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Humbled by the Little Things

Possibly the most memorable July 4th for me occurred halfway across the world from America. While I cannot see booming fireworks or experience loud music with a backyard BBQ, the environment feels homey. It is reflective of how I see a happy America—collectively celebrating a myriad of backgrounds and cultures.

I realize I have developed a great appreciation for the lifestyle in Quảng Trị as we gather around our guest house common area, eagerly awaiting the blend of Vietnamese and American cuisine. The pepperoni, Hawaiian, and ‘DMZ’ Pizza had been called for delivery from a location in Hue—a city over an hour away. The three foil packages of roasted duck were pre-ordered well in advance to ensure that the local restaurant would still have enough food for customers that evening. Just a simple pre-order for large groups required such coordination and preparation. This gives the meal character, and it becomes a feast filled with energy from laughter, icing from cake, and hand-held sparklers.

I am convinced that the simple lifestyle here leads to unadulterated happiness. Like many of the previous days, we sit on the balcony of our guesthouse for hours becoming closer as a cohort. The Duke students discuss our different backgrounds and lifestyles at home and on campus. As I listen, I grow to have deep appreciation for the cohesiveness of our group despite these differences, and for this humble town that is able to bring such unique backgrounds together.

The Vietnamese roommates on this program are what truly lie at the core of our experience. They bring so much knowledge to our construction project and in the classroom. Yet again, the beauty of the night unfolds with these people and the conversations. Disheveled floor tiles on the third-floor balcony do not take away from the pleasant atmosphere as we enjoy the remarkable overlook of the Thạch Hãn river. The Vietnamese roommates bring choice snacks of chicken and basil, paired with roasted peanuts surrounded by a candied shell that I eagerly try. Vietnamese food here is so, so tasty.

We sing American and Vietnamese songs alike while dancing and admiring the night skyline against the river. Tình Yêu Màu Nắng has been running through my head these past weeks. Although I do not fully understand the meaning of the lyrics, the uplifting melody moves me. Vocal song is their way of celebration, and this song title, translated to “Sunny Love”, beautifully captures how our roommates express themselves.

Sunset over the river by our guesthouse

The Bigger Picture: A New Home

I think back to when the eager, smiling face of my roommate Trường greeted me on the morning of June 20th in the Hue airport. I tell him about my fascination with the food and the beautiful rice fields we pass by on our way to Quảng Trị, and he mentions to me that this news is a pleasant surprise as he was afraid of how we would perceive his country.

True, the small town of Quảng Tri doesn’t boast skyscrapers or commercial entertainment, but the local people make it feel like a second home with their warm welcome. The two toddlers at the corner of the street from our construction project site always laugh and scream “Hello!” as they run up for high fives in the morning. This welcoming nature is gifted frequently again by the locals as I make the routine 7-minute bike rides to and from the Youth Center in the afternoon, where I grow closer to my 9th grade students each day.

Gathering with the roommates after long days of work, my heart is full as I listen to their singing around the strum of Nhản’s guitar. Other times, I try the unique, local snails that they graciously offer us. Throughout the day and even after the sun sets, the communion of the local people is what fuels each moment of this experience. After just a few weeks, this previously unfamiliar place is already beginning to feel like home.

Our first time singing by the river