Anatomy of an Obsession:

by Ben Bangs, Dec 17, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

Why and How One American Came to Love SE Asia ********** Maybe it happened one grey April morning in an anthropology class. Then again, maybe its roots dig back much deeper into the past. Who can really know with an obsession? At any rate, this is how it got started. ********** I've got a visual disability. I can see, mind you -- just not as well as most 'normal' folks. When I went off to college in 1988, I had to have "readers" and "talking books" to get through my courses. Interpersonal relations are always complicated, but helping the professionals whose job it is to help YOU can be even thornier. So it was that in the summer of 1990, I found myself accused of...well, let's just say the helpers didn't want to help anymore. For the next several months I was adrift in every sense. Had I ever really been taken seriously as a human being by more of those around me than my own family and circle of friends? Might the old saying: "The eyes are the windows on the soul" have something to do with that? As a child, my first career aspiration had been "Pilot", and since then, my fascination with all things foreign and exotic had been there in one way or another, even if New England and Upstate New York provided few outlets in those days. But all that was about to change! ********** It came in the form of a study abroad catalog, an innocent looking enough offering from my college study abroad office, presented in an anthropology class so as to reach a likely target audience. We could, we were told, visit any of some thirty countries -- and have it count toward our degree! Paging through the booklet, I had no idea I'd find Viet Nam on the menu. As soon as my eyes fell on the page, I knew where I was headed. Of course when the college that had gotten weary of assisting the disabled sent out this ad, they didn't mean me. I was heavily discouraged -- in a subtle and not quite effective way -- and ended up not only not being taken, but getting read the riot act by the company who had put the program together. Who did I think I was anyway? It didn't matter; the damage had been done. By this time (Summer, 1991) I'd taken my first (intensive) Vietnamese course, and acquired a year's worth of credit anyway. More important, I'd begun to reclaim my self confidence and sense of connectedness -- more valuable assets surely than a three month study program! My first Vietnamese friends were a family we'd sponsored that winter. Surely fate had brought them and the foreign study brochures into my life for a reason. It would be some time however, before I had much of an inkling what that purpose might be. ********** My first trip to Viet Nam a year later was what did it. I've recounted that experience elsewhere, so I'll just say here that it convinced me my future (personal and professional) was meant to be bound up with that of this region. It's awfully nice to discover a people who think too much eye contact is rude after being born without the ability to focus in a place where it's all that matters! There were other things too: a sense of hospitality not to be trumped anywhere, a cultural priority on sparing people's feelings, warm and open smiles -- and grattitude, real, unrestrained grattitude -- for all we did for our refugee friends, extended by them and their whole families in Viet Nam on their behalf. When people love you, it's hard not to love back. ********** By contrast, the mid nineties were a difficult though adventurous time of struggling to come to terms with this yawning gulf between the new value and acceptance I'd found abroad and the prejudice I still faced 'at home'. I would have several exciting flights "across the pond" as they used to say, but none achieved my goal of one unbroken year working and living in Asia. Each and every time fear or nonacceptance of my 'condition' by others got in the way; not surprising, I suppose where any difference is seen as deficiency. From Seoul to Bangkok to Hong Kong I encountered the same clear division between ordinary Asians (who without exception took me to their hearts as someone who made an effort in their language (I can now order food in Chinese and Thai, as well as speak and write fluent Vietnamese) and respected their culture, and the more official kind of Asian and their Western counterparts -- the ones worried that employing me would mean a loss of revenue out of simple ignorance. I was in Hong Kong just after the handover, and Ha Noi on the eve of the Millenium. I've dated and made numerous friends among Asians (mostly Vietnamese) on two continents. I've had plenty of people both there and here admire my grasp of their languages and cultures. But when it comes to earning my living there...Well, you can't win 'em all, as they say. ********** Then last summer I ran out of traveling money, and had to face the unthinkable: coming home to live for an indefinite period. In my hour of deepest despair though, a faint but real light broke the darkness: I was offered first one, then another contract to interpret between Vietnamese and English for courts, hospitals and a bunch of other places. What had eluded me for half a decade and cost thousands of dollars in travel expenses was now opening up! What was the difference? Why were some of the very people who'd spit me out years before now suddenly so interested? The answer, it turns out, has a lot to do with what they want. All these places want "them" to become (or at least behave) more like "us", toward which end, such places are willing to pay "us" to speak "their" language so long as we can convey what "we" want "them" to do, think, feel or whatever. There being so few competent bilinguals in English and such 'exotic' languages as Vietnamese, the places that need interpreters and translators are willing to overlook what would be a liability in other contexts. One outfit works with me only by phone, so they've never had to see my wiggly eyes. Incredibly then, after flying halfway around the world and learning an 'obscure' language, I've found my way full circle to acceptance 'back home' through that talent. Then again, we Americans have made SOME progress in our attitudes to the handicapped. The year I started down this road, President Bush (#1!) signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. More and more of us are participating in society, refusing to hide our faces or be overlooked. Still, we have a long way to go. And most of Asia has even more of a challenge yet! Odd sometimes, the passions we choose? ********** So, what is it finally about the Far East that's so intriguing -- so mesmorizing, even? Why would someone you wouldn't think would find their niche here make this region a lifelong aspect of themselves? It really comes down to one word: people. Look beyond the basic facts about these cultures (all the concern for honor and face, fear of difference, age, sex and power stratification, backwardness and poverty in the case of Indochina) and what you're left with is a consistent pattern of warmth (that maybe doesn't come through if you're speaking only English with them), honesty (unless you ask them something to which the answer would be 'no', a taboo word in all these languages), appreciation for the small gifts of family, friends and good health, and perhaps most important, a real sense of appreciation for the skills those who will become friends show, despite what limitations they may also bring to the table. For these are realistic people. The Vietnamese even say: If you get this, you'll lose that", a clear indication of the down to earth attitude centuries of privation have endowed them with. Perhaps also, there are regional and national differences. In a country which has suffered so much from war, misgovernment and exploitation, there is little room for a false sense of superiority, or lack of exposure to those less fortunate, for in time of war, everyone is forced to admit this fate might befall you or your loved ones at any time. In some countries people think the disabled got that way because they deserved it. But while violence and cruelty have certainly taken their toll in this region, ultimately Southeast Asians are left with love and acceptance as their most basic assets, for it's hard to be picky when half the men in your village get killed, or come home crippled. It's as if these people long ago read that first letter of Paul to the Corinthians -- the one about love being the most important and enduring asset. Not all of them are like this to be sure, but enough are to make this a region worth going ape over. ********** So, next time you're looking at an area and its peoples from the outside, ask yourself how much you can REALLY know from that vantage point. It takes more than a few stock images to understand a country. In the end, if you find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about, step inside and learn for yourself. May your journey be rewarding and enlightening!