When I was little, I thought Vietnam was across the street from my house. I grew up in Boston on Sammett Avenue, a double-dead-end street with mirror-image houses, a neighborhood so orderly that the same fruitless pear tree stood in every front yard. An empty lot at one end of the street served as a makeshift playground; it was full of dust and weeds and plastic toy guns, forgotten and bleached by the sun.
Was this a Vietnam battlefield? As a six-year-old, I wasn't sure. All I knew about Vietnam was that, when adults uttered the word, shadows crossed their faces. My friend and neighbor Matthew insisted the empty lot was a battlefield. The discarded weapons seemed to support his case.
Eventually I outgrew my confusion. But after spending the spring of 1998 in Ho Chi Minh City - still known as Saigon - I realize that, in a way, Matthew was right. Location is a personalized notion, circumscribed more by a person's emotional and geographical journeys, than by dotted lines on a map.
I went to Vietnam to experience a world as different from my own as possible. In the spirit of adaptation, I embraced scrubbing my clothes by hand, weaving through the chaotic streets on a bicycle, and eating pho, a spicy noodle soup, for breakfast. When strangers greeted me with, "Hellooo, where you from?" I would answer, "Em la nguoi My." I looked askance at the expatriates who ate in upscale restaurants and couldn't even say "thank you" in Vietnamese.
One weekend I traveled to a village to visit the family of Tra My, a Vietnamese-American friend. I felt that through this rural immersion I would finally know Vietnam. While I could only converse in gestures, I fell into the family's routine: picking cashews in the backyard and roasting them on the kitchen floor, sleeping on a slab of wood in a room with eight people, and attending a 6 a.m. Catholic mass wearing an ao dai, the tight-fitting national dress of women in Vietnam. After church the family visited the grave of Tra My's grandmother. Holding a parasol and linking arms with Tra My, I tottered on borrowed, toe-pinching heels down a dirt road, surrounded by sun-drenched mountains, cornfields, and rice paddies. If I ever came close to going native, it was during that cemetery visit.
But I struggled through the weekend. I was uncomfortable and hot and bored. Most of all, I was lonely in the near muteness that the language barrier imposed on me. It struck me that as a transient visitor from across the world, my penetration of Vietnamese life would always be imperfect. Like an anthropologist or journalist, I had to learn to respect the limitations and privileges of my role as an observer. I knew I was not a colonial presence in Vietnam, but sometimes I felt like one. It took me a long time to accept the fact that my lifestyle included blond friends, air conditioning, and ice cream.
Instead of fretting over the hopelessness of cultural assimilation, I shifted my focus to a search for independence and strength. I bought an airplane ticket to Hanoi and spent two weeks bicycling through the Old Quarter and writing in my journal beside the mythi-cal Lake of the Restored Sword. Lonely yet elated, I felt proud getting by alone in such an alien world.
Back in the United States, I spent the summer in Dorchester, the Boston neighborhood where my father grew up and worked in his father's bakery. Now the neighborhood is Vietnamese; banh mi thit and mi xau have replaced the Italian bread and pasta of past decades. Though I passed many childhood hours playing behind the counter of Bombardieri's Bakery, today it is the Vietnamese travel agencies and sandwich shops that feel most familiar.
This puts me in a curious, but not unpleasant, position, walking a bridge between two cultures a world apart. I'm an Italian from Dorchester who knows a good bowl of pho when she tastes one. Vietnam may not have been literally across the street from me when I was six, but it was not so far down the road.
Marcella Bombardieri is an internationl relations concentrator from Acton, Massachusetts.