When we set out on our first trip to Vietnam in 2006, we had specific intentions. For the first time in 40 years, Bruce was returning to the country where he served two tours of duty with the U.S. Army during the bloody conflict known by the Vietnamese as the “American War.” His armchair scholarship of the military history of that war and his own memories of this pivotal, life-altering experience had sparked a desire to return. Because we had been accepted as participants with a group called Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans, an organization dedicated to supporting veterans and their families in their quest to find closure and reconciliation, I agreed to accompany him. I knew that whatever ghosts Bruce might encounter in Vietnam and his emotional reaction to being once again in the country where he, like countless other young men, had lost his innocence, would be understood. The daily group process and the presence of a qualified therapist on the trip meant that I would not be alone should Bruce dissolve into emotional tatters.
The two-week trip was a total immersion into the mysteries of this southeast Asian country, its culture, food, religions and of course the history of its thousands of years of conflict including the war in which Bruce and some of our fellow travellers fought; the war that also touched the survivors and family members who travelled with us.
As we journeyed from south to north through the cacophonous noise and frantic traffic of urban areas and along miles of peaceful ocean shorelines, the Vietnamese people greeted us warmly. They shared our sorrow and tears during our solemn rituals at the sites of helicopter crashes and fierce battles. They welcomed us into their humble homes. They laughed, sang and played with us in villages and in institutions where we delivered humanitarian goods.
Somehow, as the miles disappeared in the dust behind our bus, our journey through the geography of Vietnam became a journey through the terrain of our hearts; the focus for Bruce and I shifted from the healing of our own wounds to witnessing and embracing the suffering of those on both sides of the war. We came face to face with the effects of Agent Orange, the dioxin the American military sprayed widely as a defoliant, still lingering in the earth and the gene pool, still causing an inordinate number of birth defects and illness. We saw the growing gap between the rich and the poor, in this developing country’s struggle to find its place in the modern world. We saw the ravages of leprosy, a curable disease, still rampant in remote villages. We saw children who did not go to school, whose teeth were decayed before their tenth birthdays.
We were well prepared for the socio-economic conditions of Vietnam, in part because we’d read extensively about the conditions and culture of the country. If we hadn’t, our experiences would have been more shocking to privileged westerners like ourselves. As we travelled, there was a gradual creeping awareness that our world views were being altered at the ripe old age of 60-something. There was no epiphany or singular moment of knowing. One day, as we strolled back toward our air-conditioned bus along the dusty track through a tiny village of thatched huts, Bruce turned to me and said, “You know, Elaine, we have too much stuff.” He meant that our two cars, two televisions, two houses and a sailboat were too much - more than our fair share of life’s bounty. When I saw 300 orphans sharing the love of 20 or so Buddhist nuns, and elders thankful for the gift of a single tin of condensed milk, I became uneasy with my pampered life. And most significantly, when we experienced the forgiveness and acceptance of former “enemies,” we realized we had much to learn from them about being in the world.
By the end of this short intense trip, we knew we would return to Vietnam, a country of contradictions and contrasts, stoic endurance, acceptance, resilience and reverence for family and ancestors. We would come to serve, to apply our skills and distribute the generous donations from friends and relatives. We would come to learn to be citizens of the world, beyond the boundaries of our cosseted lives in North America.
In March 2010, we returned to our peaceful Salt Spring Island home, back from our fifth trip to Vietnam. We call these trips our Journeys of the Heart. During our three-month stays, with the support of our “home team” of friends and family, we have been able to put tens of thousands of dollars to work improving the lives of the poor, the aged and the disabled. We have applied our experience as management consultants to assist the directors of a self-help, social enterprise called Reaching Out Vietnam to expand its opportunities for disabled artisans in Hoi An, so they can lead independent and productive lives. We have contributed funds to ease the suffering of people with leprosy and the victims of Agent Orange. We have delivered books to remote village schools, where the children have little or no reading material.
Of all these gifts, however, the greatest have been the ones we ourselves have received. Our lives have been enriched beyond our wildest imaginings and, as we age, our world is getting bigger, not smaller. We have had the opportunity to keep working and learning. Through Vietnamese culture, we have acquired a new respect for family and tradition. We bring home food for our souls, as we ruminate on the acceptance, forgiveness, resilience, love and joy in the lives of many Vietnamese who have few of our comforts. We are very lucky.
JUNE 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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