Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back; a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country…
Those who know me well are conscious of the fact that I never go anywhere without a pen, for far too often I find myself compelled to scribble an erratic string of ideas onto even the nearest napkin or receipt. Contrary to popular belief, I do not consider myself to be a writer; I am a thinker, occasionally capable of accurately capturing the constant dialogue that exists within my mind’s confines. As I continue to play this game of Capture the Imagination, I become more and more aware of my perpetual tendency to fall into the deep consumption of a general theme throughout the various stages of my life. All thoughts - both fleeting and residing - are unable to escape being filtered through the sieve of my respective state of mind. In my recent transition from adolescence to adulthood, the particular theme which has saturated my being is inspired directly by the notion of perspective. As an abiding student to this intriguing concept, I continue to learn from experiences that I have every day on personal, social, and even cultural levels. Under this influence, it is difficult to accept a solid position without pondering a plethora of angles. As a result, I’ve found that I am much more understanding, compassionate, and rational when approaching difficult situations; considering various perspectives has allowed me to feel love for other beings, including those who I may not have the slightest affiliation with. Often I find myself wondering about even the most inconsequential motives of those around me, despite the verity that we may never again cross paths after briefly making eye contact on the street. I have yet to conclude whether it was coincidence, the workings of a greater force, or just a natural succession in my personal growth…but VDS came into my life with the most apposite timing. It seems more than appropriate that my contribution to a group of young girls with very different lives than I had known was simultaneous with this persistent yearning to experience life through the viewpoint of others.
Every single morning I wake up and have to remind myself of the fact that I am here; I am finally in Vi?t Nam! Though I have been here long enough that I am comfortably settled, this surreal feeling insists on lingering. It seems as though the process of getting here was a journey within itself, but now that the actual adventure has commenced, the entire range of feelings that originally provoked this voyage have not only been authenticated, but more solidified within my heart than I ever could have hoped for. Those of you who have witnessed this expedition from the time it was a seedling know that there were times when my confidence faltered about whether I would be able to financially make this happen or not. Then there are those of you who took a sincere interest in my quest and (though sometimes lacked an understanding as to why) were able to recognize that this opportunity was something that I just knew I needed to grasp onto from the moment it presented itself. Upon becoming aware of the situation which I am presently immersed in, there was an inexplicable internal force that insisted on my involvement. Unfortunately, other than offering the explanation that my desire revolved around embracing perspective, I couldn’t verbally justify exactly why I felt so passionate about seeing this program materialize. Although I was faced with many pessimistic opinions (from those who believed this to be nothing greater than a zealous and quickly passing idea; the dangers of traveling independently to an ostensibly arbitrary country, nestled in a corner halfway around the world; my family’s disagreement about temporarily removing myself from the pursuit of my own education; numerous stories about health hazards, et al…), I knew that this design in my head must occur, for I recognized a certain familiarity within the feelings roused by this idea. The gravitational nature of such an instinctual sting is indeed unmistakable and absolutely impossible to ignore.
Currently living out a once intangible vision, I’m suddenly sensitive to numerous things that previously managed to slip past my consciousness. The foremost factor that has embedded itself into my new awareness is the newfound respect I have for my own professors, as well as the learning process in general. Along with the acknowledgment of how important a well prepared foundation is to teaching, one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is the power of the unexpected. Considering that I am in a sense a pioneer - the first to experiment with this brand new, grassroots program that stemmed from one of my lasting impulses - I knew that there would be instances in which I would find myself unprepared, though I never expected for this lesson to be learned so harshly. Upon my arrival, I hadn’t been aware of the varied range of English skills that my students would cover. I had been under the impression that I would be starting from the very beginning (“ABCs” and “1, 2, 3s”)…but much to my surprise, I found myself in a situation that I originally thought was too much for me to handle. The students were divided into two skill level groups: Level One and Level Two. My Level Ones are students with little or no formal English training. Very unlike my Level Ones, my Level Twos are students that have had upwards of ten years of English classes. I will never forget my very first formal class, for finding myself in a room with my peers whom I was supposed to lead was extremely daunting. The lesson plan I had prepared had focused around the idea that I would be teaching basic conversation and grammar, and though this was perfectly appropriate for my Level Ones, my Level Twos clearly demonstrated that they were more than satisfactorily beyond the basics. I understood at that moment the feeling that teachers experience when they are presented with a question that they don’t know the answer to. That night I went to sleep feeling like a fraud and a failure, and I wondered how I had ever though I could teach English, especially when half of my students were learning the equivalent of what I was learning back at home. As the days passed and I gained more experience teaching, I found that forging into this new territory would be dappled with many successes as well as many failures. There were times when I would have “eureka” moments, epiphanies bearing more effective ways to convey my thoughts. Of course the gain of a new perspective from a teacher’s standpoint has affected me as a student, but more amazingly, I will be returning with a completely refreshed and invaluable attitude towards my studies. Each of these young women is so grateful for the opportunity to be here. As I have gotten to know them individually, I learn about how many of them were close to quitting their studies because of financial difficulties. Living in this boarding house has not only afforded them the ability to continue their education, but it has removed so many worries from their lives. They never seem to forget how lucky they are to be here, and it seems that every free moment is spent studying. The mentality is quite different from students in the U.S. whose “TGIF” mottos inhibit them from valuing and embracing each moment as an opportunity to learn something new. I don’t think I’ll ever skip another class without plausible reason or spend my time daydreaming about something “more interesting” during tedious lectures; I now realize how incredibly fortunate I am to be granted the opportunity to pursue my education with such ease, where as before I took this fact not only for granted, but as many do, approached with an apathetic attitude.
Another perception of mine which this experience has enriched with a myriad of new dimensions pertains to communication. We’ve all been guilty of speaking extra slowly and extra loudly at the drive-thru when the attendant on the other side of the speaker doesn’t seem to comprehend our order due to a language discrepancy. Although the frustration of this type of situation often dominates our reactions, there is nothing more likely to curb our insensitivity than the experience of being in a country where our native tongue is not standard. Speaking extra loudly and slowly does not in fact compensate for the reality that the words you are trying your best to pronounce clearly are not included in your recipient’s vocabulary. Through the experience of learning/teaching a language, I’ve managed to replace the frustrations with the exploration of alternative means of communication. Flipping through the “Viet-Anh/Anh-Viet” dictionary can become time consuming, leading to the addition of “master of pictionary and charades” to my resume. Furthermore, as students, we have all had the unpleasant experience of a teacher that is less than understanding when we aren’t in top form, ultimately deterring our overall enthusiasm for learning. A language barrier makes deciphering these instances much more difficult. In this sense, I have been given the opportunity to further developing and fine tuning my sense for recognizing body language, continuing with the effort to understand why someone may act a particular way as opposed to automatically assuming a fault. Finally, on the topic of communication, now I see why English is commonly thought of as the most difficult second language to acquire. English has always come naturally to me, but then again it is my mother tongue. Dissecting the language, while attempting to make the learning process easier, has forced me to hold a magnifying glass to the simplest words and phrases. After repeating the words “is, this, these” and contrasting the sounds of “fill” and “feel,” I am perplexed and amazed at the complexity of language. I always believed that I was just not gifted with the ability to roll my R’s, but I was always perplexed with the fact that every native to a Latin language was able to. I now realize that it isn’t a granted ability, but a skill that is learned over much time. As I’ve witnessed my students overcome difficulties pronouncing certain sounds, I have realized the power of practice and persistence.
Apart from teaching, my overall experience with the people of Vi?t Nam has been quite pleasant. On my first days here, my students embraced me, welcoming me with open arms. They touched my skin and said “dep!” (beautiful!), because much like in the colonial days of America, fare skin tones represent a higher status because it means that one does not partake in outdoor physical labors. Even those that I don’t know are extremely friendly. In the heart of the city there are some touristy areas, but in this little village that I have been living in, I doubt that most of the people have ever seen a foreigner. When I venture out of the confines of the boarding house I feel like a celebrity, because all eyes are on me. Those who catch a glance of this peculiar white image turn to their companions and whisper, a look of awe on their faces. I will honestly miss the wonderful feeling of being able to launch a wave of giggles with just a simple smile and wave “hello,” but living with my students has been the most beautiful experience of all. I’ve gotten to know them beyond the boundaries of the classroom setting, allowing me a better exposure to Vietnamese culture than most visitors get to experience. The girls are not just my students; they have become my friends and my family. We eat together, learn together, sleep together, wash clothes/dishes together, and laugh together. I never would have expected it, but I truly feel like I have established lifelong relationships. I couldn’t have asked to be surrounded with more intelligent, gentle, and dedicated human beings.
As for the matter of adaptation, I must admit that I don’t find myself yearning for washing machines, central air conditioning, cell phones, or any other modern conveniences that most Americans have become so reliant upon. I’ve also found the expected struggle of being so far away from my friends and family to be minimal. I attribute this sense of contentment to my second day here: I went to a nearby orphanage with two of my students to bring the kids rice, books, pens, and candy…surprisingly, all of the kids appeared to be happy and carefree, except for one girl. She had a hopeless, withdrawn look in her eyes; she seemed angry at the world, and it made me feel guilty for just being there. I couldn't help but think about the situation from her viewpoint...this rich, white person visits with candy in tow, as if that gesture solves all problems. Even though all of the other children were so smiley and excited about the sugary jelly-fruit cups that we brought for them, I couldn't take my attention off of this one sad, little girl. I tried to break her wall of isolation, to include her as we taught the children songs, but she seemed well trained in the field of self-induced seclusion. I wanted so badly to just hug her tightly, to give her anything and everything in my power, but her spirit was so murky that it didn't take a moment of thought to recognize that a material item would never inspire even the smallest smile. Her parents were gone forever, and it appeared that nothing short of reviving them back to this lifetime could ever restore her to her original state of innocence, to return to her the childhood that she was prematurely robbed of. My fortune, contrasted with her misfortune, seemed like a joke to me. This alternate universe that this little girl was living in presented me with a pattern of thoughts that I had experienced too rarely; I was reminded of the possibility that my soul could have been born into a body halfway around the world, having drawn a very different number in this life lottery we all seem to forget exists. As we drove away, I couldn't help but think about how, in retrospect, she was so incredibly lucky right now. It seems ironic, but having ten years on her I know that things are only going to get harder. All of the times that I’ve felt like I was tainted by difficulties I’ve had in my life suddenly seemed inconsequential in comparison to the emotional barriers she is going to have to scale as she inevitably matures into adulthood. After that day, something inside of me changed, and now it is as if I am incapable of “missing” anyone or anything. A fine line was drawn, and though my love and appreciation for my friends and family has undoubtedly multiplied, I know that just because I can't see them today doesn't make it an infinite situation. I’m so lucky to know that I’ll see my loved ones again eventually, but those little kids will never get to see their parents again. This – not seeing people living in sheet metal shacks or working in fields for hours beneath the scorching sun - was the ultimate advancement in perspective.
So, back to that question that I was presented with (and unable to answer) so many times prior to my departure: Why? Well, it’s very simple, really. I had found myself becoming quite bored and uninterested with the typical regiment followed by most of my peers. I think that if we all took a moment to turn around and look at what we are doing with our lives, we would be shocked and maybe even appalled. We go straight from high school to college, and somewhere in the process we are supposed to gain this colossal advance in maturity. Society tells us that we must hurry through those four years of our lives, and then delve enthusiastically into the workforce. I plainly didn’t see myself fitting into that template. Everyone inquired, “Why don’t you just travel after graduating from college?” Well, the most straightforward response that I can offer is that I want to gain everything I can from my college experience; I want to have acquired a multidimensional perspective that allows me to effectively process all the information that I take in during my schooling. Otherwise, I’m just another kid that that’s been living the easy life on the East Coast of the United States, never knowing how life “really” is for so many people in this vast world. I wanted to travel, not to Europe or Australia, but to a place where so much of the population has next to nothing. I wanted to meet people that have worked insufferably hard for everything that they have, because when I return home I will have more waiting for me than many will ever have, and their lives will continue on as they always have. I don’t think that my reflection will cease until long after I’ve returned, and I’m sure that, even far into the future, I will continue to make connections and realize that I had learned lessons I hadn’t even realized during my time here. When I return, I’m sure the new typical query that I will be faced with will sound something like, “So, did you find the answers you were searching for?” This time I will know how to respond: Yes, but more importantly, new questions have been posed.
"There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic."