My first four weeks in Dong Ha, Vietnam have flown by, but it also feels like I have been here much longer than just four weeks. These weeks have been filled with excitement, frustration, 40 degree Celsius heat, isolation, stares, attempts to communicate via language and hand gestures, tears, laughs, struggles, and so much learning. I could not be happier that I get to experience all of the highs and lows of living and working in a new country that is drastically different from Canada. All of the negative emotions and “negative” experiences give journeys like this internship life and soul; without bumps, and sometimes mountains, along the way, learning would be impeded and I would not be able to truly appreciate this experience or grow as a person. This first month has been filled with good days and bad days, and good and bad moments during each day. Sometimes I have surprised myself by the varying emotions and feelings I have experienced just in one day.
Even though I am alone in Dong Ha, which brings many difficulties my way, I am happy that I get to experience this internship alone because I must face all of my challenges on my own. Because there are not many foreigners here, I am forced to make friends with more Vietnamese people, and meeting new people from another country that speak another language is part of what this internship experience is all about. I have met several Vietnamese people who have proven to be very generous and kind, always offering me help whenever I need and wanting to take me out to new restaurants and new places so that I can see and do new things.
While I am now used to many aspects of life here, there are still parts that I find I cannot handle or cope with very well. The heat and humidity may not be comfortable and even though I know I will never fully get used to it, I can say that I can deal with it and have accepted that there is no way for me to escape it. I may not be used to having at least ten or fifteen people call out “hello” to me in Canada when I walk, but here I now find that I even look forward to seeing the smiling and happy faces of the people I pass on my way to the grocery store. The language is difficult, and poses quite a few challenges given that I can only say a few words in Vietnamese and almost no one here speaks English. I have found ways to get around and navigate every day situations using a variety of methods: basic Vietnamese words, hand gestures, the calculator on my phone, and occasionally a translator on my phone.
However, all of these successes are sometimes overshadowed by the strenuous situations that still bother me. The constant staring when I walk on the main roads in town or sit in cafes and restaurants. Countless people telling me that I am beautiful and white wherever I go. Older men sometimes wanting to sit down at my table at restaurants, which has resulted in me wearing a ring on my left ring finger. These aspects of everyday life really affect me and frustrate me some days. It is always a relief to finally be with other Caucasians, such as when I had the opportunity to go to Halong Bay with the two other Mines Action Canada interns, Marianne and Simone. Although, even that relief was short-lived. On the train back to Central Vietnam, the young man working on the train developed quite an interest in the three of us. He would stand in the doorway of our cabin staring at us, and even sat down on Simone’s bed. Once Simone and Marianne got off the train in Dong Hoi, I still had two hours to go back to Dong Ha. Soon after their departure, the man came back. He sat across from me and extended his hand for what I thought would be a handshake. As soon as our hands touched, he lifted my hand to his descending mouth in order to kiss it. I quickly drew my hand away with a shaky laugh. It is uncomfortable situations like these, where I am unsure of how I should act, both as a foreigner and as a woman in Vietnam, that make living here difficult, but also interesting. I do not want to compromise my comfort or my values, but I also do not want to offend anyone or make situations worse. Because I am in Vietnam, I am able to view differing cultural aspects much more closely than I would be able to otherwise. I hope that I will be able to see how the Vietnamese culture influences the way that Vietnam acts internationally and apply that to the international relations theory I have studied. By being so immersed in another culture, I am really able to broaden my mind and think more critically of Canadian life, politics and culture.
In addition to all of the cultural learning I am being exposed to on a daily basis, there is much to learn at Project RENEW, where I am working. This month I have spent all of my time with the Victim Assistance unit and I have really begun to see what an amazing organization Project RENEW is. My first two weeks were filled with reading past proposals in order to learn about the NGO and its projects. I also spent a lot of time editing English copies of past proposals and I wrote two articles for the NGO’s website. Writing these articles has given me an opportunity to finally use some of the writing skills that I acquired during my four years of university.
Interspersed throughout these few weeks were several field visits with my supervisor. I have gone to two blind associations and a district health centre, accompanied the Prosthetics and Mobile Outreach Program, and have visited a few different people and families who have suffered from unexploded ordnance accidents. I feel so fortunate that during one of the visits I was able to meet a really inspirational man. Years ago, he was injured in an unexploded ordnance accident resulting in the amputation of both of his legs at mid-thigh level. Everyday he works, making big bamboo rings (out of bamboo that cuts down himself!) that he then sells to florists. He also grows mushrooms. While my supervisor and I sat with this man, he seemed so happy that we were there and he even showed an interest in me! And I’m not talking about a creepy interest like what I usually have to deal with; he really was just curious about me, where I was from, and my life. He was so kind, and I felt so useless because all I could say to him was hello and goodbye in Vietnamese. These field visits and seeing so many brave and resilient individuals has really given me a lot to think about. My perspective on life in Vietnam and in Canada has changed and I can already feel the boundaries of my mind shifting and growing.
Lately at work I have been working independently on a proposal project, which has given me an opportunity to let my creativity run, searching for new ways to receive funding, and to use the researching abilities that I developed in university. I cannot wait to start writing proposals and to spend time with some of the other components of Project RENEW, such as the Survey and Clearance teams and the Visitor Centre. These other departments will add more dimensions to my forming perspectives of the mine situation here in Dong Ha and around the DMZ.
While I have learned so much during this past month, I know that there is still much more learning to be done over the next two months and I feel that I will never be able to learn everything there is to know about both mine action and cultural life in Vietnam. I have enjoyed applying what I have learned in university classes to my work at Project RENEW and am looking forward to being able to further using these new skills in whichever job my life takes me to next. I feel like I have accomplished a lot and yet almost nothing at the same time. I have faced many challenges, and even though they have been difficult, some of them even leading me to tears, I am looking forward to embracing the new challenges that will come my way in the upcoming weeks.