January 23rd marked the beginning of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tết, and thus, the beginning of the Year of the Dragon.
Not only did this mean I finally needed to take the Christmas tree down (especially in light of all of the hoa đào and kumquat trees tied atop motorbikes whizzing by), but it also meant that I got more of a holiday break. Indeed, we enjoyed visiting with friends during the special Tết season in Hanoi, but what was also exciting was the fact that we got to enjoy two whole weeks off from work.
This, then, gave me some extra time to reflect. With the beginning of the Solar New Year, I took the time to make a few resolutions and think on all that I've actually learned the past year. With the Lunar New Year? I got time to look back at the past several YEARS...
This begs the question: what have I actually learned? Well, this blog post is not intended to answer that question exhaustively, but to attempt to highlight a paradigm-shift of mine in terms of the way I perceive, give and receive in Vietnam. To answer the question in the spirit of said New Year, allow me to use a clip from one of my favorite movies: How To Train Your Dragon. If you haven't seen it yet, the 5 minute link to the scene "Forbidden Friendship" can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yD59uANbTB0.
In short, the movie is about a young boy named Hiccup who has grown up in a village of Vikings that do not like dragons. In fact, they are trained to kill them. The dragons’ feelings towards the Vikings are mutual. They raid the Vikings’ village and take what they can, harming the Vikings routinely.
During one such raid, Hiccup manages to harm a dragon – the most dangerous dragon of all as identified in the Viking handbook for ‘how to kill dragons’. It is surprising that Hiccup has managed to harm this dragon, damaging its wing and tail so that it cannot fly, because he is not particularly interested in doing so. He really just wanted to show his dad that he could do so, to try to live up to his dad’s expectations of him as a worthy dragon-slayer. However, after he has injured the dragon (named Toothless), he feels bad and wants to help heal the very dragon he has harmed.
The majority of the rest of the movie, then, has Hiccup TRAINING Toothless to fly again with a newly constructed harness and prosthetic tail, exposing further Hiccup's hidden talent for engineering. Before all this, however, some obvious trust-building between the two must take place. This situation is highlighted by the fact that Hiccup is simultaneously ‘studying’ at a school for how to kill dragons, as his father and the community he has grown up in has done for generations. Humans don’t trust dragons and dragons don’t trust humans. It’s just the way things are. But then, there’s a hiccup in the status quo…
Hiccup, who earlier used his gift for invention in order to harm Toothless, is now attempting to use his gift-set to help Toothless. It's clear that this is motivated out of the greater gift of love and care for someone who is in need. My favorite part of this clip is where Hiccup gives Toothless a fish to eat only to receive the other half back from Toothless. Toothless wants to share with Hiccup what he has been given. Hiccup doesn't exactly enjoy the fish - but he still manages to eat some of it to oblige his new friend. Hiccup smiles and then Toothless tries to do the same. Hiccup draws and Toothless, again, tries to do the same. Finally, the climax of the scene is when Hiccup reaches out to touch Toothless, but Toothless must move forward to make contact.
It's a pretty heart-warming moment in the film - and it's a turning point for the two main characters that will overflow in benefits for the rest of those whom they know. Hiccup and Toothless won't only learn more about one another's "cultures", but will communicate to friends and family how their respective communities ought not be enemies, but in fact, must work together to defeat the real, one common enemy, and as crazy as this sounds: live and work together in the same community!
So bring on the Year of the Dragon, I say!
So what does all this have to do with some of what I've been learning while living in Vietnam? Just as Hiccup did, I decided to "help" people in Vietnam whom I perceived were in need of something that I was gifted with to give them. This motive to “come and help”, however, can harm relationships more than help. When I first came here, my motives to ‘go’ were fairly egotistical and self-centered. The main thing I understood was that I was going to help people to understand. I was impatient and didn’t have time to understand others. I was here to help. My Vietnamese friends should be thankful and receive that help. That’s just the way it was. But then, there was a hiccup in the status quo...
That hiccup has been the process of humility I've gone through while living here. Like Toothless, my Vietnamese friends have allowed me into their world, and some, even their lives. Like Toothless, as I try to give to them, they just give right back (sometimes even fish that I can’t stomach – but I still manage to crack a smile)! In fact, they have given more to me from their own giftedness, shared more with me from their culture, graciously worked with me despite my misunderstandings and really taught me more about how to give. I'm still learning, but I'm glad my mindset has shifted from strictly "helping" to "working with". Together, in time and in built trust, I hope that we can continue to work together in the same community, just as the Vikings and dragons ended up doing for the common good, so that we can together teach and train others. So bring on the Year of the Dragon, I say!