Back on New Year’s Eve, I had a nice chat with a brief acquaintance I had made previously in Vietnam. She goes by Kelly, and currently she is a sophomore in Computer Science at Wright State University just south of us in Dayton, Ohio. I had met her over a few days when she was back in her home country between attending college in Toronto and moving to the US. She’s young, friendly; I remember her as having something of a can-do spirit. I occasionally messaged her after our encounter, seeing how she was adjusting to life here.
Beside her during this call was her housemate Duc, a 24-year-old graduate student in Neuroscience who is also Vietnamese. Duc went to school in Toronto as well before moving to Ohio for university studies. He naturally joined into the conversation.
I called these two because I wanted to see what they thought of 2020; more specifically, American 2020. The craziest seat on the roller coaster. As an outsider peering in, what did they see? What were their thoughts?
I realize how belated this column might seem, me finally finishing it up weeks after this conversation took place. Of course, that short span of time now feels like a whole other year of extreme highs and lows: first the storming of our Capitol by an angry mob loyal to, and at least somewhat provoked by, our now-ex-president; and then the surreal inauguration of a new president. (I messaged Kelly about what she thought of the insurrection while it was happening; she replied in shock that the people had “gone crazy with the results” of the election.) However, despite my inability to ask Duc and Kelly in depth about what these events meant to them, I feel that this interview still contains some interesting points of view that remain pertinent for these turbulent times, dear readers.
Kelly was actually recovering from COVID-19 when I rang her up, with relatively mild symptoms. This actually dovetailed with one of the big questions I wanted to ask her and Duc: How have they processed the ongoing pandemic while in a foreign country, not to mention one where the situation has evaded control since the beginning?
“Honestly, before I got COVID, I think [the year was] just normal,” Kelly replied.
She said the biggest change for her was the switch from learning in the classroom to studying from home. There were other adaptations, too, like no longer eating at restaurants.
Duc summed up the 2020 as “uncomfortable,” mentioning how awkward it was to begin meeting his lab partners online.
“Even seeing friends, we have to, like, think about it,” he said, adding that now he always asks himself: “Should we really need to hang out?”
Both of their families have expressed their desire for Duc and Kelly to return to Vietnam, where the COVID situation is much better. But neither of them want to abandon their studies.
Being here, the two of them have witnessed firsthand how something as straightforward-seeming as pandemic response has generated its own set of controversies. But, they said, they could actually see multiple sides to the issue.
“In Vietnam,” said Kelly, “wearing mask is a good thing to do, to practice.” The country has implemented strict measures, including mask mandates, which has kept COVID cases relatively low within its borders.
Kelly said that many Vietnamese, however, remain flabbergasted that mask wearing remains such a controversial issue here. Up close, though, before mask requirements were put into place, she said she saw people choose to take other precautionary measures instead, and also those who refused to wear them due to health conditions. She and Duc understood.
“I know that some people, when they hear that, they don’t agree, but some people just respect others’ opinion,” Kelly said. Mask wearing in public is being enforced now, but previously, “if they don’t want to wear mask, yeah, that their right to do.”
Kelly and Duc had been around for the height of the racial justice protests that roiled the country over the past summer. How had these struck them?
Although they live away from the downtown area of the city, where much of the protest activity occurred, Kelly said she caught glimpses of it and sympathized with the cause.
“For me, I respect those protesters, and I know that they have to go through a lot of difficulties. Honestly, if I was an American, I would be willing to join them.”
Having lived here for so long, Duc said he had become “biased” into believing that demonstrating was the “totally right thing to do,” and that those involved should continue to exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest.
Coming from a country where freedom of speech is stifled and all forms of dissent are silenced, Kelly and Duc were raised in a very different atmosphere. Kelly recalled being in Vietnam for one rare protest that was violently suppressed.
Even among the public, Kelly said that speaking out is discouraged.
“If you want to be different from others, you are the different one, and people don’t want to accept the facts,” she said.
Kelly said her relatives perceive the protesters here as lazy agitators who don’t have a job, and they feared for her safety as the unrest was broadcast around the world.
Duc said that, before arriving here, “I would think that’s something that [is] a waste of time to do.”
This marveling at American diversity of thought was something that kept popping up in my conversation with Duc and Kelly. Both of them mentioned how, in Vietnam, people are more or less predictable in their thinking, including their stances on any given issue. This extends to criticizing the government in private, Kelly said, since everyone assumes that shady activity is happening, but a lack of independent news sources to confirm or deny specific theories means that people automatically believe almost any criticism that one might say.
Here, she observed, nothing is really taken at face value, but must instead be scrutinized beforehand. Of course, speaking of alternative points of view, Duc and Kelly had also felt the political climate of our times up close as one of our most contentious elections in recent history came and went, with consequences still being felt. What impressions had that left on them, especially as “outsiders?”
“To be frank, it’s very, very funny to me to see a very powerful country be so divisive on every single issue and not be able to launch forward as one to make the country great,” Duc said. “I feel it’s very, very ironic that a very powerful country can be divisive.”
“I’ll be very interested to see how America moves forward,” he added.
This having been the first election she has been here for, Kelly said she eventually had to accept that “everything is going to be complicated and kind of not normal.”
She said that she and Duc have had conversations about how politics here has affected everyday relationships, in ways unlike any phenomenon does in Vietnam.
“It’s really hard to talk about political things if we have a different opinion,” Kelly said. Whereas other matters of discussion are more concrete, she found that she has to approach politics differently.
“There is no right or wrong here, but people still want to prove that what they believe is right and what they oppose is something unacceptable for them.”
I asked how they thought living in the U.S. up until now had changed them. Duc again brought up the differences between Vietnamese and American mindsets.
“In Vietnam, it’s kinda like you meet people and they’re all the same, and it’s very rare to meet someone that can change your life,” he said.
“Here, they have a lot of ideas and values. I think it’s interesting how a lot of different people have different values and different things, and you can talk with them and can influence your own values, ideas. And that comes with a lot of personal growth.”
Kelly had a different answer.
“Since I came to America, I think I don’t trust the news,” she said. This stemmed from when she used to get information solely from state-controlled media in Vietnam and never thought to question it. Here in the U.S., she said, it’s possible to read different interpretations of events from different media, causing her to question whether she was being presented with the full picture.
I had run out of questions for them. Had they any messages for those still in their homeland?
“I just want to say that people should believe that what they doing right now in Vietnam in the COVID-19 is really, they’re doing it really well,” Kelly said, “and I’m really happy to know that Vietnam can move on to the 2021 without much death.”
How about for us, we Americans?
Duc noted how American culture tends to champion individualism, while Vietnamese are traditionally more communal. He said that this was a time to “find the balance” between those two approaches.
“I think right now, people need to live for other people to get past this rough time and move forward, not just to become individualistic.”
Kelly said she understood the gravity of the situation in this country she’s in now, with millions struggling from the pandemic’s effects, so she wanted to impart a message of hope.
“It’s gonna be fine,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”
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