Wednesday, December 3, 2014


It's my last day in Can Tho. I had a hard time sleeping last night. There has been so much to think about these past few days. I'm going to miss all of my friends here. They've become an extended family to me and they share this experience of studying abroad with me. I plan to head out to Cambodia tomorrow with some friends from the program. I'll be visiting Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. After that I head to Thailand alone. I'm scared to be traveling by myself, but I'll use this experience as a personal test to myself. I'll be in Chiang Mai and Bangkok before heading home on the 18th. For our final we were instructed to write a paper about our projects and experiences. I want to share this with all of you, as it is very personal and close to my heart. Until next time Vietnam.
Hẹn gặp lại ,

Studying Abroad in Vietnam: A Look Within
            I came to Vietnam looking for a study abroad experience that would allow me the freedom to explore on my own and to better understand a culture that was so foreign to me. I hoped to work with victims of human trafficking at a local NGO in Can Tho. At least, that's what I told all my peers when I first arrived in the country. To some extent all of that was true, but they weren't my main reasons for coming to Vietnam. In actuality I was looking for a place to run away to, and Vietnam seemed  like the perfect spot to hide. With its dense jungles and developing landscapes I romanticized Vietnam to be this exotic new world where I could find some peace within myself. I signed up for the program a month before my Mom passed away from two years of cancer. I knew that I would need some time to myself after she passed away, but that I also wanted to stay enrolled in school. I had already taken so many quarters with reduced workloads that I felt rushed to graduate before I became a sixth year senior. I also wanted to distance myself from my family. During my Mom's sickness I had to shoulder a lot of responsibility that made me feel overwhelmed after her death. I wasn't really angry with my family as much as I was angry with the situations I felt forced into. Going to Vietnam allowed me to create this new life for myself. This freedom to tell whatever narrative I wanted to about myself to my new classmates felt empowering. I knew that I would eventually tell my friends about my past, but I was happy to finally have the ability to choose when I would tell them. There was no time constraint, unlike the past where everything was dictated by time. I landed in Ho Chi Minh City feeling excited and confident about my decision to study abroad. As free as I felt from the past, the past was able to catch up with me a lot sooner than I intended.

            The first few weeks in Vietnam flew by. I remember being warned about having culture shock during the orientation, but I felt more at ease in this foreign country than I had been feeling at home. When I heard my fellow students talk about home and missing their families I felt a twinge of guilt. I couldn't relate to them. For me, Vietnam was the ultimate vacation away from home and responsibilities. I felt balanced in my new environment, no longer being torn between school and family. I naively thought that it would be easy to assimilate to the Vietnamese way of life. I thought that by the end of the program I could be considered a local. I attempted to dress conservatively and eat only from the cafeteria in an attempt to act like my fellow students. Within a couple of weeks my body still hadn't adjusted to the weather so I went back to dressing like I had been back home. A severe food poisoning put me of off cafeteria food and I starting cooking in the dorms. Every time I left my dorms I felt like an outsider. Women stared at me and pointed me out to their friends, while the men ogled my body and followed me on my evening runs. It felt like everything I did seemed foreign to the Vietnamese students, and in fairness it probably was. I know my whiteness attracted all of the attention and that made me even more uncomfortable. Being a white person in America, I have the privilege of not being reminded of my own race. However, in Can Tho I was the minority and a privileged minority at that. Although I felt pretty hopeless about making friends during the first couple weeks in Can Tho I still tried to introduce myself to as many students as possible. The interaction didn't feel organic by any means. Our conversations always consisted of the same topics of family, academic major, and relationship status. I was relieved to discover that we had a vacation within the first month of the program.
            We spent Vietnamese Reunification Day on Phu Quoc island. This was the first trip where we were unsupervised by our professors. Almost every day it rained on the island and we spent much of our time indoors. The second day of the trip I received an email from a man I didn't know. He was my Mom's ex husband's son. I didn't find out that my Mom had been married before she met my Dad until I was fifteen. I don't think she ever intended for me to know about him. She had married her first husband in a black dress, because the wedding had been a joke to begin with. All I know about her first husband is that he was an alcoholic who had cheated on my mother shortly after their marriage. To receive an email from this man's son completely threw me off. In the email he said he wanted to get to know me and considered me family. He said he remembered my Mom fondly and that he had so many great stories to tell me of his father and my mother. I felt thrown off balance and I didn't know how to respond. I didn't share the same affection for his father as he did my mother. I was confused as to why Mom had stayed in contact with her ex husband's son all these years, and had never mentioned it to my brother or I. In a way it felt like a bit of a betrayal. This secret that my Mom had kept from me, my brother, and maybe my father. I felt like I couldn't go to my father with this new piece of information about my Mom. I still felt the raw pain of talking about her, especially to my Dad. I knew I had to confide in my friends about what was going on and how I should reply to the email. I was so reluctant to tell everyone, because I still wanted to pretend that my life was normal. That my Mom hadn't just died. When I confided in my friends I felt relieved. I now had people who I could talk to about my problems. It only took a month until my life back home caught up with my life in Vietnam. I didn't expect it to happen that fast. You really can't run away from your problems. Running away doesn't help you life your life.
            Once we were back in Can Tho after the vacation it was time to start thinking about what to do for my final project. Initially, I had wanted to work with victims of human trafficking in the city. The selling of internet brides was starting to become a common practice in Vietnam due to the opening of its many borders. Unfortunately,  I was unable to get involved with anything pertaining to human rights because of the bureaucracy of the Communist party. Like many countries, Vietnam does not want to admit that they have human rights issues.
                        I preoccupied the rest of my time in Can Tho by volunteering at an orphanage. The Sisters of Providence Orphanage was opened in the early 1980's and is the only state funded orphanage in Can Tho for children affected by agent orange. There are about seventy children living in the orphanage and two adults with severe learning disabilities. Most of the children living at the orphanage have special needs for their physical or mental disabilities. There are forty three staff members, twenty three of whom are nurses. Apart from monthly funding from the government, the orphanage receives monetary and physical support from the community and outside volunteers (Anonymous).
            I felt apprehensive the night before working at the orphanage. Throughout college I rarely had any interactions with kids and a part of me was worried that I wouldn't know how to interact with the children. Regardless of age, I was also worried about the language barrier. I was supposed to teach these kids English when my Vietnamese proficiency was anything but proficient. I think my main concern was how I was going to react to the kids with apparent physical disabilities. I was scared of the unknown and scared of the infinite possibilities of accidents occurring.
            Once I arrived at the orphanage with three other volunteers I noticed how there was a complete lack of security. Without signing any papers or requesting back ground checks we were allowed to immediately start teaching the children. We were put into a room filled with about twelve kids, ranging in ages five to ten, with one nurse sitting in the corner. I thought I would start off the lesson by teaching the children the English words for different colors. Out of the twelve kids only six had books and pens to write with. Four out of the twelve children in the room had physical disabilities such as missing limbs or enlarged tumors. One of the girls in the room had a type of learning disability. The English lesson quickly fell apart with twelve kids in the room all seeking attention. I was surprised how trustworthy the kids were. I'm used to American children who hide behind their parents when being introduced to strangers. The children at the orphanage craved physical closeness. It seemed as if the nurses were there to raise the children, but not to nurture them. I found it very easy to get along with the kids on the first day. I was able to make them laugh at my amateur attempts at juggling.
            After the English lesson we went to the toddler and baby wing of the orphanage. The first little boy I met had shrunken limbs, but he could crawl faster than any of the other kids. Some of the toddlers had respiratory issues, so all I could do was sit there and hold their hands. When I was playing with the babies I noticed how unresponsive some of them were. Most babies react to peek-a-boo or other baby games. These babies seemed to either look confused or stare past me. I don't think the babies get enough attention from the nurses, because there are usually two nurses for ten or more kids. Another thing that bothered me that day was seeing how the toddlers were taken care of. They spent most of their day in cradles that were too small for them, and in order to keep the children in their beds the staff would tie a foot to the bed post. I thought that if there were more nurses maybe they wouldn't have to tie the kids down. While the older kids room had a few toys to play with the toddlers and babies only had a few stuff animals to keep them entertained.
            After that first day, I spent the rest of my two months in Can Tho volunteering at the orphanage. I was happy that I was able to get along with the children, but I was unsure about how much I was helping them. The English lessons always ended up turning into play time and the majority of play time was keeping the children from hitting each other. I was surprised to see how violent some of these kids were. Most of the time the children were left to figure out crime and punishment on their own.
            At the end of my time at the orphanage I wanted to write a research paper about my experiences. However, because I didn't have government approval, the director of the orphanage requested that I not write one and declined a professional interview. Yet again the party's bureaucracy and secrecy stopped me from conducting further research on a topic concerning human rights.
            When I first arrived in Vietnam I had these preconceived ideas of what I wanted to do and what I was going to accomplish. Now that I'm at the end of the program I don't have a publishable research paper and I didn't help any trafficked victims. I've come to realize that this trip has turned into a quest for personal growth rather than academic achievement. Before Vietnam I felt lost, because the most important person in my life had just left me. I thought that doing something spectacular for human right in Vietnam would academically re-energize me. In reality, having all of the experiences I've had has made me reinvigorated for school. I'm excited to graduate and I feel ready for the real world, whether that means graduate school or a job. Most importantly I feel like I'm ready to go back home and see my Dad and brother. I needed this experience of living in Vietnam so that I could find clarity and understanding in something that seemed so infallible to me four months ago. I don' feel like I have to run away from my Mom's death anymore. Her life and death has helped to shape who I am as a person and she will continue to be a part of my story.

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