Once your mind is expanded by a new experience,
it can never return to its original dimensions.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
As Tu and I rode her Honda moped through Saigon’s smoky, harried streets, I suddenly didn’t want to return to the U.S. -- not yet. Vietnam had become my “home” in only four months. During that short time, I experienced some of the exhilarating and challenging moments of my life and made friends who taught me incredible lessons. I knew it would be hard to leave that behind me.
* * *
I never expected to go to Vietnam, and until my junior year at IWU, I never knew I had the option. When I found a semester-long Vietnam study abroad program through IWU’s International Office, I was fascinated, and the more I learned about it, the more I knew I would regret going anywhere else. As a history major, I had always focused on recent U.S. history, in which the Vietnam War was pivotal. However, I had never studied the Vietnamese side of the story. I suddenly wanted to know more. I wanted to explore Vietnam’s rich culture, befriend its people and hear their stories.
More than anything, though, I wanted to see all the good things about Vietnam my father had not.
My father served as a U.S. Army medic from 1968 to 1970, at the height of our country’s military escalation in Vietnam. He spent seven months in the jungle battlefields and thirteen months working in a Japan hospital, caring for the wounded and comforting the dying. For my father, “Vietnam” was simply a war he needed to leave forgotten.
I, however, wanted to know more. I had never taken Asian history courses before -- something I now regret -- but with one semester left before I graduated, I knew this was my chance to see Vietnam firsthand and truly get to “know” the country. When might I have that chance again? So on September 4, 2003, my nervous, but supportive, father drove me to Midway Airport, where my adventure began.
When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, I was struck by its crowded streets and apparent poverty, even though it is the wealthiest city in the nation. In many ways, Vietnam looks very much like the PBS travelogues and the charity snapshots. The central highlands are beautiful and foggy, the southern delta is tropical and brilliant, and some cities are crowded with motorbikes and smog. Poor children sell lottery tickets in the tourist district, while wealthier teenagers ride mopeds past the central park.
For nearly four months, I lived with 11 other American students in a small Saigon guesthouse with running water and air conditioning, which we did not take for granted. Together, we studied under Vietnamese professors, toured pagodas and shrines and explored rice paddies and sea sides. We climbed mountains, feasted with Vietnamese families and marveled at a culture few of us knew.
Over time, I found myself spending more time alone or with Vietnamese friends. I explored the cities and countryside and spoke with people of all ages -- college students, veterans, cab drivers, fishermen. Most people overwhelmed me with their generosity, especially when they discovered I was there to learn about their country. One afternoon, as I sat at a rural war memorial, several students approached me, asked questions, complimented me on my broken Vietnamese and then took me to meet their families. I was often welcomed warmly. Although some people were unhappy to see an American and made unkind comments, it didn’t bother me, and I couldn’t blame them. It helped that I couldn’t understand most of what they said, anyway.
I was most touched during the last month, when I did an independent study interviewing elderly women who lost their children during wartime. These women lived in Cu Chi, a large, rural area north of what was once Saigon and also one of the most contested regions of the war. With my translator, I learned about how these women watched their houses burned, their fertile lands destroyed and their sons and daughters killed. They shared their own survival stories -- many dug tunnels under their homes, disguised themselves or took up arms to protect their families and themselves. These experiences affected each woman differently. Some spoke with great pride in their families’ strength, while others cried.
These women welcomed me into their homes, gave me gifts and shared deeply personal stories. I never explained that my father was there or that they were once opponents. That wasn’t the point. I was there to learn, and I found that, despite our differences, I profoundly connected with several of these women. They were a critical part of my learning experience.
* * *
As I rode through Saigon on that final night, I knew my mind would not return to its original dimensions. Vietnam taught me that human conflict can have many sides and is often far more complex than one may think. I learned that time does heal, if slowly, and if we expect healing to occur, we may need to actively work toward reconciliation. It may not all happen on its own. I also learned just how deeply I respect, love and appreciate my father, while at the same time, I respect and admire many of the people I met in Vietnam.
Most importantly, I learned that the world is larger and richer than I ever imagined. If you have the chance to explore the world, do it. Study abroad. Take a May Term travel course. Speak to people from other cultures. Continually learn -- there is so much to learn. I strongly encourage you to take the opportunity now. After all, when might you have this chance again?
SIT Vietnam 2003