Upon Having Some Time, a Moment for Reverse Culture Shock

Friday. In the United States. Not at a convention. Well, THAT was interesting. Pretty soft. I went to see a movie, sitting in an incredibly cushy seat. I had pizza. I rode in MY OWN CAR.

Reverse culture shock is always an interesting phenomena. Some of you may remember my incredible bitterness upon returning from Russia. I was pretty harsh on my friends at that time, and I lost about 25 pounds because of food issues, because I believed I was part of the problem of world hunger. I still am, by the way, but I’m not as angry as I was, and whatever my flaws, I always eat mindfully.

Ahem. I’m not in that same space after Vietnam, although one of my students is. He’s having a hard time adjusting to the idea that any of us here have real problems after visiting Agent Orange Orphans and feeding one who couldn’t feed himself. He said that he was upset with a friend who was complaining to him about her boyfriend, and he told her to suck it up, that she had no problems and he didn’t feel sorry for her at all. I told him that it was natural for him to feel like that, but to go easy on his friend, because she hadn’t had his experiences.

Travel is both a blessing and a curse, yes?


I’m doing well upon this return. To my way of thinking, the students and the instructors did a great deal to right a wrong on this trip. We improved conditions students at a middle school. We avoided a corrupt bureaucracy and directly did things ourselves, but at the same time we were helped by Vietnamese laborers (we had a crew of 3 to help us with the methods of labor we had to use) and teachers and administrators who admired that we could do in five days what it make take them all summer to do with limited resources.

It was hard coming home from the perspective that now I no longer feel that I am doing active good in the world with my hands. Of course, I know that teaching does something positive and changes the world. But there is nothing quite like planting rocks on a dirt floor with your bare hands to make you feel you are actually doing something concrete (no pun intended. Okay. Pun intended.) I felt solid, useful, and tough. I proved to myself that I *could* do that sort of thing. And definitely, I can push myself and succeed, even while working around an arthritic knee.

Last week, I was a bit busy getting ready for the convention and getting over bronchitis and jet lag, so I didn’t really think about it. But this week, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I met the students for their presentations on Tuesday. I read their journals. I wrote my instructor evaluation. How could I not think about what the trip meant?


Here I am on the computer talking about this. The privilege I have in using this technology to talk to you about anything on the computer, the leisure I have in time that is not involved in survival (finding and preparing food, washing my clothes by hand, doing anything I want to do by hard, physical labor), the money that I have, the time to think, all these are non-existent in Tra Vinh, except in perhaps the rarest of households. My first world life with its first world problems and first world advantages means I’m here.

Privilege, lately, has been spotlighted in many Internet discussions in the SF community, what some people think about others, and what some people feel they are entitled to have at the expense of the rights of others. I wish I could find a way to get us to start empathetically thinking about the world around us. Maybe, if a few more of us were interested, I could get you to come and dig dirt with me and paint classrooms side by side with a small Vietnamese construction crew and Vietnamese middle school teachers, students from Singapore and Canada and Australia and the United States, and even a kid who walked off the street after an accident with his scooter, after our nursing student fixed his open sore wound. And we all did this on equal footing to make life better for the kids who went to the school.

You might feel like I’m breaking into a chorus of “Kumbaya”. Well, I’ll tell you what. Cynicism isn’t sexy. And maybe altruism is the new black (as in fashion). I can only wish you such a good experience on your own terms, one that really makes you think about the fabric of the universe.


In other news, if you need help, I can get you into a rambutan now. Also mangosteen, jack fruit, lychee, dragonfruite and dragon eyes. You don’t need any safe breaking tools,surprisingly. When my supermarket gets mangosteen back in, I am so there.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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