Editor’s note: Herald Journal reporter Matilyn Mortensen recently finished her degree at Utah State University. One of the last programs she is participating in as an undergraduate is a study abroad in Vietnam as part of the program “Raising Voices: Global Storytelling.” During this trip, she will teach some of the storytelling skills she has learned to Vietnamese high school students and gather information to produce her own articles while she is there.
I’ve never been on the tall row in a picture before.
But on Thursday afternoon when we took a photo with the first group of students we taught, I got to stand in the back because compared to Vietnamese students, I am quite tall.
Wednesday afternoon we left Hanoi and took a bus to a more rural area of Vietnam, just south of the Chinese border. We stayed in a guest house with beds that looked normal but are about as comfortable as the floor. However, there is air conditioning, and given the choice between a comfy bed and being cool, I will pick the latter.
The school we taught at on Thursday was bright yellow. To get to it, we walked down a narrow dirt road lined with rice paddies and sugar cane fields. Because the community is spread out, many of the children rode bicycles or motorbikes to get there.
It was exciting and nerve-wracking to see our lessons come together. Language and cultural differences made some things fall flat. But from the activities that worked well, I learned a lot about what matters to the students and what their community is like. This was my favorite part.
As we walk around town and work with the children, it is evident we are outsiders. People stop to look at us and shout the few English phrases they know. For most people, it’s “Hello!” But there have been more colorful ones.
Students at the school and children in the community are eager to take pictures with us. The gesture is sweet but makes me uncomfortable. I wonder as I stand in these photos if my trip is good for the children, or if it is just good for me. I know my foreign presence on a street or in a classroom for a few days will not change their lives in significant ways.
I like to travel because seeing different places helps me gain compassion and increases my understanding of the world. It’s the same reason I want to talk to people in my community who are new or visiting.
So while a short visit won’t drastically alter anything, I hope if we talk together and laugh together we will all leave understanding more about the world and act in a way that makes it better because of that.