Written by Mary Stites, (University of Kansas) Student Correspondent CET Vietnam: Community-Based Learning, Summer 2018
Vietnam: It’s different. Incredible, but different.
Jet lag is done. Stomach has adjusted. Tolerance to highly caffeinated Vietnamese coffee has been built. A deep breath has been taken.
It’s been just over two weeks since I landed in Ho Chi Minh City at 9:50 PM, slightly dazed, a little confused, but undoubtedly excited. I had an interesting first couple of days because I was the first person in the program to arrive. While it was difficult at first, being in a completely new place, in retrospect, putting myself in an uncomfortable position was necessary and each micro-challenge, each small uphill battle, has opened my eyes up to the possibility of thinking deeper, thinking broader, and thinking in a way that fosters a holistic understanding of not only people, but the institutions, norms, and mindsets that drive their lives.
And while I struggled to understand the differences between me and my local-roommate counterpart, a step back has not only pushed me away from a resentful attitude, but allowed me to question my role as an American in Vietnam, my role as an American in my home country, and my role as Mary Stites in a world with drastic variation in fundamental ideals. The last part is important: it is what makes Vietnam so different than anything I’ve ever experienced.
So I could sit here and boast about all of the incredible fresh mango smoothies or the unbelievably favorable exchange rate, but I’d miss the point. Why did I sign up to fly to the literal other side of the world to do manual labor in 90% humidity and 100 degree heat? It was not to eat transcendentally delicious pho (honestly, I’m pretty sure it’s witchcraft). Rather, I’d like to think about why I traveled here from the context of the small personal exchanges that have proven to be rather large, eye-opening moments.
Months before I arrived in Vietnam, every time I told someone about my summer plans, those who were familiar with the country always said, “Vietnam is the most different place you will ever visit. It’s the most incredible place, but the most different.” I’m slowly but surely beginning to make sense of this statement through my lived “mini-challenges” and peculiar experiences. The first one—odd, sometimes frustrating, but eye-opening—comes from my first week in living with my local Vietnamese roommate. A 22-year old English-language major who loves soccer and reading. Wow crazy, I’m a 21 year old English major who loves soccer and reading. Within the first five minutes of our meeting I thought that we were exactly the same. Great!
Come the sixth minute of the car ride, I quickly learned that this was not the case. Upon her asking me about my religion, which is practically non-existent seeing as I spent every Sunday for my entire childhood playing soccer, I quickly started to become aware of some very fundamental oppositions in our lives. The more we talked, the more I became aware of the role of the government in her existence: the government would do what is best for the people.
One might say that I don’t always have the utmost faith in the current governing body of the US. And while it might not be objective objection to legislative and executive decisions, I spend many hours of my day questioning these decisions and pondering, sometimes challenging, the institutions and constructions that are so closely tied to my personal, as well as my nation’s, identity (that being the political, the economic, the social, and/or the cultural). In short you could say I’m a thinker. And I like to do so critically. And I’ve spent a large sum of my life thinking critically. But what I learned from some stark and sometimes frustrating conversations with my roommate was that my notions of critical thinking and questioning systematic norms do not exist in this country.
For what felt like an eternity (which was really only a few days), I struggled to grapple with the fact that my roommate was so deeply accepting and influenced by communist ideals, ideals which to me, stripped people of the ability to think, question, and disagree. This quickly turned into resentment towards her and towards the life that was cultivated between the walls of her home, her school, and her life in rural Vietnam. I couldn’t fathom the fact that the process that I had grown so familiar with was so foreign to and so shielded from the Vietnamese people.
However, after an undoubtedly awkward and weird exchange between the two of us that I believe started with her telling me that she thought I should shower in which I responded “let me live my life… jk but not really” — I felt she had been doing a lot to micromanage my daily life, things that really should not matter to her — I realized that, each time she moved me to sweep the house, or didn’t seem to understand my infatuation with the idea of food equity, it was a result of two completely different worlds colliding. She was not some brainwashed poster child of an oppressive society. But rather, she came from a very different environment and she is in no way wrong for that. The silence was later broken with some apologies and explanations of our very different personalities and experiences.
My life is driven by sporadic, spontaneous dance moves in public; crazy patterned shorts; quirky, sometimes embarrassing stories that usually don’t embarrass me to tell; and lots of questioning of the world that I live in.Well, my roommate’s life is very different. She is very in touch with her role as a woman in the household and she is extremely traditional. Growing up in a small town, the only daughter of hardworking rice farmers in developing, communist Vietnam is starkly polarized to my life in Austin, Texas studying “liberal” ideals in hopes of working towards a more equitable future. This was a tough pill to swallow, but after some engaging two-way dialogue, we came to a mutual understanding that in order for us to get the most out of this exchange, we would need to trust each other and let each other be the most raw version of ourselves, a product of our own upbringing, in a way that allows for some sort of two-way understanding about not only each other, but the world we represent. We ended with a high-five, my go-to.
This made for a difficult first few days in Quang Tri, but this mini-triumph has not only allowed for a complete shift in my relationship with my roommate, but has also allowed me to understand the importance of working towards a more holistic understanding of the world that I am in. Rather than getting angry at the differences, I’m piecing things together in order to make sense of each element and how they work systematically.
And while it would be easy for me to have a poor attitude about our differences and sometimes disagreements, I’m learning to try to understand where and why those differences occur. And those internal dialogues, while difficult and cyclical, allow for a deeper understanding of the world around me, both at the individual, national, and global scale.
Despite our differences, I’m learning that people are people and each micro-challenge is a step up in understanding and empathizing. And at this point, two weeks into my trip, I’m not sure what to make of these emotions, experiences, and feats of understanding, but I am interested to watch them grow and serve as the basis for the rest of my time here and the rest of my time as a another person living on this vast, complex planet. Stay tuned!