Vietnam: the good, the bad, and the ugly

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Hey friends and family! Sorry for the lag between this and my last post. We had a week off between the two mini semesters (the IUP larger semester is broken up into two semesters), and my friend, Joyce, and I went to Vietnam. Now we are back in Beijing, a week into the second semester, and I finally have a moment to sit down and write another post. I will start by writing about Vietnam, then move on to my new semester, and finally talk about experiencing terror attacks occurring in the United States, from China.

So Joyce and I were looking to get out of China for our week off, and Vietnam seemed like a great place to go! I have always wanted to go, as both my sister and best friend had amazing experiences there, and as a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain (RIP), I wanted to check out all the food! Also, escaping the biting winds and horrible pollution of Beijing for balmy Vietnam was a definite plus. Besides the basic information about the Vietnamese war that high school imparted, I really knew nothing. Before going, I sped watched as much of the new Ken Burns documentary as I could, and so was simultaneously awash in the horror of the war and in the physical place where the war took place. I do not even really know what to say about it, except that it was incredibly sobering. We went to the Hoa Lo Prison, known as the prison where John McCain was kept captive, but which was originally built in the 1890s by the French colonizers as a place to keep political prisoners. The two pictures below were taken in the prison, and represent the truly horrible conditions that the prisoners were kept in. I think the trip was so impactful because of the deep feeling of sorrow lingering in the walls, but also the symbol of resistance that the prison represents. Despite the attempts by the French to keep the Vietnamese nationalists down, prisoners in Hoa Lo turned the prison into a training school, where revolutionary ideas percolated. There were real physical representations of how determined the Vietnamese were to end French rule, the picture below shows a sewage pipe that prisoners escaped through. They crawled through sewage, cockroaches, rats, and spent days filing down the bars until they were just wide enough to slip through. To see the actual pipe that prisoners escaped through almost made me cry!

Besides these super intense moments, Joyce and I also ate a ton of Pho, Bun Cha, Vietnamese coffee, etc. We sweat a ton, went kayaking, motorbiked through a national park, traveled out to the island of Cat Ba, soaked in the sun and the rain, and just had a blast. My takeaways can be broken into three main points: 1) Vietnam is a truly gorgeous place 2) The food was AMAZING 3) the white backpacker we met were almost unilaterally racist, appropriative, and culturally insensitive. If you would like me to expand on any of those points, just PM me! But at the bottom of this post are a bunch of photographs!

Now, the second semester. It is significantly harder than last semester, and so much more satisfying. The two classes I am in now are 思想与社会 (Philosophy and Society) and 实话实说 (Real Talk). Both classes discuss really relevant topics, using very formal and advanced language. I am excited to be able to master these aspects of Chinese, because they are really directly related to the research I will be doing next semester. It is also really fun to be reaching a level where I can talk intelligently about the same topics that I would want to use English to discuss. All that being said, the work load much heavier than last semester and I have been having trouble figuring out a way to balance self care and homework. In my four years in college, self care for me really fell by the wayside, and one of my goals in my post-graduate life was to prioritize self care as a way to keep care for my mental health. So, finding ways to incorporate working out, yoga, and meditation into my daily life is very important. I figure that these are the kind of struggle that everyone is having, and that finding ways to balance will be a life long puzzle.

Finally, I want to write a little bit what it is like to hear about acts of terror in the United States, from China. I have been in China now for two major terror attacks, both the Pulse shooting and the recent attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by alt-right terrorist Robert Bowers. It has made me think a lot about how it feels to be so far away from my country, when people are hurting more than ever, and feel so useless from halfway across the world. I attended Shabbat at a Beijing synagogue last night as a way to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community and as a way to somehow process the truly horrible events of last week. Something that someone said really resonated with me, being so far away allows us expats the luxury of tuning out. The news broke in the US on Saturday morning as the shooting was unfolding, as me and my friends were out drinking, and we had the luxury of seeing the notification popping up on our phones and then choosing to not engage, as a way of self preservation. It is sad, because these events feel so distant from me even as they impact so many people who I hold so dear. I have had to actively seek out information to make it all even seem real. I remember the same thing happening in 2016 as the Pulse shooting unfolded. Even though I was with a group of Americans, we were all emotionally wasted and couldn’t even engage. Being in China, we were able to disengage in a way we wouldn’t have been able to in the United States.

I think the biggest question that emerges from these thoughts is just what to do. How do I fight feelings of uselessness as people at home hurt? If I were in the US right now, I would be participating in rallies, conversations, and things of the like. For now, the fact that I voted absentee is tiding me over, and I will just keep seeking out ways to get engaged from afar.

That is all for now. Thank you all for reading!

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