And the definition of wealthy changes wherever you go. In Vietnam, I make enough money to afford us to spend our weekends in Ha Noi, traipsing around the city eating expensive Western food and taking taxis to museums. I come back to Thanh Hoa and gripe about the insanity of prices in the northern capitol, glad to be back in a small city with prices I’m more than happy to pay. Less than a dollar for three bowls of ice cream. Dinner for four costs less than four dollars. I am happy to drop a few thousand VND in the upturned cone hat of the beggar woman at the market; she clearly can use the help as she scoots across the wet fish market floor. I feel like I’m spending my money wisely; I’m thrifty like that.
Then a student tells me how if life had a do-over, she’d be a doctor. She could make a lot of money. She could be rich. She could make, she paused for effect, more than 5million VND a month. She’d be rich!
I made that much in the first few days of the month.
She imagines being so rich and I complain that it cost me 300,000VND for a pizza dinner in Ha Noi. Or that it will cost me more than 3million VND to get to Tam Ky so I can deliver these clothes for the orphanages, help Me Ba get a new ao dai, visit orphans who’ve no doubt forgotten us in the repeated comings-and-goings of volunteers.
But I can. If I want, I can spend those millions. And I will spend that and more, taking the kids down south…to Nha Trang, Da Lat, Hue? I don’t know, but our biggest constraint is time, not money.
In this life of juxtaposed wealth, I forget how lucky we truly are. And I’m afraid the kids will never know. In a month, we’ll be back in America, scraping by month to month on a salary that puts us a few grand below the poverty level. I’ll continue making rice dishes and eating little meat simply because I can’t afford it if I have to buy milk and fresh fruit, too.
It’s a strange place to be–this temporary wealth, where I look for hotels at the beach and far-away attractions knowing that I’ll be there before long. We’ll be off to Bangkok soon, then through Thailand and Malaysia before heading home. I’m researching budget hotels and how to buy train tickets online. Thrift is in my nature. But the realization that this life of extra is something that those I care for most here in Viet Nam can never have and it stings. It fights with my maternal drive. I want to show my kids all that I possibly can, yet in my rush to give my family a wider vantage of the world, we remain blind to so much.