Filling the void

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A diplomat's wife finds there is much more to living in Ho Chi Minh City than "˜expat wife syndrome'

Helene Kling teaches a student at one of her painting classes in Ho Chi Minh City.

Following her husband to Vietnam wasn't easy at first.

While he worked as a diplomat at the Swedish Embassy, Helene Kling found that she no longer had as many friends and much of her life had changed. It wasn't so much culture shock that got to her, but the general inactiveness of being a non-working woman in a foreign country.

She immediately knew she wasn't destined to become a member of the "˜wives clubs' that frequent social gatherings and charity events around town. It seems she had a preternatural aversion to "expat wife syndrome," namely an affliction of not having much to do while a husband works all day. But she did catch herself getting a bit bored of doing nothing.

"Ladies who lunch can become unhappy and have too much time to think and just coast through life," said Kling. "In the beginning, I just passed the time on Pasteur Street, ordering iced milk coffees (café sua da). But very soon, Saigon showed me what I want in life."

As she became more familiar with Vietnam and began traveling across the country, images of people and places stuck in her head and inspired her to pick up her old hobby, painting, and take it seriously.

Kling, whose paintings feature Vietnamese landscapes and the lives of ethnic minority people, particularly women, says she is inspired by the development Vietnam has witnessed during her decade-and-a-half sojourn here.

Her paintings focus mainly on what she calls the "evolution" of Vietnamese women. She says she traces the transitions in gender roles that have occurred alongside the shift from the more traditional Vietnamese society of the early-mid 20th century to the changing norms of the 21st.

Whether painted in a demure Ao dai, a conical hat on the rice field, a red skirt in the city or a nude young lady with her hair in the wind, Kling's Vietnamese women never cease to exude pride, confidence and calmness, even when they are in difficult situations.

After living in Vietnam for so long, and raising five children here, Helen says her feelings for this country run "very deep."

"So I need to express them every day through my art. My subjects and styles follow and support the evolution of my adopted country." And this expat has certainly seen things change here.

"When I came to Saigon in 1996, there were no cars, nothing," she says. "A very different life at that time."

Gift of giving

After realizing her true passion, oil on canvas, Kling said she had the overwhelming urge to share her zeal and enthusiasm with others. So she decided to start teaching painting.

Kling looks at her four weekly classes, two for adults and two for children, as a way of giving back to Vietnam, much in the same way that many expat wives join charity groups. Her students, a mix of foreigners and Vietnamese, are mostly women

A painting of an ethnic minority woman by Helene Kling

Kazue Kinjo, a Japanese student whom Helene is helping create a painting of a masked dramatic actor, said Helene was helping her learn to express herself.

"I've learned to feel good about myself [in the class]. Learning how to paint encourages me to create something... I now have much more creative inspiration."

Helene says such words of encouragement are all she needs. "Showing my passion makes me happy. And it is a great feeling to see the success of my students."

Helene's student Gillian Duncan heaped more praise on her teacher.

"Now I look at everything in a new way: the depth of color in objects, the way light falls at certain angles and creates different levels of shadow. My painting class on Tuesdays is the highlight of my week - a morning of peace, concentration, easy chatter and endless cups of coffee! I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Kling, who has also been able to sell quite a few of her paintings, understands why her students are so excited about encouragement, because she needed all the encouragement she could get when she became a painter at a very early age, to the chagrin of her parents.

"They expected me to become someone else."

When Kling painted against her parents' will, it wasn't until people told her they liked what she did that she felt "comfortable and good" about pursuing painting.

So now she uses her love of teaching and art as a main driver in her live, aside from all the horseback riding, diving, tennis and biking she does (she even finds time to take her kids to school on the motorbike). After nearly 15 years in Vietnam, Kling's outlook remains fresh as ever.

"I cannot believe that I have become a painter in Saigon and have had five children here," she said. "At first I came here to live for three years, but then I've stayed here for more than 10 years!"

Those interested in Helene's paintings or taking classes can visit for more information.

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