I was born and raised in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: San Francisco. When I heard of the similarities San Francisco and Seattle share, I decided to come to Seattle to study Public Affairs, specializing in Nonprofit Leadership. At Seattle University, I work as a Writing Center Consultant helping students develop their writing skills. I also work with Student Activities where I plan and implement events for students to attend both on and off campus. For Student Activities my co-workers and I invite speakers to Seattle University and sell subsidized tickets to students so they can attend local museums, plays, and events. In my free time I like to go to coffee shops with friends, watch movies, make good food, listen to Fleetwood Mac and other classic rock bands, and read as many books as my eyes(and free time) will allow. When I graduate I hope to work in the nonprofit world in the Bay Area and promote access to health services and education, focusing either on international or domestic issues. I will be entering my senior year this fall and am excited to work hard, study abroad for IDIP, and enjoy my last year as an undergraduate student.
In the three weeks I have been here, I have learned two things about Vietnamese culture that I have grown to love; Vietnamese people really know how to celebrate and they understand the importance of getting to know someone. While IDIP students are supposed to participate in a ten week internship, my internship didn’t start until February because Tet (Lunar New Year) celebrations last so long that I would have had little to do the second half of January. Luckily, this enabled me to travel for two weeks in Vietnam with my father. From Hanoi in the north, Hue in the middle, and Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by some, in the south, I met person after person who was excited to know my name, where I am from, why I’m here, and so much more about me. The first questions are always, “What is your name? How old are you? Do you have any brothers and sisters?” and sometimes, “Are you married?” What a change from a culture where people are too afraid to be intrusive!
As for the ability to celebrate, I can only say that I am in awe that Tet celebrations are still continuing even though Tet was over a week ago. I was in Hanoi right before Tet as everyone was busy preparing for the holiday. Preparations for the holiday are extensive and many Vietnamese save up all year so they can afford to holiday season. The narrow streets of Hanoi were full of motorbikes delivering supplies to store sand people taking supplies back home. People prepared for Tet with new clothes, haircuts, food, and kumkwat trees representing new life for the new year. In Ho Chi Minh City right after Tet, many places were closed during the week as most people who live in Ho Chi Minh City are from other parts of the country. Even now, weeks after Tet, signs wishing everyone Chúc Mừng Năm Mới(Happy New Year) are still colorfully displayed around town. Just the other night I drove past a park in town with bright lights and people singing Chúc Mừng Năm Mới.
But after my travels in this beautiful country, I have finally settled in Quang Tri Province located in the center of the country near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). My current location has much to do with the DMZ and the still present memory of the Vietnam War. My internship is with PeaceTrees Vietnam, a Seattle NGO founded in 1995. The mission of PeaceTrees is, borrowing from their website, “to renew relationships with the people of Vietnam and promote a safe, healthy future for its families.” Quang Tri Province was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, and many of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) were left in the area. This has posed a great threat to the people of Quang Tri. Long after the American soldiers left and the war ended, the UXO continued to endanger the lives of many people in the area. I was told before coming that much of the UXO look unthreatening, and a child might mistake It for a toy. When I visited the Danaan Parry Landmine Education Center, I saw that what I had been told is true; some of the deadly UXO resemble a small ball or toy any child could possibly want to touch. Thankfully PeaceTrees, the in-country staff, and community partners have worked hard over the years to teach people how to protect themselves. Not only has the organization worked to clear more than 535 acres of land and remove more than 63,000 UXO items, they provide survivor assistance to more than 700 UXO survivors and their families in the form of scholarships and medical assistance. PeaceTrees has built kindergarten sand libraries in the communities, organized numerous tree planting projects, created a Friendship Village, and more recently teamed up with the Vietnamese Women’s Union to provide micro-credit lending to local families.
PeaceTrees’ collaboration with the Women’s Union has enabled me to carry out my research project. Over the next six weeks, I will travel to many communities in Quang Tri to interview women who are members of the Women’s Union. My project is to research the structure of the Women’s Union and how they are working to empower the women in Quang Tri. At Seattle University I have learned about micro-credit programs and the goals of such financial assistance. The majority of borrowers in the micro-credit world are women, and lenders hope to empower women by teaching them to increase their savings and become equal partners in family financial planning. My research here is particularly interesting because PeaceTrees and the Women’s Union are providing loans to Vietnamese families as well as ethnic minority families. In Vietnam the government officially recognizes fifty-four ethnic groups, and all of these groups have their own language, tradition and culture. I am most excited to learn how the Women’s Union has shaped their programs and services to address the specific needs of the Vietnamese and ethnic minority groups in Quang Tri. As I prepare to start my interviews, I have so many questions swimming in my mind. Are the majority of women in each community involved in Women’s Union activities, or only some? How often to these women give feedback to the union administrators? Although the Women’s Union holds a conference every five years to determine what programs need to be amended, how dramatically are these programs actually changed? Are the women in the communities a part of this amendment process? Are these programs sustainable models?
Ina recent meeting with Madame Thuy from the Quang Tri Women’s Union, I was reminded of the difficult task I have ahead. For each home visit I will be accompanied by my translator and a guide from the Women’s Union. When I visit the home of a Vietnamese woman, my questions and the answers will be communicated by my translator. An inevitable consequence is that some of the information will be lost in translation. Visiting the homes of ethnic minority women will prove all the more daunting as my English questions will be translated into Vietnamese to the Women’s Union guide, who will then ask the question in the language of the particular minority group. I will of course receive an answer to my question, but I fear for the details that will unfortunately be lost along the way. But Madame Thuy is right; this is unavoidable and I will have to make do. I am just thankful for this experience and that I am so supported by both PeaceTrees and the Women’s Union. I have been welcomed to Vietnam in so many ways by so many people. The women frequently tell me that they are excited I am here and are more than happy to help me in any way that they can. I have been in this region for such a short amount of time and have already made many friends. The Vietnamese continue to pleasantly surprise me with their kindness and generosity.
Since I first arrived one month ago, I have second guessed and reevaluated so much of what I thought about the poverty and gender issues in Vietnam. In the first few weeks of interviewing for my internship, when a woman told me she is doing better than before and has increased her income, I mentally checked her off as a success story for the Women’s Union and for my research on community capacity building and female empowerment issues. But then I started to think about the standards of living in the United States. An American female success story looks quite different than what I see here. I wondered if I should even be comparing the two. Then I wondered if my wondering even mattered, and I began to feel a bit less inspired and hopeful. Although I am still figuring this all out and I am still processing all that I continue to see and learn, I realize my wondering is leading me to ask more questions for myself and during interviews. For my own learning purposes, wondering is exactly what I need to be doing. When it comes to the women in the communities I visit, what matters is that they are doing better now than they were before, and they are continuing to improve their lives. The most significant lesson I have learned so far is that if you give a woman a chance, she will do amazing things and surpass many expectations. The women I have met are strong, kind, and self-sacrificing. My translator explained to me that she has seen so many Vietnamese women struggle to make sure their children have better lives than they had, and that often results in women compromising their own needs. I interviewed a woman who has been able to put all three of her children through college because the loan she received has helped her expand her business. For women in the poorer mountainous areas of Vietnam, this is extremely rare. The woman proudly told me that she is doing so well for her children that she has been able to turn her attention to herself and buy new clothes, like a nice dress if she goes to a party. The loans these women receive enable them to better whatever circumstance they were in prior to taking out the loan. For some women this means being able to feed their families substantial meals every day instead of every once in a while, and for others this means being able to expand their businesses and afford another motorbike.
Another lesson I will come away with is that you cannot define poverty. An outsider cannot come into these communities and say, Now that you can afford more things, you are at a good place in life. We can set standards, we can set expectations, but non-government organizations, government organizations, community partners, and all those involved in development should never stop trying to do better. More importantly, they should never stop trying to give women like the ones I’ve met the chance to do better. Muhammad Yunus, the pioneer of microfinance, said, “We have created a society that does not allow opportunities for those people to take care of themselves because we have denied them those opportunities.”Microfinance takes people that financial institutions would normally cast as “bad for business” and give them the chance to borrow money and improve their circumstances. But no solution is ever uncomplicated or one-hundred percent sustainable. Micro-lending, in addition to training classes on how to grow better crops, manage finances, and take care of the family and oneself, seems to be working in Quang Tri Province. Giving these women a loan is not the only thing that has helped them better their circumstances. A lack of money is a large part of the poverty problem, but money is not the only solution. People who borrow need a support system, they need training, and they need confidence. The Vietnamese Women’s Union has developed a network for these women to learn and share their experiences. The women have been given the tools to change their lives, but they have also been given the assistance to see that change through. The information I have gathered for my research has not provided irrefutable evidence for this observation, but I would claim that the continued support for these women is why they are able to do so well for themselves and their families.
The best example I can give for why I believe the growing support system in Vietnam is the guiding force in improving the lives of these women is from an interview with the Women’s Union chairwoman for the commune next to the Vietnam-Laos border. This woman, like many union officials, is happy with the progress that has been made, but does not believe the union’s work is close to being done. The chairwoman told me that in the past when a woman suffered from domestic abuse, the union officials would try to explain to the husband why his actions are unacceptable. She said that many of the husbands would argue that it was a private matter and the union should stay out of their business. But in 2007,the Vietnamese government passed a law prohibiting domestic violence. Now, the chairwoman said, the union officials can explain to the husband that domestic violence is not a private matter; it is a social issue and it is illegal. The support of the government and the changing culture has enabled the women’s union to further their cause of empowering women. But the chairwoman said her main goal for the commune in the coming years is a prolonged venture; she wants to continue increasing knowledge and awareness so the women can continue to lead better, fuller lives. As I leave Vietnam and return back home, I will take with me the lesson to always try to do better. We can always improve and we can always move forward. Success is merely taking a step in the right direction. I think that is one of the best ways we can try to measure success.
With all the hope I feel and all the positive feedback I have received, I still worry about the women I have not had the chance to interview in this province. I worry that I have interviewed the success stories, the minority, and the exceptions in Vietnam. If I were to compare these women to the rest of the world, what differences and similarities would I notice? I realize that with all I have learned and all the hope I feel for these women I still only have a limited perception of poverty and the potential solutions. These women are inspiring and are all success stories, but they are not the whole picture. The thirty minutes I spend with each woman cannot even come close to giving me an accurate idea of her daily struggles and accomplishments. I get frustrated with this fact, but I realize the limits of my internship and can only work to acquire as much information for the duration of my time here. I decided to participate in IDIP to get a better picture of development tissues and to see if development is a field I wanted to continue to pursue. I have come into this community many years after the Women’s Union has begun its work to better the lives of Vietnamese women. I know that I want to be a part of this kind of process. I can see that there are many ways to work in a community and to raise the standard of living. The women I have met have not only developed their economic household and risen to a point in which they are not constantly worried about finances, but they are more involved in their community than before. They are excited to participate in volleyball tournaments, celebrate International Women’s Day, and share their experiences with other women in the community. The Women’s Union has achieved many of its goals because its clients are its members. The community members offer their concerns, and the Women’s Union officials work to create programs based on these concerns. The government and other international NGOs help in so many ways, but the real change-makers are the women. Community capacity building has overtaken my research and my thoughts, and I plan to increase my knowledge of the process of community capacity building long after my internship ends.
I am writing this reflection on my last evening in Vietnam. Tomorrow morning I will leave and begin my almost two-day journey back to the United States. Throughout my stay I have gone back and forth in my mind thinking of all the reasons I cannot wait to be back home and all the reasons I want to stay. The next few months hold so much for me – seeing my parents who made this experience possible for me, experiencing my last quarter at Seattle University, spending time with the wonderful people that have come into my life the past few years, and graduating. Even with all that awaits me, I admit I am sad to leave. My research is done and all the women I interviewed are carrying on with their hard work. As I go back to school and write up my reports and papers about my research and experience, I know I will frequently think of all the women I met and pray that their lives are continuing to improve.
A co-worker gave me a gift before leaving. She gave me a bookmark she made with a picture she took of me overlooking a lake where we had lunch on our last day of interviews. On the front of the bookmark she typed the quote, “You are exactly where you need to be.” Her gift gives me comfort as I travel back home. I came to Vietnam for a learning experience and received more knowledge than I could have ever expected. The people I met have made such an impact on me. When I think of all the women I interviewed, all eighty-one of them, I am astonished that fifteen to thirty minutes spent interviewing a woman could leave me with such a strong impression. In another reflection I wrote how my short time with each woman only gave me the smallest and most regrettably incomplete glimpse into her life. By putting all those glimpses together I will leave central Vietnam with a narrative that will go into the papers and reports I will write. No matter how many times I edit and no matter how much I try to show the nuanced perspective of each of the women I interviewed, I know that I will fail. For the purposes of my research I have acquired most of the information I hoped to gain, but the method of writing reports leads one to create more generalizations than specificities.
The need for specifics is why it is so important for development to be community-based. As I leave here that is the lesson I am coming away with. My classes have stressed the value of community-based solutions, but this internship has helped me to see this in practice and to truly appreciate such an approach. The people who are here for the long-term will be able to fully understand the unique, detailed, and nuanced aspects of the community’s difficulties. Those are the people who will find errors in the steps toward ending those problems, and those are the people who will bring the community to a higher standard of living with the proper solutions. I have seen the passion and attention to detail the Women’s Union has for their members. I have heard the women say that in the past ten years they have found a life outside their homes and in their communities that had previously been closed to women. The steps the women are taking towards improving their lives are successful because they are working in their community to create and carry out those improvements; no one is telling them how to do it. The women are making the changes in their own lives to be exactly where they need to be.