Coming Home

It’s been a week since I’ve been back in the United States. After 6 days of reunions, hugs, and catching up with friends and professors in Chicago, I’m back in my first home of St. Louis. My whole family is under one roof for the first time in awhile. My dad’s cooking is wafting through the house, my sister is playing the flute, my mom is hanging Christmas lights, and I’m enjoying the quiet of my room as I reflect on the past 4 months, my re-entry into American life, and all I learned going to Hanoi and back.

Wherever you go there’s a place to call home and people to call family.

The world’s longest ceramic mosaic mural stretches for kilometers along the streets of Hanoi commemorating the city’s over 1,000 year history. Throughout my time in Hanoi, I drove along it many a time admiring its colorful tiles, whimsical patterns and designs. I marveled at the expansive history it represented feeling right at home alongside hundreds of motorbikes and other honking taxis. While my time in Hanoi was a blink of an eye compared to the history of the city, for 4 months it became home. I always had Martha’s apartment to come back to after a long day and brothers and sisters in Christ at school, church, and Bible study to talk, hang out, and grow with. It’s that community and the people in it I think I miss most since returning.

When you’re uncomfortable, you’re forced to learn more about yourself, surroundings, and beliefs. 

It’s not easy adjusting to a new culture, figuring out how to teach, and integrating into a community far from home. It’s difficult not being able to speak, read, or understand the complexities of the Vietnamese language. It wasn’t comfortable standing out almost everywhere I went, and I won’t even talk about the bathroom situation. But if I would have kept to being comfortable, staying in my apartment and the bubble where I felt safest, I wouldn’t be able to see my growth, and I wouldn’t feel like I’d lived out my purpose coming to Hanoi. When I was the most uncomfortable, I was learning the most.

Teaching is both incredibly difficult and rewarding. 

Somedays I wanted to pull my hair out, because I’d been asked the same question over and over. Other days it seemed impossible that my 14 students would ever understand how to order decimals or whatever the lesson’s topic was. The days are long and the lesson plans all consuming. It’s not easy, but then that one student who’s never volunteered to read aloud volunteers and reads flawlessly, and the student with barely any English writes a paragraph. In the flash of a moment, any frustration is replaced with joy. I have at stack of construction paper cards my students gave me on my last day. When I read them, I can see that somehow I made a difference in their lives and more than anything that knowledge is the reward.

New experiences broaden your worldview and open your eyes to new perspectives. 

Before I left for Hanoi, I knew little about Vietnam other than the one-sided history presented in American history books and the research I did in preparation for leaving. While knowing facts provided me with basic knowledge, my experiences opened my eyes far more than words on a page ever will.  Living in a place where freedom of religion doesn’t exist and visiting places where children approached me again and again asking for a dollar revealed to me the blessings and excess present in the United States that are so often taken for granted or demanded with a sense of entitlement and apathy. Talking with people from all over the world showed me how we’re all much more similar than we are different.

Now, as my journey to Vietnam has come to a close, I begin a new journey as I transition back into the life of a college student and wait to find out where life will take me beyond May. The next stage in my journey is full of unknowns, but I’ve also learned these past few months that God’s plans for our lives are more than we could ever imagine, and knowing that fills me with peace.

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Goodbyes

My bags are packed. Goodbyes have been said; tears have been shed. The next step is my journey home, and honestly it’s bittersweet and still hard to believe. I don’t have many words right now for the past few days, but I have a couple long plane rides ahead of me to reflect. I do however know without a doubt that I’ve been blessed beyond measure during these 4 months, and I’ve seen that concretely in each goodbye I’ve said this week…through my students’ cards, through my cooperating teacher’s words, through the members at HIC, through the prayers and doxology offered over Elizabeth and I by the school staff. Hanoi and the people here will forever hold a place in my heart.

Sa Pa: One Final Adventure

As I write this post, I’m sitting in my room in still wearing my summer wardrobe and listening to Christmas music. It’s quite different from any November in my past, but life being different than home is what I’ve grown accustomed to more or less these past 4 months. In just a week’s time, I’ll be flying back around the world and nearly landed in Chicago. There’s so many hugs and conversations face to face I can’t wait for, but first I have a week of goodbyes that are sure to break my heart on multiple accounts.

This weekend Martha, Elizabeth, and I went to Sa Pa, Vietnam for one final weekend getaway and adventure before Elizabeth and I head back to the States. Sa Pa is located in northern Vietnam near the China border and is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen.

We left for Sa Pa Thursday evening and took a train through the night. It was my first experience on a night train and not as bad as I thought it would be; I had a bed, got some sleep, and couldn’t of ask for much more. We arrived in Sa Pa just after sunrise Friday morning and were greeted by beautiful weather and breathtaking scenery.

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After checking into our hotel, some breakfast, and settling in, we began our adventure for the day: renting motorbikes and exploring the mountainside. Martha rents a motorbike here in Hanoi, and I’ve gotten quite comfortable being her passenger, but it was even more thrilling to learn to drive a motorbike by myself on a mountain nonetheless. We drove through the curvy mountain roads to a hiking trail that would take us to Golden Love Waterfall. My shoes got wet climbing across the creek to get to it, but the magnificence of the waterfall made my wet tennis shoes worth it. After exploring the fall, we made our way back to the town to eat lunch, peep into shops, and relax at our hotel. We finished our day enjoying hot chocolate on the hotel balcony marveling at all the stars we never see in Hanoi. I was asleep by 9pm and enjoyed 10 hours of much needed sleep.

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The waterfall

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We spent Saturday on a 15 kilometer trek through the mountains and villages outside of Sa Pa. A young local village woman guided us up and down hills and paths and through breathtaking vistas. We learned about Hmong customs and daily life and saw countless uses for plant life. I certainly don’t know how to dye my clothes with indigo, fashion a hat out of leaves, make an umbrella out of bamboo, and turn a stem into a darling animal figure. By the end of the hike we were tired and sore, but had an incredible memory.

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Travel partners and dear friends

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Following our wonderful guide

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Overlooking the valley

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Rice paddies encompass the scenery

Just like that it was time to head back to Hanoi on the Saturday night train. We arrived in Hanoi at about 4:30 Sunday morning, in time for 2 hours of sleep in our own beds before helping with music for Sunday morning worship and last minute Hanoi site-seeing. Now, it’s Monday night here, and I can’t quite comprehend that it’s my last week student teaching. Each moment I seem to be feeling a different emotion. I’m stuck in this dichotomy of wanting to be home and not wanting to say goodbye, but also reminded of the Advent hope that is certain in every up and down.