Peace Corps Writers
Gabon, Vietnam and Growing Up (page 2)

Gabon, Vietnam and Growing Up

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     Before leaving for Vietnam, my husband and I learned all we could about the country. This was not difficult as resources are plentiful. The shared history of the U.S. and Vietnam has gone a long way toward putting the country on the map for Americans, though the focus for most is the War. The nine-year-old daughter of a friend e-mailed me while we were in Vietnam, asking whether the country was as safe as her hometown in North Carolina. She wanted to know whether we heard gunshots every day. I told her that the War ended in 1975 and that the U.S. State Department considers Vietnam to be one of the safest countries in the world. The crime rate is very low and there is almost no violent crime. The American War is part of the past for the Vietnamese — Americans are having a harder time coming to terms with what happened. The relationship, though based on conflict, forms a foundation on which to learn more. More books by Vietnamese, Vietnamese exiles in the U.S., and American researchers of Vietnam are coming out every year. We continue to learn about the country from several angles.
     I
n Vietnam, I got the feeling that the country is healthy. Since Renovation policies were adopted in 1986 and President Clinton lifted the trade embargo in the mid-90s, the economy has improved a great deal. People are hopeful. They send their children to good schools with confidence that education will get them good jobs.
     The Vietnamese currency is the dong, and 100,000 dong is worth about $6U.S. I was shocked at first to be asked for 12,000 for a lunch and 30,000 for a motorcycle ride because it sounded like so much. I got used to it quickly, but then my relative wealth made me feel guilty — about the measly $80/month that workers at some international companies are paid; about my $1 haircut;about my $2.50/hour massage; about the piddling amount that the babysitter asked for. We gave more, and our Malaysian neighbors advised us not to do it again lest we “spoil the market.”

Settling In

I DIDN’T ADAPT EASILY to life in Gabon. I flouted some social mores. I am blond, pale and thin, though strong, and healthy Gabonese women are vigorous, rounded and capable. Gabonese women wear several light, colorful pagnes — cloths wrapped around the body — at home and in the village. Although I didn’t dress in an overtly sexual way, I wore Gabon-made sundresses which showed lots of flesh, like the Gabonese. The problem is that I am not as amply built as the women there. I looked different in my clothes and attracted attention.
     Another error I made — let’s say I danced with more men than was good for my reputation. This would not have been so bad, except that I dated one of my students. He was as old as I, a redoublant (a student who has repeated many classes). My students could not respect me after this, so I had trouble in the classroom maintaining discipline my first year. This was a painful lesson, and I’m grateful to have learned it early in my career.
     Looking back on my heedlessness, I see that I really should have adopted myself out to a local family there — some kind people to be my friends, show me the ropes and keep me out of trouble. I would certainly have contributed more toward my work and social objectives there.

IN VIETNAM, I HAD NO such problems. As a mid-life mother and wife, I was not in the dating market. My role was cut out for me. Having children was a great social ice-breaker in Vietnam — as it is everywhere. Mine were 4, 5 and 15, and they provided a topic of conversation, a reason to smile, a basis for understanding among the people we met.
     Caring for children also requires being grounded. In Vietnam we basically followed the same family schedule we do in Maryville, Tennessee, and this was good for all of us. I am a creature of habit. Routine keeps me focused and contented.
     Another difference between the two countries which facilitated my adaptation was that people in Vietnam are very modest. Even in Ho Chi Minh City, you rarely see midriff shirts or shorts, never mind plunging necklines or mini-skirts. Two young female volunteers visiting my university from an Australian education program hadn’t noticed this. I was leading a poetry lesson, and Anna (the ample-bosomed one) and I were showcasing our accents. As we recited from Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” 42 pairs of eyes were fixed on her unrelenting cleavage, incapable of paying the slightest attention to the intonation pattern. Later I was asked by the Dean to speak to the girls on their sartorial choices. “It was many and many a year ago in a nipple, oops, kingdom . . ..”

Exploring the country

IN GABON, MOST OF US PCVs were young and free-spirited. All of us had come for the adventure, with a measure of altruism added. Peace Corps accorded us plenty of independence. My location in-country was a rough and tumble town called Lastoursville on the “route economique.” There was one muddy Main Street on which Muslim commercants sold dry goods, one impoverished produce market, and one public water pump. You had to go to the post office and wait for hours to make or take a phone call. Many truckers passed through and you could always see brawls on Saturday nights.

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