"It is one of the more unjustifiable pretensions of our age that it measures time and experience by the clock. There are obviously a host of considerations and values which a clock cannot possibly measure. There is above all the fact that time spent on a journey, particularly a journey which sets in motion the abiding symbolism of our natures, is different from the time devoured at such a terrifying speed in the daily routine of what is accepted, with such curious complacency, as our normal lives. This seems axiomatic to me; the truer the moment and the greater its content of reality, the slower the swing of the universal pendulum."
Laurens van der Post, “Venture to the Interior,” in which he documents a journey to his mother’s homeland in Africa.
This is something I can wholly agree with from my trip to Viet Nam this past summer. Time was agonizingly drawn out, like a dream that morphed fluidly from one scene to the next, spanning days, weeks, months. But everything was real, sharply so, and it was almost painful to live through.
I tried to prepare myself for what would happen when I came back to Toronto, when this blog would become defunct. I brainstormed for the perfect final post—something that encapsulates my experiences in a place that means so many things to me. I thought long and hard about what words would paint perfectly the soul of a foreign homeland, an industrializing state, a contradiction of desperate Westernization and steadfast Vietnamese cultural tradition, and above all, the history of my people, my family.
But then my Cathay Pacific flight landed at Pearson, and then my cab pulled up to my parents’ driveway, and then my suitcases piled up in my room and then I went out with friends and then I moved back downtown and then school started and then, and then, and then.
I struggled these past couple months to write the concluding paragraph of that chapter of my life, to no avail. It refuses to be written.
Because maybe that wasn’t a “chapter” of my life. Maybe that was an opening theme which finishes but doesn’t end. Or like the first movement of a long and complicated classical sonata (you know the ones I’m talking about). Its notes twinkle throughout, choosing to come back strong in a reprise or ending but only after they have coloured the life of the piece.
Vignettes of Viet Nam lives on. The sounds playing in the background will occasionally emerge to become a passage, a movement, a cadence—whatever it needs to be.
when I wake up, I can still hear the birds chirping. The leaves rustle. The water drifts. Sometimes I mistake the air conditioning in my apartment for the gentle breeze early morning in Sai Gon.
I leave my suitcase out, for when my responsibilities take me to the next province, to the next 10 homes. Of course, they don’t.
I’m easily awakened by my plastic curtains here. A change from the deep slumber awarded by long days and suppressive heat.
Instead of “yes,” I have “vang” on the tip of my tongue. I often feel the urge to respond in Vietnamese. It’s beginning to be a problem.
Sometimes, I just miss being where my actions actually made a difference. It’s so easy to forget the other side when this side relentlessly drags you through the dirt of its ambitions, its selfish desires.
Easy is neither here nor there. But simple—spiritual—uplifting? They’re over there. Far, far away from my Canadian grasp.
I am happy—unbelievable so—to be home. The wide streets, room to breathe, the English language and the liberation that comes with being able to say what’s on my mind. Communication. Solidarity.
I have been looking forward to this since before I left, four months ago. I think the most exciting part of my going to Viet Nam was coming back to Canada, to Toronto, and reflecting upon my transformative summer. Nevermind the actual trip and the actual experiences, I was more interested in seeing the kind of person I would become after those experiences.
And here she is, here she’s been for the past two weeks since her feet touched Canadian soil. And she…is exhausted. Breaks, barely breaths of air, are fleeting.
Everyone I’ve met again thus far has asked me, “How was Viet Nam?” as if I could sum up all the challenges, decisions, experiences, emotions in a paragraph, a sentence, a word, a look. It was one of the most difficult, and rewarding, experiences of my life. How does that work? Generic enough for you?
I don’t mean to be harsh. It’s tough to figure out what I want to say, because I want to say everything. It’s tough to gauge what people want to hear, because I feel people don’t want to hear, can’t be bothered with anything I say. Any of my humanist spew.
How can I intimate the frustration of dealing with foreign bureaucracy and their silly rules and politics when all I want to do is help their citizens? How about the total inconvenience of getting sick, getting hospitalized conveniently on a mission to do good deeds? How can I express the violent twisting of my heartstrings after visiting an AIDS centre for the terminally-ill—playing with the seven-year-olds and wondering if they’ll still be alive next time I visit?
How can I say all this so that you’ll care? Because you don’t care. Your lives are so far removed, your lifestyles so privileged (in comparison. Always in comparison), your troubles so much more important, your decisions with greater impact. People here exist unperturbed while people there survive to live, live to feel, feel to hope and hope to survive.
I spent time in a newly industrialized country (“Third World” is irrelevant; “developing” pejorative) this summer and now I’m back in a country with the eighth-highest HDI index in the world.
And with my technology, my freedom, a future filled with hopes, dreams and desires, I am as far removed from those darlings in the AIDS centre as anyone else. The world unrelentingly chugs forward while its passengers fall off, are pushed off, onto soft dirt, hard rocks—lacking all control of their fate without anyone reaching quickly enough to save them. And the person I am now can’t stand idly by while that happens.
“I feel like I stepped out of the Discovery Channel. A hike up the mountain regions of Quang Tri that is tiring but exhilarating. Voraciously powerful in an ethereal sort of a way; a light breeze that packs a lot of punch. Finally, a reprieve (can it really be considered as such—when we hiked, while parched, and fell and bled?) from all the noise. The jarring speech and incessant shrieks. The honks and the beeps and the honks and the beeps.
I could almost hear the British narrator voice my every movement. My intentions. My thoughts as I squint into the sun.”
From where I am in Ontario, it’s normal to pay a small fee to enter a conservation area with the purpose of hiking/picnicking/experiencing the wonders of nature. We’ve managed to exploit Mother Earth so well that to return to our animal origins, to our leafy greens, requires payment.
That July day in Quang Tri, we paid a different sort of fee. In exchange for our exertion, for the donations and gifts we bring, the Parents of Love families granted us special access to their poverty—really though, not poverty at all. They gave us a glimpse into paradise. Their gruelling, beautiful paradise.
The mountains they wake up to, the river in which they swim, the trees that provide the breath of life and tranquility for peace of mind. Simple living. Gorgeous isolation.