My First Time Back

Filed under: Community,Opinion |

Beginning June 6, I began a journey of a lifetime. I hadn’t thought much about what I was doing or where I was going prior to this day. Was it selfish of me to say I didn’t want to leave Buffalo? School had just gotten out, and I was more than happy to stay in the city and be with my friends. I don’t remember if I cried or not the night before I left for the airport. I don’t think I did. Either way, I wasn’t thrilled the next day, in the back of my dad’s Prius, driving to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Was it anticipation? Was I nervous? These were the thoughts that I was asked by my parents and other adults. I felt as if I was drowning in expectation. And so my journey began.
Almost a week later, I am in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The air is dirty. The streets are dirty. The people are dirty. It’s hard for me to believe that I am once again in Asia, halfway around the world from the place I call home. I am drenched in sweat. The humidity is unbearable. People on the streets stare at me. They know I am a foreigner. How? What gives me away?
It is around 9:00 AM and the Venture Scouts and I are about to kick off the first full day of work. Our site is located in a death valley, with governmental regulated mountains on either side. The first I see when I hop of the bus and walk toward the school are the Raglai children. They hide behind their teachers, but peer around, excited and curious to see us. Their school was built last year by the organizer of our AID Expedition, Caroline Parker. Volunteer teachers who are with us are not here for an academic purpose, but to teach these children skills such as how to wash their hands with soap and self-defense to prevent abuse within the household. My job is to build a garden in the back of the school building so that the Raglai community can grow their own crops for food and to sell. Work was treacherous. From wheeling wheelbarrows filled with dirt, to cutting plastic bottles to make irrigated plant pots; the day seemed endless. However, the children never stopped smiling. They were unaffected by the discomfort, willingly helping to gather dirt, and pull rope through the cut up bottles. What was tough and back-breaking work for us was a fun summer camp activity for these poor and deprived children. They ran around, they played soccer, they ate their lunch to the last morsel. The manner in which they lived their daily lives was truly heroic.
After what seemed like hours of endless hugs, piggyback rides, giggles and holding hands, our time with the Raglai community had come to an end. The second stage of my journey was a cultural tour around the coast of Vietnam. Hoi An was beautiful, and Ha Long Bay was refreshing, but when asked how I felt to be back in the county of my birth, I felt couldn’t help but still feel like an outsider. I don’t fit in America by physical appearance, and I didn’t culturally fit in here. I also noted that maybe my feelings of isolation were because these beautiful tourist attractions were not the real place of my birth. I was really born in Nam Dinh; a province located outside the city of Hanoi.
The next part of this journey is quite personal and somewhat emotional to me, so I have left out many parts. However, what I will share is something that I can truly retell without having to include the personal fluff. The hospital from which I was adopted is right down the street from the local beach. The old governmental building which used to be across the street from the hospital had been torn down and is now used as a street market. If you’ve ever watched a sci-fi action movie, there is often a scene where the character steps out and is faced with an apocalyptic version of what used to be their home. Whether taken over by infectious disease, a bomb raid, or a massive dust storm; all that is left is a skeletal version of what used to be a thriving safe-place. Stepping out of the car onto the dust flat and desolation of my birth place was like being in one of those sci-fi action movies. I was back. I knew it. My mom knew it. The translator knew it. The car driver knew it. T he people in town knew it too. I was met along the beach with wary smiles, looks of wonder, and eyes of utter condolence. I smiled, waved, and got back into the security of the car. That is all I have to say.
Travelling to the country of your birth after seventeen years is something that cannot be summarized or described in one word. Nor can the feeling be categorized as one emotion. It is an experience that is both real and surreal at the same time. I hope to go back one day. I can only hope that one day I’ll be able to stand once again on the dusty ground of that hospital, looking out onto the unknown and unimaginable reality of what could’ve been my life. I am grateful for the life I live now. I am proud to be an adopted Vietnamese-American. And I can honestly now say that I am proud to be me.

By Pearl Steinzor ’17

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