I didn’t know it was possible to sink into mud up to your knee caps and still pull yourself out again. But mud at the bottom of a fish pond is fully mixed with water, and apparently, walking around in it can stir up the critters who live there (shrimp, in this case), and give you a chance of catching them with a wicker basket.
I did not imagine that learning traditional fishing techniques of the Mekong Delta would be part of our Fulbright orientation. Especially not when it followed two days of meetings with US Consulate officials, including the US General Consul, Susan Burns, and many of her section chiefs. We were briefed on economics, politics, safety and health. We met with representatives from the Public Affairs section, who are very interested in our work here, building ties with Vietnamese universities. It was truly exciting to learn about Vietnam from the perspective of Americans who have been working here.
I felt a bit giddy stumbling onto the little chocolate shop near the Ben Thanh Market in central Ho Chi Minh City. The tiny shop is lined with dozens of brightly packaged bars of varying choco-intensity and flavor, all sourced from a single farm in the Mekong Delta. “This one is my favorite,” says the young woman assisting me finding my own favorites. Using a pair of small tongs, she grabs a small chocolate chunk from the box of chocolate flavors displayed in front of me and drops it into my palm. I pop it into my mouth and feel the cinnamon sting my tongue. “It’s right here,” she points to the bar of cinnamon chocolate on the shelf behind me and I take one and add it to the other bars I was buying.
“For how long are you in Vietnam?” she asks in her perfect English. I tell her I’m going to live and work in Dalat for the next five months. Her eyes light up, “Oh – I love Dalat! It’s so beautiful! So many flowers – and the pine forests!” She sighs remembering her time there, and I suddenly feel excited and a little less tired than I’ve been.
It’s really easy to get caught up in visions of international travel that are more fit for cinema than real life. You know what I mean. You might see yourself on the bow of a ship, the wind whipping through your hair as waves splash the hull – and there’s a crescendo of music before cutting away to a view from above, of that same ship crossing emerald blue waters that border some dramatic cliffs or mountains of ice. Sure. Sometimes it’s like that.
But what we tend to forget is that in order to have those magic moments, we basically have to traverse a modern-day version of Dante’s hell. The hours of sitting in a tiny space where your knees get crushed when the person in front of you decides to recline their chair. The attempts to feel human by brushing your teeth in that tiny airplane bathroom, then wondering why there’s so much water on the floor. The bruised shins, twisted shoulders and smashed finger tips you get from trying to haul all your baggage around – and when you’re going to live and actually work in another country for several months, there can be a lot of baggage! Seriously, I wouldn’t pack a blazer for an international trip if I didn’t have to.
You know that feeling of just wanting to savor a bit of news for yourself? When you’d rather not shout things out to the world because the world feels noisy enough as it is? While I have posted about my travels over the past several months, I’ve generally not felt like sharing much more on social media. It’s actually a relief when you reach a point where feel you don’t have to share. It’s like you’ve quietly returned to pre-21st century life, when Christmas newsletters were a thing because there was no Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever else there is today.
So, while I may have shared hints of what’s to come, I haven’t broadcasted widely about the news of my Fulbright to Vietnam this coming spring semester. I still meet people who are surprised to hear I am going. Nor have I told many people about the grant I got with a couple of my UNC colleagues from the National Science Foundation (unrelated to the Fulbright work). Both are really very big deals, but these things always feel buried by so many other things going on in the world, and I wasn’t feeling the energy I needed to share the news.