The boy spoke with a butterfly’s breath. Words I couldn’t understand slipped into the caverns of his house. Absorbed by clay bricks. Mud held it all together. Straw lay in patches across the façade, letting in light. Letting in light and cold and rain and dust. He stood in the middle of the space. Grandfather nearby. Gaze forward. An old hand rested on the small of the boy’s back. The boy’s hands clenched his shorts pocket. He looked down at his sandaled feet, closed off and quiet. Dirt carpeted the floor. The latticed roof exposed each layer of material settled onto gnarled wood. Webs and spare straw clung to crevices in the cracked mud. Wrinkles spread from the humid Vietnam heat the season before. Heads nodding, pens scribbling, avoiding eye-contact. Whispers fluttered between the students, hanging in the cracks. Words not meant for the boy. Voices pooled in the center of the space, trapped by the barricade of bodies, suffocating the silence. The backs of mobile phones hid faces of the nineteen students crammed into the boy’s house. Peeking gazes scattered around the room. Heads bobbing, bodies rooted at the spot. The boy stood still. Flash.
During my semester abroad in Vietnam, our group of nineteen American students followed a guide one Saturday into the village of Nghĩa Lộ (Nee-ah Low) as a “service-learning trip.” We distributed fifty-pound sacks of rice, house by house, to a chosen handful of families, selected for their hardships. The other sacks were given in an assembly line of mothers at the town center, one-by-one. A single camera flash signaled the accepted toll for each sack of rice. A mugshot, guilty of poverty. Their children played American playground games with us, students capable of preschool-level Vietnamese learned in Hanoi, a different dialect than the one spoken in Nghĩa Lộ. A traditional game of Duck, Duck, Goose turned into Chicken, Chicken, Pig because those were the words we knew in Vietnamese. I never found out what they liked to play. I doubt they understood a word of our confident shouts. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, I peeled and stuck mini stickers onto one girl’s delicate hand. She never met my eyes.
Our guide during this excursion highlighted that many of the families in this village eat one meal a day, mostly rice. Anything else is extra. Our meals in Hanoi always featured some form of rice, from whole grain or noodle to rice flour baguette or spring roll wrapper, but only as a base. A foundation for more nutrition, more ingredients. A case to deposit flavor.
In rice countries as in wheat countries, everyone eats rice or wheat,
but only the very poorest eat only rice or wheat.
As college students traveling from the US, we were thrilled by low-priced street food, where a bowl of pho might cost one US dollar. This place is so cheap, we would say. But the growing, processing, and cooking of the food was done for us, while the people we met in Nghĩa Lộ received the untouched grain for their meals. The rice we deposited would supplement one family’s meal for three months, maybe four. Each dump of a fifty-pound sack of rice only lightened our load. Checked off the next box on our list toward enlightenment, or whatever people call it these days. Pictures were taken, handshakes given. The moment came and went in a flash, as if taken up by a breeze and snagged by a corner of a thatched roof, left to rot in a web of dust. Our savior mentality gleamed in the midday sun announcing to every member we passed that our so-called “humanitarian deeds” were worth noticing. I’m sure the locals spent as much time noticing us as we spend before each painting on a museum wall. Our Western morality banks, fueling our excursion in poverty tourism, clinked with humanitarian coins. Everything about our actions that day were glorified by calls home to hear sweetie, you’re changing the world or imagine what they would have done without you. A load of bullshit. We acted as the Western world wanted us to act. We were told to feel relieved by our humanitarian aid, told to further ignite our superiority through our actions, or lack thereof. Each of my footsteps fell heavy on the dry earth, tugging at the base of my stomach. I shouldn’t even be here. This was the first time in two months that I felt completely incapable of camouflage, our presence signaling like a lighthouse scanning for life on an empty sea. We arrived on a bus larger than three local homes side by side and were chauffeured from one house to the next in constant motion, dropping off rice to each family before re-boarding our roomy, air-conditioned vehicle. The day’s excursion was prefaced with the words service and aid, while the lack of physical action in my body left me numb.
Vietnam is generally a poor country. Understanding the ecological influence on the country’s available produce and economy sheds light on the living situation of northern Vietnamese villages that rely on the land. The Red River runs in the north (where the village of Nghĩa Lộ is located), while the larger Mekong Delta fuels the south. The majority of the people, wealth, economic, and cultural capital of Vietnam are focused into these two regions centered around Hanoi up north and Ho Chi Minh City down south because
these are the strongest areas for wet rice cultivation.
The pictures taken that day have an infinite shelf life. As we presented each blue and white striped sack of rice, the gesture froze into a photo opportunity. Reaching hands left reaching. Giving hands halted by a flash. Looking to capture or freeze the moment, when in reality it passed by without notice. Our group brought no medicine, no health information, no long-term support. Our help came in sacks heavy enough to engage our muscles for a well-timed photo, one that would praise our strength and pity their so-called hardship, inciting that “all-important” yet fabricated compassion from the Western audience that would see this footage.
We brought rice and cameras, nothing more. The photos we took were sent to a First World audience even before we left the village, our minds already directed towards our next adventure. A single moment in time branching out across the West, attracted to the foreign scene. Raising questions, seeking gratification. Rising jealousy from people who wished they could get a cool photo like that. Unlike the rice we delivered, photos don’t have an expiration date. They ferment. Views pile up, comments increase. Watching, never doing or witnessing the reality diverted by these photos. Money and resources are fueled into organizations promising relief to these corners of the world. Only some donations are given directly to families. Most donations finance more photos, influencing further streams of donations. The potential for familiarity spread thin. Each donation attempts to absolve the giver of the burden of care, a small fee for permission to forget the reason for the photo. The donor may get a thank you note, or even a gift to show the Western world appreciation for counterfeit global care. Once that momentary care passes, however, the village disappears, lost in our laundry lists of cares we are told to have. We move on to our next surface-level task without pause. The dramatized compassion of the Westerner is exhausted long before the sacks of rice are consumed.
Since the Red River is subject to rapid extremes in water level that lead to
both drought and flood, the region’s population suffers from ecological irregularity that
trickles down into the cultural dynamic. As one Mekong Delta tour guide stated
while gripping a ripe mango, “life is harder up north.”
The young woman, ponytail down her back, limped from her front door. At least where a door might be. The makeshift ramp widened her unsteady gait. She made her way toward us, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. Her smile spread as wide as the black gap between her teeth. Laugh lines stained the corners of her eyes. Deepening at each glance towards her children. The boy lead their pig with a twine string. The girl rested a hand on the animal’s back. Away from the guests. A bright pink shirt reflected faux blush onto her face. We took a step closer. Closing in. Her gaze shifted around the crowd. Glancing frequently at the translator. The lump of students shifted to get a better view. Peering. Her cracked smile frozen. She wilted with each question from the translator. Aware of the stares. A sea of imploring faces. Eager to document the moment. Smiles and bright light from the watching crowd caught on her white teeth. Flash.
A report from a French colonial administrator in the early 1860s detailed his suggestion to the Vietnamese people that they make their rice go further by stretching it with ground corn.
Despite the high cost of rice at the time from political disruption, the Vietnamese were unreceptive to the idea. Corn was used mostly for animal feed.
We cling to the concept of a picture equaling a thousand words because less thought is needed. Less communication, less intentionality, less anxiety, less frustration in our own lethargy. Simply frame the shot, click, and move on. We don’t have to learn their language or step into their shoes. They fabricate extended moments, when in reality the photographer steps onto a moving walkway, turning to capture images that stand out. My memories of our trip to Nghĩa Lộ are not from any captured image. They come from the sea of anxiety and frustration frozen in my body. I remember the raised voices and the laughter from the crowd against the quiet faces on the people that stood center stage. I remember my own discomfort whenever I lifted my phone in front of my face. It felt heavy. I often slid it back into its pocket without a flash, knowing there would be countless photos from the day to look back on. Those photos would be filtered through, some deleted for lack of artistry, a few saved to admire the composition. Those photos might be shared with a family member or friend, maybe even a photography contest where the name of the artist would be pasted below. No one will ever know the woman’s name in the photo. She becomes Untitled or named by the artist.
The picture acts as a boundary, a film stretched between our modern un-necessities and their daily lives that we insist on labeling as deplorable or heartbreaking. Media tells us that squeezing into frame with a hungry child or a desperate mother inspires more praise than compassion from a Western audience, piling up the likes and comments for the person that pulls the camera trigger. Often the harm outweighs the good. A scene of poverty, hunger, dirt, once taken as a photo, hangs on a museum wall as art. What was once deplorable becomes raw, hauntingly beautiful, or even praise-worthy. These environments, places the Western world deems uncharted, become desirable for the artistically inclined searching for a rustic shot they don’t have to manufacture. They don’t have to form a relationship. A community’s reality is treated as an artist’s fantasy, consequently aligning the people in the photos with characters in stories. Immortalized in art, yet dehumanized in person.
The grandmother sat wide-legged on the bottom step of the stairs. Shoulders hunched. Elbows propped up against her knees. Wrinkled fingers spread as if separated by hard candies. Gaze set on a scene from her past. Parts of her eighty-five-year-old face drooped. A corner freckle gave her left eye a false wink. A vibrant green and red checkered scarf wound around her head. Frayed ends. Windblown. It covered crisp white hair. Her fatigued expression remained. Unyielding. Some students wandered the yard, losing interest. Seeing her grandson, she stood. He sat, wheelchair bound and bright-eyed. Her family home towered over her petite frame. Propped up on stilts. Flood prevention. A young boy tugged at weeds in a garden patch nearby. Flash.
While meat demands to be the center of attention of western dinner plates, rice humbly carries the meal in southeast Asia without stressing its importance. Rice is ground into flour to create the characteristic french baguettes that house bánh mì (sandwiches). Bún (noodles) are made from rice flour and are included in soups or used as a wrapper for a variety of cuốn (steamed rice paper wrapper for spring rolls or other packaged delicacies).
The camera originally required two hands: one cradling the side or bottom of the device, while the other frames the fingers in a pool-shot stance ready to click. Elbows hug the sides of the body, shoulders hunch down, we assumed a predatory stance. It’s purpose: to take a photo. Everyone knew what the photographer was doing, and what photo was being taken. It requires intentionality. Photos are not always taken this way, with the careful framing of a shot, or even with permission. That cradling stance has been replaced by new technology that eliminates intimacy. More distance, less intentionality, more lethargy is created. The flash can be hidden, anonymous. It requires only one hand, one finger to do the job. A mode of stealth and secrecy. With the advancements in technology comes a retreat of intimacy. It has become a safety blanket, passive protection from the unknown scene before us, in defense against the fear of relinquishing control to a new experience. It allows us to keep moving. We fill the void before the void consumes us, so we can escape. We reach to imprison these moments in a physical form we never truly see without them. We have become terrified of relinquishing ourselves to a new world that we rely on frozen images to drag the world back home.
In many of the poorer communities, the phrases “there is no money” and
“there is no rice” are used interchangeably because rice is money.
If there was any money, they would buy rice.
The smallest face in the room. Round and adorned by her wispy, brown cap of hair. She made no intention of addressing the growing crowd. Less than three years old and dressed in the traditional colors of her people. A green and blue woven sleeveless dress over a fuschia long-sleeved shirt. Strappy sandals on her quiet feet. She had full, hazel moons for eyes. Cowering on all fours behind pairs of knees. Her stern gaze soaked in the surrounding chaos. American students and local children weaving a maze around the room. Running. Screaming. Laughing. She remained still. Seated on the ground, feet flat in front. My toes tapped a greeting. Watching. Listening. Waiting. Her eyes locked onto my feet. Inhale. Exhale. Sandaled feet, one buckle undone, tapped the ground in response.
Revered with significance due to the rigorous and time consuming cultivation required for a single grain of rice, it is a cultural expectation, especially among the older population,
that each consumer finish every grain given to them.
Our brains left the village filled with new information and problems to consider, while the families were left momentarily satisfied. We didn’t know their favorite foods, their hopes for their children, or even their names. If I knew their names once, I have forgotten. They are not presented as people, but skewed impressions of people to be changed. Their simple lifestyle is uncivilized. Their character primitive. These false impressions remain along with my emotional memory, taken by the curdle in my stomach from a day of confusion, of anger towards the relationships we failed to create. Our alien presence. Hands shoved in the faces of children, trapped by indiscernible smiles of people they’d never see again. White faces squeezing into the frame to falsify friendship and connection only to rip ourselves away again. The cooing sounds of pity that generated our savior soundtrack. While the emotions become dull with time, the aid we brought disappears. When hunger returned to the village of Nghĩa Lộ, we would not.
I wanted to share a meal with them. To have their lifestyle claim authority over our ignorance. I wanted the grandmother to show me how to make rice. To remember the day from the way the rough grain felt in my cold, wet hands. How her cracked palm guided mine. Then we would sit on the front stoop and wait, silence building a barricade against more questions. I wanted to learn a lesson in observation from the little girl. To remember the day through her eyes, her only task lived in the present moment. I wanted the mother, bursting with pride, to show me how she loves her children. Did she sing to them at night? I wondered what conversations looked like around their table. I wanted to work with the people, side by side, allowing their knowledge to thrive, to be set to task on whatever they wanted. Not what little we came with to give. I wanted to be made humble by my witness of their actions, not our stream of questions. I craved an intimacy with the quiet town, with the faces that watched us come and go. Did they watch us from their homes like floats in a parade? Dropping candy to anyone that would witness the performance. What did we sound like, or look like, to them? I remember the day in flashes, patched together out of order like a scrapbook. The edges of each snapshot curling away from the page over time, fading in color.