“When I came to the States, I felt inferior. When I came back to my home country, I felt superior” Carmen, our traveling faculty from Bolivia
When I first came to the US, I felt like Alice getting both confused and awestruck in her Wonderland. As an international student from Vietnam who had almost no exposure to being abroad prior to Amherst, I was impressed by the new way of life America has to offer me. I came to idolize many aspects of my living and studying experiences in the US. Through my simplistic lenses, American life is modern and convenient, where everything can be innovated and automated, from washing dishes to paying money at a grocery store. American life symbolizes individual freedom, where you can say anything you want, dress however crazy you are, cut your hair whatever style you deem fit without fear of judgement. Most importantly, American education is all about debate and critical thinking, which were concepts I found completely absent during my 18 years of rote learning in Vietnam. Despite rampant issues of racism and violence in American society, to my freshman and sophomore self, realities of life in the States are still of a higher level of comfort and modernity than those in my home country Vietnam.
I brought that look-down mentality about my hometown with me as I returned to Ho Chi Minh City the last two summers. Although it still felt good to be home, I started to find so many “wrongs” in my surroundings. When I saw some students on their way to a school near my house, I suddenly felt sad for the suffocating education these youths were receiving at their school, where they would be trained to excel in exams rather than to form and express their opinions. When I saw a man wearing a mask as he went jogging, I was struck with disappointment about the increased air pollution in my city and reminisced about the abundance of fresh air at Amherst. When I saw propaganda boards and slogans from the Communist Party on the street, I wish democracy was a part of our political reality. Such judgment and feelings created a contrast of good and bad, right and wrong in how I see the US and Vietnam. Accordingly, I believe the only way for Vietnam to be better, is to strive to become another US.
This binary, simplistic comparison, however, was broken down during my journey abroad through India, Brazil and South Africa this semester. Having the chance to hear local voices – from city planners, activists to marginalized communities – and learning about urban planning failures due to blind applications of “the best practices” from more developed countries shifted my Western-centric paradigm of good and bad when it comes to social change. I realized the truth about being global is learning to appreciate the local way of life, and to recognize that development does not have to be like the West to be the best.
I remember our first day out on the street in the Old City of Ahmedabad, India, I was shocked by the chaotic flow of traffic. People usually told me the traffic in Vietnam is crazy, to which I would now respond: “Wait until you get to India!” Motorbikes, rickshaws, cars, buses, even cows and dogs, just mingle together, crisscrossing each others’ path and cramming for space and deafening honking noises. At first sight, everything seemed like a mess. However, as I fixed my focus at the flow of vehicles around me, I started to see a rhythm of movement – a natural, implicit negotiation of space that allowed everyone to fit together in narrow, winding streets.
I expressed my bewilderment with Sagar, one of the Indian local staff, and he laughingly told me: “It [the city] is organic. It’s chaotic, yet it still works. It functions. It lives.” He’s right. There is a unique way transportation in this Old City has been formed and lived ever since 1400s that I can either dismiss as unorderly, messy, problematic compared to street standards in the US, or try to understand why and how street space is constructed and respected in its current form from a local perspective. What is the difference between these two approaches? The first one would probably propose banning all animals from the street to improve the transport system, while the other would take into consideration how Indians see animals as God, and thus any suggestions to better traffic conditions need to account for the integration of animals on the street.
The importance of the local prospect struck me deeply again with our last case study assignment in South Africa. We were asked to research about commuters’ experiences at different transportation hubs in Cape Town, analyze the effectiveness of these hubs in facilitating daily commutes and from there, propose direction for change. Our group was assigned to go to Claremont station. I remember the moment we got there, the first thing one of our group members noticed was the lack of information boards, from a station map, maps of different transportation means (bus, minibus taxis, train) to a bus schedule. Access to such information relies purely on 1-2 monitors in the station. Nevertheless, as we spent more time talking with commuters and workers at the station, we realized that maps or time schedule might not be necessary. Almost every bus user we met mentioned that they have used their buses for so long that they know the bus schedule by heart. If anything goes wrong, asking the monitor is by no means an inconvenience, since both the commuters and the bus monitors enjoyed their social experiences at the station. One of the monitors there told me: “I used to be a bus driver, but I quit and have taken this job for more than 10 years because I love talking with people.” It hit me that we had subconsciously approached Claremont station with a model of something like New York’s Port Authority in mind. Yet we walked out of the case study learning how, for most commuters via public transportation in Cape Town, people function by routine, and how time to commute can be seen as social time to make random connections rather than time, viewed in a more individualistic and busy society like in New York, as a precious commodity strictly not to be wasted.
To emphasize the significance of respecting local way of life is not to reject successful models countries around the world can learn from each other. What I wanted to emphasize is the need to refrain from ranking countries on a hierarchy of good and bad, right and wrong, using one as the standard to judge the other. That India does not have separate lanes for cars and motorbikes does not mean that it should in any way be seen as inferior to the US. That Vietnam is under the single-party, Communist government does not mean it has to transform into American democracy to develop. Each country has its own social, cultural, political and historical legacies that shape the way life in each place grows and progresses. Direction for change, therefore, should not simply be heading towards the so-called developed, modern Western side of the globe, but be rooted firmly in the local roots that nurture and dictate the branching of life on each specific type of soil.