03 October 2009

In the presence of my 'enemies' on the International Day of Non-Violence

There are too many thoughts running through my head at the moment and I feel an intense need to get them out and organized in some semi-coherent way. My internal dialogue has been going at light speed for the past several days as I’ve been reflecting on the experiences that planted the seed of my current sojourn in Vietnam and thoughts relating to the occasion of Gandhi’s birthday and International Day of Non-Violence have joined in the cacophony in my head. I’m not sure that I can make any sense out of them, but what follow are my attempts to do just that.

It’s hard to believe that the first inklings that a trip to Vietnam might be in my future started over three years ago, and at that point, it was alongside a much more anticipated possible trip to Iran. What intrigued me was the way the trip was framed as an opportunity to relate with ‘enemies past and present’. At that point, the drums of war were beating once again as it seemed my country had already set its sights on war with Iran, just as it had done in Afghanistan and Iraq. The hate-speech and misinformation was rampant and as a student of history, I could see several parallels between that moment and what I’d learned about the build up to the war in Vietnam. The study tour to these two countries promised an opportunity, no matter how small, to sit at the table with those who had been or are currently enemies of the country I call home. As our preparations continued, I became more excited about the prospect of humanizing those who seemed so distant and foreign to my realm of experience.

Flash forward three years. I’ve been to and returned from both Iran and Vietnam. I sat around tables and experienced humbling hospitality at the tables of ‘my enemies’. I toured the War Remnants museum with a Vietnamese teacher who lost half of her family in the war waged by my country. I sat at a table with Muslim scholars who knew my own theology better than I do. I drank countless cups of tea and coffee and spent hours in conversation. Naively, I assumed that these experiences were behind me as I settled into the routine of real life after graduation. But, whether through divine providence, serendipity, or just plain coincidence, I’ve once again found myself living in the land of a former enemy.

Now, several weeks into my two year sojourn in a country that is beginning to feel more and more like home, I am again reminded of the dire importance of meeting and relating with those whom we are told are the ‘evil other’. While that language is no longer used to describe the Vietnamese, except by those who still consider socialism/communism to be the work of evil in the world, the voices of dehumanization and isolation continue to rage against Iran. I sit in my room at the international guest house and I watch the BBC and read the Washington Post. Living, as I am in the very best example of American foreign policy gone horribly wrong, I can only pray that reason will prevail and the examples of the past will inform our present choices. If only those who made the decisions that bring life or death, dialogue or isolation, a new way forward or the continuation of old hatreds could live with those who will feel the effects of those decisions. If they could walk the streets of Hanoi or Tehran, if they could share a bowl of pho or plate of kebab, perhaps then there would be less talk of us and them, and more of we. I know that I’m drastically oversimplifying and that my mind cannot grasp the elements of realpolitik involved… but perhaps we need to see things more simply and look at the shared humanity that binds us together, rather than the political, ideological and religious differences that divide us.

As if the cacophony of these voices running through my head were not enough, they have been joined over the past day with thoughts of the International Day of Nonviolence, to celebrate and remember the birthday of Gandhi on October 2. In addition to the drums of international war between the US and Iran, wars continue to rage around the world. The human family is torn apart by strife and competition for scarce resources. Differences in religion, race, gender, political persuasion, sexual orientation, and worldview fan the flames of overt violence and more hidden forms such as prejudice, exploitation, and discrimination. Instead of working, as Gandhi sought to do, for the non-harm of all and the conquering power of ‘truth force’ we seek to establish an advantage for our position at the expense of those not quite as powerful. Proponents of nonviolence in the international arena are mocked and derided as weak and out of touch with reality while the voices of violence and triumphalism are welcomed with open arms. While I’m realistic enough to know that creating a day to commemorate the life of a person who inspired so many of the non-violent struggles for independence and human rights will not create a substantial difference, it has certainly provided the motivation for some reflection. So, I guess this all comes down to just that, this is simply my reflection on what would happen if on this day, people set aside their differences and sat in conversation with those whom they generally view as ‘other’. Maybe nothing would change and my dreams are simply the longings of a soul that cannot fathom where humanity will be if we continue on our current path of dehumanization and an all out competition to make sure ‘we’ come out on top. But, just maybe small changes could begin to take shape; maybe just the seeds of changes could find fertile ground as people reflect on the humanity that connects us.

01 October 2009

Ramblings from a drug-induced stupor

That's right, folks... I have a cold. It hit with a vengeance on Monday night after my evening class ended at 9. What seemed innocuous enough as a tickle in my throat turned into a full-fledged sore throat, congestion, headache and cough by the time the alarm went off at 6 Tuesday morning. Luckily, Tuesday is my 'light' day when I have only 2 hours of class and those were easily cancelled. So, I crawled back into bed, cursing my lack of foresight to bring any sort of cold medicine with me and my inability to speak enough Vietnamese to buy some on my own.
For those of you unfamiliar with shopping in Vietnam, there's no real equivalent to Wal-mart or Target which is a truly sad thing when you really need a variety of things such as cold medicine, chicken soup, and orange juice. Instead, getting cold medicine turned out to be a day long process. First I talked to one of the TA's at the RCCD because Joan had asked him if he knew where we could get some ginseng lozenges. So, he called Ms. Yen in the International Relations office since her father is a doctor and she called him to see what medicine they should give me. BUT... she didn't call him right away, so I popped some Advil and went about my day. By lunch, my throat was as raw and painful as possible and my ears were popping pretty fiercely. It was all I could do to drag myself back into bed and pray that I'd feel better when I woke up. I did, somewhat, but I was still no closer to getting cold medicine. Finally, around 7:30 or so I get a text from Phung saying that Yen thought that I should see a doctor in case it wasn't just a cold. While my experience in Vietnam has generally been positive, I wasn't feeling like I wanted to be introduced to the medical system quite yet so I said I didn't think that was necessary. But, I asked Phung, can you help me get some medicine? Sadly, there's something wrong with my phone and he didn't get the message. So Tuesday night passed simply due to the Advil and sleeping pill that I took in the hopes that it would simply knock me out.
Wednesday morning, not feeling as awful... sore throat largely gone, but it appears it's a sinus infection rather than the cold it had started out as. I drag myself to class because I do not want to have to schedule a make-up session. While I'm teaching, in walks Phung and we set a time to go to the pharmacy after I'm done teaching. Well... the pharmacy is right across the street from the campus and it looks exactly like the countless shops that line the street, selling everything from cell phones to motorbike parts and everything in between. Stepping up to the counter, the smiling woman in the white coat asks Phung, or me through Phung, what my symptoms are and how long I've had them. As they talk (and I listen, uncomprehendingly) she begins to reach into the cupboards behind her and assemble various drugs into little plastic bags. She admonishes me to stay away from AirCon and fans for a while and after paying her my 22,000 VND (just over $1 US) I left with three doses of four pills that are supposed to help and a box of lozenges.
Now, there are many things that I was taught as a child about health and safety. One of the primary lessons was not to take medicine if you didn't know what it was... but, I figured that the pharmacy lady knew more about the medicine I needed than I did and so when I got home I popped the pills and crawled into bed once again. Waking two hours later, I could already tell that there was some improvement as I was not nearly as congested as I'd been before. I made it through my afternoon class, feeling better as the afternoon moved on. I ventured out for dinner last night and managed to stay awake until 10:45 last night (which is pretty late for me since I teach at 7 am).
I took my last dose this morning and would say that I'm about 75% better. Pretty speedy recovery since my last cold seemed to drag on forever! So, whatever was in those packets must have worked and I'm thankful for that.
In other news... I'm ending up my 7th week here in Vietnam and things continue to go well. It's been cooler and rainier recently which I must confess I love. There have actually been days where I haven't sweat and that's a welcome change from the first few weeks I was here. Other than the cold, my health is good and I'm getting plenty of rest and fresh food (no worries there, Mom). I continue to learn my way around town, which is incredibly liberating. I also had my first ao dai made this week for a wedding I'm going to on Saturday... and I must say it looks rather stunning. I'll post pictures later. That's it for now since I've ramble on too long already.