It’s hot. I’m dirty. I stink. Despite my low level of hygiene, I feel good. I’ve just successfully crossed the Cambodian boarder into Vietnam.
I’ve been traveling for a little over two months so far. It was strenuous at first, and hard to get used to nearly everything. You find yourself relearning things that you thought you already knew how to do: Crossing the street safely, using a toilet, communicating, the list goes on. But now, everything is good, I feel I’ve adapted, that the initiation period is over, that I have succeeded; I feel confident and proud. I am completely unaware that today I will learn about the existence of my own ethnocentric viewpoints. Ironically, this experience comes at a time when I think the learning process is pretty much over.
My lesson begins with a young Vietnamese woman; today it’s her job to talk to the tourists while the driver takes us from the boarder into Saigon. She is young, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three, has a funny accent that is a cross combination of nasal and robot, and wears a large sunhat that takes up a lot of headroom in our cramped minibus. She is friendly and seems nice. She tells cheesy jokes, and the timing is so wrong, that it is hard at first to tell it’s a joke at all; nevertheless, she is energetic and sweet, and people begin to laugh and have a good time. She is concerned about our safety, and tells us to be careful because every day in Saigon, 10 people go to cross the street, get hit by a vehicle, and die.
Time passes. The woman has been talking about Saigon and what we can expect. I zone out for awhile until I hear the phrase, “during the American War…” My first reaction is, that’s not right; it’s called the ‘Vietnam War.’ This is the first time I become acutely aware of my own ethnocentric perspective. I am quick to rationalize the Vietnamese logic for naming it this way; Of course they don’t call it ‘the Vietnam War’ because then every war they were involved in would have the exact same, indistinguishable name. I’m surprised I haven’t thought of this before.
Lesson learned, I tune in again just in time to hear her say “when Vietnam won the American war…” My high school history education kicks in and automatically corrects the statement: That’s wrong. America didn’t loose the war. I actually turn to my friend and point this out. We quietly work though our base of facts and come to the agreement that after a long period of time in war, due to difficult conditions and many lost lives, the United States called their troops home and the war ended. It takes me a very long moment to convert these facts to the equivalent statement: America lost the Vietnam War. I was never taught this in school; it wasn’t written like that in my text book. I learned all about the Vietnam War: Dates, casualties, methods of warfare – I have always known that America didn’t exactly win, but why didn’t I ever learn directly that they lost? More alarmingly, why didn’t I ever ask? I am just now beginning to understand that history is written ethnocentrically, it is not unbiased; it hides certain events, highlights others, and glosses over facts it would rather not point out. This is a significant amount of information to take in, and I’ve only been in this country a half an hour.
For the next 3 weeks I learn what war is from the Vietnamese perspective. I see the effects of chemical warfare:
The war continues to affect the Vietnamese people, all of them, it affects the whole country; for them it still goes on. It’s a brutal reality, and I start to wonder why the West felt so strongly that it needed to wage war on Vietnam. Ah, now I remember: Communism. But wait… what was so criminal about communism in the first place? I know that I am simplifying, and that communism has, in every case I know of, been an economical failure, but communism is just an ideology that attempts to establish a classless society based on common ownership through the means of production. The ‘facts’ of history seem to fade into biased stories. I can no longer understand why a war was fought and the Western justification for it was: communism. I don’t know how that was accepted by society. This gets me thinking about terrorism: Violent or harmful acts committed against civilians to achieve political or ideological goals… It’s hard for me to make a clear distinction between America’s role in the Vietnam War, and terrorism.
When the trip is over and I arrive home, nothing has changed. The same drama series are playing on TV, the shops open and close at the same time, and my old history books retain their original facts, I feel strange in my own country, uneasy as if I don’t quite fit in here – its pretty much the same way I felt when I first arrived in Asia. I’ve never heard of reverse-culture shock.
One evening, shortly after my return, I watch a news report of the current situation in Afghanistan. American soldiers have opened fire on a car that failed to stop at their checkpoint; they thought the car might have contained explosives; they feared a terrorist attack. There is a little girl in the car who survives. Her parents and brother do not. The story is told in a matter-of-fact manner and is over in less than a minute. There were no explosives in the car.
My mind assembles the facts, its like a puzzle, all the pieces are together except the last one – the one that gives meaning to the whole puzzle, the one that finishes it; the last piece is supposed to be the easiest…why can’t I make it fit? Who is the terrorist? I cannot find the answer, I cannot make the distinction. I suppose the answer depends. Shouldn’t there be a right and wrong answer to a question like that?
Nothing is right or wrong. Nothing is black or white. Nothing is clean and clear anymore.