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Spring 2014
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The Real World
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The health care system here is uniquely complex. Visiting a cancer hospital in Hanoi—the only medical center outside of our school of study (Hanoi Medical University) that the government allowed us to see—I learned the main barrier to recovery is insufficient resources. The hospital sometimes closes at 4 p.m., after which no more patients will be seen. Beds are in such short supply that many patients on longer-term treatment who live far away must pay for their own lodging in the expensive surrounding area. Those lucky enough, or in serious-enough condition, to be granted an overnight stay often share a bed with one or two other patients.

Open criticism of the government, in my observation, does not exist. Most of our formal learning came from Ministry of Health officials, who presented little criticism about governmental support and regulation. However, a great many programs focus on important issues, from noncommunicable disease and HIV to working with the fourth generation of families affected by Agent Orange and curbing industrial pollution. Government funding might not cover all (or even most) of the need, but acknowledgment and manpower are good first steps.

It seemed that many Vietnamese live with the assurance and comfort of being able to secure daily necessities in a country that is constantly improving, especially in this novel time of peace. Behind the scenes is a government that curates as much of this image as possible while masking—but perhaps while trying to address—the problem areas. 

Last Stop: South Africa

 For our first two weeks here, we lived in Zwelethemba, a “black only” township during apartheid that still struggles with inadequate infrastructure and poor resources. In a large cemetery that was the final resting place for many young adults killed by violence or AIDS-related causes, children pointed to where relatives and friends were buried. 

 Violence is a large and growing concern. Apartheid banded people together against a common enemy, but its dissolution took with it those ties. The tendency toward violence is exaggerated by heavy drinking, apathy toward education by the young, and a lack of extracurricular activities that leaves kids constantly bored. My 10-year-old homestay sister taught us a hand game that ends with the winner choosing whom to shoot. 

I was enjoying my last week in Cape Town, living on one of the most photographed streets in the country within the Bo Kaap, when Nelson Mandela died. The next morning I learned that Bishop Desmond Tutu was speaking at St. George’s Cathedral, on my route to class. I stopped and watched the end of his speech. Later a homestay mother said that, although she respected Mandela, all in all, he did not particularly change life for the Cape Malay in South Africa, a Muslim group whose ancestors are Indonesian slaves and Dutch landowners from centuries ago. She offered a unique perspective. “He will never be as important as Muhammad to the people,” she said. 

South Africa’s wildlife, sea, and mountains were more beautiful than anything I’ve seen before. Leaving the small home in Zwelethemba every morning, with the awe-inspiring mountain ranges in the distance, was like walking onto a movie set. It was a daily reminder of the magnificence of nature and the splendor that can be found in every human being and every community. I’ve been guilty of habituating to the beauty of the world and getting lost in the obstacles of life, making it hard to remember this calming ideal. My trip was instrumental in helping me tap back into this feeling of gratefulness and wonder.


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