Dirty Kids and Single Stories

It is my opinion that most people in the United States misunderstand poor countries.  Hopefully these stories will reveal what I mean.

My next door neighbor in Khe Sanh does not like to flaunt his wealth, so he keeps his Porsche in the garage except on special occasions.  To maintain a populist image, he drives a brand new Lexus everyday instead.  Right now, he is on vacation in Hawaii.  Before leaving, he blessed me with an enlightening sermon, properly titled: “What to expect of Oriental prostitutes abroad”.  Without divulging secrets, I will tell you that I can now appropriately price Korean hookers in a variety of U.S. cities.  Knowledge really is power.

Maybe my smartest friend here in Vietnam is a young man named Binh.  I can’t be sure, but Binh may speak better English than I do.  Sometimes Binh likes to go to Cambodia to help poor trash-picking kids there.  He wants to own a fruit-exporting business when he grows up, so he takes international business courses in English, and is learning Mandarin on the side.  Binh cares a lot about helping poor people, so he hopes to go the United States at some point in his life.  He has heard we have a lot of poor kids.

When I first got to Vietnam I met a wealthy English-speaking couple in Hanoi.  Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen heard I was going to be teaching poor kids, so they decided to send hundreds of winter jackets my way.  They figured the kids must get cold in the frigid subtropical winters.  When I tried to give the kids coats, they looked really confused.  Most of them giggled and walked away muttering things like “crazy white people”.  I now have an excess of tiny Spiderman coats.

I believe there are two paradigms used in the West to perpetuate a false narrative of the Global South: helplessness and innocence.

The former distortion is gaining ground as a meme.  A growing population in the West understands, to an extent, that there is nuance to the “African” story.  Who can forget the satirical campaign, “Africa for Norway”?  Still, I think, at least in intellectual circles, the “White Man’s Burden” mentality has been replaced with something more politically correct.  Let’s call this new perspective: “We live to make the world a better place.”  As millennials, this is our calling.

Even after a liberal arts education, where the notions of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia as inferior were academically bludgeoned out of me, my core savior-complex remained.  My identity was (and maybe still is) found in finding a helpless people and fixing them.  My transcendent quest requires finding dirty brown kids and turning them into shiny, articulate, English speaking additions to my Facebook page.

That said, on paper, my community in Vietnam is in desperate need.  The GDP per capita in the United States is approximately 9 times that of Vietnam.  The IMF calculates 6,100 international dollars per capita in Vietnam, snuggled comfortably between the Congo and Sudan, two African nations not particularly well-known for their excess of luxury cars.  Wealth in Vietnam in concentrated in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), two of the biggest cities in the region, sitting near the northern and southern borders of the country, respectively.  I live in Quang Tri, as removed from these cities as possible.  Quang Tri hosted a war a few years back.  A group of young men from the USA came for 8 years or so and left some unexploded land mines and Agent Orange.  Now Quang Tri is the poorest region in central Vietnam, and one of the poorest in the country.  I live in the Huong Hoa district, hugging the Lao border.  This is among the poorest districts in Quang Tri.

To summarize, I live in one of the poorest parts of a poor country.

Yet, speaking on behalf of the “dirty” kids of Vietnam, my friends, I am confident in saying that they’re not interested in being saved by westerners.  The hill-tribers here in Vietnam are generally well looked after by their communities, their government, and Vietnamese do-gooders.  My friend Binh thinks it’s funny that Americans spend thousands of dollars on plane tickets because they feel it is their duty to save the world.  And, after 7 months of not saving the world, I think I see where he’s coming from.  So, to all my U.S. millennial friends in the business of saving the world, I have a message:  you don’t have to save Vietnam.

Now for misrepresentation number two:  innocence.  The sermon on call-girls left my head spinning for weeks, but Reverend Porsche is not anomalous.  Among infidelity exists other societal vices that sound all too western to me:  prevalent domestic violence, crippling alcoholism rates, and systemic racism.  Even the little sins are familiar.  Vietnamese people, like the West of us, smoke too much, exercise too little, and find themselves in a heck of a lot of traffic accidents.

I guess part of me expected villages worshipping bamboo and families perpetually bent over rice patties.  I thought everyone would eat dog.  Instead they talk to dogs as if they were people and dress them up with coats and bibs.

In other words, Vietnam and the U.S. are more culturally alike than stereotypes would have us believe.  Both cultures spend the plurality of their time watching T.V., idolize money and athletes, find hope in a dream of self-improvement, and love their children prodigally.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making the world a better place, and this is not a post slamming international NGOs and global altruists.  Rather it is an attempt to expose our tendency towards single stories.  I have been taught to believe that countries like Honduras, Uganda, and Myanmar are settings for a distinct, banal, narrative: poverty.   It took living in one of these settings for me to learn just how myopic that perception truly is.

Here’s the cool part.  Organizations like Global Playground and Fulbright and Peace Corps are actually doing amazing work, but not in the way I originally thought.  Americans are not saving the Global South.  We are not sacrificing our youth to serve the greater good.  Instead, these programs promote interdependence.  No longer is it up to us to help them; this globalized world is in the business of helping each other.  It’s not about sharing resources, but sharing cultures.   And to me, this non-zero sum reality is beautiful.  I am in Vietnam to teach and to learn, to share stories and to hear them, to exchange cultural memes with a people with whom we once exchanged bullets.

*Food for thought:  According to national poverty lines and world bank estimates, there are 28 million more people in the U.S. in poverty than in Vietnam (45 million to 17 million, roughly).

*After looking through every picture I have taken since arriving to Southeast Asia (I have been in 5 countries and predominately among “impoverished” hill-tribes), I could not find one depicting a child as truly helpless.  So I googled one for the cover photo above :).

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