January 10th, 2012.
11:00 am Greenwich Mean Time.
The sun beats down on Shepherd’s Bush Road. The gentle wind whisks through the crisp winter air as I take my morning stroll into work…my mind wanders off to the past few weeks. Just twenty four hours ago I was having my last dinner in Hanoi after spending two and a half weeks touring Vietnam.
It had been nearly twenty five years since I had been back to my birth place. The decision to come back was a conscious one – to see if I would reconnect with my roots, if emotions and memories from the past would be evoked.
Within a few hours of landing on Christmas morning, I was brought to the village where I grew up. This was my home for the first six and a half years of my life. I remembered whenever it rained in the evenings, all of the village kids would run outside and stood naked underneath the roof gutter to take our showers. Life that was carefree, imaginative and innocent. During lunar new years my dad, siblings and I would put up a lion dance performance for the families around. I’m sure we were rubbish and silly but it was the bond and carefree environment that have been engrained in my childhood memory.
The “village” of what I see today is actually a long alleyway located right in the heart of District 1 Saigon. This alleyway, once a dirt road, is sandwiched between an old apartment building and a new high rise office tower whose footprint has taken up half of the original village entranceway. I took a few steps inside and observed around. Whether it was because the houses have since been rebuilt or the façades had deteriorated after twenty five years, I don’t know, but nothing was recognizable. I didn’t walk further in as it was private property. I walked across the street to the park where I took many strolls as a kid. This too has changed in appearance but I did recognize parts of the fountain and landscape.
It was a weird feeling, a bit numb perhaps from the jetlag? It felt like a dream but I didn’t know where I was. Was I supposed to feel something more? What if…
What if my parents never relocated us to Canada? Where would I be now. Would I have had the opportunity to move to London. Although my past memories of Vietnam were limited, many new experiences provided me with an appreciation for the country. The landscape and food were amazing and will inspire my art and cooking for years to come. But perhaps it was the people who left a lasting impression on me.
“Would you like to buy anything” she spoke to me in Vietnamese as she crouched down and presented her tray of offerings. I thought for a second and gave her a 20,000 dong bill (1 USD), selected a package of gum, and asked her to keep the change. The old lady, maybe seventy years in age insisted that I pick another package. I grasped her hand, smiled and asked her to keep the change. She nodded politely and smiled back, a smile that came from the heart. She tells me that she’s from another city down south. She took a train to Hanoi to sell these goods in hopes to earn a few extra dollars in time for the lunar new years.
A few minutes later, another old lady came by offering similar goods, this lady more senior that the first. “Oh man I can’t keep doing this” I told myself. I declined her offer. She moved onto the next person. A split second later, I went up to her, gave her a 20,000 bill and selected a package of gum. She asked me how much the bill was. It was already night time but the street lights were lit. Visible to the normal eye but she was straining her aged eyes trying to decipher the colour and number on the bill. I asked her to keep the change. She gave me a slight bow as a gesture of thank you. My eyes watered slightly as I tried to choke back the tears. It was very difficult for me because if we were in less fortunate circumstances, that could very well be someone from my family (i.e. my grandmother). If our family had not immigrated to Canada… what if.
It’s quite a paradox observing the people as an outsider. A large portion of the population still leads simple lives but happy ones. The majority are not yet cluttered with their blackberries, iPhones, or worried about the world economy and politics. They wake, go to work, have dinner with their family, go for an evening stroll… watch their children grow up. The day after I landed back in London I had a client meeting in the city. You put on your business attire, transit through the busy tube and make your way through the buzzing clutter of the crowd to get to your meeting. You feel somewhat important surrounded by the myriad of people dressed in black and white in our march of the penguin. But I ask myself “am I really happy with this life?” At the end of the day, are we happier than the people who are working at say a local restaurant in Vietnam?
There are a lot of poor people in Vietnam, yet they are humble and content with their lives for the most part. They do not have the opportunity and freedom of living in a first world country like we do. We have the choice of living where we choose to, of working in a profession of our desire, of pursuing our dreams. Yes they have these opportunities as well but with exception of the wealthy citizens, their pursuits of what they can do with their lives are much more limited than ours.
There are many what ifs in life. We must try to make take advantage of the opportunities and privileges that come to us. We must follow our dreams and never give up.