“Travel while you are young, you will never have the opportunity once you are in the real world.” Almost everyone will have some family member say this to them the summer after they graduate high school. They talk about how you will have the rest of your life to work so travel the world, experience different cultures, broaden your mind, and do everything that they wish they did when they were young. So as a college student given the opportunity to take a summer internship or travel to the other side of the world, what will you choose?
I took the opportunity given me to through the Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency program to travel to Vietnam over the summer. I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—I mean who really gets to travel to Vietnam while they are in college, let alone in their lifetime? Only two weeks after classes had ended, I left home for Fort Knox, and soon after, I was on a trip across the globe.
Upon stepping out of the airport, I was instantly overwhelmed by foreign sensory overload. I knew there would be heat, but the first step out of the air conditioned airport truly shocked me. I was hit by heat, extreme humidity, and smells and sights that I had never experienced before. The culture shocks continued as I piled into a bus with the nine other cadets I was with and was greeted by Vietnam’s unique traffic “laws.” There were people passing my vehicle on all sides, crossing into oncoming traffic and dipping back into their lane just before collision. Vietnamese driving would be one of the hardest things for me to adjust to during my stay.
The cadets I were with and I were tasked with teaching English to Vietnamese military officers from all branches of service. I have never taught a class in my life, let alone taught a foreign language to a class whose own language I did not speak. The reception was completely and overwhelmingly warm. My first encounter with the Vietnamese military was through a colonel, a panel of high ranking officers, and an interpreter in a very ornate and formal conference room with a large bust of Ho Chi Minh overlooking the proceedings. For many of us, this was the moment when we realized the importance and legitimacy of our mission. We walked into the classrooms and were unanimously greeted positively. However, I found the first few days to be a challenge at best. Many of my ice-breaker games failed, and, as expected, I had difficulty communicating with my class. I was frequently met with “Can you please speak slower?” Over the next few days, I learned what words my students could understand and how I could communicate most effectively with them while creating a positive and enjoyable learning environment.
Breaks were when we truly began to interact personally with our students. We taught English during class time, but during breaks we explained American culture while they replied in suit. They were fascinated by where we lived, our families, our girlfriends and boyfriends, and who we were. They were equally eager to show us pictures of their homes, their wives, their children, and their country. They wanted us to know as much about Vietnam as they wanted to know about the United States. We were met with history lessons, language lessons, culture lessons, and even cooking lessons. Over the two weeks of teaching, our bonds began to grow and our lessons became more involved and interesting. I was surprised at how attached I had become to my students and how quickly the relationships formed between myself and them. I frequently speak to my students via social media and I love when they ask me, still, to correct their sentences for them. They ask me when I will return to Vietnam and if I can travel to their homes to meet their family, and though we spent such a short time was spent with them, I had never felt so welcomed.
Finally, I traveled the country. While travelling, I learned more and more about the people of Vietnam. I was amazed at the work ethic I saw. While driving or riding through the nation I was exposed to farmers, working in extreme heat, waist deep in mud, dragging animals through paddy field,s cultivating rice, using the same techniques that have been constantly refined for thousands of years. I saw stark differences in standards of living, with shacks placed across the street from ornate, elaborate beach resorts. I truly began to appreciate some of the systems for standardization and regulation in the United States such as the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency that were missing there. Most importantly, I was able to see a country’s unique and developed history from its own perspective, independent of my own biases, allowing myself to try to formulate a new point of view. I learned firsthand from those who lived through the Vietnam War, or, as it is known in Vietnam, the American War. Many had their homes destroyed, their values torn, their families lost, yet they recovered and rebuilt. I was afraid at first to have people know that I was American; many thought that we were Australian or British due to the large number of tourists from those counties, but when I told them a big smile always appeared on their face. I met numerous of Vietnamese people, and none of them disliked America; in fact, many of them wanted to visit America.
When I look back to my decision to travel rather than work at an internship, I truly believe that my decision was right. This trip changed me as a person, down to my very beliefs and I know it helped me to understand and empathize with people of another country who the United States was at war with merely decades ago.
Kevin Downey ’15