From Tourist to Local
When do you go from being ‘a tourist’ to being ‘a local’? I only realized the difference after it had already happened. I was about to be on my way to a digital marketing event in Hoi An, a Unesco World Heritage site. A lovely coastal drive of 40 minutes. Hmm, that is a long time and I feel like having coffee, I thought. So at 8 am I stepped in the warm morning sun to one of the nine coffeeshops on my street.
The chill of AC air surrounded me while I ordered a cà phê đen đá (iced black Vietnamese coffee). My phone buzzed. Ah, my scooter taxi has arrived. I hopped on the back and we took off. The wind was blowing through my hair as I took a bittersweet sip and tried to take a picture of the view. Suddenly it dawned on me: Wow, this wasn’t something I would have dared to do two months ago. Back then I was terrified to step onto a scooter taxi and ordering a coffee they way I liked it was more challenging than you might think. Now, hands-free, coffee-sipping, mobile phone-browsing motorbike rides were just my new normal.
A New Normal
Over the past three months more things have made their way into my new normal. While running, my body is now used to a tropical 29 degrees celsius and humidity of 80% (instead of a cool 10 to 15 degrees back home). In the Vietnamese restaurants I recognize my favorite dishes, such as Bánh xèo (a crispy pancake with shrimp and pork), Cơm gà (Chicken with rice and vegetables) and Mì Quảng (Noodles with chicken, peanuts and fresh herbs).
Scott and I know our neighborhood, see the same friends weekly and are getting friendly with the locals. I completely embrace the extraordinary hospitality of our Vietnamese friends, whether they invite us for coffee or breakfast. I’m starting to feel at home.
Incredible Friendliness of Vietnamese People
The only thing that I can’t seem to get used to is the incredibly friendly, almost celebrity-like treatment the Vietnamese people sometimes give to traveling Westerners. I’m still not sure why, but I regularly get asked by the locals to take a selfie with them. It could be the blond hair - my husband often says I’m easy to spot among a sea of Asian heads. Even when I’m running on the beach (with a head like a tomato), an occasional group of girls walking on the boulevard still wave enthusiastically to say hello.
At the same time, something else has happened in the past three months. As a Dutchie, I’m used to endless cloudy days. Three months later, I usually don’t notice the sun that comes through our apartment window every morning. The view of the tropical beach with coconut boats, palm trees and turquoise water, has started to feel normal. Day trips get traded in for long workdays. Weeks begin to pass by in a heartbeat. What is up?
Psychologists describe this experience as the hedonic-treadmill. Even being on the other side of the world, I can not get away from the effect. It means that even as I get used to my new environment - feeling at home - I also get less excited about it. Even though I still find the beach amazing, seeing the beach doesn’t make me as giddy as it did the first time.
The hedonic-treadmill is something we all experience. For example, are you looking forward to that salary increase? Do you expect to be really happy when you attain it? Whoever has just got one probably noticed that the “happiness boost” didn’t last so long, or wasn’t as intense as they imagined. It likely became your new standard within six months time. That’s why psychologists call it a treadmill: you are running to obtain happiness, but you never quite reach it.
What to Do Against the Treadmill-effect?
To some extent, the treadmill effect was surprising to me. While I liked to feel at home, I also want to soak up all the little details of our year abroad like a tourist does. So, what can we do against the treadmill-effect? Positive psychology encourages us to actually take small chunks of time to be mindful and grateful. By consciously noticing these small things, you enjoy them a lot more. Perhaps somewhat clichéd advice, but still very effective.
If you for example write down what you're grateful for, you tend to enjoy it more. Consider sharing this with others as well - it makes the feeling of appreciation more powerful. I personally like to call the rush I get from sharing my feelings ‘Happy Attacks’.
And I share a lot with others - like when we were recently driving to visit old town Hoi An. The wind rustling through my hair, the view of the beach and skyline of Da Nang, Scott in front weaving through traffic, a feeling of freedom just grabbed me. I gave Scott an extra strong hug and said: ‘Wauw, wat een geweldig uitzicht hé?’. “Yeah, it’s quite the view.’ That ordinary drive suddenly looked very special and for a moment I went back to seeing it through tourist eyes.