I make up stories when I people watch. I used to do it all the time sitting on the subway in New York. I think that’s also what I did when I first came to Vietnam five years ago…when I first saw old grandmothers with teeth worn away from beetle nut…men with baskets of rocks perched atop their heads, clad in sandals and shorts…kids playing kickball in the street. I imagined what their lives must be like.
This trip has been different. I have a slightly fuller picture of the story and there aren’t as many blank spaces to fill in. I’ve been lucky enough to meet with nearly 200 women in Thanh Hoa. I’ve sat with each of them, asking a page of questions – taking many more pages of notes, pictures and videos. As I sit on a plane heading back home, here’s what I’ll remember most…
I’ll remember sitting on a train, looking out at the beautiful rice fields and wondering how Vietnam will change over the next decade, and at what cost.
I’ll remember trying to maintain my balance while stooping with Ms. Lien at her worksite. I’ll remember her generosity. I’ll remember the realization that she and her family live on less than $100 a month, and that she often has to choose between paying her children’s school fees or her husband’s hospital visits.
I’ll remember feeling thankful that these incredibly hard-working, humble women allowed me in for glimpses of their lives.
I’ll remember hearing grandmothers sing folk songs to their grandchildren, diligently pushing them around on plastic play carts.
I’ll remember feeling conflicted… in my thoughts about development…in my definition of wealth …in my interactions with people… in my expectations …
I’ll remember thinking about last summer…mud huts, water wells, oil lamps and stone faced babies…Tanzania pole pole (slow) time, warm hugs, morning chai and silhouettes of graceful women carrying pots of water up winding burnt tangerine paths.
I’ll remember realizing that it is impossible to compare poverty… it can take a different form in each country and even within countries at times.
I’ll remember the many karaoke renditions of “Heal The World” (R.I.P MJ) and “Jingle Bells.”
I’ll remember spending a day at the beach and bonding with fellow volunteers over BBQ and watermelon.
I’ll remember engaging in friendly conversation with curious strangers on the train, bus, street…
I’ll remember small moments of complete satisfaction- feeling like I was where I was meant to be for just that moment.
I’ll remember people watching at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi and thinking that we’re all really very much the same. Is it really so different the way two close friends share inside jokes and laughter? Or the way a mother brushes the hair out of her child’s eyes? Or the way a couple in love can hold hands and sit in comfortable silence? Or the way small children run around in circles shouting in delight? Or the way two strangers exchange swift smiles?