Following last weeks celebration of International Women’s Day, I decided to focus this blog on the theme of independence.
At NUS we are given a recess week half way through the semester, so we took this opportunity to spend a week in Vietnam. We spent the majority of our time in Hanoi but also spent two days in Ha Long Bay and one day in Ninh Binh, both of which were beautiful. However, throughout all the amazing things that we did and saw, it was the Women’s Museum in Hanoi that touched me the most. The museum was an extraordinary tribute to the women of Vietnamese history and of Vietnam today who have and continue to work for their nation and family. A documentary that was played in the museum exhibited the current situations of many of these women. With their husbands ill or unable to work, women that now work in Hanoi told their stories of how they wake up at ridiculous times like 4am to make their way to the market, so they can buy their produce to sell during the day. Usually not returning home till times like 11pm, they spend what little time they have tending to the house and their children before only having a couple of hours sleep before having to start the same day again. Their days are filled with terror as they are often chased by the police, and most days they barely make enough money to feed their family.
The most striking part of the whole museum, however, was one room filled with the photographs of hundreds of vietnamese women. These women have been named the ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’. This title was granted to over 50,000 women who had lost more than two children, their only child, only one child, their husband and children or their own life. It was a title given to acknowledge the silent sacrifices of the thousands of women involved in the Vietnam War. One particular image from the museum, named “Mother and Son Reunite”, was a photo recording the reunion of an ex-Con Dao prisoner who was sentenced to death after being accused of being a Viet Cong spy, with his mother after many years of separation. I think the picture says enough for itself about sacrifice.
On returning from Vietnam, everything suddenly seemed to get a lot harder. The fun and travelling of the last month and a half had stopped and I was immediately bombarded with a lot more work than what I had had before. Everything had changed and I suddenly felt a whole lot further away from home. For a bit I was definitely guilty of wallowing in self-pity, but I would like to relay some words of wisdom from my very wise mother which will apply to all of you at home or overseas- wherever you are in the world. One night when I was feeling especially far away from home I called her in an understated attempt to stop feeling sorry for myself. She stopped me and told me to look at what I’ve got. She reminded me that I am in one of the highest percentiles of the luckiest and most privileged people in the world and that despite how I might be feeling right now, I needed to acknowledge the opportunity that has been given to me, that I needed to be strong and independent and use this chance in the best way I could.
As I think back to what I learned about the women in Vietnam who work 18 hours a day to keep their family alive, it seems ridiculous to feel sorry for myself because I miss home. For the women of Vietnamese history that have had to sacrifice so much more, it is important that we all appreciate the amazing chances that we have been given and continue to use them and encourage others in the future to do the same.
Here is my advice for anyone thinking about studying abroad, especially those thinking of going far away: it will be difficult, and it will be a lot more difficult than you ever thought it could be. I left Manchester and then home thinking that it would be easy, that I would miss home a bit but that I would be too absorbed in my new life to think about it. Trying to live a new life is more difficult than that. You have to adapt to the cultures of the people around you while still trying to establish a place for yourself. For me, this has come in ways as simple as not being able to understand the English that the Singaporeans speak, purely because of their accents and the words they use, even though their actual English is perfect. It can make you feel isolated but in the midst of that you have to force yourself to take a step back and think about what you have been given the chance to do. Have the strength to be independent like the Vietnamese women are forced to be every single day. You have been given a once in a lifetime opportunity, you may never have an opportunity to do anything similar to this again and because of that you can not let anything stop you from making the most of every single second. Go out into the world and learn about these other individuals like the Vietnamese women, it might just put your whole life into perspective.