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Walking into a blanket of heat and humidity. Biking across town. Shoveling, mixing, laying down tile. Laughing with our students. Playing basketball, volleyball, soccer. Singing under the stars. Watching movies past midnight. Pho Ba, rice noodles, fresh fish and veggies. Glasses and glasses of smoothies.

It’s been a week since we’ve arrived in Quang Tri, our service site located in rural Central Vietnam. Along with our Vietnamese roommates, we’ve begun to settle into a routine of construction work, teaching, and getting to know the town. It’s been a way of life that for me, has been comforting and unexpectedly familiar. But at the same time, it’s also been drastically different from anything that I’ve ever experienced before.

The Town

Quang Tri, physically, is quite small, with small stores/restaurants/businesses lining the main road. There is also a market, which consists of stalls of food, clothing, appliances, etc. There are schools, sports facilities, a cathedral, etc.: everything one may need, one can pretty much find within biking distance. This type of town is very similar to my family’s original hometown in rural China. Eating at small restaurants, going to the market, and getting around town to me has represented where I ultimately came from, and I have found a lot of comfort in that. But I’ve never had to commute via bicycle, and especially in an environment where I don’t know the language at all. At restaurants, in the town square, even when locals stop by to make small talk, I can only nod and smile. One of my goals has been to have meaningful interactions with the people in the community and learn from their ways of life, but language as a barrier in communication has made that more difficult than I had imagined.

The Roommates

That’s where the students come in: both our Vietnamese roommates and our ESL classes. Working on the service projects and living with our roommates has been an incredible experience so far and has brought so much more insight into the work, community, and culture than if we were by ourselves. Aside from helping us with language, the roommates have introduced us to Vietnam’s traditional foods, taught us Vietnamese songs, taken us to local festivals, and talked to us about their families, lives, and aspirations. Perhaps due to my own Asian heritage, I’ve found it quite easy to understand their interests and group dynamic. But on the other hand, I’ve found it challenging to be on the same page in terms of our lesson plans for the day, or what activity we will do. There’s been so many instances where we discuss an ESL game to play in class, only to have it turn out completely different than what I had thought or intended. I’m learning how to find different ways to understand people and not being so persistent in doing things the way I think is best, which has been quite humbling.

The Students

Our students have brought even more great interactions: they are so eager to learn English, talk to us, and show us around their home (they even ride their bikes back with us after class). And while I naturally love working with children, teaching a class has been entirely new territory for me. Taking complete ownership for a class’s learning has been exciting, nerve-wracking, and even frustrating at times. Given the long legacy of this Duke Engage program, I’m constantly trying to find the right balance between teaching content and playing games so that in the end, the students improve their English and their confidence in themselves.

Before I arrived here, I had thought that living and working in Vietnam would’ve been an incredibly new and foreign experience, but that’s only been the case in some ways. I’m hoping that throughout the rest of the program, I can integrate these two dichotomies and continue to fully immerse myself in service, culture, and community.