Missoula and my first gentle American touch

May 13, 2015. By Ngan Dang from Vietnam

YSEALI presented me to Missoula – the first destination in my very first US trip. The program itself and the people I met enriched my unique experience to understand more about this beautiful country and its people. In this blog, I am not focusing on learning, since everyday here, as I shared in previous note, opened new horizon. Today I would like to write about my feeling – America in my first touch.

To begin with, Montana, and more specifically Missoula, is the place of thousands of “the first”.

The lectures at Mansfield Center help me to visualize how the learning environment would be in such a renowned and respected education institution with world class quality.

My host family, B. and J., is a nice retired couple. B. picks us up to university and drives us home while J. cooks us delicious meals every night. I must say that J. is a great cook, as she could make a fussy eater like me finish all the food. They are so kind, caring and attentive to take us to their cabinet, just to fulfill our experience of Montana to the highest level. The trip took B. seven hours of driving and he also served as a cook for us; while J. prepared all the food beforehand. How sweet they are!

The cabinet is so pretty, laying peacefully in a valley covered by high mountains, and oversees a small pond. It took them twenty years to brainstorm, complete the design and a lot of money for construction. Understanding how many efforts and mind were put in this cosy house, I sense how much they value us to spend time and to share this private place. Everything was perfect. A day at this cabinet was definitely a soft relaxing musical note in my US memory.

During the journey, we saw a gorgeous Montana with broad ranges of mountains, immense fields, and open skies. The scenery was so spectacular that there were some moments I even missed my breath. Up to the steep top, we touched snow for the very first time, that helped me to complete one more stick on my wish list.

Our host organization – YWCA and K. – our coordinator are very friendly and supportive. Apart from tons of daily workload and program implementation, they still put us in priority list for meeting and sharing. K. also took us to a press conference and many networking events that, again, are our first time experience. Those are, of course, really helpful and valuable to us professionally as well.

Additionally, we were also taken to a ballet class and hockey game by M. – daughter of our host family, to see M.’s daughter dance, and B. play hockey. Ballet requires skill and frequent practice, while hockey is so fast and excited, which requires players to be quick, focused, calm, and collaborating. Have I told you that B. is 73 years old? Yes, he is.

Apart from countless “the first” from us – Asian fellows, we also brought here some cheerful experience of first time to US people. It was the first experience for my host family and coordinator to try wrapping Vietnamese spring roll and taste a special dish (mixture of pork meat and salty fish – Mam chung) that they rarely find elsewhere even in restaurants in Vietnam, since this traditional food is only served at households. We also invited M.’s children to try on traditional costumes from Vietnam and Laos. There were so much fun and laughs when we were together. It is an honor and happiness to bring them the breath of Asia, as I said to my host family.

Though, Asia or South East Asia is big, and I am from Vietnam – a small picturesque country with long coastal line, famous for history of striving for freedom.

That afternoon in the cabinet, we had an open conversation about scar of the past. B. told us about his youth, about the books that he had been writing then stopped due to some unexpected reasons, about his friends working for CIA and hidden army activities in Laos.

We talked about Vietnam war, about the fact that a number of American were called to the force in peak time 1968, which B. also once received the graph, and the baby lift campaign in 1975 that brought hundreds of Vietnamese children out of the country. He shared about his generation demonstration against the war, about people and their families whose life were ruined because of it; just similar stories to ones from Jo. – host family of another fellow told me in a cultural event. I just realized that it was really difficult and harsh time, even for American. Most were against the war and they also suffered from what happened. I – whose father used to be a Vietnamese soldier – then shared how much Vietnam changed after forty years, about our strong belief in peace, harmony and letting go the past to head for future.

That evening, I asked B. what were the factors to make him and J. happy during the last forty years. Being a literature professor, the writer of many awarded non-fiction books, and a wise man, he told me that it was the maturity of age and experience, especially when both once went through breakup. Having many common interests was the second reason when they all loved adventures and sports. Mutual respect to each other – both professionally and personally – came third. Lastly, it was the engagement built up after countless months and years hand in hand stepping over many life events. I suddenly thought of all the delicious meals that J. had been cooked for such amount of time, and never repeated a dish twice – as M. said. The way J. puts all her heart and mind in the kitchen to cook for the ones she loves is just like every wife and mother in this world.

I saw a different America in B.’s story and J.’s life, which was just so close with my motherland.

Putting aside all the differences and prejudice, at the end of the day, it is happiness and value that we all aim at, isn’t it? At such moments, culture, border line, or skin color are not barriers anymore.

Thank you YSEALI and all people that involve or be a part of our first meaningful journey here in the US. I did sense peace and joy in my American touch, and believe that my other fellows also have unique stories and feeling to share, in their ways.

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