Environmental Concern Transcends Language
By Blayne Metz
“I, you, love environment,” they say. It might not be proper English, but as I reach my right hand across my left shoulder and my left across my right to complete hearts with impassioned Vietnamese students, the message cannot be more clear. They love the environment.
We’ve just finished short presentations and group activities with Love Environment, an active environmental group here on the Nong Lam campus in Ho Chi Minh City. They do a variety of projects including public awareness and educational seminars. The most inspiring thing about them is that it is completely voluntary and all projects they engage in are funded entirely through donation or are self-funded. We share about our environmental initiatives: my work with ASUM and MontPIRG, Mara’s at the FLAT, Shannon with WEN, and Hannah’s at Free Cycles.
The energy in the air is unmistakable. We are all excited to share our experiences and knowledge. After the presentations, we break into small groups to talk about the environmental issues that concern us, the barriers we face in working on them, and ways we might be able to support one another. Much to my dismay, they do not speak much English and our group-work is only possible through a semi-fluent translator who’s chosen the English name of Radiant Sun. We quickly become friends. They apologize for not knowing English and are visibly embarrassed, but I am the embarrassed one for not knowing but a handful of words in Vietnamese. I truly wish I could speak the language. We are lucky that English is the mother tongue.
We all have different specific interests and different passions. Their passions come largely from the changes in climate that are occurring here in Vietnam where (among other problems) rising tides, rapid urbanization, heavy pesticide use and pollution are impacting the quality of life. Our passions come from similar concerns, with climate change and pollution, but the problems they face are, to a large degree, facilitated by my country as one of the largest producers of C02. I have seen many of the issues they speak of in Vietnam first hand – I’ve seen the smog, the incessant rush of urban traffic, the metrics of rising tides and their potential impacts on this beautiful country. I feel a tinge of guilt. Yet they understand what many countries have yet to accept and embrace: global cooperation is essential if we are to find solutions to these pressing issues.
After taking group pictures we take a tour of the campus before engaging in some group games. Their laughter and spirit are infectious. Inevitably, we must leave these gracious hosts and they are sad to see us go. We are on the road to Can Tho.
In Can Tho we have another exchange, this time with students from the Delta Youth Alliance at Can Tho University. We engage in the same activities as before, but their English skills are better. One of our students takes a particularly long time during an explanation and I happen to catch one Vietnamese student jokingly say “thank you for your speech.” I fight to stifle my laughter. This suggests a very good understanding of the English language, and I am impressed. The day that I can make jokes in Vietnamese is far off indeed. Some day perhaps. These students are equally excited to share their knowledge and projects. We learn about the “floating toilet,” a project that composts and cleans bathroom waste while providing a modern amenity to river-dwelling Vietnamese. This demographic constitutes a large percentage of the Vietnam population and is thus a very smart project.
We finish the day with some sports – soccer first and then volleyball – a nice way to lighten the mood after diving into some of the heaviest topics of the modern day. But I can’t detach myself from these topics. They weigh heavy on me as we depart for the day and head back to the hotel. I look forward to the day when I can fight for changes in the world. I take solace in the fact that I am making connections with individuals who will be my future brothers (and sisters) in arms.
**Photos by Shanti Johnson and Nicky Phear.