Hawaii students embrace flexibility and change in Vietnam

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Joli Welch, a 11th grade HPA student, and 10th grade HPA student Sidney Vermeleun are assisted by a local Vietnamese teacher and translator as they teach young Vietnamese students. (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
Sidney Vermeulen observes a train creation extension activity for “The Little Engine That Could.” (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
A student works on a follow up art activity for “Rainbow Fish.” (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
A couple enjoys a sunset wedding on Thu Bon River. (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)
A centuries-old merchant trade building turned restaurant reflects the sunlight in Vietnam. (COURTESY PHOTO BY MATT PIERCY)

Some say the shape of Vietnam looks like a dragon. This timeless symbol of auspicious power is as befitting today as it ever was. Though conquered more than 5,000 years ago by the Chinese, the nation historically stood up to foreign influence and continues to today. Ranking as the 13th most populous country of the world, it is officially called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Note, socialism as defined by Marxist theory is, “transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism.”

The dragon’s fiery breath is felt as the sun rises before 5 a.m. during the summer months and within the hour, temperatures push into the paltry 80s. One might perceive the watchful eye of the dragon as their passport is obligingly by law collected at the door, to be registered with the police. Our Hawaiian group of six came to participate in a literacy service project in the central coastal town of Hoi An. Translated, “the safe meeting place,” Hoi An’s deep history of trade is evident in the 500-year-old, dark-stained timber trade houses that line the Thu Bon River. Visited by the likes of Marco Polo, the city is steeped in a history of cultural influence. And though a return traveler may quickly note the rapidity of development, Hoi An not only embraces change but embodies it. To suit the trade, the city seemingly always has changed.

Our first day required flexibility of our teen teachers as they were met by a change in plans. Prepared to teach approximately 100 students in the local governmental primary school, this plan no longer was permissible. GLocal Literacy Foundation partnered with the Pacific Asian Affairs Council has successfully shared in a literacy project the past three years. This year a similar itinerary was set but then, tensions rose between Vietnam and neighboring China. Vietnam has made diplomatic efforts to settle the tension, but China has kept increasing tensions in the area where an oil drilling rig and its guarding ships have been deployed illegally for over a month. Recently, Tran Duy Hai, deputy chairman of the National Border Committee under the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented, “Vietnam will continue with its peaceful efforts to resolve the differences based on international law and the United Nations Charter, but the country will prepare subsequent steps to protect its legitimate rights and interests.” What did this mean to us? Cautionary reaction and a “pulling of permission” for fear that our foreign students may implant ideas that may be rooted in the very essence of what we represent - individualism and democracy at our core. Oddly enough, one student’s lesson plan centered on a book called, “The Big Orange Splat.” The synopsis of the book reads, “When Mr. Plumbeans’ house is splashed with bright orange paint, he decides a multi-colored house would be a nice change. This favorite story of creativity and individuality is back by popular demand.”

Alternative plans were arranged and lessons adapted to fit kindergarten age children. Students gladly “ran” with the changes, taking advantage of both empathatically understanding a perspective other than our own, while also also practicing the invaluable art of flexibility. An attitude that surely reflects those ideas prevalent throughout the ages in what was called the Maritime Silk Road. Following the notorious Silk Road of the land, the Marine Silk Road extended from China and Japan in the north and along the entire coast of Vietnam. After voyages lasting five months, ships would arrive in Vietnam. Stories abound of how the winds no longer blew behind the sails and men would settle down, often marrying Vietnamese women - women who for generations have played pivotal roles in business. Trade would continue on to Thailand and Myanmar, ultimately reaching as far west as India and Sri Lanka before being transported to Rome via the Mediterranean.

I’d like to think the silk threaded people and cultures together. Change inherent in the trade. And so our students will touch and be touched by whomever they teach. Yet another example of trade!