One of the most exciting aspects of the SFS Cambodia semester program is when we pack our bags (hopefully waterproofed) and travel via plane, bus, and boat for our two long trips away from our Center in Siem Reap. We just returned from our second trip, in which we traveled to the southern coast of Cambodia, and then crossed the border into Vietnam for about a week before flying back from Ho Chi Minh City.
Looking for birds in the melaleuca forest at Tra Su Nature Reserve in Vietnam
The transition from Cambodia to Vietnam is abrupt. Despite the close proximity of these two neighboring Southeast Asian nations, they are quite distinct culturally. Travelling to Vietnam is exciting, but it can also be challenging. By the point in the semester when Cambodia has truly started to feel comfortable and like a new home, suddenly you’re in a new country with a new language you don’t understand and new cultural norms to adjust to. Yet, it is exactly this disorientation and confusion that lends this portion of our program so much value. Crossing into Vietnam gives us a new vantage point and sheds light on aspects of Cambodian culture we may not have noticed before through illuminating contrasts. I like to imagine that the act of empathizing with other individuals and engaging with other cultures is a way of accumulating lenses in a mental toolbox that enhances our understanding by allowing us to view the world from a multitude of perspectives. I believe all personal growth necessitates the courage to take risks and step outside our comfort zone; in this case, the destabilization that comes with our transition to Vietnam provides us with the opportunity to achieve this particular kind of growth by practicing the real work of engaging wholeheartedly with difference.
One of the highlight experiences for all of us was a barbecue that we had with students from Can Tho University, where we stayed for several days in the international students’ dorms. The students from Can Tho University are lively, friendly, and outgoing, interested in learning more about us and what our experiences in the U.S. are like, and of course taking selfies with us. Even after the barbecue officially ended, several CTU and SFS students stayed around and started singing karaoke. Song choices ranged from modern pop classics that everyone could sing along to, such as Shape of You by Ed Sheeran, Despacito by Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee (which no one could actually sing along to because it turns out it’s surprisingly difficult to keep up with the pace of the Spanish rap verses), One Thing by One Direction, and Hit Me Baby One More Time by Britney Spears, to passionate Vietnamese ballads. These are the kind of moments I will value the most from my time spent on this program: the kinds of experiences that are totally unpredictable, might be a little uncomfortable, but most importantly, involve a genuine connection.
Group picture of SFS and CTU students at the barbecue
I know that some people find karaoke to be quite intimidating. It can be frustrating and anxiety-inducing to try to desperately grasp for the lyrics of a song you thought you knew, all the while knowing that your struggle and any blunders you make are on display for all to witness. In this case, like in traveling to a new country, you have to step out of your comfort zone—you might feel confused, risk embarrassing yourself, and be afraid of making a critical mistake. You can resist by withdrawing yourself or mumbling into the microphone, never stepping out of your shell and not truly joining in to the performance of the song. Alternatively, you can embrace the stress of singing in front of strangers, of looking silly and singing off-pitch. Only by jumping courageously into the terror of singing in front of people can you truly learn the song; you also just might discover that no one is laughing at you, but everyone is singing and laughing together out of sheer glee and shared love for the music.
Performing karaoke with CTU students
I am deeply grateful for all the experiences we were able to have in Vietnam, and all the many times throughout the program when the students, my fellow staff, and I are challenged by each other and the external world to learn new information, to question our beliefs and opinions, to think in new ways, to express ourselves, to ask questions and generate new ideas that will push the trajectory of our world in a positive direction, and also to get up and sing some karaoke.