We just had our first reflection and it resurfaced a lot of thoughts I’ve had randomly throughout this first week (a lot of them mindlessly swimming around in my brain during those 30 minute bike rides). Here some of those thoughts. I’ll post a more thorough update on my day-to-days later on (this weekend?).
A lot of times, I think of this as just a summer program. And I guess in a lot of ways it is. But I keep thinking and I have to keep reminding myself that this is so much more than that. For a lot of people, this might just be a summer program, something that privileged kids do for a summer to say that they did something beneficial. But for these people, it’s reality. It’s real life. I want to hammer that into my head so I don’t come away from this just thinking of it as some experience I had. When I’m biking and I’m tired, or if I’m exhausted from a long day of work and teaching, a lot of times I’ll think, “It’s okay. 7 more weeks and I’ll be back.” But these people (some of them at least) do this work every day, and they live this weather and live this reality. And this isn’t coming from and I’m not trying to say this from a place of pity and privilege and looking down on this place I’m in (and I realize it’s difficult to convey this sentiment in writing), but honestly how ignorant and privileged for me to say that I can just go back to what’s comfortable for me. That I can avoid experiencing and empathizing with the experiences and realities that so many other people live every day. There is so much culture that I don’t know, and that I just don’t understand, and I need to stop thinking I can just go back to something comfortable to avoid the realities that exist in this world.
I think about our Vietnamese roommates, and the 29 kids I teach at the Youth Center and how they must have grown up, what their childhood was like. When I think back to growing up in SoCal, I think of my home, and suburbs and school. To crayons and paper and sufficient everythings. And then I think of the kids here and how our roommates’ childhoods must have been. Even in a bigger city like Saigon, I saw kids biking around by themselves on streets with so much traffic. I saw 7-year-old kids taking care of 3-year-old kids and walking home alone. My parents would never let me be completely alone at that age. I saw kids’ faces poking out of little shops and restaurants on the streetside, waving hi, smelling cigarette smoke and incense and cows and gasoline. That must be how our roommates (or at least some of them) grew up. They grew up in this reality – in a life that is just so different from my own. And they don’t seem to complain about it. How can I complain and say “this sucks” and put down their entire experience?
I think about the war and the Quang Tri province (where we’re staying). In the War Remnants Museum, Quang Tri province was the only province that was shaded in completely black (the map below isn’t the one I saw at the Museum but it proves my point; the pin is Quang Tri Province). That meant that every inch of the province was struck by bombs/land mines/Agent Orange etc., etc. Every. Damn. Inch. It was completely shaded in black. Every other province had at least some parts that weren’t shaded in. Not Quang Tri. Not even when I put my face close to look.
So every day when I bike to the worksite, I think. I pass by these natural fields and trees and mountains in the distance, and huts, and scattered homes. I see several people every so often in those signature conical hats working and picking at 6:45am before the sun gets too intense. I see crop fields and banana trees and cows, and chickens and dogs, and just green everywhere.
And I think.
While I’m biking.
I think about the pictures from the museum in Saigon. Think about the stories I’ve heard and the articles I’ve read and the videos I’ve watched. I imagine gunfire and helicopters and noise in the middle of the peace and quiet of this countryside. I imagine soldiers running through the rice fields with guns and olive green camouflage. I imagine the kindergarteners who say hello to me every day when I bike past the country school. I imagine them hiding in jugs from American soldiers like the War Remnants Museum showed. I imagine the people I bike past, running, trying to hide. I imagine fire and uncertainty of where to step for fear of stepping on a land mine. I imagine myself in the midst of all of that. A lot of times for me, historical events sound more like stories, and I can’t really imagine them happening in real life, even though I know they did. But imagining this, and physically seeing this province, and visualizing the information/captions/pictures I saw at the War Remnants Museum in this place, which was the border between the North and the South… my hearts just breaks a little bit. Just thinking about everything that happened and actually seeing the place where those things happened are 2 very different things.
Also, there was a 102-year-old man who was still working repairing bicycles. He repaired my bicycle (more on those problems later). Everyone thought he was 86 or so. But he LIVED through the Vietnam War. In fact he lived through World War I and II and the Korean War before that. And if he lived in this province back then, then he knows firsthand what happened, and that’s so crazy to me. It blows my mind. It’s not just a story or some distant event in the past. It’s in front of me, working on my bike. And it’s all around me.
And finally, I think about the new washing machine Vu got for us. SIDE NOTE: we pay to use the washing machine (~$20 for 7 weeks) and all the money goes to a charity for children and I am still donating, but just not through the washing machine use/situation. And don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful for it (even though I don’t and won’t use it), but idk how I feel about it really. A huge part of DukeEngage, I think, is really immersing oneself in the host culture. Doing and learning and growing empathy and expanding the perspective of my often-one-dimensional world and coming to a place of more understanding. But I always feel like we’re getting better treatment to make us feel more comfortable. Idk how to say this without sounding ungrateful… and I’m not trying to say what we should or shouldn’t do. I’m just trying to process everything in my head. I am thankful… but I feel like the purpose of this program is not to treat us very well because we’re doing something for the community… I feel like that’s the wrong mindset (savior complex?). And still, every day I hear complaints about how hot or humid it is (I’m guilty), or how much laundry has to be done, or tybg for the washing machine. I’M NOT TRYING TO DRAG ANYONE ELSE IN THIS PROGRAM. THIS IS FOR ME AS WELL. But I almost feel guilty when I hear us saying that out loud because the Vietnamese roommates are standing right next to us, and I know that they’ve been hand washing all their laundry – even in university. How bratty and annoying we must sound… They don’t really complain; they just deal with the situation. We all knew what we were signing up for when we read about the program and read past blogs and talked to past participants…. And that’s a huge part of the reason why I opted out of using the laundry machine. Sure it would make my life easier, but I don’t want my life easier. I want to do life as they do life, immerse myself in the culture, learn. And not just do some amateur job at it, but really try, and do my best at everything I do. When we’re at the worksite, I’m not gonna just half-ass some of the project, and stick to something easy and always rest in the shade. I’m going to do my best, put my full effort. Idk if that’s problematic, but it’s my mentality. I am not any more special than they are. The country I was born in does not mean I deserve better treatment. We are human. And that’s what matters.