I saw trash covered corners, ragged barefoot beggars ranging from toddlers to cripples, and streets congested with hundreds of mopeds carrying entire families at a time. Our family in Vietnam, indistinguishable from the multitudes of worn-down locals engulfed my mother, brother, sister, and I in tight embraces even though we were strangers. I would never have imagined my proud mother to come from a family of labor workers.
She valued education and class above all else, and expected these of the highest degree from her family. For as long as I could remember, her eyes critiqued my appearance, actions, and every private thought that appeared on my countenance. I searched through her piercing stare, determined to know if she felt what I did; pity.
People all around us were wearing frayed and stained clothes. One man was unshaved, matted with sweat, and was as tall as a tree. The only thing he lacked was the tree’s thickness, for he was as frail as a twig.
I imagined that he could only be twenty-eight. I would later learn he was twenty-five, had not even finished high school, but instead worked as a welder earning more or less than one dollar a day. He supported his nineteen-year-old brother through college with what little he earned.
Our family smiled apologetically for the nature of their attire and fussed over each of us. We were off as soon as our luggage into a rental van that should have been laid to rest in a scrap heap long ago. As we drove down the busy streets, every single inch was jam packed with mopeds, bicycles, and rickshaws; each powered by a forward bicycle man.
My ears took in the blaring and screeching of vehicles driving rampant without the aid of traffic lights as we inched past dilapidated shops with their faded paint-peeling signs. I gagged on each nauseating breath of toxic exhaust from such close proximity near too many mopeds. It occurred to me that this must be one of the poorest, most pitiable places on Earth.
The air was heavy with the burden of uncertainty, miserable poverty, and harsh reality, but masked with the allure of the unknown.Vietnam did not possess the democracy, economy, or the living standards that America boasted, but these were the luxuries that the people could live without. The locals treated the outside of their front doors as familiarly as the insides of their houses. Vendors stood on street corners pleading at passersby to buy food or other assortments of goods.
Kids my age worked for ten to twenty cents a day cooking, cleaning, and doing other odd jobs. Beggars wandered from place to place with their children or hired children from the villages to attract sympathy for donations. The world that I saw before me now was unlike anything I had ever known in America.
It was like I had been granted a delicious breath of air from behind a mask that I had worn all my life. I had never realized my resentment of constantly attempting to be the ideal daughter. My life had consisted of being upset if I did not get all A’s on every report card. I was scolded for my lack of common sense, and within myself I was frustrated that everything that I did was not good enough. In Vietnam there was no reason to impress anyone, no requirements to go to school, and parents were too busy to worry about what you did. Values identified everything that was wrong with this lifestyle, but I would be a part of it here. I refused to waste my chance at tasting a life that I would leave behind once I went home. Everything was an ordeal, but I enjoyed each experience. Walking across the street was like flipping a coin. Heads- you live, tails- you are in heaven, and the chances of the coin landing on its side was the chance that you would live after getting hit by a moped.
I had originally thought Vietnam had nothing to offer to anyone except misery and a beggar’s death as a reward at the end of the line. I had not even one chance in a million of surviving on my own, but at the next moment I suddenly envisioned trading in my life in America for anyone else’s misery in Vietnam. I adored the uncertainty, strangeness, and honest reality that I found in Vietnam.
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