Growing up I was “the first” for a lot of things in my family. I was the first child, the first `to say “ba” (dad) as my first word, the first granddaughter on my mother’s side, the first to bring home a boy, the first to graduate from college. Now, I am the first of my sisters to travel back to Vietnam. Participating in VIET2010 gave me the opportunity to come back to Vietnam and to learn about its history, culture, and lifestyle in addition to working towards a greater cause. When I first heard about the program though the Stanford Vietnamese Student Association’s email list, I realized that I didn’t know much about Agent Orange/Dioxin. I knew that it was used during the Vietnam War but that was the extent of my knowledge. I didn’t realize that these chemicals had such profound and long lasting consequences, many of which the victims are still dealing with today. I applied for the program because I wanted to learn more about my role about raising awareness and working towards social change for those affected by Agent Orange/Dioxin. I also wanted to bring my own experiences in international and domestic service leadership and community engagement to the program. Finally, I wanted to go to Vietnam I wanted to see where my parents grew up.
When my parents heard the news that I was going to Vietnam as a member of this unique team, they were less than thrilled, which in all honesty, surprised me. My family has been planning a trip to Vietnam for about ten years now but something always came up: summer school, internships, or jobs. Now, when I had the chance to travel to Vietnam, they were urging me not to go. I understood their concern about my trips to Papua New Guinea and the Philippines last summer since they were my first times traveling without them to a foreign country. From the time I told them I was accepted into the program, for the weeks leading up to the program, and even up until the day before the team was going to fly to Vietnam, my parents questioned the integrity and legitimacy of the program. While I was enthusiastic about the work this program sets out to accomplish, it was challenging to be fully excited when my parents were constantly and loudly voicing their disdain. I know it comes from a good place and they are just concerned for my own well-being.
Whenever anyone asked me what my summer plans were, I would tell them almost robotically that I was participating in a program to learn about the health and environmental effects of Agent Orange/ Dioxin. But those were empty words until I went to orientation. After that first week in San Francisco, I had a more complete understanding of the work that the program sets out to do, the goals it hopes to accomplish, and why the work that the program does is important. The workshops during the Orientation Week were informative because they gave me the framework with which to visualize our work. The sessions also gave me the background knowledge about the history surrounding the Vietnam War, statistics and facts about Agent Orange/Dioxin spraying, information on the importance of bridging the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American gap, and media documentation skills. The most exciting part about Orientation was meeting the rest of the VIET2010 fellows. We come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and we have all decided to participate in the program because we care about this relevant and important issue and the people affected. I am excited to see the potential impact of a group of intelligent, accomplished, and passionate Vietnamese-Americans working to give back to and to serve the communities that have shaped who we have become.
It is contradictory that whenever people ask whether or not I have ever been to Vietnam, I reply, “No, this is my first time. I have never been back to Vietnam,” as though I have already been. Regardless of the fact that I was born and raised in America, a part of me will always be tied to Vietnam not because I look the part or because I eat pho or use nuoc mam (fish sauce) as a dipping sauce. My parents have instilled in me a deep sense of appreciation for my culture and it is such a great opportunity to be able to experience Vietnam firsthand. After an extremely long plane flight with a stopover in Taipei, we finally landed in Saigon. Looking through the airplane windows at the dichotomy between buildings amongst the green, I felt excited and nervous, hopeful and overwhelmed. As I walked out the doors after clearing customs and into the huge crowd of people waiting to see their loved ones, I was greeted by my dad’s nephew and my mom’s distant relatives. I was both surprised and touched at their sense of family even though I had never met them before. Their warm welcome made me feel that I was indeed coming back to Vietnam, and that I was returning home.