Reflections on Three Months

I had a good friend stateside that reminded me that during an exchange, once the novelty wears off, growth truly begins. After 3 months in Vietnam, I think there’s a lot of truth in that sentiment. I’ve gotten into a groove here and have been able to focus inward on reflections of my goals, being a better teacher, and experiencing the nuances of life in Vietnam.

Since I last blogged, I’ve visited the houses of friends, eaten (and on the whole, enjoyed) nearly all the local cuisine I could find, and begun to save up the money that will later finance my trips to surrounding countries. The class that began upon my arrival with me as the full-time teacher has since graduated up to the next level. I’ve felt the draw back home with my local Kansas City Royals winning the World Series and my mother fighting treatment for breast cancer. I’ve sung my favorite English (and Vietnamese) songs in coffee shops, classrooms, and karaoke bars. Most importantly, though, I’ve truly begun to understand myself in context as a global citizen rather than one simply of the U.S.

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One of the most profound recent experiences for me was my visit to Kim Liên in the Nam Đàn district of Nghệ An, nearby where I live in Vietnam. Kim Liên is notable as being the childhood home of Ho Chi Minh, the first President of Vietnam, hero of the modern Vietnamese government, and claim-to-fame of the entire Nghệ An province. Known affectionately by Vietnamese young and old as “Uncle Ho”, he truly is revered as a part of one’s family. Altars with busts of his stately contemplation peer down in schools, government buildings, and homes. The same spiritual respect that is paid to one’s own ancestors is paid to Uncle Ho. Needless to say, the pilgrimage to Kim Liên injects even the most aloof Vietnamese person with reverence and admiration.

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The town is a relatively small stop off the side of the highway in the lush countryside of Vietnam. Along with some of my Vietnamese friends on a parade of motorbikes, we drove through scattered showers, past meandering water buffalo, and alongside buses bound for Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and all the far corners of the country I’ve come to appreciate so much. Most of the town seems to be centered on the industry of tourist visits to Ho’s childhood home. Vendors sell bracelets, framed portraits of Ho and other leaders of communism like Lenin and Marx, decorative plates, and overpriced fruits to visitors. Luckily, we visited midday during the week, so much of the site was relatively empty of other visitors.

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The actual childhood home is simple. Ho was born in 1890 to a humble family. A couple huts, preserved though not particularly protected from curious hands of children, marked the spot of Ho’s childhood. Somehow, I had some difficulty imagining a young Ho in this context. More than anything, I was struck by how little I knew about the man. History tends to characterize world leaders into entrenched categories, in order to simplify a complex telling of action and counteraction. The stories I had heard in school were, no doubt, quite different than those that my friends had heard in their schools. I couldn’t help but wonder how close either of our education’s had wandered to and from the truth. The truth seemed to be there, in that moment, amongst the sticky air, under the gently blowing trees of this Vietnamese forest – but like all truths, it was fleeting.

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One site in particular struck me, with a quote from Ho during the struggle for Vietnamese independence: “không có gì quý hơn độc lập tự do”, which roughly translates to “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.” The quote struck me in a similar way of the verbiage of our own Declaration of Independence, and I was reminded of just how remarkable it is to be free.

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I’m often confronted by the complexity of the historical relationship of the U.S. and Vietnam. On the whole, my students are relatively young, like myself. To them, the stories of their fathers and grandfathers of the war seem far away. But I’m humbled and amazed at their kindness and forgiveness. Their outlook is empathetic and exceedingly generous, despite historical precedent to do quite the opposite. For so much of their history, the Vietnamese faced uphill battles. Even now, the people of Nghệ An struggle to find the right balance of education and work, having enough or having too little. The province is up-and-coming, but still is generally poor compared to the rest of Vietnam. Some children don’t get a full education and are forced to use supplemental education to improve skills in language or science. Yet, I’ve faced nothing but understanding and the welcoming embrace of a people willing to share their tea, rice, and lives with me, no questions asked (well, maybe except “how old are you?” and “do you have a wife?”).

It’s quite humbling to go from thinking that I was going to be helping them, to the realization of how much they’ve been helping me now for three months. In turn, I’m doing my best to dedicate more time to lesson planning, learning the in’s and out’s of present perfect continuous verb tenses (and all of the grammar I sometimes struggle with), and offering cultural exchange and appreciation where it is most appropriate to do so.

Lucas McCamon is teaching abroad with API in Vietnam

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