I grew up trying to stay under the radar. Being a shy and not-so-big kid who didn’t exactly excel at sports, I just wanted to avoid people’s attention. I was afraid of bullies. I had curly hair. I was suffering from nervous twitches – in the face nonetheless. Somehow I managed to never get a beating, probably by being extra nice to (almost) every one.
I went to 3 different high schools. Not because I was getting expelled but for other reasons. The first school was close to a biker HQ during a bikers war, and to be honest it was kind of white trash, so my parents decided to send me to a private college.
I felt safer at the private college. My parents probably don’t know (until they read this) however that at this private college I was much more exposed to weed and alcohol – the kids were smarter and had bigger allowances – and that’s where I really started to dabble. But hey, it helped me make friends are learn how to properly socialize.
Then in the middle of a high-school year we moved and I had to go back to a public high school, in a bigger city. I was scared again. I went back to my “under the radar” attitude. Black hoodie, blue army pants, I’d spend my lunches at the library reading comics and trying my best to be left alone. However, being a new student in a small school and having curly hair made sure that people noticed me. For some strange reason as well, for the first time in my life, girls were taking an interest in me.
I made friends, a lot of them. I learned to sort of be myself. I got heavily into punk rock and rejected any ideas of fashion. Jeans and t-shirt was my attire every day. After high school I finally had the courage to shave my head, wear tighter black jeans, go to the gym, and all that stuff. I looked pretty punk rock, if you ask me, and I loved it.
It’s funny, but for half my life I was trying to reject ideas of “looks” and “fashion”, but I made damn sure people knew about it, by putting on the punk rock uniform and looking exactly like everyone else at the concerts.
I’m now living in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, where appearance seems to be the most important part of life. There’s no getting away – I’m different. I stand out. First of all, I’m a foreigner. Second, my tattoos are really starting to pile up and poke out of everywhere. Third, my fashion sense is quite different from theirs. I haven’t seen anybody else sporting a Rancid t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
Why would anyone want to look poor? Their daily struggle is to get out of poverty.
When I first got to this city, I was living in a hostel and looking for work intensively. I dropped by unannounced at schools, I sent dozens of C.V.s, I gave free lessons in coffee shops to get the ball rolling. I wasn’t able to get an interview for a full month. I was starting to be disappointed and nervous, watching the last of my funds melt away slowly.
I wanted to be an English teacher. I had the training and the confidence. There was one small problem however: on my C.V. my first name was Étienne. People wouldn’t call me or invite me to their office. I realised that they probably thought I had a France accent while speaking English.
Following the advice of an expat, I changed my name to Ethan.
I got a call the same day, and a week later I was working.
I think that so many expats here shoot themselves in the foot, looking for work but going at it too “relaxed”. Wear trousers. Put a nice shirt one. A tie wouldn’t hurt. I mean, that’s what you would do at home, right? Why is it any different here? As a matter of fact, it’s even more important here.
For the first few weeks at work, I wore my shirt with the sleeves down to hide my tattoos. I would sweat, and sweat, but worked through, because I really wanted (and needed) that job. Then, one time I decided to do a test while talking to the school staff. I rolled up my sleeves. The receptionist was really surprised. She thought it was really cool. She said I should show off my tattoos to my students (the centre’s mentality is they want “crazy” teachers, who are fun and out-of-the-box, but they still want us to wear trousers, shirt n’ tie). I said that I didn’t want to lose my job, and she assured me that I wouldn’t – that my students would love the tattoos. She was right.
I was giving a lesson on stereotypes when I first showed them my ink. Dressed fully “professional” I asked them what they thought my personality was. “Gentle. Friendly. Nice”. I went out of the classroom, rolled up my sleeves and came marching into the class, slamming the door behind me and kicking my feet up the desk. “What about now?”
“Violent. Crazy. Strange. Different. Cool”. One girl said “I cannot believe what I am seeing. I don’t know who you are”. Most of the other people though seemed to not care and had lots of questions about the tats.
Now I have my sleeves rolled up all the time. Some students are distracted by my tattoos and I catch them staring and talking in hushed tones in Vietnamese about them (they can’t help but point). But because I’m still in trousers, shirt n’ tie, I think that I still have their attention. Appearances.
I’m saying this because for the first time last Saturday, I went in dressed “casual”. Jeans, Converse, and the school’s polo. Disaster. I was teaching to students who have only been with me for 2 classes prior. I gave the worst lesson I’ve ever given. Or rather, I was faced with the shyest and most unassuming students I’ve taught so far and I wasn’t prepared – didn’t know how to adapt. No one would talk. No one would participate. No one would raise their hand if they had a question – and I knew they had hundreds of them.
I strongly believe that it’s because I was not fully dressed as a teacher. Who’s this guy? Why is he standing in front of us, trying to be a teacher? Why should I listen to him?
My other class that day had been with me for a few weeks already, so I had already established a rapport with them. They asked me why I was dressed like that, and I explained the difference between business and casual, and that was it. The class went on as normal.
Remember earlier, I said that for some reason in the middle of high school girls started taking an interest in me? Apparently I’ve bloomed into an okay man. I think my face has been a big part of how many classes I’ve been assigned. Pictures of me teaching pop up regularly on my FB feed now with the caption “My handsome teacher (heart heart)”. The receptionist tells me every week “Your students love you. They say, Mr. Ethan is so handsome.” “Yeah but do they say I’m a good teacher?” “Don’t worry too much, Ethan”. It makes me wonder if I’ll be able to get work as easily if I’m still working as a teacher when I’m 50, if I’m still in Vietnam.
One of my new friends is this “Viet kieu”, a Vietnamese born or living overseas (literally translating to “Vietnamese Sojourner”) who, born of two Vietnamese parents, lived all his life in Toronto. He taught in Hong Kong for a few months and wants to start teaching here. I got him a few interviews at schools where I worked. Over the phone, he sounds perfectly Canadian. He’d say his name is Henri. However, when he’d show up at the school for an interview he was met with blank stares. You’re Henry? Yup.
He’d be offered a job, but with a Vietnamese’s salary instead of a foreigner’s salary (a good 1/3 less of the salary) and he would turn it down. I’d get a phone call shortly after from the school. “Mr. Henry looked angry, do you know why?”. From their point of view, they would have no problem hiring him, but they market their advanced classes as “Learning with a native speaker”, and even though Hong (Henri) is a native English speaker (his English is better than his Vietnamese) the students expect, want to study with a white face. Appearances.
My epic dad epicly came to visit me in Vietnam a few months ago. I was suddenly invisible. People didn’t care about the short guy with a shaved head and tattoos. They wanted to talk to the head of the family, the big guy with a nice white beard and friendly eyes who could mutter a few words in their language. It was quite frustrating sometimes, since my dad couldn’t understand their broken English but I could. “So how do we get to the Marble Mountains?” “You tae de bus daotao ann den you go fo abow 5 kilomeh,” “What?” and when I’d try to jump in the conversation to help out, the hotel workers would flat-out ignore me. Appearances. Traditions, as well.
Back home, my “I don’t care about looks” appearance seemed to help me a lot on the dating scene. On top of that, Montréal girls are pretty relaxed about dating and can take the first steps too – they’re pretty awesome, actually – and so my “game” developed in a certain way, that is ultimately useless here in Vietnam.
I don’t have a clue how anything works with girls. I’m 13 again. I hate it. I’m getting horny as hell.
Forget about hanging out with a girl if you’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt. “You look like a little boy”, I was told. Jeans and a plaid shirt seems to be the desired uniform. A lot of guys wear polos and trousers at all times, or jeans and a nice shirt. Big watches. Designer sunglasses. Appearances. You have to look the part. My face doesn’t help me farther than breaking the ice here – after that, it seems to be either about how much of my life plan I have figured out, or how much money I’m ready to dish out on them. For those of you who know me, a life plan has never been my thing, let alone a 3-year plan. And spending $50 (equivalent of $100+ in Canada) on a diner in the hopes of impressing a girl into a second date is pretty far from my ideal evening. I mean, if being spoiled financially is your idea of a relationship, you’ll be disappointed with me.
And so I remain single.
My students always ask me “Why are you still single at 31, teacher?”
I shrug. “I don’t know! The culture is very different, I guess”.
I tell them I don’t mind being alone.
True, I’m starting to feel a little bit lonely. I miss having a delicate hand rubbing the back of my neck softly, or going to bed with a head resting on my arm.
I’m a pretty patient guy. Either I’ll run into someone who can think differently, or eventually I’ll learn their “game” and truly become a chameleon.