This post will be bereft of distracting pictures. Words alone can only express the magnitude of what I have to share.
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I had a profoundly emotional experience on July 25th, 2014, but it did not sink in until the end, after I got home.
As per the arranged plan, I met up with a local friend — let us call her Em, a standard term of endearment for a person (male or female) younger than you — one who has been a better friend than many I’ve had back in the States. She took a bus to me, rather than her motorbike, and I met her not far from my current residence. Shortly after, we took another bus to the Saigon Zoo – which in and of itself is a great place, for I’ve seen worse zoos and this one was pretty good. There we wandered about, talking or pointing at and taking pictures of the various animals. Sometimes we sat, continued to talk about all manner of topics, or even teach each other a little of our languages.
Eventually, Em’s friends arrived, as is the Vietnamese way. I had met one of them, Jane, a few nights prior, but the other lady was a new face. Everyone is quick to laugh and smile, and though I sat among the girls unable to understand 98% of what was being said to each other, I thoroughly enjoyed their company. Much could be gathered from their body language and gestures. Hanging around people speaking a language I didn’t understand is something I’ve not only gotten used to over the years, but have come to enjoy.
The friends left early to attend to a task, and we would see them again later that evening. My friend and I continued about the zoo for a while, until came the time we had to leave on account of needing to catch two consecutive buses to get back to her home. From central Saigon we went out to District 9, and while I do not know whether it is the poorest district, it’s along the outskirts and is certainly a poor place. Few foreigners go there.
Our bus careened down the busy streets, honking in the Vietnamese fashion of alerting everyone ahead of its approach, swerving around corners and barely stopping to take on more passengers. I remember thinking that it felt like a bus ride from hell, with that powerful horn blaring and lingering as people on the road calmly stepped aside to make way. Eventually our stop came, and much like getting aboard, the vehicle practically took off again before my feet even left the bottom step.
As Em led me to her home, along narrow streets and steel-sheet roofed shanties, I saw her neighborhood for the first time in daylight. I had been here one night, but only up to the front gate. In her home, her brother awaited, and we seated ourselves upon a bamboo mat on the floor. Angling their only electric fan towards me, cups of clean water were poured, and we sat talking for a short while. Eventually the call from the two friends from earlier would come and we would meet somewhere.
But as I sat in their single-room living space, I could not help but marvel at its simplicity. The ceiling stretched high, the walls mostly barren of décor, and what passed for a kitchen was made up mostly of a portable cooking stove and a mini-fridge. On a wall nearby there hung pots and pans and knives and cutting boards, but little in the manner of furniture or knick knacks found in a home as might be owned by frivolous Americans.
In the loft above us I guessed was their bedroom, a place the brother and sister no doubt shared, and down by the bathroom on ground level near the kitchen a spigot protruded from the wall. I wondered whether that was the shower, or at least their primary source of non-drinking water. All these things I observed without comment or judgment; merely curiosity.
This type of setting is not unusual for the area.
I wasted no time in expressing that it was an honor to be brought into their home, and in as best English as Em could muster, she translated small sentences between her brother and me. It took about three minutes for me to understand he was asking me my favorite soccer team (and no doubt to everyone’s chagrin, I apparently had none).
Thoroughly cooled by the fan, I found myself comfortable in their abode. The amenities were few, and it occurred to me that not only did the brother and sister share a motorbike – a staple thing for anyone, Vietnamese or otherwise, living in Saigon – but everything else as well. Things that Americans take for granted – like private living space and their own computer – were nowhere to be seen.
Em, positive and bubbly as ever, showed keen shyness in the appearance of her living space, and my own interest in their home did not go unnoticed. I, rather than feel anything along the lines of disgust or pity or whatever she might have been afraid a visitor might think, instead found myself filled with joy and pride.
I would express to Em in days to come.
As I sat, I felt a sense of respect well up inside me. One always hears about leaving the countryside to go the city to find a job, make a new life for themselves, but these people were really doing it. This brother and sister had left behind a farm in central Viet Nam, where an entirely different dialect of the language is spoken, to work and form a better life, here in the big city. Every night they returned home to a place that, like so many other things I’ve seen since coming to Viet Nam, bore the appearance of the practical.
I was reminded of clubhouses and sheds, the types of places children would have built in their backyards out of scrap materials. Fun places to play, but nowhere a privileged American would dare lay their head to rest.
From the inner city Expat area bustle to the outskirts of Saigon, the buildings, power lines, roads – everything was put together to be practical, and I derive comfort from that practicality, having always eschewed frivolity and extravagance. But seeing it all in such a short span was a lot to take in at once.
Once the other friends arrived, Em and I took off once more, bidding ‘tam biet’ to the brother and speeding away on motorbikes. The four of us had dinner at another street-side eatery not far off, and I consumed a bowl of noodles that, near as I can tell, is very similar to the other, differently-named noodle-soup dishes I’ve been having. It’s all delicious, and I retain my vegetarian inclinations whenever I can, but it’s impossible to turn down meals as a guest.
Strangely, eating as they eat is not difficult, even as someone whose practiced pretty strict vegetarianism for pretty much their entire life. I would not be the first to announce that the Vietnamese take pride in the quality of their food, so taste is certainly not an issue, and in fact the local cuisine is considered some of the healthiest in the world. But somehow…it’s different eating meat here then back in the States. In America, it felt wrong, guilt-ridden. Here, it seems…practical. Natural.
There’s nothing quite like eating at a restaurant, having the owner approach, and being asked to have your picture taken. Whether the man cherished the moment or sought to use my face for advertising, I couldn’t know for certain, but I was soon informed that I was the very first foreigner to ever eat in that place. When I agreed, many occupants of the restaurant rose up in cheers, followed by laughter as I blinked away the flash of the camera. Looking around, I found myself beset by dozens of eyes.
My friends remarked that I was a star there.
The night went on most enjoyably. As a group we moved to a nearby juice vendor on the sidewalk, the four of us talking, laughing, joking. The girls all acted like sisters. This would not be the first time I witnessed strong-bonded people sharing a good night with good food, big smiles and everything else that comes with being good friends. These are beautiful, smart and positive people, and they’re all working to build a better future.
They work hard, and know how to enjoy life. I could not say this applies to all Vietnamese, but it certainly doesn’t apply to a lot of Americans I’ve known. This small group of people I’ve come to befriend know what life is really about. Working hard, having a good time, and enjoying each other’s company.
Too many of us lose sight of that too easily in the West. It’s something that I’ve always felt was missing during my time in the States. American life almost never made sense to me, especially the corporate life. I had good friends and good times, but here, I’m meeting people who enjoy life, and aren’t seeking ways to avoid it. They face it, they laugh, and I find the enthusiasm infectious.
Here in Viet Nam, life has more of a purpose than I’ve ever known.
After being driven home, as I didn’t (yet) own a motorbike, I felt shame wash over me. Ahead of us loomed the immense apartment complex in which I lived, a landmark building stretching upward from a sea of slums. It looked as out of place as I did in the restaurant, and whenever I looked upon that building, I felt revulsion.
Speaking to my roommates about my experience, I learned they too were aware and compassionate. More on that later.
I truly enjoyed the company of these people, more than I could have ever expected. Even if they chatted among themselves in their native language, I took part in the evening’s events, and generally just relaxed and enjoyed listening to them speak.
What right did I have to live in a place like mine when my friends, who deserve so much more than me, remained in a place that Americans would call a slum?
I reached my 23rd floor room, glad to kick off my shoes and shed my backpack, and sought out the shower. My head swam with images of what I saw, the taste of the meal still in my mouth, the sound of their voices and the roar of motorbikes still in my ears. But most profoundly came this sensation that I struggle so hard to describe.
Where Em lived did not inspire pity, but it did put things into sharp perspective. This girl left her farmstead town at age eighteen to live in Saigon, by herself, went through several years of university, and continues to work six or seven days a week throughout most of the year. She told me for those first few years, scared and alone in the city, she spent many nights crying by herself in the night. Em now lives in such a home as would inspire the most devout of minimalists, and she makes it work.
Gods, she’s lead a life the likes of which I can only bow before.
I would later learn that while Em initially wanted to get a nicer place nearer to her job in the city center, she decided to stay put on account of her friends being nearby. Moving is within her means, I realized, it’s just that she’s happy where she is, near her vivacious, life-loving friends. Her job is but a short commute.
“Life is for laughing,” Em and I had agreed.
It’s people like her who truly have a Rich Life, not the business and money-minded folk in their tall buildings and luxurious apartments.
I found myself moved, inspired. Questioning myself and my purpose here.
For one, I felt that had no right to live where I did. I cannot continue living in a fancy (by my standards, anyway) 23rd floor apartment when there are slums and shanty homes surrounding it, literally across the street. I had already decided I wanted to downgrade, as I was uncomfortable as it was, but now… more than ever I feel like some kind of imposter. I did not come to Viet Nam “to live the good life.” I did not come here to be pampered and be served and entertained like so many expats come to experience.
There are wonderful expats here also, though. I’ve come to bond with a few more closely in so short a time than with friends I’ve left behind back in the States. Several have come to do good things and give back to the community. I recall a young German man who worked with disabled people in District 12, or the delightful Austrian lady who started Saigon’s skateboarding fever. But the majority of foreigners, whether expats or visitors, come to Viet Nam to entertain fantasies of living a “rich life.” And I don’t necessarily hate or judge them for that. It’s just that it’s not for me.
My roommates are among the better type. Kind and friendly and helpful, I related my experience to them, and they described my experience as being in shock. Perhaps so, but a secret dream of mine has been to live deep in an Asian community, and all the opportunities to do so are here, now. Furthermore, though, they understood my position, and my desire to change my living situation.
I came to mingle with the people, to discover romance and adventure in a far off land, and to write my stories.
But as for my fantasy writing…
In America, I wrote Fantasy because I always daydreamed about being somewhere else. I invented cultures and worlds and peoples, stories and adventures about people that never existed, no small part of me wishing that I was there, elsewhere in some fantasy realm. Since arriving in Viet Nam, I have questioned my goals, my plans, for I felt a shift within me; not only in perspective and self-understanding, but in purpose.
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”― Lloyd Alexander
I don’t feel the need to write fantasy like I used to. I don’t feel the urge to write of other worlds, of exotic places and peoples.
I’m living it.
Furthermore, if I write of my experience here, if I turn away from Fantasy and write about the people and culture of this fascinating place I’m in now, then I might make more of a difference. I might feel more fulfilled, knowing that my words are reaching the outside world and bringing awareness of this exotic, fascinating country.
But regardless of whether I’m writing or teaching…if I’m living in a high apartment, paying with money worth more simply because I was born somewhere else, it doesn’t feel right. Others do it; they come here to pay comparatively cheap rent and have a maid and indulge themselves, to ‘live the good life.’
But it’s not for me.
There, in my 23rd floor apartment shower, I honest-to-Zeus broke down in tears, overwhelmed by it all, and in part laughing at how movie-esque I must have looked. But it was not sadness; it was that same sense of pride I felt when visiting Em’s home. I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of joy for her. She was working so hard to not only improve her situation, but to show foreigners like me the wonders and joys of her culture. And she did not let things that I, as a privileged westerner, might have had irritate, depress, discourage or anger me. She manages to remain positive, strong, prideful and driven.
I am awed by this type of person.
I had grown up in a privileged country, and while my family was by no means affluent, we were not impoverished either. We Americans are always told stories, hearing them as children, that there are people starving elsewhere in the world. But it’s so very easy to forget.
What I saw firsthand that day left a lasting impact on me, and even more so than back home, I actually felt ashamed to be American. To have known what, compared to the people here, is a life of complete luxury. Hearing stories is one thing. Seeing, feeling, is quite another.
There are kind, strong, smart people here who deserve so much better.
Even if everything were to change, if something terrible were to happen or I otherwise was forced to go back to the States, there’s no way I could return to my old life in America.
I considered myself a politically and economically aware individual. I tried my hardest to buy shoes that did not come from sweat shops, or fair-trade foods not covered in pesticides. I always tried to keep eco-friendly, cost-attentive and health-conscious.
Not to say those efforts are meaningless, but gods damn, they pale in comparison to someone who’s left their home to live by themselves in an environment where others barely (or simply don’t) even speak the same language, like when Em came to the South from Central Viet Nam. The dialects between North, South and Central are so different that folks can hardly understand one another.
In an unexpected way, though, I could relate.
As it stands, I realized I can no longer leave this country behind if I wanted to. A few days before drafting this essay, leaving was always an option, whether to another country or back to America. It remained as an option that I could do if I wanted.
But I can’t live here unless I make a difference, either. I can’t live a luxurious life guilt-free, and am in the process of downgrading to a much humbler living situation. I will live among the Vietnamese, not above them.
Perhaps I haven’t yet found the best venue, but I now know that I want to help. It’s not a matter of pity, it’s not a matter of seeing and thinking, “Hey, you know what they need? Some ‘rich’ white American to appear and save them.”
No, it’s that I see that I can make a difference, and that I can help. So, therefore, I must. Before, I saw an open road.
Now I see only one path.