Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
For the last three days the class has been staying in a rural Tay ethnic village in northern Vietnam, staying with a host family. The students stay on. The second floor, in an attic of sorts. It has been about 80 degrees during the day, but cools down nicely to about 60 for sleeping every night. The house is really fascinating. It is decently large, and actually built around a large boulder Falling Water style. I’ve been particularly enjoying embracing some of the differences from Western style living. The patio, bathrooms, and kitchen are all barefoot environments. In the kitchen, there is a two burner propane stove and a perpetually burning hearth with cooking pots of rice, a smoky aroma lingering in the air. The bathrooms themselves are also interesting. Apparently in Asia the “wet bathroom” is commonplace. Basically there is no separate shower area. There is a shower nozzle hanging over the toilet. The entire bathroom gets wet. It’s very simplistic, and very interesting. I’m not sure that I prefer it to the western style, but it is certainly entertaining. These bathrooms, as well as the bathrooms in Hanoi utilize a water “bum gun” for the post going to the bathroom cleaning. I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.
These physical differences are interesting, but I’ve appreciated more studying the lifestyle differences of our host family. They have lived in this village for a long time. The accepted culture here is to stay and build on the family wealth / land, not to leave and make your own way in the world, a more western notion. These people work incredibly hard too. Over the past three days, all of the students have had the opportunity to labor in the family field. On day one, we harvested tapioca root and cleared brush. In the afternoon we used hand powered rotating machines to grind the tapioca into shreds and then spread it on the roof to dry. Some of this is used as fodder for the family’s animals, and some is sold at market. It took 18 of us nearly 3/4 of a day to get this done. It’s absolutely staggering for me to think of just the husband and the wife doing this. In the evenings, the wife weaves at a loom her husband made for her for about an hour. To try and grasp the economic benefit of her efforts, we asked her how long it took to make something and how much she could sell it for. A scarf takes over 10 hours, and she can sell it for ~$9 US or about $200k Vietnamese. That is absolutely astounding. Yesterday, it took us the entire day to rotate the soil in the field by hand. I’ve got a few blisters on my hands to speak for my efforts. Today we are going to plant corn.
Out of all of this I have found a deep respect for these people. I am unaccustomed to such hard work, day in and day out. Speaking for myself and those in my social network, we are accustomed to a 40 hour workweek with two days off. We whine on Sunday night when we have to return to school or work, dreading the next 5 days in class or at a desk. Our host family does not take breaks. While we stopped to drink water and rest in the shade, our host mother toiled away. While we take plenty of time to eat dinner and enjoy each other’s company, she is working at the loom. They are up before us to prepare our breakfast and prepare for the day. Out of this experience the greatest lesson is realized. I find myself more thankful for my life of relative comfort. When contrasting my life with the life of these people, I cannot help but be grateful for the opportunities automatically given to me. I really hope that I will never lose this sense of gratitude.