I was born in a village in Thai Binh province, in northeastern Vietnam, near the Pacific Ocean. My family lived on the rice and vegetables they grew. At the age of 6, I moved inland with my family, to the mountainous and remote Lai Chau province. My coastal motherland was so crowded there were no vacant places left to cultivate. Like many other families, we went to Lai Chau to plow new land, leaving behind the famines of my birthplace.
Day after day, I grew up and went to school in the new village. I remember many hours of bringing wood down from the mountains. We needed fuel to cook not only a daily meal for us, but also one for our pigs. Like many boys in the small town, I knew how to cook at the age of 7. For some time, my job was cooking and bringing rice to my mother for lunch.
I spent much of my childhood playing and fishing with my friends in the stream. We had many different games, in which many village boys were included. Our games cost nothing. We had fun with rocks, sticks, and bullet shells. They were our only toys. Life was sometimes hard, but I knew nothing beyond the universe of Muong Lay town, its mountains and streams.
During my 13 years in Muong Lay, I never visited another village. We were too poor to travel. At age 18, I visited another village in a nearby district for the first time. After graduating from a local high school, I took tests to enter college. No one in my family had had this opportunity, and they all wanted to help me. For two years I failed to pass the tests. On my third try, I was accepted at Hanoi Banking College.
At 19, I had my first view of city life. The sights of Hanoi City were overwhelming to me. Never had I seen a train or so many lights on a street. Never had I witnessed so many people walking around, riding bikes, and driving motorcycles. From a little town of fewer than 2,000 people, I had moved to this large capital city of Vietnam with more than 2 million citizens. I became a city boy, living in a college dorm for 1-1/2 years, and then living in one tiny, rickety room of my cousin's in Hanoi. I rode a bicycle to school during my last years at college, and later commuted by bike to work for the Vietnam Mobile Telecom Services Company. My life had changed dramatically.
My view of the world continued to expand as I encountered new ideas and new people. Occasionally I would see foreigners on the streets of Hanoi. I wanted to speak to them and learn more about other countries. One contact with a foreign couple resulted, after a four-year correspondence, in my being invited to the United States to study English, which I had begun to study in college.
I was catapulted once again into a totally new scene. Everything was different, from the language, meals, and teaching methods to the way people treat one another. Unlike Hanoi or Lai Chau, the Midwestern city in which I find myself is so spacious and green! I hardly see anybody walking on the sidewalks here. Nor do I see people biking to work. Cars are everywhere.
Now, after 18 months of absorbing US culture and education, I am contemplating my return to Vietnam. In this vast, wealthy nation I have found much of value. I like the way a man opens the door for a woman. I love the way children bring trash and put it into a trash container. Religion has become a part of my new life. Much of what I have learned will help me a lot in my career, as well as for the rest of my life.
However, it's been hard for me to witness the easy flow of money into people's lives in this country. So much is spent on sports, hobbies, pets, travel, children's toys, and many things that seem totally nonessential in my country. In Muong Lay, a person works for a whole month for the price of a ticket to one baseball game here. A friend in Santa Fe, when I told her my sister's salary in Vietnam, smiled and said, "Enough to water the grass in one American yard." I watch what Americans throw away in one day; it could feed a Vietnamese family for a week.
I cannot carry any of these material things home. What can I bring that will benefit my family or village? What ideas will help lift them out of poverty? As my departure approaches, I am constantly trying to think of ways to use what I have learned in America to benefit my country. Airline limits on luggage will not enable me to take many things. But ideas are weightless. I pray they will make a difference.
*The American who befriended Duyen Van Do wrote of her experience on The Home Forum of May 10, 1999, page 18.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society