When I first saw Việt Nam, it was the year I got into UC Santa Cruz, the second-to-last in a string of colleges that kept my eye on the education prize while my mind still wandered, angry and discontent with the person I had become or angry at people in general. It was obvious that I was distracted in every pursuit of higher education, not because I didn’t want a degree and the career that would summarily accompany it, but because there was a preconceived identity that went alongside it. College asks for a choice—to be something or define something about yourself. “I want to be” or “I am interested in” become the guidance counselors of definitive answers of who we are intent on becoming. Throughout my life, I knew that the philosophy of being was something to be questioned. Who was I? Where did I come from? How did I get here? Where do I go now? Choosing a college major, a thread of temporal existence, was to define oneself in strict methodologies that were assigned and cultivated for you—a string of CRNs paving the journey to a diploma that offered a modicum of expertise and a crafted identity. I worked, for many years, to gain access to science and the fields that would develop my aptitude for inquiry and investigation in return for a lucrative or respectful career. Although my interest in science never disappeared, somehow, I ended up falling into the familiar valley of literature and English, my ability to write prose and analyze other people’s writing an easy route to follow despite the absence of a clear-cut path to a career with an English degree. But this, of course, wasn’t until I returned home from Việt Nam in 1996—my journey into existentialism realized there alongside street-side cafés and a myriad of experiences interacting with people who did not care for me or who, at best, tolerated my existence. I spent most of the time catching the sideways glances and curt words of people looking down upon me a someone that shouldn’t be—who had no worth in that country. Oddly, I would have to agree.
I studied in Việt Nam as a student, foregoing Santa Cruz for a study abroad in Southeast Asia. I went to history and language classes with my fellow students but the history of Việt Nam, even in its fascinating complexities, could not compare to the personal history I was trying to learn and uncover. The various conquests of Lê Thái Tổ or the overthrow of each dynasty held little sway over the mind of someone who was contemplating the insurrection of their own being—a violent, ripping apart of my soul and identity in a war that I would carry with me forever. Or, maybe it was because the instructor was foreign herself and the authenticity of studying the history of Việt Nam was much less glamorous delivered by someone who could never truly speak to it, especially at that time. Moreover, textbooks are never that accurate and would not contain the chapter on “Orphans of War” that would explain a semblance of my storied past. So, a great deal of my post-secondary education that year came from not going to school or classes—resisting the formality of four walls, peeled paint, and wooden desks, and instead, studying the culture and history of Việt Nam from an outsider’s point of view. Most days, 20,000 VND offered me a lot more education than the paid tuition of my study abroad experience. For $1 USD, I could catch a ride on the back of a xe máy, a motorbike, and make my way to nearly any street that I wanted to go to in Hanoi. Thirty cents would get me lunch and another twenty an ice cream at Fanny’s just on the south side of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. My $6 USD per diem was meant to support an American exchange student at 3x the actual cost of a bowl of phở across the street from our dormitories. I learned that the extra money I pocketed from eating and spending frugally would save me on the nights I had to shell out extra money for those still wielding AK-47s.
Meanwhile, my friends still persisted in their pursuit of traditional education and sometimes, I would find them walking back from classes just as the xe máy dropped me off at the gates of the housing complex. I took my liberty without asking for it because I could and because I had to. There was no other way to figure out who I was except by rejecting everything I was before—a model student, an obedient daughter, a person whose beginning, middle, and end could be found in the worn pages of an aging textbook or in the papers I first traveled with. But as I swiftly learned, there was no beginning, middle and end. Only in media res, the midst of things, where life doesn’t ask for who you are but instead, asks for who you are not.