From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Kon Tum Vietnam

Photo courtesy of Charles Waugh

A Moment in Kon Tum

“You are the first American I’ve met since the war.”

On a cool rainy day in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, just outside the city of Kon Tum, I sat in the large family room of a traditional Rhade stilt house with Y K’sor, a man still trying to live in a traditional Rhade way. One of 54 different ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, the Rhade live mostly in the mountainous areas along the border with Laos, which was bombed so heavily during the war that it retains the awful distinction of being the most bombed country per capita on earth. Outside, on the large front porch, K’sor’s daughter was showing my wife, Jen, and my son, Owen, how to grind cassava using a stone mortar and a 20 pound, 4-foot long wooden pestle. Earlier, his two teenage sons had taken Owen and me across the muddy river in a teeny, tippy dugout canoe to show us how they swam with a net stretched between them to catch fish.

We had already toured his property, had already seen his immense water buffalos, his chickens and pigs, his vegetable garden, and the path down to the river where his boys crossed each day to work the family’s plot of paddy on the other side. We had already eaten a delicious meal of cassava soup and sticky rice and pork that had been roasted on skewers over a fire on the kitchen hearth. And now it was time to sit in the nicest room in the house, to sip tea, and to chat.

My mind spun, trying all at once to add up how many years must have passed since he’d last seen an American (more than 40), how old he must have been then and how old he must be now, boggling at how much change he must have seen in his lifetime. I could too easily imagine the many difficulties he must have faced during the war and after–the violence and the terror, the hunger and the uncertainty as his village was occupied first by Americans, then Vietnamese, then swallowed up by neighboring Kon Tum and eventually by a new nation and globalization and the rest of the world.

“Even then,” he said, saving me from the attempt to put any one of these many dizzying thoughts into words, “I never knew one who could speak Vietnamese. How can you do it?”

And now it was the differences between us and our experiences over those years that overwhelmed me. While he struggled just to live, I’d grown up in a small peaceful town, earned an education at several universities, and had ample opportunities to devote myself to the study of U.S. and Vietnamese history and literature, Confucian ethics and Kinh folklore, American theories of public administration and development, the French language for colonial era historical materials, and, of course, Vietnamese.

I’d been the fortunate recipient of fellowships for language study, of assistantships that helped me become a teacher, and of grants and awards that had taken me to Vietnam eight times in the last 18 years and that had made it possible for me and my family to develop profound friendships with people all over the country, demonstrating, we hope, that Americans aren’t just the people who had bombed them so mercilessly or sprayed their land with deadly chemicals.

Thanks to my broad training in the humanities and because of the support of so many institutions and agencies, I’d been able to produce a body of work—essays, articles, and stories that explore the environmental and cultural foundations of the United States’ relationship with Vietnam, a book of translated narratives about people who have suffered from exposure to the dioxin in Agent Orange, and my current project to translate a collection of short fiction from young Vietnamese writers—whose ultimate intent is to foster a better understanding between our two nations.

But my host’s question, and the questions behind it, still hung in the air: how was it possible that I had come all this way to meet him, to spend a morning and afternoon with his family, to hear his stories, to see how he lived? How could I speak Vietnamese?

I raised the teapot from the tray between us and tipped it to fill our cups again with the steaming hot green tea. I smiled, and said, “I’ve had a lot of help.”