Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Playing Pollyanna in Asia

As I sit sipping mango juice watching mopeds swerve around each other on the streets of Hanoi, I feel glad that the recession has made me do things I would never have done otherwise, writes Kate O’Leary.

Mon, May 28, 2012, 01:00


As I sit sipping mango juice watching mopeds swerve around each other on the streets of Hanoi, I feel glad that the recession has made me do things I would never have done otherwise, writes Kate O’Leary.

Kate on the streets of Hanoi

Seven days ago I packed my life into a bag weighing twenty seven kilos. Five days ago I sent ten kilos of it home to Ireland in a used cigarette box. Today I’m quite cold.

The bag was packed in an apartment in Seoul, Korea. I was stuffing and squashing while looking out at a landscape of grey and brown. The cardboard box was sent from a post office-cum-sunglasses shop in Hanoi, Vietnam. I was writing the address with a permanent marker while listening to the rhapsody of sounds that is a Vietnamese street.

A man sells plates and teapots from a stall attached to a moped, Hanoi.

I have just finished teaching English for a year in Korea. I moved there in February 2011, unsure of what would greet me and in a complete haze. During the weeks before I left, I wondered daily when it would sink in that I was going to such an alien place and missing Christmas at home. It didn’t. I got there and I readjusted. No trauma and no drama.

Some things were stranger than others. People don’t often stare at you for the hell of it on Grafton Street. They do on Insadong-gil. We have bins on the street in Dublin. They don’t in Seoul. We shake hands. They bow. We wash in shower cubicles in the gym. They hand you a cloth and expect you to scrub their back in a jimjilbang. We eat toast for breakfast. They devour fermented cabbage.

My year was coming to a close, and I had yet another quarter-life crisis.  I had left Ireland with a plan for twelve months. That got the wriggling ‘what are you doing with your life’ worm off my back for a while. Now he had returned, but this time in centipede form, with steel-toed boots on each foot, kicking me with worry. So I decided that when in Asia….stay in Asia. A hair-brained plan was concocted: to move to Vietnam and try to get work for a couple of months, before doing some travelling, and then returning home to get whacked some more.

Flower seller, Hanoi

The media is filled with sad stories of people leaving their homes, families and patriotic security to try to make a life for themselves in a frightening new place. I read these tales and feel strange. After I graduated three years ago, I worked in a job in which I was very content. If the company had not closed down, I would probably still be there; enjoying Dublin Bus and paying twelve euro for a sandwich in a Fair City-style cafe a couple of times a week. But the end of a job meant the end of cosy Irish plodding along. And I’m not upset about it.

I often feel guilty when I hear of people being so miserable in foreign countries, as I’m delighted I’m not at home. If the job market had not belly flopped, I wouldn’t be sitting drinking mango juice while watching hundreds of mopeds swerve around each other (I foolishly hadn’t realised how simple a task it was to attach a tree or a grandfather clock to a bicycle). Last night, I helped a 100-year-old man clean a flood in my room with two tea-towels as we were watched by the lizard that lives in the bathroom. I could do without the reptile or the water damage, but sitting on a foot-high plastic chair slurping noodles on the street makes up for it.

I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can play Pollyanna and be glad that the dreaded, awful recession has forced me to do things I would never have done without it.

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Barber cutting a man's hair on the side of the street, Hanoi


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