As they say, knowledge is power, and what could be more powerful than better understanding yourself, the cultures you encounter, and where you fit into a global community?

Normal is a difficult word to conceptualize and I am sure what you consider normal is vastly different from myself, but we are all familiar with the feelings that ‘normal’ invoke; normal is familiar, comforting, and easy. So why would I want to resist such a thing? I am fighting the urge to accept my new life as normal because I do not want to lose appreciation for it.

I am a Fisheries Resource Management Intern at the Nha Trang University (NTU) in Vietnam and am now nearly two months into my placement. Since arriving in Nha Trang, I have settled into an apartment with my fellow interns, been welcomed into the campus community at NTU, and am getting the swing of everyday life in Nha Trang. Naturally, as I am sure other interns have experienced, life has begun to feel normal. We found our favorite eating spots, we know where to pick up the best groceries, and crossing the street no longer feels life-threatening (if you have visited the scooter filled streets of Vietnam, I am sure you understand).  

While it may be expected and encouraged to fall into a new routine, and to be honest it is incredibly calming to do so, I believe that the categorization of normal should be approached with caution. The danger of considering my new life as normal comes from the risk of losing appreciation for the absolute uniqueness of it. It is natural for people to have experiences dulled through exposure and repetition, but a loss admiration can happen quickly and without notice. An example that I have recently encountered is my dulling of the Nha Trang City view. We live on the 17th floor of an apartment building and have a stunning view of the city (check photos). I remember very vividly the first time I stepped onto our balcony, back when we were still apartment shopping. I stopped dead in my tracks and had absolutely no words. I frantically grasped for my phone as if the view was going to disappear, as if it was something so rare and delicate that begged to be photographed. That experience is such a contrast to what I feel now. After over a month in the apartment, I still see a beautiful view, but I no longer get that same excitement. I wake up and go to sleep to the same view every day, and as a result, I have lost my appreciation for it. I think it is entirely valid to extrapolate from this example to my experience with IYIP as a whole. The longer I live here, the more ‘normal’ it becomes and the less often I stop dead in my tracks with pure gratitude – this is what I am fighting. Okay, so saying that I am fighting my new normal is all fine and dandy, but you might ask, how exactly do I plan on doing this? Well, I have a little stash of tricks that I have gathered throughout my many travels and I will share 3 of my most valuable and commonly employed tricks with you:

1.       The biggest trick in my toolbox is constant reflection. It is shocking how much we can learn about ourselves and the community we live in by simply taking the time to reflect on it. However, figuring out what is worth spending time reflecting upon can be a little daunting, so as a rule of thumb, I focus my efforts on things that induce some kind of emotional response. Any kind of emotional response! Happiness is an easy one to work on and is a good stepping stone, but eventually it is good to tackle some negative emotions as well. The guiding questions I follow are 1) what happened, 2) why did I feel that way, and 3) how will I use this information moving forward? Although very ambiguous, these questions allow me to tackle cultural differences in gender norms, economic prosperity, family values, and environmental issues, which positively influence my time here. Furthermore, this reflection allows me to accept and appreciate cultural differences as simply different, instead of better or worse. As they say, knowledge is power, and what could be more powerful than better understanding yourself, the cultures you encounter, and where you fit into a global community?

2.       Another trick I often utilize is keeping personal connections at home alive. This trick comes with a bit of danger and requires finding a good balance, but if it is done correctly, it can be very rewarding. When we travel, we are often told that we should ‘live in the moment’ and not focus on what is happening back home, but that does not necessarily mean shutting down all connections. I find it very comforting to keep in contact with my loved ones while abroad. With tools such as Skype and Facebook messenger being so accessible, it is easier than ever to keep in contact. Through the occasional email and phone call, I feel a sense of community with those back home and accomplishment for how far I have come, and as a result, appreciation for where I find myself. Living in Nha Trang, Vietnam? How unique! Another added perk is that by sharing my experiences with people at home, I can re-live experiences in a new light. Think of it like self-reflection through other people. By describing my experiences to others and seeing the excitement they get, I am reminded how truly remarkable this opportunity is.

3.       Lastly, but certainly not least, I go to my ‘happy place’. When other travelers ask me if I have any advice for them, I always tell them to find their happy place and visit it often. This ‘happy place’ could be somewhere physical such as your favorite café or beach, it could be an exercise like running, biking, or yoga, it could be an activity such as listen to music or drawing, or it could be something as simple as a good cup of coffee. Alternatively, it could be a combination of any of the above or something completely different. I like to think of a happy place as a special set of circumstances that allow someone to be in a good headspace and embrace positive wandering thoughts. For me, my happy place is in a well-lit café with some type of caffeinated beverage. I like to hunker down with my earphones in and laptop in hand, ready to write whatever comes to mind. While in this happy place, I often catch myself reflecting on my current situation (tip #1), appreciating the ones that I love (tip #2), and, as the name suggests, being happy. Although we may all have a different definition of a ‘happy place’, I recommend we each find our own and visit it often.

Catelyn Van Veen