Saturday, July 29, 2017
We started off the day with a visit to the home of Trang’s dad’s boss. He spoke English well and wanted Trang and I to talk to his 16-year-old daughter about life in the U.S., in case she studies abroad for boarding school or college. They were a really nice family and her dad asked me a series of questions about myself. He was shocked to know I drive back and forth from home to school in Virginia on breaks. He asked me where I was from and I told him Alabama. He asked me if my family lived on a cotton plantation, saying he had seen 12 Years a Slave and several other movies depicting slavery in the South. It was kind of laughable because of course we don’t live on a cotton plantation. But considering the fact I couldn’t actually say that the region I’m from has completely overcome the effects of its violent racial history, it wasn’t actually funny. I said no, my family does not live on a cotton plantation, but wasn’t really sure what else to say. We talked with his daughter for a while and Trang and I talked about the flexibility of a liberal arts school and were also honest about American partying culture (which is apparently the main culture shock for students who study abroad in the United States). The girl asked about how she can be sure that what she chooses to study is the right path for her, especially if she has several interests. This issue comes up a lot, a collectivist phenomena that Thu and Trang have explained to me. Twenty years ago, Vietnamese people of Trang’s generation didn’t get to choose what they wanted to study and what career to pursue. It was assigned to them collectively by the government, so there’s a noticeable generational gap in understanding how to align individualism and passion with career.
I’m understanding more and more just how intrinsic collectivism is in Vietnamese society. Marriage is between two families, not two people. Parents and grandparents have a lot of say about who you marry, where and what you study, what career you pursue, where you live. Even the food here is collective: plates are laid out on the table for everyone to serve each other with. I’ve never been to a restaurant that sells an individual plate of food (unless it’s something like soup or a sandwich that is individual by nature).
Someone I met today explained it as a “mindset of survival.” She said she doesn’t feel frustrated when her parents are overprotective or controlling because, when they were accustomed to having limited freedoms in society, it was natural for them to conform. “It’s all they know,” she said. Which opened my mind quite a bit. Collectivist society seems stifling to me, but maybe that’s because my worldview was shaped by American individualism. It’s all I know.
In the afternoon, we attended an event called, “Human Library Vietnam.” It was an event chapter of an international organization with a goal of creating dialogue to challenge prejudice. Each person is a “book” that you can “read” by listening to their story on a certain topic and the event was held within classrooms at a local university with the list of social issues, identities and experiences written on the chalkboards. Trang and I listened to the following stories: bisexuality, bullying, depression, aromantic and feminism. Someone that helped organize the event told me that they hadn’t expected any non-Vietnamese speakers to attend, but they went above and beyond to accommodate me (even though I was the only foreigner!). They asked around to see which books could share their stories in English and found other people there attending the event who were willing to engage in dialogue in English so Trang and I wouldn’t be alone and I could understand the conversations. They even found a translator for a book who didn’t know English. I felt very welcomed and gained so much from listening to these stories. Everything about it was affirming and open-minded. I learned the most from the “aromantic” book, a sexual identity I didn’t know much about beforehand. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to people whose sexual orientation it is to desire sex but not romance. The girl who was the book shared her experience and what her this part of her identity means to her and it challenged me in a good way. My first thought was that I can’t imagine not wanting to be in love and to have a romantic relationship. It is all I know. But then I realized that this is probably how this girl feels: she can’t imagine wanting to be in love and to have a romantic relationship. This is all she knows. And then I understood.
Reporters from the Vietnamese national media were at the event and pulled me aside to interview me on camera for broadcast. They just asked me where I was from, how to spell my name, the “books” I had read at the event and my thoughts on Human Library as a whole. Trang said she thinks they asked to interview me because I was the only foreigner and stuck out in the crowd. It was pretty exciting, to experience my 30 seconds of Vietnamese fame.