I left the United States with my eyes full of tears. I knew I would miss my American friends very much. Throughout the past year and a half, I had experienced many new ideas and concepts. It might be a long time before I could return to that beautiful country. When I arrived home in Vietnam, would I be able to share all that I had absorbed from a rich new culture?
During 28 hours of flying and waiting in several airports between St. Louis and Hanoi, I kept thinking of my hometown, my family, and what I could do to uplift them. How would I share my experiences with them? My thoughts floated with the clouds over the Pacific Ocean.
How proud and happy I was the moment I stepped off the plane in Hanoi! I felt new, bigger than I'd been when I left. People - as well as such things as chairs, trucks, and houses - are quite big in America, too. I was used to seeing tall people now; I had to let my eyes slip down to see my small Vietnamese friends and family.
My country was bigger in my eyes as well. New developments had occurred under the banner of Doi Moi (reform). A new system of local buses was in place for getting around in this city of 2 million - twice what it had been 20 years ago. And I was so pleased to hear the new ruling: two days off on weekends.
Never had I seen so many motorcycles and people on the streets. Once a new road opens, it is filled with bikes and motorcycles day and night. Telephone boxes had been installed along many streets while I was away (many were not working, though).
I was grateful to see such progress, though it seems to have widened the gap between rich and poor. Many tall buildings and luxury cars are in Hanoi now, but homeless and penniless people are on the streets as well. The new Hanoi Hotel towers over the old Hanoi prison - the "Hanoi Hilton," American prisoners of war ironically called it. Vietnamese had been held there as well, in the colonial past.
I cannot get the images of Vietnam's poor out of my thought. They need jobs to make money and ideas on how to use their wages wisely.
My family and friends are very proud of me because I studied in the United States. Being educated in the US is seen as expensive, but valuable. "A week of study in the US equals a year in Europe and Japan," we joke.
When I traveled from East Coast to West Coast across America, I saw gorgeous landscapes and beautiful cities. I told my family and friends what I saw, and they were impressed. But they are even more awed when I tell them about America's people, their rich culture, and how they are building their country more and more beautifully. All of my friends would visit the States if given the chance. That is not likely. But the fact that my dream came true gives them hope.
My wish is to help my family financially and figure out other ways to uplift their view of the future. I saw this optimism in America. We cannot change the past, but we can make the future much better than the present.
Many Vietnamese have never traveled to a city. They don't have the money; they don't even know which road to take to get there. When invited to visit by city-dwelling friends or relatives, they may still be afraid to go.
My aunt, in Hanoi for the first time, was afraid of having her picture taken. She said: "No, no!" and turned her face away if someone tried to take a picture of her. I had arranged to telephone a cousin who lives in the country. But when she went to the telephone in her commune, she was afraid to pick it up when it rang. I could not talk to her. I realize that the unfamiliar has become familiar to me.
While visiting a small farm in Illinois last year, I was so surprised at the way pigs were fed. Isn't it hard for the pigs to eat uncooked corn and soybeans, I wondered. In Vietnam, farmers cook the food before giving it to their pigs. This has been the tradition for centuries. Can we change our ways?
None of my Vietnamese friends could believe that some American trains pull more than 110 cars. Neither could my cousin, who has traveled widely in Asia and Europe. I continue to surprise my friends with what I witnessed in the American heartland.
Last year, at my American college, we students discussed what jobs we might have. A Ghanaian student said she would like very much to work for the United Nations. Why hadn't I thought of that? I'd only ever thought about working for a profitmaking company. Other students said they would like to work for organizations that do something to help people. I was reminded of Millard Fuller: When he became a multimillionaire, he quit seeking more money for himself and founded Habitat for Humanity International to build homes for poor people.
I learned a poem by Anna Waring while in America. It has meant so much to me while I have been looking so long for a job here at home. The words have abided in my heart as I think of all the things I haven't figured out yet.
The poem reads, in part:
Green pastures are before me,
Which yet I have not seen,
Bright skies will soon be o'er me,
Where darkest clouds have been.
These "green pastures" and "bright skies" await my country, too. In the next decade, Vietnam's rice fields could help turn it into a rice exporter second only to Thailand. "Reform" may enable our nation to emerge and join the world.
I will now be building homes for our people. After months of sending out my resume, taking tests, and being interviewed, I finally have a job. I am working as a United Nations volunteer on an 18-month project with the International Red Cross. This fulfills my first dream of doing a good thing for my country, especially for our most vulnerable people. I know that if one does good things for his own community, it will help the whole world to be greener.
What are the greatest lessons for me? My time in America not only expanded my view of the world, it strengthened my courage and confidence. I have come home understanding that I'm not a victim of fate. I can determine my own future and better the futures of those around me. I know I can make a difference.
And what do I miss the most? Singing hymns as part of a congregation. And, oh yes - ice cream!
Another essay by Mr. Van Do ran on the Home Forum on Aug. 8, 1999. The American who befriended him wrote of her experience on May 10, 1999.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society