Wednesday, May 23, 2012

...where my heart is

            As I start to think about what I will remember most over this past year, many things come to mind. I will remember the incredible group of students that I had the privilege of working with, and the amazing teachers. I will remember the chaotic streets of Hanoi, with their unmistakable noises, smells and feel. But the thing I will remember most is my loving host family, who cared for me like I was one of their own.

            Throughout the year, they have supported me and made me feel welcome in a place that was very intimidating at first. The first memory that I have of them was during the host family reception (introduction). I was so nervous thinking of what they would be like - has anyone seen The Simpsons episode where Bart is a foreign exchange student in France?! - but when my family came to greet me, they had a gigantic bouquet of flowers for me and warm smiles that immediately put me at ease. From that exact moment, I could tell that they were awesome. I will remember our meals together, and talking about the day. After a while I started to get a little tired of eating rice and drinking tea, and they understood. They knew that adjusting to a different culture is a difficult task, because they both had first hand experience. For their University years, they both studied far from home in the Soviet Union - my host father spent 6 years there earning a doctorate - so they were well aware of the challenges I was facing. I will remember cooking western food with my family, and teaching them how to prepare it. We cooked pancakes, hamburgers, chicken cutlets, and burritos. They really enjoyed it (or at least they pretended to!!).

            My father has lived quite a life to say the least. He is currently the Dean of Investment Economics at Vietnam National University. As you might imagine, he is a very busy man, but always has made the time to do things with me. He was born in Hanoi, but during the war was forced to move to a village outside the city of Thanh Hoa, which I visited during the Tet holiday. It was a quiet, peaceful little place. It was mostly populated by farmers, but nowadays there are more service industry jobs such as shopkeepers and auto jobs.  After leaving the village, he came to Hanoi to study. Around this time, he was drafted into the army. The war with the Americans had just finished, so he was sent to fight in Cambodia to fight the Khmer Rouge, which was infamous for being a very ugly war. He doesn't really like to talk about his time in the military too much, so I don't push the issue. He was a very talented student, and as I mentioned before, was selected by the government to go and study in the Soviet Union. He studied economics for many years there, and returned to Vietnam to earn a doctorate and begin teaching as a professor. Back then, only the top students were sent abroad by the government. And when I say “abroad”, I mean USSR, because the rest of the world wasn't too friendly with Vietnam at the time. After years of hard work, he was appointed as the Dean of Investment Economics. He prides himself on the fact that he reached this position without being a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Nearly everyone with a position of power in the government is a party member, but not him. He isn’t so much anti-communist, but rather believes that the current system in place isn’t strong enough to facilitate Vietnam’s current economic growth. Some of my favorite memories with my host dad have been sitting with him after dinner, drinking tea and discussing Vietnam. He told me about how different the country was just a few years ago, and the incredible amount of economic and social growth that have been taking place. Talking to him about America has also been very insightful. He admires the American system, and hopes that Vietnam may one day be as successful. He holds no grudge against Americans after the war, and this is a sentiment shared by most all of the Vietnamese people I have met (including the older generation that fought against us). My host father and my whole family want to come to America to visit. I hope they will one day soon.

            My mom, Huong, has been so great to me this year. She is a loving and caring mother, and she took every opportunity to nurture me and make me feel welcome in my new home (starting with the flowers on day 1!). She spent her early childhood in a town called Phu Tho, a place I have visited twice, located about 40 miles northwest of Hanoi, along the route to Sapa. She, like my dad, was also born in Ha Noi, but was forced out of the city during the war. Hanoi was carpet bombed as late as 1972 during the war years with America, but she, like my dad, doesn't like to talk much about this time in her life. She must have experienced horrible things during those years. Her father was a very important professor, who actually spent a lot of time in the Soviet Union. She too was selected to travel to the Soviet Union for higher education, but she wasn't there for a doctorate. My host mother works for the government. Her job is at the NOIP (National Office of Intellectual Property) where she deals with patents and trademarks. She found out about SYA through her job, where two of the other host moms (Mackenzie’s and Nathan’s) work. She has been so accommodating with me, and as I said earlier, even lets me cook some western food for them. One of my favorite cooking memories was when I made pancakes with her. She had never had them before, and I’m no expert, so our results were pretty funny. I was able to figure out the correct mixture, but forgot to put something on the skillet to make sure the cakes wouldn't stick. Whoops. So the first few were a little messed up, but we soon discovered that putting a little bit of butter down first made all the difference. At the beginning of the year, when I was starting to really miss food from home, she took me to the supermarkets that stocked western food, and once she found out what I liked, she made regular trips to buy my favorites to help me not miss home too much.

            My sister in Hanoi, Linh, is 16 years old like me. She goes to a private school here in HN, and plans on traveling abroad for college. She is essentially fluent in English, and was told a few months back by an English school that there was nothing more they could teach her. She also speaks and is learning German. She often has been called in to duty as the family translator when my parents and I can't understand what someone is saying, which has been very helpful. Aside from school, she is an incredibly gifted pianist - prodigy level - and I can often hear her playing after dinner while I work, which is very relaxing. When my real family came to visit, my dad said that this would be his favorite thing if he lived here - a free concert piano performance every evening. My host sister is a very intelligent student, a diligent hard worker, and she has been a great sister to me.

            It is a special family that opens their home up to a student from another part of the world, and there are many reasons my host family is one of them.  Not only do both my parents have first hand experience living abroad, but they also know how it feels to have one of their own children living far from home. I have a second sister in my family who is currently at graduate school in Munich, Germany, so they are well aware how strange it can be adjusting to a foreign culture. I have a great memory of the evening that all five members of my family were able to go out when my sister was visiting from Germany. We went, appropriately enough, to a German Night at the Hanoi Opera House. It was such a blast, and we all had such a great time. I feel very grateful that I had a host family that was willing to do fun things like this with me. They are very sad that SYA VN has been discontinued, as they were looking forward to hosting more kids in the future.

            It would be difficult to overstate the importance of family and the remembrance of one's ancestors to the Vietnamese. Confucian ethics are pervasive in society values here and suffice to say that when you have a great host family, you also have a great (and incredibly extensive) extended family. Most all Vietnamese holidays are centered on getting together with family and observing traditions. I was lucky to be able to meet so many family members over the course of this year - and let me tell you, there are a lot of them - in many different places. Traveling with my family to remote areas of the country was always an adventure and having the opportunity to meet such a diverse group of people was a gift - especially when I was able to get to know someone better either with my limited Vietnamese, or with the assistance of a helpful family translator. Without exception, our relatives went out of their way to meet me and to welcome me as a family member into their homes, and I will always remember that. Whether it was meeting a little cousin for the first time, or listening to a war story told by my great uncle, there was never a dull moment with them. The dinners were loud, really LOUD, and I had absolutely no idea what 90% of the conversations were about, but it was all right by me.

            I will miss my new family very much when I leave Vietnam. They will always have a special place in my heart, and I will never forget their kindness. I hope I have honored them by being a great son. I will never forget them, and I hope they will always remember me.


  1. Chúc mừng sinh nhật Andrew
    Bố - Mẹ

  2. I think this is really cool and an amazing adventure!

  3. hi I'm in Jim's and your dads class right now! I really like your blog!

  4. I am so amazed to see how you were able to do a year of high school abroad. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  5. Very interesting trip. It must have been hard to get used to life their, but probably fun when you learn it all.

  6. Hi, I'm in Jim's class. It sounds like you had a great time, maybe I'll study abroad too!

  7. Hi, I'm Hannah from Jim's Class. It looks like you bonded a lot with your host family! I wish I could travel to places like Hanoi!

  8. Hi, I'm Sadie from your father and Jim's class. I think it is so cool that you can bond with other cultures so well, even if we have had major conflicts in the past with them.