Yesterday was one of the most surreal days I've had here in Vietnam. It made me realize so much about myself and my responsibilities. So let's get started.
I got a good night's rest that night, sleeping early in anticipation for meeting Bac Van and Co Ngoc, the two people I have been talking about in my last entries. They both are their mid or late seventies, but are healthy as ever, the children telling me that they both never run out of energy. Bac (Mr./Uncle in Vietnamese) Van is a physics professor and Co (Mrs.) Ngoc is a chemistry professor (I think so...) at the same university. Both of them met each other upon teaching there a long long time ago and married. Ever since then they have been doing numerous projects in France and Vietnam, as well as many other places in the world. They are both key role models to many people here in Hue, and the Vietnamese government even follows them, them both meeting the prime minister the other day to discuss about an enormous project to create a science center in Vietnam to link international academia with that of Vietnam.
I will say it right here that the Vietnamese students and professors have it tough. Vietnamese degrees do not carry weight outside of Vietnam, as many of their studies are done in Vietnamese only. Producing and communicating academic literature and research elsewhere would require a mastery of the English language, something that many of the hard working people in Vietnam do have a luxury of doing, due to teaching quality, price, expense of their time, and many other reasons. My dad told me that he wanted so much to continue his education in America upon arriving but was unable to, due to the fact that he had to work immediately to support my family. He told me that for many of the Vietnamese students and professors, starting over in all their studies in English would be the only way for them to obtain this freedom. Freedom. The Vietnamese claim freedom as part of their motto, among independence and happiness. Being an overseas Vietnamese, as I see it, is exactly freedom. Freedom in opportunity. Many of the scholars in Vietnam do not have the luxury that I do, as internships hardly exists for them to practice their skills before applying to jobs. Thinking about the importance of education, especially in foreign languages in Vietnam (namely English), and attempting it here at this center has given me a lot to think about, perhaps even inspiring me to devote some of my time in devising a plan to alleviate some of these problems for the Vietnamese. Only time will tell...
I got up and washed up, brushing my teeth, and tidying up my room. I was hungry at that point, learning my lesson from not eating breakfast the other day. As soon as I walked out, one of my brothers from the baking school came up, greeting me, and offering me some bread. I gladly accepted the four different kinds that he gave me. I am going to miss to taste and texture of home baked bread... I went back to my room after, eating my breakfast, and gathering my things for my first class. And at last, I left for it.
I walked up to the house of the older brothers, calling for those in high school to come to class. They came quickly, noticing the time as well. So there we were, going through another lesson much like the one I taught the day before. Again, stressing speaking would be one of my most important objectives of this month. I had to end the class thirty minutes early, as I had scheduled with Anh Dao, or Chi (sister) Dao, to meet her and her friend to help them prepare for interviews in English. She called for me to walk to the cafe near by the center. It began to pour rain, heavily, relieving us just a little from the previous heat. There her friend was, named Vinh. He was someone just like Anh Dao, perhaps her boyfriend or something. He was well accomplished thus far, graduating with honors, and working in two different companies after graduation, with one of which he created. He is strongly passionate on agricultural development in Vietnam, and is hoping to enter a masters program at what I believe is a university in Okinawa, Japan. I greeted him at the table, him asking me what I wanted to drink. This meeting soon lasted over one and a half hours.
He told me that he had been working heavily on his English over the years, especially in reading and writing. His only problem, like many Vietnamese, is the speaking aspect, where there are little opportunities for him to practice. We talked about everything - literally. They asked me about my philosophy on life, my plans for the future, and how I became the person that I am. Having gone through these discussions so many times before, I told them directly, and they both understood perfectly what I said. They asked me a lot about America, asking me what I thought of my country, its history, and its relations with Vietnam. I tried to be honest with them, giving them my viewpoint from both sides, one of being an American, and one of being Vietnamese. "Your Vietnamese is really good, you sound just like a local," said Vinh to me at one point, "how did you do it?" This is a question I have gotten for long long time. "Well, at home with my family I speak in Vietnamese, and outside, I speak English or any other languages I need to interact with people," I replied, "I just could not forget my native language, especially the one I grew up in Hong Kong speaking. They were inspired by my life's story, saying that I resemble a miracle child or something. I smiled when they said that, as I too believe that I am very very very lucky. Vinh was going to have his interview in a week, so he planned to meet me later on this week and also give me a sample interview for me to hear and give pointers. At last it was lunch time, as the older sisters were surely waiting for me by eleven o'clock, their usual lunch time. I waved the two off and proceeded back to the center.
"Ben! Where were you! Now you have to eat ten bowls of rice!" said Chi Bang, a junior at the Hue University of Sciences. All the sisters were sitting at the table, shaking their head at me. "We ran around the whole center looking for you! Where were you?" one of them asked. I explained my reasons and joined them for the meal. Upon finishing lunch, I thanked them for the meal and headed back to my room to rest. Another standard hour of napping, followed by planning happened after that nap. Today's afternoon class was for the primary school students.
They came up one by one, eventually settling into the class and sitting attentively for the lesson. I have started to move away from basic English word memorization and more into the realm of grammar and creating sentences. I gave them a list of vocabulary important to speaking, to which all of them wrote down except for Chinh, who has a history of being a "bad boy" in the center (there is a reason for that, which I found out from Co Ngoc). This lasted for the first hour, going over vocabulary and pronunciation. For the second hour, I focused heavily on grammar and sentence construction. To my surprise, a man with a camera came into the room during our break time, snapping pictures of the children reading and writing. What I forgot to mention in my previous entries is that the center, including me teaching at one point in the clip, appeared on local television a couple days before. All the videos taken of the children were of them studying, which to the public, is a sign that the center is doing well to teach them the importance of education. Cars kept rolling up the driveway into the back of the center... Hmm... who could all those people be? They were indeed Bac Van, Co Ngoc, and a group of people walking around the center (who I thought were their personal friends). They were being filmed around the center, as the older boys fished and did activities down below at the pond. Upon finishing up my class, I walked down the steps, seeing all the older boys and girls in one huddled up with each other near their house entrances, and the group with Bac Van interviewing over to my left. What to do? I hadn't showered, changed my clothes, and even prepared.
I made the decision to go left. Right as I waved high to them they snatched me, Bac Van doing the honors. My goodness, there were about twenty people staring at me, smiling at me as well. Bac Van and Co Ngoc thought very highly of me, choosing me from many applicants in France to come to the center at this specific time to help the children here. Because of this, I was guessing that the entourage knew of my accomplishments thus far. There was a middle aged man to which Bac Van immediately told me to shake hands with, introducing him to me (I didn't understand all the words he said, especially the part where I was now about to interview with the Prime Minister of Education of Vietnam!). I honestly thought that he was a friend of Bac Van, and answered all of his questions, ranging from what it means to be Viet Kieu to my reasons for coming back to Vietnam. Everybody chimed in, asking me about myself, and how I kept so close to my roots. They were very proud of me it seemed, patting me, and telling me to keep working hard. The minister requested me of something very specific, something that I have been thinking about over the last year. "Ben, I want to ask of you to teach the Vietnamese youth in America to remember their roots, come back to Vietnam, and understand how much their country has changed," he said as he looked me right in the eyes, "I believe you can do it, and everyone here believes you can." He continued, "if you ever come back or have any plans for Vietnam in terms of education, we will speak again in the future." Oh my goodness... In hindsight I feel rather... awkward or even dumb founded that I didn't know who I was talking to, as I would have said even more... Oh well, I will get another chance in the future. Bac Van also talked to me, telling me some lessons for life, and congratulating me on my accomplishments so far. I talked also to the guests, them all asking me about my travels thus far, and my dream for the future of Vietnam. I guess, now that I think back to it, that the entourage were friends of the minister and Bac Van and Co Ngoc. We took some photos and they all went into the Thanh Truc house to eat dessert and have a meeting. My brothers were looking at me, giving me thumbs up. "Ben you're famous now!" said Long. I shook my head and headed to my room to shower. Ah... a shower was exactly what I needed at that point.
I went back outside, noticing Dao and Ron waiting, telling me that they were going to escort all the guests out of the center and also that they wanted to have a word with Bac Van and Co Ngoc, the two being treated as father and mother of the center, to which they quite literally are, due to their tremendous support for the center. I saw Eve (not Eva, as I found out today!) waiting outside the room, telling me that I just met the Prime Minister of Education. My jaw dropped. I covered my face a little bit, feeling extremely embarrassed and at a lost of words. "I haven't done anything special yet, and now I am interviewing with... oh my goodness" I exclaimed. Bac Van saw me outside, and invited me to join their meeting and eat dessert with them. Bac Van, Co Ngoc, and the minister were exchanging paperwork and talking over the plan science center that is being planned south of Hue. Chi Dao had translated a large document for Co Ngoc the day before about the center, and Co Ngoc handed the papers to the minister. At last he had to leave, shaking our hands, and heading out of the center with his entourage, including Bac Van.
At last it was just me and Co Ngoc. She is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met in my life. She was so passionate, her voice so tender and loving, and her presence bringing happiness to everyone that met her. The mothers of the houses, including the recent mother, entered the room, greeting Co Ngoc and hugging her. They had a nice talk with one another, Co Ngoc recalling memories and giving advice to the mothers. She had been meaning to speak to me for a long time, ever since we briefly spoke over the telephone when I was in the last term of freshman year at Dartmouth. She held my hand as we talked. We talked for a long time, stalling out my dinner with the older sisters, some of them looking on as I spoke with Co Ngoc. We talked about everything, my life's story, my epiphanies, how I changed to be the person that I am now, away from the quiet, shy boy that I once was. She asked me about her plans to expand the children's center right now, saying that they obtained land to create three more houses and a gymnasium for the children. She told me also about her reasons for creating the center and also about the old location the center was at, before it was moved to Thuy Xuan. I told her of my intentions to keep this relationship forever, telling her that we would stay in touch, and I would tell her my plans for the center as soon as I processed through them (I gave her my skype). I shooked hands with her and walked her out of the center, along with some of my brothers, and all the mothers. They complemented her on her strength and health, the mothers, saying that they did not understand how she was so energetic. At last we waved goodbye, her taxi taking her out of the center. Time for dinner!
Co Ngoc gave me a grapefruit before she left, to which I donated to the dinner with the older sisters. I was quiet that dinner, thinking over the day. "Why are you so silent?" said Yen. "I'm thinking over the day, today has given me so much to think about" I told them. They then started joking with each other, asking each other if they were thinking and teasing me. I squeezed out a smile and looked into the distance as I ate. We ate that grapefruit, me opening a bit more and telling them about my conversation with Co Ngoc. Upon walking out, I saw my brothers looking at a thick packet of papers. It was a list of all the children supported by the center and all the children who have left the center. It was the directors copy, but Ms. Hong had recently left for Hanoi shortly after Bac Van left. We all combed through the packet, looking at the years of which many of the children entered the center and looking at the testing results of the recent college examinations. From what I gather from this document, sixty three children are physically being served in the center. Twenty four of them are in universities or colleges, four of them working, nine of them in high school, twelve in junior high, three in primary school, one in a special school (of which I can't read the name of), and ten of them involved with the baking school. This center supported children all around the area, all of poor social-economic backgrounds, even the Quoc Hoc students, who I at first thought were sons and daughters of the elite. Now I understand this center... I went over the document many times that night, getting a better idea of the children at the center, finding out who was an orphan, and who came from a poor background. There were many children that I have never met, many of them off studying in universities. "Ben where are you on the list?" my brothers joked, to which I replied, "let's write my name in, I come from a poor family, so I qualify."
I went back to my room early that night, thinking over many things, and writing the two blog entries that I needed to catch up on. I called my parents that night, telling them of what had just happened. They were proud, happy that I got this opportunity, but also told me to watch out about what I say, especially concerning their decision to leave Vietnam. It was good to hear their voices. I stayed up late that night, writing for a long time, and then read for a hour until I was tired. Sigh, what a day to remember, and what responsibility I have to live up to...