Study Abroad is a series that explores the experiences, challenges, and lessons of Vietnamese international students.
“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… a dream come true… an adventure you don’t want to miss.”
That’s how parents, friends, and basically everyone describe what going abroad to study means. They’re not wrong, though. Who wouldn’t want a brand new environment, an instant restart or an upgrade, a chocolate factory for dreams and hopes? But no matter how good it all sounds, it takes a lot of guts and determination to overcome the difficulties along the way.
Don’t get us wrong, you’re not missing anything if you’ve taken the other way or even decided to come back home. Just like everything else, studying abroad is not for everyone.
In this Study Abroad episode, we talked to Nguyễn Thiên Cúc, a 21-year-old Hanoian who’s currently based in Ho Chi Minh City. Cúc, or Tin Cook to her friends and at work, used to be an international student in Seattle.
When Cúc and her mom moved to Saigon, she was already taking the first steps to follow her family’s American dream. Her mom enrolled her in English classes and required her to get a 6.0 IELTS score. As a good daughter, Cúc exactly followed and landed herself a high school diploma program at Edmonds Community College.
When asked what motivated her to study abroad, she said, “It was my family’s American dream, and I was blinded to just say yes and go after that said dream. I was young, and I imagined everything to be a bed of roses, but at the same time, I was also scared because I’d never left Vietnam.”
From her excitement before leaving Vietnam to the challenges she had to overcome in the US, up until the moment she decided that overseas life was not for her, here’s Cúc sharing her life abroad.
On her preparation before leaving Vietnam:
I felt really excited to go. However, it was just the emotions. My actions didn't necessarily show how I truly felt. I enjoyed the off-school days after my mom finished the documents in my Vietnamese high school. I went out with friends more and really enjoyed that moment. I wasn't thinking so much about the fact that I'd be flying thousands of miles away to pursue my education. My mom helped me to pack everything, too. When I arrived at the airport, I cried a lot as I said goodbye to my family and friends. The moment I sat on the airplane, I knew that “Oh, I’m going now, to the other side of the Earth.” I was so sad and immediately felt homesick.
I freaked out twice during my flight to the US. That was the first time I traveled alone outside Vietnam. I had to wait about six hours at Shanghai Airport for transit with no phone (my phone ran out of battery) and no wifi, feeling scared and homesick. I still don’t know how I found the right gate in that crazy airport, too.
When I finally settled down on the next flight, I felt better and slept. But then, I freaked out the second time when no one picked me up at the airport. And the fact was no one knew about my existence there, I almost lost it. I tried to connect with my family and knew that the agency didn’t check the notification from EDCC, so they booked the ticket on the wrong date. I cried at the airport like a little kid. Luckily, my host family was so nice, and they let me move in a week earlier.
I arrived in the US with three huge bags and the uncertainty of what's about to come. And alas, on my first day in Seattle, I spent a good $95 for a taxi.
On her daily routine:
A normal day in my American life was, well, normal. It usually took me two buses to go to school, and I traveled two hours max one way. It was complicated at first, then I slowly mastered my way around the city.
My class started at 8 in the morning and ended around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. After school, I went straight home to do some physical exercises.
At night, I joined dinner with my host family or just cooked for myself. On some special occasions, I joined them for dinner in restaurants or at some relatives' houses.
On what kept her going:
Many people talk about the American dream, including myself. At first, I dreamt about “life” in the US and put a lot of hope on the trip.
However, life is life, and it hit me so hard. I could feel that I was losing myself, chasing something I didn’t even know. I cried a lot, feeling homesick and depressed. After more than three months of staying there under a lot of pressure, I decided to come back to Vietnam.
I needed to graduate from the high school program by passing the ACT test. That was all new for me, including all subjects such as Math, Science, and Geography. I didn't have any help, and I had only a month to prepare. Everything was so stressful, but if I could not kill it, it would have killed me instead. So, I pushed myself so hard.
On staying connected to her family and friends in Vietnam:
I stayed connected to my friends daily, but not with my family. I didn't really have a good relationship with my mom before I flew to the US. We fought and argued a lot. When I started my US journey, she put a lot of hope in me because I was carrying more than half of her dream, too.
My decision to come back to Vietnam wasn't just shocking for her, she was disappointed, too. Our phone conversations always ended up with tears and yelling. We went through that for two or three months.
Fortunately, everything was better after that. She and I were both depressed at that time because we had different points of view: She wanted me to study, get married and become a legal US citizen; I only dreamed about discovering this whole new world and growing freely.
On building relationships abroad:
I came to the US alone and had a few Vietnamese friends at first. After going to school, I had chances to meet people from different countries, such as China, Russia, Mexico, Taiwan, and Thailand. We usually talked and had good conversations at school, but those who were really close to me were all Vietnamese.
On having an English name:
Some students prefer to be called by their Vietnamese name. However, if you're like me, whose name is difficult to pronounce, an English name would really help. Many foreigners have misspelled my name “Cúc” to “Coke.”
Having an English name became a necessity. I chose Grace as my English name at that time because it had a great meaning; it was synonymous to the words “happiness,” “beautiful,” and “peaceful.” It sounded great to my ears.
On the importance of nurturing creativity:
Back at that time, I did not really know what passion was, but I knew that I love to be creative. I enjoyed singing and dancing a lot, but not dreaming to be an idol or an artist.
I bought a guitar to play every day to relax and release stress. Many of my friends enjoyed hanging out and having fun, but I preferred to stay at home and enjoy my "me" time.
My host family also had two cats and two dogs, so I loved to play with them as well. Sometimes, I would take the buses to go around the city with my earphones on and watch the beautiful sceneries along the way.
On what she learned from studying abroad:
To many people, it was not a successful trip, but for me, it was the greatest one, although there were many challenges and difficulties.
Thanks to that journey, I found myself and understood what values I hold dear. It also taught me independence, something I know I wouldn't have learned if I had stayed in Vietnam.
On how her outlook on life evolved:
After the US journey, I have grown much better. Those difficulties have taught me how to survive in any situation. I also learned more about self-worth. I know now how to treat myself better, treasuring the small but important parts of who I am and of the people I meet.
On dealing with challenges:
I had no relatives there in the US, but I didn’t know why I was so confident to go. I immediately jumped in and adapted quickly to the environment despite many differences between the two cultures.
To be honest, I didn’t feel lonely because I called and talked to my friends in Vietnam mostly every day. As I also shared above, I enjoyed being alone, so it was not a serious problem for me.
On her hopes for the future:
I’m currently entering adulthood with many unexpected things, and I’m not the one who always sticks to plans or schedules. I love experiencing and discovering, but I live life cautiously. I won’t sacrifice myself for something crazy.
However, it does not mean I don’t dare to take risks. When talking about the future, I have a general outlook. Like in the next five years, I may become a writer or an office girl working from 9 to 5 every day. I really don’t know what the future holds. So, I put my focus on energy on the "now."
This or That
Movies or books?
I like books, although I’m not a bookwork. I love the smell of a book, and I enjoy entering into the mind of the author.
Fresh juice or smoothie?
Fresh juice is better for me since it is faster to make and definitely healthier.
Shopping in-store or online?
Online is good for me since I hate traffic jams.
Instagram or Twitter?
Instagram all the way.
Give a speech or write a paper?
Since I have had many chances to write, I will pick giving a speech. I love sharing stories with people around me and hope that they can take some lessons from them.