Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Oi Doi Dep Qua" - Life Is Very Beautiful

“You can not take the values of this country and bring them into another one,” said Nghia, a Vietnamese tour guide from Hanoi, reluctantly nursing the clay-pot full of catfish in front of him. “In order to understand Vietnam, three months is not long enough time.”

Nghia was referring here to my abrupt departure from his homeland this coming Sunday. I, a recent college graduate, have been teaching English at Can Tho University for a little over three months now. The semester ends this Friday. And much to Nghia’s disappointment, I will not be returning to classroom A3/119 come this January.

“Vietnamese people…may be cold on the surface,” said Nghia, in his French-inflected English accent, leaning over his neglected lunch at our table in Nambo, the open-air Western style restaurant in Ninh Kieu plaza. “They don’t smile at you right away because they do not know you. But when you open up to them and make them your friend, they become your friend for life.”

I cringe when he says this. Originally, I was supposed to stay here longer. But my plans have changed along with my heart. I want to teach English abroad somewhere else. So I will be retreating back to Rockland County in time for Thanksgiving, to refuel, reunite and readjust to the life that I left back in August.

Although I am ecstatic to come home and see friends and family, there is a part of me that is already missing Vietnam. She will be different in one, two, three years from now. Vietnam’s economy is multiplying faster than the bacteria in your kitchen sink. Every where you turn, gaudy buildings are going up, new imported goods are whizzing by you on larger-than-life transport trucks and the people are becoming more and more scandalous and selective with their choice of dress. But still, there is a pressing desire to keep tradition alive and well – to continually remind people (women) of their place in Vietnamese society.

This is perhaps because Vietnam is in the middle of a nasty game of tug-o-war with two industrial powers: China and the U.S. Its northern neighbor influences its government and traditional values. But the Western world has certainly come to Vietnam, too – this is evident in the youth’s admiration for pop music, Coca Cola and converse sneakers. Vietnam wants to move ahead and reap all of the benefits of a free trade agreement with America. But she also doesn’t want to awaken the sleeping giant next door, who will surely cause a ruckus if she becomes “too Westernized.”

Although they frustrated me at times, my students were what kept my spirits alive in Can Tho, and helped me to understand this country through the eyes of its future. True, they were negligent when it came to voluntarily raising their hand in class, but they encouraged me every day with their silent, smiling faces. Our upbringings may have been separate. Our dinner tables may have sported different dishes. Our favorite cartoon characters may have spoken different languages. But my students (at the risk of sounding cliché` here) have taught me more than I have taught them. They have reaffirmed my already pre-determined belief that all people in this world are more alike than they are different. They have, by way of never failing to miss a class and showering me with gifts on Teacher’s Day, shown me how much they appreciate my presence at the front of their classroom. And they have also broken my heart.

“When you come back Vietnam?” one student asked me on our last day of class.

I sat there with my mouth open and stared at her. After a few moments, I closed it and simply said, “I have no idea.”

I came back to life and found myself seated across from Nghia, who was studying my face intently, trying to relay a message through his unspoken words.

Finally, he let me in on his secret.

“I think you should stay longer,” he said. “That way, you’ll understand.”

I had to look away. I had tears in my eyes.

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