Major: Environmental Studies and Economics
Hometown: Charlotte, NC
Study Abroad Program: SIT Vietnam
The most important phrase to learn in Vietnamese is, undoubtedly, "Chúa õi!" which literally translates to "Oh my God!" For instance, you can yell "Chúa õi!" as you cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City and hundreds of motorbikes zoom past you with three, four, five, six occupants on each bike. Or maybe you'll utter "Chúa õi!" in disbelief as you bring your first bite of dog, rat brain, maggot, or home-brewed rice liquor to your lips. Or maybe "Chúa õi" will come most in handy when you hear the baffling statistics about how a country that was bombed to the ground thirty-five years ago is now making a name for itself in every global market it can get its hands on.
For me, Vietnam was all about amazement. My program made it easy for me to be amazed, as I found myself immersed in a culture and world of learning that I knew almost nothing about. The focus of my study abroad program was the environment of the Mekong Delta. It soon became clear, however, that the "environment" in Vietnam was something entirely different than in the USA. Due to population density and the government's strong push for economic development in the 1980's, nearly every hectare of the Mekong Delta is farmland or city. The Vietnamese people utilize every resource possible in an effort to make the most of the little that they have and protect the quality of the environment. The most striking example of this occurred when I had the opportunity to help construct a biogas digester. This $50 contraption made of a plastic bag and discarded motorcycle tubes incorporates pig feces, natural bacterial digestive cycles, and a fish pond in order to create enough methane gas to cook food for a family of four.
Some of my fondest memories of Vietnam stemmed from my conversations with my fellow students at Can Tho University. All the students were very friendly and eager to practice their English with me. We would talk about anything and everything, discussing the countless differences and similarities between our two cultures. Religion, sexuality, politics, no subject was taboo for the youngest generation of Vietnamese and I'm thankful for it. Through these talks, I learnt so much about the Vietnam War, communism (or lack thereof), and the values of Vietnamese today.
"In field work, expect the unexpected," my academic advisor told me as I began my month-long independent research project. I was stationed at Tram Chim National Park, tasked with examining the effect of an invasive species on the natural vegetation within the park. Everything was going smoothly until, "Chúa õi!", a herd of grazing water buffalo trampled a portion of my experiment! The ability to do field research in a foreign country as an undergraduate student was a priceless opportunity that (despite the water buffalo) provided me with a valuable learning experience and allowed me to contribute data to local scientific knowledge.
My time in Vietnam was made even more meaningful by the opportunities I had to study outside of the country. As part of the SIT program, I traveled through Ton Le Sap Lake in Cambodia and up the Mekong River into Laos. I met with government officials, university professors, and research scientists, all of whom play a vital role in the future sustainability of the Mekong Delta. Traveling 200 kilometers along the Mekong River in a tiny motorboat through rapids, blazing sunlight, and the occasional fishing net gave me a first-hand look at how huge and important the river really is. "Chúa õi!" was a common exclamation as our wooden boat would scrape the top of a shallow rock. Rightly so, as Dr. Touch Sang Tana (Minister of Environment for Cambodia) had managed to shipwreck half his fleet in a matter of two years. Thanks to the Phillips Ambassador scholarship, I also had a chance to visit Malaysia, Singapore, China, and Hong Kong after my study abroad program had concluded. Examining different Asian cultures and ways of life helped me to understand how different "Asia" can really be.
Vietnam is a unique country that has long been an enigma to the rest of the world. The tatters of the Vietnam War disguise its current state and tarnish its ancient past. By going to Viet Nam, living with a family, learning the language, and intensely studying the relationship between its people and the environment, I feel as if I can finally make some sense of the country. It is a beautiful place with beautiful people, caught in a tug-of-rope war between modernization and traditional values. Balance is a way of life, whether exemplified through devout Buddhism or simply taking long coffee breaks. Although my original reaction to Vietnam was an exclamatory "Chúa õi!" I, too, have now found my own balance with the country. I have learned lessons from its successes, have a greater appreciation for some aspects of my life in the USA, and have come to respect Viet Nam for all that it has become.