Country: Vietnam


Good Morning Vietnam, or Robin Williams Convinced Me To Move Here

October 27, 2013

I decided to join the Peace Corps when I was 12.  The miserable gray skies of Washington in mid-January went endlessly on as I watched trees sagging with rain whiz by on I-5. 

“Mom. I’m going to join the Peace Corps when I grow up,” I remember saying.

“Well, that sounds like a good idea. I had a friend who did it and now she won’t use any plastic products.  So maybe you’ll do your shopping in nylon tights,” my mom half-joked (this was the era before Going Green was fashionable and bag-bans were a dime-a-dozen).

And that was it. That was my big decision to move abroad after college (university for you non-Americans out there. It’s the same for us.) I made it looking at the rain on the way to a soccer game, realizing that there absolutely had to be more out there than this beautiful, yet perpetually sodden and dreary place I’d spent my entire life.


Flash forward 2 passports, a few international research grants and an insatiable desire to get outta dodge later, and I had decided to move to Vietnam. In a similarly unceremonious and otherwise unremarkable situation, I had been watching “Good Morning Vietnam” with my dad over Christmas break last year.

“I think I wanna move there,” I said to no one in particular.

“With the Peace Corps?” My dad asked.

“Nah. There’s no PC in Vietnam. CIA spies and shit. Plus like, the war.”

“Well what about the Peace Corps?” my dad said nervously. My parents had had nearly 10 years to get used to the idea of their precious firstborn jetting off, albeit in the arms of a government agency, immediately after graduation, and they weren’t exactly prepared to modify this vision with the subtraction of government safety nets.

“Yeah, well, we’ll see. They’re not really inspiring me with confidence. It’s been 5 months since I submitted my medical stuff. Not a peep! Maybe I’ll just wait to hear from them in Vietnam instead of lounging around here. Looks awesome and I love Vietnamese food.  Plus the weather is bound to be better than here,” I shrugged, trying to avoid thinking of the infuriating process of the Peace Corps.

Side note: it’s been 15 months since I was accepted, 13 months since I turned in my medical forms and I was just pre-medically cleared 1st August this year. American efficiency at its finest, folks.


So, that’s how I decided to move to Vietnam.  My parents always joke that I am the only person in the history of the world who watched a movie about the Vietnam War and decided to move to Vietnam.  I doubt that, but it is pretty weird to explain when people ask me.

Fast forward again, it’s mid-April, graduation is looming, and my eggs are all in the basket of Teachers for Vietnam.  Luckily, they decided I seemed like a safe gamble, and hired me to teach at An Giang University in Long Xuyen, near the Cambodian border.  After much joyous screaming and crying (have you seen the state of our economy?? People aren’t exactly fighting to hire recent grads with a BA in Diplomacy and World Affairs and philosophy minor. I was positively THRILLED), I called my parents to tell them the news that their beloved daughter would be moving to Vietnam, making the big bucks of $250 a month.

“Are you sure?” My mom asked, her voice wavering.  My parents had never, ever doubted me, and always knew that I would move abroad as soon as possible.  But this was a curve-ball. They were really counting on the Peace Corps to pull through for them, to have some last-minute, fairy-tale ending that would allow their 12-year old daughter’s dreams to be lived.  Alas, not the case.

Graduation happened. My heart broke every time a friend walked across the stage, receiving the most expensive piece of paper they will ever buy, realizing that this was it. I was suddenly supposed to be a ‘real person,’ and thank god I was moving to Vietnam because there was no way I could figure out how to function in the developed world.  I moved out of my house, said goodbye to my best friends and my life in LA, and trekked back to the PNW.

If moving to Vietnam was a curve-ball, the next two months were the equivalent of 30 curve-balls being thrown all at once from every possible direction: I went to the doctor because I’d been having some weird problems (like waking up choking in the middle of the night and suddenly gaining 13lbs in a month) I figured I’d get checked out whilst still in the world of readily available safe, hermetically clean, modern medical facilities.  And when I say “I figured” I meant my best friend threatened me on pain of death if I didn’t go to the doctor.  So, I begrudgingly entered America’s mighty medical industrial complex and visited my doctor.  Good thing too, really. 

I guess I should preface this by saying that my body is not super good at doing things, like being healthy.  At 19 I developed an auto-immune disorder called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis where, basically, my body spends a bunch of energy trying to kill my thyroid gland.  Not being much for science, I had never really given thought to my thyroid or its duties, but, in summary, it controls everything. If your thyroid doesn’t work, you are exhausted, you can’t be bothered to eat but get inexplicably fat, you bruise, you get depressed, you get anxious—basically, your life goes to shit. It’s really easy to fix, and once my a doctor was like oh hey this is why you feel like you’re dying, take these pills every day for the rest of your earthly existence, life improved. So: shit thyroid, shit immune system, and just general bad luck in terms of getting diseases reserved primarily for the post-menopausal.

So, due to the aforementioned medical malady, my doctor was prodding around my thyroid/stabbing me in the neck, when he felt a lump.  This was about a month before I was supposed to move to Vietnam (on July 31).

I will give you the abridged version of this originally optimistic and then quite inconvenient situation: lump probably was cystànot cyst because solidàtumorànot enough time to do a biopsy to see if it was cancerous and then schedule surgeryàsurgery scheduling scrambleàfigure the tumor is big enough to remove regardless of malignancyà(July 12) surgery in which tumor and left thyroid is removedàoriginal pathology report says there’s no cancer YAYYYYYYàsurgeon calls and basically says ‘woops, my b, you do have thyroid cancer. No need to be concerned tho lol. Thyroid cancer isn’t a big deal.’ Oh, K, well when you put it that way I feel totally fine about being 21 and suddenly finding out I have canceràmy mom cries and I just look at myself in the mirror, thinking ‘body, so help me god if you fuck up my life. I put up with a lot of shit from you, but this is just not going to fly. This isn’t just missing midterms or feeling shitty for a few months, this is my life you’re fucking with this time. Get your SHIT together.’ I believe this is called denialàgo to a specialist, get told I’m one-in-a-million, a statistical anomaly and other things you NEVER IN YOUR LIFE WANT TO HEAR WHEN TALKING ABOUT CANCERàam told I need the right side of my thyroid removed because some of the margins didn’t look good on the tumor (cancer talk for eh it looks iffy but we won’t scare you), but that the surgery can’t be done until Christmasàguess who gets to come home for Christmas?? This girlàThen, in the summer, I will once again return home and get radioactive iodine (radioiodine 131 to be specific) shot into my neck to kill any thyroid tissue.  Luckily, I have the second most common type of thyroid cancer (follicular thyroid cancer for any of you sciency folk out there) and it really isn’t all that dangerous if you’re over 20 and under 40. It’s the tortoise of the cancer world—pretty slow moving, pretty incompatible with other parts of your body, and metastasis is pretty unlikely. I’m not ultra optimistic about this prognosis because my body usually take a little illness and runs with it (i.e. one time I got mono. Then I had strep for a year, then I got my tonsils out, and even though there isn’t any real connection between the two, I’m pretty sure that’s how I got Hashimoto’s.) so, I’ll be relieved when all they remaining thyroid tissue in my neck is dead and shriveled.   

Honestly, the upside of this whole fiasco is that I will have r131 injected into my body, which will make me radioactive for a few days (lame but, come on, a little cool) BUT will make me ‘light up like a light bulb’ if I go through a radiation detector in the airport.  Given that I fly through Canada and they’re much more reasonable with airport security, I doubt this will happen, but still.  I have to carry a bunch of paperwork with me for the foreseeable future BECAUSE (this is the best part) r131 is only used to treat thyroid cancer AND build atomic bombs. So. Being lit up with r131 is probably frowned upon by TSA, and even though I’ll have a Frankenstein’s monster scar across my neck, I still need paperwork. 

My parents kind of tried to talk me into staying at home until December, but after many placating words from my doctors that I could wait in Vietnam as well as I could wait at home, and many fiery words about how I wasn’t going to put my life on hold so my body could figure out if it wanted to properly replicate its cells or not, and that having me at home moping about for 5 months was akin to keeping a Rottweiler locked in your shower, we all agreed I’d be departing to Vietnam on schedule.

And that is how I ended up in Vietnam. I take a lot of pills (that may or may not have resulted in me getting a mouth infection—like I said, my body is really bad at things), and sometimes I get really tired, and I should probably be slightly more concerned about my weight since losing a lot of weight is not usually a great thing when one has cancer, but I’m pretty much just livin life in the outskirts of the Mekong Delta.  I am so, so happy that I am here instead of at home—I have literally never imagined living in America post-college, and the thought of being forced to live there because of the big C word (the other one) is pretty much the absolute worst thing I could possibly imagine. All I have ever wanted is to live abroad, and as weird as it may sound, the hullaballoo before I left showed me that I really do want to live abroad, and that it wasn’t just a fantasy of who I wanted to be and what I wanted that fantasy woman to do.  I really want to be here, and the idea of something going wrong in my surgery, or a lymph node having cancer, or the cancer having suddenly gotten into my blood or bones, or really anything at all that would prevent me from returning in January, makes my heart get that constricted and pukey feeling. 

            Every bit of my decision to move here has been unusual—I’m a planner, and not a bit of this was really planned or thought out. I abandoned a dream I’d had since I was 12 (not abandoned, my application is still drifting around the depths of American bureaucracy), I moved to a place I’d never heard of and knew nothing about, I suddenly had to change my mindset from bought-a-one-way-ticket-see-ya-when-I-see-ya-merica to right well, see you in December, and then again in June, and then possibly again in a year and then we’ll just play it by ear yeah?

            It’s certainly not ideal, but I’m not upset, because I really can’t do anything about it.  I know now that this is REALLY where I want to be, and really what I want to be doing.  I have literally the best cop-out in the entire world if I decide I can’t hang, but it’s just making me more determined to kick this C thing and then carry on with my life like a normal idiot 20-something.  Hopefully, when I turn 23 next August, I will be living in Saigon with a friend I met in Morocco, foot-loose and cancer-free.