Breaking: Job Interviews Difficult, Finds Doe-Eyed College Graduate

As you may have noticed, I’m a pretty naive person. Saying unworldly would belie my oh-so-extensive travels, but I’m still easily cowed by most new experiences.

For example, my first adult job interview. For which I dressed, according to my friends back home, “like a Mormon,” and according to me, “eerily similarly to the uniforms of the students I want to teach.”

It wasn’t on purpose. But it must have looked like it when I arrived half an hour late, parked my bicycle in the wrong place, and stammered out excuses to the put-together woman at the futuristically bare front desk.

Based on my interview-dar, it went about 70 percent as well as it could’ve gone. Twenty percent of that was my interviewer — let’s call him Sean — emphasizing that things were a little different since I was so late.

Which is completely understandable. Even though I left 30 minutes before I needed to, mapped the whole thing on Google Maps with the address provided, and had even passed the building a week or so before, I had yet to pick up on some essential adulting interview tips.

Like how if you’re in a strange city, scope out the place the day before trying to get there. Or maybe if it’s monsoon season, bite the financial bullet and take a taxi. And if not, learn how to say “Where do I park my bicycle?” in Vietnamese.

By the end of the interview, I had plotted out a pretty solid lesson plan and written down Sean’s email address to respond to a question I couldn’t answer.

But this was not the question that made up the other ten percent of my perceived failure, no, that was a technical grammar issue.

Sean posed the scenario, flipped over his clipboard, and leaned back in his chair, fingers laced together behind his head. For most of the interview, he was stone-faced, going through the motions. So when he began to smile while leaning back, I knew I was in trouble.

I felt like Alice, preyed upon by the Cheshire cat. See what I’m saying about naive? That’s not the way you’re supposed to feel in an interview.

From what I hear, you’re supposed to at least stand up for yourself.

As the moment stretched on, I sat up straighter, took a deep breath, and plunged into a convoluted explanation of the difference between adjectives and nouns.

Sean tried to ask leading questions as I stumbled through, doing my best to demonstrate my ability to do the job, completely disproving the resume and degrees that sat between us.

After I asked him a few questions — not nearly enough, I still felt too much like Alice, unsure where to tread, having forgotten the things I wanted to know — Sean presented the truth.

“How do you feel teaching our youngest learners?” he asked.

The death knell. The We-Don’t-Trust-You-With-Anyone-Older-And-You-Look-Gullible-Enough-To-Try-This Question.

As it turns out, the children’s class was the least disastrous of my student teaching attempts, so I told him I felt motivated, excited, and willing to teach them.

While Sean took a few final notes, I watched through the window behind him as the sky opened up and rain began to pour down over a skyline of many-colored apartments and the Bitexco Tower.

The view was similar to this. But better. This is just my rooftop.

The view was similar to this. But better. This is just my rooftop.

“It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it?” he said. “There’s a cafe on the top floor here where you can wait out the storm if you like.”

There are many firsts happening to this innocent in a foreign country since graduation. The end of Sean’s Cheshire catting was the first time I finished 13 levels of Sudoku on my Vietnam phone waiting for monsoon rains to abate during the lunch rush in a sub-par cafe at a language academy.

Here’s to my first time learning lessons for the next adult job interview, and hoping that Sean doesn’t burst out laughing at my first adult follow-up email.

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Queen Said It Best

There’s a checklist for expats arriving in Saigon, and it goes something like: Apply for jobs, secure transport, get an apartment.

I’ve done it all backwards, starting with renting a room, continuing with applying for a few jobs, and then getting a bicycle.

You read that right. I decided to buy a bicycle in one of the most densely populated areas of the world with not-so-great (read: basically nonexistent) cycling infrastructure.

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Bicycle? In this hostile environment? Don’t worry, these drivers are pretty accommodating considering I still don’t quite understand the street signage.

The overarching culture here favors motorbikes. Top advice shared from old expats to new involves techniques for renting/riding/parking motorbikes, and it’s almost a given that you’ll need one to commute to work. Even lone tourists employ motorbike taxis to take them places faster than the average taxi.

There are cars as well, but in the city center those are mostly small taxis. So traffic makeup is motivated drivers with lithe vehicles who follow most rules unless it’s past midnight and there’s no one on the roads anyway.

If someone plans to do something unexpected at any time of day, they honk. Running a red light? Honk. Passing on the right? Honk. Turning left across three lanes of roundabout traffic? Honk.

For an American, this makes for a noisy, angry-sounding city, full of scary travel decisions and insane drivers.

With a shifted perspective — namely observing all of this from a child-sized plastic stool on a sidewalk while eating whatever the street vendor decided she wanted to sell today and drinking iced jasmine tea — the horns are courteous, the drivers vigilant and defensive. Roads are full of confident people and diverse options for getting from Point A to Point B.

Despite all these realized positives, I’m still not ready to take the plunge into owning a motorized vehicle in a strange city.

There’s too much potential speed, and I’ve never driven a motorcycle, motorized scooter, or anything similar.

I went for the familiar option instead. The way I figure, I’m already halfway around the world, interviewing for a job I’ve never had, surrounded by people I don’t really know. My traumatized mind probably appreciates a little bit of normalcy, even if that means sweating through my clothes within 30 seconds of being outside instead of a whole minute.

And other people ride bicycles as well. I counted about one for every 100 motorbikes from the window of a cafe yesterday.

There were teenagers on trick bikes, food vendors pedaling slowly with pre-taped pitches playing from megaphones on a loop, students with backpacks riding in baskets, and businesspeople in spotless work shoes.

I’ve joined a diverse subculture.

The best part is that I’m interacting with the city instead of relying on taxis and letting the city slip by past barely-tinted windows.

Even though a motorbike would provide a similar experience, it would be a little too fast, and you can bet I’d be halfway to Hanoi before I realized I’d made one wrong turn.

This leads to the second best part about having the controllable speed of a bike. With my penchant for getting lost, I can appear less of a target on a bicycle than if I were to walk, bewildered and staring at street signs. I can pedal slowly and not look lost. There’s no way to slowly rev a motorbike without looking like a complete n00b.

Next on my backwards checklist: Buy a towel.

It’s “Orienting Myself,” not “Getting Lost”

Saigon and I reached the next level in our relationship two weekends ago when I lost myself in the alleyways winding from my hotel to the cathedral.

The cathedral is gorgeous, though.

The cathedral is gorgeous, though.

When I say lost myself, I don’t mean it in a metaphorical sense. I mean I found streets I didn’t know existed and walked around for two hours trying to find my way back.

And I say from — instead of between — the cathedral and my hotel because while technically, anything could count as between two other things, some are more roundabout than others. I’m just glad I was walking instead of driving, so I couldn’t get into too much trouble.

I made it to the church fine, and it was gorgeous. Cocky with my new knowledge of HCMC, I chose a different way back to the hotel. A way not on my screenshot of Google Maps.

A dogged pride about my sense of direction and ability to recognize street names after I’d seen them once drove me past a gym, the Reunification Palace, and into the heart of District 1.

My hotel was in District 3. If you look on a map, they’re not too far apart, but at 7:30 p.m. in a strange city, it feels like they’re miles away from one another.

This is a map of the city painted on the walls in the Post Office. If the city were still this small, I might figure it out sooner.

This is a map of the city painted on the walls in the Post Office. If the city were still this small, I might figure it out sooner.

I ended up in a different district at a roundabout I recognized from the bus ride into the city, and from there locating a main street and backtracking wasn’t difficult.

Since losing myself on foot, I bought a bicycle and have gotten lost on it as well. I’ve visited four different districts without meaning to, so at this rate I just need to keep trying to get back to my apartment and I’ll visit the whole country.

That first night, I found a bookstore I never would’ve walked to otherwise. Last night, I rode past the tallest skyscraper in town and it was all lit up like a private show. Two nights ago, I rode down the infamous Bui Vien — think Bourbon Street for cafes where beer costs $.50 — going the opposite direction I walk it, and it was like seeing the street for the first time.

Getting lost takes me places I wouldn’t expect, and forces me to think creatively about my next moves. As much as I joke about leaving the city behind by accident, that could only end poorly with my basic grasp on the language and sparse geographic knowledge.

I like to refer to it as orienting myself instead of as straight up getting lost. After a month or so of allowing myself a little extra time to make it home, I’ll know more about ways home than if I paid a taxi driver to use his every day.

It’s a learning experience, not a reason to feel defeated by a city whose planning makes less sense than New Orleans, where even though streets change names, there are a few grids involved. It’s an invitation down the alleys covered in lanterns and through parks full of teenagers snacking on street food. It’s

And maybe eventually I’ll let myself stop at one of the restaurants I find instead of stumbling into Pho 24 when I’m too hungry to find somewhere legit.

Love Songs and Negotiations

In high school I made a playlist of my top ten songs to listen to when I needed a pick-me-up. Checking it now, I noticed there are 33 songs on it and one of them is a 17-minute-long concert. I have quite a few favorites.

Apartment hunting in HCMC feels much the same way. I have tabs upon tabs of Craigslist ads open and after visiting a few, I don’t think I could make a wrong decision about housing here, unless it involved the toy city in District 7.

With both, the important questions are aesthetic, personal, and completely subjective. Maybe it has to do with my lack of experience, but this surprised me. I think there’s still a part of my head that imagines the world is governed by some ethereal, objective checklist.

The more classes I teach and real life adventures I have, the less true this becomes. And I know this makes sense. I like songs because of the specific moments they bring me. Getting hired by the company with the right fit or finding just the Goldilocks-approved living space would of course be similar.

When I hear “Feels So Close,” I’m hiking through Spain in midday heat. “Murder in the City” is a twilit Baton Rouge night on someone’s mom’s couch. “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” is sitting five people in the front seat of a pickup truck flying down a back road with stars bright and scattered across the sky above us.

My all time favorite love song, hands down, no joking, is Wiz Khalifa’s masterpiece, “Roll Up.” I know this song is about drugs. It’s also about love, so shut up.

Leon Redbone’s version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is great, but not the best. It’s a sweet song, perfect for front-porch-sitting and the lazy hours in a long distance relationship. “God Only Knows” takes the prize for best loud sing-along while crying. “I Don’t Know,” by Lisa Hannigan epitomizes uncertain crushes.

But “Roll Up” has this brash energy. Wiz doesn’t care that this woman has a man, because this dude isn’t “acting right.”

He’ll roll up no matter what the situation. But only if she wants him there because he cares about consent.

He also says very explicitly that he’d like to be best friends. And if that’s not love, then come on, what’s the use?

I’m learning to apply Wiz’s philosophy to my own everyday routine. He supports this girl because they both want it, and that’s what matters. I moved to HCMC for quite a few reasons — the city wants me here to fill the native English speaker need and I want to be here to learn about a different part of the world.

Seems like a subjective win-win to me.

Loneliness in a Group Full of People

Is this angsty enough for the title of the post?

Is this angsty enough for the title of the post?

I miss hugs. Not a particular food, my bed, or even my old routines. Just hugs.

There were four couples in my teaching course, and while I couldn’t imagine making this sort of jump with another person at this point in my life, I envied their closeness.

They had someone to lean on, someone to cry to when class didn’t make sense and the heat got to them, someone who understood where they came from.

They had the kind of knowledge you don’t ask of someone you met a week ago during a classroom discussion of ex-boyfriends.

I’m not against making new friends, but there’s a definite difference between confiding in old friends and learning about the new ones. I’ve been doing too much of the latter for the past couple weeks.

Once I realized the issue, I made sure to reach out to friends from home. It played out like this:

INT. MARADY HOTEL ROOM E501, CAMBODIA – 2230

Megan lies on the bed, staring at the WINDOW above as MONSOON RAINS pour down. TV plays HINDI SOAP OPERA. She has been trying to sleep for hours, but can’t stop thinking about everyone she knows at home going about their mornings while she tries to rest.

Megan checks her PHONE. WiFi still doesn’t work in her room.

INT. MARADY HOTEL HALLWAY, CAMBODIA – 2340 – SLOW ZOOM

Megan walks down hall toward two WICKER CHAIRS soaked by the MONSOON RAINS lashing in open WINDOWS. Outside the WINDOWS, motos and tuk-tuks zoom across highway overpasses. GIRL checks PHONE, answers a call.

MEGAN
Hello?

FRIEND
Dude. How is Cambodia?

MEGAN (Tearing up)
It’s amazing.

Megan tries to control her voice so her friend can’t tell she’s about to cry.

MEGAN (Cont.)
Tell me about your life since I’ve left.

Tears roll down her face as she listens to a laundry list of daily activities, all the college drama she left behind and doesn’t miss. It’s the voice she misses. Not the things they’re about.

END SCENE

Yes, I cried on the phone with a friend. Just from hearing his voice from so far away after only two weeks. It was pretty dramatic; similar to the Hindi soap operas I’ve come to love so much.

I know I’ve said this before, but let me reiterate: The digital age is confoundingly amazing. The ability to Skype home, to see my brother’s pixelated face as he describes his latest issue with calculus or get a tour of my friend’s new apartment from afar keeps me closer than I imagined possible.

And I need that right now. It’s a stage, I’m sure. For now, the emotional boosts I’ve received from a selfie of someone wishing me a good day from Florida or a Facebook emoji of two minions hugging one another is unparalleled by even conversations with new friends in Vietnam.

Being able to tap into pre-existing social infrastructure is what’s kept me sane while everything else is in flux. I’ve never had monthlong job training while moving to another country while figuring out where to live while not speaking the local language while integrating myself into a new group of people before.

Because of technology and having wonderful friends and family, in between conquering all these tasks, I can read messages about my mother’s kindergarten class and ask my friends for ideas about my next lesson plan.

The hybridization of my future and past life in this moment is a jumble. But I got a hug out of it the other day. Things are moving forward.

You’d Probably Play Hooky to Hang Out at Angkor Wat

Students living around the Angkor Wat complex regularly skip school to hang out on the grounds, according to our tour guide, just like students in the states skip to spend time in a park or the mall, and I’m convinced that would be the best way to get to know the temples.

Growing up clambering around sandstone corbeled arches and bas-reliefs half-hidden by tree roots would transform these godly, otherworldly sites into a playground of such cultural significance that I’m not sure of the proper way to describe it. It’s also a great place to make some money off selling ponchos to idiot tourists who disregard the rainy season. (Read: most everyone Saturday)

I’m not advocating playing hooky, but with somewhere like Angkor Wat so close by, I’m not sure how you could combat the immediate benefits.

We traveled in the exact opposite way of that idealized slow immersion.

This weekend was the definition of rapid-fire travel. As a group, all 22 of us teachers-in-training visited four temples in two days, spent at least 22 hours on a bus, and told so many Khmer kids we didn’t want to buy postcards or scarves that saying no to them became an ingrained reflex.

It was a whirlwind of feeling like Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider references, and getting lost after trying to take photos just a little bit away from the tour guide.

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Our final temple was Beng Melea, which seemed like a giant playground made of sandstone blocks. Tour guides scattered throughout offered context for the imagery and pointed out safe paths to the tops of rock falls and through lower galleries for tips.

See?

After the confusion and size of Angkor Wat proper, the smaller scale of Beng Melea felt more manageable and the tidbits guides provided personalized the experience.

It probably also helped that the staircases were shorter and less steep.

At the bottom of a staircase...

At the bottom of a staircase at Angkor Wat…

...and then at the top. We couldn't walk up this one, but the accessible one was pretty similar in grade.

…and then at the top. We couldn’t walk up this one, but where we did was pretty similar in grade.

I’m still trying to process the beauty and scale of the architecture without using words like “awesome,” “sweet,” and “cool.” It’s pretty difficult, because the temples envelop all those things.

It’s like visiting four museums on the National Mall in two days and expecting to gain perspective about how native art and U.S. history intersect with only a basic grasp on English.

And if I lived in Washington, D.C. as a student, I’d probably skip school to stare at my favorite paintings at the National Gallery of Art.