Instead, I assimilated right back into the place I feel most at home: my cross country team. I went straight from my life in Vietnam, where the one thing closest to my heart—running—was understood by no one, to an empty college campus populated solely with my fellow student athletes chasing similar dreams. My life went from running and teaching and figuring out how to live in Vietnam, to just running (at least for a few weeks). I appreciated every tiny detail of my Oregon life: waking up to fresh air, topping my oatmeal with chia seeds, wearing sweatshirts.
Among all that, I never forgot about Vietnam. I certainly missed things about my life there, especially the people. But I found myself hesitant to discuss my experience in detail with people who I did not expect to understand it all. My parents understood, my coach understood, my well-travelled peers understood; but how could I expect even some of my closest friends to possibly understand what it feels like to drive an electric scooter through a flood during Hanoi rush hour? How could they imagine the light in my eighth graders’ eyes when they realized my English words meant something to them? Certain details felt so intricate and precious to me that I hardly even tried to share them. My experience will never be anything but wholly my own, but it did change me, and that affects everyone in some way.
When people ask me how I changed this summer, I tell them I aged eight years. Because the best way I know how to encompass all that I learned and how I matured is to change my ‘real’ age from 20 to someone much older. I feel wise in the least pretentious way and armed with enough life knowledge to take on the world. I know I could not have gained this much independence in Corvallis and I doubt I could have achieved it anywhere else in the world.
Vietnam is a fascinating, wonderful, and difficult country. I could not live there forever and I plan to experience many other countries before I return, but I will return. I have an entire country south of Hanoi left to see. Still, Vietnam taught me that simplicity does not repel complexity, that I can do anything, and, most importantly, that there is a big world out there to explore.
I still struggle to share all the details of my summer, even on this platform, but it’s obvious to me that I became a better person; hopefully that shows. Vietnam was nothing like I expected and challenged me in every dimension. But I know myself and the world more; so, I am ready to go out and make it a little better every day. There is nothing left that can stop me.