Below is a guest post by Joe Crook, a senior at Brandeis University who spent the spring 2014 semester in Vietnam. He also worked for part of the summer in Hanoi. Joe was a member of a select group; there were only 683 US students in Vietnam during 2012/13, the last year for which statistics are available. (That figure was down 22.2% from the previous year.) Vietnam is still very much an off-the-beaten-path destination for US study abroad students.
I occasionally speak to groups of US students who are in country for the fall or spring semester, or perhaps a summer program. Of 30 or so students there are maybe 2 or 3 on whom Vietnam has cast its spell and who develop a long-term interest in the country.
When I entered my freshman year at Brandeis University in the fall of 2011, I had no idea what I wanted to do. This is not a new issue among college students, including those who have graduated. At the time of this post, I still don’t know what exactly my “thing” is, but I know that I’ve taken small, yet important, steps towards finding it. One of the most influential steps was the result of my decision to spend a semester and subsequent summer studying, working and living in Vietnam.
Joe (left) visiting an orphanage in Can Tho.
For better or for worse, I have too many interests. Zeroing in on one field has never really interested me. My two-week stint in Gen Chem solidified this. During my first year at Brandeis, I heard about the IGS (International/Global Studies) Major. The idea of going straight from high school to university and picking what seemed to be a life-defining “path” was too much of a commitment for me at the time. The IGS major was created for people like me. It is interdisciplinary, allowing study in the fields of economics, politics, sociology, anthropology, etc. The world we live in is a vast and increasingly complex place, and surely nobody could ever understand it all, but I liked the idea of having a collegiate compass as opposed to knowing how to put some numbers together.
Long story short, I stuck with the IGS major and am now in my final year of the program. Now that that’s been established, I’d like to talk about what I find to be the most meaningful requirement of the major, something that should be, if not required, much more heavily encouraged among all students — study abroad.
As you might guessed, choosing where to study abroad was another huge commitment that I mulled over for probably way too long. With so much world to see, how could I decide on one particular corner of the globe? Maybe I didn’t spend too long because I now have a laundry list of reasons why I chose Vietnam, and even more why I want to return. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the most important ones.
- The War. The most obvious reason comes from how I and most other Americans first heard about Vietnam — the war. There have been countless books, movies, and music made all in the name of those terrible twenty years. Due to this, the vast majority of Americans will go immediately to “war” when asked to associate a word with Vietnam. I even had somebody tell me before I left, “Be careful, don’t you know what’s going on over there?” This fueled my desire to go to Vietnam in two ways. First, I wanted to see what exactly was going on over there. With atrocities such as the My Lai massacre (and many similar incidents) and the widespread dispersal of Agent Orange that destroyed thousands of acres of lush, green vegetation and affected millions of Vietnamese, how was this place doing after a mere forty years? Secondly, I wanted to be able to quell ignorance upon my return. Too many Americans are too ignorant about this beautiful country.
- Beauty. From preliminary research, I learned about Vietnam’s ravishing natural beauty. The dramatic karst stones of Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh, the flowery tranquility of the Mekong Delta, and the teeming jungles and caves of central Vietnam. For a country smaller than the state of California, it is one of the most geographically and biologically diverse places in the world.
- Culture. Above all, I wanted to experience Eastern culture from the context of a Western upbringing. Buddhism has always appeared as the symbol of peace and serenity in the realm of religion, and those ideals have spread their roots in the majority of this Buddhist country. The Vietnamese people have a storied history of over 2,000 years. Unfortunately, a good chunk of this time was spent under the occupation of foreign powers, most notably, the 1,000 year rule of the Chinese. Though foreign rule is inherently a negative, the collective Vietnamese psyche seems to have taken away important morals from their centuries of occupation. There is an overwhelming sense of live and let live. On the whole, people are nonjudgmental and not nearly as pretentious as some in the West can be. Perhaps this is just my clouded outsider perspective, but anger is a universally recognizable emotion and during my six months spent in the country, I saw hardly a trace of it.
In naming those three reasons, I’ve inevitably mixed in some of my experience. This just further illustrates the impact my time in this country has had on every part of my psyche. There is no going home after an such an experience. My perspective has been forever altered, and for the better. The most important part of this, I think, is being thrown out of my comfort zone, especially in a place where you don’t speak the language. While it is inevitable to speak the language of a culture to truly understand it, on the flip side, when you have no idea what someone is saying to you, you begin to see people for who they are instead of what they say.
The Mekong River
One of the most important lessons I learned during my time in Vietnam was to practice patience, open-mindedness, and not to be judgmental. While foreigners can be seen as walking ATMs more often than not, far from every Vietnamese person is trying to make a quick buck off of you. Many are just looking to have a foreign friend to practice their English with and learn about a different culture. This is how I was able to both get a good deal on my motorbike and befriend the guy who rented it to me. By spending more time than most others do talking about a common interest of ours, economics, I was able to make a friend and inevitably gain a deeper understanding of Vietnamese culture. He told me about his girlfriend, whom he wanted to marry, but whose parents didn’t approve him, and later invited me to his house to have dinner with them. I learned about the idea of “face culture” which permeates Vietnamese society and is the reason why certain people can’t get married and why, traditionally, divorce is unheard of — though this is changing among the more globally aware youth.
The hospitable nature of the Vietnamese people, and the open, communal feel of the society is what prompted me to stay in country after my program was over to further my experience through working and living on my own. Having the introductory experience of a three and a half month study abroad program did wonders for acclimating me to life in Vietnam. I was able to explore the country on my own terms and travel around as I saw fit. This included trips to Sapa, Cat Ba Island, and some lesser known places such as the Perfume Pagoda and Ha Giang.
Vietnam is a place that has affected me deeply and permanently altered my perspective. If you don’t take make an effort to explore the strange and unfamiliar, I’ve learned, you will never truly understand the world, its inhabitants, and why people do what they do. A cornerstone of anthropology is that culture is relative. Coming from America, arguably the helm of modern democracy and capitalism, it is easy for many of us to see our way as the right way and become blissfully ignorant of those who go about life differently, and live by different values than we do.
Vietnam helped me learn that money is not the end, nor even a necessary means to an end. The Vietnamese are very hard-working and self-reliant, yes, but this comes from a rigid backbone of familial support and ethnic camaraderie molded through generations of adversarial foreign domination. The result is a nation that does not dwell on the past and continues to move forward as an economic miracle and blueprint for the rest of Southeast Asia.
From abject poverty in the mid-80s to a place in the CIVETS list of most-favored emerging markets (i.e., Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa), it is the communalism and apparent lack of (or at least very blurred) social hierarchy. In the market-based economy, it is imperative to take risks. With the social safety net the Vietnamese have, these important risks can be taken. To reiterate, money is not the end for most of these risk-taking, prosperous young Vietnamese. It is for the pride of their ancestors, their families, and for the novel ability to build a life on their own terms. The money that comes with that is surely welcomed, but not chased to the ends of the earth as it sometimes seems to be in Western society.
Vietnam is a place I hope to get back to as soon as possible. It is home to a culture, a people and a landscape I have the utmost respect for, and a place I would like to help continue on its road to development, but also to preserve its traditional charm and customs so that everyone can have something akin to the life-changing experience I had.