Wanderlust Wendy

Saigon Chronicle Month 5: Building a Community Abroad

Last month, before a trip back to Shanghai, I struggled to find my place in Saigon. Unlike previous moves abroad, the integration this time around feels slow. Partly, because I’ve adopted to living slower, but also I’m in a different stage of life – married and in my 30s. In month five, things seem to begin to click. Perhaps it’s due to a change of mindset post-Shanghai, but this city finally starts to feel like home. 

Different Phases of Life

In my previous moves abroad, I was either single or moving with an organized group. When I relocated with a study abroad cohort or the Peace Corps, I had instant friends. Nothing bonds people like being in new and sometimes uncomfortable situations together. With my move to China, I was single and in my 20s. I was still down to party and eager to network and meet people. It wasn’t always smooth-sailing, but I had a higher tolerance and more energy.

The process of community building changes in my 30s and being in a couple. Having spent an entire year with Xavier, traveling around the globe, we are quite happy to spend time together. Having a default partner to spend time ups the bar and lowers the tolerance for networking and on-the-surface chitchat. Yet, like dating, the getting-to-know-you conversations are a necessary evil. 

Getting to Second Dates

Just like dating, getting through to the second or third friend date also requires effort and chemistry. Unlike in an organized setting like school, people have their respective busy lives. No longer in our 20s, people have families and more responsibilities. Going out every night from Wednesday through Saturday is no longer appealing, nor physically possible! Repeated interaction requires deliberate planning. Through activities like meditation group, tapping into networks like the Peace Corps, and introduction from good friends in Shanghai, we finally have people whom we now see repeatedly. 

Bring People Together through Food

In Shanghai, our favorite way to bring people together was through hosting brunches. Xav had seduced me with this delightful chocolate cake five years ago, and that’s always been a vehicle to connect friends. For any dinner party, the coveted chocolate cake makes for a good topic of conversation. 

Among various gatherings, Thanksgiving brunch was always the biggest event of the year. Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday – it’s Christmas without all the fuss with presents. A time dedicated to gratitude, friends, family, and food – what’s not to love? Living abroad, hosting Thanksgiving also means sharing this wonderful holiday with non-Americans. 

Thanksgiving in Saigon

For our first Thanksgiving in Saigon, I didn’t have high expectations. I’ve become fast friends with a fellow Cameroon Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, also based in Saigon. She wanted to host Thanksgiving, and I happily obliged. The initial plan to have ten people in her small apartment transformed into a delightful community event, co-hosted by Spiced, a co-working space that we frequent. 

I love going to Spiced for the community lunch that it serves daily. For Thanksgiving, the chef cooked up a beautiful spread. We, the token Americans, brought the holiday spirit and friends. Sharing this holiday with a 30+ international crowd was a blessing, but best of all, the ability to once again bring people together through food warms my heart. 

Community-in-the-making

The desire to have a community was a big reason why we paused our nomadic life. But starting over isn’t always very easy. In the transient expat circle, people come and go with relatively short notice. The first few months felt somewhat frustrating to meet up with people, but unsure whether anything will come of it. Striking the right social balance was tricky. Through time, patience, and persistence to keep calibrate for the right social fit, a community takes shape. 

I hope you’ve all had a food and love-filled Thanksgiving with your own community, whatever that looks like for you! 

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