainly success stories - the couples who managed to figure out a way to find work for both people in the same location, or where one person has put their career on hold for the other as a supportive partner. But they’re certainly in the minority.

Here’s the thing. I tell myself I’m here for the work, not romance. In terms of dating locals, I’m already hyper-aware of my ex-pat privilege, and wouldn’t be comfortable in a hugely unbalanced power relationship, let alone cultural differences and associated expectations. I mean, I’m already weird enough by Western standards, with my eccentric habits like singing, swing dancing, and reading. On the other hand, the ex-pat bubble is a small world, and most people there are on their own career path which would diverge from mine sooner than later. Given my own emotional baggage in this department, it’s not really a viable option. If I were ten years younger, it would probably be a different story, but at my age I know what I want, and what I don't want, and it limits my options.

And so, with the new year being a time for reflection on the past and future, I wonder if there’s any reasonable expectation to fill this gap in my life in the development sector. I believe it’s unhealthy to go too long without any intimacy and genuine human connection, and I feel like the decision to come into this line of work, with all its amazing opportunities, has also deprived me of some of the most important aspects of being alive. And at the same time I feel like it would be the lamest of reasons to leave and move back to Australia.

For now, I remain optimistic that I can have it all. I’m loving the opportunities to do new things and see new places. But when I look around, I also see my fair share of lonely people who chose this life, and now they’re seemingly stuck with it. I do not want to end up there.

Incidentally - the earworm that I’ve been stuck with all evening…

My shadow’s the only one who walks beside me.
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating.
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me.
’Til then, I walk alone.

It seems apt.