What I’m Looking Forward to in Viet Nam
In about two weeks I will take my first flight across the Pacific and begin a semester abroad in Viet Nam.* I am very new to world traveling – only this past summer did I take my first unchaperoned trip abroad, to the not at all threatening continent of Europe. Culture shock only took vague form when interacting with occasionally rude Poles.
Here are a few things I’m looking forward to and a few things I am nervous about.
Reasons for an anticipated excellent experience:
-The food. With a delicious abundance of regional and ethnic styles, I anticipate regretting no meal. As a coastal country, the seafood will be superb. I’m also a fan of street vendors, so much so that waiting the recommended six weeks until my stomach gets used to local bacteria may be a challenge.
-This year’s Lunar New Year (Tet) celebration occurs in February, when I will be in Da Lat. The celebrations include, of course, specialty food, fireworks, and general revelry. However, this is also a family holiday, and I look forward to getting to know my homestay family as well as the other students in my program in a cozy family dinner.
-The environment. Viet Nam is incredibly diverse, with ocean habitats, tropical forests, mountains, temperate forests, the Red and the Mekong river deltas, and much more. Like most of the rest of the world, many of these areas are threatened by development, but there remains much to see. Viet Nam is a biodiversity hotspot, with several new species discovered last year.
-The people. From what I’ve read thus far Vietnamese culture is relatively friendly and relaxed. It is nearly impossible to have business relationships within the country without first making friends with one’s Vietnamese partners, because of the culture of personal connection. There’s less of a division between personal and professional life than there is here, and I am excited to get to know people.
-Learning about Vietnamese perspectives. Non-Vietnamese writers are anxious to paint the Vietnamese people as totally friendly and open-minded (if socially conservative), with many admirable qualities, and minimal communist tendencies. But these writers are clearly reacting to the negative images of Vietnamese that we in the U.S. gained during the war; the image of them as enemies has not been erased from a lot of peoples’ minds. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to actual Vietnamese people directly and hear their thoughts on their own country, on mine, on what they care about, on the social trends and developments that are happening right now. On world events. On feminism. On, well, anything. I love learning about why people think the way they do, and I am quite excited to be immersed in a culture I have very little knowledge of.
-Learning about communism. In high school I studied the epic pissing contest that was the Cold War fairly extensively, but I don’t think I learned much about communism, and certainly not communism from a non-Soviet perspective. For one thing, the historians and politicians who wrote about communism clearly believed that to take any position other than a polarized one was equivalent to de-manning themselves. For another, we discussed only the big events, not the minutia of day-to-day existence (except where it “proved” that capitalism is better). Well, my personal identity does not depend upon my unrelenting defense (or attack) of capitalism, so I feel like I will be able to examine Vietnamese communism with a relatively fresh gaze. And what “communism” is now is very different than what “communism” is at any other point in history. I’d like to see what’s going on with that.
-Studying disease prevention. During my program I will write an independent paper on whatever I wish. I have chosen to examine epidemic diseases and the way that healthcare workers educate people in rural communities about prevention. Particularly, I want to compare knowledge and education about HIV/AIDS to another epidemic that has little to do with human sexuality – malaria, say, or Japanese encephalitis.
-Tea. I’m a fan, and in the U.S. it’s just not as ubiquitous as it is in Asian countries. I love that tea is going to be a drink option no matter where I go.
Things I’m not looking so forward to:
-Struggling with the language. Vietnamese has six tones and is notoriously difficult. My passion as a student does not lie with the study of language, so I anticipate difficulty.
-Talking about sexuality for my research paper. Everything I’ve read so far just advises that I never even bring up sexuality with any Vietnamese person. Yet I must do so in order to evaluate knowledge of HIV/AIDS and its prevention. The cultural barrier + awkwardness about sex + people not trusting a stranger (me) + the language barrier + etc. = extreme potential for failure after it’s way, way too late to fix it.
-The almost certain bout of traveler’s diarrhea I will experience.
-Mild psychotic nightmares from taking the anti-malaria medication. Also the possibility of contracting rabies, worms, or any other gross tropical disease.
-Being regarded as a boorish, loud, uninformed, slutty, rude, insensitive American. In defense of people who may regard me as American and therefore uninformed, it is extremely difficult outside of an academic library to find anything on Viet Nam (not the war). There’s only travel books and war books, and the war books are 100% dominated by the U.S. perspective. Come on, America. We frickin’ doused the country in Napalm and bombed people and set up an embargo until the 1990s and we struggle with homeless PTSD veterans. We seriously can’t stock even one book in public libraries or bookstores from the Vietnamese perspective? In any genre? Come on.
Check out my travel blog for semi-regular updates.
*In Vietnamese, “Viet” and “Nam” are actually two different words. Like Chinese, most of the words are monosyllabic. “Viet” is the primary ethnic group in the nation, while “Nam” means south, which refers to the country’s position as south of China, its occasionally invading and always pushy neighbor. In English the words were pushed together in newspaper headlines by editors who didn’t know/care that the words were separate. This reflects a time when journalistic integrity apparently only applied to people of one’s own culture; should someone nowadays attempt to display such cultural ignorance, that person would rightly be called a dumbass.
photo credits http://flickr.com/photos/andrewhuxtable/