What are the ups?
Let’s do a top 3.
- I often eat lunch with Quang. He’s 71 years old. Back in 1965, for 10 years, he was a parachuter for the South Vietnamese army and worked intimately with American forces. Shortly before the end of the war, Quang was given the opportunity to emigrate to The United States on a special Visa for South Vietnamese military. Unfortunately, he had to stay and take care of his ailing mother. As a consequence, Quang lost everything short of his life. He was captured, then forced to spend years in “training” to forget the Western Values that had “corrupted” so many of the South Vietnamese. Finally, he restarted his life, at the age of 32, as a modest tailor. Quang has been living quietly since, a short boat ride across the Pacific from the Vietnamese and American comrades he served next to. Quang, at 71, has surrendered to the fact that systemic change in Vietnam is beyond his time.
“It is now up to our daughters and sons. I am too old, and cannot do anything. I am simply a tailor, and am happy to see younger people with greater opportunities than I ever had.”
How is this an “up”? For no other reason than the fact that I get to eat lunch with him. It is, at the very least, a fascinating cultural anecdote that I am the first American he has spoken to since Nixon brought the troops home. I get to, at least ostensibly, take part in a great rehabilitation process.
- I teach a class with some special students in it. They are 12 and 13 years old, and may be better at English then I am. I think one girl is going to be the first female President of Vietnam. This is one of her quotes:
“The message I want to share with the world is about the problems of our environment. It’s becoming more and more serious. All of the people across the world are a part of a big family and the Earth is our mother, our house. Without the environment, we have nowhere to live. If we don’t do something now, maybe our children in the future will have less of a home. The Earth is precious and we need to keep it. I am only one person. One person can’t save it., but we… We can save it. Let’s save the environment before it is too late.”
- I have two friends, Vu and Thuat (A New Yorker saying the word “taught”). Vu is 22 years old, began teaching five months ago, and loves to hit the gym in his flip flops. He spends his weekends like most recent college grads: teaching 16 hours of classes. He empties the furniture out of his house (which he shares with his Mom and Dad) and replaces it with old desks and a whiteboard. Then, from 7am until 5pm, with a lunch break in-between, Vu teaches English with unbounded passion and energy.
Thuat makes Vu look lazy. Every morning, he rides his motorbike up into the mountains to teach hill-tribe students. They don’t speak much Vietnamese, so he taught himself their tribal language. After school, he works part time for the Department of Education, because he feels it’s his best chance to reform the education system. Then, in the evenings, seven days a week, he teaches. To ensure the best possible quality education for his students, he has reconstructed part of his house into a makeshift classroom (pictured below) and invested in Oxford ESL curriculum for every one of his students. On the weekends, like Vu, Thuat teaches 16 hours. He has classes for students age 7 (Oxford Level 1) all the way to age 17 (Oxford Level 10). Thuat is 32 years old.
If I’m honest, I don’t wake up every morning for the moments, but for the people. And, just like the rest of life, the best parts of Vietnam are the people. Moments are fleeting, humans endure. My inspiration, confidence, and hope comes in knowing people like Quang, My, Vu, and Thuat are here and won’t be leaving anytime soon. The belief that one person can’t make a real difference sounds to me like the despairing cry of a man without a purpose. Hopeless proverbs such as this have yet to reach Khe Sanh.