It wasn’t easy to make a major life change at the age of 69. Perseverence, inspiration and the knowledge of veteran Asian expatriates helped to make possible the jump to Vietnam. …
I began exploring my options, casting long glances at Asia. My girlfriend of many years, the photographer Barb Gonzalez, wasn’t interested. Not only had she had a negative experience living in Singapore in her early 20s; she wasn’t prepared to consider a new life so far away from her young-adult son.
I’m often asked how I wound up in Vietnam specifically. There is no one answer. Certainly, the experience of my traveling friend Kurt Bennett weighed in. Kurt ventured to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) around 2008, used his considerable wisdom to start a couple of small manufacturing businesses, and returned to Oregon with a wife. Now he and Thi have two homes, including Vietnam for several months each year. Not surprisingly, he gave the country his highest recommendation.
There was Isabel Dréan, the French Canadian film director. She and her ex-partner had launched a contest to sell the bookstore they owned for 10 years in the charming town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos. I serendipitously discovered the competition on a random website, immediately applied, and was among the first finalists chosen. The contest didn’t generate the interest she required to sell, and the bookstore is still in her family, now managed by her mother. But Isabel and I have remained friends.
The Laos temptation was the spark that reignited my desire to return to Asia. It accelerated when my primary travel-writing market, the Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Oregon, stopped publishing my weekly stories after 10 years. As my income took an immediate dive, I was forced to consider where I might be able to live on a retirement income. Southeast Asia leaped to the head of the list.
With my parents and son having passed, I had only two immediate family members (and a few cousins) surviving, a sister in Oregon and my brother in Japan. Although my sister and I chatted from time to time, I had more in common with Fred, a linguistics professor who had lived in Japan since 1977. His wife, two adult children and one grandchild (now two) were all there. I missed being closer to them.
I had flashes of interest from English-language newspapers in Hong Kong and Beijing. Mostly, though, publications were seeking tech-savvy journalists in their 30s and 40s, not 60s. And I discovered, to my disappointment, that seniors were also not graciously welcomed to teaching positions. Perhaps I had waited too long in my life to make this move.
The final pieces
Enter Jessica Hill. During the early spring of 2019, I glimpsed a post on my Facebook feed from this woman, a fellow Laos bookstore applicant from Oregon. She was now promoting English-language teaching jobs for an agency called Global University. At a small independent bookstore, she laid out the opportunities available. It was true, she said, that many countries discouraged teachers of advanced age. But Vietnam and Cambodia were not among them. So hungry were these two countries for capable English teachers, they were rolling out the red carpet even for the seniors among us.
Certain things would be required of me before I would qualify for a teaching job. I would need a diploma from a university (I had two) and a clean criminal background check (my sole transgression, for drinking and driving, had been dismissed years earlier). More importantly, I would need a certificate of proficiency in TEFL, Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. With Jessica’s guidance, I enrolled in a four-week course at the Australia-Vietnam School of English in Ho Chi Minh City.
I paid tuition of US$1,749 in six monthly installments. I got my airline ticket and visas. And I put my life in Oregon in the rear-view mirror. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I reluctantly kissed my girlfriend goodbye. I tearfully put my aged and ailing dog to sleep. I said farewell to friends. I underestimated how much “stuff” I had accumulated in my itinerant life, but I got rid of what I could before putting the rest in storage for who knows how long.
I packed one large suitcase, a smaller one and my laptop computer, and boarded a flight from Portland International Airport on October 21, one week after my 69th birthday. Following a week with my brother in Osaka, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City late on the night of October 29.
Next: Culture shock, and learning to teach