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.

Spring Break 2019

I know it’s been a long time!

Since moving in, I feel like I’ve changed a lot, but that’s something I’ll touch on in a later freshman reflection post. I’m in the process of making a video for freshman year to compensate for the FOMO I left everyone with.

Recently I went on Spring Break, and as much as I wanted to go home to Boston, I had the privilege and opportunity to go to Kanab, Utah on an alternative spring break program hosted by McCarthy Honors Residential College. There were 10 of us total selected from McCarthy. Some of us were vegan/vegetarians or well-informed about animal rights issues, while some were not. We are an incredibly diverse group, speaking Spanish, Vietnamese, Farsi, Telugu, French, Mandarin, Pashto, Gujarati, and German, hailing from all over the U.S. with roots all over the world. We had majors ranging from Chemical Engineering to Architecture to Geo Design to Business Administration to East Asian Studies. I really appreciated this refreshing and concentrated diversity.

We spent the week as volunteers at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, assisting in tasks from cleaning to socializing animals to weeding. Though these services may seem unimpressive and minute, we were educated to realize that our work had immense value in increasing the animals’ quality of life– and that was all we really wanted to achieve as volunteers.

I mentioned before that “we were educated to realize” our impact. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary did an incredible job showing us that our services were not only appreciated, but necessary in the short and long term. For example, we dedicated one afternoon to weeding and deep cleaning a vacant run (run = temporary holding unit for lost/abandoned animals) in Fredonia, AZ. This task was crucial to the well being of the animals that would temporarily inhabit the run, and helped to maintain amiable relations between Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and the town of Fredonia, AZ. We were informed that the run was infrequently maintained, as the town of Fredonia, AZ had allowed Best Friends to build the facility on their property, despite having no obligation to, in order to provide interim housing for the town’s lost/abandoned animals.

Other than the manual and administrative tasks, education was an exceptional part of our experience. Room was made in our schedules to attend workshops and lectures about No Kill and Trap-Neuter-Release initiatives, as well as a lecture about the Science of Animal Happiness by Dr. Frank McMillan. As volunteers merely cleaning or learning, we wouldn’t have had any idea about the value of what we were doing without the context that Best Friends provided. Best Friends outreach representatives, Deb and Brittany, did a wonderful job providing context for every task that was assigned, answering all our questions (easy or difficult), and even putting in the effort to ask us about our passions, careers, and hometowns.

Outside of our time at the sanctuary, the 10 of us and our 2 team leads embarked on excursions to Zion, Bryce, and Coral Pink Sand Dunes National Parks. Every night, we cooked a plant based meal together — family style. After dinner and chores, we all played card games, watched movies, looked up our birth charts and entertained astrological assumptions or did Chemistry/Architecture/Business homework into the depths of the night (sometimes until early morning).

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There is no way that this short word vomit is eloquent, detailed, nor emotional enough to communicate the pride we all have in the work that we did nor the impact that the people and animals of Best Friends has made on the 12 of us — so I will sum things up in three lessons and a video:

  1. Good hiking boots go a long way.
  2. Adopt, don’t shop!
  3. You don’t need to change the world, just a world.

Please watch in HD if possible! Video courtesy of Jose B.

Moving In (And Out)

I start school soon at the University of Southern California. I moved in 2 days ago. The institution flooded me with a myriad of emails, letters, merchandise, and invitations throughout the summer. The frequency of these interactions increased as Aug. 13 (my move-in date) neared, but my mind was always elsewhere.

It must be a talent to be able to remain this neutral and distracted before and after moving across the country. Instead of RSVP’ing to USC meet-ups in Boston this summer and dorm decorating the first day, I was thinking about a tiny furry yak tent in Tibet.

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I’ve moved in to USC, but I’m reminded that I’ve moved in to places before. I’ve moved in to this home in the Tibetan Plains.

Pictured are my brothers, my sister, me, a fellow student, and our moms.

The boys lead me around the plains that first day, pointing at things and naming them in Tibetan, then giggling furiously as I pronounced the same words wrong. For welcoming me so eagerly and extinguishing my anxiety, they quickly found a space in my heart.

My sister was the one that could communicate with me most effectively, knowing bits and pieces of Chinese and English. We exchanged vocabulary in English, Chinese, and Tibetan, blowing through pages of our notebooks.

My mom immediately brought out their best traditional Tibetan clothes while my dad generously took photos. As one thing lead to another these (totally not staged) pictures came to be:

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Now as I move in to college, I think about these children.

Specifically my brother.

The oldest brother (on the left), roughly 7 at that time, loved lollipops. Whenever I had the time to walk to the local convenient store (it was a tent) or hitchhike a ride into town, I would buy him a lollipop. He would then share it with his younger brother (on the right).

One day the oldest brother came home with a freshly shaven head. It was rare for children to leave the home and land, as they are usually tending to the cattle and sheep. I tried to convey to him to the best of my ability that I liked his haircut. He was enjoying a lollipop and smiling bashfully.

I asked who had given him the lollipop, as I am the normal supplier. To my bewilderment, it was his father.

My brother was later absent for the remainder of my homestay. His family, by their religious customs and nomadic tradition, sent him away to become a monk. I didn’t know at the time, but his father gave him that lollipop as a small compensation for the haircut. The haircut representing a decision that made me question so many of my experiences, morals, and beliefs. I thought of it as a bandaid on a broken arm.

While I was not and still am not in any place to ask this, I am left wondering if anyone ever asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. I wonder if he had known that day. If he would still choose to smile so brilliantly.  I wonder how he is doing now.

The memories of my time in the Tibetan Plains with a nomadic family, of my brother, are heavy on my heart today. That weight will be used as strength and ambition in my next 4 years at the University of Southern California.

I am grateful for the privileges and opportunities I have had. Namely the privilege and opportunities to move in and out of places.

I am grateful to have been asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

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