I’m back in Asia!

Mai and Stacy posing in front of a rickshaw in India
Mai with her friend and fellow MIT student Stacy in front of a rickshaw.

The last month in India has been a great opportunity to learn about a new culture and reflect on my relationship with the cultures I was born into and grew up in.

During the past three years away from Vietnam, I have missed home but also gradually grown comfortable with the lifestyle and culture in the U.S. This summer, I am determined to go back to Asia and contribute to the work of people trying to better the lives of women in India. Since my goal is to work and improve the lives of Vietnamese women in the future, I hope that this internship could give me some useful experience.

In some ways, India reminds me of the great things I miss about home. Everyone’s excitement about India winning a cricket match brings back memories of the crowds on the streets of Hà Nội every time we would win a soccer match in a major league. I feel that I can relate to people’s pride in their emerging nation because I also feel the same way about Vietnam. I have been able to talk to a lot of people about colonialism, about development and globalization, about the loss of local traditions and value in the context of a country that bears many similarities to my own. The way people sit at the same table and share their lunch at the office also reminds me of home and my family’s meal together.

On the other hand, living here has brought back some daily challenges that I have forgotten since I left home. Especially since I moved to MIT, everything is incredibly accessible. Buildings are usually kept at a comfortable temperature regardless of how hot or cold it is outside. Not only is tap water generally safe to drink, there are also water fountains everywhere on campus. The everyday crazy traffic, heat, floods, pollution, and lack of sanitary food and water in Vietnam become more distant memories the longer I am away from my home country. Whenever I think about Vietnam, I only see the images of a loving home that I have been longing to come back to, of tasty Vietnamese food with everything from phở to xôi, of Hà Nội’s beautiful old quarters. However, the inconveniences of daily life back home are such a distant memory for me that I was taken aback by them during my first weeks in India. Surely, I remember that at home, crossing the road is a lot harder because the traffic is more chaotic, that I cannot drink tap water, that the temperature is usually above 100 in the summer. Spending this summer in India has gradually turned those distant memories into my daily reality.

Despite these similarities, adjusting to life in India is still incredibly difficult. During the last month, I have had to go through the steps that helped me become comfortable with life in the U.S. I observe how people do everyday activities (driving, cooking, eating, greeting each other), learn names, and read about current issues in the country. Before coming to the U.S. three years ago, I did not know that cars yield to pedestrians, that most people use dryers instead of air dry their clothes, and that “How are you?” is not really meant to be a question. I gradually learned all those small details as well as bigger topics such as people’s thoughts about Vietnamese Americans and the Vietnam War or the perception of people of Asian descent in the U.S. In India, one of the tricky things is learning how to eat with my hand. Most of my colleagues use roti or naan, which are different types of flatbread, to pick up food instead of using utensils. Since these flatbreads are usually quite big, I only need two or three rotis for each meal. Every time I want to pick up the food, I peel off a small piece of roti and use that to scoop up some food. I have to learn the perfect amount of roti to take so that it’s big enough to hold the food but small enough for a single bite. At first, I struggled to do this even with both of my hands, but I gradually mastered doing all of those steps using only my right hand.

While going through the adjustment to a new culture, I try to find the right balance between absorbing a new culture and taking care of myself to maintain my mental and physical well-being. Eating the Phở and other snacks from home always helps. My friend and I also go to the gym nearby and read at a nice bookstore next to the office, so we can relax after a day at work.

 This journey reminds me of what I went through when I first moved to the U.S. My Indian colleagues and my fellow MIT interns are all aware that although I am an MIT student, I am not from the U.S. However, most of them could not relate to the experience of living in another country with a completely different culture. In this way, they are also like many of my close friends in the U.S. Even though my friends and colleagues are incredibly nice people who are more than willing to help, there are many instances when I feel that there are few people understanding and sympathizing with what I’m going through. It was easier when I only had two lives to compare to each other: the one in Vietnam and the U.S. However, during the last month, I have been reflecting on my life in Vietnam, my life in the U.S., and my own experience influenced by both places, in relation to my time in India. 

Mai Nguyen is a member of the class of 2022 studying Mechanical Engineering. This summer period, she is interning at Saathi Pads in Ahmedabad, India.