Author Elka Ray shares the highs and lows of living in Vietnam with easyexpat.com
From the UK to Canada to Vietnam: Saigon- Why Am I Here?
28 November, 2011 09:36
Xin chao! My name is Elka Ray. I was born in the UK, grew up in Canada and have spent the past 16 years living in Vietnam.
1. Why did you move abroad?
After high school, I backpacked around Southeast Asia for six months. I was 18 years old, blonde, totally clueless, and lucky to have survived! But I loved it. After doing a degree in Journalism and Asian Studies I moved to Vietnam “for one year” as I wanted to learn more about the country. At that time, Vietnam had only recently reopened to foreigners.
2. How do you make a living?
I have spent the past 15 years working as a writer and editor. I started off writing freelance and was then hired by various local magazines. Over the years I have worked for a business magazine, an airline magazine, a UNDP project, and BP. I also wrote for some guidebooks.
My current goal is to cut back on my editing work and focus on fiction, which is my true passion. My first novel (Hanoi Jane, Marshall Cavendish) was published last year, and I am about to publish three kids’ books that I also illustrated. I’m very lucky to be doing what I love!
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
After 16 years, Vietnam really is “home”. I do miss my parents, however, and call and email regularly. Facebook was blocked for quite a while here, so I got out of the habit of using it. The best way to stay in touch with old friends is to go and see them, which isn’t so easy lately as I have small children…
4. What’s your favorite thing about being an expat in Saigon?
Even after all these years, I still see things that make me stop and think: “Really?”
At just this moment, for instance, a guy down the street has set up a karaoke system in his front yard and is belting out sad traditional songs – off-key, I might add. It’s awful, yet hilarious. I just hope that he loses his voice before nightfall.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Saigon?
The traffic, which is getting worse by the day. When I first moved here, most people traveled by bicycle. Now, along with millions of motorbikes there are more and more cars, which people drive as though they were still riding a one-speed bicycle.
6. What do you miss most?
I grew up in Victoria on Vancouver Island, which is arguably the prettiest city in Canada. I miss the ocean and the fresh, cool air. But when I’m back there, I miss some things about Vietnam too. Nowhere has everything.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
In Vietnam, domestic help is cheap enough that even a struggling writer can afford to have a maid. I always hired women who spoke no English, which forced me to learn more Vietnamese.
As for friendships, one of the hardest things about being a long-term expat is that expats tend to move fairly regularly. Even my close Vietnamese friends travel a lot, so it’s hard to maintain those really old friendships.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
Men’s willingness to urinate in public places.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
There is a lot of talk about Asian countries valuing “the collective” rather than “the individual”. I find it sadly ironic that in Vietnam, which is a Communist nation, people act more selfishly than in many other countries.
10. What advice would you give other expats?
The more curious you are, the more fun you will have.
11. When and why did you start your blog?
My publisher suggested that I needed an author website. Given that my daily life is full of hilarious, strange and poignant moments, finding material is never a problem.
12. How has the blog been beneficial?
By and large, I try to keep my blog light, focusing on the funny and absurd incidents that keep life in Vietnam amusing. By taking note of these moments, I appreciate them more.
To read Elka’s interview on easyexpat.com go to:http://interviews.blogexpat.com/blog/english/2011/11/28/from-the-uk-to-canada-to-vietnam-saigon-why-am-i-here
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Hi Everyone, Today we would like to introduce Elka Ray – the author of the newly-released (August 2011) book Hanoi Jane. Elka is a Canadian writer and illustrator who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She is the author of one novel and three children’s books.
Expat Women: Elka, what took you to Vietnam originally?
Elka: I spent six months backpacking in South East Asia after high school and found the region fascinating. Following university, I came to Vietnam in 1995, planning to find a thesis topic for higher studies. Instead, I started writing freelance, fell in love and never went back to university.
Expat Women: You have now been in Vietnam for 16 years. What made you stay? And what can you tell us about the other expats you have seen ‘come and go’ in Vietnam?
Elka: Alot of the expats who came to Vietnam in the mid-to-late-1990s and are either still here, or return regularly. Having been closed to Western investment for so long, Vietnam was a strange and exhilarating place in those days. (I have consequently met everyone from retired Vietnamese colonels to Miss Vietnams to entrepreneurs with crazy get-rich-quick schemes.)
I stayed because it was exciting, I had interesting friends, and I could work part-time as a magazine editor and pursue my true passion – writing fiction. Since my husband’s family business is based here, I do not think that we will be moving any time soon. Although I do want my kids to spend their summers where I grew up, on Canada’s Vancouver Island.
Expat Women: Your first novel, Hanoi Jane, was published by Marshall Cavendish last year. What does it take to succeed as a writer?
Elka: I am still working on that one! I meet a lot of people who tell me, “Oh, I want to write a book!” but they do not sit down and do it. If you truly want to write, you will find some way to do so daily. If you are really talented and lucky, your first book might get published – but that is unlikely. It is more probable that you will have to write for years without praise or financial reward before you have learned your craft and someone gives you a break. If and when you do find a publisher, you have to put in the time and effort to market your work. You need a great imagination, empathy to be able to create emotionally complex characters, discipline, and the ability to keep writing despite countless rejections.
Expat Women: Do you have any advice for other aspiring fiction writers?
Elka: I think that no matter what, you should write what moves you. However, if you want to get published by a traditional publisher (as opposed to self-publishing), you have to remember that their main concern is to make a profit. It is not enough to write a “good” book. It has to be sell able, so research the market.
If publication is your goal, before you start, I would advise you to write the promotional blurb that would go on your book’s back cover. Publishers want straightforward stories that can be summed up in a few lines. They want one clear, consistent point of view, and a lead character to whom readers can relate. The toughest market segment at the moment is that of kids’ picture books, especially rhyming ones. That being said, I have just finished a funny rhyming kids’ manuscript called Princess Nelly Was Smelly, for which I have high hopes. In the end I think that you just have to write what you love, and hope that some key editor will also love it.
Expat Women: Hanoi Jane tells the story of a young American reporter who, after moving to Vietnam and being dumped by her fiance, embarks on a wild adventure to rebuild her life. Was this story was based on your personal experiences?
Elka: The plot, which has Jane investigating a charity fraud, getting arrested by the secret police, and busting a gem smuggling ring, is absolute fiction. The characters are also inventions. The “real” elements in the story are the setting of northern Vietnam, which I know very well, and the emotions experienced by Jane — homesickness, confusion, doubt, heartbreak and ultimately a sense of pride that she is able to stick it out and find happiness in a place that was totally alien to her. I think that all expats have these feelings, which is why the book has resonated so well with them.
Expat Women: Elka, thank you very much for sharing your insights and experiences. We wish you and Hanoi Jane nothing but success this year. Congrats!
See Elka’s interview on expatwomen.com at: http://bit.ly/Ay4VvS
To buy Hanoi Jane on Amazon, please visit: