Before traveling through Vietnam with a group of friends, I was unaware that it was such a beautiful country. It had a little bit of everything; vast mountain ranges, lush green forests, and white sandy beaches. Sometimes when we drove we’d see the ocean on one side of the road, and tall, spanning mountains on the other. As we travelled south, specifically in Ho Chi Minh City, I began to notice a trend that saddened me. This trend was the number of amputees we saw. Every few minutes it seemed we would walk by someone who was missing at least one limb. That wasn’t the worst of it, though.
We were walking through an outdoor market one evening when we passed a couple pushing a stroller. Usually when someone sees a stroller, they look inside and comment on how cute the baby is. Right? Well, that’s what I did but what I saw wasn’t cute… Honestly, it only loosely resembled a human.
The child, or what I believe was a child (it may have been older) had the body of a typical two or three-year-old, but its head probably matched the length of its body and was about twice as wide. The face looked like it was carved out of wood. The best way I could describe it is like a character from The Hills Have Eyes, a film about a family who gets stranded and stalked by a group of psychopaths who were all deformed as a result of being on-site during nuclear experiments by the U.S. government. The child in the stroller, and many more people that we would see, looked like the deformed mountain dwellers from this movie. It was equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking to see.
In case you aren’t on top of your world history, the reason for most of these amputees and deformities was the Vietnam War. Without getting into too much detail, essentially for a decade, the United States used chemical weapons against the Vietnamese. The most notable of which was Agent Orange. The government of Vietnam claims that 4 million citizens were exposed to Agent Orange, and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses because of it; this includes children of people who were exposed. It blew my mind that people were still physically affected by actions that took place 40 years ago.
A lot of this information was on display in the War Remnants Museum that we visited. That museum exposed me to a lot of difficult topics that I had never really thought about before.
Outside there was a list of the torture techniques used by the South Vietnamese people on their prisoners. There were plenty of graphic images posted on the walls that illustrated the ugly, scary and morbid things people do to each other during times of war. The violence displayed in these images was more extreme than any movie I know. As I was walking around, I started realizing something, that looking back now, completely altered the way I see the world.
For the first time in my life, I was on the side of the racial minority. In this museum, that was displaying the atrocities inflicted on the Vietnamese people (mostly by the United States) I felt like I was being seen as one of the “bad guys.” Even though I’m Canadian, the anti-American sentiment in that museum rattled me. Despite being a good person, people were still going to associate me with evil. I felt hopeless.
It’s so easy when we talk about war, or any conflict, to make it an “us vs. them” discussion. We’re the good guys, and they’re the bad guys. We’re right, and they’re wrong. In thinking this way we naturally start to focus on our differences instead of our similarities. We almost immediately lose our compassion for the “them.” Instead of connecting with people, we drive them away. Instead of trying to discover why they think differently than us we condemn them. We forget that we are all human and that we are all trying our best with the tools we have. We become ignorant of other people’s suffering. Some people have been raised differently from us but if we attack them from a place of hate or disdain we aren’t going to solve anything. We just become another “them.” We have to be able to work together with those who might not share our beliefs.
Next time you’re in a disagreement, try to remember that they probably feel the same way about their opinion as you do about yours. You both are just trying to make your lives a little bit easier. Instead of trying to prove the other person wrong, try to find a solution that can benefit both of you. Us + Them = Us.