Peacemaking Adventures Abroad

There are two very different sorts of Americans who venture abroad, as more than tourists or journalists, to so-called trouble spots. There are military people and “gold-mining” adventurers. And there are diplomats and teachers. In Vietnam, for instance, the US sent waves upon waves of troops and contractors to wage war for more than a decade in a military adventure that ended badly. A comparative trickle of Americans has gone to Vietnam since the war, often on their own initiative, to try to help undo the damage.  

Among the first peacemaking missions were small groups of US war veterans who returned to build medical clinics and land mine-clearing operations. One of the most recent civilian missions is operated by Teachers for Vietnam. A New York-based nonprofit group, it was founded in 2006 by veterans and friends with a peaceable agenda “to help meet the growing need for Vietnamese students to attain proficiency in the English language,” its web site notes. With a handful of volunteer teachers, most just out of college, the group is venturing into a region where US military operations bogged down in brutal battles and the Peace Corps is conspicuously absent.

Nearly 35 years after the war, the Vietnamese are more interested in global trade than in refighting old battles. Americans, by all accounts, are welcomed by the communist government and its roughly 80 million citizens—as long as visitors bring useful peacetime skills. In this war-churned nation, whose hardy, rice-paddy culture rebuffed Chinese, Japanese and French invasions, not to mention fought off the US military, a surprisingly popular new skill is speaking American lingo and mastering the British mother tongue.

“Currently, there are few native speakers of English teaching in Vietnamese universities,” the Teachers for Vietnam web site states. “Students aspiring to careers in business, trade, communications, government service, tourism, and other fields require a command of oral and written English. … By sending American teachers to Vietnam, Teachers for Vietnam is also increasing understanding and strengthening ties between the United States and Vietnam.”

Not only Americans have taken up this cultural challenge. Australians, Canadians and Brits, many recruited by the British Council, a citizen diplomacy agency, also provide English classes in Vietnamese schools.

I admire people who travel into potentially dangerous places armed only with a smile. Given the horrendous killing that took place during the war, you’d think Americans would be targets of revenge in this part of the world, which an Air Force general once threatened to bomb “back into the Stone Age.” But what a damper on war fever is dropped when we offer the best in our society—such as young people willing to live in a very different land and share languages and culture.

In contrast to bitter memories of many American war veterans, consider some recent comments by a young woman from Boston on her tour of teaching in Vietnam.

“I am a very different person than I was six months ago. I'm a lot of the same person, but I am a stronger, more interesting version of myself. I feel completely comfortable and at home in a foreign country, and I'm incredibly happy these days. Moving to Vietnam was the best (so far) decision I have ever made, and if you are wondering if you should go abroad for a year, or any period of time, and do something similar (and a lot of you have mentioned this to me) my advice is yes, absolutely, go,” Samantha Thornley, a 2008 graduate of Northeastern University, wrote on her blog in February.

“I have been very busy spending extra time with my students outside of class,” she wrote in another entry. “This semester I am teaching a lot more first year students, where as last semester I was with mostly last year students. They have even more of an innocence to them, and are so eager to learn. My students have the ability to make me feel really great about myself, with daily comments like ‘You look so lovely today!’ but they also make me feel so insignificant sometimes. Not on purpose, but I just admire them so much. A question I often get asked is ‘What do you think of Vietnamese students compared to American students?’ My answer is usually that Vietnamese students are much more dedicated, are such hard workers, and I admire them very much. That is the simplest way to put it so they understand me, but it is so true. They had to work really, really hard to get into University, and they work so hard while they are there. Not to mention that they are having a full conversation with an American - which just embarrasses me. I've LIVED in their country to six months and I can't hold a conversation (although, I have been having great exchanges in Vietnamese, which always makes me proud...) but I still feel inadequate that I don't speak another language.”

By April, as the school term began to wind down, she was homesick for her friends and family back home. Yet despite the tropic heat, hordes of mosquitoes and being stuffed with strange food when visiting students’ homes in the Mekong Delta (sometimes an arduous trip to places far from the University of Can Tho), Samantha wrote that she enjoyed living in Vietnam.

“All of the hardest days in the world can't compare to how amazing Vietnam is,” she noted. “Last weekend I had a small vacation, and Kristen and I went to Da Lat. Da Lat is in Central Vietnam (about 11 hours north of Can Tho) and we went to represent Teachers for Vietnam and meet with the University there and see if we could open a post for next year. I had an amazing time. I wasn't expecting anything, I didn't know anything about the city or the school, and as usual, I was blown away. The city is beautiful. It's in the mountains, there is cool, fresh air, and everyone we met was incredibly nice, spoke English really, really well and spoke highly of the University. The campus was beautiful, the people we met with were incredibly nice guys and I had no trouble at all picturing myself there.”

During the war, a division of troops with gunships and artillery could not have traveled the routes she writes about without battling through hostile places and taking severe casualties, while destroying villages and towns along the way. Now Americans are being invited back, as guest teachers in Vietnamese classrooms.

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