This Isnt Kansas
DONG HA TOWN, VIETNAM
Until muddy waters clear it is impossible to reflect upon, or to know exactly what, we are willing to do. After three months of yes and no, maybe next week, if only, step by step and the delicate, fleeting epiphanies that arise from being allowed to do my duty, to provide the interface between humanitarian organization and recipient, I can say there is nowhere in the world I would rather live and work today than Viet Nam.
When I hit the ground in June I had no real conception of what lay in wait after the introductions and meetings and beer hazings of my hosts and co-workers. I had no clear idea of what was expected of me, what demanded, or of the rewards of my practicing acceptance, adaptation, and perseverance. For every day of hair pulling bureaucratic frustration, every hour of obstruction and every instance of miscommunication, there has been a qualitatively correspondent bliss.
I am now, after a ninety-day probation period in which I soloed for a month, the official Viet Nam Representative for Clear Path International, an NGO working to remove obstacles to the health and well being of children and families affected by the legacy of the American War. Our humanitarian efforts include a 43.5 hectare unexploded ordnance clearance and development project in Dong Ha Town, Quang Tri Province, and a cluster of Accident Survivor Assistance Programs that range from burial support for new accident victims to Quality of Life Improvement grants, as well as both ongoing and emergency medical care, and scholarships for children under sixteen. Our target groups for these forms of assistance are families where someone, for whatever reason, has been injured by mines or ordnance.
During my first ten days in country, four people were injured and three killed by explosions. Two Vietnamese Military Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel were killed in a fishpond early in July, and at the end of the month four more men were killed in a single incident. I have seen the injuries of children and adults en masse, visited many of these people in their homes, and while delivering assistance has at times been party to the media circus their lives may briefly become. One man lost two sons, and I knew we had at last found the right house when I saw the burial mounds in the front yard.
I see people full of hope and resilience, and those broken by their misfortune. I see homes where there is nothing more than rice and wild greens to eat. When I observe the consequences of decades of hostile American foreign policy for everyday people in Viet Nam, I am often ashamed for my ignorant complicity: all those perfectly circular fishponds and buffalo wallows are bomb craters. One of my counterparts is my age, lost an arm in the war, and spent years growing up in the nearby tunnels of Vinh Moc. She rides her bicycle twenty-two kliks into the hills to teach health education for CPCC, sleeps overnight on the floor of some villagers house, and rides back next day. Viet Nam is one of the poorest countries in the world because America helped France ravage it, then made its own special hell of the countryside with bullets, bombs, mines, napalm and Agent Orange. Everyone I meet, born by 1968-70, has some harrowing story to tell of the war, or of their flight from Viet Nam and the depredations of pirates, the misery of the refugee camps, and general nightmare of repatriation.
For all this, the Vietnamese are amazingly hopeful and focused on their future as a nation. The pragmatism manifest here is like none Ive seen anywhere. Ethics are contextual to a degree unimaginable for the average American. A common complaint among expats is that the Vietnamese often lie, but I believe the truth lies along a different line than the divide between black and white. Maintaining cordial relations is important, and people here go to great lengths to assure that this happens
if that means telling somebody something that isnt factual, so be it, because the value priority is on the overall health of the relationship, and facts are secondary to that. People will pretend all manner of things, or ignore them, in order to go along and get along. Here, if you dont belong, dont know your place, you are and express nothing of consequence.
With respect to etiquette, people do all manner of things most Americans would never do. Ive yet to see a Vietnamese blow their nose in public, but people will urinate against buildings along the main street. Here in Viet Nam, both the housekeeper and secret police go through objects professional and private. People read over my shoulder and take photographs from my hands to look at them before I myself finish. Here in Viet Nam people are often discomfited by direct questions about feelings or perceptions of situations, yet themselves ask the most personal questions about earnings, marriage, children, age, and a variety of other topics. People will tell you that you are too fat, or too thin. People are often moved to pity or disdain for those of us without a spouse and children, offering to make an introduction to some likely candidate of their immediate acquaintance. Decorum is a matter of course, and while certain formalities of dress and conduct prevail, people pick their noses and pop pimples at meetings. Here in Viet Nam the landlords children, any children, or even adults for that matter, may well walk into your house unannounced, help themselves to the fruit on the counter, the mineral water in the frig, and then step up silently behind you for an adrenalizing HELLO!
Due to my own proclivity for adaptive conformity, I now park the project moto in the dining room, lock everything all the time, spit bones and ash my cigarette on the floor at most restaurants, shoulder my way through the open air market, and haggle as fiercely as anyone else. By the time I saw someone ride a moto down the first floor hallway of a hospital the sight seemed familiar and almost expected, somehow typical. Children have great value here, yet are allowed to ride their bicycles on Highway 1 at night, wobbling along with no lights, no reflectors or reflective clothing, with large freight trucks, cars, vans, and motos streaming past them at wildly variant rates of speed. Given this, how can a lone moto in the hospital hallway be remarkable beyond its innate value as a cultural reference point?
There are so many apparent contradictions on a day to day basis that it is often difficult to know where to stand. Or whether you are standing or sitting, falling or flying. Despite this intrapersonal experience, I do stand somewhere in the Vietnamese reckoning, and hope that in time more will be revealed. Step by step I am made to understand my place in society, and I take it all in as any poet would: there are many layers of explicit and implicit meaning in every word and gesture. Many of the references may be obscure and oblique, and comprehension becomes completely reliant on contextual interpretations. Language skills go hand in hand with cultural comprehension and contextual fluency. Everything here is steeped in tradition, is woven into the fabric of life, and all foreigners remain outside that bond and construct. Though I can read all the books I have time for, ask all the clarifying questions I please, develop all the language skills possible given the diminished plasticity of my forty year old brain, I am and always will remain an outsider. I could marry, have children, become fluent, and even spend the rest of my life in Viet Nam without ever belonging to the clan.
This is not to say there is no love, are no bonds of loyalty, no succor, success or ultimate satisfaction available to a foreigner; rather, I did not grow up on the Vietnamese end of the war, have never lived the cycle of rice with my father and grandfather, mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. I will never be able to scamper across a monkey bridge in my thongs on a dark night, a load surely balanced across my shoulder, and so the best I can hope for is to understand my place in the order of things.
In the past sixty days I have been privileged to walk far into the bush twice to visit the same family, I have taken meals in typical places and at typical times. I have seen toilets and pig cages built, seen new roofs on houses, new kitchens added, and seen furniture stacked away in corners of houses to make room to heap the rice harvest on a dry floor. I have sat for hours on the floor of the home of a friend, a man my own brothers age, and been the bearer of good news: working prosthetics to be had for both arms at last
and the whole time surrounded by his brothers and their questions, the children in and out of my lap while we smoked and took tea and finally ate the rooster killed for the occasion. To find comfort, a sense of peace and right livelihood in such moments and with such people is everything I dreamed of in coming here. Moments such as these are my shield against those times of quiet, suffocating, alienated desperation that sometimes arise between waking and sleep and that often couple with the knowledge that my every movement is likely observed and recorded in some way.
The sum of the sense of alienation and the dim paranoia associated with being constantly observed, even casually by regular citizenry, is a cumulative stress I could not begin to imagine or appreciate before arriving in Viet Nam. Sometimes I play a game with a member of our staff: OK, where did I eat breakfast this morning? By nine oclock he has an answer for me. The sense of security I enjoy is an inverse one; I choose to take comfort in the belief that what I do in the office or field, how I interact with people and perhaps even their impressions of me, are known and catalogued and eventually factor into my reception at meetings or other official functions. I have habituated myself to see this not as oppression, but instead as a formal challenge concerning personal and public conduct, as an open and ongoing question of my integrity and intent, and of my commitment to the work in Viet Nam.
This is how Ive come to a certain understanding of my place: my present place is my job, and my job is to make resources available to people who have little or no access to them otherwise. I, and thereby the organization that I represent, are quite simply a conduit. Particularly with regard to our assistance programs, the Vietnamese system already has the capacity to deliver the monetary aid we offer. Our main working partner is the Committee for the Protection and Care of Children. With and through them we implement our programs, and without their infrastructure and support, we would be faced with developing capacity from scratch. They function at all levels of government, from the Central Peoples Committee right down to the commune level.
Our programs are designed for handover to our Vietnamese counterparts and staff, so being truly effective at my job means becoming obsolete by facilitating the development of requisite skills and furthering the capacities at hand. As I master the challenges of coordinating and delegating and accounting our activities, I teach these skills to our staff. Wherever they have a skill set stronger than my own, they teach me. I rely on them as my eyes and ears, my mouth, my right and my left hands. They are my cultural counselors and language coaches, and with their aid I must simultaneously find a way to balance the needs of the home office and expectations of our donors with the expectations of our hosts and the needs of the people we are here to serve. Together we must find our way to everyones standard of satisfaction in order for the work to grow and prosper.
When the time comes for me to leave, to pack my things and fold away this life in Viet Nam, I hope to do so with dignity and grace, secure in the knowledge that I found my place and played my part to the best of my ability. But until that distant day, I have more work to do than I can see from here, and to that I return every blessed morning