A Summer in Việt Nam

I solo-tripped to Việt Nam last summer — with no spiritual intentions of “soul searching” nor “finding myself.” After a year of adjustments to west coast/elite institution culture, I just wanted to go home to Hà Nội — a home I have a broken relationship with, but it remains my home nevertheless.

I started my summer by finishing up some research about the relationship between natural resources and civil war. My work was specifically on the Mindanao separatist conflict in the Philippines. I’m continuing this work throughout this year as well, focusing on conflict in Ethiopia and Somalia.

By June, I was in Việt Nam. I spent a couple weeks in Lào Cai, a province on the border of China and Việt Nam. Việt Nam’s northern mountainous region has relatively high poverty rates. I was volunteering with students as an English teacher at an English learning center. Being stationed in the largest urban area in the province, I was shielded from the realities of the region’s lack of resources. The high school and learning center that took me in were relatively well resourced. It was the province’s #1 ranking high school. I spent most of my time teaching at the learning center, where wealthier students could afford extra English lessons. It was there that I realized that education, even in a socialist country, is not equally accessible.

One of the short-term projects I was delegated was at the province’s premier high school. Two girls were in the midst of a competition called the Junior Achievement International Trade Challenge. In partnership with Fed Ex, the competition was purely entrepreneurial. My students were working on a product proposal and marketing strategy for a beauty box that they hoped to launch. My job was to revise their documents, give mock-interviews, and critique their presentation.

July marked the beginning of TRẠI HÈ 2019. Basically, it’s a program arranged by the National Committee for Overseas Vietnamese Youth, operating under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We spent a month traveling from province to province, doing service work and visiting important historical sites.

Fun fact! The end scene is the alley I grew up in, where both my grandmothers still live.

Being with people that looked like me was comforting. We joked about the hardness of our fathers and the ferocity of our mothers. We named dishes, snacks, and desserts that our residential countries could not provide. We compared international accents and Vietnamese dialects. For example, I spoke with an American accent in the dialect from Hà Nội while my friends were speaking with German accents in Hai Phong’s dialect. We listened to Vietnamese music and danced Vietnamese dances.

I learned that I am American because my “R’s” are a little too hard and sometimes I speak a bit too loud. I was told I believe in myself too much, perhaps because I grew up in an environment that encouraged me to do so. Apparently, I ask too many questions!

Over the years, my acceptance of Asian American-ness has evolved into an acceptance of Vietnamese American-ness. Sometimes I am more Vietnamese than American, and sometimes it’s vice versa – it depends on where I am and who I am with. This summer humbled me. I visited places from my childhood I had forgotten and saw my country through the lens of an expat. I know this post is 6 months overdue, but I just couldn’t bring myself to post it without letting it marinate for a couple months. The coming of age experience was so complex and multi-layered that I will probably never finish processing and learning from it.

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