Before spending the summer of 2012 teaching English in Vietnam, my knowledge of the far-away country was limited to what I’d read in school history books, and retold memories from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Admittedly, my perception was slightly skewed, and mostly negative. In my mind, though unintentionally, I’d labeled them “the enemy,” and feared my nationality would earn me the same label from the Vietnamese people.
The remnants of war were obvious as soon as I arrived in Vinh, Vietnam, where I’d spend the next two months.
The city, located in the north central part of the nation, endured many bombings during what the nationals refer to as the “American War.”
A statue of the Vietnamese father of communism, Ho Chi Minh, stands tall in the city’s center, a symbol of local devotion.
Cratered streets and unrepaired buildings are reminders of a turbulent time in the city’s history, an era still visible in the physical scars it left behind. Several weeks into the summer, one of the Vietnamese administrators at the school, someone who’d become a great friend to me and the other American teachers, invited us to a party at his family’s home in a nearby village.
We were greeted with warm smiles and plate after plate of delicious food.
A few courses into the meal, I learned why the house was filled with guests that day.
The celebration was to commemorate the life of my friend’s grandfather on the anniversary of the day he died in the war.
Suddenly I felt out of place, and asked my friend if our presence was truly welcomed at such an event.
About that time his mother walked over carrying another plate, part of her hand missing from an explosion she’d been caught in as a young girl, yet another reminder of the war.
Our friend referred my question to her and then translated her answer to me.
“Forgive and forget” was her response.
To this day it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life, to sit in a room surrounded by so many who’d been caught in the cross fires of war, to know they’d been in opposition with the place I call home, and yet to have no hard feelings, no hostility, no bitterness.
I learned a lot that summer — a few words in another language, how to survive a monsoon season, how to bargain in the marketplace.
But the thing that left the greatest impression was the realization that regardless of the cause, or who is right and who is wrong, maybe there is no winner at all when it comes to war, but perhaps there is hope for reconciliation.