Bonnie Duncan is a junior in the College majoring in English. Originally from San Benito, TX, she is spending the semester in Vietnam and Cambodia through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program at Vietnam National University and Pannasastra University of Cambodia. In Southeast Asia, she hopes to gain a better understanding about the challenges and triumphs of developing countries as well as celebrate Vietnam and Cambodia’s unique culture. On campus, Bonnie is involved in Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship and Chi Alpha Social Justice and is interested in exploring religious dynamics in Southeast Asia as well as the correlations between developing economies and human trafficking. She will spend two months of the fall semester in Vietnam and one month in Cambodia.
November 1, 2011
Vietnam is a country unlike any other in the world. In the cities, heavy traffic, construction equipment and modern-day skyscrapers reflect Vietnam’s rapid urbanization. Yet, the countryside tells a different story. Deep in the rural areas that occupy a majority of the country live tight-knitted communities deeply rooted in traditions of family and camaraderie. A stark contrast from the plethora of motorbikes that engulf the city streets, rural peasants are often seen enjoying their mid-day break resting in hammocks or playing a game of cards with their neighbors.
These differences exist in every aspect of society. While some disparities perpetuate injustice, others exemplify the richness of Vietnamese culture—a culture shaped by years of war, triumphs, poverty and wealth.
Vietnam is a country at a crossroads, where the traditions of religion and family values of the past are integrating with the modern Western influences of the present. Living in Vietnam, one of the biggest challenges is putting into words how to describe the country. Though Vietnam has experienced years of peace, the government is still heavily influenced by the decades of war. Despite being a country rich in resources, the standard of living ranks low among the world’s countries.
Officially a socialist country, Vietnam is emerging as one of Southeast Asia’s leading market economies. Though the literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, freedom of press and expression are heavily restricted. Throughout the country exist thousands of pagodas, Buddhist and Confucian temples, a vast majority of the population (over 80 percent) consider themselves non-religious.
All of these paradoxes reflect that Vietnam is still trying to find its place in the global arena after decades of war nearly destroyed it. As my time here comes to a close, I’ve learned that trying to define Vietnam politically or economically is difficult, if not impossible.
Unfortunately, common perceptions of Vietnam reflect heavily on its history of war, often negating the truth that a history does not merely define a country. The true reflection of Vietnamese history and culture is the resilience of the people. The Vietnamese people are among the warmest and self-sacrificing I have ever met. Despite many living through unimaginable heartache during the war, the people I meet are never without a smile on their face.
Leaving behind a largely individualist American society, I was shocked to discover the extent to which the people depend on community and family. Unlike Western cultures emphasis on the individual, Confucian philosophy places importance on family and collectivism.
Despite the fact that a majority of Vietnamese people are not religious, ancient traditions still permeate everyday life. Confucianism, though more popular in traditional Vietnam, developed a complex system of relationships still existing today. This Confucian-style system of relationship is conveyed especially through language, where people are address through specific pronouns that signify the status and importance of the person you are speaking to.
For example, I would address a woman as old as my father as cô and person slightly younger than me as em, literally translated as “little sister.” Not only are these pronouns important in establishing respect and honor, but it is considered a great compliment to be referred to as big sister (chị) as opposed to friend (bạn).
Though Confucian philosophy heavily influenced traditional culture, religion in Vietnam can be defined through a combination of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism—also called the Tam Giáo, or “triple religion.” The conglomeration makes it difficult for Vietnamese people to ascertain which religion they practice. Though the physical landscape of Vietnam is saturated with temples and statues, religion seems almost an effort for the older generations to maintain traditional aspects of Vietnam, with many of the younger generations not practicing any religion.
Despite the diversity of religious belief in Vietnam, ancestor worship is a common practice for most people across the country. Since early roots of Confucianism took place thousands of years ago, filial piety has been considered one of the greatest virtues in Vietnamese culture. Throughout my time in Vietnam, filial piety—especially respect for elders—is evident in every encounter I’ve had with families.
Like with many things in Vietnam, traditional practices continue to mesh with Western influences in a way that creates differences in thinking between the older generations and the younger. The older generations largely seek to hold tightly to traditional practices that survived a long period of colonialism and war. However, the majority of the population (which was born after 1975) knows little of the impact of war outside of information from government written textbooks. Thus, the attitudes towards Westernization and importance of tradition differ quite dramatically between the two population groups.
As pervasive as these traditions are in Vietnamese culture, the large percentage of non-religious people suggests that practicing these values are largely a measure to maintain a traditional culture that is rapidly transitioning into the modern world.
December 9, 2011
A surreal feeling came over me as I walked through the killing fields located a few kilometers outside of Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh. The nature surrounding the fields seemed so peaceful, but listening to the personal stories of the survivors told a very different story.
Along the side of the path was a single palm tree with green palms that looked beautiful against the blue-sky backdrop. I then learned that such beautiful palms were once used to silence the screams of people by slitting their throat with the sharp edge. The soil I was standing on had once been held the final moments of thousands of Cambodians. Along the edges of the fields, there were still bones and articles of clothing that remain untainted some 35 years later.
Thousands of people (including women and children) en route from S-21 and other torture prisons entered the fields and never left. A memorial building with a combination of Buddhist and Hindi architecture holds the skulls and bones of many of the victims on 17 stories of storage. Today, it serves to honor the memory of the nearly estimated 2.5 million (or 1 out of every 5 Cambodians) who were killed under Pol Pot’s regime.
The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments. Anyone who spoke a foreign language or was well educated was killed along with their families to eliminate the possibility of revenge. One man’s testimony today revealed he had seen a woman murdered because she took two bananas for her starving children.
The death tolls climbed into the millions, as the Khmer Rouge believed it was “better to kill ten innocent people than to let one enemy escape.”
Despite being guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, the regime’s primary leader Pol Pot lived a comfortable life until his death in 1998. The other leaders responsible for the genocide are being tried by the in the Khmer Rouge Tribunals international court. Despite the fact that the country and its people were nearly destroyed by a brutal regime, the Khmer people find peace and refuge in their spiritual roots.
Throughout the history of Cambodia, the cultural fabric of popular Buddhist traditions has played a pivotal role in establishing political and moral order, shaping Khmer ethnic and national identity and in nourishing solidarity among Cambodian villagers. Much of Cambodia’s national and cultural identity is engrained in Khmer Buddhism and the sense of peace and camaraderie that comes with it. Under the Khmer Rouge, however, religion and any form of civil society was outlawed.
In 1975 when the Khmer Rouge first took control of Phnom Penh, they tried to completely destroy Buddhism and very nearly succeeded. By the regimes end in 1979, nearly every monk and religious intellectual had been either murdered or driven into exile, and nearly every temple and Buddhist temple and library had been destroyed or used as a prison.
Although every form of community in Cambodia suffered greatly from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge period, pagoda committees were the first kind of social institution to spontaneously re-emerge after it. Despite the vast social devastation left in the wake of the Khmer Rouge regime, a large part of Cambodia’s post-conflict development is invested in the reconstruction of Khmer Buddhism. This alone testifies to the reliance of the Cambodian people and—more specifically—expresses the importance of a religious community for rural villagers.
While still very much shaped by the horrors of the past, present-day Cambodia possesses the characteristics of a resilient developing country. Seas of tradition monks in orange robes combine with the bustling motorbikes and tuk-tuks that characterize the streets. The culture is shifting, as a majority of the population now never was born after the Khmer Rouge era. In Phnom Penh, the Khmer people tend to business as usual, while just 15 kilometers away the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are being tried by an international court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Cambodia is a nation at the crossroads, seeking to reconcile its history and seek justice for the conflict that left no one unaffected. Buddhist teachings reinforce the importance of forgiveness and instill the value of living in the moment. While much of the older generation’s memories of the Khmer Rouge are still engrained freshly in their minds, there is a strong sense of solidarity in taking the next step forward.