With two semesters left before earning my undergraduate degree, I finally pulled the trigger on something every college student should make a priority; I decided to study abroad.
When I went to the WVU study abroad fair, I did not give the destination of my studies much thought. I was completely open to anywhere and everywhere. I considered the more common abroad destinations such as London and Italy, as well as more exotic locations like Istanbul. After gazing through the various booths, a journey to Southeast Asia caught my eye.
It was the ideal trip on all accounts. It was a month long- long enough to fully allow myself to be embraced completely by the culture, but short enough where I can still enjoy my summer vacation. My summer job did not start until after my return, so I would not have to look for a job when I got back to the U.S. The most influencing aspect of the trip was probably the fact that as a journalism student, I would be able to improve my resume by going on the trip by maintaining and editing a blog for WVU. I gave the destinations, Vietnam and Cambodia, some thought, but nothing more than how interesting it would be to visit such exotic lands.
For some reason, I did not think that when my father was my age, he was doing anything he could to stay out of Vietnam. The fact that Cambodia, a country that is pretty much in a state of political anarchy, is still recovering from a vicious governing body where many of the people’s deaths came at the hands of the children did not cross my mind. While most college students who study abroad head to the developed countries of Europe, I was heading east, to countries still in their infant stages.
My friends and family would ask with glaring eyes for reassurance after I would tell them my plans for studying abroad. The farthest my aunts and uncles went when they were my age was the Jersey shore, not the other side of the world.
I do not think the fact that I was going to a place most people could not comprehend going to hit me until a few days before my trip, when I realized I would be on a plane for more than twenty hours. With my last days on U.S. soil boiling down, anxiety heightened. As I was about to board my plane, just before we left, you would have thought I was being shipped to ‘Nam by the United States Army the way I was taking to my mom, voice quivering. After a final jolt of confidence through the words of my mother, I boarded the plane and there was no turning back. Next stop Vietnam.
Culture shock had been discussed as an overwhelming experience when we were preparing for out trip. I was a bit worried about the initial surprise of being in such a far off land, especially for my first time outside the U.S., but I think the fact that we arrived at two in the morning to the empty streets of Ho Chi Mihn City helped ease me into the unfamiliar land.
Probably the part of the trip I was most excited for was the different foods I was going to eat. I ate. I ate well, and I ate just about anything and everything, from the traditional dishes of Vietnam to the multicultural cuisines Cambodia had to offer.
Eating anything and everything, I certainly have some favorites, but obviously had dishes that I can do without. The best thing I ate where chili-salt barbecue shrimp, head shells and all at what is considered an upscale Vietnamese restaurant. Another favorite was some mutton vindaloo at an Indian restaurant in Cambodia that lit an inferno in my belly, but kept my going back for my as I dripped with sweat.
As for dishes I could do without, the partially formed duck embryo egg was a tough one to get down, especially after I had the genius idea of eating it all in one bite, thinking it was better to get it done quickly. It was not done quickly. The egg was so big I had to continue to chew before I could get it down.
Another not so great dish were the tarantulas, a staple dish of the Khmer diet. Thinking as an idealist, I was hoping the eight-legged critters would come out like a deep-fried bar snack. They didn’t. Instead, the spiders where sautéed and didn’t have the crunch I was hoping for. They were served with a peanut sauce that was pretty good, and with my first bite the spiders didn’t seem that bad. With my second bite I realized it was the sauce that was actually good, and the spiders not so much.
My favorite meal occurred on the last day, when my Vietnamese friends Duong and Lilly took us out for some goat hot pot and shellfish. The goat hot pot featured all parts of a goat stuffed into boiling broth to cook. We tried a couple different shellfish dishes, but the most intriguing was a sort of clam served on the half shell with Laughing Cow cheese melted over top of it.
It was not just the great food that made that final meal my favorite, but the people I spent it with. Duong and Lilly spent the entire time with us during our travels to Southeast Asia, and without them, I think our luggage would still be lost at the Saigon Airport. Besides Duong and Lilly’s helpfulness, they were just genuinely good people. The youthfulness that protrudes from them is not only something I admire, but envy.
Both are hoping to come back to the United States someday and I sincerely hope our passes cross again. Duong warned me that one day there was going to be a knock at my door and when I answered it my little Vietnamese friend would be standing there. I wholeheartedly hope it happens just like that.
I have been back from my voyage to Southeast Asia for about two months now, and it is at this point in time I am starting to miss the experience I had during my travels.
I could go for a hot bowl of Pho in the humid Vietnam sun sitting on a street as motorbikes wiz by on the streets of Ho Chi Mihn City. I would love to be able to explore the countless ancients temples of Angkor Wat one more time. But what I miss the most are the people of the region.
Through my travel, I met and saw many people who have never scene white skin, let alone talk to Americans. I will admit, I was uncomfortable at times when it felt like I was being gawked every time I left the safety of our hotel.
One particular time when I felt most uncomfortable was when I was doing some shopping in the co-op across from our hotel in Long Xuyen with Even. Even was in the dressing room trying on some clothes, leaving me to gaze through the racks of clothes by myself. Well, you could have thought I was Brad Pitt in the Vietnamese department store the way all the shoppers blatantly stared at me. All that was missing were the paparazzi, and obviously the millions of dollars, six pack abs and Angelena Jolie roped around my arm.
But as I reflect upon that experience now, I realize how much more fortunate I was for being able to participate on this trip. Most of those people had never scene a person with white skin, never mind get to travel to an exotic land like I did.
A moment that I will remember for the rest of my life occurred on the one of the first days of the workshop at An Giang University. I was sitting with Evan somewhere in the middles section of the lecture hall, and a student around my age nervously walked to my row and threw me an anxious wave. I said hello as he sat down with a chair in between us. With a timid voice, he asked me if he could sit in the seat next to me. Of course I obliged and with a smile on his face, he asked me if I was from the United States. When he heard my response, he replied, “That’s so interesting.”
That comment struck me. Here I am thinking its so interesting to be visiting this foreign land, eat all kinds of different food and be fully submerged into a complete different culture, and all this young man wants to do is talk to me. It puts a lot of things into perspective globally, and shows what kind of opportunities I have being an American.
I have returned home to West Virginia now beginning the forth week. Four weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia seemed long. The stress points of the trip, the wear and tear of the travel has faded. I am able to assess this journey from a good position. I deeply appreciate the dedication, planning, patience and overall insight that Neal and Susan gave to me and the students. I remain impressed with their dedication to learning cultural diversity as a life style not just an idea as well as their compassion for Viet Nam.
This was my second experience in Vietnam. The first lasting 13 months living out of a rucksack and in the mountains west of Da Nang, 1968-1969. I learned of war. I learned of Vietnam at war. I learned things no one should learn. On this return, I learned of Vietnam. I learned of its people. I learned of the country. Several wonderful things have transpired since returning. My frozen framework of memories has opened and moved. My narcissistic wounds of being victimized, risked for no ethically and morally supportable war, seeing myself as a center in my memories; has all changed. The time of that war, the moments of death and terror are past and have no impact upon today’s dynamic flow of life. Those days are so small in effect upon the flow of time and life. AND I AM PLEASED OF THIS. It is not a center point. It is not the main theme of life. I compare it to road kill on the West Virginia highways. Like a box turtle crossing the highway, hit and spun off the concrete. It rots, fades, becomes part of the flora along the road side, and the traffic of life continues. Flowers grow there in the spring. No remorse, no grief. It just is part of that place and moment in time. The tiny speck that I am in this cosmos is now in better proportion. My war was road kill in the heavy traffic of history. Leave it be.
The Wall Memorial in DC has several names on it that I personally know. I was with those people as they qualified to be placed on that memorial for time, honor and remembrance. I do remember, honor and miss them. But it is as it is. Their life ended at that point. Completed. I did not and continue to this time. That is my responsibility. In this, Vietnam and I are very, very similar.
We visited an ancient land. It has been on the cross roads of Asian and world history. Its location has been a particular advantage to many aggressive civilizations. Vietnam has fought China, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, France and America. Yet, it remains Vietnam. I am deeply moved. My country had it wrong. There was no attack in Tonkin Gulf. China was not planning to take the peninsula and then threaten Australia and New Zealand like we were led to believe. On a minor political tone, America does best when it is ruled by the people and not the secretive and distrustful few. The American War in Vietnam was related to old ideas of colonialism. We inherited it from a French country after the Vichy French and Axis, (Japan), lost in 1945. Then the French needed our help as they were too weak to repel the nationalism forces that used communism as the vehicle to unite an agrarian country. Our fear and ignorance of Asia led to my first trip there. WE WERE WRONG. I have learned but unfortunately many in my generation still do not know better and have not learned. We cannot let the world down like this ever again. We cannot let ourselves down like this again.
I found several interesting paradoxes on this trip. Vietnam is communist. Only one political party is legal. We were observed by the communists at several points. There were several times I was directed to be quiet in my thoughts as not to offend our providers. I wanted to talk about the American War. I wanted to engage in spiritual ideas, cosmic understanding. Sensitive to future journeys for students at WVU gave me patience. I was in a communist state!
BUT, in the U.S.A, we have the Department of Agriculture that examines, our foods and food growth, processing for health risks. (I was not permitted to photograph a supermarket meat/fish counter because of its obvious unsanitary , unrefrigerated condition). In Vietnam there is no such control and we all had to take precautions because of this. There was no OHSA there. Workers were climbing on jury rigged bamboo scaffolding many stories high. Traffic is 10 time more lethal than our controlled traffic. Vietnam has less control of every day risks than we do. But, frankly, I like that fact I can trust my local water, food is non-toxic, roads are safer, work is not life and death. We have more control but they are communist
The Vietnamese people are wonderful. They are the star of the show. I unabashedly love them. They are dynamic, happy, friendly, energetic. They do things in a groups and not as individual. They break off into groups to discuss and come to a consensus during the lectures. They all as a group start the day with song and exercise. They ride their motorbikes with little enforcement intervention all behaving well in a traffic pattern that terrified me. This is not communist. It is Confucian. It is maintaining group harmony.
They related to the efforts of the past generations and pray thanks to their ancestors for they see the interconnectedness not just of their current family but of past people too. There is an alter to past ancestors in every home. And, the incense of these little prayer alters permeates the entire country. They are used daily. The incense smoke rising to the heavens to connect with the past lives is everywhere. Yet, this is a “communist and godless state. ” They work hard. They are under paid and do not complain. They do not see themselves as alone. They have been helped by the efforts, work, suffering of previous generations and ancestors and now they are part of the present, with each other, working toward a future when others will pray and thank them.
Yet, I and the people with me are not of this mind. We are feisty individualists. We will sneak off against the rules of the group for some personal satisfaction. We complain when our patience for waiting for the group process causes us to give to the group integrity. Frankly, I learned, (re-learned actually as I did learn this the first trip) that Americans, and I am one, expect and feel entitled to comfort. Sounds simple but it is really very disturbing. It affects our attitude, our future direction, how we treat each other. The Vietnamese strive for group harmony and social harmony. This too is Confucian tradition, not communism.
They have a lot to learn and initiate in biologic and ecologic harmony with their social life. We learned this is visiting their hospital and seeing their food preparations, seeing the effects upon their rivers and lack of wildlife. These shortcoming are part of who they are at present. And I do cherish my individualism. I do love America, Americanism, Americana. But, I cannot criticize their Vietnamese group harmony. It is obvious, powerful and effective. They are going somewhere and I respect them. I will help them. It is the least I can do for the damage and ignorance I and my county had for this wonder people.
Thank you students. I think of you often. I enjoyed every moment, light-hearted comment and laughter. Thank you Neal and Susan. I was apprehensive about returning to where I acted as an enemy. I was apprehensive about lecturing Vietnamese. You were right. It is different. The war is over. I grew and still do. Thank you Vietnam, I am your friend.
It was a whirl wind tour through the Kingdom of Cambodia to put a stamp on our trip.
We did a lot of traveling on boats, buses and even little carts called tuk-tuks (took-tooks). Tuk-tuks are the Cambodian version of taxis, which feature motorcycles with open carts attached to the back that allow passengers to be right in the action as scooters and cars whiz by on the busy Cambodian streets.
Our first stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh, the capital. After taking a five hour boat ride up the Mekong River, the city appeared out of nowhere, as if it was some sort of marriage. During our visit to the capital we toured the Prince’s palace. The palace featured a number of beautiful buildings and temples with a lot of gold. The room where the Prince’s throne stood was entirely coated in gold.
After a couple day’s in Phnom Penh, we made a seven hour trek to Siem Reap, which was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Siem Reap was home to Angkor Wat, an enormous Buddhist Temple built in the 12th century. I could not do it justice describing the beauty and amazement of the ancient temple. The preservation of the temple was impeccable, and it rivaled ancient Greece and Rome.
During our time in Cambodia we visited a number of temples that dated back as late as the eighth century. It opens up your mind beyond belief to wonder how these sanctuaries of amazement were built during the time they were, never mind how long they have lasted.
After Cambodia, it was back to Ho Chi Mihn City to depart back to the U.S.A. Everyone was excited to head home to see our friends and loved ones, but I am sure we will all miss our time in Southeast Asia. Between the food and cultural experience, I learned more in the month abroad than I have in a long time, but I expected to learn about those things. What I did not expect, and what became the highlight of my trip, where the friends I made, both American and Vietnamese. There were a lot of promises to keep in touch, like they often are in these situations, and I truly hope those promises are kept.
Wednesday brought quite the cultural experience to a few members of the group when we went to get massages from the blind.
There is an organization in Long Xuyen that teaches blind people how to massage for a source of income. I do not particularly enjoy people touching me, so I was skeptical, to say the least about the blind massages, but with Natalie telling me it was just another Vietnamese cultural experience I was off to the blind massage parlor.
I am not exactly sure what I was expecting at this blind massage parlor, but what I got certainly was an experience unlike any I have encountered before. It was 50,000 VND ($2.50) for an hour massage. I am sure it would have cost around $100.00 or more for the same amount of time in the states.
After paying at the front desk, she told the women to go to one room and the men go to another. Being men, we obviously did not listen to what room we were supposed to go to, and ended up entering a room that already had guest in it, mid-massage, and with that it was the start of the awkward experience.
The parlor was set up like something out of the movie Hostel, plus blind people wandering through the narrow halls. We finally found our room, which consisted of three metal tables cramped inside a small space with bleak walls. At first thought I was worried we would be tortured instead of massaged.
With Matt (Natalie’s husband), Evan and I feeling a bit awkward and confused, we stood there questioning if we should just take the loss and high-tail it out of there. And then the blind masseuse walked in. Feeling his way around the small room, as we tried to dodge him, he put fresh sheets on one of the tables and then hit it as if to tell someone to lie down. Already feeling extremely uncomfortable, we stripped down to our skivvies.
Matt was the first to lie down, and out of the three of us, got the only blind masseuse (weird for a blind massage parlor, I know). With Matt starting first, he was the guinea pig for the group. The only blind masseuse would tell him to do something in very broken English, he eventually figured it out and we would follow. It was particularly hard for Matt when the masseuse told him to rollover onto his stomach, then his back, then his stomach one more time.
Over the hour, they literally massaged us from head to toe, cracking each one individually. The three of us did our best to hold back our giggles the entire time, but that was a hard task.
At the end of it all, we cannot really complain about a $2.50 massage, although a few people’s backs were bothering them the next day. At the very least, our hour of giggles and awkwardness, which turned into pain for some, helped some less fortunate people trying to make a living.
The weekend continued with more filming and interviews for Evan and I. On Friday, while the group had a free day, Evan and I went to Pacific Links to interview the staff at their Long Xuyen office. The interviews went well as far as we could tell, conducting the interviews through a translator.
On Saturday, Evan and I journeyed about an hour away to a school to interview some education officials as well scholarship recipients. Although the meeting did not go as well as the previous days, once we talked to the scholarship recipients things lightened up.
For the rest of the afternoon Evan and I were on our own because the rest of the group traveled to the beach for an overnight stay. The two of us did not realize it was an overnight trip, otherwise we would have rescheduled with Pacific Links.
For dinner, Evan and I went to a restaurant at the very top of a hotel with windows for walls, providing a beautiful 360 view of Long Xuyen.
On Sunday, we spent most of the afternoon at the hotel coffee shop, sipping the free tea while we waited for the group to return from their beach adventure. At one point we wondered down to a huge marketplace that we want to visit again with one of our Vietnamese friends.
The group came back around 7:00 p.m. and Evan, Caitlin and I went for barbecue with Lilly and some friends she had met. We met a 25 year-old American who taught at the university we were conducting the workshops at. It was interesting to talk to an American living in Vietnam for two and a half years.
Sitting on the side of the street, we dined on goat and beef freshly cooked over a charcoal grill placed on our table. We also tangled with our second serving of rat. It came out cooked, as opposed to the goat and beef, and was much better than the previous restaurant’s rat dish.
After dinner, to my dismay, we went to karaoke. Although I am not a huge karaoke fan, I was a good sport about it and managed to belt out a duet of Hey Jude with Evan.
Thursday Caitlin, Evan and I traveled through the chili region of Vietnam on our way to a school in the Dong Thap Province to interview Pacific Links scholarship recipients.
Evan is making a video for Pacific Links, a Non-Government Organization (NGO) that deals with human trafficking. Pacific Links is a huge supporter of the workshops that we conduct here in Vietnam, so it was good to see what the do first hand.
As we traveled through miles and miles of chili-covered land, the smell of the heat entered our nostrils driving our eyes to the cusp of tears. Football fields of chilies stretched the terrain as they dried, sometimes surrounding people’s entire houses. As they dried, the small peppers went from vibrant red, to a deeper crimson.
Traveling through the chili-ridden country side, we arrived at a school to conduct our interviews. Pacific Links tackles human trafficking with a three pronged approach- prevention, rehabilitation and vocational training.
The rehabilitation stage deals with rescued sex workers as they attempt to re-enter the real world. The girls live in a home; with anywhere from three to 15 girls living in the house at one time, ranging in age from twelve to thirty.
In an interview with a house manager, or house mom as the girls refer to her, she told us a story of a girl who whispered something under her breath as the house mom entered the room. Although the house mom did not know what she said, she called the girl out on it. The girl got upset at her actions and stormed off to her room where she proceeded to bang her head repeatedly through a wall. The house mom talked the girl down for two hours, but she lacks psychological training, which makes the situation even more difficult.
The vocational training deals with girls who have been rescued from sex work and are ready to re-enter the world, or girls who have been out of school so long they cannot go back, but are still at risk for being trafficked. Pacific Links sets the girls up with training like sewing and cooking, which has become very popular latlely.
The girls we have been dealing with are in the prevention stage of Pacific Links, under a program called ADAPT. ADAPT provides scholarships to girls who are at a high risk for being trafficked. The girls are at a high risk because their families are beyond poor and live near the border, where it is easy to smuggle them into Cambodia. The scholarships are not merit based.
We asked the girls what they would be doing if they did not receive the scholarships and they all replied they would be working in the chili fields. Tao, a worker at Pacific Links, explained to us that the chili workers make about 20,000- 100,000 Vietnamese Dong twice a year; roughly one- five U.S. dollars. I had more than 400,000 VND in my pocket at the time.
It was only fitting we ended the day with a lunch full of chilies. We ate a fish hot pot, as well as a fish clay pot, both packed the heat from the tiny red peppers. I was glad the girls joined us for the chili-highlighted meal, instead of picked them for us.
I have seen hungry children on the street in the past, but the sight
never seems to lose its impact. As someone who wants to practice
Social Work with this population, it has been frustrating and
difficult to know that I am only in Vietnam for two weeks and cannot
easily make a long-term difference. However, short-term needs must
also be met, which is something I can achieve in my short stay in Vietnam.
I’m a strong believer in the little things—a smile, a meal, a word of encouragement; because I have seen the difference these small
things make in my own experience. Many times these things are
overlooked and forgotten, but there’s always the chance that a child
will cherish a small gesture and remember it, providing him or her
with a little ounce of hope to keep going. If everyone does these
little things, they can go a long way.
The dynamic here in Ho Chi Minh City and Long Xuyen are a little
different than what I’ve encountered in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the
United States as far as people begging on the street. I believe that to truly
understand these people I would have to be here much longer. It is
hard to distinguish between a true need and a pre-contemplated hoax.
However, with the help of our Vietnamese friends traveling with us,
Duong and Lily; this process of understanding moves much faster.
Many children here sell lottery tickets on the streets at very late
hours of the night. They often look exhausted and act too grown up
for their age. They’ve learned how to make money through ploys, while
others resort to hitting you on the arm or following your group. They
appear innocent and inexperienced, even desperate; but sadly many are
already living the lives of adults. From the perspective of a Social
Worker from the U.S., these children should be in bed, resting up for
school, and enjoying a carefree childhood—not begging at 11 PM on
the streets to support their family.
The children either take proceeds back to their families or report
back to a “boss,” who is sometimes watching around the corner. In
some situations, the children are not permitted to go to sleep until
they sell or earn a certain amount. Erinn was also frustrated by
this, what we view as child negligence, and she commented in one instance
that she wanted to go up to the man waiting outside our hotel and give
him the 100,000 Dong (5 USD), under the condition that he allow the
child to go home and sleep.
One of our Vietnamese friends spent a portion of his childhood in this
lifestyle and is able to give us valuable information about the
cultural context. In his case, it was a personal choice to sell the
tickets in order to earn money for video games, since his family could
not afford such luxuries. A true businessman, he succeeded in
attending school (unlike many of these children) and college. He
currently holds three jobs and is fluent in English. His goal is to
create a scholarship to allow more children to go to school. Public
school is not free by any means in Vietnam, and parents are faced with paying for
uniforms, books, and tuition. Scholarships are vital for many
families seeking education in Vietnam.
There is also no Child Protective Services; if there were, there would
be no homes or centers for placement. Currently, no system is in
place, so groups of “volunteers” (truly social workers) use persuasion
and conversation with mothers and fathers who severely beat or neglect
Since the children aren’t able to keep and use the money given to them we as a group
have made a greater effort to provide them directly with food instead
of handing out money. I was first exposed to this
dilemma at a restaurant on a side street in Long Xuyen. Two young
girls approached our group carrying babies on their hips. We were
eating a late dinner; it was probably 8:30 PM. Gayle gave one of the
girls holding a baby her Coca-Cola; the other little girl didn’t want
any food. I asked (gestured) another if she was hungry, and she
pointed across the side street to a stand with clusters of dried
noodles. I followed her over and bought her the mystery food. The
owners tossed it in a frying pan, adding sauces and vegetables, I am
Lily and the group called me back across the street as I began to
attempt a conversation with the child. They were afraid of the pied
piper effect; other kids might see me buying her food and run over to
join. Also, they were concerned about me taking my wallet out. This
was a frustrating experience for me. You can really get burnt out
after witnessing poverty for a period of time and being helpless
against it. Lily and I discussed this later, and she said it may be
safer if I let her take my money to go buy food for the child, since
she wouldn’t be as vulnerable as a foreigner who doesn’t speak
Vietnamese—with a full change purse. She also explained that
different sections of the neighborhood communicate and develop
strategies together to earn money. The kids are taught to look heart
broken if you say you don’t want a lottery ticket. This is often
a crafty learned behavior, but Pat Chase pointed out to me that it is
only that: a behavior. They are still children on the inside.
Caitlin later encouraged me by saying that after receiving the
noodles, the little girl skipped away.
Usually, I would rather take the chance that I am being conned than to
leave a child without food. However, it’s helpful to have someone
from the culture show me what is a real need and what is a trick.
On my second to last night, I went with Duong and Erinn to find kids
and other people on the street that needed food. We went to a
restaurant that served giant rice pancakes filled with yummy, exotic
foods—and somehow ended up with way too much food. We gave bags of
food (and lollipops) to children, and also to one man working on the
street repairing tires. These were real needs.
On the other hand, I went across the street that night to buy some
hair products from the Co-op. Little children observed me and then went
away, but one girl stayed. I offered her a lollipop and even to buy
her a hair jewel, but she shook her head. She kept staring at me,
looking very sad. When I left and crossed the street, she followed
and started speaking to me in Vietnamese and crying. Two other little
girls followed, which made me think it was a distraction to steal my
purse or wallet. I motioned for them to follow me to the outdoor
coffee shop where Duong was, to translate. He told me she wanted
money; her lottery tickets had been stolen and her grandmother
would beat her. All this time she was sobbing. Duong told me that it
was “100% fake.” But he said it was my choice whether I gave them
money or not. I almost gave in, hating to see her cry and not wanting
to take the chance if it were true. But we looked over to see her
friends smiling, and even saw her smile at one point.
Duong talked with her, telling her that if it was really true, she
needed to tell the police. He basically said that she needed to face
up to the accident that happened (stolen tickets) and told me that
even if I gave her money that day, she would just need it again
tomorrow. I reluctantly decided not to give any money, so not to
encourage these hoaxes. I wanted to cry, though, as I walked away,
wishing I could help to improve her situation. I just put my hand on
her shoulder and said “xin loi” (I’m sorry). This was not a real
need; there was a background need, but it was probably not the one she
I’ve learned through my travels that kids are kids. Maybe they don’t
necessarily need an ice cream cone or an extra meal, but they deserve
it as a rite of childhood. During my undergraduate study trip to
Nicaragua, there were so many people begging that it was exhausting.
Finally our group arrived at a relaxing ice cream shop. Sure enough,
a little boy sat on the steps begging for ice cream. I was later
shocked at my reaction—annoyed, exhausted; I didn’t think he needed
ice cream. But neither did I, and many American children get ice
cream and treats every day. I always regretted not taking his hand
and asking him what he wanted. He was only a child. That’s why in Vietnam
I’ve made an extra effort to understand the cultural dynamic and try
to buy a child food if I can, whether they are starving or not.
Erinn and I bought dinner for a little boy at Jollibee (the Vietnamese
equivalent to McDonald’s) who pressed his face against the window the
entire time we ate. He wouldn’t come in, since loitering wasn’t
allowed, but we took a chicken meal and Fanta out to him. Maybe it
was an elaborate plan, maybe just a boy who needed to eat. We thought
he might have a disability, possibly autism; which made his situation harder to witness. We made faces to each other through the
window, even though we couldn’t communicate with words.
These situations and experiences are parts of the puzzle to
understanding child welfare in a developing world context. A North
American trying to understand it can’t fully comprehend the
desperation and interdependence involved in the survival of these
Child holds child—
Eyes are tired and hardened.
I can not help, tomorrow.
Saturday the group journeyed to another floating market; this one much larger than the previous floating market a few group members visited earlier in the trip. Instead of sailing on two dinghies like last time, the group piled into to a large commercial boat, which read “tourist” on the side. If our pale skin did not show the locals our intentions, the side of the boat certainly did.
The breeze from the boat allowed us to forget about the scorching sun that beat down during the Vietnamese morning. Almost as soon as we arrived, a small boat sailed up to ours and latched on. The man cruised around the market, selling water and soft drinks. At first the group was a bit confused to see this random man hooking on to our boat, but after the initial shock, a few passengers purchased some Cokes to keep cool.
We then traveled to a stand to grab some green coconuts. The coconuts provide natural electrolytes, so they are important for hydration with the hot temperature and heavy humidity. The stand’s workers shaved down the coconuts with a machete as if we were deep in the jungle.
After purchasing our coconut cocktails, we continued up the river, Apocalypse Now style (I had to make a reference at some point during our trip). Our expedition led us to a crocodile farm. The croc farm was obviously geared toward tourist, and it was a bit cheesy. Among the attractions the farm offered pig and dog races, as well as fishing for crocodiles.
As we explored the farm, a few of us were caught in one of the torrential downpours that frequent the Vietnam sky. While most of the group found shelter, Evan and I got soaked although we did save our expensive cameras from the storm.
Sunday was a day of rest for the gang, and we all enjoyed it. We slept in a bit, and other than that just go some work done like catching up on emails, and school work for those of us unfortunate to have it.
Sunday night we were all treated to a taste of home when Duong found a pizza place for us to try. We were all skeptical because he kept telling us it was Vietnamese pizza, but it was as American as it gets. For being across the Pacific, enclosed in a culture that does not eat cheese, the pizza was pretty good. I also ordered a bowl of French fries (ironic what we consider taste of home) that were as good, if not better than your standard American McDonald’s fry.
Monday and today, Tuesday, were just workshop days, with not much else happening. Pacific Links invited us over for lunch in between workshops today. Stay tuned for a post on exactly what Pacific Links is about. They are a great organization that everybody should be aware about.
Tonight we are having a good-bye dinner for Erin and Anna, who will be heading State side early tomorrow morning. It will be sad to see them go, but I look forward to welcoming four new members to our group, who will be arriving Thursday.
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