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I first became a writer in 1999. I was living in Hanoi, eking along teaching English in a then very poor country that’d opened to westerners only five years before. I’d been there about 18 months, had had some lovely students and some great classes. I’d also had some amazing adventures, having driven all over the country on my not-so-trusty old Belorussian motorbike, including a solo drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, had been to Cambodia, partied a lot. But a lot of things hadn’t worked out as well, a lot of good friends had come and gone, I’d wrestled with the language but not really connected with the locals, and it was a languid, humid city where a foreigner could easily live very well on only a few hours work a week, meanwhile becoming trapped in a seedy state of apathy. By now I was tired and homesick. Trouble was, I had no idea what I was going to do back home, and not knowing which way to go, nor how to give up, I was stuck.
Then I got a phone call from one of the receptionists at an English school I’d quit from some months before. I’d received an email to my old office email address, so I assumed it was obviously something out of date and useless, still I asked what it said.
‘I can’t tell you on the phone, it is secret,’ she said.
‘So secret you read it already?’ I asked.
I could positively hear her smile down the phone as she replied, ‘Maybe. Anyway you must read it in person.’
So I drove across town, a classic muggy Hanoi day, the sky with dirty billowy clouds like a sweaty duvet. Then when I got there she refused to hand me the printed email. Instead, she’d got another receptionist in on the game and they drew out the tension by ransoming the email for ice-creams. Two ice-creams later, they gave me the email, which was to the effect of ‘this is the commissioning editor from the Guardian Weekly, we’ve published your Letter From article and need an address to send the £120 fee.’
I couldn’t believe it. As an expat I’d subscribed to the Guardian Weekly newspaper, in which it had an open-mic column of sorts, the Letter From … column, written by people like me dispersed across the world. I’d noted its style, typical subject matter, and solely as a punt I’d sent in an article about getting smashed on snake wine at a snake restaurant in Hanoi. But that was months ago, and I’d assumed the piece had sunk somewhere, like I was doing too much in local beer and moonshine.
Except the piece hadn’t sunk, it’d been printed, indeed, printed and read worldwide, in the Guardian Weekly no less. My surprise turned into elation, then came pride, and then hope. I could do something. I could be a writer. And with that came a feeling of total liberation – being a writer could take me anywhere, real and imagined.