July 21, 2008
Program’s cause has far-reaching effect
By Mike McQuaide
Vietnam is not the first country that comes to mind when I think of nations that have much relevance for current circumstances in the United States. When I do think of Vietnam, the thoughts take the form of memories from television in the 1960s.
Like many American families, our family watched Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News religiously. What I knew of Vietnam came from black-and-white images of American soldiers firing their automatic weapons at an invisible enemy in a tropical forest somewhere far away.
After the American armed forces withdrew entirely from Vietnam in 1975, little news emerged from that place. For the next two decades, the memories were too painful to consider and Vietnam essentially disappeared from American day-to-day consciousness.
On May 12 of this year, I accompanied 13 other travelers from Oxford College to Hanoi, Vietnam. The northern region of Vietnam was the focus of Oxford’s 2008 Global Connections travel seminar headed by Rev. Judy Shema, the chaplain of Oxford College. The program came into existence in 2006 as an extension of Oxford’s focus on engaging students with learning opportunities far removed from our comfortable campus.
The 2006 program examined the sociology of depopulating regions with an in-depth look at eastern Montana. The 2007 program traveled to Poland to learn firsthand of that nation’s efforts to deal with its recent history and negotiate an entry into the global economic system. This year, we decided to visit Vietnam to learn more about human rights, issues relating to the natural environment, global economics, and the post-American period of Vietnamese history.
What better place to explore issues relating to the natural environment? Vietnam leads the world in children with genetic defects. This unfortunate fact reflects the American use of Agent Orange, i.e. dioxin, one of the most potent carcinogens and mutagens ever invented.
In an effort to defoliate the trails used to supply the Viet Cong, the American armed services sprayed tens of thousands of gallons of dioxin over large regions of Vietnam. The chemical built up in the water and soil and puts the people of that nation at continued risk today.
When we started our travel in Vietnam, I asked the students to keep track of the number of tractors, combines or mechanical harvesters of any kind that they might see. After visiting many places and traveling several hundreds of miles by bus, we finally saw a mechanical tiller south of Da Nang.
I had visited Vietnam in 2005 with my wife in preparation for this specific program and knew that almost all of the agricultural labor was done by hand. The group was amazed when they reflected on the comparisons between Vietnamese and American farms.
Our guide told us that elementary education was free up to the age of 8. After that, we were told, the parents had to pay tuition for their children to attend school. Many, if not most, families are too poor to pay for all of their children to attend school. Usually it is the first son who continues his education while his siblings go to work in the rice paddies.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of our shared time in Vietnam came when we visited the Research and Training Center for Community Development in Hanoi. In an insightful conversation, Dr. Tran Tuan, the director of RTCCD, outlined the many complex social and health problems found in Vietnam.
His comments focused on maternal social capital and child health. Social capital represents those sorts of resources that are available through social connections. We learned of the many dynamics that affect social relations in Vietnam. Rapid economic growth, increasing inequality, urbanization, and social exclusion create circumstances that damage the well-being of families in general and children in particular.
The conversation then turned to resources necessary to address these circumstances. Dr. Tuan told us of his tiny budget and the difficulties of securing funds. Our hearts ached as we realized that poor countries simply do not possess the resources required to effectively deal with a variety of social problems.
That evening, we talked among ourselves of trying to create an internship in which an Emory student, maybe from the Rollins School of Public Health, could be posted to the RTCCD as a grant writer. The comparison of our American affluence and the overwhelming problems of developing societies could not have been more stark.
We enjoyed many light moments on our journey. Wherever we went, the Vietnamese noticed us.
As we walked from our conversation with the administrators of the National Economic University in Hanoi, we were joined by dozens of Vietnamese college students. They flocked to us to practice their English language skills and to engage us with every sort of question about our lives in the United States.
We found the Vietnamese people to be exceptionally warm and welcoming, and very curious about us in the most affirming way, especially in light of our troubled history.
As our group reflected on what we had seen in Vietnam, it was encouraging to listen to the Oxford students begin to consider how American policies and practices affect people all over the globe. The goals of our Global Connections program were realized; 13 more Americans are aware of the ways in which our decisions here at home have consequences for others, particularly in developing societies. In my view, this is one of the most important consequences such travel programs make possible — a clear understanding of cause and effect relations that stands at the center of a good liberal arts education.