Cultural Exchange

It isn’t very often that, as a white American, we get to feel out of our element, but when we make our way to Viet Nam, we will be completely out of our element. I’m sure it will be interesting for me, but assuredly difficult for my kids. So I’ve been contemplating ways to help them not be so overwhelmed at being the different one. I thought that one way would be to have them associate more with those who are in similar boats as we will be in. I decided that we will host two cultural exchange students, one at a time, for nine days each. Enough time to get to know them, not long enough to annoy me. The first student will be a freshman girl from a Japanese medical school. The second will be a younger middle-school boy from China. I’m hoping that the kids get along with them okay, but I also know that it will be slightly awkward for everyone. The kids (and I) will have to be patient and understand of the cultural and language differences. I think it will be a good experience for the kids and will hopefully lead to a more open response to people abroad and an understanding of how silly we will seem struggling through the most basic communication. It will prove to be hard, I’m sure, but I’m hopeful that having these exchange students will be a positive learning experience for everyone involved, including the visiting students.

World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day. There are more than 9 million children living their lives as refugees. As the UNHCR says, they have the right to play, to have fun, to just be kids. Those opportunities are stripped from them as refugees, many in their own countries.

Ninemillion.org is trying to make a difference.

Affection for the Unknown

I drove back to Portland on Wednesday after a brief sojourn into the wilderness of Central Oregon. Okay, so really, I was chaperoning for my son’s school trip to Bend. I had a wonderful time, grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time with only him and grateful for the friends and family who took care of getting my daughter to and from school, bathed and fed. The drive home was truly ‘me time’, something rare in my life. I spent four hours alone in my car, sometimes with radio reception, sometimes with only the sound of my car.

As I drove into the Mt. Hood National Forest, NPR came back into clarity and they had Billy Collins on, talking poetry as he does so well. He shared a half-dozen of his favorites, including The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost and one that I hadn’t heard–never even heard of the poet before, in fact–that I immediately fell in love with. The emotion that he captures between a married couple and the child their love created. I don’t know why it strikes me so, being single and my experience in marriage being devoid of the feelings he captures, but this is what poetry is about, in my opinion: After Making Love We Hear Footsteps. I am in love with this crafter of words; another name to add to my “read books written by” list.

In other news, I finally got the opportunity, while in Bend, to watch Vertical Ray of the Sun. A lovely movie, set in HaNoi, that I wholeheartedly recommend for so many reasons, not the least of which would be the beautiful colors that Tran Anh Hung manages to capture on film.

We Must Not Forget

I have been doing a lot of reading lately , specifically with VietNam as the subject (not surprising, I know). I’m not particularly interested in the gruesome nature of the war there. I hate war. I hate the killings. I hate the inhuman aspect. Most of all, I hate the after-effects.

Two-thirds of the Vietnamese today were born after 1975. One-third of Americans today were born after 1975. The make-up of society completely shifted for those in VietNam and the effects will be felt for a very long time. As in America, birth rates are falling, but the country will age quickly. Currently only 7% of the population is over 60, but that is expected to swell to 23% in only a few decades.

More than 1 million civilians were killed and today about 250,000 Vietnamese are disabled from the American/VietNam War, including amputations, deafness, burns, malformed bodies, etc. (http://dec.usaid.gov) War doesn’t stop with the troops finally pull out, it plays havoc for decades.


If you’re up to it, there are a bunch of photos taken at a war museum in Vietnam, showcased by Harrell Fletcher. There are some ghastly sights: American soldiers throwing a Viet captive out of a helicopter for not cooperating; soldiers dragging nearly-naked Viet people to their death, tied to the back of a truck; the devastation of the land by chemical weapons so strong that 30 years later, plants still cannot grow.

Maybe it’s a bit of guilt over what my country did in VietNam and how it is being repeated in Iraq that makes me feel like I need to pay penance. Maybe it’s White guilt. Maybe it’s just that I wish the world didn’t have to be so ugly. Whatever the reason, I can hope that somehow I can make things a little better for at least one person when we get to VietNam.

Joining Forces

A month or so ago, the organization that is handling the logistics of our volunteer trip got me in contact with another single mom who was contemplating spending some time in Viet Nam orphanages, as well. She lives in New Zealand and has a daughter a few years younger than mine. So, we’ve been chatting and she decided that she is going to go and will be heading there at the same time. -doing a happy dance- There are tentative plans to meet up in Ha Noi on 29 December and take the overnight train to Da Nang together. We don’t know, and won’t until December, whether we will be at the same orphanage/school, but just having another person there that we know (even if it is over the Internet until then) should prove comforting.

There are only two weeks left in the Spring term, that much closer to finally graduating. I was hoping to take what my university calls a Capstone course this summer that has participants volunteering in the Hmong community, but since I have to take another class on Marxist theory in English Lit criticism (doesn’t that sound thrilling, boys and girls?) and work almost full time, there is no way to fit it in and ever spend time with my kids (which will, in turn, make them angry and no fun to be around when I do find the time). So, I’ll take the theory class, possibly one American Sign Language course, too, then there will only be two more classes that I must take in the Fall. It’s so close I can almost see the diploma.

I Bought Them.

-deep breath-
I pushed the “book flights now” button and lived to tell about it, despite my worries of a panic-induced heart attack. We fly out December 26th on a 24 hour trip to Hanoi via Seattle (WA, USA) and Taipei (Taiwan). The kids’ excitement at having both passports and tickets took (most of) the fright out of it for me.

I’ve been emailing with the volunteer coordinator in Da Nang; his name is Viet and he took a couple of the photos on our main page. He said that we could request a location and I’m quite interested in Hoi An. There is an orphanage and community center that volunteers work at and I think I would enjoy both. The orphanage is for older children (11-20 years old), many of whom are not actually orphaned, but rather that their families are too poor to feed and school them. My second choice would be the House of Affection in Hue which is the home to orphans and street children, 4-16 years old. The orphanage also runs a school for children in the area, so it might be better for my kids (the kids will be the same age).

Preparations are beginning for our garage sale next month and I am amazed at how much stuff I actually own. I’m glad I’ll be weeding out so many of our belongings; who needs all these serving bowls, placemats, candle holders, picture frames, sheets, sewing patterns, etc.? I keep shaking my head in disbelief at the sheer volume, knowing full well that we don’t own nearly as much as “the average American family.”

Doing it for Oneself

“A woman who is willing to be herself and pursue her own potential runs not so much the risk of loneliness as the challenge of exposure to more interesting men — and people in general” —Lorraine Hansberry, American playwright A Raisin in the Sun

A friend of mine sent me this quote a couple of days ago, meant to inspire my drive for changing life (especially given the fact that we’ll be moving abroad among people who do not speak our language). My initial reaction was thumbs-up… yea! for women pursuing their own potential… but it quickly went downhill when the pay-off is “exposure to more interesting men.” Yes, I suppose it’s true. But if I could just use my red pencil on her quote and and make the payoff “exposure to more interesting [people]” I’d definitely get behind it.

But why is it that the focus of making improvements or changes in oneself is too often to get a man, a husband. It frustrates my inner “I am single, hear me roar” voice. As a woman, I cannot, and should not, spend my life focused on how I can find a husband. I can’t even imagine such a goal (though there are those in my family who wish I would spend a little more time focused on it). Thing is, I don’t recall seeing inspirational quotes for men telling them to embrace life and follow their dreams so that they can get a wife.

I may well end up single for the remainder of my life and there’s no way in hell I’m going to spend the next 40 years tweaking with my life so that some unknown man will find me attractive enough to marry. That doesn’t sound any more appealing than my married years that I spend tweaking my life for some man to stay married to me.

So, I will take Hansberry’s quote and manipulate it slightly. I will pursue my own potential, teach my children to pursue theirs and who knows what the benefits will be, but I’m sure it won’t be loneliness.

I Love Good Mail

One passport down, two to goWhen I opened the mailbox and saw the return address of U.S. Government Official Mail my heart did a momentary, panicked stop. What now?! Then I opened, saw my tattered birth certificate and realized that my key to leaving this place was inside. Oh yes, it was my passport! I’m unnecessarily excited, but after all the hassle to get the filing done, it’s nice to see that it was all worth it; I have a passport for the first time in my life.

The kids were hoping theirs were hiding within the mailbox, too, but since we filed a day later for them, I’m expecting that theirs will be at least one day behind. Perhaps a bit more, though, given all the divorce papers that had to be sent along with each application.

On the learning front, I found a super deal on Colloquial Vietnamese through Amazon (and a local seller, to boot). $13.99 for the cassettes and the book; the book alone cost $45 at my college. So now I have two copies of the book (I’d thought I was buying the cassettes only), but hopefully can send one over to K for him to use. A friend of mine bought us another “learning Vietnamese” book that came with a CD. Man, hearing it sure does make a difference in pronunciation. Of course, we’re probably not even understandable at this point, but we’re trying.

Snail’s Pace

We have received a few donations now (latest from an internet friend-$75); sure does make me feel better about the whole idea, especially since family support is none too strong. I also managed to score another big sewing job, so that certainly helps. Of course, it leaves me with little time to finish homework, which I’m having a hard enough time wanting to finish anyway.

I find myself wavering between frustrated and hopeful. If just one thing in my life was going smoothly, it sure would help, but life is overall chaotic right now. It’s bound to get better though, right?

Of Course I Worry; I’m a Mom

Buying the plane tickets, or rather deciding about buying the tickets, has got to be the most stress-inducing part. So far, at least. Purchasing tickets for any flight has always caused me serious anxiety; life tends to throw hurdles when I least expect it and, although it has never happened, I always buy tickets expecting that something will happen to cause my trip to get canceled. The worst that has happened is that I’ve flown out with little money in my pocket (like when I flew to Boston with $6 to my name or NYC with less than $100). That absolutely cannot happen this time.

I don’t want to buy the tickets and have something go terribly wrong and not be able to come up with enough money (because it is a ton of money I have to come up with).

But then again, I don’t want to put off the tickets too far or the prices will go up drastically and I won’t be able to afford it. All price differences get multiplied by three, which adds up way quick.

But I don’t want to buy the tickets that fly into the city on the opposite end of VietNam from where K lives; it’s not critical but I sure would like to have him meet us at the airport to make our arrival slightly smoother and because, quite frankly, I miss him and want to see him again.

But K likely won’t know until July where he will be living: in Hanoi or HCMC? in VietNam? Does it even matter (to him) that we meet him? Do I put the tickets off until July in hopes that it will? should I risk losing the affordable price fares?

I just don’t know what to do, so I keep putting it off. I find tickets that I can afford, then find a reason or five to not buy them. It’s the big step that will make this whole adventure a reality and that both thrills and terrifies me. The kids are determined that it will happen, so that should reassure me, but I can’t yet get over the fear of actually buying the tickets.

Ah, if I could only put this much mental focus on my studies….