The only way forward when you're stuck in the middle

By Michael J Aumock   July 24, 2020 | 08:10 pm PT
It’s been 100 days since a locally transmitted case of Covid-19 was reported. Until now.
Michael J Aumock

Michael J Aumock

Yesterday someone was confirmed to test positive in Da Nang, and it has the potential to change EVERYTHING.

Not that everything wasn’t already changing. It was. It is.

Resiliency is being tested across the globe as business and in some cases, societies are failing into oblivion, largely because of the disconnect between governments, people, and social contracts. My resilience is being tested because I am an expat stuck in a country that I am not from, trying to get to another country that I am not from, but happy not to be in the country that I AM from.

To clarify... I am stuck in Vietnam. I am unable to travel internationally, (like most people in most countries), not a big deal.

However, I live in Phuket, Thailand. My home, my girlfriend, my car, my spare Scotch, my favorite flip-flops and my kitchen knives are all in Thailand. So, I’d like to go back there and hug my best girl, wear my flip-flops, enjoy a glass of fine Scotch (without worrying if it’s a counterfeit bottle that will kill me or make my nuts shrivel) and drive around and see my friends that I have known 10 years, have some emotional support during these trying times and maybe take a walk on the empty beach with the woman I love, who (God help me) got stuck having to decorate our new house all by herself because we closed on it February 28, and I left on March 2 for Bangkok before I came back to Vietnam to finish some business.

I am from America. Yeah...... I’ll quite happily wait right where I am until somebody puts out the 3,000-mile coast-to-coast dumpster-fire that is my homeland. I don’t expect that to be soon. Maybe never.

But don’t look for me to push your political argument. Everyone is equally not-to-blame for Covid-19. If you want my take on why it’s such an unmitigated disaster, send me an email and be polite and logical. This article isn’t political... this article is about me, and anyone like me (as if!) who is stuck in a place that isn’t home, but doesn’t want to or can’t go to the place his passport guarantees him access to. So this is about adapting. How to sit in place and watch what is happening around you, realizing that you have no voice in the matter, no say in the decision-making process and your presence only serves to pay a few locals' bills and generally makes them slightly uncomfortable.

This is the life of an expat in Asia during a pandemic.

Foreign passengers arrive at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City in March, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

Foreign passengers arrive at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City in March 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

I am the outsider. I accept that. I even relish it, sometimes. I value my solitude and take comfort in quiet- most of the time. But I genuinely enjoy intelligent conversation and seek it out whenever I can, even if it means sitting and listening to people whose worldview is different than mine, and politely nodding and smiling when they say things that I disagree with at my core. Which is quite often the case when one sits with other expats.

But there are real issues that need to be dealt with if you are an expat here without a company or a job. At the moment, I am technically both. Although I am consulting for a company in the U.S. and another in Thailand, neither provide me any visa/residency cover for Vietnam. I just spent $300 on a three-month visa extension. That stung a bit. I did so because I legally cannot travel to Thailand. There are no flights as of this writing. And as much as I miss my girl, I need to come back to Vietnam for work... so even a weekend to Phuket could take me 30 days. I would have to travel there, which requires copious amounts of paperwork, most of which will not be read. The journey is a quick two hour flight, then 14 days of quarantine, then a little time with my sweetheart, then come back to Vietnam, not possible right now, but even when it is, another 14 day-quarantine, plus health check and fees and new visa, etc etc.

So, coming out of quarantine back in Vietnam after a short visit in Thailand would be rather soul-crushing for me. Without any sort of emotional support here it does get a bit daunting.

Spending 14 days in isolation only to check into another hotel alone for a few months would be less than uplifting, indeed it might be the thing which breaks my spirit. One can pretend that they are OK or doing fine when they are alone, or among strangers, until they get close to someone that loves them again. Then the walls have to come down, the defense mechanism fades so that reconnection is possible. But I fear that upon leaving again, I would find myself in a much-weakened position, and far more susceptible to the slings and arrows that a global pandemic seems willing and able to launch from the shadows without warning or care.

Indeed, I’m an expat precisely because I can see most of those potential hazards coming, and avoid them or absorb them. Not so after a visit to home, I fear. So it is alone and in Vietnam that I press on, looking for ways to improve my position and have a positive impact on this country that has been so kind to me and largely Covid-free to it’s citizens.

We are all rather lucky to be here.

The booming economy slowed, but it didn’t bust. The people have grown resilient to setbacks out of necessity from years of war and a few droughts and an innate mental toughness that Vietnamese seem to possess. The government is watching all. Closely, with all eyes on everything related to the economy and Covid and any intersection that might appear between the two. I’m quite sure they would be willing to lock down the country again in a split second, if a few cases were to be transmitted locally.

And although there might be a little flare up in Da Nang, I don’t think another national lockdown is likely... but it would be done without discussion (because the discussion has already taken place) or second thought. And it would prevent a second wave, no doubt.

It’s because of policies and cultural idiosyncrasies like these that I feel comfortable moving forward with my life here. I don’t hear anyone in power feeling like they have to justify "The right thing", they just do it. the people obey and life goes on. No, it is NOT the American way. But right now, it’s surely proving to be the best way. Also- and I don’t want to tell anyone what to do, but I think we need to adjust the way we think about things.

For the immediate future, I think we have to adopt a different kind of hope. It’s a paradox, but I think it’s necessary. We can’t just close our eyes and have faith in a false hope that everything will be OK. It might not. It quite frankly, probably won’t. Blind faith that everything will be alright is a liability that breaks a little piece of your heart each time you are disappointed. So we have to approach the future with eyes open, and prepare for challenges that we can’t yet see. At the same time, however... we have to trust in our ability as a people to stand up, to rise above and to find a way to thrive under whatever circumstances we have to face.

As an expat living here I’m prepared for the worst. I could lose everything again, I could get hit by a motorbike crossing the street to buy a bowl of pho, and forget who I am... But none of the potential bad is going to stop me from trying to make my own good, and open a new consulting company and have as positive impact on my new home as I possibly can.

Because the only way forward is through the middle.

*Michael J Aumock is an American businessman operating in Vietnam and some other Southeast Asian markets. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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