SIX months into her stint working as an English teacher in Vietnam, Carolyn Shine realised she was experiencing a serious case of culture shock as soon as her eyes spotted an unusual looking platter in a Hanoian restaurant.
“It was half a dog arranged with its intestines out on a plate, crouched, golden skinned and barbecued, and had a wagging tail set in motion,” she recalls.
“I’m pretty hard to shock, and I’d been blase about dog meat until that moment because, I thought, I’m not going to judge it as a Westerner. But when I saw that dog, I had a different opinion. I surprised myself. That was one of the first moments I realised it wasn’t as straight forward as I thought.”
Indeed, the musican-turned-writer found that many of her ideas about place and culture got turned upside down while living as an expat in Hanoi, where she ended up on a whim after packing up her comfortable life in Sydney one day.
“I’d fallen in love with Bali and Turkey, and I had this stupid idea that there must be some kind of hybrid place in between them. And then a friend said to me, I think you’d like Hanoi. And I went, where’s that again?” laughs Shine, 46, looking back.
Now back living in Sydney, she is set to launch her first book, a travel memoir called Single White Female in Hanoi, about her exploits and the colourful cast of characters she meets along the way, during that first year on the go in search of love and adventure.
“I was pretty certain there would be romance because I’ve always been attracted to East Asian boys,” she admits unabashedly. “And Vietnam sounded so exciting and romantic.”
Perhaps uprooting to a third-world Communist country like Vietnam wasn’t the most conventional move for a nice, Jewish girl from Bondi. But then again, it quickly becomes apparent Shine isn’t your “typical” Jewish girl.
“I’ve never done anything that was all that common for a Jewish girl, except become an atheist,” she jokes.
Without a job, and not a lick of Vietnamese behind her (“I hadn’t even heard a tonal language before then”), she landed in Hanoi not longer after, carrying her suitcase and just a single address on a piece of paper that she’d been given by a girl at a party just a few weeks earlier.
That chance encounter, thankfully, proved helpful as Shine soon found herself set up in a flat within a compound of dwellings and living amongst local Vietnamese. Snagging a teaching job, plus a newspaper sub-editing gig on the side, also came easily. She even managed to start up a blues band in time.
But sure enough, challenges were in store and it didn’t take long for her to discover that “a place of one’s own” is a foreign concept in Hanoi. Her landlady, Nga, always had a spare key to her apartment – along with the rest of the extended family.
On any given day, she would come back home to find her furniture rearranged, or tradesmen camped out in her living room. Students and other hangers-on also came knocking on her door unannounced.
But she took it all in her stride.
“The Vietnamese don’t individuate the way we do,” she observes. “They spend their lives sleeping in the same bed as their same-sex siblings. They eat the meals with their parents. They have not a moment of privacy in their entire lives.
“The result of that is, they don’t have that highly-strung sensitivity that most Westerners tend to have. They’re much tougher,” she says admiringly.
As a musician, Shine also fell in love with the singsong cadence of the Vietnamese language, with its ever-shifting tones and pitch.
Mastering it, however, was another story and much was lost in translation: “I kept on telling my neighbors I was dirty all the time when I was trying to say I was busy,” she laughs.
Nevertheless, she persevered. “I was obsessed. I became conversational, but not fluent.”
Still, there were other parts of the culture that she found harder to cope with. Being an animal lover and pathological vegetarian, in her own words, in a country where both are virtually a crime, proved taxing.
She also struggled with the extreme levels of poverty. When she befriends Hien, a homeless woman who lives outside her local supermarket and is fatally ill, she spends much of her time grappling with finding some way to save her. Ultimately, she runs out of time.
“I could have saved her,” she says regretfully, still wrestling with guilt all these years later. “Whenever I had to write about her, I had to force myself. It was just sad.”
Ultimately, it was these more sobering episodes that led her to question her beliefs. Soon she realized that she had turned up to Hanoi with “excess baggage”, after spending most of her adulthood cultivating ideologies fostered in a “liberal, leftish bohemian culture”.
“There were things that I thought were right and true that turned out not to be,” she says. “For example, human rights. I thought that human rights were something that everyone would understand and agree with. Whereas to the Vietnamese, it is a piece of hypocritical Western sermonizing by people who leave their parents to rot in old age homes.
“Loving animals, well, same deal. They got people living in dire poverty, and animals are far down the list of priorities.”
In the end, apart from a fling with a xe om (taxi driver), she didn’t quite find the romance she was looking for. But instead, she discovered something else.
“What I found there was my own feet, in some ways politically and culturally,” she says. “I began to accept my status as a Western democratic female, and how lucky I was.”
This article originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News here.