Last week marked the anniversary of my being in Vietnam for a year. What started out to be a year of new experience and adventure has become a major milestone in my life. I’ve built a new house, found a wonderful lady, made many new friends, and have been able to see the world from a totally new perspective.
Vietnam is a stew, a blend of colors, textures, and smells that fills one’s head with strange flavor of something completely different than anything I have experienced in the past. Even though I have been here many times over the past fifteen years, I see that I have only scratched the surface of this country and its people. Though not knowing the language has been a handicap in many ways, it has also forced me to become an observer. Much of my time is spent watching, watching how things are done, watching the way problems are solved, watching faces. There is a complexity about Vietnam that only those born into it can understand. If I had to come up with a phrase that would describe Vietnam, it would be “discordant harmony”. From the clothing to the music, from the language to the traffic, everything looks and sounds so incompatible but blends with the richness of a stew.
I am attempting to learn the language but it is a frustration, especially with my hearing and at my age. I try to find a way to relate the words to English but they are so different there is nothing to gain a footing on. New words get lost in the babble of unfamiliarity. But even if I become proficient in Vietnamese, I will always be an outsider, a foreigner. That’s the way it is here. To be allowed into the inner sanctity of Vietnam, you must be born here, your parents born here, and your grandparents born here. Even those who have roots in Vietnam are outsiders. Vietnam’s past is so complex and turbulent that it cannot be learned but must be experienced for generations to understand.
Though my neighborhood is only a small fraction of Vietnam, it is a good metaphor of the country and people. There are those on my street from the successful to the very poor. There are educated people, countryside people, people who served with the South and people who fought with the North. There are young children and aging couples. There are Catholics and there are Buddhists. There are those who cling to the traditional ways and those who have flung themselves into the modern age. But in spite of the differences, it makes up a society that is much like the country as a whole.
This time also marks the fortieth anniversary of my coming to Vietnam for the first time. I turned twenty here in 1969 but in many ways I was born here. Most of who I am and what I am today was spawned from those days of war. I spent much of this week reflecting on those days. I guess it is natural to do so for someone in my position. But I have to admit that they are easier to deal with now. The “right or wrong” of the war does not seem so important anymore. What is important is how life is today. And I have to say that life is good for the most part. This is true for both me and for Vietnam.