By James McAuley
As I flew over the Pacific to Vietnam on a quest for cultural understanding, I could not help but reflect on the questions asked by my peers before my departure: Are you scared? Will the people like you since you are American?
These overwhelming questions remained until I entered the Hanoi airport where a gentleman at the exit said, “Welcome, we are so happy to have you.” As I encountered more Vietnamese residents throughout my stay, it occurred to me through communication that these people were not only glad to see me in their country, but grateful that our past relationship is history.
At 21 years of age, I entered a country that was disliked by so many of my countrymen 40 years ago. It now was time to form my own perspective.
Traveling in the north, our study group came upon the Black Thai ethnic group in the mountains above Dien Bien Phu. This tribe has lived, struggling for survival, on the mountains since the French War. These people lack proper nutrition, shelter, and a way to make money.
Walking up the mountain, we faced families begging for monetary help and trying to sell us handmade scarves. During this hike, I encountered a 7-year-old boy named Thong who would change my life forever. The children on the mountain – or “sales agents” as we referred to them – were also doing their best to sell us anything they could for their parents. My new friend Thong had an old coin from Indochina that the French left behind during the 1950s that he wanted to give me. Thong followed me all around on the mountain, learning tricks from me like flipping a coin and catching it behind his back. Something of such small interest to me was a new excitement for Thong.
This coin made of silver is worth two dollars and fifty cents to the Black Thai, which is a decent day’s pay considering the economic conditions this tribe faces. Thong wanted to give me this coin even though he did not have anything except the clothes on his back and the hat on his head. All of a sudden it struck me in such a way that I knew that I would never look on materialistic possessions in the same way. This 7-year-old kid who had nothing was willing to give me a coin for nothing.
My brother is currently 7 years old and I remember the days when I was that age. Then, I imagine living a life like Thong, doing what I could to help my family survive. Most kids of that age in America do not have that thought due to athletic activities and our love for video technology. We honestly cannot even say we know what poverty is until we have lived the beggar’s life without shelter or food.
As we left the mountain I took the coin and gave Thong a prize in return to give to his mom. Thong, the 7-year-old boy, had taught a valuable lesson to my peers and me. We should never take anything that we have for granted because someone always has it much worse. I watched from the bus driving away as Thong chased behind flipping the quarter I gave him and catching it behind his back. This allowed me to have hope for young Thong that one day he would rise from nothing into something special.
Finally, to answer my peers’ questions – was I scared and did they like me? Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and I felt that way in Vietnam. Yes, it is still a Communist country but observing the history Vietnam has with China and America’s recent debt to China I can see a relationship. It is possible that the fall of Communism will come, and the already Americanized Vietnam will look to the United States as a model.
We cannot fear what we do not know. It is no longer the 1960s and 1970s and Vietnam is not only a beautiful country, but what I believe to be one of America’s next partners.
James Rieves McAuley of Tupelo is a junior at Millsaps College in Jackson. He traveled to Vietnam through a Millsaps cultural studies program directed by Dr. Robert McElvaine and worked this summer for Sen. Roger Wicker in Washington.